The 2012 GOP Campaign: On Divided Parties, Brokered Conventions, and Dark Horse Nominations from the Floor

I recently read a tremendous book by Candice Millard called Destiny of the Republic, which ably documented the magnificent life and tragic death of James A. Garfield, truly one of the most exceptional men to have ever been elected President of the United States. Unfortunately, he is remembered today primarily for the horrific nature of his death: shot by deranged office-seeker Charles Guiteau, then slowly tortured and poisoned for 80 days by attending physician D. Willard Bliss, who refused to practice Listerian antisepsis, ultimately leading to Garfield’s death by infection. It is a remarkable and heart-breaking story, well told in Millard’s book, and I recommend it highly.

As related by Millard, one of the cornerstone events in the Garfield’s life, as well as the history of the Grand Old Party, was the Republican National Convention of 1880. Incumbent Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes had declined to stand for re-election, in large part due to abuse heaped upon him throughout his sole term by factions within his own party. When the Republicans gathered in Chicago in June 1880, the divided party was presented with three aspirant candidates: Ulysses S. Grant (seeking a third Presidential term), Maine’s James G. Blaine, and John Sherman from Ohio.

The convention was gridlocked through thirty-three rounds of voting, at which point members of the Wisconsin delegation unexpectedly cast their votes for Ohio Senator-elect Garfield, who had no declared interest in the Presidency, and actually protested the ballot, to no avail. Three ballots later, Garfield was the Republican nominee for the Presidency, and six months after the convention closed, he defeated Winfield Scott Hancock for the Nation’s highest elected position, despite refusing to campaign.

I believe that the 1880 Republican convention is worth reconsidering in 2012 given the pronounced divisions in today’s GOP between the moderate/economic conservative branch, the libertarian wing, and the evangelical/social conservative contingent. Given these entrenched factions, is it possible for this year’s GOP National Convention to convene without everybody knowing its outcome beforehand? And should such a brokered convention occur, is there any chance of a modern James A. Garfield emerging from the floor to unite a fractured party behind an electable new face? Who might that be, if so?

While Republican powerbrokers will do everything in their power to preclude such an uncertain convention, there are rules they must follow, and a motivated set of equally balanced delegate pools could lead to unexpected outcomes. Personally, I think such a brokered convention with a Dark Horse nominee could be just the shot in the arm that the GOP needs today, if it is going to even pretend to stand for anything other than the vested interests of the super conservative and the super wealthy. The historical record also backs up the premise that such conventions can be reinvigorating to the GOP, as Chief Executives Lincoln, Hayes, Garfield, Harding and Eisenhower were all elected President after brokered conventions.

So for argument’s sake, let’s assume that (a) brokered conventions are good things for the GOP and should not be actively discouraged, and (b) the GOP is headed for such a convention in 2012. Now, is there anybody out there who might emerge from party gridlock as a 21st Century analog to James A. Garfield in 1880? I think there might be, and here’s how I would seek to identify such a Dark Horse candidate.

As a first step, let’s look at the prior electoral positions of the 18 Republican Presidents in our nation’s history. The clearest path to the White House for GOP aspirants is the Vice Presidency: six Republicans held this position before becoming Presidents (Bush Sr., Nixon, Arthur, Coolidge, T. Roosevelt, Ford), with the latter four of them ascending on the death or resignation of their predecessors.

We have three living GOP Vice Presidents now: George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle. There’s not a future President in that troika, so that path doesn’t appear to be likely in 2012.

Four Republican Vice Presidents had no prior electoral experience before moving to the White House: Hoover, Taft, Eisenhower and Grant. The latter two were victorious generals of monumental, Nation-shaping wars, the former two had been cabinet members in prior administrations. I don’t see any of our contemporary or recent senior military officers having the political clout and gravitas, not to mention unquestioned public good will, that Grant and Eisenhower would have commanded after the Civil War and World War II. And the only nationally prominent, long-serving cabinet members in recent Republican administrations who seem to me to have potentially Presidential chops, and are not permanently tarred with Neo-Con and/or Iraq War taint and/or scandals of their own making are Robert Gates (who probably hurt himself in this regard by serving in the Obama administration, if the Jon Hunstman campaign is any indicator) and Elaine Chao (who wasn’t born in the United States, so is not eligible to serve as President). So this doesn’t look like a fruitful path, either.

