It has been less than one year since President Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term, yet the national conversation has largely pivoted from the president’s legislative agenda toward finding his successor. While the possibility of regaining control of the U.S. Senate during the 2014 midterm elections occupies GOP political strategists, Republicans are also quietly focused on vetting viable candidates who can win back the White House in 2016.
The Republican Party is fragmented, with different factions pulling the party in multiple directions. Party leaders have promised a responsible realignment — a plan designed to revitalize the party through inclusion, without sacrificing principle.
The ongoing battle between the party’s establishment wing and insurgent ultra-conservatives can only be off-putting to the median voter in the short term, but the synthesis of both viewpoints could prove an attractive recalibration that could revitalize the party’s national hopes.
Pollsters and politicos alike are already speculating that the next nominee could be one of the Senate’s fiery freshman crusaders, or else a seasoned state executive whose tenure has been nationally promoted by the Republican Governors Association. But the next face of the GOP could also be someone from out of left field — someone who embodies a populist brand of “new conservatism” who as yet lacks national visibility.
When Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) sought the presidency in 2012, he told his kitchen cabinet that his most formidable competitor would be Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a relative unknown. Thune was first elected to the Senate in 2004 after defeating the sitting minority leader, Tom Daschle, but has since maintained a low national profile. He does not make headlines for forming cloture-proof filibusters nor does he appear regularly on Fox News, but his viability as a presidential candidate cannot be ignored.
He was viewed so favorably by South Dakotans that he was reelected in 2010 with 100 percent of the vote after the Democratic Party failed to recruit a single challenger. He now serves as the widely respected chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the number three position in Republican leadership.
Should Thune decide to pursue the presidency in 2016, his campaign would face considerable challenges. His name recognition outside of the Corn Belt is minimal for a serious national contender, but his geographic relevance in Iowa — the nation’s first presidential caucus state — could help propel the reliably conservative lawmaker to victory. Winning the Iowa caucus would not only prove his competitiveness, but would also unveil his national profile, similar to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.
Unlike other potential candidates, Thune’s low-key position in the Senate enables him to design a campaign in response to the national condition rather than one predominantly focused on policies he pursued as a legislator. Other than his vote for President Bush’s TARP legislation, his voting record is exciting to conservatives who seek to nominate someone to the right of both John McCain and Mitt Romney.
A few states to the east, Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is quietly revolutionizing Midwestern politics. The relatively unknown but praiseworthy Republican is solidifying Indiana as a reliably conservative state by promoting pragmatic values and championing fiscal responsibility.
Pence’s voting record as a U.S. congressman authenticates his stature as an unabashed conservative. Supporters also tout his Reaganesque communication skills, a political necessity when articulating a compelling vision for the nation.
The first-term governor inherited an unusually prosperous state economy, and this gift could play to his favor should he harbor national ambitions. If Indiana’s economy remains in good condition, Pence will have room to create legacy-building programs to tout as models for the nation in a potential presidential campaign.
As the party continues to struggle with blue-collar workers, either Thune or Pence could build an impressive campaign characterized by Republican populism, which could produce a brand of “new conservatism” capable of resonating with a more dynamic — and diverse — electorate.
Also, the electoral battleground lies in the Midwest, where states like Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio play a significant role in deciding who takes up residency in the White House. A presidential candidate with strong Midwestern roots could put the entire region into play.
Conventional wisdom says that the GOP nominee will be someone who is already expressing interest in the office, but a dark horse candidate could still become a serious 2016 contender. John Thune and Mike Pence boast both the conservative credentials attractive to primary voters and the independence necessary to prevail in the general election.
THE EDITORS: It would be quite a feat.
Both are capable of revolutionizing the Grand Old Party.
—Nathan Williams is a sophomore studying economics and political science