Rand Paul’s youth appeal. Scott Walker’s battle scars. Chris Christie’s swagger.
It’s enough to make a 2014 campaign manager’s mouth water.
The next presidential election is two years away, but Republicans running for office this cycle already have an array of surrogate options when it comes to potential 2016 contenders.
To find out who tops their wish lists, POLITICO put the question in recent weeks to more than 25 GOP campaign managers, strategists and aides in competitive races across the country. Though it was not a scientific survey, their responses offered clues about which potential presidential hopefuls have the most cachet with down-ballot Republicans right now — and why.
Operatives mentioned Paul more than any other prospective 2016 candidate. Christie followed — despite the fallout from the so-called Bridgegate traffic scandal — thanks largely to his continued fundraising prowess. In the next tier were Walker and Ted Cruz, whose diverging styles each appeal to segments of the GOP. After them, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio each got multiple nods. It all speaks to the rowdy selection process that lies ahead for the party in 2016 – and, in the meanwhile, the menu of prominent supporters available to candidates on the 2014 map.
Paul’s popularity in interviews highlighted the multifaceted appeal the Kentucky senator enjoys as his stock rises within the GOP.
Campaign hands cited the sharp profile Paul has cut in the Senate; his fluency on issues like privacy and Obama administration accountability, which are buzzy among young conservatives and libertarians; and his ability to get supporters to open their checkbooks.
“Rand Paul has a lot of grassroots energy he’s tapping into, the youth and kind of libertarian movement that other candidates just really haven’t grabbed a hold of yet, so that makes him kind of a unique, different choice that could inject some energy into the campaign,” said a source in one New Hampshire House race.
(Like many people interviewed for this story, the operative asked for anonymity. Aides often said they wanted to avoid alienating other potential surrogates or didn’t want to get ahead of invitations that, in some cases, are still in the planning stage.)
Paul’s appeal as a headliner isn’t limited to one region of the country — he’s well-regarded in the Midwest, said one aide there who picked him — nor solely to anti-establishment insurgents like himself.
A source in one incumbent’s campaign quickly fired off an email identifying Paul as their top pick: “Without a doubt,” the source said.
Paul is looking to spend this man-of-the-moment capital carefully – but his strategy hasn’t been without its pitfalls so far. His last-minute appearance for North Carolina Senate contender Greg Brannon failed to catapult Brannon into a runoff with establishment-backed nominee Thom Tillis. Other Paul-endorsed candidates have fared better, though: Curt Clawson won the special primary in Florida’s 19th District and is likely headed to Congress.
Through his leadership PAC, Paul has contributed $21,400 to six federal candidates this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Once he’s involved, he’s all in,” a Paul adviser said. “I think people will see him getting more involved as we get closer.”
But, the adviser said, “he does want to be judicious.”
Next most-mentioned after Paul came Christie, a brash northeasterner who no longer has to worry about reelection back home and is already criss-crossing the country in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
In POLITICO’s survey, Christie’s fundraising strength came up repeatedly. It’s well known that he’s already helped rake in millions for the RGA this year alone.
“Even though he is dealing with ‘Bridgegate,’ his ability to draw a HUGE crowd and raise $$ lessens any ‘bad ink’ consequences,” a consultant in a California House race said in an email, also identifying Walker as an alluring surrogate.
The surrogate decision-making process in competitive general elections should go something like this, the consultant said: “Will this candidate’s positions on issues draw me off my message? Does having one candidate alienate me from the supporters of others? And most importantly, can I raise enough money from the event that number 1 and 2 don’t matter!?”
Christie passes that test, said the consultant.
Multiple House and gubernatorial campaigns in the Northeast raised their hands for Christie — including that of Tom MacArthur in New Jersey’s 3rd District, where he and primary opponent Steve Lonegan have both previously expressed interest in Christie’s endorsement.
But Christie’s name also arose out West, where a strategist to several House races there said, “[V]oters find him intriguing because of his reputation for speaking his mind.”
Next was Walker. The Wisconsin governor’s conservative credentials are established, and strategists said he can maintain a good base-mainstream balance.
“He is the only candidate that doesn’t have organized forces shooting at him [among Republican constituencies],” said the California consultant who liked Walker and Christie, “and he can come into a swing district and talk economics, jobs, spending without drawing into a discussion about social issues — which only motivate and turn out the opposition.”
Notably, Walker was also named in the South, where a crowded Georgia Senate primary is underway to take on a relatively formidable Democratic candidate for the red state, Michelle Nunn.
“Governor Walker has demonstrated that: 1) Republicans who focus on limited government, fiscal responsibility, and job creation win elections, even in a Democrat-leaning state; 2) true conservative policies get results when put into action; and 3) most voters respect elected officials who take a stand for what what they believe in, regardless of the potential political consequences,” said an aide to one Georgia Senate campaign in an email.
