By Eric Stern
Now that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have officially dropped out of the Presidential race, former Governor Mitt Romney’s path to the nomination is all but certain. (Ron Paul continues his quixotic trek toward the GOP convention, but he is little more than a gadfly to Romney and the Republican establishment.)
The narrative now shifts to whom Romney will pick as his party’s Vice Presidential nominee. Will it be an outsider — an anti-Washington crusader — or perhaps a woman or Hispanic? Will he play it safe or go for an unconventional choice to spice things up? These questions and many more will be continually debated by the media and eager politicos for the next few months, but fret not! For The Politic has your definitive guide to the Republican Vice Presidential nomination!
At the heart of the Romney campaign’s strategy for November is a very simple fact: Romney wants the election to be a referendum on the Obama Presidency, not a choice between two candidates. And a flashy, combative or otherwise memorable VP pick makes it far more likely the Republican ticket will be endlessly picked apart by the national press. This, of course, is a scenario Romney’s Boston headquarters will try to avoid. Therefore, look for Romney to shy away from Tea Party firebrands and focus more time and energy on conventional, experienced politicians.
Below are The Politic’s top 15 most likely VP Picks (and obligatory betting odds).
15. Jeb Bush (200:1)
If not for his unfortunate last name, the former two-term Florida Governor would be an all-but-certain frontrunner for the VP nomination. In the Sunshine State, Bush appealed to conservatives as well as Independents and remains popular with Catholics and Hispanics. In fact, he is so popular in Florida across the political spectrum that it is likely a Romney-Bush ticket would take the swing state like an epidemic.
But if Bush were to receive the nod from Team Romney, the media would delight in reminding voters of his brother’s all-too-recent Presidency. The Obama camp is surely salivating at the idea of comparing Romney to W, and such a task would be handed to them on a silver platter if another Bush were on the ticket. Moreover, Bush has shown little interest in the position, cognizant that his family name would be dragged through the mud. “I truly believe Jeb wants to be VP as much as anybody wants to be chosen to compete in ‘The Hunger Games,’” remarked Florida Republican Ana Navarro in a recent Politico piece.
That said, stranger things have happened in recent American politics and a Vice Presidential nomination for Bush — a popular Romney surrogate already — remains far more likely than one for combative partisans like Rick Santorum or Herman Cain. Bush remains a serious dark horse for the VP nod, but in the running nonetheless.
14. Chris Christie (150:1)
Speaking of combative partisans, one name present on nearly every potential VP list is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie, one of the nation’s most popular Republicans, has been speaking on Romney’s behalf for months. He is a fierce campaigner and his no-holds-barred approach to politicking would undoubtedly help excite the grassroots and raise money at an unprecedented clip.
In spite of these obvious pros, Christie may simply be too big a personality for the number two slot on the ticket. His headline-grabbing demeanor would all but definitely overshadow the far more reserved Romney. Moreover, his confrontational antics would call attention to the Republican side of the race and undermine Boston’s referendum strategy.
Indeed, many Republicans wish Christie — or a fellow bomb-throwing state exec. like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker — were leading the ticket; a VP nod would exacerbate these already-public grumblings. And no matter what anyone says, there is no way putting Christie on the ticket would swing deep-blue New Jersey into the Republican column in 2012.
13. Mike Huckabee (100:1)
In the early Republican primaries, Romney consistently ran strongly with moderates, Catholics and voters making over $100,000 annually. He lagged behind Rick Santorum (and sometimes Newt Gingrich), however, among Evangelicals, staunch conservatives and those making less than $60,000 a year (read: the base of the Republican Party). Even now that Romney has sown up the nomination, many of his advisors fear he will have a difficult time convincing these voters to turn out for him on Election Day — and, more importantly, attend rallies, knock on doors and make phone calls.
Enter Mike Huckabee, the former Southern Baptist Minister, Arkansas Governor and 2008 Presidential candidate. Huckabee indisputably appeals to the groups with which Romney has trouble. And unlike Santorum and Gingrich, he is a disciplined campaigner. The witty and likeable Huckabee would help Romney lock down the South and communicate with the conservative voters the GOP desperately needs in November.
The reason Huckabee is so low on this list, however, is that he holds little appeal to minorities and his solidly socially conservative views could scare away Independents. Huckabee’s attacks on Romney too are well known and his old-school brand of economic populism would distract from Romney’s message of fiscal discipline and deep spending cuts.
