Like the Washington Post editorial board, I was terribly saddened by the sudden departure of Lindsey Graham from the 2016 presidential race. I was actually one of the first people to endorse Sen. Graham for president way back in October 2014 because I understood that what America needs most in these troubled times is a serious man of unrelenting seriousness who understands that we are all literally about to die violent horrible deaths and the answer to every foreign policy problem is “drop bombs on it.” But alas, the candidate who memorably threatened China with a brutal fisting has called it quits.
Graham’s exit won’t do much to alter the character of the race in the short run, given that he was polling at around zero percent (rounded up). But he did have one potentially valuable asset that can now be deployed a bit more strategically: the endorsement of Graham’s cranky warmonger amigo, John McCain. That means the endorsements of the last two Republican presidential nominees, McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom won New Hampshire on their way to securing the nomination, are now up for grabs. And that could be significant heading into the new year, as New Hampshire is shaping up to be a critical test for the Republican establishment.
As I noted this morning, the New Hampshire primary is right now split between two groups: Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are dominating the “outsider” vote; and the “establishment” lane is split between Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie, all of whom are within just a few points of one another. It’s looking increasingly like Cruz or Trump are the big favorites to win in Iowa, and Republicans in the party establishment are justifiably worried at the prospect of either man snatching away the nomination. In the past couple of cycles, New Hampshire has proven to be the establishment-friendly antidote to the outsider-friendly passions of Iowa GOP caucus-goers. But as Slate’s Jim Newell writes, that’s not going to happen this time if the establishment vote in the Granite State remains split four ways.
That’s where Mitt and McCain come in. Both men have reservoirs of good feeling in the state – Romney won the primary in 2012 and has a ton of New England history, while McCain won the state in 2000 and 2008. The Boston Globe conducted a poll last month asking New Hampshire GOP voters if (hypothetically) they would back Romney in the primary, and a full 31 percent lined up behind Mitt, making him far-and-away the most popular “candidate” in the field. He snaps up a huge chunk of Trump’s support, plus about half the voters of each of the four establishment candidates. McCain has been spending a lot of time in New Hampshire this cycle campaigning on Graham’s behalf and cutting ads lauding his Senate buddy’s commander-in-chiefiness.
If these two got together and decided to back one of the remaining establishment-approved candidates with a well-timed endorsement, that could do a lot to consolidate establishment vote and help fend off the Cruz/Trump insurgency. The question is, of course, which candidate they would support.
The obvious answer is Marco Rubio, given that he appears to be the most viable of the bunch and, unlike the others, actually polls well outside of New Hampshire. But that would require McCain to swallow hard and put aside some grievances the old crank has with the upstart sprat from Florida. Rubio and McCain were members of the Gang of Eight that crafted the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, and McCain is more than a little bitter at Rubio for abandoning the legislation the split second it became politically difficult to support it. On the other hand, McCain clearly despises Ted Cruz, and if endorsing Rubio would knock Cruz down a peg, it seems like McCain would do that. Also, Rubio’s a big proponent of the hyper-belligerent foreign policy style that McCain supports, so they’d probably smooth over their differences with spirited discussions about who we’re going to bomb next.
As for Mitt, all of Romney’s rich friends like Rubio, which means that he probably likes Rubio too. Then again, Romney’s also said he has no plans to endorse and will let the nominating process run its course without his interference. He may waver in that commitment, though, if he and John McCain become convinced that they are the only ones who can save the party from the likes of Ted Cruz.