Being outside of Washington, D.C., is usually an advantage for a presidential aspirant confronting a crowded field of potential Republican candidates. Away from the taint and deal-making in Washington, governors and former governors generally can run against Washington, like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did.
But this year is different. Serving in the Senate at this point in the race gives an undeniable advantage to Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), because the Senate is where the action will be. Congress will dominate the spotlight as it wrestles with NSA reform, the Iran nuclear deal and most likely a forced overhaul or even repeal of ObamaCare in the wake of the coming Supreme Court decision in King v. Burwell.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, running from outside the Senate, has no ongoing relevance to the great battles that are shaping up this spring and summer. His work in Wisconsin is largely done. His magnificent reforms are safely enacted and are working. The teachers union in the state is struggling with declining membership and lack of political clout. But there is no Act 2 for Walker to command national attention.
When the Senate focuses on NSA reform, Rubio, Cruz and Paul will be right there at the center of the action. Paul, with his creative fusion of social and economic libertarianism, will enjoy a lot of coverage as he takes the lead in battling for individual liberties. The defense and intelligence communities look their worst when we focus on the issues created by Edward Snowden's document dump, and Paul will be there to fight the dragon.
Similarly, when ObamaCare comes back to Congress after a Supreme Court ruling that could knock out the subsidies for enrollees in the federal exchanges, Cruz will likely shine. It could be his hour. Once the court throws out the subsidies, Republican governors whose states didn't set up exchanges could be under intense pressure to do so. Between 7 million and 8 million people will be forced to cancel their ObamaCare policies because they won't be able to afford them without the subsidy. (These, ironically, are usually the same people who had their previous health plans canceled because their coverage wasn't as broad as President Obama wished).
Cruz, Rubio and Paul can win points by pushing for a federal solution that postpones the subsidy cancellation and gives states leeway to decide whether to adopt an ObamaCare exchange within their borders. It was Cruz's filibuster over ObamaCare that put the Texas senator on the map in the first place. Republicans will demand a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act in the wake of a court decision.
Cruz's plan is to let each state choose whether it wants to require that people have insurance or not and to specify the minimum acceptable coverage for healthcare plans within their borders. He would make the ObamaCare taxes null and void in states that do not choose to enter into ObamaCare system in the wake of the high court decision.
Ultimately, Cruz will probably win his fight and will look very good pushing Republican governors and senators to move his way on the issue.
Meanwhile, what can Walker do? Here's where the GOP will feel the lack of the early debates that animated the 2012 Republican primaries. Without spring and summer debates, candidates have to actually do something on the national scale, and that opportunity is denied to Walker by his role as a governor.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who might also be consigned to the sidelines during these legislative battles, has a fight of his own to wage: his objection to the curbs on elderly entitlements embodied in the Republican budget proposals. This positioning gives him access to senior voters in droves, as well as continuing relevance to national coverage.
But Walker can only govern one state, and his ability to get national coverage for his role in solving state problems is limited.