In the end, Huckabee may simply have too many liabilities for Team Romney to take him seriously. But if it looks like Romney may have trouble with his grassroots come November, expect Huckabee’s name to come up more and more often.
12. Bobby Jindal (50:1)
Tickets with Bush, Christie or Huckabee also lack any trace of the diversity that is becoming more and more essential in national politics. Giving the VP nod to Bobby Jindal, the nation’s first Governor of Indian descent, would add a certain level of pizzazz to the race. Jindal, a former Rhodes scholar who has run a remarkably effective administration in scandal-plagued Louisiana, is well-credentialed in the fields of energy and healthcare. He would also be a forceful anti-Washington campaigner.
But in spite of Jindal’s compelling biography and diverse background, it’s hard to see exactly what electoral votes he would help Romney carry (it’s not like the GOP has any trouble winning the deep South). Jindal endorsed Rick Perry early in the primary season and gave a widely-panned response to a 2009 Presidential address. He has also engaged in several well-publicized battles with organized labor in Louisiana and has embraced far-right positions on immigration, evolution and stem cell research.
While there are many good reasons to tap Jindal for the nomination (he also has many influential backers within the GOP), the notably risk-averse Romney campaign may simply not want to take the chance of sharing the national stage with Jindal.
11. Rick Snyder (30:1)
A Governor more likely to wind up rounding out Mitt Romney’s ticket is the political neophyte from Michigan, Rick Snyder. Unlike his peers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, Snyder has refused to push back too hard against the power of labor unions. Consequently, he remains reasonably popular in Romney’s home state, one of the few reliably blue states Boston hopes to contest in November.
Snyder has a solid business background and has demonstrated crossover appeal to Democrats and Independents. Snyder himself acknowledges that even a few years ago he was “a virtual unknown in the political world,” but this would likely not be a terribly bad quality in today’s political climate.
Nonetheless, his bipartisan tendencies would do little to excite the GOP base and insiders suspect that not even his Vice Presidential nomination seriously puts Michigan into play. He is completely untried on the national stage and it seems relatively unlikely that Team Romney would put their money on Snyder, especially since there are many conservatives with similar resumes that are widely perceived as surer bets.
10. Susana Martinez (25:1)
Although she currently has a paltry national profile, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez is widely acknowledged to be a rising star in the Republican Party. She is nation’s first (and only) Latina Governor and is popular in a Democratic-leaning state. A well-regarded former DA who has a record of attracting moderates and Hispanics, her swing-state appeal is just the beginning of a lengthy list of reasons to put Martinez on the ticket.
The list of reasons not to pick Martinez is long as well. The connections to another charismatic, inexperienced female Governor are obvious and Martinez has repeatedly said that she does not want to be considered for the job. (Although such a claim is common, Martinez may be one of the few GOPers who actually mean it. She is the guardian of a developmentally disabled sister and has stated that a national campaign would be “devastating” for her family.) Couple this with her status as a former Democrat with some moderate tendencies, and 2012 may not Martinez’s year — but look for her to play an important role in national elections for years to come.
9. Tim Pawlenty (20:1)
By now, you may be wondering why none of this year’s former Presidential contenders are on our list. Frankly, this year’s contest for the GOP nomination was one of the most negative in memory and all of the ex-candidates are on record decrying the former Massachusetts Governor.
The only former Romney rival that could conceivably end up sharing a ticket with him is the ex-Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. TPaw is a tenacious campaigner and has appealed to Independents and Reagan Democrats. His Midwestern roots would likely aid Romney with blue-collar voters in Wisconsin, Iowa and maybe even Michigan. Additionally, if Romney is serious about picking a bland VP nominee to keep the focus on President Obama, the dry-as-toast Pawlenty may be his best bet.
However, when I say Romney is looking for a plain politician who won’t make too many controversial headlines, I don’t mean mind-numbingly dull, which is how many GOP insiders describe TPaw. Additionally, he threw some attacks Romney’s way in the campaign (remember Obamneycare?), which would undoubtedly be rehashed again and again. It’s not that TPaw wouldn’t be a decent VP pick — it’s universally acknowledged that he couldn’t do much harm to the ticket — it just seems that there are better options out there.
8. Pat Toomey (15:1)
Perhaps the most plausible dark horse on this list is Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. Toomey is not often mentioned as a leading contender for the Vice Presidency, but he could certainly end up getting the nod. Picking Toomey, a former Congressman and head of the anti-tax Club for Growth, would motivate the Tea Party. Moreover, his recent election in Pennsylvania — one of those states Republicans think they should win but can never quite get in their teeth — would likely put the Keystone State in play.
