Ohioans may be viewing the stumbles of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie from afar, but the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal could hit closer to home if it derails the onetime front-runner’s presidential ambitions.
Two Ohio Republicans — Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman — are often mentioned on a long list of potential GOP candidates in 2016.
Christie continues to be beleaguered by questions about whether he played a role in the decision to shut down a traffic-heavy bridge for political retribution. The blockbuster scandal has jump-started talk of who will fill the void, with Kasich and Portman often joining a list that includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Neither Ohio Republican has indicated whether he will run in 2016 – allies of both say they are squarely focused on the 2014 elections — but a recent straw poll circulated by the Republican National Committee listed them among 32 potential 2016 GOP nominees.
“Any time a perceived front-runner in a presidential primary stumbles, it offers a chance for the spotlight to go on someone else,” said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “Gov. Kasich and Sen. Portman are two very well qualified Republicans that could – if they decide to explore running for president – be given a serious look.”
Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University, said Christie’s scandal leaves a void in particular for a “non-Tea Party” candidate to emerge as the 2016 front-runner.
“That space is there,” he said. “And the question is ‘who is going to fill that space?’”
While Jeb Bush has received early attention, Beck said there’s room for either Kasich or Portman to enter the fray. If Kasich wins re-election, Beck and others said, the governor might move up the list.
“Success breeds success,” said John Green of the University of Akron. Kasich’s re-election “would add some luster to him.”
A Jan. 21 Quinnipiac University Poll put Kasich ninth in a list of GOP contenders that included Bush, Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. A recent article in Capitol Hill newspaper National Journal, meanwhile, called Kasich “The Republican Presidential Contender Everyone’s Overlooking.”
Political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia listed Kasich as a “second-tier” candidate whose swing-state status might appeal to the GOP establishment.
But Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report said Kasich could be crowded out by other Republicans with national appeal, such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. “There are at least six current or former governors making the Washington outsider case,” Gonzalez said.
Like Kasich, Portman’s intentions may become clear after the 2014 mid-term elections, but for different reasons. Portman serves as finance director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and should Republicans re-claim the Senate, Portman might be well-positioned to take some of the credit for that victory.
Barry Bennett, a Republican consultant in Washington with close ties to Portman, said Portman could raise as much as $100 million for Senate Republican candidates this year. “Rob is singularly focused on winning back the Senate,’’ Bennett said. “He is raising oodles of money for other Senate candidates. He will far and away have the best network of fundraising connections should he decide to run.”
Sabato said he sees Kasich as the more viable option of the two. “I think he’s very much on the radar,” he said. “And he would be helped by Chris Christie’s withdrawal if it happens.”
Sabato believes Portman’s decision to support gay marriage will hurt him more with conservative voters than Kasich will be damaged by his move to expand Medicaid in Ohio.
John Feehery, a former Hastert spokesman, said both Kasich and Portman would be formidable candidates.
“ If Christie departs, that really gives the business community a desire to have somebody who would pick up the mantle for them,” Feehery said. “If it’s not going to be (Texas Sen.) Ted Cruz, then the question is who? Portman and Kasich would be good answers to that question.’’
Bonjean cautioned that the spotlight is fickle. In 2012, key Republican support shifted from Texas Gov. Rick Perry to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee. Similar shifting sands could occur again in 2015 and ‘16.
“Kasich and Portman are definitely superstars in the Republican party,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided they were interested in exploring a presidential run, and they would be treated seriously.”