Monday night, five current or former governors were in the Iowa mix — Chris Christie, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Martin O’Malley — and combined, their totals do not equal the support gained by one first-term senator: Republican Marco Rubio of Florida.
Two of the former governors — Huckabee, a Republican out of Arkansas, and O’Malley, a once Maryland’s top Democrat — suspended their campaigns after Monday’s poor showings. The others — New Jersey’s Gov. Christie, Ohio’s Gov. Kasich and former Florida Gov. Bush — have all staked their political futures on the New Hampshire primary, now just a week away.
But, for all three of those Republicans, New Hampshire really is a make-or-break vote — maybe each doesn’t need a win, but without a surprisingly strong second- or third-place finish, those men can join their gubernatorial brethren in the ex-candidate’s club.
What makes the governors’ night even more numerically disappointing is that Rubio didn’t win the Iowa caucuses. He didn’t even come in second. But with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz taking the top spot for the GOP, and celebrity candidate Donald Trump tallying a solid number two, Rubio has become the de facto establishment firewall against the self-proclaimed and dutifully dubbed outsider candidates who each garnered more votes.
But the idea that Rubio — originally an insurgent senatorial candidate with tea party ties who beat the odds and a well-known veteran Republican to become Florida’s junior senator — represents the GOP establishment is still a little hard to fathom. That this pro-torture, anti-government, military hawk is the “moderate” in the Republican race (perhaps because he once tried to cobble together a compromise immigration bill with some Senate Democrats) is emblematic of just how far his entire party has moved to the right.
Still, whether this GOP establishment, however it is defined, now gravitates toward Rubio — and more importantly, whether the establishment money does — will be much discussed this week. And with Trump still the prohibitive favorite to win in New Hampshire, many will watch which direction the Cruz campaign feels it needs to focus its attacks.
Many too will look to see if GOP kingmakers ask the other establishment New Hampshire hopefuls to take it easy on Rubio. Bush, who really needs a top-three finish in the Granite State to maintain any claim of a viable campaign, has been especially tough on Rubio, spending millions on attack ads against his fellow Floridian.
And the field will have to sort itself out quickly. Yes, Cruz showed he could take a punch, weathering weeks of high-profile attacks from Trump and still winning Iowa. But Iowa is a “high barrier” state — one where the relative difficulty of participating in the electoral process (the caucuses) rewards well-run, well-funded political machines. And one of the best political operations in the race, which belongs to Cruz, still had to hang on for a narrow victory over a political neophyte, Trump, who did many things Iowa experts tell you not to do (helicoptering, or jetting, in, skipping a debate, choosing large, media-driven events over retail, handshake politics) if you hope to win there.
With Trump well ahead in opinion polls in many low-barrier primary states, Cruz’s Iowa triumph is still in danger of mirroring earlier GOP victories, like Huckabee in 2008, and Rick Santorum, still a candidate this cycle, who was eventually declared the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses.