By ALEXANDER BURNS and MAGGIE HABERMAN | 3/26/14 5:04 AM EDT
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spent the past year getting battered over immigration reform — and building a presidential-level political operation with heavy investments in digital and data analytics. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has already visited New York City four times this year, pushing into big-money turf once dominated by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, has gamed out his 2016 options with a small team of longtime advisers, while Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has met with prominent conservatives, urging him to consider the race.
The Republican presidential field is aflutter with behind-the-scenes activity even at this preliminary stage, giving early shape to a race that has been defined in public by a handful of outsized media personalities, including Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Christie’s “Bridgegate” stumbles have now thrown the race wide open: Strategists for likely and potential candidates all see the Garden State Republican as deeply and perhaps fatally compromised. Reform-minded Republican governors are eyeing the race more eagerly, thanks to the void opened by the Fort Lee traffic scandal. Others in the field, like Rubio, could find their nuts-and-bolts preparatory work all the more valuable in view of Christie’s woes.
There is no shortage of ideological and strategic fault lines in the Republican lineup, but the most important developing division may be the one separating these two groups of candidates: the prepared and the unprepared.
In 2012, Mitt Romney survived a savage primary contest, largely because of his financial and organizational dominance. With 2016 looming closer, several presumptive candidates, including Rubio and Jindal, have already moved ahead of the pack in what might be called the infrastructure primary; other promising hopefuls, like Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, look powerful on paper but have done little to capitalize on their promise.
Experienced GOP presidential hands have so far taken a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to the 2016 maneuvering. “While each is following a unique strategy to ramp up their operations, I’m particularly struck by Bobby Jindal’s aggressive outreach and early organizing, Rand Paul’s smart messaging on privacy and organizational strength and Marco Rubio’s discipline at playing the long game,” said Jim Merrill, Mitt Romney’s former New Hampshire strategist.
Romney’s Iowa campaign chief, David Kochel, said the flurry of Republican activity contrasts with the minimal movement on the Democratic side. “Whether it’s Jeb Bush on education, or Marco Rubio on foreign policy, or Rand Paul on NSA, they’re looking for and finding opportunities to grow the base,” he said.
Here’s a closer look at the first stages of the invisible primary — POLITICO’s guide to the organized, the partially organized and the just plain disorganized Republicans of 2016.
Staffed up and ready to go
If the 2016 starter’s pistol fired tomorrow, at least a few contenders would be able to jump into action almost immediately. Marco Rubio, now halfway through his first Senate term, has surrounded himself with presidential-level strategists and policy advisers from the outset. His political operation is run by South Carolina operative Terry Sullivan, while the Rubio PAC Reclaim America brought on former Bush-Cheney and Fred Thompson fundraiser Dorinda Moss to manage the money flow.
A closer look at Rubio’s finance reports reveal an even more sophisticated operation at work. In addition to several vendors long associated with Rubio — the TV firm Something Else Strategies and the pollsters at North Star Opinion Research — Rubio has paid hefty sums to more specialized political consultants, including $150,000 to the Republican data analytics firm 0ptimus. Also working for Rubio is digital consultant Mike Harinstein, a former Americans for Prosperity digital guru now at the firm Core Focus Consulting.
And Rubio’s political machine isn’t just waiting for the “go” order. Reclaim America ran TV ads last year for Arkansas Senate candidate Tom Cotton and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, while his pollster was paid for multiple surveys. If Rubio runs, he’ll have plenty more hiring to do — especially in the early states — but the core of his national operation is perhaps the strongest in the field.
Giving Rubio an early run for his organizational money is Bobby Jindal, who has formed two independent groups to push his national message: a federal PAC, dubbed Stand up to Washington, and the policy nonprofit America Next.
Like Rubio, he has a core set of consultants experienced in presidential politics. They include the pollsters and ad men at OnMessage Inc., a Virginia-based firm that has worked for Jindal for a decade and employs former Jindal campaign manager Timmy Teepell.
And the Louisiana governor has been aggressively courting national finance types, making four trips to New York City in this calendar year to compete on turf where Christie was once the overwhelming favorite, as well as trips to other major cities, like Chicago.
Neither Rubio nor Jindal has caught fire in the earliest rounds of horse-race polling, a reality that supporters say counts for little this far out.
Not that long ago, the third man with an almost-turnkey 2016 operation would have been Chris Christie — the high-profile Republican Governors Association chairman with multiple former Romney 2012 advisers in his kitchen cabinet, Rudy Giuliani’s former campaign manager, Mike DuHaime, as his top strategist and a pack of donors pounding on the door to pay respects. When the Fort Lee traffic scandal erupted — prompting Christie to sever ties with his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien — any 2016 preparations were essentially frozen in time.
Christie continues to tour the country in his RGA capacity. He has been to Florida and Michigan, and later this month he is slated to attend a major donor event in Deer Park, Utah, according to a source familiar with the planning. But if events like these give Christie the chance to make the case for his own relevance, strategists privately wonder whether the bloom is permanently off the rose. (“He’s lost the thing that made him special,” said one veteran GOP hand. “He’s lost the authenticity.”)