Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took another step toward running for president this week, but don’t let his brother’s victories in Georgia fool you: He would likely face an excruciating primary here.
Bush said he will “actively explore” a 2016 run and would enjoy high-name recognition in a crowded field that could include as many as a dozen serious candidates. But his more moderate stances on immigration and the Common Core education standards could clash with a conservative strain of GOP politics that dominates in Georgia.
Georgia, after all, picked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012 over establishment favorite Mitt Romney.
“It’s impossible for him (Bush) to win in Georgia,” said Maria Zack, a consultant in Cumming who helped guide the Georgia presidential primary campaigns of Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the state in 2008.
“Jeb’s tested and he’s proven to be inconsistent, so conservatives are very nervous and already upset with politicians who can’t stick to their principles,” added Zack, who is running a Super PAC in support of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Georgia, which sent its Electoral College votes and GOP convention delegates convincingly to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, could play an important role in the primary. The state had a cache of 76 GOP delegates in 2012 — more than swing-state Ohio — and it’s expected to be a part of a March “SEC primary” after early voting states have winnowed the field.
Beyond his famous pedigree, Bush also brings huge fundraising potential. Georgia at first will be called upon for the latter, with a cluster of big Republican donors in the Atlanta area, while the politicking will be mostly concentrated in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina for the next year.
Eric Tanenblatt, a well-connected Republican fundraiser in Atlanta who had close ties with former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, could be in the mix to help the Jeb Bush campaign raise money. He said that Bush would be a “formidable candidate” who would have more support in the state than it seems.
“He was a very conservative governor, and he had very conservative policies. And he also is a very big thinker,” Tanenblatt said. “And our party needs big thinkers. I’m not one who is big on labels, but what I know about Jeb Bush is that he is a solid conservative.”
That’s not the opinion in tea party circles.
Conrad Quagliaroli, the head of the Cherokee County Tea Party Patriots, had breakfast last week with a group he said was not tea party members, but more mainstream Republicans. All declared Bush to be too moderate for their tastes.
Among their sticking points: Bush championed the Common Core education standards, which were developed in part by former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. The standards are a state-driven attempt to create national benchmarks for students.
The Obama administration has rewarded states that adopt Common Core with extra money, a move conservatives say qualifies as federal overreach into what they consider a sacred local matter — what children learn. Bush has shown no signs of backing off his support for Common Core, despite the fact that it has become a flash point with the GOP base.
“If Jeb Bush was right on every other single issue for tea party people but still was for Common Core, that would be a deal-breaker for every tea party person I know,” Quagliaroli said. “Common Core, we like to say, will do to education what Obamacare has done for health care. And for the same reason — it was built on a pack of lies.”
Ditto for Joe McCutchen, a conservative activist in Ellijay who was one of Romney’s loudest supporters.
“I think Jeb Bush is far too liberal,” he said. “If it’s Bush against (Democrat) Hillary Clinton, I would certainly vote for Bush. But nearly every conservative I talked to would be against him in the primary.”
While Clinton, the former first lady and ex-secretary of state, is the clear favorite on the Democratic side, the Republican field has the makings of a free-for-all.
Bush would be one of several possibilities coming from governor’s mansions: New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Texas’ Rick Perry, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Ohio’s John Kasich and Huckabee are among the other possibilities.
From the U.S. Senate, there’s Cruz, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio from Florida and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also have been testing the waters as long-shot outsiders.
“This could be a presidential primary cycle that breaks late and has a lot of different components to it and a lot of different coalitions,” Georgia GOP consultant Chip Lake said. “I know a lot of the base wasn’t really happy with the announcement of Jeb getting in. But I believe those are the same people that didn’t like Mitt Romney, and he became nominee of our party.”
Many of Georgia’s leading figures are staying out for now. Gov. Nathan Deal, who supported Gingrich in 2012, said in an interview that he was taking a “wait-and-see approach.” Other Republicans have stayed tight-lipped on the evolving race.
But there was at least one GOP officeholder who welcomed the news. State Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, said he viewed Bush as a Gingrich-like candidate who could bring much-needed ideas to the table, and he pointed to Bush’s education record in Florida.
“If Jeb Bush were to run, he would put school reform and school choice on the table and force the other candidates to respond,” Brockway wrote on Facebook, adding: “We need a GOP nominee who will talk about big ideas and big reforms and I think Jeb can make that happen.”
But, for Brockway at least, the big ideas only go so far.
“I will most likely not be supporting him,” he wrote. “I’m hoping Bobby Jindal runs.”
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