CLEVELAND — The jockeying for positioning in the next Republican presidential contest has already begun — and at this weeks convention, a couple of people were able to separate themselves from what is certain to be as large of a glut of contenders as there were in the 2016 cycle.
Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas were all on hand. So too were Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Mike Pence of Indiana, Republican nominee Donald Trump’s running mate. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida addressed the crowd via video.
Each has a compelling case to run in 2020. But more-so than the others, Cruz and Pence have created the most space for themselves from the crowd.
And, if one speech from the convention is remembered, it will be Cruz’s, which stirred up the biggest controversy of the week. It remains to be seen whether the Texas senator’s speech will help boost him in the almost-certain event of his 2020 campaign, or drag him down, further hampering his efforts after coming in second this time around.
Of course, the biggest question is whether Trump wins, which will almost certainly then push the next primary contest back to 2024 instead of 2020. Matt Mackowiak, founder of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider that it’s “very unlikely” Trump would be successfully primaried if he wins.
But if Trump loses, the margin by which he does is huge.
“If he loses by one or two points, his supporters and maybe the party will come to blame Cruz for not endorsing and not getting some conservatives to come through,” Mackowiak said. “But on the other hand, if Trump gets blown out, Cruz will be the one who’s most pure.”
By not electing to endorse Trump, leading to the audience booing him off the stage and later to him answering a series of tough questions from the Texas delegation, Cruz is more free of Trump than the others, such as Walker, Ernst, and especially Pence, who tied themselves more closely to the Manhattan billionaire during the convention.
“The advantage is for him that he differentiated himself from Trump,” Mackowiak said, noting that, depending on how the election plays out, that could prove to be a disadvantage.”
“Cruz will likely have the largest war chest after raising 30 or 40 million for reelection and probably using a third of it,” he said, adding that he will have huge lists, name recognition, and strength in early states like Iowa and South Carolina as major helping points. “There’s a chance things go south for him in a way with how things play out in the Senate and if he gets blamed for Trump losing.”
“There’s a line in the movie ‘Enemy of the State’ where Gene Hackman says to Will Smith ‘you’re either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid,’ and that line probably applies right now to Cruz.”
Should Trump lose in November, he added that there’s a “strong chance” Cruz begins the race as the frontrunner.
Ned Ryun, a grassroots conservative activist and founder of American Majority, told Business Insider that the Texas Republican lost some respect from him after he failed to endorse Trump in his RNC speech. He thought that could cause major problems for him down the road, even adding that members of the Texas delegation warned him of a potential primary opponent in Cruz’s 2018 reelection bid for the Senate.
Cruz will also need more than his grassroots backing in 2016 if he wants to be successful in a future run, he said.
“He has to build a coalition that is bigger,” he said. “He has a ceiling. I mean, when Sheldon Adelson is refusing to meet with him after Wednesday and granted, I have my own problems with the establishment, but you have to reach out the olive branch with establishment people.”
“I see him as more of a Santorum figure,” mentioning former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania’s presidential bids in 2012 and 2016 — with the former proving much more successful.
Ryun is big on Pence’s chances in the future, and said he “struck the right tone” with his Wednesday night address to the convention.
Mackowiak as well thinks Pence will be one of the more interesting to follow, now that he’s “two-thirds” through the important moments as a vice presidential candidate: The announcement, his address at the convention, and the vice-presidential debate.
“As long as he does the debate reasonably well and doesn’t make any mistakes moving forward, I think he’ll have a large national following while being able to appeal to the Trump support base while still being a Reagan conservative,” he said. “He’s in as strong a position as anyone else.”
And, he’ll be in the White House should Trump win.
But, should Trump lose the election — Pence is in a really precarious place.
“He will be a former elected official, he’ll have a much less realistic opportunity to raise money and get media,” Mackowiak said. “So how does he stay relevant for those two years before the presidential cycle begins? Everybody has challenges.”
He added that Cruz and Pence “both have the most to gain depending on how things play out.”
“I think everyone else is kind of in that second category,” he said, noting Cotton, Ernst, Rubio, and Govs. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and John Kasich of Ohio.
For Ernst, the Iowa senator who is also a combat veteran, a mishap with convention scheduling one the day she spoke bumped her out of a primetime slot. Fellow Iowa politicians were “disappointed” with what transpired, as Ernst gave her much-hyped speech to a nearly empty hall.
“I think you could make a case that Joni Ernst got very little buzz because the convention on the first night was so screwed up and she played to an empty hall,” Mackowiak said. “And so it’s hard to even remember one thing she said, whereas if she played to a full hall in primetime that really could’ve become a big moment.”
Rubio, who both men believe is looking to run in the next cycle, didn’t inspire much enthusiasm with his scripted video. Mackowiak called it “half-assed.”
Cotton, the youngest member of the Senate, is someone many believe has a presidential future. While admitting he’s “bullish” on the senator, Mackowiak said he doesn’t “know that he got much out of this convention.
Asked about Cotton’s presidential chances on Tuesday during a gaggle with reporters at a Cleveland restaurant, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa praised his grasp of national security.
“If that’s a major issue when he decides to run for office, he should run,” he said.
The Iowa Republican was asked about Ernst, Cruz, and the rest of the potential 2020 or 2024 field. He said he’s not “seeing any more jockeying for 2020 than I saw for 2016 or 2012.”
Pressed again, Grassley, who has served in the Senate since 1981, made a frank point about future elections involving his Senate colleague’s aspirations.
“Ever since I’ve been in the United States Senate, aside from two who were foreign born, I don’t think I met any [senators] who didn’t think they could be president,” he said.
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