Sen. Rand Paul’s first bill out of the chute this year was pro-Israel legislation cutting U.S. assistance to Palestinians, followed up a couple of weeks later by his father’s signature Audit-the-Fed measure.
One of the other chief potential Republican presidential contenders in the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas, rolled out as his initial bill a plan to strip U.S. citizenship from those who try to join terrorists waging war in the Middle East. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida championed legislation to shield taxpayers from helping insurance companies in a potential Obamacare bailout.
While still in their first terms, all three men have led sponsorships of a couple of dozen bills this year and hundreds over the course of their tenure, looking to beef up their resumes and stake out signature issues ahead of the presidential race next year, when they could compete with governors who have executive experience and significant records of accomplishment.
The three senators, meanwhile, have carried a total of three bills through the Senate, according to records from the Library of Congress. It’s one reason why voters in early primary states are saying they want a governor to back.
“There’s only been one sitting Republican senator elected president — Warren G. Harding nearly a century ago,” said Charlie Gerow, a board member of the American Conservative Union. “Governors and former governors have done much better.”
Indeed, Republicans haven’t fared well with senators as their nominees. Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Bob Dole were the past two, and both lost their bids.
Sitting senators also have not been bonanzas for Democrats. Barack Obama was the first senator of either party to win a presidential election since John F. Kennedy, and Kennedy was the first since Harding, in 1920.
“There are several reasons why governors have fared better than senators in presidential elections,” Mr. Gerow said. “First, they don’t have a multitude of votes that can be cherry-picked and turned into negative ads. Conversely, as the chief executives of the ‘laboratories of democracy,’ they can point to things they’ve actually done rather than merely supported or voted for. Additionally, they tend to have stronger bases both with political machinery and fundraising because many states don’t have the restrictions federal candidates do.”
Strategist Kevin Madden, who worked on the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said primary voters likely want to know more about a candidate’s vision than about his ability to push bills through a gridlocked Congress.
“Bills are how legislation gets done in Washington, D.C., but what many voters look for is an understanding of the frustrations they have or the challenges the country has on a particular issue, whether it is on energy taxes, health care — and whether you have a plan to improve their current situations,” Mr. Madden said. “It is less about votes on certain amendments, and it is more about whether you can articulate a vision.”
Mr. Madden said candidates can hurt themselves by getting mired in legislative details with voters. He pointed to Vice President Al Gore’s failed attempt in a 2000 debate to pin down George W. Bush on a health care bill sponsored by Reps. Charles Norwood and John Dingell.
“The average voter was like, ‘I have no idea about Norwood-Dingell,’” Mr. Madden said.
That’s not to say that what happens on the Senate floor is irrelevant. Mr. Paul cemented his libertarian image in 2013 when he filibustered the nomination of John O. Brennan to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency — and did it the old-fashioned, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” way, by continuously talking and never leaving the floor.
His one-man blockade forced Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to say it would be improper to use drones to kill American citizens on U.S. soil.
Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, played a lead role in ushering an immigration bill through the Senate that included bolstering border security, as well as quick legal status and an eventual pathway to citizenship for most illegal immigrants.
Since then, he has pushed bills that aim to reduce student loan debt and focused on foreign policy issues by calling for a more robust response to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and against the Islamic State group, and dinging the Obama administration for trying to normalize relations with Cuba.
“Since elected to serve in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Rubio has worked to advance bold reforms to restore the American dream, fought for pro-growth conservative policies and opposed President Obama’s big-government agenda,” said Brooke Sammon, a Rubio spokeswoman.
Mr. Cruz has become best known for his attempts to defund Obamacare, including his push to tie overall government funding to a plan to cancel the Affordable Care Act. That showdown sent the government into a two-week shutdown in October 2013.
The Texan also has looked to impose stricter sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program and block President Obama’s deportation amnesties.
“Whether it’s Obamacare, executive amnesty, the debt ceiling, our constitutional rights or national security matters, [voters] can count on Ted Cruz to stand up to the Washington establishment and work for more free, safe and strong America,” said Catherine Frazier, a Cruz spokeswoman. “His Senate record proves it.”
Most of their efforts were stonewalled by the Senate’s Democratic leadership, but that could change with the Republican takeover of the chamber.
“All three, I believe, are prepared to use the Senate floor to try to advance their presidential campaigns,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist.
Mr. Paul arguably could benefit the most now that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian, is calling the shots.
Mr. Paul endorsed Mr. McConnell early on in his re-election push last year, and the veteran lawmaker has returned the favor by saying he backs Mr. Paul’s presidential aspirations.
“I think Mitch has been pretty clear about his support for Paul and one thing Mitch is, is loyal,” said Ted Jackson, a Republican Party strategist. “Obviously, he can’t be carte blanche for whatever Paul wants, but I would suspect Mitch would do whatever he could do to support Paul. But again, it’s not an absolute. He is being pushed and pulled in a lot of different directions.”