Who in the World Will the GOP Nominate for 2016?

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, far left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, second from left, South Carolina Gov. Nikki R. Haley, second from right, listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, far right, speaks during a news conference at the Republican Governors Association's quarterly meeting on Wednesday May 21, 2014 in New York. (Photo by Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, far left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, second from left, South Carolina Gov. Nikki R. Haley, second from right, listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, far right, speaks during a news conference at the Republican Governors Association’s quarterly meeting on Wednesday May 21, 2014 in New York. (Photo by Bebeto Matthews/AP)

The Republican National Committee is desperate to avoid the kind of chaos that marked the 2012 nominating process in 2016. The last election featured 20 debates, saw nine lead changes in the polls at various points and gave Democrats a ton of fodder for attacks.

So they’re shortening the calendar, limiting the number of debates and trying to pick moderators who will ask the right kinds of questions of their candidates.

But 2016 may prove to be a wilder ride yet. While it’s still early, the GOP’s big problem heading into 2016 is that all of the potential nominees who might appeal to the broader electorate are either under indictment, engulfed in controversy or beginning at a point of relative obscurity.

Leading the early polls — with 12 percent of Republicans saying he’s their man — is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But many Republicans don’t actually like Christie — he has the lowest net favorability rating out of the 11 candidates tested by Gallup in July. His appeal rests on his perceived electability as the governor of a blue state who was re-elected in a landslide last year.

But after enjoying sky-high approval ratings over the course of his first term, New Jersey’s love for Christie has waned. “Bridgegate” was the first blow, but he’s since been dogged by a series of scandals and scandalettes. The latest emerged last week, when David Sirota reported for the International Business Times that Christie shifted billions of state pension dollars to friendly Wall Street firms that promised huge returns. According to Sirota, while “the amount of fees the state pays financial managers has more than tripled since Christie assumed office,” those big returns they promised never materialized.

Rick Perry plans on touting Texas’ rapid job growth as evidence that his conservative policies work, but he’s now under indictment for abusing the powers of his office. Perry claims to be the victim of a political witch hunt, which may play well with the base but isn’t likely to help his electability in a general election.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has had the slow-moving “John Doe” investigation to contend with, and now he has to explain a mysterious $700,000 donation from a Florida mining company to groups that fought his recall — a donation that happened to coincide with Walker pushing an expansive rewrite of the state’s mining regulations in the legislature. Once considered a shoe-in for re-election this year, he’s now in a dead heat with Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

Jeb Bush is third in the polling. He and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) could prove attractive to party insiders because of their potential ability to halt the GOP’s slide with Latino and Asian voters. But that’s also an albatross around their necks; Rubio has spent the past two years running away from the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform package — his signature legislative accomplishment. And Bush has the additional baggage of being a prominent advocate of the Common Core education standards that have since come to be reviled by his party’s base as some sort of socialist plot.

Rand Paul is desperately trying to distance himself from his father’s heterodox foreign policy views. Whether he can stand up to the challenges of a contested primary battle without alienating social conservatives and other Republican traditionalists remains an open question.

Paul Ryan has been working overtime to show that He Cares. He has the potential to bring social and big business conservatives together, and a few other advantages like high name recognition, a strong position in early primary states and the ability to raise oodles of cash. But he’s best known for crafting notably cruel budget proposals that would gut Medicare. His popularity with the media and the party elites is based on his reputation as a wonky reformer; but given the difficulties the new conservative reform movement has had gaining traction with rank-and-file Republicans, it’s not clear that he’s selling something that base voters who like their meat red will be buying in 2016.

Then there are a bunch of candidates of the hard-right — Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, John Bolton — and a coterie of charisma-challenged white men who could play the role of Tim Pawlenty this time around — people like John Kasich, Rob Portman and Mike Pence.

And there’s Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), arguably the most divisive legislator on Capitol Hill. Cruz has made enemies within his own party, and has a penchant for fringe conspiracy theories. But for a large part of the conservative movement, the conventional wisdom holds that John McCain and Mitt Romney only lost in 2008 and 2012 because they didn’t run as sufficiently “severe” conservatives. In a field that lacks a clear favorite, and with those governors who were touted for their ability to  sway the dwindling number of swing voters struggling with scandals and legal problems, 2016 may be the year when the GOP base gets its hard-right candidate — a Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum.

While many Democrats worry that Hillary Clinton is going to walk to the nomination largely unchallenged, it’s likely that a lot of GOP strategists wished they had such a juggernaut in their party. With their most electable candidates mired in controversy and a wide field of presidential wannabes with some glaring weaknesses, the Republicans may be headed for an epically chaotic scramble for their party’s nomination. The persistent whispers on  the right that the third time might be the charm for Mitt Romney suggests that some are worried about how such a free-for-all might set up the party for the general election.

In any event, it should be an interesting spectacle.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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