Party’s History of Establishment Picks Could Be Over

by Stuart Rothenberg June 8, 2015 · 1:37 PM EDT

Battles for the Republican presidential nomination almost always come down to two alternatives — an establishment-backed candidate with pragmatic instincts and an insurgent (often significantly more conservative) who tries to appeal to constituencies that feel ignored.

And except for 1964, when an insurgent Barry Goldwater defeated a slew of establishment opponents, and, possibly, 1980, the establishment has won these fights to select the party’s presidential nominees.

But have we entered a new era in Republican Party politics? Has the establishment candidate become the underdog in 2016 and for at least the near future? And if so, does that change the meaning of “the establishment?”

Mitt Romney tried (with very limited success) to wear the mantle of insurgent in 2008 against pragmatist John McCain, but four years later the former Massachusetts governor unquestionably was the choice of the party establishment over the likes of Herman Cain, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Early during the 2000 cycle, George W. Bush rallied both conservatives and, because of his father’s connections and reputation, the party establishment behind his candidacy. McCain’s challenge against him was less about ideology and more about the Arizona senator’s personal style and outsider message.

Bob Dole, the party’s 1996 nominee, obviously was the candidate of the party establishment. His major challengers (if you can call them “major”) were conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan, a classic insurgent outsider conservative, and businessman Steve Forbes, who had never held elective office.

The 1988 nominee, George Bush, was the sitting vice president of the United States. He had extensive party credentials and a family history of public service, and he was an obvious choice for and part of the GOP establishment. Most of the other hopefuls were acceptable to the party’s establishment — Dole, then-Rep. Jack Kemp and former Gov. Pete du Pont — but Pat Robertson sought to mobilize evangelicals and conservatives.

The 1980 race featured one main conservative, Ronald Reagan, and a litany of pragmatic and moderate contenders, from Bush, Illinois Rep. John Anderson (who eventually ran as an independent in the general election) and Howard Baker. Reagan’s nomination certainly was a victory for conservatives, but he began his 1980 run (his third) as the clear favorite for the nomination, and his experience as governor of California helped him attract a good deal of establishment support.

Four years earlier, President Gerald Ford’s narrow victory over Reagan surely was a victory for the establishment over movement conservative insurgents.

Richard M. Nixon won the 1968 race for the GOP nomination, prevailing in a challenge from both the party’s moderate wing — George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller — and its conservative wing, by Reagan.

But Nixon, like Bush in 2000, ended up having broad appeal within the Republican Party, and given his service as vice president and having been the nominee in 1960, it’s hard to view him as anything but part of the establishment.

In 1952, conservative Robert A. Taft made his third try for the GOP nomination, but he couldn’t overcome political newcomer Dwight Eisenhower. Ike had the support of much of the party’s political establishment, including former New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, who had been the party’s unsuccessful nominee for president in both 1944 and 1948.

But now, there are plenty of reasons to believe things have changed in the GOP.

Both McCain’s win in 2008 and Romney’s in 2012 was thanks to a large extent on the relative weakness of the GOP fields, not on the establishment’s strength in the party.

McCain’s chief rivals in 2008 were Romney and Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor with little appeal outside of evangelical and downscale Southern circles. Romney had establishment credentials and was widely distrusted by conservatives, yet he sought to run to McCain’s right. Romney was also a Mormon — the first credible Mormon candidate in a party with a large contingent of conservative evangelicals who were deeply suspicious of Mormonism.

So, as weak as McCain’s early campaign was and as uncomfortable as some in the party establishment were with the idea of him as the nominee, the GOP field did not offer a strong alternative.

Four years later, Romney became the candidate of the party establishment, so it didn’t matter that evangelicals and conservatives were still wary of him. He was able to win the nomination because insurgents never offered a credible alternative.

This time, things are very different.

Jeb Bush certainly has all of the establishment credentials anyone could want, including his family, experience, approach to issues and style. But he has more political baggage than normally associated with that support (including his family’s White House years), and he faces a more formidable array of opponents, including at least two with potentially broad appeal.

Moreover, the Republican Party continues to change. Rank-and-file GOP voters are angrier and more frustrated after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and they are looking for new voices that reflect their frustration and desire to roll back the Obama years.

While “blue” states such as New York and Connecticut still matter in the GOP nomination process, the decline of the party’s strength in the Northeast has cost those states delegates at Republican conventions. For example, New York sent 154 delegates to the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, while the state had only 95 delegates at the 2012 convention in Tampa.

That development has strengthened the voices of Republicans in the South and conservatives nationally.

None of this means Bush or another pragmatist backed by the party establishment can’t be nominated in 2016 or beyond. But it does mean that assuming the party will nominate a hopeful backed by the establishment is both shortsighted and misguided.

The Republican Party has changed significantly from the days when it nominated people such as Dewey, Eisenhower, the elder Bush and even Dole. Even Bush must know this is not his father’s GOP.