After simmering throughout the 2014 primaries and general election, the feud between tea party and establishment Republicans is set to boil over in the next two years as both factions turn up the heat in the battle to be kingmakers for the GOP presidential nominee.
The fight among the potential candidates themselves is already well underway, with conservative senators positioning themselves as the insurgents and several current and former governors as the standard-bearers for the establishment — including potentially another member of the Bush family, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Indeed, in states like New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation primary, the race has been going on for three months, said former Gov. John H. Sununu, who played a major role in 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign.
“I have been having people knock on the door and come have coffee and want to know what is going on and what they should do,” Mr. Sununu said. “So if they are smart enough to ask the right questions, they get a lot of information. If they don’t ask the right questions, they don’t get a lot of information.”
Voters have been spared much of the internal GOP feuding, as both sides have tried to paper over differences in recent months, joining together in the shared goal of flipping control of the Senate and holding onto key governorships.
“But once the postscript on the 2014 elections is written, it will start to simmer again,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist. “And by the time we reach the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, I expect it to be a driving force in who Republicans nominate as the party’s eventual standard-bearer.”
More than a dozen possible GOP presidential contenders have made nearly 60 visits to Iowa and more than 40 to New Hampshire, the first two states in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes, according to DemocracyInAction.
The 2016 hopefuls have hunted pheasant, headlined GOP fundraisers and keynoted gatherings of social conservatives.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s super PAC — called RAND PAC — also has hired full-time staffers in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has flexed his fundraising muscle as the head of the Republicans Governors Association — a post that gave him a built-in excuse to drop into battleground states.
And Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, has deployed Capitol Hill staffers to Iowa to help state Sen. Joni Ernst in her Senate race against Rep. Bruce Braley.
The action on the Democratic side has been less noticeable,
The DemocracyInAction tally shows that since 2013, eight possible Democratic candidates have visited Iowa 18 times, and five of them have visited New Hampshire a dozen times.
A Democrat’s nomination boils down to two questions: whether former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton runs, and what that means for everyone else.
“If Mrs. Clinton runs, one assumes there will be some Democrats who run against her for practice to get used to Iowa and New Hampshire, and to get used to subsequent opportunities down the road,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “If Hillary Clinton doesn’t run, the Democratic field will be large and unknown to most Americans.”
Mrs. Clinton’s star power was on display during the final days of the campaign, as she crisscrossed the country to stump for candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Louisiana.
Bush and the pack
Meanwhile, the biggest question mark on the Republican side is whether Mr. Bush will run.
The latest RealClearPolitics.com average of polls shows him running at the front of the pack alongside Mr. Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won Iowa’s 2008 GOP caucuses, although no candidate claims more than 12 percent of the support among Republican voters.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is running a close third, followed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s 2008 vice presidential candidate, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Mr. Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are running near the back of the pack, along with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has struggled to break through and whose approval ratings are in the cellar.
“What makes it worse for [Mr. Jindal] is that nobody down here sees the path to victory,” said Roy Fletcher, a GOP strategist in Louisiana who said voters there were miffed by the governor’s frequent absences to take to the campaign trail. “If he had a shot, and he was doing that, it would be seen as aggressive, but if you aren’t seen as having a shot, then you are seen as being a little overanxious. You are just a dog yapping.”
One wild card for the Republicans became a bit more plausible as a candidate this week. Dr. Ben Carson, who electrified conservatives with his direct attacks on Obamacare and political correctness, revealed he was formally switching his party affiliation from independent to Republican. Dr. Carson has said he is considering a run, and an independent group is already working actively to draft him as a candidate.
Dr. Carson called his decision a “pragmatic” move, “because I have to run in one party or another.”
“If you run as an independent, you only risk splitting the electorate,” he said.
Some dividing lines between the various wings of the party have already been drawn.
Mr. Cruz has warned that Republicans will lose if they do not run a strong conservative candidate.
“If we run another candidate in the mold of a Bob Dole or a John McCain or a Mitt Romney, we will end up with the same result, which is millions of people will stay home on Election Day,” Mr. Cruz recently said. “And if we run another candidate like that, Hillary Clinton will be the next president.”
Mr. Sununu, meanwhile, said that “America needs a governor or former governor to fix the mess that Obama is leaving.”
“Administration experience is important,” he said. “I am absolutely convinced it is imperative for the country to do that.”
Asked whether that means he was already writing off some of the party’s candidates, he laughed: “Well, you know, so be it.”
But President Obama’s 2008 victory changed that calculation, said Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica.
“I don’t agree” with Mr. Sununu’s criteria, he said. “I think  is ancient history. Once upon a time that was true. A governor can still make a very good case, and since the days of John F. Kennedy, the conventional wisdom was that a senator does not bring a base with him. Well, Obama proved that wrong. The dynamics have changed.”