WASHINGTON - For 50 years—since the era of presidential primaries and caucuses began--the Republican Party has nominated the candidate in waiting.  Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney all ran unsuccessfully before a party that prefers the familiar turned to them. George W. Bush, riding the family name, became the heir apparent as soon as he defeated Ann Richards for Governor of Texas.
    
Barry Goldwater is the lone exception. Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 represents the one time the Republican grassroots revolted against the establishment’s preferences. Goldwater’s landslide defeat in the general election has since led the party’s establishment to eschew any candidate from the party’s right wing. Reagan, of course, had enormous and enthusiastic conservative grass roots support. And, by 1980, as a result of his two presidential campaigns—in 1968 and 1976—Reagan’s brand of conservatism had overtaken much of the party establishment’s ideology.
    
The story is one of the dominance of the Republican establishment in the presidential nominating process. The freak show of 2012 that produced a Mitt Romney too compromised to win a general election does not alter the fact that the GOP got an establishment candidate, though many within it would have preferred someone like Mitch Daniels, who declined to run.
    
The 2016 Republican nomination may be the most wide-open race since 1964. There is no candidate in waiting, unless you count Rick Santorum or Mike Huckbee. The establishment is in a panic to recruit a candidate who can seriously compete with Hillary Clinton. First, Chris Christie rose to the top of the list. But troubles on the home front have wounded Christie, perhaps permanently. Now Jeb Bush is the establishment savior, though it is uncertain if Jeb has the fire.
    
Indiana’s current governor Mike Pence would clearly like to run and has hinted as much. During a recent appearance on FOX News Sunday, Pence declined to rule himself out, saying only “my focus is entirely on the future of Indiana. We’ll let the future take care of itself,” when asked about his interest in running for president.
    
Mike Pence is no Mitch Daniels. Daniels had impressive GOP establishment credentials written all over his resume—Dick Lugar’s Senate office, the Reagan White House, Bush’s OMB director, Indiana governor. Daniels had a well-deserved reputation as one of the smartest leaders in the party. He was a favorite of the Bush crowd and they practically begged him to run.
    
Though Pence has establishment credentials—12 years in the House including a stint as leader of the Republican Study Committee and governor of Indiana--the GOP establishment is not likely to court him to run for president as they did with Daniels. Some influential conservatives like Bill Kristol have recognized Pence as someone with presidential potential. But overall most observers doubt he has the gravitas to win a general election against Hillary Clinton.  Not many Republican voters outside of Indiana have ever heard of Mike Pence. Further, Pence’s name is not on the lips of those who handicap presidential races.  The Washington Post’s political editor Chris Cillizza regularly ranks the 2016 GOP field. His most recent top ten list begins with Jeb Bush, followed by Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Paul Ryan, and Rick Perry in that order.
    
Despite Pence’s efforts to discretely generate interest, there is no serious buzz around a possible Pence candidacy. If he were to jump in now, his candidacy would be regarded as a “dark horse.” It’s hard to imagine Pence would give up likely re-election for a dark horse presidential candidacy.
    
Pence considered running in 2012 and decided against it, wisely running for governor instead. The question for Pence in 2016 is the same one he faced in 2012: Is there a realistic path to the nomination for him?
    
Perhaps, Pence’s best hope rests on the misfortunes of his fellow Republican governors who are potential candidates.  The one realistic niche for Pence is the “governor track.”  Governors tend to perform well as presidential candidates because they can run as “outsiders” and because most have tangible accomplishments unlike most members of House and Senate.
    
As Christie’s fortunes faded, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had seemingly filled Christie’s niche. But recent polling has Walker locked in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger Mary Burke. A loss would, of course, end Walker’s presidential hopes. Even a narrow win might derail his chances. Ohio Governor John Kasich has also been mentioned. But Kasich, too, faces a tough re-election. While he seems to be in better shape than Walker, it is unclear whether he would want to embark immediately on a presidential run following a statewide campaign. If Christie, Walker, and Kasich take a pass, then there might be a genuine opportunity for Pence, though, he would probably have Bobby Jindal to contend with.
    
Mike Pence has a number of real strengths that should appeal to both grassroots conservatives and establishment Republicans. He has a consistent record of being out front on conservative issues. He has a record as governor that should impress Republican primary voters. He is telegenic and articulate. Yet, unless the field narrows considerably, Pence will have difficulty shedding the dark horse label.  But you never know. Stranger things have happened.

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.