Four Republican Presidents served as Governors before leading our Nation: Reagan (California, though he was a native of Illinois, which will be important later in this analysis), McKinley (Ohio), Hayes (Ohio) and Bush Jr. (Texas). Since the putative favorite at this point (Mitt Romney) is a former Governor himself, and since the impacts of plucking a Governor unexpectedly late in the national campaign would be far more serious on the emergent candidate’s home state than would be selecting a member of that state’s legislative delegation, I have a very hard time imagining a sitting governor being successfully nominated from the floor, support for the likes of Chris Christie notwitshanding. I don’t think anybody at a national GOP level is going to want to risk flipping New Jersey into the Democratic Governors’ column on a desperation nomination of a reluctant candidate.

The remaining four Republican Presidents did their prior elected service in Congress: two Senators (B. Harrison of Indiana, and Harding of Ohio) and two members of the House (Lincoln and Garfield, though the latter was a Senator-elect at the time of his nomination for the Presidency). All four of them were from the Midwest, as were most of the GOP Governors who became President.

I consider this important, as I see the Midwest as being the true cradle and heartland of the Republican Party, as much as the party has worked to position itself in the South and the Mountain West in the post-Reagan quarter-century. There is no denying that the Midwest states often stand as key battlegrounds, so the benefit of embracing a candidate from the former Northwest Territories would be significant, especially given the region’s proven history as birthplace (physically and philosophically) of Republican Presidents.

I believe the only way a regionally and philosophically divided party would be able to rally around a late-breaking, Dark Horse candidate would be for that candidate to come from the solid heart of the Midwest. I also think that such a candidate would need to be a Baby Boomer at this point, as I don’t see the Nation wanting to swing backward a generation after the relatively youthful Obama, Bush Jr., and Clinton administrations. Senator John McCain’s cranky old man candidacy in 2004 against then-Senator Obama should give proof to the futility of trying to pull a President from a generation that’s moving deep into its retirement years at this point, since it forced McCain to pick a plucky (relative) youngster as his Veep, and we all know how that worked out.

The party also would not likely rally around its more inexperienced members (e.g. Tea Party affiliates from 2010), so I think anybody who was proposed from the convention floor would have to have at least a full Senate term or three House terms under his or her belt to demonstrate their staying power and re-electability. I’d say anybody elected to Congress after 2005 wouldn’t have a shot accordingly.

So what do you see if you look at Midwestern House and Senate Republicans born between 1947 and 1962, with seniority dates of 2005 or earlier? You get 14 elected officials: one Senator (John Thune, South Dakota) and 13 members of the House. That’s a manageable pool to vet.

To make the next cull, I think you’d want a floor candidate to have the broadest appeal possible within a fragmented party, which means respected mainline rank and file members rather than leaders and followers from the far-right or centrist fringes. GovTrack.us offers an excellent analytical tool for assessing the political spectrum and legislative leadership ratings of all members of Congress, and using their model, you can eliminate Senator Thune and five of the House members as being further right or moderate than would be ideal for a unity candidate within the GOP, leaving eight rank and file members of the House still standing for scrutiny.

Who are they? In alphabetical order:

  • David Camp (MI)
  • Thomas Latham (IA)
  • Steven LaTourette (OH)
  • Candice Miller (MI)
  • John Shimkus (IL)
  • Patrick Tiberi (OH)
  • Michael Turner (OH)
  • Fred Upton (MI)

In order to evaluate the relative merits of these eight Congresspeople as potential uniters of their party, I set up a mathematical model to score them based on the following criteria, using data culled from the aforementioned GovTrack website:

