Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush arrives in west Michigan Thursday in search of new supporters of a presidential campaign dogged by the ascendance of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, his chief challenger for Republican votes.
The Bush-Rubio rivalry remains a focal point in the crowded field for the Republican presidential nomination. Both men hail from Florida — a general-election battleground with the third highest number of electoral votes — but are divided by generational loyalties within the party.
In Michigan, Bush, 62, and Rubio, 44, are taking noticeably different paths to build support for the state’s March 8 primary.
Rubio has been in the state once this year and appears to be relying heavily on his growing national presence to build a coalition. Bush has been following a traditional campaign playbook, making multiple trips to the Great Lakes State to tap the same network of donors and loyalists who helped put his father and brother in the White House.
“You don’t come to this state for a picnic. This is hand-to-hand combat. This is all about stamina. Do you have the strength of organization, finances, resources to duke it out?” said Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is chairing Bush’s Michigan campaign. “Jeb is the marathon man, and he’ll be the one standing in the end.”
But Rubio’s oratory in the debates and appeal to a new generation of Republicans continues to undercut Bush’s efforts to be the party’s standard-bearer next year, GOP strategist Greg McNeilly said.
“(Bush) has to inspire people in an authentic way, and he hasn’t been able to do that yet,” McNeilly said. “I think that’s an advantage that Rubio has.”
McNeilly pointed to Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee, where Rubio called Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul a “committed isolationist” while arguing for his plan to “rebuild the American military” with $1 trillion in new defense spending.
“He used Rand Paul as a sparring partner to try to build up his credibility with the foreign policy hawks — part of the old guard, so to speak,” said McNeilly, calling Rubio’s tactic “clever.”
“So he’s really going after Bush’s base,” he added.
Bush had no similar moments during Tuesday’s debate. He did not engage his Florida political protegee directly as he did during the Oct. 28 debate when he chastised Rubio for missing votes in the Senate to campaign for president — a criticism Rubio parried by noting Bush didn’t complain about GOP U.S. Sen. John McCain’s missed votes during his 2008 run for president.
Bush needs more ‘friends’
With the campaign in a slump, Bush family loyalist Peter Secchia is hosting a “friendraiser” Thursday for Jeb Bush at the Amway Grand Hotel in Grand Rapids.
Based on Bush’s third-quarter fundraising, he needs more friends in the Republican stronghold of west Michigan.
Of the $115,675 Bush raised in Michigan from July through September, about 23 percent of the donations — or $27,000 — came from 15 individual contributors in west Michigan, a Detroit News analysis shows.
Hannes Meyers Jr., an 82-year-old semi-retired judge from Holland, contributed $250 to Bush’s campaign during the period, in part because of his loyalty to the Bush family.
“According to the polls, it’s not been what I had hoped for,” Meyers said. “But it’s not over yet.”
The emergence of non-politicians Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina has changed the dynamics for seasoned candidates like Bush.
Rising GOP stars like Rubio and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz have undermined the case for a third Bush presidency, experts say.
“People look at Jeb Bush and say, ‘Really? Another one?’ Or, ‘how’s it going to be different than his brother?’ ” said David Dulio, who chairs the political science department at Oakland University. “Jeb Bush has a really good argument to make that ‘I’m really different than my brother.’ But people never get to that point with him.”
Some of Bush’s own donors are indifferent or conflicted.
John Rakolta Jr., CEO of the Walbridge construction company in Detroit, gave a maximum $2,700 contribution to Bush’s campaign in September. His wife, Terry, sent Rubio a $1,000 check.
But the couple remains uncommitted to Bush or Rubio, taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I wanted to see a fair contest among who I consider the viable candidates,” John Rakolta told The Detroit News. “But just like everyone else, I’m waiting for this field to consolidate, and it doesn’t seem to be consolidating.”
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan congressional delegation’s senior Republican, has been approached by several presidential campaigns but also hasn’t picked a team yet.
He “really respects candidates who are focusing on fresh ideas and innovative solutions that will put Michigan families and businesses in the driver’s seat as we move forward,” Upton spokesman Tom Wilbur said.
Rubio’s message has appeal
Freshman U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland is one of the few high-profile Michigan Republicans to endorse Rubio.
Moolenaar said he met Rubio in Washington last year when Moolenaar was running to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Camp. Moolenaar was impressed by Rubio’s ability to communicate conservative principles, his deep grasp of policy issues and his family’s story of rising from poverty to achieve the “American dream.”
“I see (Rubio) building support among people who are drawn to his message of optimism, and it’s growing,” Moolenaar said.
Rubio’s lone appearance in Michigan this year was a Aug. 20 speech to the Detroit Economic Club. Through Sept. 30, Michigan donors have given $452,125 to Bush’s campaign and $94,395 to Rubio’s, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
The Rubio campaign has hired the Lansing-based Republican political consulting firm WWP Strategies to organize early events. But there is no public leader of the Rubio campaign in Michigan, like Schuette is for Bush.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is not surprised Rubio doesn’t have more campaign infrastructure in the state, in part because there are 20 GOP primaries and caucuses before Michigan votes on March 8, and the results of the early-state voting will influence those voting later.
“It just does not matter because the egg is going to be scrambled four different ways before we get to March 1,” Sabato said. “Who knows what the landscape will look like before Michigan votes?”
Florida ties could be key
Rubio has recently benefited from being third in most polls behind Trump and Carson, McNeilly said.
“Rubio’s support is growing, but it’s a mile wide and an inch deep and he lacks the infrastructure that other candidates have,” McNeilly said. “He’s actually in this very, very sweet spot where he’s not the front-runner, and he’s not getting a lot of scrutiny.”
The situation could change if Rubio gains on Trump and Carson, exposing the Florida senator’s “thin” resume compared with Bush’s two-term accomplishments running the nation’s third most populous state, McNeilly said.
“His biggest general election asset is he’s from Florida, but he’s not the only one from Florida,” he said. “Republicans cannot win without Florida, and Democrats only need to win Florida.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Gary Heinlein contributed.