It's hard to imagine the New Hampshire primary going any worse for establishment Republicans.
Desperate to find a candidate to coalesce around in hopes of stopping the populist insurrection of Donald Trump and the conservative uprising championed by Ted Cruz, the establishment instead got the opposite: a three-way split decision between John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio that ensures an extended, nasty and expensive fight simply to emerge as the third guy in the top tier.
The goal for most unaligned establishment Republicans heading into the eight-day gap between Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary was that Rubio emerge as the clear-cut favorite for their wing of the party with a second-place finish — behind only Donald Trump — in the Granite State. Rubio seemed on his way to doing just that until Saturday night's debate when he just kept repeating the same line about President Obama knowing exactly what he is doing.
That brain glitch, which was seized on and exploited by Chris Christie, stopped Rubio's momentum — a fact he acknowledged in the wake of his disappointing fifth-place finish on Tuesday.
More Rubio: " I did not do well on Saturday night so listen to this -- that will never happen again." (2/2)
— Sean Sullivan (@WaPoSean) February 10, 2016
Rubio's debate stumble left New Hampshire Republicans at sea as they searched for a candidate not named Trump or Cruz. Kasich, the Ohio governor, was the most obvious beneficiary — winning 21 percent of those who made up their minds in the last few days before the primary. But Bush benefited some, too. And Rubio didn't completely collapse, either.
That left establishment candidates in second (Kasich), fourth (Jeb), fifth (Rubio) and sixth (Christie) when all the New Hampshire votes were counted. Christie will almost certainly get out of the race today. But, for Kasich and Bush, the results in New Hampshire were good enough to justify continuing on in the race to South Carolina, which is set to hold its GOP primary on Feb. 20. And Rubio's fifth-place showing was bad but not nearly bad enough to drive him from the race.
(Sidenote: Bush's case to continue on — fourth place in a state where he spent $36 million on ads — is somewhat suspect, but the strength of his family name and the fact that he has money left to spend mean he will go forward.)
The next 10 days, then, will be a battle royal between Bush, Rubio and Kasich — all clamoring for the establishment spot before the race goes national on March 1 in the so-called SEC primary; "Bush plans scorched-earth attack on Kasich, Rubio," read a headline from Politico on Tuesday.
There are three problems with that scenario if you are an establishment GOPer who wants to see one of that trio be your nominee:
1. Shooting at each other means not shooting at Trump or Cruz, who, at the moment, are the two front-runners for the Republican nomination.
2. There isn't enough establishment vote in South Carolina for it to be split three ways. South Carolina's Republican Party does have a country club/business wing — largely based in and around Charleston — but the evangelical/tea party wing, based in the northern reaches of the state, is larger and more important in a presidential primary.
3. It's hard to see how South Carolina produces a final verdict on the establishment side of the primary. Rubio and Bush should do best in the state — given current polling and their profiles — but Kasich is the momentum candidate. A(nother) muddle is the most likely scenario.
What New Hampshire did was ensure that the fight to be the establishment candidate wasn't going to be a knockout but rather decided on a decision after 12 rounds of boxing. That's a terrible thing for a party that faces not one but two existential threats in the form of Trump and Cruz.