Election 2016

Jeb Bush Bets His Corporate Donors, Party Bosses Will Beat His Right-Wing Rivals Backed By Billionaires

The GOP's rich and powerful fight for the 2016 nomination.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Andrew Cline

The conventional political wisdom is that ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is intentionally snubbing the far-right as part of a calculated path to the Republican presidential nomination that runs through bigger and more urbane states later in the spring than earlier rural states that favor Christian evangelicals and Tea Partiers.

That explains why he expected to be booed—and was—at the Conservative Political Action Conference when supporting comprehensive immigration reform. It explains why right-wing talk radio hosts regularly slam him for supporting national education standards. It’s all part of a strategy to make him appear as the more moderate Republican in the race, even though he’s far to the right on social issues and a free-market evangelist.

Bush is not making much of an impression in ideological Iowa, but instead looking more at more pragmatic New Hampshire, which comes next, and then to states favoring business conservatives over social conservatives two months later—such as Florida, Illinois, Arizona, New York, and even California in June, if it takes that long. The Washington Post this week questioned Bush’s “long game,” even if Iowa’s role is absurdly hyped. In 2012, only 121,000 people took part in Iowa’s GOP caucuses, compared to 130 million people who voted in November.

What’s really going on here is that Bush is betting that the Republican Party’s political bosses, incumbents and donors with pro-corporate agendas will help him win a long and hard fight against a handful of more ideological insurgents who have billionaire sponsors. This is about as far away as one can be from James Madison’s vision of what a people-centered democracy was supposed to be, but it is what’s unfolding as Bush is betting that entrenched power and institutional wealth will win over time.

You can already see the contours of Bush’s plan coming into view. There already have been news reports that Bush will raise more money than any other candidate to sustain a long campaign, as well as his likelihood of locking up party insiders—political bosses and incumbents—who hold 437 of the 1,235 non-pledged votes needed for the Republican presidential nomination.

But there are other variables and risks that cut deeper than whether Bush can keep his momentum going after his rivals win in Iowa—getting a mountain of media attention—and do well in other early states that favor farther to the right candidates. The biggest below-the-radar factor is some big states have not scheduled their primaries, which could help or hurt Bush depending on when they vote, or conversely, boost his top rivals: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Two delegate-rich examples are New York and Georgia.

“If New York is early, that’s good news for Jeb,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ blog. “It’s not a caucus state. It will have high voter turn out. Republicans who do well there are not evangelicals. If you’re with the party establishment, New York is a better place for you.” 

Ironically, it looks like the 2016 primary season is turning out exactly the opposite of what the Republican National Committee hoped for. In 2012, billionaires funding specific candidates prolonged the nomination and undermined their nominee—recall Texas Gov. Rick Perry calling Mitt Romney a “vulture capitalist.” The RNC response was to compress the 2016 calendar. It adopted rules awarding delegates proportionately (to any candidate clearing 20 percent of the vote) before March 15. Then it becomes a “winner-takes-most” of the delegates in each contest, with a handful of unpledged delegates in most states going to party bosses and incumbents.

Right now, the race looks like a crowded football field where the public sees everyone running after the ball—but the real action involves either snagging a billionaire on the sidelines, or assembling an even bigger war chest built on unspoken fealty to a slightly different set of elites: political insiders and capitalists investing in the race.

Depending how you count, there are more than a dozen possible GOP candidates—top tier, secondary and larks. Three contenders apart from Bush have recruited billionaires: Walker (libertarian industrialist David Koch), Rubio (Miami car dealer Norman Braman), Ted Cruz (New York hedge fund owner Robert Mercer). Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has yet to weigh in. That billionaire support will prolong the race, certainly until other factors—such as not winning early contests or staying competitive as the season unfolds—kick in.

Bush met this past weekend in Florida with donors, where he is seeking to raise a $100 million or more to fend off cumulative attacks from individual candidates with $10 million or more accumulating in the bank. For now, what’s clear is Bush faces a long and noisy campaign.

“I think that may be part of the reason that Jeb Bush is delaying his announcement,” Skelley said. “I think he is waiting as long as he can, because it is going to be a very long process. It could go all the way to June. It’s tough to say how he gets to a majority [of delegates]. There’s a fog of war there.”  

See What’s Down The Road

A close look at the still-unfolding GOP schedule, state polling to date, and early calculations and missteps by the candidates—whether they’ve officially declared or not—points to a long and exhausting political season. 

The first nominating contests will be in late January and February. The dates are fluid but the order will likely be Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. There are 133 delegates at stake in those races, with 91 awarded proportionately to candidates; the rest are non-committed slots for state party officials and top office holders. So far, polls find Walker is leading in Iowa, and slightly ahead in New Hampshire and Nevada. Bush is slightly ahead in South Carolina. (Colorado, with 37 delegates, and North Carolina, with 72, may move up.) 

