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Finding Carly: Whatever Happened to the Breakout Stars, Heroes and Flops of the 2016 Primary Season?

Presidential candidates John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina take the stage in the Republican Presidential Debate at the Milwaukee Theatre on Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee.
Presidential candidates John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina take the stage in the Republican Presidential Debate at the Milwaukee Theatre on Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee.

The political campaign season has a funny way of giving everyone long-term memory loss. Your friends at work can remember the latest Hillary Clinton gaffe or Donald Trump stumble that happened 48 hours (or, in Trump’s case, five minutes) ago because it circulates on Twitter and Facebook. But when it comes to some event that happened two months or even three months ago, suddenly everyone is like a political Dory, and big events and people that shaped how we analyze the race today are totally forgotten.


At this point a year ago, we’d just had the first Republican debate and were trying to figure out how to sort through 17 candidates. Joe Biden was still leaving teasers that he might get into the race, and everyone who supposedly knew better was still counting out Trump. Where are these big Republican and Democratic names now? How are they playing a role in the final 80 or so days before the election? And now that the party tickets are set in stone, who is scrambling for a future seat in the White House?

The fates of the formerly famous are still playing out across the country. You can pretty much split up the former presidential candidates by how much or how little they are playing any role in the 2016 presidential race. Since the field leaned heavily Republican (you had 17 candidates, as opposed to only five on the Democratic side), most of our political stars of yesteryear fall into three basic categories: Team Players, the Reunion All-Stars and the Milk Cartons.


Team Players

The Team Players are the folks who have accepted defeat gracefully and have moved into the ranks of trustworthy, if not overly important, campaign surrogates.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has endorsed Donald Trump and is stumping on the GOP nominee’s behalf in Pennsylvania, which at this point looks like ground zero for major presidential and down-ballot losses for the GOP.

Former Louisiana Gov. and political afterthought Bobby Jindal has endorsed Trump, too, reluctantly, but plays no real role in the campaign.


Former Arkansas Gov. Mike “I Have Been Fighting the Clintons for 30 Years” Huckabee also came out and endorsed Trump and then made a fart joke about anybody who wasn’t down for endorsing the candidate at the Republican National Convention (seriously, a fart joke).

Dr. Ben Carson, who is probably the best-known former candidate-turned-Trump endorser, has been less than stellar at the job. He hasn’t campaigned with Trump much and supports Trump only because that was the best deal available.


On the Democratic side, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is like the Lyanna Mormont of the Democrats. He proudly pledged his less than 1 percent of the vote to Clinton in hopes of swinging a smurf-blue state like Maryland to her side. A noble gesture that is utterly useless in the grand scheme of things.

The biggest Team Player, though, is likely Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who, despite being mistreated, possibly cheated and overall dissed throughout the campaign by the Democratic establishment, loves America enough not to condemn it to a Trump presidency. However, when you claim that your job as a surrogate is to be  “boring,” you just barely reach the threshold of surrogate.


The Reunion All-Stars

The Reunion All-Stars are named after that most glorious of rituals in reality TV: the postseason reunion. That time when people stop being polite and start getting real, and if they were never polite to begin with, they get even more candid about just how much they hated every other cast member.


Most of the Republican candidates for the 2016 election fall into this category. Not only have they not become surrogates for the presidential campaign, but by and large, they have lined up to take swipes at Trump, declare that they are never going to vote for him and all but declare him Satan incarnate.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio stands by his words that Trump is a “con man,” despite offering the GOP nominee a tepid endorsement.


Texas Sen. Ted Cruz got onstage at the RNC and ethered Trump in front of his own family and friends, barely holding back the disdain he held (which is funny, considering that last August, Cruz was praising Trump as a vital voice for the GOP).

Ohio Gov. John Kasich won't endorse Trump and skipped out on the RNC—in his own state.


Likely the saddest Reunion All-Star is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. You know that cousin who came out hard for Bill Cosby in early 2015, screaming, “He was gonna BUY NBC #STAYWOKE!” at the end of every Facebook post? Only to start quietly backtracking and evaluating his life choices after the umpteenth witness came forward with more damning evidence? That’s Christie.

He came out endorsing Trump in early February, when who would win the nomination was still up in the air, and as Trump has slowly descended into the political netherworld, he’s feasted on whatever dignity and political credibility Christie managed to retain after the primaries. Lately the governor has asserted just enough control over his brain to admit that Trump has done or said something terrible, but it’s probably too late.


On the Democratic side, there’s former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Webb made it clear that he’s essentially a DINO during his brief run for president, and also made it clear that he’d never vote for Clinton under any circumstances. He will likely drift off into political oblivion like most of the people in our final category.

The Milk Cartons

The final group of former primary candidates consists of those who have gone missing. They had their chance in the sun during the primaries, but they will be missing from political life from now on, nothing more than trivia questions or sad memories about lost potential.


Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush seemed like the safest bet to be the GOP nominee for 2016, but he never caught fire, let alone warmed up. He certainly has no political future in Florida, he’s refused to endorse Trump, and more likely than not, he’ll be a trivia question within a few years. At least until his son’s weasel-like betrayal comes up in the 2024 Texas governor’s race.

Among the other Republicans we’ll never hear from again: former New York Gov. George Pataki (did you even know he ran?); former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who Trump doesn’t even want as a surrogate; and Carly Fiorina.


Don’t let the self-started rumors fool you—Fiorina has no chance of becoming the new chair of the Republican National Committee next year. Fiorina thinks that her strong anti-Trump rhetoric will make her a hot choice, but she forgets that she was also Cruz’s last-ditch vice presidential pick. The only person the GOP establishment hates more than Trump is Cruz. Within a year she’ll hit rock bottom and be hocking silverware on QVC; she’s pretty close to it already.

And as for former Democratic Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island? There was a hilarious “Looking for Lincoln” series about his wholly unimportant whereabouts during the Democratic convention that pretty much says all you need to know about him.


Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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