Campaign 2016 in Congress: Oval Office-Minded Senators Strategize

WASHINGTON – It seems there is no end to the number of U.S. senators who look in the mirror and see a future president staring back at them these days, and some of them are actually doing something in hopes of making it a reality.

At least a half dozen lawmakers, mostly Republicans, are making the sort of noise generally expected to come from presidential candidates with the 2016 election now less than two years hence. Some, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have uttered what traditionally have been called Sherman-like statements that they will not run. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has indicated he’s similarly disposed. But enough talk is emerging to indicate that there might be a cavalry charge for the nominations before too long.

To some degree the potential GOP contenders already have been called out, ruining any plans to announce their intentions late in the year.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose family knows something about running for president, announced last month that he is forming a political action committee with an eye on officially entering the race. Onetime Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 standard bearer, surprised the faithful by telling potential supporters that he’s aching to run. And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee abandoned a nationally broadcast television show he was hosting to test the waters.

That means those looking to get in are going to have to make the jump sooner rather than later or play catch-up in the vital areas of fundraising, endorsements and organizing, particularly in the early primary or caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. So several are taking the steps to get ready for an announcement.

Unquestionably the potential contender who has ventured farthest down the road is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has made no secret that he covets the Oval Office after four years in the upper chamber.

Paul has made 16 trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and skipped a Republican congressional retreat to attend scheduled events in the Granite State. He has even hired a campaign manager, Chip Englander, who is coming off a successful campaign to get Bruce Rauner elected governor of Illinois. It was Paul’s second senior-level hire, coming on the heels of making GOP strategist Chris LaCivita a senior adviser.

And he has an organization in those early states, thanks in large measure to his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, who sought the presidency as both a Republican and Libertarian. In Iowa, for instance, the current chairman, co-chairman, and finance chairman of the Iowa Republican Party endorsed Ron Paul and the son appears to have inherited that support.

If that’s not enough, Paul’s wife, Kelly, is planning a tour to promote her book, True and Constant Friends, which features the inspiring stories of women.

The one thing that could potentially hold Paul back is a Kentucky state statute prohibiting him from running simultaneously for president and for re-election in 2016. But plans are underway to ditch the GOP primary process in the Bluegrass State for a caucus, which conceivably should buy Paul some time while he makes his ultimate decision.

In other words, he’s in.

Running second on the most-likely list is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a darling of the Tea Party crowd who, like Paul, has made 16 trips to the early selection states with more certainly to come. He also is building a staff and, in what might turn out to be a necessary move, the north-of-the-border born Canadian has renounced his Canadian citizenship, hoping that will clear up any constitutional questions that might stand in the way of a run.

Cruz only recently has publicly acknowledged that he is considering a candidacy, telling Fox & Friends earlier this month, “Well, I think everyone is looking at the race right now. I can tell you, I’ve been receiving a lot of encouragement, a lot of support, and I’m looking at it very seriously.”

According to U.S. News & World Report, Cruz has dispatched close advisers to scout out office space in Houston, where he plans to locate his presidential campaign headquarters at the appropriate moment. And supporters have filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to form a PAC – “Stand for Principle” – which organizers acknowledge is intended to serve on Cruz’s presidential behalf.

Cruz also continues to bind ties with some of the more conservative Republican members of the House, meeting with them to plot strategy on a regular basis, perhaps setting the stage for using their homegrown organization at the proper time. One lawmaker he appears to be publicly courting is Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a beloved figure of the GOP’s right wing who almost certainly could provide needed assistance in the Iowa caucuses.

If Paul and Cruz form the top tier of Republican senators considering a presidential run, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) certainly holds a steady spot in the second tier. Rubio has witnessed his stock tumble a bit from his high point – a moderate position on immigration had hurt his chances with conservatives and fellow Floridian Bush is sucking up a lot of the oxygen that could have belonged to the fellow Sunshine State resident.

Rubio is reported to be huddling with potential supporters in Miami Beach for a couple days during the third full week of January to gauge the possibilities.

Regardless, Rubio is certainly acting like a candidate. Like Paul he skipped the GOP retreat in Hershey, Pa., to attend a fundraiser in Alabama. He is traveling around the country with stops, as you might expect, in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And this week he took more concrete steps toward launching a presidential bid.

Rubio also has assembled what some observer are characterizing as a top-notch political team and – imagine that – he has a new book out, titled American Dreams, which will likely take him to a number of key political states.

A late – and surprising – entrant in the GOP presidential sweepstakes is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), coming off a successful re-election bid where he managed to neutralize Tea Party opposition and win in overwhelming fashion.

Graham only recently made it clear he is considering getting into the race and has yet to do much to indicate that he’s going to make a serious run. The best he has done thus far is obtain the support of his old political pal, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party’s presidential candidate in 2008.

The situation is a bit less frenetic on the Democratic side, perhaps because former first lady, senator and secretary of State Hillary Clinton is being viewed as a strong frontrunner if she chooses to run for a second time.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a socialist, has announced that he’s interested and has taken some steps to launch what certainly has to be considered an unlikely campaign. He intends to render a decision by sometime in March.

Sanders has made the trek to Iowa and New Hampshire is right next door, making it easily accessible and a potential hot spot. And, in a surprise move, he has brought in Tad Devine, a key adviser to two Democratic presidential candidates – former Vice President Al Gore and current Secretary of State John Kerry – to serve as his top adviser should he make the race.

Warren has categorically stated she won’t run, despite urgings from groups like MoveOn who are considering a Draft Warren movement.

A handful of other Democrats have nodded toward a campaign but have done little, if anything, to launch a campaign. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, has visited Iowa several times over the past few months, including a stop to deliver a speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's 2014 Jefferson Jackson Day dinner.

But Klobuchar has done little else and made it clear she intends to endorse Clinton if she chooses to run. Likewise Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), although she at least has published a book. Neither has displayed any outward sign of organizing a national campaign.

There’s also a small groundswell for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), probably the most conservative member of the caucus. Organizers of a Twitter page, "Iowans 4 Joe Manchin," stated it’s offered by "Iowans ready to support U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin if we successfully draft him to run for president of the United States in 2016. Draft Joe!"

Manchin hasn’t dismissed speculation, asserting that he’s keeping all options open for 2016. But speculation is he’s more like to run for governor of West Virginia in 2016.