Politics & Government

Democrats’ biggest worry in ’16? Bush, maybe Kasich

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush visits The Varsity restaurant during a campaign stop in Atlanta earlier this month.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush visits The Varsity restaurant during a campaign stop in Atlanta earlier this month. AP

The Republican Democrats fear most isn’t Donald Trump. It’s Jeb Bush, with John Kasich coming on fast.

Ask members of the Democratic National Committee who they least want to face in the 2016 presidential election, and they often say they hope Trump stays hot.

“We are all Trump supporters,” joked Glen Maxey, a DNC member from Texas. The DNC wrapped up its three-day summer meeting Saturday, and members see Trump’s high negatives and penchant for controversy as lethal in a general election.

The insiders most respect those who have succeeded using their insider standards, and Trump has never won political office. That’s why Democrats often say their most difficult foes are Bush, the former two-term governor of Florida and part of a family that’s won three recent presidential elections, and Kasich, second term governor of a key swing state, Ohio.

“Bush has experience, and he’s shown he can govern,” said Alice Huffman, a DNC member from Sacramento.

Bush won two gubernatorial elections in one of the country’s most unpredictable political environments, and so far this election cycle, he and his supporters have amassed far more campaign cash than any of his rivals.

“Money talks loudly in politics,” said Alabama Democratic Chairwoman Nancy Worley. “And Bush has the power structure to keep raising money.”

Bush is also seen as having positions with appeal to the centrist swing voters who often decide elections. On immigration, for instance, he backs a path to legal status for many undocumented immigrants.

“He’s trying to play the adult in the room,” said Mitchell Ceasar, a DNC member from Florida.

Bush’s style could be welcomed as a contrast to the acerbic Trump, said Maxey.

What gives him and others some pause is that “Bush is very rusty,” Ceasar said, since he last ran for office 13 years ago.

Enter Kasich.

He’s still getting known, but has a natural appeal to the pros. He won the governorship of Ohio in 2010, defeating incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland, a strong ally of President Barack Obama. Four years later, Kasich won re-election in a landslide.

Many Democrats remember him as a congressman, when he worked with them on budget and national security issues. Today, his views are seen as center-right, and his ease with voters is considered a big plus.

Kasich was one of the last to enter the race, declaring his candidacy only about a month ago, and has been rising steadily in polls.

Dottie Deans, Vermont Democratic chair, said she found herself focusing on him during the Republicans’ Aug. 6 debate.

“He just kind of bubbled up,” she said.

Belinda Biafore, West Virginia Democratic chair, had the same sense. “The things he said were not clearly leaning to the right,” she said.

Democrats also cited Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as Republicans who could give them trouble.

Walker has stumbled recently. After Trump declared he wanted to end “birthright citizenship,” which allows children born to undocumented immigrants in this country to become citizens, Walker agreed. A few days later, he said he did not support amending the Constitution so the change could be made.

Rubio seems lost so far in the Republican crowd, unable to get much notice, though polls suggest he has potential.

A Quinnipiac University last week showed Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, beating Rubio in a hypothetical matchup by 1 percentage point and Bush by 2. Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering a bid, topped Rubio by 3 and Bush by 6.

The poll illustrated why Democrats are eager for Trump to keep doing well.

What gives Democrats hope is that should Bush, Kasich or one of the other tougher candidates become the nominee, they'll have to veer too far to the right to remain strong general election candidates.

That might already be happening; Bush is under fire for referring to “anchor babies” to describe children born in the U.S. to immigrants who may believe the baby will help their chances of staying in this country.

The toughest Republican to run against in 2012 would have been Mitt Romney, the moderate to liberal governor of Massachusetts, said James Zogby, an at-large DNC member. However, “by the time he emerged from the primary process, he wasn’t the same.”

He had positioned himself as a diehard conservative, won the nomination, and lost the election.