NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — The first official event in the so-called silent GOP presidential primary took place over the weekend at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.

Most of the potential 2016 candidates were there, each of whom packed the event with supporters to appear as a viable candidate headed into early primary events in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Sen. Jeff Sessions

Sen. Jeff Sessions


Back in one of the side rooms at the conference, away from the grandeur of the main stage, Sen. Jeff Sessions made a pitch.

Sessions was not given a main spot at this confab, yet he still made an appearance, the timing of which coincided with the conclusion of a speech given by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Whether intentional or not, Sessions’ appearance was perceived to be a rebuttal to Bush, who has a reputation of being soft on immigration.

Although immigration is the hot-button issue of the moment, Alabama’s junior senator suggested it was peripheral to a broader strategy that Republicans need to employ to be successful in the next presidential cycle. Sessions’ view on 2016 wasn’t about being anti-Barack Obama, anti-Hillary Clinton or even taking an all-out hawkish approach on immigration. Instead, he suggested a constituent-centered message to attract voters, similar to the way one would approach a trust.

“It’s a fundamental question — who are our constituents?” he asked. “Who does a politician take an oath to represent? Well, I’m a lawyer. I know what a trust is. I know what a duty of a CEO is. It’s to represent his stockholders. Well, as politicians it is our duty to represent the people — the citizens of this country. That’s first and foremost.”

The problem, Sessions argued, is some politicians promote the economy ahead of their constituents’ interests, hence the push for more workers to do the “jobs Americans won’t do.” While that approach may improve the overall bottom line of the U.S. economy, it doesn’t necessarily improve the lives of the average American citizen.

“We are not an economy with a nation,” Sessions continued. “We are a nation with an economy. People aren’t commodities. They place their lives at stake for the future of our country. They say ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir.’ They put their lives at risk. They follow the law. They teach their children to follow the law and that is not a commodity. A government owes them a reciprocal duty. It owes them a responsible commitment to their safety, to their economic future, for the integrity of the legal system and the heritage that George Washington gave us. I feel real strong about that. But somehow, we’re in ‘La-La Land.’ We don’t even know who we represent. I think that’s important.”

It is very early in this presidential cycle and none of the candidates have formally announced their intentions to seek the Oval Office. We only have a general idea of where each of these candidates line up on the ideological spectrum in Republican politics. However, Sessions’ conservative brand of populism might strike the right chord with some voters, especially in a state like Iowa. And perhaps if a candidate adopted the Sessions message, it would distinguish him or her from the others.

The problem is there is a schism in the GOP on the issue of immigration. Republicans are still licking their wounds from the 2012 election. In the days after Mitt Romney’s defeat, Democrats were quick to point to exit polls showing Republicans were weak in obtaining the Hispanic vote. That, despite the outcome of the 2014 midterm election, is still seen by some as how the Republican Party can win the White House.

This isn’t the type of issue that will be settled by finding common ground. One side will have to prevail, whether that be the pro-business types or the populists and the 2016 GOP presidential primary will likely determine the final outcome of this fight. A win for Jeb Bush would be seen as a victory to those in the Republican Party seeking a brand of immigration reform that would make employing immigrant labor easier, even at the expense of lowering wages for workers already in the United States.

Should that happen, Sessions argued Bush’s stance would hurt the Republicans chances in a general election.

“I don’t know where he’d be as the campaign goes along,” Sessions said about Bush. “I think he’s a very talented and good person. I think his policy on immigration is an error and I think it would deny him the opportunity to appeal to a lot of people. There seems to be some myth that the voting population goes from conservative to liberal. And if you want to get more votes, the conservative gets more moderate or a liberal gets more conservative. But an immigration-type issue transcends party politics and has little to do with conservative or liberal ideology. It’s really about do you believe in law? Do you believe in fairness?”

Bush finished fifth in CPAC’s straw poll, behind Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson. That suggests Sessions was right about the political hurdles Bush would need to overcome, at least when it comes to conservatives. 

It’s still wait-and-see if the rest of the field will pick up on his message.