Bush Alumni Test Whether Family Name Is Liability in 2016

As a key player in George W. Bush’s administration, Ed Gillespie was a vocal supporter of Bush’s unsuccessful plan to revamp U.S. immigration law.

Gillespie is taking a different stance this year when it comes to an immigration plan backed by the former president’s brother, Jeb Bush. In campaigning for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, Gillespie has distanced himself from Bush’s proposals for undocumented immigrants and for new education standards.

Gillespie, 52, is one of more than two dozen former Bush administration officials seeking state or federal offices this year in contests from New York to Nebraska. How they embrace the Bush brand -- running on it, or running away from it -- could be an early market test for Jeb Bush, now considering his own presidential campaign.

“That’s obviously the number one thing: Whether or not there is still Bush fatigue,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University history professor and author of “The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment.”

The family brand is one of Jeb Bush’s biggest assets and biggest liabilities, as the younger brother of George W. Bush and son of ex-President George H.W. Bush.

How voters react, following a Bush presidency marked by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and growing federal budget deficits, may show how difficult the path to the Republican presidential nomination will be.

‘Damaged’ Brand

Jeb Bush “has to make a calculation about whether the brand is damaged so severely that even someone who is potentially a great president or great candidate can’t overcome the controversy and unpopularity of his brother,” Zelizer said.

Jeb Bush, 61, has additional considerations.

The public spotlight that was uncomfortable for his family at times in Florida, where he was governor from 1999 to 2007, would intensify in a national campaign. And his personal finances -- he runs his own business consulting firm and serves on several corporate boards, including Tenet Healthcare Corp., the third largest U.S. hospital company -- would be scrutinized.

“I have a fulfilled life,” Bush said in an interview this month with Fox News in which he allowed that he also is “thinking” of running for president in 2016.

It may be difficult for him to escape his brother’s legacy. As president, George W. Bush cited faulty intelligence to justify the war in Iraq, botched the response to Hurricane Katrina and needed a $700 billion bank bailout to keep the economy from collapsing in his final days in office.

‘Low Expectations’

“Jeb Bush will benefit from low expectations that continue to plague his brother,” said Miami-based pollster Fernand Amandi. “People expecting the kid brother of George W. Bush will be shocked at the gravitas and the intellectual engagement Jeb Bush brings to the table.”

The former president’s dedication to privacy since leaving office has helped rehabilitate his own image. His public approval rating was 33 percent before leaving office in 2009, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Another survey last year showed his approval had climbed to 47 percent.

Also helping: President Barack Obama, who used his predecessor’s record to attack campaign opponents in 2008 and 2012, has seen his own approval ratings tumble.

“The Bush brand has rebounded somewhat,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who worked on Jeb Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns and Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

This could benefit candidates such as Gillespie in Virginia, a swing state that supported George W. Bush for president in 2000 and 2004, and Obama in 2008 and 2012.

‘Natural Progression’

“This is a natural progression for these candidates,” Newhouse said. “They’re all smart political operatives who are running because they see an opportunity in 2014, which looks like it’s going to be a good year for Republicans.”

In fact, it’s commonplace for former presidential administration officials to seek elected office themselves. Should Jeb Bush run and capture the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, he could face a Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who is former President Bill Clinton’s wife and a former secretary of state in Obama’s administration.

Former Clinton administration staff in elected office include New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a former Cabinet secretary; U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who worked for Cuomo at the U.S. Department of House and Urban Development; and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was a White House adviser to both Clinton and Obama.

Clinton Alumni

Clinton alumni seeking office this year include former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt, running for a U.S. House seat in Arkansas, and Fred DuVal, a former White House aide and now candidate for Arizona governor.

From Obama’s administration, Juliette Kayyem, a former Homeland Security official, and former U.S. Medicare chief Donald Berwick are running for governor in Massachusetts. A pair of former Obama White House staff members, Eric Lesser and Michael Blake, are seeking state legislative seats in Massachusetts and New York, respectively.

Elise Stefanik, a Bush White House aide running for a U.S. House seat in New York, says her former boss remains popular among the party’s primary voters. Bush won her district in 2000 and 2004, while Obama won in both of his elections.

Stefanik, 29, said her connection to Bush was an asset.

“I’m in a contested primary right now, and President Bush is one of the most popular Republican figures,” she said in an interview. “And voters who may have supported President Obama in the past have a rosier assessment of President Bush’s legacy, now that they’re able to compare the two.”

Party Base

While some Bush alumni are running on pro-business agendas -- Virginia’s Barbara Comstock, a former Justice Department public affairs director, won a U.S. House primary on April 26 with help from the party’s establishment -- many former officials running for office are appealing to the party’s base.

Though Gillespie praised the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill last year as the “right approach,” he opposes it now.

“It’s unlikely that it’s going to occur in an election year and, frankly, I don’t think it should at this point,” Gillespie said last week at a lunch with reporters in Virginia.

In North Carolina, Taylor Griffin, who worked in Bush’s Treasury Department before starting a Washington-based consulting and lobbying firm, promotes his White House work while calling himself the “clear conservative choice” against incumbent Republican Representative Walter Jones.

Ted Cruz

Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse, who worked in two Cabinet agencies under Bush, was endorsed last week by Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea-Party aligned Republican from Texas. Cruz was a domestic policy adviser for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and may be a presidential candidate in 2016.

“There have been a lot of Tea Party websites with pictures of George Bush saying, ‘Do you miss me yet?’” said Rita Grace, head of the Constitutional Tea Party in Virginia, which includes about 2,500 members.

The former president’s standing among Tea Party backers may have surpassed that of his brother, says Sal Russo, chief political strategist for Sacramento-based Tea Party Express.

The Senate-passed 2013 immigration bill, which both Bushes support, is panned by Tea Party members. It offered millions of undocumented immigrants a potential path to U.S. citizenship. Jeb Bush angered some among the party’s base on April 6 by calling it an “act of love” for undocumented workers to enter the U.S. to provide for their families -- though he says he prefers a path to legal status rather than citizenship.

Common Core

A set of national educational standards known as the Common Core, a policy priority for Jeb Bush, is opposed by Tea Party groups including the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and many Bush alumni seeking office, including Gillespie.

Bush has been a popular figure on the campaign trail, raising money for Gillespie, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. Next month, he’ll host a fundraiser for South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Gillespie, a counselor during Bush’s second White House term, says he considers Jeb Bush a friend, and cares “very deeply” about George W. Bush. Gillespie, Republican National Committee chairman during Bush’s 2004 re-election and also a member of the 2000 campaign team, said “history will be good” to the former president.

Still, Gillespie says, he’s “running as my own person.”

“This is the first time that it’s actually me talking about what I’m for, what I would do and laying out my views and beliefs,” Gillespie said of his experience in the White House. “Those experiences were very helpful in helping me to form those views, but I’m running as Ed Gillespie.”