The Bush family has had its share of disappointment and elation in Iowa and New Hampshire. George H.W. Bush finished a dismal third in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, before rebounding in New Hampshire.
George W. Bush, however, won the 2000 caucuses, only to get thumped by John McCain in New Hampshire.
Story Continued Below
Now, with Jeb Bush’s announcement on Tuesday, a third Bush seems to be preparing to face the demanding voters of the first two states in the presidential selection process, with uncertain expectations. But a chorus of top Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire said that the former Florida governor may be a more formidable contender in the critical early voting states than is widely assumed.
Operatives and politicians from the states that kick off the nominating process agreed that Bush’s moderate stands on immigration and education will pose a challenge with restive conservative activists. But his family’s political network and the sizable bloc of moderates in these states are overlooked factors in Bush’s favor, they said.
“I think Iowans are very open-minded and welcoming people,” GOP Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said in an interview. “He’ll have to answer tough questions, but I wouldn’t rule anything out” in terms of Bush’s chances.
The broad consensus from more than a dozen interviews was that no one should be considered a frontrunner in this field. Several candidates start out with a distinct advantage — Ted Cruz’s popularity with the activist right in Iowa, Rand Paul’s libertarian streak in New Hampshire, Bush’s extensive family network – but none are significant enough to vault a single contender to the front of the pack, they said.
“This is probably the most wide open New Hampshire primary I’ve seen in my 44 years of involvement,” said Steve Duprey, the state’s envoy to the Republican National Committee. “One benefit of a large field with no heir apparent is it gives a number of people a path to winning.”
Duprey, who will stay neutral, said Bush has a path to victory in New Hampshire if independents show up for him. But he also predicted that the state’s primary won’t necessarily have the same winnowing effect it has historically.
“I can come up with a plausible scenario where any one of a dozen candidates can win this primary,” he said. “It may very well be that we have three or four people emerge from New Hampshire: someone does well with social conservatives, someone does well with libertarians [and] someone does well with moderate, more mainstream conservatives.”
Bush emissaries have privately reassured party leaders in the Hawkeye and Granite states that the governor would almost certainly compete for votes in both places if he decides to get in, sources who have spoken with them told POLITICO.
Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and Jon Huntsman in 2012 both tried to ignore Iowa, and their gambits failed. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, someone who Iowans have worried for years might try to bypass them, has also conveyed that he will work to win the state’s caucuses. He took political heat at home last month when he vetoed a bill opposed by Iowa’s powerful agribusiness community and plans another trip to the state next month.
Bush’s announcement on Facebook that he is actively exploring a run for president complicates the early-state calculus for other possible candidates from the establishment wing of the party. In 2012, Mitt Romney benefited immensely from being the clear establishment favorite in both Iowa, which he lost by only a handful of votes, and New Hampshire, where he easily prevailed but with just 39 percent of the vote.
Branstad, the Iowa governor, said he plans to stay neutral to help reassure all the candidates they will get a fair shake from the voters if they invest time and resources in his state. But he acknowledged that he is partial to fellow governors because they need to balance a budget and manage large staffs.
Branstad heaped praise on Bush for improving early childhood reading and economic development in the quintessential swing state of Florida.
“I would certainly welcome him to come early and often,” said Branstad, who easily won a 2010 primary over a hardline conservative opponent without tacking to the right. “He’s got an admirable record for what he did in Florida.”
Branstad went on to offer praise for Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Texas’ Rick Perry, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Indiana’s Mike Pence, Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee and Christie.
Another key factor for Bush is Hillary Clinton’s presumed dominance in the Democratic field. New Hampshire has an open primary, so more moderate independents may choose to vote in the GOP contest instead of a noncompetitive Democratic one. These voters are more likely to favor a Bush candidacy.
“What people miss about New Hampshire right now is that neither race occurs here in a vacuum,” said Republican power broker Tom Rath, a former state attorney general. “If the contest appears to be on the ‘R’ side, independents tend to take Republican ballots. That tends to moderate the Republican electorate…That’s Bush’s territory.”
