Gingrich was one of three names getting top billing. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker was the top vote-getter, after his very public visit to Trump Tower this week; Gingrich was second, and third was Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, just ahead of Ohio Gov. John Kasich. A dozen other names were mentioned, ranging from Sarah Palin to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, but none got nearly the support of the top four.
Corker would be "a really inside pick but a powerful signal that he will pursue a more mainstream foreign policy," said former RNC official Frank Donatelli. Emory University professor Andra Gillespie put Corker among a group of elected officials who would be good choices because Trump "will need a running mate who is better versed in politics and government generally."
Ernst is an intriguing pick because she rose from obscurity with the help of an endorsement from Sarah Palin to score a surprising upset in 2014, beating both better-known Republican candidates and longtime Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley to take over the Senate seat of Democrat and liberal icon Tom Harkin.
"Ernst’s military background would help the ticket and could shore up support with Republican women," Iowa State University professor Dianne Bystrom said. (Ernst served in the Army Reserve and was deployed during the Iraq War.) Several of our panelists suggested Ernst could blunt Trump's weaknesses with female voters and also shore up support among conservatives who may have doubts about Trump's core beliefs.
Ernst told Fox News last Thursday that she has not been approached by the Trump campaign and is not interested in dwelling on any hypothetical job offer.
Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, warned that handicapping a VP race is a fool's errand because nobody really knows anything about the selection process except a few people inside the campaign. "Your best bet to figuring out the running mate is to hang out near some airport hangars and wait for the campaign plane to repainted," he said.
Nevertheless, we got some interesting suggestions from our panel:
- Former presidential candidates Kasich, Chris Christie and Scott Walker all got votes based on the executive experience and appeal to more traditional Republican voters
- Former secretary of State Colin Powell, who has the gravitas on the world stage that Trump lacks but may be more comfortable working for Hillary Clinton
- Former Arizona governor Jan Brewer, who shares Trump's immigration hard line
- Retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a frequent Obama critic
- Our favorite idea came from former Democratic congressman Dan Maffei: Andrew Card, who was White House chief of staff (among other positions) for President George H. W. Bush. "The 'Trump/Card' ticket might be too good to pass up," Maffei said. "And they should win Nevada."
Check back later this week to see our panel's picks for running mates on the Democratic side.
Participants in USA TODAY's VP Power Rankings:
Paul Brathwaite, principal, Podesta Group
Dianne Bystrom, director, Center for Women and Politics, Iowa State University
Frank Donatelli, former RNC deputy chairman and Reagan adviser
Peter Fenn, Democratic political strategist, Fenn Communications
Andra Gillespie, polling analyst and political science professor, Emory University
Nathan L. Gonzales, editor, The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report
Lilly J. Goren, political science and global studies professor, Carroll University
Doug Gross, Iowa attorney and previous Republican gubernatorial nominee
O. Kay Henderson, news director, Radio Iowa
Ken Khachigian, senior partner, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck
Carl Leubsdorf, Washington columnist, The Dallas Morning News
Deb Lucia, Topeka 912 – the Capital City Tea Party
Matt Mackowiak, Republican consultant and president, Potomac Strategy Group, LLC
Dan Maffei, former Democratic congressman, New York
Jon Ralston, host, "Ralston Live" on PBS affiliates in Nevada
Craig Robinson, founder and editor, TheIowaRepublican.com
Alan Rosenblatt, Ph.D., Sr. VP of digital strategy, turner4D
Adam Sharp, head of news, government and elections, Twitter
Alex Smith, national chairman, College Republicans
Kathy Sullivan, DNC committeewoman and former Democratic Party chair, New Hampshire