Ahead of the New Hampshire primary, the GOP Establishment is sending Jeb Bush’s campaign a clear message: Beat Rubio or die.
To keep the party’s primary from devolving into a two-man race between a pathological narcissist and unlikable sociopath, Republican bigwigs need to unite behind a pseudo-moderate. On Monday in Iowa, Marco Rubio made a strong case that he is the most competitive of the field’s more palatable reactionaries. The Florida senator posted a strong third-place showing, capturing 23 percent of the vote. Bush, by contrast, finished in sixth — 3,000 votes behind Kentucky senator Rand Paul, who put his campaign out of its misery on Wednesday.
Imagine you’re a prominent Republican donor who aligned yourself with “Jeb!” last year, back when everybody was doing it. On the one hand, you could keep bankrolling the guy who spent $5,000 for every vote he received in the Hawkeye State — the one who just barely persuaded his own mother to endorse him, the one whose most reliable applause line has become “please clap.” On the other hand, you could switch allegiance to the younger, handsomer, more Latino politician with identical politics — the one who septupled Bush’s support in Iowa. How eager would you be to pursue option No. 1? How about if Bush lost to Rubio again, this time in a region where his family has deep political roots?
According to the New York Times, you would not be eager to do that. Not at all.
“Some of Mr. Bush’s major donors, including those with long ties to the family, are also growing impatient, hoping he will not go past New Hampshire absent a strong finish here,” Jonathan Martin and Ashley Parker wrote on Wednesday.
Bush’s most prominent supporters on Capitol Hill are striking a similar note.
“If Rubio beats him badly in New Hampshire, Jeb is toast,” South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who endorsed Bush after folding his own hopeless 2016 bid, told the Times. Meanwhile, one of the first members of Congress to endorse Bush, Texas representative Pete Sessions, told the National Journal that his eye is wandering to another candidate.
“Everybody is weighing and balancing what they know now that they didn’t know 10 months ago, and I think that the person who gets closest to me is a Rubio,” Sessions said.
But the beleaguered candidate himself seems determined to keep his campaign marching, regardless of how he performs in the Granite State primary, where current polls show him only one point behind Rubio — for ownership of fourth place.
“Oh, I’m continuing on,” Bush told reporters Tuesday, when asked if he would keep campaigning, even in the face of a poor showing next week. “I’m continuing on, yeah.”
If Bush wishes to persist, the Establishment can’t stop him, at least not immediately. As of January 1, Bush’s campaign had $7.6 million on hand, and his super-pac was funded to the tune of $58 million. Rubio’s other rivals for the title of “Establishment candidate,” John Kasich and Chris Christie, aren’t nearly that well bankrolled. Even if Rubio won over every donor with lifelong ties to the Bush family, Jeb! could still contest this thing for months, which would be a real problem for “anyone but Trump or Cruz” Republicans.
Bush hasn’t merely slowed the putatively moderate portion of the GOP electorate from consolidating behind Rubio — he’s also spent $20 million trying to weaken the party’s most popular Establishment candidate.
If those attacks aren’t enough to lift Jeb! over Marco in New Hampshire, there won’t be much clapping for Bush in the GOP’s ranks, no matter how humorously he begs for it.