Bush failed to light a fire in Michigan, GOP observers say
Jeb Bush came to Grand Rapids in mid-November, not seeking more campaign cash from west Michigan Republicans, but in search of new supporters for a White House campaign that was struggling to get noticed.
The lunchtime “friendraiser” at the Amway Grand Plaza hotel attracted a sparse crowd of Republicans that paled in comparison to the 8,000 people who packed into a suburban Grand Rapids basketball arena a month later to see Donald Trump deliver a scorched-earth stump speech.
“Trump ate up all of the oxygen and all of the old rules that used to apply to primaries didn’t apply to this primary,” said Stu Sandler, a GOP political consultant who attended the Bush “friendraiser.”
Despite amassing a campaign war chest that topped $150 million between his campaign and super political action committee, Bush’s bid to follow his brother and father into the presidency was overshadowed by the rise of Trump’s headline-grabbing campaign.
Bush ended his campaign for president Saturday night after a fourth-place finish in South Carolina. He had finished fourth in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary and a distant sixth in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. After finishing second in Iowa, Trump won the New Hampshire and South Carolina contests, solidifying his standing as the GOP’s presidential frontrunner.
Bush “never connected with the voters,” said Ron Weiser, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman who also attended the Grand Rapids event but has remained neutral. “One of the things it’s done is changed the perception that if you have more (campaign) money than anyone else, it means you’re going to win.”
With Michigan’s March 8 primary just two weeks away, the campaigns of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are busy courting Bush supporters and donors here with hopes of slowing Trump’s momentum.
“Going forward, a lot of the Bush supporters are going to look closely at Rubio and Kasich and think through where their loyalties belong,” said Bobby Schostak, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman who donated to Bush and has not decided whom to support instead.
Through the end of 2015, Bush raised more money in Michigan from donations of $200 or more than any other presidential candidate on both sides of the aisle. He amassed $978,760 in Michigan donations compared to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s $917,733 and Republican Ben Carson’s $792,701 as of Dec. 31, according to recent campaign fundraising reports.
But money didn’t materialize into support from a splintered Republican electorate with lots of candidates to choose from this election year.
“This isn’t a race this year where money’s driving the outcomes,” Schostak said. “I don’t think anybody — pundit, expert, political science Ph.D — can really figure this out.”
Bush captured just 5 percent support of likely Michigan Republican primary voters in a Feb. 14-16 statewide telephone poll commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV.
Trump led the field with 25 percent support, followed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas at 15 percent, Rubio at 12 percent and Kasich at 10.5 percent support in Michigan.
Republican voter Dave Stauffer, 63, of the Grand Rapids suburb of Jenison, participated in the poll and said he supported Bush, even knowing that Bush “wasn’t really doing super good” in the race.
“It was just not in the cards for him,” said Stauffer, who indicated he’ll likely switch his support to Cruz instead.
About 21 percent of likely Michigan Republican primary voters said they were undecided and another 36 percent backing a candidate said they could still change their mind.
“It’s up in the air, but it appears that Trump’s ahead right now,” said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who chaired Bush’s Michigan campaign and traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire to help Bush out.
Schuette said Sunday he hasn’t decided whether he’ll publicly endorse a different candidate before the March 8 primary.
“We have a fine collection of candidates out there,” Schuette said, “and the race is getting narrowed. We’ll see.”
Schuette chalked up Bush’s poor showing in the early voting states as the byproduct of “an unusual year” in American presidential politics where even Clinton — the long-presumed Democratic heir apparent to President Barack Obama — is in an unexpected nomination battle with socialism-espousing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“This is a tough line of work, running for president is a huge effort,” Schuette said. “I think that this is an unusual year, an unusual cycle with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump each expressing the huge anger, dissatisfaction and discontent coming out of the failed policies of Obama presidency.”
Schostak said Bush didn’t initially perform well in debates, especially the first debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6 when Bush looked rattled by Trump on a crowded stage with eight other candidates who were jockeying for support at the time.
“It’s just stunning to me that he was not a better performer on his feet in the debates,” Schostak said Sunday. “He’s outstanding in these town halls, he’s outstanding in receptions, in rallies. He carries a very presidential feeling about himself. I don’t know if he’s caught by the lights or it’s a nervous situation ... (but) he didn’t perform; he wasn’t himself.”
Rubio in Grand
Rapids on Tuesday
GOP presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida will hold a campaign rally at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at a Lacks Enterprises auto parts research and development facility in Grand Rapids.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and advance online registration through eventbrite.com is required.