By Tom Baxter
When neither party picked a Southerner on their tickets in the 2008 presidential election, a string which went back to 1972 was broken. With Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan, it’s now two elections in a row without a Southerner on a national ticket.
That’s readily understandable. Ideology mattered more than regional considerations this year, and Ryan will be enthusiastically embraced by the Republicans’ conservative base across the South. But it does set one to thinking about who the next Southerner to make it on a national ticket might be.
At this stage it’s impossible to say which individual will have that combination of ability and luck to be either the nominee or the running mate on the ticket in 2016, 2020 or 2024. But chances are the next Southerner on a national ticket will be a lot different than the last, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. He or she is much less likely to be a Democrat – or a white Anglo.
Age played a big role in the choice of Ryan, who is 42, over several perfectly acceptable, but older, possibilities. It also explains why the Democrats aren’t likely to produce another ticket on the order of Clinton-Gore anytime soon.
Surveying the by-now severely diminished crop of Southern Democrats, those with the best potential on a national stage might be the two experienced office holders who currently are locked in a pair of narrow, high-profile U.S. Senate races: U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, a moderate and former astronaut with a very skilled political organization, and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a tough campaigner with great inside connections as the former national chairman of the party. Even if Nelson turns back a challenge from U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, however, he turns 70 this year. Kaine is 54, which puts him more into actuarial contention for the next few election cycles, but first he has to overcome former Gov. George Allen in the race to take the open seat left by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb.
Among the Republicans, it’s an entirely different story. From their triumphs in recent Southern races, they have a long list of office-holders who are in the target range for the next few presidential election cycles. But as you look down that list it’s also notable how the calendar tends to work against the traditional white, male Republicans.
Romney underscored the importance of Virginia by making the Ryan announcement not in Wisconsin, but aboard the battleship of that name in Norfolk. Given that, it’s a little puzzling why Gov. Bob McDonnell didn’t figure more prominently as a potential veep this year, but he’s 58 and term-limited, which also limits his future prospects.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who gets the chance to introduce himself to a national audience at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, is 58. Texas Gov. Rick Perry – hey, there have been some amazing comebacks – is 62.
On the other hand, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the most openly wooed possibility in this year’s GOP vice presidential field, is 41, and may have positioned himself as a likely contender for the top of the next Republican ticket in four years if Romney isn’t elected this year. Another 41-year-old, Cuban-American Republican, Ted Cruz, still has to win a U.S. Senate race in Texas, but he’ll become the subject of national speculation as soon as he does.
The South’s two Indian-American governors, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina were on Romney’s list this year and have plenty of time left to play on a national stage. He’s 41, she’s 40.
Florida’s outspoken U.S. Rep. Allen West, a favorite of conservative activists, is 51. A more likely possibility, especially given the tight race West is in this year, might be U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, the African-American congressman from Charleston, S.C. He’s 46.
Win or lose, Ryan’s campaign will be closely watched by these young, ambitious and non-traditional Republicans for clues about how to position themselves for the future.
Does the Ryan pick help the Republicans in the Southern swing states of Virginia, North Carolina and Florida? If there’s a truly meaningful micro-demographic in this race, it’s the older, independent, undecided voters of these three states. Ryan could be a plus for these voters if they think he brings more cohesion and commitment to the Republican campaign. But if his proposals for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid scare the bejeebers of them, those states, particularly Florida, could give the Democrats a crucial edge.
The stage now turns to Tampa and Charlotte.