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Cantor's Loss Won't Sink Jeb Bush's 2016 Hopes

Cantor's Loss Won't Sink Jeb Bush's 2016 Hopes

By Scott Conroy - June 13, 2014

There are several reasons to greet the prospect of a Jeb Bush 2016 presidential run with a healthy dose of skepticism.   

The former Florida governor last ran for office a dozen years ago, and since then he hasn’t been champing at the bit to take over the family business at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 

Though a favorite of Wall Street financiers and long-tenured denizens of the Sunday talk show circuit, Bush has another strike against him: He hardly could have picked two issues more out of step with the grassroots conservatives who dominate the early Republican presidential primaries than advocating for comprehensive immigration reform and the Common Core educational standards. 

But over the coming months, as he calibrates his inclination to run and capacity to win, one thing unlikely to figure into that calculus is the opinion of 36,110 GOP primary voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. They backed Tea Party-backed Dave Brat over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday.

There is no doubt that Cantor’s shocking loss was particularly unsettling to many of the establishment Republicans in Bush’s camp, who took note of how the incumbent’s more moderate position on immigration came back to haunt him. 

But among Republicans with dreams of fielding a 2016 presidential nominee able to improve upon Mitt Romney’s 44-point deficit to President Obama among Hispanic voters, Bush has been a clear favorite.  

While Cantor’s defeat may have highlighted Bush’s vulnerabilities on the immigration issue, people close to the former Florida governor are dismissing the post-primary analysis that Bush’s 2016 bid has increasingly become a non-starter. 

Ana Navarro -- a Florida-based Republican strategist and longtime friend and supporter of Bush -- said that Cantor’s defeat was less about the Tea Party and immigration and more about the seven-term congressman’s failings as a candidate.  

“Eric Cantor lost touch with his district,” Navarro said. “We have seen race after race this year where strong supporters of immigration reform like [North Carolina Rep. Renee] Elmers, [South Carolina Sen. Lindsey] Graham and [House Speaker John] Boehner have easily won. What voters want are candidates who take positions on issues and stand by them.” 

Navarro added that many voters are not averse to getting behind candidates with whom they disagree on certain issues, as long as they are not perceived to be running away from their records. 

“Leadership matters,” she said. “This angle about the Cantor race being a marker for GOP primary in 2016 strikes me as over-thinking, over-bloviating, and possibly over-drinking. Really, it's a hell of a stretch.” 

Bush’s allies point to the results of Tuesday’s South Carolina Senate primary, in which Graham -- who has long led the charge on the Republican side for immigration reform -- easily avoided a runoff against a half-dozen GOP challengers, all of whom tried and failed to outflank him to the right.   

Mike Murphy, a close adviser to Bush, said that while immigration was part of the reason for Cantor’s defeat, questions about the depth of his connection to the 7th District and some of the leadership votes he had taken were at least as relevant.  

“I don’t think this was a one-issue thing,” Murphy said. “More of a perfect storm.” 

Another Bush ally pointed to Cantor’s questionable allocation of his campaign’s enormous fundraising advantage over Brat as a chief reason for his defeat.  The Cantor team spent $1 million in early campaign ads, which inaccurately portrayed his largely unknown challenger as a “liberal” college professor -- a strategy that appeared to have backfired, in that it informed disengaged and alienated GOP voters that there was someone running against the incumbent.  

Still, there is no doubt that anger over Cantor attempts to reach a compromise with Democrats on immigration helped fuel the conservative talk radio charge against him.  

But despite the issue’s salience in some of this year’s House and Senate Republican primaries, polling in recent years shows that most GOP voters support at least some kind of immigration reform. 

The latest evidence of this comes from Republican pollster Whit Ayers, who surveyed 1,000 GOP primary voters and found that 56 percent supported some level of legal status for illegal immigrants (short of full citizenship) while just 36 percent opposed it.  

It is important to note that those numbers may belie the anti-immigration reform leanings of core GOP activists, caucus-goers and primary voters in key presidential states like Iowa and South Carolina.  

And the collapse of support for Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential bid, which happened after Romney characterized him as soft on illegal immigration, remains instructive of the risks that any Republican White House contender takes in coming out full bore for reform.  

But if Bush runs in 2016, he will start out facing a half-dozen or so viable GOP candidates, most of whom figure to split the hard-line anti-immigration reform vote, perhaps leaving room for a candidate who is more moderate on the issue to succeed. 

After spending much of the upcoming summer on the fundraising circuit, Bush plans to hit the stump on behalf of Republican candidates running in midterm races around the country this fall.   

It will be during that time -- rather than in the current post-Cantor fog -- that he will get a better sense of whether there is room for him to run in 2016.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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