By Scott Bauer and Ken Thomas
MADISON, Wis. —
The early stages of the 2016 presidential race feature an unusual cluster of high-powered potential candidates hailing from the same states, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan among them.
Walker gained Republican Party cult-figure status when he beat back a labor union attempt to oust him from office last year. A few weeks later, Ryan shot into the GOP stratosphere as the party’s vice presidential nominee. Now, party activists view both as having serious shots at the White House should they choose to run. And their decisions — as well as those by pairs of New Yorkers, Floridians and perhaps even Texans — might just come down to personal conversation between longtime friends and political allies.
“At some point people are going to have to make a choice,” said Brandon Scholz, a former executive director of the Wisconsin GOP. “That’s a really hard choice for Republicans in Wisconsin.”
Party faithful in New York, Florida and Texas face a similar predicament, with at least two possible home-state presidential candidates sharing overlapping constituencies and common financial donors. It all means that many of their friends are left watching, waiting — and, of course, prodding — while each weighs whether to launch a campaign.
Hillary Rodham Clinton sits atop some early polls and is the favorite among Democrats if she runs. But insiders view a fellow New Yorker, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a former Cabinet member under her husband, President Bill Clinton, as a strong alternative if the former first lady bypasses another presidential campaign. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also could be a possibility in a Clinton-free New York primary.
Florida has former Gov. Jeb Bush and his political protege, Sen. Marco Rubio, both of whom are keeping their options open for 2016. Several of their closest confidants have ties to both camps, and Bush works from offices in the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, just a two-mile drive from Rubio’s West Miami home.
Texas has two potential Republican candidates, too: Gov. Rick Perry, whose 2012 campaign flamed out against Mitt Romney, and freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, a brash conservative who is headlining a GOP fundraiser in South Carolina on Friday that’s stoking talk of a possible candidacy.
At this stage, few party loyalists expect such pairings to turn into full-fledged rivalries in the early primaries, or on debate stages. But the odd situation has forced many insiders in the potential candidates’ home states to avoid playing favorites. And it has turned on its head the old notion that a state can serve as a springboard for only a single “favorite son” candidate. With online fundraising networks and the ability of wealthy donors to bankroll entire ad campaigns, multiple figures from a single state can emerge.
Rewind to 2012, when former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a favorite among libertarians, and his home state governor, Perry, each had turns in the spotlight. Paul eventually outlasted Perry, who was staggered by poor debate performances and dropped out while the congressman stayed in the race, perhaps partly to lay the groundwork for a future presidential run by his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Also, in the last presidential race, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty got an early look from Republican loyalists, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., later rocketed to the ranks of contenders after winning a key Iowa test vote — a moment that forced the ex-governor to fold his campaign. In Minnesota, there were same-state troubles from the start — Bachmann’s presence froze what had been expected to be a reliable home-state fundraising base for Pawlenty. Old factions in the state’s Republican ranks resurfaced, fueling a rivalry that saw Pawlenty and Bachmann clash at debates.
Any friction in the 2016 campaign remains muted for now.
In Florida, there has not been much “pressure or arm-twisting at this point,” said Brett Doster, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist who has worked with both Bush and Rubio. But he said many are watching Bush, who as the brother and son of presidents has become a senior statesman in the party.
“Until he makes that decision I think you’ll see a lot of people in Florida stay on the sidelines,” Doster said.
In New York this week, Cuomo countered reports that he would automatically step aside if Clinton runs.
“Hillary Clinton is going to do whatever Hillary Clinton is going to do, and I’m doing what I’m doing,” Cuomo told WCNY public radio in New York.
And it’s been downright Midwest collegial in Wisconsin, where Walker and Ryan will share a stage this weekend at the state Republican Party convention in Wausau.
Just two years apart in age — Walker is 45 and Ryan is 43 — they grew up about 20 miles from each other. Both came of age in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and flipped hamburgers at McDonald’s in high school. Both have established national followings among conservatives: Walker for his push to curtail collective bargaining rights for public sector workers and Ryan as an intellectual leader in Congress.
“In a lot of ways they’re blood brothers,” said Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
Walker said in an interview that the duo often exchange text messages two or three times a day and communicate by phone or email, trading everything from Bible verses to political advice. But he said they haven’t talked about the possibility of running against each other in 2016.
Ryan also tamped down the 2016 talk in an interview, calling it “an eon away in politics. It’s too far away to speculate about that.”
Yet, both are seeking to make their mark on the national GOP in their own ways.
Walker is speaking at conservative events around the country. Starting this month, he’ll attend fundraisers for Republicans in New York and Connecticut, headline a GOP event in Iowa and raise money in Beverly Hills, Calif., for the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Ryan is focusing on Capitol Hill legislating after being the vice presidential nominee, resuming efforts to balance the federal budget in a decade and reform Medicare, all while preaching prudence and pragmatism in speeches to conservative groups.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a former Wisconsin GOP chairman, said he does not expect both Ryan and Walker to run for president, and he predicted “it will all work out for the best.”
“I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but the one thing I know for sure is the Wisconsin fraternity is pretty tight and it’s real,” Priebus said.