In the race for the GOP nomination, nothing is settled

The nation’s conservative newsreaders and poll-watchers are in for a long and bumpy road to the nomination in 2016. Today’s sure thing is tomorrow’s flop.

It wasn’t all that long ago that conservatives were literally begging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run for the White House in 2012 as the only Republican candidate they thought had a prayer of appealing to a national electorate. Today, his sky-high disapproval ratings among conservatives has left many wondering whether the Garden State governor will even run for the White House at all.

In fact, the dominant dynamic that characterized the race for the GOP nomination in 2012 appears set to repeat itself. Throughout 2011 and the first two quarters of 2012, virtually every Republican candidate in the race enjoyed a fleeting moment of viability as conservative voters coalesced behind them to serve as the anti-Mitt Romney. In 2016, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has the honor of being the party’s least-loved establishment candidate.

In fact, Bush’s decision to launch an exploratory committee prompted some to determine that the race for the Republican nomination was all but over. Even if some Republicans continued to mount a quixotic bid for their party’s presidential nod against all odds, that group would not include Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “If Bush does choose to run—and the signs clearly point that way now—it will leave little room for Rubio to mount his own presidential campaign,” The New Republic’s Danny Vinik speculated in December of last year. But Rubio is presently enjoying his moment in the sun as polls suggest he has the most room to grow of any of the 14 plus GOP presidential contenders.

In fact, Rubio’s ability to appeal to the conservative primary voter is rivaled only by a Republican figure who just weeks ago seemed like he might have already united the GOP behind his candidacy: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

But Walker stumbled amid the intense scrutiny associated with being a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. He lost the press when he refused to answer clarify his views on evolution or to sufficiently denounce former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for criticizing President Barack Obama. These moments were more clarifying about the nature of media bias than anything else, but Walker began to lose conservatives, too, when he abandoned his opposition to ethanol subsidies and jettisoned a member of his campaign staff all in order to appeal to Iowa’s insecure political class.

The Washington Examiner’s T. Beckett Adams noted the fact that some on the right have joined with the political press in questioning whether Walker is truly ready for the big stage:

“Walker seems to be stepping back from his principled opposition to the federal ethanol mandate,” Breitbart reported. “Instead, he’s engaging in the time-honored art of pandering to Iowa’s corn farmers, promising to keep the mandate for now, and phase it out at an undetermined future date.”

A post on RedState listed the apparent ethanol flip-flop as one of the “12 Reasons Why Conservatives Should Reject Scott Walker.”

The Washington Examiner‘s Timothy P. Carney and Philip Klein also dinged the supposed 2016 candidate for his ethanol shift, with the former saying that the change of heart reveals something “unflattering” about the governor’s character and the latter asking, “If Walker can’t stand up to Iowans, how can he stand up to the Islamic State?”

For this report – not an op-ed – Walker’s increasingly defensive campaign operatives apparently gave Adams an earful.

Make no mistake, Walker is a diminished figure as a result of his campaign’s failure to maintain relations with the conservative commentary class. With Walker standing just feet away at a Florida fundraising event, even Christie took a shot at the governor’s instinct to pander to the audience in front of him at any given moment. “People want folks who they believe in what they say and don’t change depending on what state they’re in,” Christie said at the event. He went on to suggest the Wisconsin governor is also too willing to compromise on pro-life issues. The prospect of the New Jersey governor attacking Walker from his right and landing punch after punch seemed dim just weeks ago, but that is the reality today.

And there will be many more surprises in store as the 2016 cycle unfolds. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is reportedly planning to announce his intention to examine a presidential bid on Monday. His bluntness and ability to appeal to conservative voters suggest he will be a force in the race. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, too, is likely to mount a presidential bid. Many expect that he will be able to replicate his father’s robust coalition of libertarian Republicans and augment it around the edges. Experienced candidates like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry will be able to navigate around landmines and tiptoe over tripwires that will ensnare the race’s fresh faces. Outsiders like Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have the potential to appeal to the conservative voter’s frustration with the political class, and they are both stronger candidates than was Herman Cain. But even the pizza magnate had a moment at the top of the polls in 2011.

In short, count on surprises ahead of 2016. Unlike the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, nothing is assured. There is a lot of campaign left between today and the Cleveland nominating convention. Expect the unexpected.

Ed Morrissey Nov 29, 2021 8:25 AM ET