With Joe Arpaio’s announcement that he is running for Senate, Arizona is poised to have its Alabama Moment. The national media will descend, and the spotlight will focus on the state. The rest of the country will line up to pass judgment on every word, cough, and bit of froth to escape Sheriff Joe’s lips. Countless chat-show segments will be devoted to Arizonans’ thoughts on race, immigration, and the appropriateness of a recently pardoned felon running for high office.
Win or lose, Arpaio stands to suck a crazy amount of the oxygen out of his contest—just as Roy Moore and Donald Trump did in their respective elections. That’s because, in today’s politics, outrageousness is the name of the game.
Which is a shame, because the most out-there political players typically aren’t the ones considered to be the future of their parties. This is especially true in today’s GOP, where the charismatic demagogues courting aggrieved base voters are often peddling negative, backward-looking visions.
“The big thing that I think defines the struggle for the party is that a bunch of people want to define it by what we’re against, and a bunch want to define it around what we’re for,” observed GOP strategist Kevin Madden. “Right now, it’s about 70-30, with the ‘against’ crowd winning. That’s been the Trump effect.”
GOP strategists and leaders argue that you have to look beyond the bomb throwers and reality-TV-type characters to find the folks who’ll take Republicans forward. Indeed, ask around, and party players are happy to hold forth on their favorite comers. Some are seen as having White House potential, while others are regarded as better suited for long-term congressional or state leadership. Many have begun building national profiles, while others are little known beyond their home states. (Nikki Haley and Ben Sasse are likely to ring bells; Josh Hawley and Charlie Baker, not so much. Bonus points for anyone outside Tulsa who has heard of G.T. Bynum.) All should be on the radar of anyone concerned about where the GOP is headed.
Multiple fingers pointed me approvingly toward Baker and Larry Hogan. For starters, they say, these guys are governors—meaning that, unlike members of Congress, they are required to get stuff done. More notably, Baker and Hogan are Republican governors leading blue states—Massachusetts and Maryland, respectively—which gives them that exotic whiff of bipartisanship and, more concretely, prevents them from getting too spun up in red-versus-blue mud fights. They stay focused on issues that affect their states and avoid the national feeding frenzies over Trump’s outrage du jour. They work with the administration when it suits them. Baker, for instance, has partnered with the White House on the opioid crisis, one of his pet issues. But they also distance themselves from Trump when the occasion calls: Baker opposes some of the president’s immigration policies; Hogan disagreed with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and his blaming “both sides” for the racial violence in Charlottesville last year. In rankings of gubernatorial popularity, Baker consistently holds the top spot, with Hogan close behind.
This is not to suggest Congress is devoid of leadership material. House member Will Hurd is making many, many Republican mouths water. The 40-year-old ex-CIA operative represents the Texas 23rd; it is the state’s largest and most competitive district, sprawling from San Antonio to El Paso, and its electorate is over 70 percent Latino. Hurd is young, sharp, media-savvy, tech-savvy, and ambitious. And he’s black—no small matter for Republicans looking to prove they aren’t the party of white nationalism.
Hurd is not a fan of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and he hates the border wall. He is not especially ideological and is eager to cultivate a bipartisan rep. Last March, he and Democratic colleague Beto O’Rourke launched an impromptu road trip from San Antonio to Washington, D.C. The daffy, 1,600-mile adventure, which the duo live-streamed, won them much flattering media coverage. Hurd even scored a lengthy Politico profile last May titled—what else?—“Will Hurd Is the Future of the GOP.”
Considering the GOP’s stubborn gender gap (a gulf Trump has not exactly improved), many Republicans are especially enthusiastic about talented women rising through the ranks. House members Mia Love and Elise Stefanik are among those most often mentioned. Elected in 2014 at the tender age of 30, New York’s Stefanik is a co-chair of the moderate Tuesday Group. She keeps a low profile, but is spoken of by many in the party with a mix of hope and awe. Utah’s Love, the first black Republican woman ever elected to the House, is a tough, politically savvy conservative who’s proved willing to smack her own teammates now and again. Last month, she said Texas Representative Blake Farenthold should resign over reports that he’d settled a sexual-harassment claim with taxpayer money. More impressively, last week Love called on Trump to apologize for his “unkind, divisive, elitist” remarks about “shithole countries.” (Love’s family is from Haiti, one of the nations Trump was talking smack about.) Said Madden of Stefanik and Love, “They are part of a youth movement in the party, while still substance-focused and with an inclusive message/approach.”
Multiple Republicans voiced optimism that Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn, now running for Senate, will turn out to be a force in the upper chamber. She is “a genuine star,” gushed strategist Ralph Reed. “We’re very high on her.” Similarly, many GOP women are rooting for Arizona Representative Martha McSally in the race to replace retiring Senator Jeff Flake. (McSally is the establishment’s pick to beat Sheriff Joe and Kelli Ward, who, until Arpaio popped up, was the choice of the party’s right flank.)
Nikki Haley, who for years was talked about as a GOP rising star, is impressing people anew with her ability to serve as UN ambassador without getting sucked into any Trumpland controversies. Her assertion that the women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct “should be heard” put her out in front of many in her party on the issue.
Over in the Senate, Nebraskan Ben Sasse has made a name for himself by being an early and consistent conservative critic of Trump. He also occupies the tricky-yet-potentially-fertile territory of being an Ivy-League-educated brainiac who nonetheless delights anti-elitist Tea Party types. Plus, he’s got that dorky-dad thing down cold, right down to the bad tracksuits.
Another name being talked about: Adam Putnam, the Florida congressman-turned-state agriculture commissioner now running for governor. Long regarded as a relative moderate, Putnam is under attack from the right and, in December, hit an unexpected speed bump when Trump threw his support behind Putnam’s primary opponent, Representative Ron DeSantis.
Then there’s Josh Hawley, the freshly scrubbed attorney general of Missouri, who is gunning for Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill’s seat. The 38-year-old Hawley won office just last November as a drain-the-swamp outsider, but he has been embraced by party leaders and rebels alike. Mitch McConnell and Steve Bannon dig him. He’s seen as conservative but not angry—or unhinged. One odd twist: As AG, Hawley is investigating whether Republican Governor Eric Greitens violated state record-retention laws. With Greitens’s star rising even faster than Hawley’s, the inquiry already called for a delicate touch. But then last week, Greitens landed neck-deep in a sex scandal, after allegations surfaced that he’d taken naked photos of a woman to blackmail her into keeping quiet about their affair. Greitens is under pressure to resign—and a group of state senators has asked Hawley to formally probe the matter. In a word: awkward.
Finally, for those looking to dig deep into the party’s farm team, there’s Oklahoma’s G.T. Bynum. A former Senate staffer and lobbyist, Bynum won a seat on the Tulsa city council in 2008. Fresh-faced and funny—the bespectacled 40-year-old boasts of having “the raw animal magnetism of a young Orville Redenbacher”—he was elected mayor in 2016. Bynum’s defining shtick is that divisive partisanship is for losers. He pitches himself in the mold of data-driven policymakers like former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. (One Republican and one Democrat, get it?) He has even put together a pretty good TED Talk on the theme.
Admittedly, this lot may not be the sexiest. The Bakers and the Bynums are unlikely to spark the palpitations, good or bad, of a Sheriff Joe. But they are far more likely to successfully lead their party into tomorrow.
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