Advancing a Free Society

Campaign 2014: Life on Wisteria Lane

Sunday, August 4, 2013

In politics, as in life, timing’s everything.

Just ask our last three presidents. Had he not run for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2004, complete with a keynote address at that year’s Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama most likely isn’t his party’s nominee in 2008 (another Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln, had two Senate runs under his belt, plus a national voice in the slavery debate, by the time 1860 rolled around). If George W. Bush doesn’t run for governor of Texas in 1994, he’s probably not in a position (re-elected, wind at his back) to seek the presidency in 2000. As for Bill Clinton, he ran for president in a cycle that saw other, more nationally established Democrats (Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Bradley, Mario Cuomo, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore) taking a pass. Had he waited until 1996 – and assuming a lesser-skilled Democrat would have failed in unseating George H.W. Bush – Clinton might have gone missing in a more crowded field of better-known and better-financed rivals.

And that’s just the last three fellows to hold the job. If you want to step further back in modern presidential history, John F. Kennedy’s House run in 1946 and Senate upset in 1952 are integral to his relatively fast track to the Oval Office (14 years from the time of his first political campaign to the White House, which is two years more than Obama). If Ronald Reagan had waited four years later, until 1970, to run for governor of California, perhaps another conservative beats him to the punch as the right’s post-Goldwater standard-bearer.

We can even apply this rule to Hillary Clinton. If she doesn’t run for Daniel Moynihan’s vacated Senate seat in 2000, she has one of two options: run for president in 2004 (and probably lose); or wait for an office of parallel value to become available (i.e., running for Empire State governor in 2006).  Maybe she still runs for president in 2008. However, she would have done so without much of a record to fallback on (a Senate record that Obama supporters in 2008 suggested was vastly overrated, by the way).

With the November 2014 election now 15 months ahead and fast approaching, we’re beginning to see next year’s class “wisteria” candidates emerge (I’m borrowing that descriptive from the British press, which have described Kate and Pippa Middleton as the “wisteria sisters” – “highly decorative, terribly fragrant and with a ferocious ability to climb”). Should they succeed in gaining higher office, these climbers will gain access the national political highway – C-SPAN and cable talk shows, coast-to-coast invites to fundraisers, maybe a spot on a national ticket.

With that in mind, here are a few contenders who fall into the “wisteria” classification.

1)  Ken Cuccinelli. As the year began, Virginia’s attorney general had three options: run for re-election; a Senate run in 2014; run for governor this fall (Virginia and New Jersey holding off-year votes). He opted for the latter, putting himself in a gubernatorial contest that will test what worked well for Democrats in 2012 (“war on women”, vague campaign promises). Should he prevail, Cuccinelli’s stock rises higher among conservatives who already like his legal maverick style.

2)  Cory Booker.  Newark’s mayor could have challenged Chris Christie in this fall’s New Jersey governor’s race. Instead, he’s gunning, in 2014, for the Senate seat previously held by the late Frank Lautenberg. Should he win, Booker joins South Carolina’s Tim Scott (a Republican) as only the second African-American in the U.S. Senate. Though he’s said he won’t seek the presidency in 2016, that won’t stop pundits from penciling Booker into the number-two of the Democratic ticket.

3)  Tom Cotton. On Tuesday, the first-term Arkansas congressman is expected to announce a challenge to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who’s up for reelection in 2014 – and already in trouble before this latest development. Cotton may be the embodiment of a young man in a hurry: he’s not 37 until next May, has been awarded a Bronze Star (for his second tour in Afghanistan), attended to his family’s farm – and managed to run a marathon in under three hours’ time. Should Cotton win, his reputation as a foreign-policy hawk makes him the natural foil to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

4)  Dave Camp. The Michigan Republican chairs the all-powerful tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee. However, he’s term-limited out of that job next year. Reportedly, he’s now looking at a Senate run in 2014.  This begs the question as to the fate of tax reform in Washington: if Camp’s busy back in Michigan next year, updating the federal tax code could go on the congressional back burner.

5)  Neel Kashkari. The former investor and point man on the TARP rescue wants a different government job: governor of California. As the Golden State rarely unseats incumbents and current Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t lost a statewide race since 1982, “Kashkari” might be the Kashmiri term for “long shot”. So why would he do it? Because, in California, the GOP rebuilding process probably won’t yield results until 2018 at the earliest. Therefore, a 2014 effort enables the 40-year-old Kashkari to lay down a foundation for future, more viable campaigns.

6)  Shelley Moore Capito. Students of West Virginia politics will recognize the Republican congresswoman’s middle name: she’s the daughter of the late Arch Moore, West Virginia’s two-time governor. Capito’s no stranger to politics, this being her seventh term in the House. Nor is she foolish: fewer states are less Obama-friendly than coal-dependent West Virginia. Moreover, the state’s Senate seats rarely are available: Robert Byrd served from 1959 to 2010; Jay Rockefeller’s giving up the seat he’s held since 1985.

7)  Alison Lundergan Grimes. Kentucky’s Democratic Secretary of State is an uphill challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – “uphill” in that McConnell, like his counterpart Harry Reid (as Republicans learned the hard way in 2010), is an inviting target but one that’s skilled at fundraising and survival tactics. For Grimes, who turns 35 in November, the race is a roll of the dice: trying to be a giant-slayer in a state where Bill Clinton, not Barack Obama, is the Democratic choice of fashion.

Stay tuned, 15 months from now, to see which “wisteria” kept their fragrance, and which somehow got uprooted in their quest for upward mobility.

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