At the Boca Raton Resort & Club last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his entourage could hardly walk 10 yards without getting stopped. Mobbed by lobbyists and operatives in the opulent hallways and by donors in ornate meetings rooms, the outgoing chairman of the Republican Governors Association was crowded by well-wishers expressing hope he’d run for president after raising $106 million and picking up seats in Democratic states this November. Each time his response was some variation on the same: “Thanks, I’ll get back to you.”
For now, that might as well be Christie’s campaign slogan. While 2016 presidential hopefuls such as Sen. Rand Paul and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are moving ahead with White House runs, Christie and other Republican governors are biding their time. None will declare their campaigns before the New Year, and most are looking even later into 2015 to announce.
That doesn’t mean they’re standing still. The six governors looking at White House runs are doing their fair share of thinking and talking about 2016. Christie, Ohio’s John Kasich, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Indiana’s Mike Pence and Texas’ Rick Perry are all openly flirting with presidential runs.
Behind closed doors at the resort’s yacht club and meeting rooms, the would-be candidates are mingling with donors and lobbyists, as staffs keep careful eye on the potential competition.
To be fair, the difference between running and not running can be hard to parse. Only former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb has officially announced an exploratory committee to run and he’s actually doing much less campaigning than candidates who coyly say they haven’t made a decision.
But the contrast between the approach of the governors and the rest of the field is striking. Two of the three senators eyeing the White House, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Texas’ Ted Cruz, have been frequenting early states for months as they work to hire staff. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has promised a decision in weeks.
The governors, meanwhile, have largely kept to their existing team of advisors, and while they’ve traveled to the early states, have not as aggressively recruited operatives on the ground.
Veteran Republican operatives and the potential candidates themselves described little rush among the six governors to dive in the 2016 race. “If there was 2016 news here, it was how slow they’re moving,” said one operative at the meeting after conversations with multiple governors and staff.
“For senators, it’s easy to run for president,” said one veteran presidential operative currently sitting on the 2016 sidelines. “They just have to decide how to vote in between long recesses. For governors, their jobs likely make them better presidents, but make it harder to run for president because they’re managing massive organizations.”
The reasons for their delaying are myriad: finding space to run in a crowded field, the need to build support among skeptical donors, and doing their day jobs.
Donors at the meeting told governors they were in no rush to open their wallets after more than $1 billion was spent helping the GOP win earlier this month, according to several individuals involved in private meetings at the conference.
“I don’t think any governor is in a hurry to start the 2016 campaign,” said Republican operative Henry Barbour. “And even if you are somebody who was thinking about running in 2016 and were out calling donors right now, all you’re going to get is pushback. Very, very few people are willing to sign up at this point.”
The 2016 GOP nominating contest is poised to be the party’s most divisive in recent memory, with no less than 15 Republicans seriously contemplating bids for the White House. One key reason for the slow start to the governors’ primary is that they’re jockeying among each other to find a rationale to run that’s different than their colleagues’. “To me they’re interchangeable,” one veteran GOP operative said on the condition of anonymity because he is advising multiple candidates. “They fill the same space.
“They need something beyond I’m a governor and I get stuff done, because that’s what they’re all going to say,” the operative said.
Hanging over their heads is Jeb Bush’s decision, believing he will instantly attract many large-dollar donors. But his candidacy appears increasingly less likely.
Five of the six governors must present and pass budgets and handle legislative sessions next year. Multiple governors told TIME they would wait until after their legislative sessions conclude before making any final determinations.
Wisconsin’s Walker has proven to be among the most enthused about running for president after surviving a close re-election battle this fall. He said he too will wait until the late spring to make up his mind, but he is already discussing broadening his staff and expanding his federal operations. “Walker is leaning into this thing far more than people expected,” said one person familiar with his plans.
And Texas’ Perry, who will leave office in January, must first sort out his indictment in a long shot abuse of power case against him.
But just because they are taking their time announcing, that doesn’t mean they aren’t already plotting against the completion.
On a panel of governors contemplating a run for the White House, (except for Christie, who sat out the Chuck Todd-moderated event), Kasich cast himself as the moderate reformer, embracing the Common Core education standards and expressing openness to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He and Walker repeatedly quibbled over history, which Kasich lived as a member of Congress, as the Ohio governor corrected the younger Midwesterner sitting to his right on the details of the 1995-96 government budget fight.
At a press conference last Wednesday, Christie was asked about the potential for drama running against five “colleagues.”
“No, no pacts,” Christie said, joking about the potential rival sitting to his left: “I haven’t seen Pence in the corner making any pacts with anybody, but I’ll be watching. … I don’t think any of us has a secret handshake or a blood oath for what we will do and what we won’t do.”