Opinion

The GOP's top donors are trying to rig the 2016 field. Here's why it won't work.

Wealthy Republicans want to coalesce around a single candidate ahead of the 2016 election. But recent history shows that voters won't let them.

Just a few weeks after the GOP's midterm triumph, the party establishment seems intent on proving that it hasn't got a clue. The New York Times reported on Monday that wealthy donors are already eager to rally around a single candidate ahead of the 2016 primaries. But this misguided attempt to clear the field ignores the current political temperament, and the lessons learned from both parties over the last two presidential cycles.

Nicholas Confessore reported that Republican donors are disconcerted that the 2016 primaries may offer too many options for the presidential nomination — in particular, too many for the center-right wing. The favored candidates among GOP bigwigs are Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, and the 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. The big bundlers worry that an internecine fight will damage the GOP's ability to focus on the presumed Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

"If you are philosophically a center-right donor," Bobbie Kilberg, a Romney-linked donor, told Confessore, "I think you have an interest in clearing the field." Kilberg means that he wants most, if not all, major donors to rally around one of the chosen three before the primary campaign begins in earnest.

That kind of thinking didn't make sense 20 years ago, and it makes even less sense now.

Republicans have a track record of doing exactly what Kilberg and others suggest. At least since 1976's remarkable, somewhat open convention, in which Gerald Ford barely held off Ronald Reagan to keep the nomination, Republicans have had a habit of nominating the "next in line." Reagan didn't get the nod in 1976, but he did in 1980. George H. W. Bush missed out in 1980, but got the nomination in 1988. After a single term, an electorate dominated by Baby Boomers elected Bill Clinton over Bush.

Rather than recognize the change in the electorate, the Republican establishment stuck with the "next in line" strategy. The party coalesced early around Sen. Bob Dole, whose only competition that year came from Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, neither of whom held office. Dole won 44 states in the primaries, only to get soundly beaten by Clinton in the general election. Voters were interested in the future, not the past, and Republicans squandered their advantage from the 1994 midterm elections.

Still, Republicans kept nominating established center-right figures, including Romney. But by 2012, it was apparent that conservative voters weren't content to go along. The GOP bench was thin, but voters still spent months swinging back and forth between Romney's challengers before finally settling on him as the nominee.

That's not the case in 2016. Republicans have a number of governors who are ready to run for the highest office, all of whom have solid track records of reform: Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Susana Martinez, Mike Pence, John Kasich, and Nikki Haley. Senators such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have solid bases of support among conservative and libertarian voters as well. They all have the one quality that has emerged as critical in both parties: outsider status, whether that derives from their geography or because they are comfortable challenging establishment orthodoxy.

This isn't only true of Republican voters. The big money in Democratic circles in 2008 got behind Hillary Clinton early in that cycle in an attempt to limit the field. The coronation never materialized because Democratic voters refused to have their choice dictated to them, and Clinton's performance in 2007 and 2008 justified their discontent. Instead of going with an establishment figure — and it doesn't get any more establishment on that side of the aisle than the Clintons — Democrats went with a relative outsider who channeled their populist impulses.

That populism exists in the Republican Party, too. The dynamic between outside and inside has been at play in every election of the Obama era. Few recall that the National Republican Senatorial Committee initially recruited Charlie Crist for the 2010 Senate race in Florida rather than allow it to unfold organically, and got burned when Marco Rubio fired up the Tea Party grassroots to destroy Crist (and eventually push him into the Democratic Party). Incumbents have been under threat for the past three cycles thanks to that populist impulse, even as the party has grown more adept at thwarting it.

The lesson is that it is politically dangerous to ignore the rising populist tide. Arguably, Romney lost because he was too closely affiliated with the "next in line" establishment parade. But this time the GOP has other options, which will only offer a refreshing contrast to the Democrats falling in line behind the ne plus ultra of establishment candidates. The GOP's bench is diverse, seasoned, and skilled. Most importantly, it has its roots outside of loathed Washington, D.C.

And it's not just dangerous — it's pusillanimous as well. A wide open primary should not be feared, but embraced as a way for the Republican Party to debate policy, expand philosophy, and refine candidates for higher office. The GOP needs that debate, that refinement, if it plans to compete against Democrats effectively not just in 2016, but in 2018, 2020, and beyond. A rigged game doesn't do anything to prepare even a "next in line" candidate for a general election in 2016. Voters won't just hand the presidency to a Republican simply for showing up.

If Republicans want to stay on a winning roll, the party leadership had better recognize that its needs voters more than it needs cash. Ignoring their perspectives and desires will have the Grand Old Party campaigning like it's 1996.

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