The two most crowded places in 2015 may be a subway car at rush hour and the stage at a Republican presidential debate. With the past two winners of the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, both making moves toward a campaign and other social conservatives, ranging from Ben Carson to Ted Cruz, thinking about running, things are already looking crowded.
On Wednesday, Santorum told Real Clear Politics that he is approaching the 2016 election “as if I’m running.” Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses and finished second in 2012 GOP primary, has never made a secret of the fact that he’s considering another bid for the nomination. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has stumped across the country this year for Republican candidates, including a significant number of visits to Iowa. He has also gone out of his way to endorse candidates in competitive primaries who backed him in 2012, most notably Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz in a congressional primary and Prof. Sam Clovis in the Hawkeye State’s Senate primary.
At the same time, Huckabee is organizing a trip to Europe with a number of pastors from early primary states after Election Day. The trip, first reported in June by David Brody at CBN, will focus on the leadership of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II and feature stops in London, Krakow, and Los Angeles. Longtime Huckabee aide Hogan Gidley described the trip to The Daily Beast as “an outstanding political move” that allows the former Arkansas governor to display his “understanding of the world around us.”
Gidley also said that delegations of business leaders and pastors have been traveling to see the Fox News host to urge him to run for president. While Huckabee pondered running in 2012 before deciding not to mount a bid, Gidley said that this time the former governor was expressing “a much different tenor and tone” in contemplating a run.
Both Huckabee and Santorum had considerable overlap in their support during their respective presidential bids. They were both scrappy and underfunded social conservative standard-bearers who pulled off underdog wins in Iowa against Mitt Romney. But if both run, they may have to compete over the same pool of voters—and there will be plenty of candidates appealing to Iowa conservatives.
Carson is looking to be a somewhat formidable candidate. His super PAC raised $3.3 million in the most recent fundraising period (although it only netted $100,000 after accounting for expenses, most of which were for fundraising). It’s likely that Carson, who would be a first-time candidate whose own top adviser acknowledges that he suffers from “foot-in-mouth disease,” will flame out before the first ballots are cast. But his presence in the race would serve as yet another draw to the type of voters who both Santorum and Huckabee will have to woo.
And it’s not just Ben Carson who might be their competition.
There’s a baker’s dozen of candidates who could compete for conservative voters, from national figures like Cruz and Scott Walker to somewhat obscure governors like Bobby Jindal and Mike Pence, all of whom would have the potential to catch fire and who will be competing over many of the same voters and activists.
The question though is how this sorts itself out. Many conservatives still feel traumatized from the divisive primaries in 2008 and 2012, where candidates on the right of the party battled for position while two establishment candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney, slipped by to win the nomination... and then lose the general election to Barack Obama.
This time around, there will be a strong centripetal force among social conservatives to settle on one candidate to challenge whoever eventually emerges as the establishment choice, be it Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, or someone else, not to mention Rand Paul, who has appeal among both social conservatives and some establishment Republicans without belonging to either faction. But that sorting process still has a while to sort itself out as candidates test the waters and see if they can mount and maintain viable candidacies. In the meantime, the scramble is on and, in Republican presidential politics, anything can happen.