Photo: The ghosts of Republican primaries past

In 2012, a continual stream of cash from major donors allowed Mitt Romney challengers like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to maintain their pressure on the former Massachusetts governor. While neither polled as highly as Romney late in the campaign, and both of them split much of the grass-roots conservative vote, the money from donors like Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess kept the two men within a feasible reach of the nomination.

With the power of these donations made clear during the last presidential cycle, it’s no wonder that Romney’s decision to forgo a third presidential run has made politicos consider where the cash that had his name on it will now go. After all, Romney still has the solid support of many of the high-profile, establishment donors who are so vigorously courted in presidential elections. Prognosticating a presidential race that’s more than 18 months away is difficult because the “invisible primary” is not yet complete. But there are at least some indications as to who prudent Republican donors may decide to pursue.

First, the last two presidential elections have featured the GOP initially resisting an establishment Republican candidate, but ultimately deciding in favor of him. The base did not favor John McCain and Mitt Romney, as Romney was challenged by conservatives Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum (among many others), and McCain by Mitt Romney himself. So, it’s only reasonable that donors who seek the greatest probability of seeing their candidate win in 2016 begin by parsing the establishment options.

Of those, there are certainly many, especially among those with gubernatorial experience. And, since the last two Republicans to win the White House were also governors, looking at current and former state executives seems like a prudent place to start. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, and Chris Christie, the current New Jersey governor, have been the subject of more speculation dating back to 2012 than much of the rest of the field. Much is made of Christie’s rhetorical style, which does not appear to be a solid disqualification from the race, but it may be a risk that many donors do not care to take, concerned that an off-the-cuff gaffe may sink him. Regarding Jeb, it is uncertain whether he will maintain his more moderate-sounding tone on education and immigration, or equivocate a bit, embracing more of what the right flank supports (as Romney did on immigration in 2012). Perhaps, because of his resistance to gaffes, moderate views on some issues, and vast connections, he is a better pick for establishment donors.

However, these two are not the only options for the most committed GOP donors. Most of those who would have supported Romney, had he run, will likely consider one or both of these men, and their final consideration could be significantly influenced by Romney’s eventual endorsement (or perhaps, if he doesn’t officially endorse, who he silently supports). But others, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, also have quite strong support from both establishment types in the GOP and some of those on the right flank. Walker shored up that support with his long fights with unions, culminating in the restriction of the power of big labor in his state.

Of course, the establishment pick does not have a guaranteed lock on the nomination. Senators like Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have all been quite visible in the media, affording them strong name recognition, and have proven themselves effective at establishing their brand. Donors who favor Rubio’s strong disagreement with Obama over his Cuba rapprochement, Paul’s libertarian and noninterventionist streak, or Cruz’s steadfast commitment to deficit reduction through budget showdowns may very well choose a candidate based more strictly on their ideological preference than on any probability of victory.

But when it comes to the calculus of donors, most of those who would have stood by Romney will likely not pursue a candidate who acts as a counterweight to the GOP establishment, like Romney in 2008 or Santorum and Gingrich in 2012. And with Reince Priebus’ indication that the national party will have more sway over who is able to debate (a way to decrease the likelihood of a more splintered field with more grass-roots conservatives), it may be wise for donors to wager that the nominee will not come from the right flank.

Nonetheless, Jeb Bush has not run a campaign in over a decade, and Chris Christie may not have the pedigree desired by the GOP primary electorate. As such, donors should not discount the power of Rubio, Paul, and Cruz. All of them have been important players in Congressional Republican politics over the past few years, and their rise would not be as surprising as that of Gingrich or Santorum (neither of whom had recently been prominent in national policymaking when they ran). With conservatives divided between the three, the establishment will be more likely to succeed (as happened in 2012 with Gingrich and Santorum). If donors decide to band together to support one of these three young Senators, however, Bush and Christie should take notice. Regardless, the fact that donors often decide which candidates voters are able to see on the primary stage, and which candidates the media take seriously, suggests that it’s time to decide whether our presidential pruning and parsing process is as democratic as we would like it to be.