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Mitt Romney's exit is great news for Scott Walker, not Jeb Bush

Romney and Scott Walker (at right) in 2012.
Romney and Scott Walker (at right) in 2012.
Joe Raedle / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Today's news that Mitt Romney won't launch a third presidential bid is, generally, being treated as good news for Jeb Bush. This makes sense — the two men would have been competing for similar supporters and donors, with both trying to become the establishment favorite in the race. And Bush's status as the apparent frontrunner would be imperiled if the man who won the nomination last time jumped in.

But Bush might soon have reason to regret Romney's exit. Now that he's out, money and press attention will be freed up for a "new blood" challenger — one who could be a much more significant threat to Bush in the long run as he tries to convince his party he's a face for change. The real beneficiaries of Romney's departure are these fresh faces, like Scott Walker and Chris Christie. Here's why.

Romney's absence makes it easier for a new face to get attention

In a crowded primary field — as 2016's looks to be — less-known candidates face a huge challenge. Candidates who are familiar and look formidable usually raise the most money and get the most media coverage. Voters will get the message that they are the ones who matter — and debate watchers will make sure to pay attention most closely when they're speaking.

With Romney and Bush very well-known (Bush mostly because of his last name) and at the front of the polls, their campaigns would have gotten the most attention — and other candidates would have struggled to make a dent.

But now, the mantle for who will be the main alternative to Bush is up for grabs. A press in search of conflict and an interesting story will begin trying to fill that hole, giving the less-known challengers like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio more attention. The result: That candidate may appear new and exciting to voters, rather than a retread.

Walker and Christie benefit most

Scott Walker and Chris Christie

Scott Walker and Chris Christie, on the campaign trail in 2014 (Stephen Maturen / Getty)

This news is especially helpful to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who was already the thinking man's choice for a dark horse. Walker won the hearts of many conservative donors by taking on unions in Wisconsin, and winning three tough and expensive elections in five years in a blue state. He's an evangelical Christian with a strongly conservative record. But his main weakness is that his lack of charisma could make it difficult for him to stand out in a crowded field. So, the fewer high-profile candidates there are, the better Walker's chances are to establish himself as the main Bush alternative.

There's also New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who built a donor network as head of the Republican Governors Association in 2014 and hopes to win establishment support. Christie was sidelined somewhat by Jeb and Romney's recent moves. It's unclear how much electoral appeal Christie retains post-Bridgegate, and it does seem that Bush has supplanted him as the establishment favorite. But New Hampshire voters opted for a pugnacious challenger to a Bush during McCain's first presidential run in 2000. And now that Romney — who won New Hampshire in 2012 — is out, Christie will have a better chance of winning that key early state, and becoming the alternative to whoever wins Iowa (whether it's Jeb or someone else).

A Romney-Bush battle likely wouldn't have imperiled the GOP's general election chances

Obama Clinton debate

Remember how the endless Obama-Clinton primary led to a Republican victory in 2008? Me neither. (Jae C. Hong-Pool/Getty Images)

Many recent articles have asserted that party insiders — including Romney himself — feared a long, expensive primary would imperil the GOP's chances in the general. But there's little evidence that this is true.

Lengthy contests feel quite unpleasant (and are quite expensive) to party insiders. But despite the awkward 2012 primary spectacle, Romney performed better than most other Republicans that fall. And of course, the famously protracted Obama-Clinton contest of 2008 seemed to have no negative impact whatsoever on Democratic prospects.

If there's any threat to Bush's chances in a general election from what happens in the primary, it's that he may be pushed to the right to fight off a more conservative challenger who has gained traction. That's more likely to happen now that Romney's out.

Romney was uniquely ill-suited to take advantage of Bush's weaknesses

Romney and Jeb Bush

Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, campaigning together in 2012. (Melina Mara / Washington Post / Getty)

Bush will absolutely not win the nomination in a coronation — he's certain to face a competitive contest, because he's a flawed candidate with several key weaknesses. First, he's distrusted by many conservatives. Second, due to his last name, he's associated with the perceived failures of his brother's administration. And third, he'd have difficulty making a "change" argument against new blood in the primary, or against Hillary Clinton in the general.

Funnily enough, though, those weaknesses would have been moot in a Bush/Romney battle. Romney is also distrusted by conservatives, also associated with failure (his 2012 loss), and clearly couldn't make much of a "change" argument.

Romney himself — reportedly unenthusiastic about a Bush candidacy — seems to have realized that he's uniquely ill-suited to take on Bush. In his statement today, he said he thinks "one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today" will be more likely to win. Indeed, he's meeting Chris Christie for dinner tonight, the New York Times' Jonathan Martin and Michael Barbaro report. So while Bush might be happy about Romney's exit now — he might soon be wondering about what might have been.

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