In a prior post I wrote on Jeb Bush’s strengths and weaknesses. Certainly they are varied. Bush’s greatest weaknesses appear to be his issues with the base and his last name. His strength lies in his ability to tap into the massive Bush donor network and the conservative story he can tell voters during his time as Florida Governor.
This post will complement the first and focus on the primary challengers Bush would likely have to contend with. No potential GOP candidates, not even Bush, have officially declared but it is clear who has the most ambition to do so. These potential candidates can be lumped into various groups but I lump them into three categories regardless of their tier status; establishment, conservative and quixotic.
Some definitions are in order here. Establishment candidates adhere to the business friendly conservative spectrum of the GOP and by business I mean big business. Conservative runs the gambit of candidates but it generally has a libertarian to cutting government lean (not just reforming it). Lastly, quixotic candidates are those that could be considered 2nd tier and generally will hang their hat on a single issue.
So, let’s get started. By far, the biggest establishment threats to Bush come in the form of Romney and Chris Christie. Marco Rubio could fit into this category as well. Romney is unlikely to run and Rubio has hedged but Christie is all but in. Christie would compete for the same set of voters that Bush would, generally, the big donor and business GOP class. Financially, Christie would threaten Bush’s domination over donors. That said, both Christie and Bush have some pretty solid donor support so cutting into either’s would largely be contingent on how donors see their strengths and weaknesses. Notably, this set of voters both Christie and Bush appeal to have limited electoral impact in Iowa but play more of a role in the following New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada contests.
Rubio is an interesting case. He won in 2010 on the back of the Tea Party and a divided Democratic Party (thanks Charlie Crist). Rubio, once a shining star for both the grassroots and party leadership has faded of late. Initially backing Immigration Reform he backed off. Yet, he has tried to stay on both sides of the fence by being a defense hawk and voting against multiple budget agreements. Rubio’s appeal is largely cultural and it could eat into the narrative Jeb can win minorities. Rubio came out against Obama’s “normalizing” of relations with Cuba before Bush did. Rubio, a Cubna-American, has strong memories of the stories his parents told him about Communist Cuba. Further, Rubio could prove a headache in Bush as he tries to consolidate moderate support.
The number of conservative candidates to challenge Bush is significant. You have libertarian senator Rand Paul, GOP Governors Scott Walker, Mike Pence and Rick Perry, and has runs such as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Governor Mike Huckabee. Even Ohio Governor John Kasich could run (a long-shot). They all pose challenges to Bush.
Perry, Santorum and Huckabee could seriously hurt Bush in Iowa. Bush is a solid social conservative but unlike his possible trio of challengers he is not very vocal about it. Bush could see a redux of 2012 when Romney narrowly won IA with less than 40% of the vote (Santorum was declared the winner after the fact). Walker and Pence could easily eat into his support in the business wing as well as capture conservative votes. Both Walker and Pence have recent policy successes against unions on the education front that can tout. Paul has shown he is not shy about taking on traditional Republicans. He has openly sparred with Bush and Rubio on Cuba for example.
Finally, there are the quixotic candidates. These candidacies could include Ben Carson, Jon Bolton and Carly Fiorina. None are career politicians and lack deep policy depth. Hence, Carson will likely run on his cultural appeal, Fiorina her business experience and Bolton on his foreign policy expertise. However, for any of these candidacies to truly threaten Bush the primary would need to center around one issue or set of issues. There remains the threat if any of these candidacies became viable they could eat into Bush’s support but that is hard to see.
This simple analysis is not meant to imply Bush is the front-runner in the field. Rather, Bush’s early declaration of intent suggests his team knows he has serious deficiencies that need to be addressed. Other possible candidates do not suffer from the same issue. Sure, Rand Paul has said foolish things from time to time but he has also been making efforts to broaden the party. Christie, Walker and Pence all have solid records of governance in the recent past to stand on.
Bush has his story to tell that can make him the front-runner if the stars align. He has the donor network to get his message out and his rust on the campaign stump can be worn off with practice. He has the cultural appeal to rebuild the 2004 Bush Coalition (Hispanics, blue collar whites and affluent) and a conservative record to stand on and speak of with pride. But to do that he needs to understand the field is wide open and the Bush brand is tarnished. Maybe that is something that simply cannot be overcome. We will see.