Yawner: Two first-term Republican senators announced Tuesday they’re seeking re-election in 2016.
Surprise: One said that means he won't be running for president, while the other signaled he’s plotting how to circumvent the law to seek the White House and the Senate simultaneously.
The twin declarations reveal several things. The next presidential race really is already underway. The winnowing of an unusually enormous potential GOP field has begun and will soon accelerate, after some additional self-reflection. And the party has been presented early on with a potentially powerful fusion ticket.
Rand Paul of Kentucky, an embodiment of out-of-the-box conservatism, looks to be in the top tier of candidates for the nomination while pursuing one of several legally and politically complicated backup plans. Rob Portman of Ohio, an avatar of the establishment , will be in the top rank of running mate prospects — even after sitting out the primaries and caucuses — regardless of who’s doing the choosing.
(Only once in the party’s 160-year history have the Republicans put up a pair of sitting members of Congress for national office, and it was a disaster. That's when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Rep. Bill Miller of New York won a paltry 52 electoral votes back in 1964 .)
“I don't think I can run for president and be an effective senator at the same time,” Portman said Tuesday . Plus, he added, the GOP takeover of the Senate presents new opportunities to “break the gridlock in Washington and actually get things done.” At a minimum, he’s in line for subcommittee gavels at Finance, Energy and Natural Resources and Homeland Security.
And, if his visions of becoming a legislative playmaker don’t pan out, Ohio law would allow Portman to be on the ballot for both vice president and senator in two years, when he’ll be 60.
That’s not the case under Kentucky law, which says plainly that “no candidate’s name shall appear on any voting machine or absentee ballot more than once." Paul essentially has more than a year to settle on his best potential work-around, but people close to his deliberations have been hinting in recent days that he won’t take that long. If no viable scenario for sustaining both candidacies is in sight within a few months, they say, Paul will pull the plug on his short Senate career at age 52 and wager his future on a national campaign.
“He’s made the decision to run for re-election. Any decision beyond that will come in the spring,” was the somewhat elliptical guidance spokesman Dan Bayens gave recently to National Journal.
Plan A for Paul, which hasn’t panned out, was for Republicans to win control of the Kentucky General Assembly this fall and rewrite the statute to explicitly permit his dual aspirations. A continued Democratic majority in the state House next year assures that idea’s a dead letter.
Plan B, the current focus for Paul’s political team, is to drop the state’s GOP presidential primary in May 2016 and replace it with party caucuses in the middle of March. That way, Paul’s name would not need to appear twice on the springtime statewide ballot. (The arrangement might also give him a favorite-son delegate boost relatively early in the nominating process.)
The problem is that such a switch would need to be blessed by about 300 state and local party officials by next October, and many don’t feel all that beholden to their insurgent junior senator. Many also are blanching at the fact their small-bore GOP organizations would need to bear the cost of staging caucuses in 120 counties, while a primary price tag is born by state taxpayers.
The next option looks to be litigation, with Paul arguing in federal court that Kentucky may not impose qualifications on federal candidates that aren’t specified in the Constitution.
Assuming federal judges do what they normally do, and steer clear of such overtly political matters, Paul’s next move could be to ignore the law and file papers by Jan. 26, 2016, to seek spots on both the presidential and Senate primary ballots. That could open him to public criticism that he’s not only acting like the very sort of conventional self-aggrandizing politician he ran against, but also provoking a needless partisan showdown with two of Kentucky’s most prominent Democrats. It would fall to Attorney General Jack Conway, Paul’s 2010 opponent, and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, this year’s losing Senate candidate, to decide whether and then how to confront the senator’s flouting of the rules.
If all those options are discarded, Paul still has two gambits remaining. He could run in his Senate primary while pursuing the presidency in every state except his own, gambling he could round up sufficient GOP convention delegates without his parochial boosters. And if he won the GOP presidential nomination that way, he could replicate that move in the general election — running in 49 states while writing off Kentucky’s eight electoral votes.
What seems out of the question is that he would renounce the Senate nomination after sewing up the national nod. Doing so would effectively hand his seat to the Democrats, because state law says a political party may only replace a candidate on the ballot who has died or become incapacitated.
Long story short, Paul does not look to follow in the footsteps of Lyndon B. Johnson, Joseph I. Lieberman, Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Paul D. Ryan, all of whom represented states permitting them to seek re-election to Congress and stand for national office on the same day.
Instead, he may soon settle on following the lead of Portman and another senator in the national GOP’s sights and with a first term ending in 2016. “When you choose to do something as big as that, you’ve really got to be focused on that and not have an exit strategy,” Marco Rubio said this spring, in explaining that he’ll give up his Florida seat if he goes after the presidency.
Of course, Rubio, Paul, and maybe even Portman, are all presumably a bit envious of another nationally ambitious senator in their circle. Ted Cruz’s term in Texas does not end until 2018.
Related: Rand Paul’s 2016 Buzz Is Buzzier Than His Senate Colleagues’ Sticking Around Could Make Portman Senate's GOP MVP Paul Advisor Outlines Plans Portman Will Seek Re-Election Instead of Run for President The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.