Could President Romney Be Primaried?

Earlier, I considered how Mitt Romney’s decision to choose Paul Ryan as his running mate would affect an open 2016 Republican presidential primary. This was under the assumption that President Obama would be reelected. Choosing Paul Ryan also has a positive effect in helping a President Romney avoid a primary challenge, something that would otherwise be a significant risk.

In earlier years, it was common for Incumbent Presidents to face Primary challenges. George HW Bush’s vulnerabilities became more obvious after Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan got of 38% the vote in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. Carter was challenged by two of the most prominent Democrats not serving in his administration: California Governor Jerry Brown, and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Reagan fought Ford all the way until the 1976 convention. Before he went on to win 49 states in the 1972 General Election, Nixon was primaried by two sitting Congressmen: Representative John Ashbrook of Ohio, and Representative Pete McCloskey of California.

President Clinton spent his first term terrified by a challenge from Jesse Jackson, but the political system had changed. He was the first of three consecutive Presidents not to be challenged by a primary moment at the end of his first term. Experts within the parties had realized that it wasn’t helpful for a political party to deal with these types of internal fights. In 1996, it had been over thirty years since a Democratic President was elected to a second term, so the party wasn’t inclined to risk that. The nature of the candidates were also a factor. George W Bush had merged the establishment and Evangelical wings of the Republican party, which didn’t leave an opening for a challenge from his right, especially in the years immediately after September 11.

Some recent changes have made these primary challenges a greater possibility in the future. There have been a few successful primaries of Governors and Congressmen. Even those that weren’t successful still got a lot of publicity, such as former Congressman JD Hayworth’s run against John McCain and Utah State Senator Dan Liljenquist’s run against Orrin Hatch.

The 2012 presidential primary saw the rise of book tour candidates, who had no real shot at winning the nomination, but received other benefits. The most noble of these candidates just wanted greater exposure for their message. The others got increased name recognition, which came with some financial benefits. Herman Cain sold two books, and will have a radio show in January. Rick Santorum greatly improved his reputation after his eighteen point loss in 2006. When candidates benefit from running and losing, it means they don’t have to worry about whether winning is a possibility.

So the next President will have to worry about the various incentives purists within the party have to issue a primary challenge, and the financial incentives candidates would have to enter. I suspect that Obama was safe, as Democratic politicians are less inclined to challenge the first African-American President. Romney would have no such advantage. And there will be some conservatives cheering his challenger on because of their inevitable objections on certain policy grounds, even if it increases the chances that Romney will be a one-term President.

Steve Kornacki of Salon suggested that Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky would be a logical opponent.

But as James Hohmann of Politico points out, the sit-down could have much broader, longer-term significance: If Romney ends up winning this year, Rand Paul will immediately become his most obvious threat for a 2016 primary challenge.

With 77-year-old Ron Paul heading off into retirement at the end of this year, Rand Paul is set to become the national face of the libertarian message associated with his family’s name. The assumption is that he’ll ultimately run for president, but the question is when. Unlike his father, Rand seems willing to modulate his message and rhetoric in a way that could expand his appeal within the Republican Party and make him a genuine threat to actually win state primaries and caucuses, something Ron still has never done.

This could make Paul very dangerous to a President Romney, whose ideological purity conservative leaders still doubt. From a governing standpoint, this would give Romney little room for maneuvering, particularly if Republicans control both chambers of Congress. He would be under immense pressure from the right to support and implement their agenda, no matter how politically toxic it is. If Romney were to balk at doing so, or seek some major compromise with Democrats, or simply be seen as not pushing hard enough, he’d be inviting a conservative revolt – and Rand Paul would be a logical figure to lead it.

Rand Paul might not be the one to do it though, as he’ll be up for reelection in 2016. While Kentucky is rather conservative, it did just reelect a Democratic Governor, so Paul would risk his reelection prospects for something that may please conservative Republicans, but could make him look like an extremist should he return to run for reelection after a major loss. He has less to lose from a failure to be reelected than most politicians. As a former Senator with a devoted core constituency, he could stay relevant, even when he’s out of Washington. Still, if he’s ambitious, it will be better to wait for a cycle in which he has a shot at winning. And it seems that he likes being able to affect change in Washington.

Rick Santorum would be another possibility. He is unlikely to be elected to the Senate or to the Governor’s mansion in Pennsylvania. He could also argue that he would have won the nomination had it not been for inaccuracies in counting and reporting the results of the Iowa caucus. And he now has better name-recognition. Still, it’s entirely likely that his reputation will take a hit from any such run, after he spent years recovering from his 2006 loss. It wouldn’t surprise me if a President Romney were to offer him an olive branch and appoint him Ambassador to the Holy See.

I wrote about this earlier, but I think Romney’s most likely opponent would be Sarah Palin. She has national name recognition, support among social conservatives, nothing to lose and a love of free publicity. And she wouldn’t have to worry about sharing the spotlight with other conservatives, since most have incentives not to campaign against a Republican President. This would fit her brand, as well as her history. Palin had become Mayor of Wasilla and Governor of Alaska by challenging Republican incumbents.

If she were to announce a run, she would likely start with some credible numbers among registered Republicans. And once one person enters, other politicos will find it easier to wade into the water. A few members of the Tea Party Caucus could decide that this is the way to demonstrate their conservative bona fides, or to inform voters about a policy issue they care deeply about. The odds that they would be able to run a national campaign and unseat a sitting President will be low, but the challenge can be a major frustration.

And this is why it helps for Romney to have a conservative favorite in his administration. Ryan’s political future would depend on Romney’s reelection and popularity. So he’ll be an effective advocate for Romney to that constituency. It’s in his best interest to do so. Anyone considering a primary challenge against President Romney would have to deal with Vice-President Paul Ryan.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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