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Posted at 11:56 AM ET, 01/25/2011

Gingrich, Pence and Bachmann could beat history

By Aaron Blake

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The 2012 presidential race could feature a record number of current and former House members running for the Republican nomination from Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Mike Pence (Ind.) to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.).

And, all of them would be running against history.

No House member has won a major party nomination for president since 1880, when James Garfield went all the way.

That drought applies to former House members too. Over the last 100 years, no former member of the House has won a presidential nomination without winning a higher office or being appointed to an administration position first. Gingrich, who left the House in the late 1990s, never ran for Senate or governor, so his House seat remains the highest office he has held.

A House member running for president was exceedingly rare for most of the 20th century. And when one did run for president, it was often a brief campaign.

That's begun to change. In 2008 alone, Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) waged quixotic campaigns for president, and Paul may do so again.

This cycle's crop is different, at least if you ask the experts. Gingrich and Pence would be more than just novelty candidates if they run, and nobody is underestimating Bachmann's ability to rally the tea party base particularly if former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin isn't in the race.

Before we dive into each of their chances, though, a look at history:

In February of 1988, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) looked as though he might end the House's drought, winning early in Iowa and South Dakota and finishing second in New Hampshire. But he ran out of gas by the time the calendar hit March.

That same year, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) looked like a potential contender for the GOP nomination, getting double digits in Iowa and New Hampshire. But just as quickly, he flamed out.

As far as House members running for president over the last 100 years, 1988 was the only thing anywhere close to a banner year.

Reps. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) and John Anderson (R-Ill.) finished second in some early states in 1976 and 1980, respectively, but they didn't go anywhere from there. And about the only other House member to get anything out of a presidential campaign was House speaker John Nance Garner (D-Texas), who in 1932 parlayed his campaign into two terms as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president.

(Fun fact: Garner famously said that job was "not worth a bucket of warm piss." He later challenged his boss in the 1940 Democratic primary and lost.)

The remaining roster of current and former House members who have run for president over the last century have generally have never seriously competed for their parties' nominations.

So what does it all mean? Would it really be that hard for Gingrich, Pence or Bachmann to win the GOP nomination?

Not necessarily.

First of all, what this history tells us is that it's tough to build a presidential campaign with such a small base of electoral and fundraising support.

House members generally haven't had to raise huge sums of money to win reelection in their districts, which means they don't have the depth of financial support to sustain a national campaign. It's tough to put together such a big organization together on the fly -- a big reason why House members haven't been able to keep their momentum in the few instances they've attained it.

Second, House members rarely come into the race with a national profile. It's much easier to get lost in the crowd when you're one of 435 members of the House versus being one of 100 senators or one of 50 governors.

Having said all that, it's not clear that any of it applies to Gingrich, Pence and Bachmann.

All three of them have built profiles well beyond that of a normal House member -- Gingrich as a big-name Republican thinker and Pence and Bachmann as leading voices in the fiscal conservative and tea party circles, respectively.

Gingrich, in particular, has used his time outside of Congress to escape the day-to-day political battles and build a reputation as something bigger than just a former House speaker.

As for fundraising, it could pose a barrier to Pence, who has never been a big money man and would need to really ramp things up, but Gingrich and Bachmann both appear to have what it takes to get off the ground in a presidential race.

Bachmann, you may recall, raised an astounding $13 million for her House reelection campaign in 2010. Whether she could replicate and build on that take in the context of a presidential race is a bit harder to know but she would start with a solid fundraising base.

Gingrich, meanwhile, raised more money through his political action committee after the November election than any potential presidential candidate not named Sarah Palin. What's more, he's been raising millions for years through his 527 organization, which doesn't follow federal campaign finance rules -- meaning he can accept unlimited donations -- but still shows his fundraising prowess.

We're entering a new world, in which a back-bencher in the House like Bachmann or a little-known Senate candidate like Sharron Angle or Christine O'Donnell can build a significant national profile and use the small-dollar fundraising power of the Internet to raise gobs of money that he or she wouldn't have been able to come close to a decade ago. (Remember that Ron Paul raised better than $50 million for a presidential candidacy that was given no chance of winning.)

The task remains tall for anyone running with only a House background -- it's not just about money, after all -- but these three candidates have a lot going for them that their predecessors didn't.

Underestimating any of them, including Bachmann, in a presidential race as wide open as this one would be a mistake given Republican primary voters' demonstrated willingness to upset the establishment apple cart in 2010.

By Aaron Blake  | January 25, 2011; 11:56 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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