Then comes March first, where 472 total delegates are up for grabs in eight states (353 pledged; 119 unpledged). Of those states, the biggest prizes are Texas (155 total) and North Carolina (if it doesn’t move to February). Other states voting that day are Colorado (if it doesn’t move), Massachusetts (42 total), Oklahoma (43 total), Vermont (16 total) and Virginia (49 total). Texas is the only state where Ted Cruz, its senator, is currently ahead—diluting its overall impact. In North Carolina, Walker is ahead of Bush.

The emerging scenario in these states is nobody is likely to be a clear front-runner. That’s because there are not many delegates at stake, and the top three or four winners will split each state’s pledged delegate pie. The more ideological candidates—namely Walker—will have an early edge because these mostly rural states have virulent right-wing streaks. On the other hand, Rubio’s stock seems to be rising, as Republicans say he is smoother on many issues than Walker. The billionaires’ backing means that the GOP field will stay crowded as long as their man has bragging rights from early wins, or until they fall to the back of the pack. But that could take a while.

This nebulous pattern could last for several months. So far, seven more states have elections with proportionately awarded delegates before March 15, including states where the biggest prizes favor neither Bush, nor Walker, nor Rubio. Between March fifth and thirteenth, there’s Louisiana (with 46 delegates, where Gov. Bobby Jindal may run), Alabama (50 total), Ohio (66 total, where Gov. John Kasich may run), Michigan (59 total), Hawaii (19 total), Mississippi (39 total), and Puerto Rico (with 23 delegates, which Bush just visited—before anyone else).

Frontloading HQ, an academic blog considered the best tracker of the 2016 primary schedule, ran a recent piece saying that Bush just visited Puerto Rico because two days after it votes comes the first of the big winner take-all states: Florida, with 99 delegates; Missouri, with 52 delegates; and Arizona (a week later) with 58 delegates. Illinois also votes on March 15, with 69 delegates (it is a winner-takes-most state). Technicalities aside, Puerto Rico awards all its delegates to one winner—followed by Florida two days later.

“That backdoor winner-take-all scenario in Puerto Rico plus a win in winner-take-all Florida… is a significant one-two punch (over 120 delegates),” it wrote. “If a candidate can pull that off in what appears to be a protracted race (at that point), that is important. Not all states after March 14 are rushing to be winner-take-all. But some are, and if this race keeps going, targeting those winner-take-all states—as John McCain did in 2008—is a big part of the puzzle in the race to 1,235. Jeb Bush is making that play.”

There’s little doubt that the top contenders will have the money to keep campaigning into April or May. What may trump their money-equals-votes plan is the question of how some big states that have not been influential in past presidential campaigns vote. Today, there are nearly a dozen states whose 2016 primary dates are not set. New York is the biggest unknown, although the current prediction is it will vote in April. (Currently, it’s slated for Feb. 2, which would conflict with Iowa and under party rules cause it to lose many of its 95 delegates).

With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie floundering because of the “Bridgegate” abuse-of-power scandal, Bush’s prospects are good in New York (95 total delegates)—as they also are in Illinois (69 delegates), where early polls had Christie leading. Georgia’s primary, with 76 delegates, also has not been scheduled. Bush is also likely to do well in California, with 172 delegates, which votes in early June. Silicon Valley Republicans did not like Walker’s comments that he wanted to cut back on legal immigration—which is how they get software coders. Walker’s other early missteps included saying his fight against unions prepared him to confront ISIS, the Islamic state.

There’s one more factor that weighs in Bush’s favor—even if right now it looks like Walker is doing better in the earliest states. There is a recent trend among GOP leaders and top corporate lobbyists in Washington to exile Tea Party Republicans—starting with opposing them in 2014’s spring primaries. They didn’t win every race—witness Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s disruptive record thus far in the Senate—but that overall trend signals that the party’s pro-corporate, pro-incumbent wing is ascendant while its bomb-throwers are not.

The Republican establishment, which includes editorial writers at New Hampshire’s influential Manchester Union-Leader newspaper, not only want a candidate that they believe can win, but also one who shares their capitalism-first values and will work to implement them. That’s what’s driving Bush’s fundraising. The GOP has a tradition of awarding the nomination to a candidate whose turn is seen as coming. Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2000, are examples. Don’t forget, it was these insiders who recruited Bush to run.

The dynamics of 2016 are different from past races, of course. There’s never been a presidential race where one can see different Republican elites—party bosses, incumbents, corporate donors and billionaires—compete. But there are many reasons to not write off Bush’s chances for the nomination, even if Walker has an early edge in right-wing states that vote first.



Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).