Bush has told major donors that knows how tough Iowa will be, even reportedly joking that he might get more votes by not traveling there. He’s made clear in public and private comments that he does not want to break to the right in order to win the primary but cost himself the general election in the process.
This is hard but possible, veteran Iowans say.
“There’s a lane for Jeb here,” said a top Iowa Republican operative with presidential campaign experience, granted anonymity to speak freely. “The evangelicals get all the attention … but most Republicans who caucus are mainstream. They want to shake up government, not blow up government.”
Long before his announcement Tuesday, Bush had been doing fundraisers and outreach in the early states. Branstad noted that Bush hosted a fundraiser for him in Florida during this campaign. He also headlined a fundraiser for New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown in Boston this year.
During the federal government shutdown last year, Bush called New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte to praise her for being one of the outspoken “responsible” Republicans trying to bring it to an end.
More recently, sources said, longtime Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw has phoned some key players and met with potential early-state operatives.
Though a lot has changed in the decade since a Bush last appeared on the ballot, the family’s relationships forged during previous campaigns will help in both states. John H. Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor who remains politically active, was White House chief of staff under George H.W. Bush, for example.
Steve Deace, a conservative talk radio host in Des Moines, said he does not think Bush can win the caucuses. But he takes satisfaction in the idea that there will be three or four men competing for the “establishment” mantle, including Christie and perhaps Romney.
“It’ll be fun watching the establishment try to work this out and ruin all their relationships the way we conservatives have for the last 10 years,” he quipped.
Deace believes that Bush has a 25 percent ceiling in the caucuses, assuming he consolidates establishment backing.
“He’s on the wrong side of every issue we’re the angriest about right now,” said Deace.
Likewise, one New Hampshire Republican with presidential campaign experience said that he doesn’t think Bush has any idea what he’s in for. He’s convinced that the former first family doesn’t understand how demeaning the process of seeking the presidency has become since 2000 or 1988, when news cycles are lost to trivialities and Twitter drives the conversation.
“He could totally collapse,” said the operative, who is unaligned with a 2016 campaign. “Everyone’s going to gush about Jeb, but he hasn’t run a competitive race since 2002…He’s smart and credible, but he doesn’t appreciate how conservative the activists are.”
Two war stories illustrate the joys and feats of campaigning in the early-voting states.
Branstad, the Iowa governor, vividly recalls a 20-something Jeb Bush barnstorming the state for his father ahead of the 1980 caucuses, when a comparatively unknown George H.W. Bush was challenging the favored Ronald Reagan.
“I’m painfully aware of it because I was a Reagan supporter,” said Branstad.
Even 34 years later, Branstad is angry at Reagan campaign manager John Sears not just for taking the state for granted – they only did a handful of big rallies – but also for ignoring his messages warning that Bush had momentum.
Bush wound up edging out Reagan 32 percent to 30 percent, which prompted Reagan to fire Sears. The 40th president turned things around in New Hampshire but won the nomination only after a prolonged battle with Bush, who he later picked as his running mate.
“I was not very happy, but the Bushes did prove their ability to do the grassroots,” said Branstad. “That’s a long time ago. Some things change and some things don’t.”
The other lesson that locals advised Jeb Bush to heed is from is the 2000 New Hampshire primary. George W. Bush won Iowa but then lost in New Hampshire to McCain.
Duprey, who was New Hampshire GOP chairman at the time, said Bush ran a campaign focused more on the national media than winning over the grassroots.
“Not every voter in New Hampshire will actually meet you, but they need to get to know you,” said Duprey. “They need to know how you deal with a heckler and with someone who comes up to you in tears because she has a problem no one else has been able to solve. The way you get trust is by hundreds of small interactions.”
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
Want something else to read? How about ‘Grievous Censorship’ By The Guardian: Israel, Gaza And The Termination Of Nafeez Ahmed’s Blog