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New rules favor GOP moderates in 2016

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published November 17, 2014

 New rules favor GOP moderates in 2016
LEBANON, N.H. — Can you discern, deep in the new Republican Party — amid the conservative warriors and tea-infused crusaders — a faint moderate heartbeat?

Hardly anyone is asking that question this month, in the wake of the Republican tsunami that swept Democrats out of office and swept a Republican majority into the Senate chamber. But two unrelated events this month make the question worth posing, if only to explore the possibility and to understand the political landscape here in the state that only 15 months from now will hold the first presidential primary.

The first of those events took place in the western of New Hampshire’s two congressional districts, where Marilinda Garcia, a Republican challenger, failed to topple Democratic Rep. Annie McLane Kuster. Ms. Garcia, with such new-age GOP credentials as endorsements by the Club for Growth and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, pulled only 45 percent of the vote, which is actually a higher number than any poll reading she recorded this year.

Ms. Garcia’s profile — a Hispanic surname that the Republicans need so badly, Tea Party bona fides that strike fear in liberals and a strong anti-abortion position — was beguiling for a while, but before long word went out from the Granite State to the grandees of the national Republican Party: Don’t devote much money to her. You won’t need her vote in the chamber and her Tea Party inclinations will cause you heartache.

The second indicator is in the state’s bookstores, where copies of Richard Norton Smith’s “On His Own Terms,” a magisterial biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, are being stocked on the shelves. Mr. Rockefeller didn’t prevail in two presidential tries in this state, but nonetheless is remembered fondly by Republicans of a certain age.

Mr. Smith’s biography journeys back to an era when the word “Rockefeller” was an adjective, applied to a specific strain of Republicanism preoccupied with housing, transportation, the environment, newly expanded universities and energy projects. No Republican today would choose the description “Rockefeller Republican,” but one sentence in the 880-page biography shows there is life yet in the old creed:

“Next to Lyndon Johnson, no one better than Rockefeller personified the era’s confidence in American know-how, the purity of American motives and the capacity of the world’s richest nation to eliminate poverty by making opportunity color-blind and education universal.”

Remove from that sentence only three words, all regarded as contaminants in the conservative wing of the new GOP — “Lyndon Johnson” and “Rockefeller” — and it would be congenial to the late Rep. Jack F. Kemp of New York, the original postwar conservative insurgent, and very likely to the trio of Senate rebels contemplating presidential runs here: Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mr. Cruz.

Just this month — as soon as the results of the midterm congressional elections were tabulated — the Republicans began to turn their attention to the presidential race. And just last week, with the publication of George W. Bush’s biography of his father, attention began to turn yet again to a potential third Bush presidency, that of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

“I know this about Jeb,” his older brother said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “He is not afraid to succeed. In other words, I think he knows he could do the job. And nor is he afraid to fail.” The former president put the chance of his brother’s candidacy at about “50-50.”

The Bush family, now apparently including the matriarch, Barbara Bush, is all for another presidential run. So, apparently, is the family of former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, whose prominence in party speculation has been rising dramatically. There are indications a third establishment figure, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, is considering such a candidacy and has the backing of his family.

The family is the first primary, and these three have advanced.

Right now subtle signals are being exchanged among the three camps. Mr. Portman, who served as U.S. trade representative for the first President Bush and as budget chief for the second, would not enter any race that involved a member of the Bush family. (He also is up for re-election in 2016, so a presidential campaign would mean he likely would relinquish his seat.) Many of the operatives who otherwise might be attracted to a Bush campaign retain a loyalty to Mr. Romney and would stick with him if he entered the race. The reverse is true, too.

A new wrinkle in Republican rules may increase the likelihood of a Bush, Romney or Portman campaign and — despite loud protestations from the right — enhance the prospects of the establishment candidates: The primaries after March 14, 2016, will be winner-take-all.

?The result might be the emergence of three categories of Republican candidates: economic conservatives, social conservatives and moderates. One might win Iowa, one South Carolina and another Nevada — the three, along with New Hampshire, contests that occur through the end of February. The moderate would have a very good chance in New Hampshire, where Independents vote in the presidential primary. The state defied national trends by re-electing three Democrats this month, Ms. Kuster to the House, Maggie Hassan to the governor’s office and Jeanne Shaheen to the Senate.

This would leave two or three finalists. The key in 2016 would not be to break out of the pack but simply to survive as the finalist from one ideological category. Then, beginning March 15, those finalists would move forward, with the establishment figure positioned to take huge delegate hauls from Maryland April 5, from Pennsylvania April 26 — and beyond.

Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke derisively in the mid 1950s of the “extreme right wing” of the GOP and, as the 1954 midterm elections approached, worried that “if the right wing really recaptures the Republican Party, there simply isn’t going to be any Republican influence in this country within a matter of a few brief years.”

In his diary, the 34th president wrote: “The Republican Party must be known as a progressive party or it is sunk.”

Hardly anyone agrees today, when the GOP is manifestly a conservative party. The great worry for the conservatives, however, is that deep in the new Republican Party — amid the conservative warriors and the tea-infused crusaders — a faint moderate heart still beats. The new rules may keep that heartbeat alive.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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