Toomey, however, may be a bit too far to the right for most voters. He is a rock-ribbed conservative and many of his more controversial views would doubtlessly be hashed out in vivid detail on the Internet and cable news. Moreover, his time as a Wall Street derivatives trader plays right into the Obama campaign’s playbook of casting the GOP as pawns of big corporate interests. That said, his uncanny ability to repeatedly win in Democratic territory means he will remain an attractive choice for the Romney campaign.
7. John Thune (12:1)
Senator John Thune of South Dakota is popular in the Midwest and beloved by a bucket-load of prominent Republican officials. He has solid legislative credentials and would have been a frontrunner for the GOP nomination had he thrown in name in this time around. Moreover, the good-looking Thune is the rare combination of plain and enigmatic, a decidedly safe option who happens to be a compelling speaker and dogged campaigner.
Nonetheless, Thune — a two-term Senator, in his party’s leadership to boot — practically screams Washington establishment, a charge Romney has fought tooth and nail to avoid. Like Huckabee, he hails from a safely Republican state and has little history appealing to minority voters. Although his name is not tossed around nearly as much as others on this list, a VP nod in Thune’s direction should surprise no one.
6. Paul Ryan (10:1)
Perhaps the man on this list hardest to assign a ranking is Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee and GOP rock star. Ryan is young, charismatic and beloved by the base of the Republican Party. He is a policy wonk from a swing state and his endorsement was pivotal to Romney’s victory in Wisconsin — a fact Boston will not soon forget.
Nonetheless, Ryan’s name is now synonymous with his proposed budget plan, which some commentators claim “would end Medicare as we know it.” Democrats despise the Ryan plan and his addition to the ticket could excite the liberal base as much it would conservatives. As Kathy Hochul demonstrated in a New York special election, running against the Ryan plan can work for Democrats even in ruby-red territory.
This isn’t to say that Ryan isn’t still an attractive choice for Romney. Most Republicans adore the Badger State congressman and he has as many advocates within the party as anyone. Much like Huckabee, putting Ryan front and center would be a Hail Mary — a high-risk-high-reward game-changing move. Whether it would ultimately pay off for the Romney campaign is anybody’s guess.
5. Marco Rubio (8:1)
Undisputedly the most hyped potential VP nominee is Marco Rubio. Why is Rubio, a freshman Senator with no major legislative accomplishments, getting so much play? Because the media is starved for rumors and details in a 24-hour news cycle that demands constant updates. That Romney is looking for someone sensible who won’t overshadow him means most of the frontrunners for VP aren’t the best subjects for presses-stopping coverage.
The young, telegenic, swing-state Hispanic conservative — an oddity in the Republican Party to be sure — is far more attractive above the fold. Media coverage, however, does not guarantee a VP nod and could even work against Rubio in the notoriously risk-averse Romney camp. No other person, however, would energize the GOP base as much as Rubio. He is the embodiment of the Tea Party and has remained reasonably popular in Florida, the swing state.
But Rubio is far from an ideal candidate. He is untried on the national stage and, like Christie, would be sure to generate more headlines than the man at the top of the ticket. Rubio has faced a number of problems with the FEC and his moving family story has been discredited to some extent. Additionally, Rubio has several potentially serious skeletons in his closet from his time in the Florida legislature.
Even Rubio’s biggest draw — his appeal to Hispanics — is far from a mortal lock. He is Cuban, not Central or South American (an important distinction to many in the Latino community), and polls have shown that he helps Romney minimally in the Sunshine State. Rubio is and will remain a frontrunner for the VP nomination up until Romney makes his pick, but his stock these days is obviously overvalued.
4. Mitch Daniels (6:1)
Even after it looked increasingly likely Romney would claim the GOP nomination, influential conservatives openly mourned the weaknesses of the Republican field. And the man most often hailed as their savior was the wonkish Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels. The Pennsylvania native has a national reputation as an authority on fiscal issues and is popular among Republican activists and establishment figures alike. Daniel’s stewardship of Indiana is asserted by his party as a model for the nation and his quiet demeanor would guarantee he does not out-charisma Romney (although many might wish their positions on the ballot were reversed).
