Two floors above a ballroom filled with GOP activists listening to his 2016 rivals, Jeb Bush was getting down to the real business of the New Hampshire primary. It was there, in a hotel room his PAC had reserved on the third floor of the Crowne Plaza in Nashua, that Bush was courting the New Hampshire brokers who could power his presidential run.
It wasn’t the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last. For months, Bush has been privately wooing top New Hampshire Republicans in a flurry of phone calls, emails, private meetings, and even hand-scribbled thank-you notes. He has met with top state legislators, local mayors, and, in particular, dialed up a long list of Mitt Romney’s old hands here.
The intensive and personal nature of his outreach underscores the high stakes for Bush in this first-in-the-nation primary state. With Iowa conservatives wary, his strength still unknown in South Carolina, and his home state of Florida no longer an early backstop (having bumped itself from fifth in the nominating line to the middle of the pack), New Hampshire has emerged as an almost must-win state for Bush in 2016.
So, on this particular Friday in April, New Hampshire influentials filed one by one and in small groups into Bush’s hotel room. Among them: Walt Havenstein, the 2014 Republican nominee for governor; Beverly Bruce, Mitt Romney’s former finance director in the state; and Bill Binnie, a businessman and the executive behind the newest television network in the state, NH1. That trio represents three legs of the early stool of support that Bush and his team are busy trying to build—prominent GOP politicians, behind-the-scenes power players, and the local media who will frame the race for voters.
“It was just a friendly, nice, cozy conversation,” Bruce says. Like many New Hampshire Republicans, she’s not ready to commit, even though she says Bush is doing an “outstanding job.”
The reticence is part New Hampshire tradition, where people only half-jokingly say they need to meet everyone at least twice before endorsing. But it’s also a sign of the depth of the 2016 GOP field. And Bush’s financial front-runner status is not causing anyone to fall into line. “I think we’ve just got a strong bench for the first time in a long time,” Bruce says, “and it’s going to be difficult to make a choice.”
Should Bush run (and, yes, his team is hyper-committed to casting this as a hypothetical), his advisers say his campaign will be a small-event-centric operation in the state: visiting VFW halls, diners, and supporters’ homes. For now, there is no talk of big rallies that might reek of presumption, which some GOP state operatives still believe helped sink his brother here in 2000. “I don’t see any coronation coming my way, trust me,” Bush said on his recent trip.
“New Hampshire is all about retail-level and talking to people, and listening to people too, which is why you’re seeing Governor Bush talking to people in a wide variety of venues—small venues in someone’s house, listening to some host’s neighbors, going to a small function hall out in the woods,” says Rich Killion, the senior strategist for Bush’s PAC in New Hampshire, where fewer than 250,000 people voted in the 2012 GOP presidential primary. “It’s the only way to win.”
Numerous aides accompany Bush from stop to stop, but they notably give him a wide berth to shake hands, pose for selfies, and schmooze. “The people of New Hampshire, they respect that,” Killion says. “They want access to individuals.”
On the stump, Bush clearly prefers the give and take of questions with voters rather than speeches, in which he can come across as stiff. Indeed, at one of his appearances at a snowshoe club here, Bush’s staff only began showing his appearance on Twitter’s new live-streaming app, Periscope, after his prepared remarks were done.
But Bush is also keenly aware of who will be broadcasting his seemingly intimate appearances to the rest of the state. By the end of his second trip to New Hampshire this year, Bush has already made a point of meeting with the leading state-based media outlets. In March, he granted an exclusive sit-down with Josh McElveen, the political reporter for WMUR, the biggest statewide TV network, and he visited the offices of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the statewide paper published by Joe McQuaid. The two spoke for about a half-hour. “Our conversation was off the record, and the thing that impressed me most about him is, Christ, is he tall,” McQuaid says.
Bush already has three strategists laying the groundwork in the state: Killion; Rob Varsalone, a former top adviser to Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte; and Nate Lamb, a field director for Sen. Scott Brown’s failed 2014 campaign. In addition, Ryan Williams, a former Romney operative who has worked for the New Hampshire Republican Party, is helping the Bush team through his firm, FP1 Strategies. (In contrast, Bush has a single known staffer helping him in Iowa, though his expected national campaign manager, Dave Kochel, is an Iowa veteran.)
