Jeb Bush’s ‘Lose the Primary to Win the General’ Could Just Mean ‘Lose the Primary’

Jeb Bush waves on stage as he announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination during an event on June 15 , 2015 in Miami, Florida. 
National Journal
Michael J. Mishak
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Michael J. Mishak
June 15, 2015, 11:05 a.m.

In de­clar­ing his cam­paign for pres­id­ent, Jeb Bush opens a mav­er­ick White House bid that could re­shape Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics for a gen­er­a­tion and make him the third mem­ber of his fam­ily to oc­cupy the Oval Of­fice in three dec­ades.

Or, his can­did­acy could crater after col­lid­ing with the party’s most con­ser­vat­ive ele­ments and be­come a cau­tion­ary tale for fu­ture can­did­ates—dyn­ast­ic or not—who’d dare to buck the GOP grass­roots.

“Our coun­try is on a very bad course. And the ques­tion is: What are we go­ing to do about it? The ques­tion for me is: What am I go­ing to do about it? And I’ve de­cided,” Bush said Monday af­ter­noon at Miami Dade Col­lege in Flor­ida. “I’m a can­did­ate for pres­id­ent of the United States.”

(RE­LATED: In­side Jeb Bush’s Stealth Cam­paign to Woo Chris­ti­an Con­ser­vat­ives)

A fa­vor­ite of the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, the former Flor­ida gov­ernor enters the race with an over­whelm­ing fun­drais­ing ad­vant­age and an ex­pans­ive cam­paign op­er­a­tion, buoyed by his and his fam­ily’s deep polit­ic­al net­work. But in prom­ising to turn the page on the Obama era and boost the coun­try’s ail­ing middle class, the scion of one of Amer­ica’s most prom­in­ent polit­ic­al clans must con­vince a skep­tic­al Re­pub­lic­an base that he is his own man.

“We don’t need an­oth­er pres­id­ent who merely holds the top spot among the pampered elites of Wash­ing­ton. We need a pres­id­ent will­ing to chal­lenge and dis­rupt the whole cul­ture in our na­tion’s cap­it­al,” Bush said in his an­nounce­ment. “And I will be that pres­id­ent.”

He faces a crop of fresh-faced gov­ernors and sen­at­ors, and linger­ing hos­til­ity from GOP act­iv­ists who view much of the Bush fam­ily leg­acy as one of con­ser­vat­ive be­tray­al and polit­ic­al com­prom­ise. And his sup­port for an im­mig­ra­tion over­haul and the Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion stand­ards are ana­thema to many of the hard-line con­ser­vat­ives who play an out­size role in some of the early-nom­in­at­ing states.

“The next pres­id­ent of the United States will pass mean­ing­ful im­mig­ra­tion re­form so that that will be solved—not by ex­ec­ut­ive or­der,” Bush said, go­ing off-script and ad­dress­ing im­mig­ra­tion act­iv­ists in the audi­ence who shouted ques­tions at the lectern.

Bush, however, sees his cam­paign as an op­por­tun­ity to per­suade his party on those hot-but­ton is­sues while he touts his deeply con­ser­vat­ive re­cord as a former two-term gov­ernor of the na­tion’s largest swing state. In Flor­ida, he cut some $20 bil­lion in taxes, privat­ized gov­ern­ment ser­vices, and launched the coun­try’s first private-school vouch­er pro­gram, a meas­ure that was later struck down by the state Su­preme Court. At the same time, he ab­ol­ished af­firm­at­ive ac­tion in uni­versity ad­mis­sions and state con­tract­ing, re­stric­ted abor­tion rights, and ex­pan­ded gun rights, in­clud­ing sign­ing Flor­ida’s con­tro­ver­sial “stand your ground” law. On Monday, Bush said he was “a re­form­ing gov­ernor, not just an­oth­er mem­ber of the club.”

“There’s no passing off re­spons­ib­il­ity when you’re a gov­ernor, no blend­ing in­to the le­gis­lat­ive crowd or fil­ing an amend­ment and call­ing that suc­cess,” he said, mak­ing a dig at his com­pet­it­ors in the Sen­ate.

(RE­LATED: Hil­lary Clin­ton, Jeb Bush and the Leg­acy Trap)

Bush’s suc­cess in the GOP primary may turn on wheth­er that re­cord sat­is­fies con­ser­vat­ives who view him as too mod­er­ate for today’s Re­pub­lic­an Party, largely be­cause of his stances on im­mig­ra­tion and edu­ca­tion.

His re­fus­al to pander to the party’s base—or “fake an­ger to pla­cate people’s angst,” as he put it in March—rep­res­ents a dir­ect chal­lenge to tra­di­tion­al cam­paign­ing, one that Bush hopes will help him win the gen­er­al elec­tion and at­tract le­gions of new voters to the GOP, in­clud­ing voters in the na­tion’s fast-grow­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion. The Span­ish-speak­ing former gov­ernor from Miami with a Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an wife could be a bridge to Lati­nos, who have left the GOP over past nom­in­ees’ harsh rhet­or­ic on im­mig­ra­tion.

Ar­guing that a can­did­ate needs to be will­ing to “lose the primary to win the gen­er­al,” Bush and his cam­paign will de­term­ine wheth­er fu­ture pres­id­en­tial con­tenders reach bey­ond the base—or play to it.

“I will cam­paign as I would serve, go­ing every­where, speak­ing to every­one, keep­ing my word, fa­cing the is­sues without flinch­ing, and stay­ing true to what I be­lieve. I will take noth­ing and no one for gran­ted,” Bush said at the end of his speech. “I will run with heart, and I will run to win.”

Marina Koren contributed to this article.
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