New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just endured the worst week of his five years in elected office, battered by a scandal involving traffic jams as political payback and implicating several top — and now former — aides.
And yet, Christie still holds down the top spot in our rankings of the 2016 Republican field — a sign of both the considerable strengths he retains in the race and the lack of an obvious challenger to his dominance.
Make no mistake: Bridge-gate has hurt Christie and slowed, badly, the considerable momentum he built during a sweeping reelection victory in 2013. But, assuming that no other revelations emerge linking him to the closure of several lanes of traffic in Fort Lee, Christie remains the candidate — with the possible exception of former Florida governor Jeb Bush — who is best positioned to build the coalition of major donors, party activists and GOP elites necessary to win the nomination.
The 10 candidates we see having the best chance of winning in 2016 are below. These rankings come with all the usual caveats — the biggest of which is that we are almost two years from the first votes being cast.
10. Rick Santorum: We are still very skeptical that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee wants to run. Without Huckabee in the field, Santorum could occupy the space as the leading social conservative candidate, a slot that helped the former senator from Pennsylvania win Iowa in 2012.
9. Rick Perry: After a disastrous 2012 campaign, the Texas governor is clearly planning on a return engagement in 2016. His problem? You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
8. John Kasich: Kasich is one of a handful of Midwestern governors who are seen as potential national candidates if they can win contested reelection races this fall. Aside from Wisconsin’s Scott Walker — more on him below — the Ohio governor has the strongest résumé of the lot and happens to be from the swingiest state (in a general election) in the country.
7. Marco Rubio: If Christie had the best 2013 of the 2016 field, the senator from Florida may have had the worst one — in large part due to the negative attention he got in conservative circles for his involvement in a comprehensive immigration reform package that passed the Senate. Rubio seems to have stopped the slide, however, and his focus on poverty is a smart one.
6. Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor is taking a page from the Newt Gingrich playbook in how to run for president. He’s decrying the media’s focus on who’s up and who’s down — damn media! — and pushing for a new conversation on ideas within the party. It remains to be seen whether Jindal has the personal charisma to compete with the candidates ranked ahead of him.
5. Jeb Bush: Who knows what Jeb will do? If he ran, he would be formidable as the scion of a well-known — if slightly tarnished — family within the party. Bush’s policy chops are considerable, but he was never one for the nitty-gritty of politics, and he’s now been out of the game for almost a decade.
4. Ted Cruz: Some of the fervor surrounding Cruz has faded since his talkathon to block Obamacare late last year. Still, the senator from Texas is the purest incarnation of the tea party spirit in the field, and that’s not to be underestimated.
3. Scott Walker: Walker would be ranked even higher if he didn’t have to win a second term this November in a race in which Democrats, who recruited a wealthy businesswoman to run, plan to make a major effort. Walker is already a hero to conservatives nationally because of his fight with public employee unions earlier this decade, and he also happens to come from a state that shares a border with Iowa.
2. Rand Paul: The senator from Kentucky appears to have survived a rough patch over plagiarism allegations in his speeches and is now back to doing what he does best: channeling the growing libertarian sentiment in the country. Paul has emerged as a leading voice opposed to the Obama administration’s National Security Agency, and that perch will put him squarely in the national spotlight this week when the president addresses the NSA controversies.
1. Chris Christie: How quickly can Christie move beyond Bridge-gate? How much of a hit does he take among the donor class? How soon until other 2016-ers jump on the criticism train? There are more questions than answers for Christie at the moment. But everyone ranked below him on this list has questions of his own. And Christie remains the most naturally talented candidate in Republican politics.