Looking ahead to 2012, Republicans sense opportunity

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 11:29 PM

Not before or since James Garfield in 1880 has a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives been elected to the White House. But on the morning after a momentous election, all sorts of things can suddenly look possible.

So it was that Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) announced early Wednesday that he is stepping down from his No. 3 post in the leadership of the incoming Republican majority, in order to have more freedom to . . . ponder his options.

"A little girl asked me one time if I ever thought about running for president, and I told her, you know, no more, no less than any other kid who grew up with a cornfield in his back yard," Pence told Fox News Channel. "But you know, whatever the future holds, we're going to begin the process of prayerfully considering where our family can make the most difference for our beloved state and our nation."

With the end of one campaign season comes the beginning of another, as President Obama acknowledged Wednesday in his post-midterm news conference.

"We just had a tough election. We will have another in 2012," the president said. "I'm not so naive as to think that everybody will put politics aside until then."

In Tuesday's results, Pence, whose options may also include a bid for governor, is far from the only Republican to sense opportunity.

"Right now, you have empirical and anecdotal evidence that President Obama is vulnerable. What you've seen over the last two years is a dismantling of the coalition he used to get elected in 2008," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden, who is an adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a probable 2012 contender.

Midterm election results are an unreliable predictor of a party's prospects in the next presidential contest. Bill Clinton, for instance, regained his footing after his party's setbacks in 1994 and was easily reelected in 1996. Ronald Reagan enjoyed the same kind of revival after the 1982 midterms.

On the other hand, only two years after Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson was elected in a 1964 landslide, his party's fortunes turned sharply in the midterm of 1966. He ultimately decided not to run for reelection in 1968.

The prospect of beating Obama is not the only thing that has more Republicans - including some long shots - looking at a run for president.

The insurgent force of the tea party may mean that the fight for the GOP nomination could be far more open and unpredictable this time around. This year, a notable number of Republican establishment favorites - in Kentucky, Delaware, Colorado and Utah, for instance - didn't make it as far as Election Day, having gone down to defeat against more more conservative candidates in their primaries. And in Alaska, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski was able to save her job only by waging a write-in campaign.

All that uncertainty means it is none too early for anyone who is thinking of running to start making the most-mentioned list.

That is especially true for potential GOP candidates who don't start at the front of the pack. For instance, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) announced Wednesday that he will be making his sixth trip to New Hampshire; last month, he formed a political action committee to donate to Republican candidates in Iowa.

Meanwhile, the party's marquee names were unusually busy during the 2010 midterms, racking up goodwill with campaign appearances, endorsements and contributions.

Romney, for instance, lent his support to no fewer than 289 federal and state candidates - three-quarters of whom won Tuesday, according to a tally by his campaign organization. In all, he donated more than $1.1 million to candidates this year and visited 32 states.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also considering entering the race, crossed the map as well for candidates, stumping in more than 30 states.

On election night, Gingrich hosted a party at the Ronald Reagan Building to watch the results. Among those who called in to address the crowd were Romney and Pence, as well as two other possible 2012 contenders, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Also stopping by was Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, yet another whose name is being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.

Barbour's stock is high in the party. As head of the Republican Governors Association, he oversaw an effort that produced a net gain of six new GOP governors - the most valuable ally that a presidential contender can have in a swing state.

No one, however, is generating quite as much 2012 buzz as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who roiled races in a number of states with her high-profile endorsement of anti-establishment candidates, many of them underdogs.

On election night, the winning record of Palin's candidates was under 50 percent, and included such big losses as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska.

But Palin's fearlessness in casting her lot with the tea party and against the odds presumably won her goodwill with the GOP's ascendant insurgent wing. And some of her winning picks - such as South Carolina Gov.-elect Nikki Haley and Kelly Ayotte, the incoming New Hampshire senator - could be important early-state allies in 2012.

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