Could Jeb Bush Win Over the Christian Right in '16?
In light of Chris Christie's uncertain political future, some influential Republican figures have shifted their gaze toward Jeb Bush, pegging him as the GOP prospect they believe is best equipped to win the presidency in 2016.
But contrary to popular perception, it’s not just members of the party’s establishment wing who are urging the former Florida governor to considering running. More quietly, prominent social conservatives are also nudging him toward a White House bid.
“Jeb Bush is an attractive candidate for evangelicals that adhere to a pro-faith family and religious freedom agenda,” the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who serves as president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told RealClearPolitics. “He resonates on multiple levels. His optics on faith, his strong narrative as it pertains to his conservative leadership in Florida -- those credentials speak for themselves.”
One of the nation’s most influential Hispanic evangelical leaders, Rodriguez cited Bush’s appeal to religious minority groups that have been “discouraged by the Republican Party” as a particularly enticing prospect for the GOP.
Mark DeMoss, who spearheaded Mitt Romney’s evangelical outreach during both of the former Massachusetts governor’s presidential runs, in a separate interview spoke equally fondly of Bush’s potential as a candidate. DeMoss said he has personally encouraged Bush to seek the presidency in 2016 and dismissed perceptions that the former governor does not speak the language of the grass-roots religious right as naturally as he does the patois of the boardroom and cocktail party-going set.
“I think his record will serve him well with conservatives,” DeMoss asserted. “Conservatives fight with conservatives over what’s a conservative and how conservative is conservative enough, and I don’t know how he’ll come out of those intra-party squabbles, but I think his conservative credentials by just about any measure are pretty solid.”
Despite such positive reinforcement, the potential pitfalls in a Bush candidacy are obvious. In addition to the perception problem that comes with being the third member of his immediate family to seek the nation's highest office, many of the same factors that have elements of the GOP donor base clamoring for him to run are the very ones that make Bush a problematic prospect in a Republican primary.
His vocal and longstanding support for immigration reform, in particular, may be a political winner in a general election setting, but it harkens back to the breach in party orthodoxy that helped sink Rick Perry’s White House hopes in 2012.
But many religious conservative leaders have in recent years become more vocal in supporting the emotionally charged issue of immigration reform. Leading pro-immigration voices on the Christian right such as Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, have drawn explicit comparisons between Jesus’ treatment of foreigners and how the U.S. should welcome outsiders.
And a Pew Research poll conducted last year found that 62 percent of white evangelical Christians believe unauthorized immigrants should be granted a way to stay in the country.
Despite this development, however, the overall politics of reform appear difficult for Bush. But he is thus far showing no signs of modifying his stance. Over the weekend, he called the decision of many immigrants to enter the country illegally an “act of love" -- a characterization that for many on the right will no doubt evoke a comment Perry made during a 2011 debate. The Texas governor’s poll numbers tanked after he said of those who oppose in-state tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants, “I don’t think you have a heart.”
Since leaving office more than seven years ago, Bush has only furthered his reputation as the proverbial voice of reason at a time when the Republican Party has suffered among socially moderate younger voters and women. Bush has said, for instance, that Ronald Reagan and his father, George H.W. Bush, would have a hard time thriving in today’s GOP, due to their penchant for bipartisan problem-solving -- not exactly the kind of rhetoric that gets Republican primary voters fired up.
But pigeonholing Bush as a moderate voice in the potential 2016 presidential field belies his eight-year tenure in Tallahassee. During his governorship, Bush asserted himself frequently on hot-button issues that highlighted his staunch social conservatism, particularly in opposing embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights.
For example, he signed into law a parental notification measure for teenage girls considering abortion and supported a controversial “choose life” specialty license plate, the proceeds from which benefited organizations serving pregnant women who planned to put their babies up for adoption.
In 2003, he made headlines by asking a circuit court to appoint a representative for the fetus of a mentally disabled rape victim. That same year, Bush began a nearly two-year fight to keep alive Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman whose family members battled in court over whether to terminate her life support. The case sparked intense interest and a national debate about end-of-life issues.
It is this record that Bush’s supporters believe will help inoculate him from the “centrist” label that repeatedly threatened to sink Romney during his 2012 primary fight against a weaker field of candidates than the one Bush would likely contend with in two years.
But it won’t be easy.
If Bush does run, one of those key primary fights is certain to center on education policy. And his fierce advocacy for the Common Core public educational standards, which have been adopted by 45 states, looms as perhaps a political problem for him that would be equal to his support for immigration reform.
For many social conservatives, opposition to Common Core has become a rallying cry against what they see as federal infringement on child development. The issue figures to be particularly salient in the nation’s first voting state of Iowa, where evangelicals always turn out in large numbers for the GOP caucuses and home-state Sen. Chuck Grassley is leading an effort in Congress to defund Common Core.
Unlike most of the other potential Republican hopefuls, Bush has not begun to make the rounds in the early voting states. If and when he does, his support for the education initiative will be among the first topics he will have to address.
“The concerns that I’ve heard is that he supports Common Core,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, an influential socially conservative group in the key state. “So among social issues, I’m sure life and marriage will come up, but right now people want to know where he is on Common Core.”
Though his ties to the Christian right are extensive, Jeb Bush -- who converted to his wife’s Catholicism almost two decades ago -- has tended not to wear his personal faith on his sleeve, and certainly not to extent that his elder brother did throughout his political life. Still, according to confidants of the former Florida governor, several religious conservative leaders have nudged Bush privately to seriously consider getting into the race.
Some observers see history repeating itself in the way Bush is being branded in the media, albeit with a twist. While mulling his own presidential bid in 1998 and 1999, George W. Bush also faced questions about whether he was positioning himself as the “establishment” Republican candidate, in part due to the family name and his moderate record on some key issues as governor of Texas.
That perception was quickly quashed, however, once Bush entered the race and presented himself as an unabashedly religious social conservative, naming Jesus as his favorite philosopher and citing Antonin Scalia as a model for the kind of Supreme Court justices he would appoint.
“Those who misapprehended that W. would run as a moderate candidate found out the hard way he was not about to concede social conservatives to other candidates,” one prominent evangelical leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an email. “If Jeb decides to run (and he is a long way off from making that decision), my sense is that he will be able to make as strong or even a stronger case to the socially conservative grassroots of the GOP.”