The Obama wannabes: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz

The bigger challenge for this group isn’t merely that they are senators (after all, Republicans nominated John McCain in 2008) and not governors, but it’s the perceived lack of requisite experience Republicans say they want next time around.

With that in mind, the first-termers are in a tight spot. If they stay longer in the Senate to gain more experience — maybe run a committee or get a big bill with their name on it signed — they risk becoming too much a part of Washington. If they leave and opt to run later for governor of their states, which some believe to be a strong option for Rubio, they risk missing the moment of opportunity. The field is wide open this time around, the first contest the GOP has had in a while without a clear frontrunner.

In 2008, Obama ran as a post-partisan figure who could bridge the divides in Washington and around the country. He got people to see him as more than a senator. Obama’s first campaign was unique in many ways. His election was also, of course, historic. Candidates would have a difficult time emulating it. But that post-partisan eventually met up with reality, and Obama has been criticized from the right and the left for not engaging with Congress and forging the relationships necessary to strike important deals.

“The challenge that [the freshmen senators] have is there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse where they’ve seen two terms of President Obama,” says Madden. “Obama mastered the rhetoric of it, and people bought into it, but we’ve seen over the last two terms they lose faith in his ability to execute on that.”