Jeb Bush’s New Hampshire Calculus

Jeb Bush looks weak in Iowa. He can’t count on Florida. So he must win here.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush greets people after speaking at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 17, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire. The Summit brought together local and national Republicans and was attended by all the Republicans candidates as well as those eyeing a run for the nomination.
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May 1, 2015, 1 a.m.

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.

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

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.

(RE­LATED: The Trouble With Be­ing Jeb Bush)

“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.

(RE­LATED: Jeb Bush’s Head­winds)

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.

(RE­LATED: Is Im­mig­ra­tion A Pois­on Pill For Jeb Bush?)

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.)

(RE­LATED: Meet the Spouses of the 2016 Pres­id­en­tial Con­tenders)

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.

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