The 2012 Republican nominee will technically be selected by delegates chosen by primary voters and caucus participants across the country. Of course, a potentially far more consequential vetting process is well under way: the invisible primary, in which party elites, interest group leaders, and major fundraisers size up aspiring candidates and consider whom to back. Their decisions have the power to make or break a candidacy.
Here is a sampling of some of the lesser-known, yet still critical, players in the key, early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Bob Vander Plaats: Despite failing in his three runs for governor, Vander Plaats wields tremendous sway among the social conservatives who tend to dominate Iowa’s Republican caucuses. Hoping for his imprimatur, a parade of candidates (declared and undeclared) have traveled the state with him: Gingrich, Pawlenty, Santorum, Bachmann—even libertarian Ron Paul. In 2008, he was Mike Huckabee’s state campaign chairman; this time around, he’ll be looking for candidates to impress him with their staunch opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
David Roederer: Roederer served as Iowa chair for George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and John McCain’s 2008 campaign. While not a member of the Christian conservative crowd, he commands influence as a respected strategist and adept fundraiser. Although initially unmoved by McCain, Roederer signed onto his campaign after a meeting in which the senator impressed with his mastery of foreign affairs.
Joni Scotter: A retired agriculture economist, Scotter is one of the hyper-dedicated Republican activists who hold the key to success in the state’s caucus. Many of the party’s presidential aspirants have met with her—an unofficial requirement for viability, as Pawlenty learned the hard way when he failed to talk with her after a speech. (He’s since made amends, repeatedly.) More of a fiscal than a social conservative, she backed Romney in 2008, but is in no hurry to sign on with him again. After all, as she told the Los Angeles Times, another candidate “might sweep me off my feet.”
Ovide Lamontagne: After narrowly losing a 2010 Republican Senate primary as the Tea Party candidate, Lamontagne has emerged as a de facto kingmaker for Republican presidential hopefuls. Making an appearance as a headliner at one of his Granite Oath PAC house parties is practically a requirement for candidates hoping to appeal to the state’s conservative grassroots. In 2008, Lamontagne was a Romney man. He’s uncommitted so far this time around, but has said he plans to make an endorsement by Thanksgiving.
Jerry DeLemus: A former Marine and homebuilder by trade, DeLemus’s political activism was limited until a few years ago when, outraged at the state of the economy, he co-founded a local Tea Party group. Capping his rapid rise in the movement, he took over in January as chairman of Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, an umbrella organization for the state’s many Tea Party and 9/12 groups. He is regularly sought out by many of the presidential hopefuls and their staffs and has hosted several during their visits to the state.
Andrew Hemingway: Perhaps the most prominent Republican activist in New Hampshire under the age of thirty, Hemingway became chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire last year. He was responsible for getting talented state-level legislative candidates on the ballot in 2010, and many freshman lawmakers have him to thank for their victory. Hemingway has met recently with several Republican 2012 aspirants, but has yet to lend his support to any candidate. One he is disinclined to support: Mitt Romney, whose Massachusetts healthcare plan is a deal breaker.
Barry Wynn: A former chairman of the state Republican Party, Wynn is close to U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, having served as finance co-chairman for his 2010 campaign. In 2008, however, he chaired Rudy Giuliani’s primary campaign, splitting with DeMint, who was a vocal Romney supporter. This time around, he told C&E, he would like to avoid another awkward difference of opinion with the senator. As of May, he had met with Gingrich, Santorum, and Bachmann.
Alexia Newman: For more than two decades, Newman has been director of Spartanburg’s Carolina Pregnancy Center, whose fundraisers have been attended by at least one notable 2012er: Rick Santorum. She has said that she will not make an endorsement, but, as a prominent leader in the state’s powerful pro-life movement, positive words from her can carry a great deal of weight. After meeting with Santorum in February, for instance, she told the Spartanburg Herald-Journal: “I’m real impressed with the senator—his intellect, his love for life . . . I would be pleased if he did run.”
Karen Floyd: The chairwoman of the state Republican Party until last month, Floyd is an expert fundraiser who is well liked, well connected, and highly energetic. She ignited controversy in January when, while still chair, she met privately with Haley Barbour at her consulting firm, The Palladian Group. She went on to host meet-and-greets with activists for Bachmann and Santorum in February. In 2008, she worked for Giuliani, but has yet to commit to a candidate for 2012.