Whatever reasons that kept him from running for President, however, could keep him from accepting a Vice Presidential nod as well. (He is one of the few GOP officials who could actually turn the Romney camp down.) He has spent the nearly entirety of his adult life in politics and his repeated calls for a “truce” on social issues do not play well with Evangelicals, who are already lukewarm toward Romney. Daniels too has sworn off the Vice Presidency again and again, but it is impossible to predict how a person will react if they actually get that phone call.
3. Bob McDonnell (5:1)
One man who looks equally likely to receive the nod from Romney (although far more likely to accept it) is Bob McDonnell, the Governor of Virginia. McDonnell is popular in the Old Dominion — to shore up his in-state support, he has begun airing positive television spots — and is well-regarded as the Chairman of the Republican Governors Association. A former lieutenant colonel in the army and attorney general, McDonnell would help balance out the ticket.
And although he would excite the GOP grassroots, McDonnell is not without his drawbacks. He has cultivated a reputation as a die-hard social conservative; he is well known for a sexist master’s thesis he wrote two decades ago and for declaring April 2010 “Confederate History Month.” More recently, McDonnell supported a bill that would have required women to undergo a vaginal ultrasound examination before having an abortion. (He ultimately signed a modified version of the bill.) Given the focus on the gender gap (recent polls show Romney running about even with the President among men, but trailing by double digits among women), this episode may simply make the Virginia Governor too radioactive for Romney to choose him.
Nevertheless, he remains a compelling possibility for Boston and would likely help Romney in the Virginia, an important swing state. If the focus on “the women’s vote” dies down in the coming months, expect McDonnell’s name to be mentioned with increasing frequency.
2. Kelly Ayotte (3:1)
Although her potential candidacy has been asserted more and more in recent weeks, freshman Senator Kelly Ayotte is still not terribly well known outside of her native New Hampshire. But she could end up being the GOP’s Vice Presidential nominee for a variety of reasons. First, she hails from a swing state and has proved she can claim votes from across the aisle. Second, she is a persistent and confident campaigner who has demonstrated a rapport with Romney while out on the trail with him. Third, she was one of the first national players to endorse Romney and remains a powerful surrogate. And most importantly, she is a woman.
Unlike many of GOP’s other rising female stars — Michele Bachmann and Nikki Haley, for instance — Ayotte is disciplined, scandal-free and widely respected. And although her nomination would practically beg for Sarah Palin comparisons, the GOP’s relative dearth of credible female candidates assures her a spot on the short list. It is true that she lacks national exposure and experience and, like Romney, hails from the deep blue Northeast. But thanks to the recent debates over Planned Parenthood and contraception, Ayotte’s party may need her if it has any hopes of closing the gender gap in November.
1. Rob Portman (5:2)
The current frontrunner for the Republican Vice Presidential nomination is a distinction that undoubtedly belongs to Ohio Senator Rob Portman. Portman helped Romney carry Ohio in the primaries and is a disciplined politician. He is experienced, respected on both sides of the aisle and — as a former House member, U.S. Trade Representative and head of the White House Budget Office — has been vetted repeatedly on the national stage. Unlike many other potential nominees from swing states, Portman also has a credible political organization in his home state of Ohio. Moreover, the Spanish-speaking Portman is far more moderate than Romney on immigration reform — a potential boon with Hispanics.
His most appealing qualities, however, were best summed up recently by the National Journal’s Major Garrett:
Portman is to Romney what Al Gore was to Bill Clinton. He amplifies the central message and the skills set the “alternative” ticket brings. The choice is about President Obama and another term. It’s a firing choice more than a hiring choice. In this context, the alternative needs to be acceptable, not exciting. … [Romney and Portman] are both boardroom-ready and politically inclined. They are cool, analytical, data-driven and conversant in the central issue of the day — the economy. … Portman reinforces all that Romney offers or hopes to offer the country. And won’t suffer charisma comparisons to Portman. Don’t kid yourself that this doesn’t matter to Romney.
For all of these obvious pros, Portman certainly has his weaknesses. His victories in Ohio have demonstrated little appeal to women and minorities and he is occasionally viewed as a bore. His tenure in the Bush administration and years in Congress too may be problematic to the voters. But at the end of the day, Romney respects his executive and legislative experience and recognizes that Portman would be a low-risk addition to the ticket. Moreover, he trusts him personally. Dire political circumstances could force Romney to pick a more controversial running mate, but for now Portman remains the most likely GOP Vice Presidential nominee.