Last night, Mike Huckabee bid adieu to his show on Fox, and made his interest in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination a matter of public record. Unlike former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Huckabee is not immediately forming an exploratory committee. Still, the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy should be taken seriously.
He finished second in 2008 behind John McCain, and maintains a reservoir of good will among Republican social conservatives. Even among Republicans who don’t list him as their first choice, Huckabee is personally liked.
If Huckabee runs, the hurdles he faced the last time out, namely geography and money, would still be there. Huckabee will need to demonstrate that he can build upon his eight 2008 primary and caucus victories, and win outside of the evangelical strongholds of Iowa and the rural South. Having regional appeal is one thing; simply being a regional candidate is another.
Practically speaking, Huckabee must win in places like Florida, Texas and Virginia, which is no small task given Bush’s footprint in Florida, and Sen. Ted Cruz’s favorite son status in Texas. For the moment, national polls show Bush and New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, at the front of the Republican field, with Huckabee, Paul, and Ben Carson in contention, and Cruz looking like an also-ran.
Huckabee will also need to establish a reliable fundraising base, something that up until now has proved to be elusive. In 2008, Huckabee raised a little over $16 million, with less than $55,000 coming from political action committees. By contrast, John McCain, the eventual GOP nominee, had raised approximately $12.7 million in the first quarter of 2007 alone.
Not much has changed on that score. According to Politico, Huckabee’s leadership PAC, Huck PAC, raised just $2.2 million in the 2014 cycle. Sarah Huckabee, Huckabee’s daughter, also oversees a super PAC, American Principles Fund, which raised $1.4 million in 2014.
Yet, money has never been more important. In 2012, Mitt Romney was plagued by the ability of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to persevere in their quixotic quests for the nomination because they had the outsized backing of donors like Sheldon Adelson, in the case of Gingrich, and Foster Friess, who formed a Super PAC to aid Santorum. Huckabee, a staunch supporter of Israel, is on good terms with Adelson, but he may be too socially conservative for Adelson’s presidential tastes.
As a cautionary tale, Adelson was reported to have expressed his appreciation for Cruz’s support for Israel, but in the next breath let it be known that the junior senator from Texas was too much out there on social issues. Whether Adelson has the same take on Huckabee remains to be seen.
To his credit, Huckabee is conscious of the fact that he will need a cluster of deep-pocketed patrons and bundlers. On Saturday night, Huckabee posted to his Facebook page that he was leaving Fox so that he could “openly talk with potential donors and supporters and gauge support,” adding: “I feel compelled to ascertain if the support exists strongly enough for another Presidential run.” For the moment, that says it all.
Huckabee is on firmer terrain when it comes to issues, and is definitely in sync with the GOP’s base. In the aftermath of the shootings of the two New York City police officers, Huckabee quickly called for a memorial minute to honor the fallen cops. In contrast to Paul, Huckabee has never palled around with Al Sharpton.
Likewise on taxes, Huckabee is where the party faithful are, calling for repeal of the federal income tax, and its replacement with essentially a national consumption tax. By contrast, Bush has not ruled out a tax hike in exchange for spending cuts, and will also be forced to defend his father’s abandonment of his 1988 “no new taxes” pledge.
More to the point, Huckabee has a natural appeal to a party that has come to represent the bulk of working class white voters. He has taken a tough stance on unilateral presidential amnesty for illegal immigrants, and has backed “fair trade,” in the face of globalization. Huckabee is also not burdened by, or beholden to, foreign investors. In a sense, Huckabee may be America’s UKIP candidate, melding nationalism with traditionalism.
As for his campaign staff, Huckabee is going with people who were with him in 2008, Chip Saltsman, the Republican National Committeeman from Tennessee, and Alice Stewart, his 2008 press secretary—but that may not necessarily be the best thing. Saltsman is best known for circulating a CD containing the satirical ditty, “Barack the Magic Negro,” as part of Saltsman’s own failed bid to be tapped as chairman of the Republican National Committee. As for Stewart, she is known and generally liked by the press corps, and she’s a veteran of Michele Bachmann’s short-lived 2012 presidential campaign and the equally successful Santorum drive.
If Huckabee is to move forward, he will also face the challenge of converting name recognition into enthusiasm and wooing those Republicans who are not primarily motivated by religion or social issues, all the while holding on to his core supporters. While Republican values voters frequently set the agenda, values candidates are less successful when it comes to actually snagging the brass ring.
In 2008 and 2012, Huckabee and Santorum, respectively won the Iowa Caucus, but did not make it to the finish line. Pat Robertson finished second in the 1988 Iowa caucus, and it was all downhill from there. If history is a guide, Huckabee will need to resonate with more than just the faithful if he is to win. He accomplished that goal in Arkansas. Whether he can do it on the national stage is the unanswered question.