Jeb Bush wants to claim a family three-peat in South Carolina presidential politics by following his father and brother in winning the South’s first presidential primary.
But the former Republican Florida governor faces a number of challenges in his 2016 run that he formally announced Monday. Bush cancelled his visit to Charleston on Thursday after the mass shooting at a church on Wednesday night.
Several key S.C. supporters of previous Bush family presidential runs are backing other 2016 candidates.
And, while Jeb Bush tops recent state polls, he does not hold a decisive lead and could have more opponents on the February primary ballot than his father and brother had combined.
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South Carolina Republicans also have grown in numbers – and factions, which could spell trouble for a GOP legacy candidate in the Palmetto State.
The state long could be counted on to vote for the GOP establishment’s candidate. “(But) South Carolina threw conventional wisdom out the window in 2012,” state GOP chairman Matt Moore said of Newt Gingrich’s surprise Republican primary win.
The 62-year-old Bush can count on financial backing generated by his family’s political dynasty. But a former Bush family backer wonders how much that will help.
“It’s like The Beatles song,” said Warren Tompkins, who heads a political-action committee for Bush rival Marco Rubio, “we’ll find if money can buy you love.”
Past Bush supporters spread out
Some S.C. backers of George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992, and George W. Bush in 2000, have not returned to the family fold for Jeb Bush.
Former S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins of Greenville, for instance, was close enough to President George W. Bush that he was named U.S. ambassador to Canada. This year, Wilkins heard from Jeb Bush and others from the family’s camp. But Wilkins chose to work for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, heading a political group with ties to the Seneca Republican.
“I have great respect and admiration for the entire Bush family,” Wilkins said. “If Lindsey was not running, I would be proud to support Jeb. But when a friend calls and asks for your help, you help.”
Florence surgeon Eddie Floyd is another one-time Bush backer in the Graham camp.
Another key S.C. backer of the Bushes, former Gov. Carroll Campbell, who vacationed at George W. Bush’s Maine home and was offered ambassadorships, passed away in 2005.
Campbell’s widow, Iris, is “staying on the sidelines” during the 2016 campaign because she has too many relationships with the dozen-plus GOP candidates, son Mike said.
Carroll Campbell campaigned for Jeb Bush when he ran for governor in Florida. Iris Campbell was honorary S.C. chairman for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 S.C. primary campaign. And Graham remains close to the family. Mike Campbell said he can’t back a candidate because he sits on the state Workers’ Compensation Commission.
Tompkins, the S.C. campaign strategist for both Bush presidents who chose to go with Rubio in the 2016 race, said Jeb Bush will find South Carolina’s political power has changed dramatically since his brother George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000.
GOP stalwarts, including Campbell and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, have passed away. And among South Carolina’s current Republican senators and congressmen, only Graham was on Capitol Hill when George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore.
“The whole face of the party has changed,” Tompkins said.
Voters have changed, too.
Jeb Bush could struggle to win over some factions of S.C. GOP voters, Tompkins said.
“Bush will have a problem reaching over to crack Tea Party voters and has problems with social conservatives,” Tompkins said. “He’s running in a lane he’s stuck in.”
Bush’s SC backers
Bush’s S.C. supporters say his political record is more nuanced.
“No candidate will check every box for everyone,” said Catherine Templeton, who previously ran two S.C. state agencies and has joined Bush’s S.C. campaign leadership team.
Templeton lauded Bush’s record as a chief executive in Florida, saying he grew that state’s economy while eliminating government waste and adopting a model school-choice program.
Bush also enjoys one advantage over his rivals, the Charleston-area attorney added. “He’s been able to watch two presidents up close and learn from their successes and mistakes.”
Other S.C. allies of Bush include former U.S. Rep. Tommy Hartnett and Sally Atwater, the widow of famed political consultant Lee Atwater, who managed George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign. Jeb Bush also has named two pastors to his S.C. campaign leadership team, suggesting he is hoping to win over social conservatives.
Bush also retains some support among traditional family allies.
Barry Wynn, a former S.C. GOP chairman who was a co-finance chairman for both Bush presidents, said he has stayed in touch with Jeb Bush’s camp about aiding in his campaign.
“He’s underrated (with) his personal skills and charm,” Wynn said. “His record is not well known. Right now, (voters) think about his father and brother.”
Since formally launching his campaign Monday, Bush has been holding town hall meetings in early voting primary states. But only in South Carolina was his planned town hall meeting billed as being for veterans.
The state is known for its military roots. South Carolina has 417,500 veterans, seventh-most per capita in the nation and the highest among the early primary states, according to an analysis of Department of Veteran Affairs data.
The GOP candidates are working to win veterans.
For instance, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s first visit to South Carolina after announcing his candidacy was to the S.C. Military Museum in Columbia. Perry was accompanied by six war heroes.
Bush named retired Navy Rear Adm. Bill Schachte of Charleston to his nine-member S.C. campaign leadership team Wednesday.
But some vets want more from the candidates.
Veterans are worried about ongoing base and troop cuts under the government’s sequestration plans, said Bill Havlin, S.C. senior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“None of the candidates have addressed the issue as much as I like,” he said. “I don’t think they are taking it as serious as they should.”
Touting national security only will go so far with S.C. GOP voters, Rubio-backer Tompkins said.
“If it was about military issues alone, John McCain would have won in 2000,” Tompkins said, referring to the Republican U.S. senator from Arizona, a former Navy pilot who was a POW in Vietnam.
National security is a good way for candidates to introduce themselves to S.C. voters, especially with recent concerns about ISIS terrorists, Tompkins said.
However, the main campaign issue soon might switch to something harder to digest — like the Affordable Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on in the coming weeks, he said.
“Wouldn’t you rather talk about apple pie rather than spinach or broccoli?” Tompkins said.
The Bushes and SC
Bush family members are 3-1 in S.C. GOP primaries but undefeated since 1980. Those results:
Ronald Reagan: 55%
George H.W. Bush: 15%
George H.W. Bush: 49%
Bob Dole: 21%
George H.W. Bush: 67%
Pat Buchanan: 26%
George W. Bush: 53%
John McCain: 42%
Other Bush ties to S.C.: Former first lady Barbara Bush graduated from Charleston’s Ashley Hall, a private school for girls and young women, in 1943. A Columbia College building also is named for her.