That Jeb Bush is betting so heavily on New Hampshire runs counter to family history. A low point of the 2000 primaries for his brother, George W. Bush, came when John McCain beat him here. And his father, George H.”ŠW. Bush, won Iowa in 1980, only to get blown out in New Hampshire by Ronald Reagan en route to losing six of the next seven states and the nomination. (The elder Bush carried the state, as the sitting vice president, in 1988.)
“New Hampshire has not been kind to the Bushes,” says Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman who is writing a book about the history of the New Hampshire primaries. “There’s no question about that.”
Cullen is a pro-immigration-reform Republican who opened his home to Bush during his March visit. He’s nonetheless still uncommitted. “I’m one of those guys who says, ‘We made a decision 250 years ago that we’re not a monarchy,’” Cullen says of his unease about Bush vs. Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Politicians and activists have plenty of alternatives in 2016. State Senate President Chuck Morse, for instance, met with Bush and Scott Walker within hours of each other in March. “That was an exciting day,” Morse says. Or, as Gary Gross, a 73-year-old Republican activist from Hopkinton who came to see Bush speak in Concord, says: “What was [Marco] Rubio’s comment? Yesterday was yesterday? I think we need something new.”
Still, one big reason New Hampshire sets up well for Bush is that it is an open primary—meaning independents can vote, a distinct advantage for a candidate who has promised not to pander to Republican hard-liners. “I see him as one of the very few candidates who can reach across the aisle and bring them into the party,” says Patrick Hynes, a GOP consultant in the state. With Clinton facing only token Democratic opposition, the independents are expected to flood the GOP contest.
“You don’t win in New Hampshire without getting the independents out for you,” says Juliana Bergeron, the Republican national committeewoman for the state.
But who makes up Bush’s base here remains unclear. Former Gov. John Sununu, a GOP legend in the state who served as chief of staff to Bush’s father in the White House, hosted Jeb in his living room earlier this year. Still, no endorsement is forthcoming. “There’s at least five or six of them that would make great presidents,” Sununu says. (Sununu confesses that “one of the reasons” he’s not picking sides is “one of my sons may run for governor” and he doesn’t want to alienate any potential supporters.)
Then there are people like Doug and Stella Scamman, former state legislators whose farm in Stratham was where Mitt Romney kicked off his 2012 presidential run, where George W. Bush hosted a 5,000-strong rally during his 2004 reelection, where he visited in 1999 as a candidate, and where George H.”ŠW. Bush visited in the early 1990s during his reelection bid. Jeb Bush called them a few weeks ago, too.
“I think that Jeb is much more prepared to be president than his brother, and I think he’s as prepared to be president as his father,” Doug says. And yet the Scammans, who were early backers of George W., are not committed to Jeb. “I think G.”ŠW. was the best guy running that year. But this year you’ve got a lot of people who are pretty capable.”
The Scammans are a bit of a political dynasty themselves: Doug served two separate stints as New Hampshire speaker, as his father did before him. But a third Bush presidency even gives them pause. “No matter where I go, people say they’re very skeptical of a third Bush being president,” Stella says.
As Bush pursues the support of these critical activists, no task is too small for the potential president.
Jane Lane’s phone rang just after Easter and Jeb Bush was on the line. The current secretary of the state GOP, the former president of the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, and a human hub of political connections in southwestern Cheshire County, Lane is exactly the kind of person candidates want in their corner. She backed Romney last time and both of the previous Bushes.
“They call, and they want to tell you what their ideas are, and they always say, ‘We’d be happy to have you on board,‘“Š” Lane says of the Bush call. “And the answer is: I haven’t met everybody else yet.”
Bush asked if she had planned to attend any of his late-April events. She had wanted to go to his “Politics and Eggs” speech at Saint Anselm College, Lane told him, but it had sold out too quickly. Sure enough, her phone rang again soon after with a ticket. “Somebody got me in,” she laughs. She is still undecided in 2016.