When Rep. Pete Sessions got a call last year from Jeb Bush asking for his endorsement, it seemed like an easy choice. The former Florida governor had the money, staff, and pedigree to win the GOP nomination, and so the House Rules Committee chairman agreed to back him.
In the months since then, Bush sank dramatically in the polls, alarming his supporters who hoped for better than a 3 percent showing in the Iowa caucuses. And although Sessions is not exactly jumping ship, he said Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished third with roughly a quarter of the vote in Iowa, is starting to look appealing.
“Who are you for? I’m endorsing Jeb Bush. But that was 10 months ago. He has since then not sold himself as well as he had wanted,” Sessions said. “Everybody is weighing and balancing what they know now that they didn’t know 10 months ago, and I think that the person who gets closest to me is a Rubio.”
Sessions is among several congressional Republicans who have pledged fealty to Bush but are now reevaluating their options. That could mean a trickle of high-profile endorsements for Rubio, who hasn't antagonized Capitol Hill as his top opponents, Sen. Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump, have done. Neither Cruz nor Trump has the support of a single senator or governor, yet they finished first and second in Iowa and have outpolled everyone else in the formidable field.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior Republican in the chamber and a Bush backer, told National Journal Tuesday that he “leans toward” Rubio should Bush fail, adding that the race is still “wide open.”
“In the eyes of a lot of people he is now legitimized,” said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who introduced Rubio before Iowa crowds the past few days. “He is a top candidate. I think that’s going to make a big difference in terms of how people are looking at it.
“I look at him, and I look at a lot of the negative things going back and forth between Cruz and Trump, and I think it just is refreshing to know that somebody has the character to be very positive,” Inhofe added. “And it shows. It comes through.”
Two Bush-backing House Republicans, speaking privately, said they expect the exodus from Bush to happen sooner rather than later and to largely benefit Rubio as well. One said that, barring a top-three finish for Bush in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, members will start heading for the door. Another, when asked when it will be time to jump ship, said only, “soon.” And both said Rubio would most likely pick up their endorsements.
To be sure, other lawmakers are sticking firm with their support of Bush, who is expected to do much better in New Hampshire and South Carolina, despite his sixth-place finish in Iowa.
“I’m still a Bush guy,” said Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. “I would anticipate that if the results were the same in New Hampshire there would be some disappointment, but I don’t think that Iowa surprised anybody.”
Cruz, the winner of the Iowa caucuses, is polling well in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and nationally, and could also benefit from socially conservative candidates like Huckabee exiting the race.
Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas has been a surrogate for Cruz in the House, and he said that he is already meeting with fellow members to discuss the candidate’s strong showing in Iowa. He said he expects some endorsements to come from committee chairs and high-profile members of the conservative movement, though he declined to name any yet.
“There are a number of legislators here that for parochial reasons had to support, for instance, a Mike Huckabee if they’re from Arkansas, or a Rick Santorum if they’re from Pennsylvania. And once those folks have cleared the field, quite a few members of Congress have indicated to me that … Senator Cruz will be their next choice,” Ratcliffe said.
Still, that will not prove to be universally true. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a Republican freshman, indicated that Rubio is his choice now that Huckabee has suspended his campaign. And Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, who backed Huckabee after the former Arkansas governor campaigned for him, will now observe the primary from afar through Super Tuesday, which includes a primary in his state.
“I had a very special relationship with Governor Huckabee,” Fleischmann said. “I probably will remain neutral and let the very diverse field play itself out with our voters.”
The vast majority of House members and senators remain unaffiliated in the race, including most of the leadership, who have said they will not endorse until a nominee is chosen. Neutral members will increasingly align themselves with a candidate as the primaries continue—especially if the crucial primaries are in their states.
Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, for instance, made his first endorsement on Tuesday, announcing he would back Cruz. And although personal antipathy toward Cruz from some members could slow the endorsements, Ratcliffe said the senator's viability as a candidate could make that a moot point.
“The better his chances are of being our nominee, the more likeable he will be to a lot of his colleagues in Congress,” he quipped.