GOP establishment hoping to clear the field for one center-right champion in 2016

Cynical but smart, especially when you view your own base as at least as much of a threat to the country as Democrats are.

The logical counterstrike by conservatives would be to unite behind a single champion of their own, but good luck convincing Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal, among others, to bow out so that one man among them can carry the banner on their behalf.

The conversations, described in interviews with a variety of the Republican Party’s most sought-after donors, are centered on the three potential candidates who have the largest existing base of major contributors and overlapping ties to the top tier of those who are uncommitted: Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Mitt Romney

[T]he reality of all three candidates vying for support has dismayed the party’s top donors and “bundlers,” the volunteers who solicit checks from networks of friends and business associates. They fear being split into competing camps and raising hundreds of millions of dollars for a bloody primary that will injure the party’s eventual nominee — or pave the way for a second-tier candidate without enough mainstream appeal to win the general election…

With the midterms over, Mr. Christie and Mr. Bush have begun pushing top bundlers to commit to them in advance should they announce a White House bid, according to several donors, putting intense pressure on the corps of contributors who helped Mr. Romney and the Republican Party raise a billion dollars for the 2012 campaign. Those requests have intensified the discussion in some circles about whether to coalesce behind a single candidate early or, alternatively, delay it until after the early Republican debates next summer.

If you’ve got Christie or Bush or Romney running in Iowa against a crowd of conservatives, you’ve got a decent shot at 35-40 percent of the vote — more than enough to win if the remaining 60 percent are split among various righties. If you’ve got Christie and Bush or Romney running, then 18-20 percent each is more likely, leaving room for a popular conservative like Cruz to take the state with 25 percent and propel himself to first-tier status. (Cruz himself said a few weeks ago that he expects two of the three establishmentarians named above to run, without guessing which two.) Social conservatives in Iowa are weighing that same logic right now in deciding whether to back Huckabee, Santorum, or even Ben Carson as their champion. If they want to flex their muscle, it pays to put all of their chips on one man and give him a fighting chance at winning the caucuses. Both of these groups, establishmentarians and strong social cons, have a few discrete issues around which they coalesce, which makes it easier for them to look at the presidential field and coolly decide which guy is most likely to advance the ball furthest upfield. That’s harder to do for grassroots conservatives since the issues they’re interested in aren’t as particularized — they want someone who’s socially conservative and who’ll cut spending and who’s hawkish. etc. The more issues you add to the equation, the more likely it is that opinion will split over which candidate is the best messenger.

Anyway, sounds like we’re destined to see either Christie or Jeb anointed head RINO. After all, the conventional wisdom on Romney is that he won’t get in unless Jeb (and maybe Christie too) passes on the race, which seems increasingly unlikely. But … is the conventional wisdom wrong?

“Mitt’s running,” is how one senior Wall Street banker who met with Romney recently put it to me this week, saying the conventional wisdom that the 2012 nominee would make another run only if the party reached out to him in desperation next year was dead wrong. “He’s running, flat out.”…

“He tells people not to commit to a candidate that is not their first choice and that they aren’t excited about,” one plugged-in Republican told me of the meetings. “He does not think much of the current field and does not think it is jelling. He still views himself as the leader of the establishment wing of the Republican Party. It’s definitely a change in his message [tilted more toward running].”

The Republican added that Romney’s decision doesn’t depend on Jeb Bush. “He does not feel he owes the Bushes anything and does not think Jeb is the de facto leader of the establishment GOP.”

So, Romney’s going to run against Jeb?! Maybe he’s planning to jump in late next year if and only if Jeb is struggling in the polls. Romney will give him and Christie, say, the first eight months of 2015 to show that they can compete with the Pauls and Cruzes of the world. If Bush is struggling, then Mitt will swoop in as the white knight who bails the establishment out. Except … won’t Bush and Christie remain in the race, if only out of pride? If so, then Mitt will simply make the split among centrist voters worse. And what about Christie? After his big night as RGA chief in the midterms and the fact that he’s been cleared in Bridgegate, he’s more likely to run than ever — and his decision doesn’t seem to hinge on what Bush and Romney do. So unless they’re willing to cede the field to him, which seems unlikely, we’re going to have a split in the center anyway. And all of this assumes that it’s safe for Romney to wait awhile, as rich donors line up behind Bush and Christie. As one GOP fundraiser said to the NYT about the donor class, “People that like to do this want to be on the A team,” which means committing early. And committing early to Bush or Christie won’t get you on Romney’s A team, just as dumping Bush or Christie to get on Romney’s at the last minute, not knowing who’ll win in a dogfight among those three, won’t get you on theirs.

Interesting that Marco Rubio’s name is nowhere to be found here. Exit question: Does this put more pressure on grassroots conservatives to settle on one single “electable” champion of their own rather than encourage a free-for-all in Iowa? How many people who like Paul or Cruz will pass on them now for someone like Scott Walker instead, believing that someone like Walker who can draw from both wings of the party is the only person capable of stopping Bush/Christie/Romney?

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