How Rand Paul is winning

To hear Republicans who follow these sorts of things closely, there are actually two primaries for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.


Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul

The first is the fight to be the establishment conservative pick, a battle that could include Govs. Chris Christie (N.J), Bobby Jindal (La.), John Kasich (Ohio) and Scott Walker (Wisc.) as well as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and, possibly, former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.).  The other is to be the movement conservative choice, a tussle right now between Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).

The theory is that a victor will emerge from each of these sub-primaries and those two winners will duke it out for the nomination. That's a similar dynamic to the one that was at work in the 2012 Republican nomination fight with Mitt Romney winning the establishment conservative slot and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ultimately emerging as the movement conservative pick.

What's different this time around is that the establishment conservative field is packed with potential candidates while the movement conservative field is relatively sparse. Which brings us to Paul.

At the moment, Paul's only serious competition to emerge as the movement conservative choice is Cruz. (Other candidates like Santorum, if he runs again, or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, will likely try to swim in those waters before it's all over but Cruz looks strongest at the moment.) Cruz has strengths -- particularly in Iowa -- but he also hasn't demonstrated the broad policy agenda or ability to expand beyond his hardest core supporters that Paul has shown. And, there are still lingering doubts in GOP circles about whether Cruz will even run -- although, it's worth noting, the idea that anyone within the Republican establishment has a good grasp on what Cruz is thinking is somewhat far-fetched.

Simply put, Paul is more likely to emerge victorious from the movement conservative primary than any of the potential candidates seeking the establishment conservative banner.  At the start of the year, we would have said Christie would have had a leg up in that establishment primary -- and hence an edge to be the nominee since the party's pick traditionally comes from the establishment wing. But Christie's struggles to get out from under the lane closures scandal that reaches high into his administration has reduced him to just another member of the pack. Walker and Kasich both have the potential to break out but first need to get by real reelection races this fall. Jeb Bush would quite clearly be the establishment frontrunner if he ran but no one has any idea if he wants to or will. Ditto Paul Ryan. And, while Jindal seems to be gaining a bit of steam, he remains second tier in this group.

Add it all up and you get this: Rand Paul is, as of right now, the likeliest Republican nominee.  Our rankings of the other nine people likely to wind up as the Republican standard-bearer are below. Agree? Disagree? The comments section awaits.

10. Rick Perry: The Texas governor spent two days this week in Iowa.  He said it was to campaign for Gov. Terry Branstad. Um, ok. In conversations with Republicans we trust, they are convinced Perry is planning to run again he believes that the mistakes he made in 2012 are entirely correctable. Our view? You never get a second chance to make a first impression in politics. (Previous ranking: 9)

9. Jeb Bush: If he runs, the former Florida governor is the #1 ranked candidate on this list. But, aside from conversations with a handful of donors, we see almost no sign that Jeb is doing the sort of things one would do if he wanted to run in 2016.  Now, Jeb being Jeb, he doesn't need to start putting together a campaign as soon as some of the lesser-known candidates in the field. But, everything we hear and read about him suggests that while he would like to be president, he has almost zero interest in the process of running for the job. Given that, we are dropping him down in our rankings. (Previous ranking: 5)

8. Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor has had a nice run of late. His denouncement of President Obama's lack of a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline made national headlines and set him up as a foil to the current occupant of the White House -- a very good thing for an ambitious Republican.  And, as National Review's Eliana Johnson documented, Jindal is hiring the sort of quality people that will form the foundation of a presidential campaign. Still, there's almost no buzz for Jindal in Republican circles at the moment. Might he be Tim Pawlenty 2.0? (Previous ranking: 6)

7. John Kasich: It's worth reading the Ohio governor's state of the state address, which he delivered on Monday. It lays out a broad governing vision that, if he wins this fall, Kasich would be very well positioned to run on in 2016. His political team continues to be cagey about whether or not he would run but we tend to believe that candidates who have run unsuccessfully for president are much more likely than the average bear to run again. Keep an eye on Kasich. He has the potential to move up these rankings post-November. (Previous ranking: 8)

6. Paul Ryan: Oh, Paul Ryan, what  to do with you? Most Republicans we talk to suggest that Ryan is far more interested in one day being the Speaker of the House than he is running for president. And yet, one very well-connected Republican insists to us that Ryan is very much interested in the race and that many in GOP circles are operating on assumptions not actual information. Expect Ryan to make things clear about his future sooner rather than later if for no other reason than to allow Walker to run if he doesn't. (Walker and Ryan are very close and we are told Ryan will have the right of first refusal in the race.) (Previous ranking: N/A)

5. Marco Rubio: The re-conservatification (not a word but you get the idea) of Rubio is under way. Rubio has blasted President Obama over art history majors and hammered Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin over Venezuela and Cuba. Rubio still has work to do to prove to conservatives that he is one of them after his role in passing comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 but he is the most naturally talented candidate -- with the possible exception of Christie -- on this list. And, talent matters. (Previous ranking: 7)

4. Ted Cruz: Cruz's decision to force a vote to end a filibuster on a clean debt ceiling increase earlier this month tells you everything you need to know about where he sees his political future. HINT: It isn't in the Senate. In case you didn't get the message, Cruz will be making a stop in Iowa in March and two visits to New Hampshire in April.  The questions for Cruz going forward: 1) Can he expand beyond his relatively narrow base to win over fiscal conservatives in places like New Hampshire? 2) Does the antipathy that the establishment holds toward Cruz come back to bite him in the butt? (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Chris Christie: There's no question that Christie has taken a hit in the donor community because of Bridgegate.  But, we continue to believe that if Christie can weather the next few months -- and with the ongoing investigations and more document dumps to come things will get worse before they get better -- he can recover and become a serious contender for the nomination. Why? First, he will have a record of winning two races in a blue state. Second, because his style is so unique and, theoretically, appealing to a Republican base that craves non-political sounding straight talk. (Previous ranking: 1)

2. Scott Walker: Walker isn't as charismatic as Christie or as strong in an early state as Cruz.  But, he is someone who can appeal to both sides of the Republican party (the establishment likes his ability to win in a blue state, conservatives like his fight against labor unions). Why isn't Walker number one then? Because a) he still has to win reelection against a well financed Democrat this fall and b) it's not quite clear what he would do if Ryan decided to run. (Previous ranking: 3)

1. Rand Paul: Dismiss the Kentucky Senator as a fringe candidate at your peril. He starts with the activist and donor base his father, Ron, built during two presidential campaigns. Onto that he adds his own political skills and a Republican agenda that, of all the potential candidates this side of Jeb Bush, might have a real chance at expanding the party's coalition in 2016.  (Previous ranking: 2)

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · February 28