Jeb Bush introduced his candidacy with a shot over the bow to the base: Republicans have to “lose the primary to win the general.” One candidate in 2012, Jon Huntsman, had a strategy to run against conservatives at each turn, the plan being that there were still enough GOP moderates and even liberals (in open primaries) to win against several conservative candidates who would be splitting the conservative vote. The Huntsman strategy failed miserably in 2012; the non-conservative ex governor of conservative Utah won one delegate.
Is Jeb Bush naive enough to follow Huntsman’s strategy? Will the shots at conservatives continue or will he change his tone? What was the purpose of the “lose the primary to win the general” comment, given the history of Huntsman’s pathetic campaign? The answer is this: it was an effort to endear himself to the monied GOP donors, who with the exception of the Koch brothers and a few others, are more moderate than GOP primary voters and sometimes like to see these voters “scolded.” Bush wanted to start his campaign out by winning over these donors, and Jeb believed to them this was a “Sister Souljah moment.” Besides that it was an obvious jab to Romney, who had changed many of his previously-liberal positions to more conservative ones and whose politically inept language, namely the phrase “self deportation” was a gift to the Democrats. Romney’s 23% share of the Latino vote was almost half of the share of the Latino vote that President George W. Bush garnered (40%) in his defeat of [mc_name name=’Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’K000148′ ].
Splitting the GOP primary electorate into thirds: moderates, conservatives, and very conservatives, Jeb Bush believes that he can win the all the voters in the “moderate” category, having only to compete with Chris Christie for these voters. He will not have to compete for the “very conservative” third, but I do not expect Bush to abandon courting the conservative third, as he should understand that this is a perilous strategy both in the nomination fight and in the general election: conservatives staying home cost his brother the popular vote in 2000 (after the October surprise DWI) and was a major factor (as well as the aforementioned Latino vote) in Romney’s loss in 2012. Bush cannot win the nomination solely on the votes of moderates, especially with Christie in the race and maybe even Kasich and Paul. Romney had a lock on the “left third” of the GOP primary electorate in 2012 and Jeb will NOT have this. In fact, Jeb will need far more help from conservatives in the battle for the nomination than Romney needed because Romney had no serious challenger taking votes from his left. Christie has more charisma and political skill than the inept Huntsman, and Kasich is a proven votes-getter and Paul will win some moderates with his unorthodox political basket of views.
But in his plan to win enough conservatives to win the nomination, Bush has some clear advantages over Romney in 2012: there have been issues on which Bush has been consistent and has been conservative: namely taxes, abortion, and the guns. The Cato institute, in four different scorecards gave him an average score of “B” on issues involving taxes and spending. (Like his brother he was rated good on taxes and not-so-good on spending.) Once the debates begin and the campaigning starts in earnest, Bush will already have a significant warchest from the money donors, many of which he won over with the “lose the primary” comment on his unofficial launch. But when people besides political junkies start paying attention, about a month before the Iowa caucuses, look for Bush to pivot: Bush will talk about the issues he’s been consistently strong on like taxes, abortion, and guns, and he’ll have a big warchest to tout his record in Florida on those issues. If he is endorsed by the NRLC, which he probably will be, look for him to tout this endorsement in large early ad buys and in the debates. The non political junkies introduction to the Jeb campaign will see him touting his record as a tax cutter and a friend of the unborn and the second amendment – a first impression that is not exactly Huntsmanesque.
One other thing that Jeb is counting on is for the early conservative states, particularly Iowa, to again pick an establishment alternative candidate that is either unelectable, like Santurum, or not conservative, like Huckabee. I don’t think either of those has-run candidates will do well in this cycle, hopefully neither will run period, but Bush would be well served if the “establishment alternative” were seen as either unelectable, like [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ], or unpalatable to a large slice of conservatives, like [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ]. Cruz has been Palinized by the media and doesn’t have the charisma, charm, or looks to dig himself out of that hole and would have about a 150 EV ceiling, being very generous. Paul, who would have better general election prospects than Cruz, and I think could win a general election with the right running mate, is not trusted by national security conservatives and those who believe in a strong military. In both the Cruz or Paul scenareo expect major defections by the “conservative establishment” – RedState, NR, American Thinker, Weekly Standard, the Washington Times – who would join with the GOP establishment to give the nomination to Bush.
If conservatives want a nominee other than Bush, it is going to be important to coalesce around a conservative who won’t produce defections from the conservative establishment when he becomes the “Bush-alternative.” Look at the positive coverage the conservative establishment has given to Walker and Rubio, the in the past couple weeks, and their coverage helped Walker “win” the Iowa Freedom Summit and Rubio “win” the Freedom Partners event organized by the Koch brothers. I for one think it’s unfortunate that the “conestab” still doesn’t seem to have much sway with early primary voters and caucus-goers: in 2008 Fred Thompson went nowhere and Iowa voters favored Huckabee, who most in the conservative establishment don’t even view as a conservative. Thompson had good taste in footwear, and this did him in there. Then in 2012 Rick Santorum, who epically lost by about 20 points in his last senate campaign, was chosen in Iowa. The conestab always understood batting .200 in the minors doesn’t get you a big-league promotion but the Iowa caucus-goers again didn’t care.
Had Iowa caucus goers supported Thompson in 2008 or Perry in 2012 the non-establishment candidate would have fared much better. Let’s see if in 2016 the early conservative voters and caucus goers again churn out someone unacceptable, throwing the nomination to Bush. I believe that two potential nominees, one a Governor and one a Senator, could be an establishment-alternative who could win the nomination, and I believe were these two rising stars to BOTH be on the ticket in 2016 the GOP could win 350 EVs. Jeb Bush is a good guy but would have a much harder time winning a general election and is not the conservative that either this Governor or this Senator is; let’s hope that the conservative establishment has influence in 2016 to prevent a Huckabee or a Santorumesque candidate from becoming the Jeb Bush-alternative.
[Disclaimer: I am supporting [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ] or Governor Scott Walker for President]