  • Sponsored bills enacted per year of service: The GOP would want people who can get things done, and see their efforts through to legislative fruition. Michelle Bachmann was easily dismissed for (among other reasons) never managing to get an issue important to her passed into law. A GOP unity candidate would need to show lawmaking skills.
  • Sponsored bills failed per year of service: The GOP would not want people who spend all of their time crafting bills that never make it out of committee. Proposing a plethora of doomed bills may help incumbents demonstrate to their districts that they are working on their behalf, but if none of those home issues ever manage to pass into law, then they become pointless on a national front.
  • Success rate of sponsored bills: There’s nothing wrong with focusing on a smaller number of legislative actions, then getting them through to completion. I’d prefer a legislator who got 100% of his or her 10 bills passed into law over one who got 5% of his or her 200 bills passed into law, even though the total number of sponsored laws passed between these hypothetical officials are the same.
  • Co-sponsored bills per year of service: The GOP would want a unity candidate to be someone who was a proven collaborator, and not someone who marched to his or her own agenda, which appealed to no one else in Congress. Co-sponsorship demonstrates a willingness to read and respond to others’ work, or to craft legislation compelling enough to attract others.
  • Missed votes: The GOP would want someone who was serious about service, and couldn’t be viewed as a hands-off, unengaged elected official. As a general rule, declared candidates for national office fare poorly on this front, so a unity candidate would likely be someone who was hard at work doing the job they were paid to do, rather than campaigning.

Crunching these raw numbers into a multi-attribute utility model, I scored these eight members of the House in terms of their demonstrated performance per the criteria above, ranking them from best qualified (100 points) of the eight to least qualified (0 points) of the eight. Here are the results, top to bottom:

  • Steven LaTourette (OH): 100.0
  • John Shimkus (IL): 87.7
  • Patrick Tiberi (OH): 46.0
  • Fred Upton (MI): 44.4
  • Candice Miller (MI): 36.2
  • Thomas Latham (IA): 34.8
  • David Camp (MI): 2.1
  • Michael Turner (OH): 0.0

So . . . if the Republican Party remains divided going into the 2012 National Convention, I’d like to respectfully propose that some delegate(s) should nominate Congressman Steve LaTourette of Ohio to represent his party as its 2012 Presidential Nominee. Should Congressman LaTourette demur, then Congressman John Shimkus would be a worthy alternate, based his strong scores as well.

Please note that I say this knowing virtually nothing at all about Congressman LaTourette’s personal or family life, what his wife looks like, his religious beliefs, his relations with his constituents, what kind of car he drives, what sports he enjoys, how much money he has, what district controversies plague him, what he did when he was in college, whether or not he inhaled, nor any other media-favorite topics that have nothing to do with his ability to serve as an elected official right here, right now, today. Likewise with Congressman Shimkus, although I am aware that he is a West Point graduate and career Army reservist, which I respect tremendously, despite being an Annapolis ring-knocker myself.

And I like the fact that I don’t know much about these Congressmen, actually, since at this point, I’d prefer to have both parties nominating lower-profile legislators of proven accomplishments and thoughtful, consistent positions than charismatic wafflers driven more by ego or vendetta than by a desire to serve humbly and effectively. Here’s a list of issues important to Congressman LaTourette, in case you want to start pondering his Presidential campaign now. It’s not half bad. I could vote for a party platform that included many of these items.

I’d welcome thoughts on other such potential Dark Horse candidates. There’s always 2016, after all, and I always love a good, well-thought-out political insurgency . . .

3 thoughts on “The 2012 GOP Campaign: On Divided Parties, Brokered Conventions, and Dark Horse Nominations from the Floor

  1. Okay, you’ve convinced me. He can’t believe anything i disagree with more than my (now former) party’s current crop. And for a nickname, we could call him “The Syndrome.” Now how do ya do a write-in on a scanner?

    • I’m sure the 84 year old guy who has faithfully worked at your community polling station since 1962 will be able to walk you through the necessary technical steps required to take such an unorthodox approach, ideally doing it at high volume so that everybody else queued up and confused by the new machines will be able to hear and follow along as well. That’s what he’s there for, right?? Excelsior, New York!! Huttah!!

      • Well, just to make it even better, the person who would actually do it is my cater-corner neighbor, whose husband was a party functionary (always sounds so Soviet) who used to hit me up for petition signatures every election. Se she’d get to know what kind of subversive voting I’m up to, too!

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