Walker has stepped out for Pete Ricketts in the Nebraska gubernatorial race, Doug Ducey in the Arizona gubernatorial race and for at least one Wisconsin statehouse hopeful, but it’s unclear how visible he’ll be later in the cycle as he fights his own reelection in the Badger State.
Next: Cruz, who is talked about in heroic terms by many conservative candidates.
“I think there’s an incredible amount of excitement for Sen. Cruz amongst the grassroots,” said a source in a southern Senate campaign, noting that the base lacks faith in most politicians, even Republicans. “I think Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin are two people they trust.”
Challengers see themselves in the Texas senator, even in races where their odds of an upset are considered steeper than Cruz’s surprise victory over a GOP establishment figure two years ago. He’s made endorsements in the Oklahoma and Nebraska Senate races, plus the Nebraska gubernatorial race, and sent almost $26,000 to federal candidates through his leadership PAC.
“Ted Cruz would be extremely helpful as an endorser and a fundraiser,” said C. Edmund Wright, a consultant to longshot South Carolina Senate hopeful Lee Bright, in an email. “Rand Paul and Mike Lee would be great also.”
But, he said, “the reason I think Cruz would be my first choice among those three is that he and Lee Bright seem to have the most in common with regard to temperament.”
Palin “would perhaps be the most helpful of all,” Wright added — not the former Alaska governor’s only mention in these conversations, though there is little sign she is laying the groundwork for a presidential run. Also mentioned in that category was South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, the new head of the special Benghazi committee, by candidate Shelley Kais, a distant underdog to win the nomination in Arizona’s 2nd district. And the campaign manager for Conrad Reynolds in Arkansas’ 2nd District cited Ben Carson, the former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, for whom a vocal draft movement is underway.
Bush, Ryan and Rubio each got several mentions after Cruz.
Bush, the former Florida governor whose presidential intentions are the subject of an ongoing Washington guessing game, has traveled coast to coast for candidates and committees this cycle, consistent with his outreach in years past.
One recent stop was a state party dinner in Connecticut, where Tom Foley is running for governor. Foley said through a spokeswoman that Bush, Christie and Walker would all be helpful. “They are all liked in Connecticut,” he said.
The Western House strategist described Bush as bringing “star power” and a “great fundraising base.”
Ryan, the Wisconsin chairman of the House Budget panel, has been the most active of the top-tier sitting lawmakers in terms of direct contributions to federal candidates this cycle. Through his leadership PAC, he’s spread $320,000 to a long list of congressional hopefuls.
He’s also showing his support in other ways — like an Instagram photo with New York 21st District hopeful Elise Stefanik, a former aide, in January, snapped aboard an airplane with binders in hand.
Ryan “certainly is a target for Democrats, but there’s no greater standard-bearer at the moment for serious conservative policies, especially fiscally,” said the New Hampshire House campaign source.
One Senate race where Rubio’s name came up is Louisiana, where a source described him as “a powerful surrogate for the message of conservative reform that we’re out there to talk about.”
Rubio’s political activity for 2014 candidates has picked up recently. After endorsing Arkansas Senate hopeful Tom Cotton back in September, he announced his backing of Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Iowa’s Joni Ernst in quick succession this month. His leadership PAC has independently spent more than $460,000 supporting Cotton and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, said adviser Terry Sullivan.
“We’re very selective,” Sullivan said about how the Florida senator chooses candidates. “We try to do as much as we can.”
Other names that cropped up in conversations with 2014 hopefuls included New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez — “As a woman and successful governor, Gov. Martinez has an incredible and relatable life story that is appealing to the broader electorate,” said Jeff Corless, a consultant for candidate Lesli Gooch in California’s 31st District — and Ayotte, who was praised by a second California House consultant for her “straight talk, independent thinking and [focus] on finding solutions to big problems.”
A handful of campaigns gave outlying answers. A spokeswoman for Rob Astorino, the gubernatorial hopeful in deep-blue New York, declined to identify a preferred surrogate but praised Walker, Martinez and Bobby Jindal for sharing Astorino’s business-friendly priorities. An Alaska Senate source said any outsider would do more harm than good in the remote state. A spokesman for David Valadao in California’s agricultural, majority-Hispanic 21st District said only that the congressman hopes the eventual nominee is someone who backs immigration and farm-water reform.
But for campaigns that were willing to discuss the surrogate question, the handful of top-tier names that were mentioned most often – Paul, Walker, Christie, Bush, Ryan and Rubio – generally came easily. It’s one sign of the boisterous primary Republicans are set to undertake between now and 2016.
The conversations also reflected the shorter-term priorities of Republicans on the ballot this year – where the sparkle of would-be presidential nominees is nice, but money for TV ads this fall is more helpful.
In addition to praising Ayotte, the second California House consultant said Christie and Ryan’s styles were attractive. But pressed about whether one was a top choice, the consultant emailed an acknowledgement of the financial dynamics at play: “I think Christie has the most ability to draw people fundraising-wise.”