Eric Cantor’s Defeat Exposes Jeb Bush’s Vulnerabilities in 2016

Bush shares many of the same vulnerabilities as Cantor — a rusty political operation and being out of touch on the issues that animate conservatives.

Former Fl. Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Republican National Convention. 
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
June 11, 2014, 9:42 a.m.

At the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s nadir after Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2008 vic­tory, House Minor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor or­gan­ized a pizzer­ia pow­wow to un­veil ideas for Re­pub­lic­an re­form. Can­tor in­vited Mitt Rom­ney and Jeb Bush to at­tend the kick­off event for his new group, the Na­tion­al Coun­cil for a New Amer­ica, and share their ideas on how to re­vital­ize the Re­pub­lic­an Party. As Time‘s Jay New­ton-Small wrote at the time: “If Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers have their way, Sat­urday’s gath­er­ing at Pie-Tanza “¦ will be re­membered as the be­gin­ning of the re­birth of the Grand Old Party.” I at­ten­ded the event at my neigh­bor­hood pizzer­ia to get a taste of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s fu­ture dir­ec­tion. In ret­ro­spect, it was the first sign of the lead­er­ship’s de­clin­ing in­flu­ence with­in its own party, and the polit­ic­al fu­til­ity of pro­mot­ing re­forms with­in a di­vided party that couldn’t agree on what it stood for. 

Five years later, the three es­tab­lish­ment lead­ers have been de­feated by grass­roots forces with­in their own party. Rom­ney lost to Pres­id­ent Obama after strug­gling to unite the party dur­ing a con­ten­tious primary cam­paign, while Can­tor was de­feated by an ob­scure col­lege pro­fess­or in one of the most mem­or­able up­sets in elec­tion his­tory. Jeb Bush is still mulling wheth­er to run in 2016, but giv­en Can­tor’s de­cis­ive de­feat, his chances of suc­ceed­ing look as weak as ever.

Bush’s vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies in a Re­pub­lic­an primary would be re­mark­ably sim­il­ar to those Can­tor faced. Bush is an un­apo­lo­get­ic sup­port­er of com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, fam­ously call­ing il­leg­al im­mig­rants’ at­tempts to come to this coun­try “an act of love.” Last Fri­day, Can­tor stirred the pot be­fore his primary by sug­gest­ing he could work with Pres­id­ent Obama to al­low a path to cit­izen­ship for some chil­dren of il­leg­al im­mig­rants already in the coun­try. On edu­ca­tion, Bush has cham­pioned the Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards, which have be­come a lit­mus-test is­sue for con­ser­vat­ives, who view them as usurp­ing loc­al con­trol of schools. In the con­gres­sion­al cam­paign, Dav­id Brat cri­ti­cized Can­tor for sup­port­ing cent­ral­ized edu­ca­tion­al re­forms, in­clud­ing Com­mon Core.

Most im­port­ant, Bush’s biggest vul­ner­ab­il­ity would be the rusti­ness of a fu­ture cam­paign op­er­a­tion. He hasn’t run an elec­tion since 2002, and he’s proven slow to ad­apt to the new, light­ning-fast me­dia land­scape. Since Can­tor’s de­feat Tues­day night, Re­pub­lic­an strategists al­lied with the him are ex­press­ing as­ton­ish­ment at his shoddy polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion. They point to a grow­ing dis­con­nect from his con­stitu­ents even though he was only a short drive from his dis­trict, his air­ing of tone-deaf ads that raised Brat’s name iden­ti­fic­a­tion without hurt­ing his polit­ic­al stand­ing, and his poll­ster’s wildly in­ac­cur­ate sur­vey show­ing him up 34 points in the clos­ing stretch of the primary. One top Re­pub­lic­an Party of­fi­cial, sur­vey­ing the pre­cinct-by-pre­cinct res­ults, said, “He lost nearly every­where, all across the board. This was polit­ic­al mal­prac­tice.”

If he ran, Bush would be en­ter­ing a brave new world of Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics — one plainly un­fa­mil­i­ar to him. He’d face a group of Re­pub­lic­an pro­spects much bet­ter at­tuned to the more pop­u­list fla­vor of the GOP — Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, even Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, to name a few. Bush would bring an A-team of strategists and donors to the table, but the past three elec­tion cycles have shown that top tal­ent is no match for the chan­ging mood of the Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate.

After the Can­tor event in 2009, I chased down Bush as he was ex­it­ing the pizzer­ia, in­quir­ing about his in­terest in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial race. This, after he gave a com­pel­ling present­a­tion about in­nov­at­ive edu­ca­tion re­forms, in­clud­ing those he in­tro­duced in his home state. He mocked the ob­sess­ive horse-race cov­er­age of the polit­ic­al press, and said he was fo­cused on policy and had no in­terest in talk­ing about fu­ture cam­paigns. In cer­tain ways, that was re­fresh­ing to hear, but it also signaled a dis­in­terest in do­ing the polit­ic­al things ne­ces­sary to win in a highly com­pet­it­ive busi­ness. And as time has passed, Bush seems all the more dis­con­nec­ted from the pas­sions that have an­im­ated his own party’s base.

“Causes beat cam­paigns. [Can­tor’s de­feat] was a vic­tory for the pop­u­list cause with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” said Re­pub­lic­an strategist Alex Cas­tel­lanos, a lead­ing ad­voc­ate for GOP re­forms. “Those who thought the tea party had been ab­sorbed just got a big wake-up call. It’s alive and well and eat­ing elite es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans for break­fast.”

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