Jon Huntsman and the Rise of the Republican Governors

Jon Huntsman will almost certainly not get the Republican nomination for president in 2012. It is not likely he will even be in the race past the Florida primary, tentatively set for January 31, 2012. He has little support among the Republican base, and outside of a very small subset of establishment types, no discernible support among any GOP voters.

But what makes his candidacy interesting is the attention being paid to it by the national media despite his near zero name recognition with Republican voters. One might be excused if they read all the coverage Huntsman has been getting and believed that he was a contender for the nomination. But the coverage of Huntsman is not necessarily about his chances of winning, but rather his political ideology -- a center-right philosophy that won him two terms as governor of one of the most conservative states in the union.

Is Huntsman a dying breed of "Big Government" conservative? Or is he an outrider of a movement to make the GOP a more "government friendly" party? In essence, the GOP governors running or talked about for president -- Romney, Pawlenty, Daniels, Jindal, Barbour -- believe in utilizing conservative principles and applying them creatively to governing in order to make a leaner, sleeker federal government that might not be much smaller than what we have now, but would be better run and more responsible to the voters.

This is the kind of stuff the media likes to chew on when we're a year or more out from actual voting and the personalities running for president leave much to be desired as far as charisma and excitement.

The excessive media coverage of Huntsman has many on the right believing that this is just one more example of the liberal press trying to force Republicans into choosing a loser like McCain, or at best, a candidate who is not a "true" conservative. The conspiracy theory goes that the press wants the GOP to run a "Democratic-Lite" candidate with little contrast to President Obama, thus giving the voter a choice between the real thing or the imitation -- with predictable results.

No doubt, many in the press would like to believe they have that kind of sway over voters. More likely, Huntsman is the flavor of the week, and possesses an originality in his thoughts and on his resume that fascinates political junkies.

Huntsman, like many Republican governors, has gotten a reputation as an executive who gets things done by building consensus, engaging in careful negotiations, and presenting a non-ideological governing style that attracts independents and conservative Democrats. On paper, this makes Huntsman a challenger of some note. The theory is that because the Democrats are not going to primary the president, independents and dissatisfied Democrats will vote in Republican primaries in droves, thus moderating the electorate and diluting the impact of Tea Party types.

Many analysts point to New Hampshire as an example because the Granite State has an open primary where Republican party membership is not required to vote in the GOP contest. The early primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan all feature such open primaries. Might a center-right candidate build momentum with victories in those early states and move on to capture the nomination?

The reality is a little different. Most open primaries are in southern states where Huntsman's brand of conservatism wouldn't go over any better with Democrats than it does with the Republican base. Also, there just aren't enough open primaries for a Republican candidate to win the nomination. Any realistic path to victory for Huntsman would include winning in closed primary states where he scores poorly against other candidates in the field, and where there is actual resentment against his candidacy from the base of the party.