Political Dynasties

How A Jeb Bush Candidacy Would Hurt Chris Christie And Shake Up The 2016 GOP Field

With Jeb Bush’s tease that he might be set to enter the 2016 presidential fray, the other Republican hopefuls should be afraid—very afraid.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty

Among the people who have declared their candidacy for president, or the intention to do so one day soon, are Vermin Supreme, whose platform includes a plank to give every American a pony; a 9/11 truther; the Florida pastor who rose to fame promising to publicly burn a Koran; a West Virginian engineer whose campaign is almost entirely lifted from the King James Bible, and Jim Webb, a former one-term Virginia Democratic Senator whose chances seem only plausible in comparison with the others listed above.

Oh, and as of this morning, Jeb Bush, the two-time governor of Florida who has been considered a White House hopeful since back in the days when his brother was still thought of as an alcoholic oil man destined to play out his Freudian fights with his father in a Kennebunkport backyard.

Yes, Jeb Bush, the good Bush brother, the policy wonk who is a favorite of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, leap-frogged past all of the Republican hopefuls who have been panting in the corral for the past 14 months. While Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Scott Walker and Chris Christie and Mitt Romney and Rick Perry and Rutherford B. Hayes’ ghost submerge their toes in the presidential testing waters, Bush took to Facebook today to say that he consulted with friends and family over Thanksgiving, and “as a result of these conversations and thoughtful consideration of the kind of strong leadership I think America needs, I have decided to actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States." He also announced that he was forming a political action committee “that will help me facilitate conversations with citizens across America to discuss the most critical challenges facing our exceptional nation. The PAC’s purpose will be to support leaders, ideas and policies that will expand opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.”

It was in some respects a non-announcement—Bush had been inching closer and closer to this decision for weeks, releasing his administration’s emails and penning an e-Book about his time as governor, as well as hinting in interviews and speeches that he was considering a run. Even if it fell short of a full declaration of a candidacy in the manner that, say, Mr. Supreme has undergone, it reached the Hillary-esque “I am announcing that I am exploring the possibility of exploring a candidacy” vein.

The announcement was a cannonball off the high dive for the rest of the GOP field, which has been securing donor commitments and crafting policy papers for the better part of a year, and which had been counting on Bush, with his complicated family history and new career in private equity, to stay away.

Of course, Bush’s biggest obstacle to the GOP nomination is Bush himself and the many policy positions he has taken that leave him out of step with the GOP base. The party has shifted sharply to the right since Bush was first elected governor of Florida—never mind since even his brother left the White House—and on the two defining issues for the party at the moment, immigration and the common core education standards, Bush is decidedly out of step.

“Jeb has a lot of challenges,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist in Bush’s home state of Florida, citing the fact that the Bush inner circle hasn’t run a competitive race since 2002, and that his liberalized immigration position puts him at odds with many in the party. But, he added, “The real problem for Jeb is that he is dug in on Common Core. And it is going to kill him unless he finds a way to kill it as an issue.”

The GOP primary field in 2016 has always been thought of as two primary fields; there are the conservatives, and there is the establishment. For the conservatives, it is a far more crowded space, featuring not just Cruz and Paul but also Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson. Most of them will be largely unaffected by Bush’s announcement; neither their fundraising nor their votes were likely to come from Bush World.

But for the others, for those few who have been positioning themselves to carry the establishment banner—a banner which, it should be noted, despite its stains is almost always the one carried to the nomination—Bush’s entrance into the race causes major issues.

“This puts some real pressure on Chris Christie,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist. “This has to be a tough day for him.”

The appeal of Christie has always been that he had the backing of the big-pocketed donors, and that he was thought to match up best against Hillary Clinton or whomever the Democrats nominate. Yet many of those same New York and New Jersey donors have close and deep ties with the Bush family, and so Christie’s fundraising, if it doesn’t dry up, at least will cease to be an advantage.

The other person for whom a path to the nomination, let alone a candidacy, seems much less likely is Mitt Romney. People close to Romney on Tuesday insisted that he still had a path—that his 2012 showing would allow conservatives to give him a second look, and that thanks to his personal wealth he was less reliant on the donor class anyway. But as Dan Balz in the Washington Post pointed out, Romney was hesitant to run in 2012 since he thought Bush was the stronger candidate then.

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And despite his twin Achilles heels of immigration and education, Bush would have, in a way, less trouble with the conservative base as either of those two.

“He has one of the most unabashedly pro-life records as anybody in the field,” said Mackowiak. “He is not just right on the issues. He is a leader on them.”

More complicated are the political prospects of Rubio, a fellow Floridian and something of a Bush acolyte. Rubio has his own troubles with immigration, but people close to him said he still may have a path even with a Bush candidacy.

“Bush hasn’t run in a long time. Let’s see how he does out there first,” said one.

But another GOP strategist said that Rubio is likely to look to remain in the Senate.

“What Florida donor is going to give to Rubio and not Bush?”

There is a whole host of Republicans who do not fit neatly in either camp, or rather, who fit in both—governors like Walker and Perry and Mike Pence of Indiana. For them, strategists say, they have a choice—either try to appeal to conservatives as the most electable of the acceptable candidates to them, or give up and jockey for cabinet positions.

Of them all, the one most likely to hang around is thought to be Perry, who is already far along on his campaign planning, and who has run before.

Meanwhile, the nation may need to prepare itself for an election that is not so much about the future as it is about the past: the Clinton years of the 1990’s versus the Bush years of the 2000’s.

“If that is the case, we will have a serious problem,” said Hogan Gidley, a GOP strategist in South Carolina. “Clinton is further back in history, and there is a perception that back then everything was rainbows and sunshine and gumdrops.”