Florida

In Florida, GOP loyalty belongs to Jeb Bush not Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio has a big Jeb Bush problem.

More than a decade after Bush helped cultivate Rubio as a star in the Florida Legislature — literally giving him a sword as a symbol of maintaining the conservative flame — the two are on an awkward collision course over running for president in 2016.

Former Gov. Bush crushed speculation he would not pursue a campaign by announcing Tuesday that he is “actively” exploring a run and setting up a political committee that will help him travel the country and fill out a political team. He huddled with donors in Miami on Wednesday then did the same in Chicago on Friday.

The move, earlier and more aggressive than anyone expected, was instantly cast as the end of Sen. Rubio’s aspirations.

Don’t count on it.

Rubio is staging his own bid and his allies were keen to inform reporters that Bush would not deter those long choreographed plans. Rubio said he will base his decision on his own accord. And the following day, he seized the spotlight, diving into the battle over President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba.

But even if Rubio proceeds, mentor Bush presents major obstacles that underscore his status as the undisputed king of Florida Republicans. Bush would command the loyalty of top donors and the support of the political establishment.

Florida — and its 29 electoral votes — is essential to Republican hopes to retake the White House, and two candidates competing in the same space looks improbable.

“It’s nothing against Marco,” said John Thrasher, a former legislator who is now president of Florida State University. “Jeb has built up political capital over the years. It’s not just capital. These are people who have worked with him, understand him, and feel his time is here.”

Rubio, who at 43 is nearly two decades younger than Bush, enjoys loads of enthusiastic supporters among Florida’s deep pool of elite GOP fundraisers, but few, if any, of those top bundlers prefer him over Bush. It’s a simple fact of life for any Republican elected leader in Florida that even eight years after he left the governor’s office, Bush overshadows all.

“I love Marco Rubio. I was his general campaign chairman when he ran for Senate,” said Al Hoffman, a developer and former Republican National Committee finance chairman from North Palm Beach. “Marco is a great guy and has a tremendous future, but I have to support Jeb first.”

“It’s about loyalty. For so many of us who got into this game, you don’t forget the one who brought us to the dance. Jeb and his dad and his brother did that for us,” said Mike Hightower, another top fundraiser and former Duval County GOP chairman. “I’d say to Marco, ‘Sorry, but on this one I can’t help you. It’s not personal.’”

Such comments were echoed by a string of veteran Florida GOP fundraisers, some of whom have been helping Jeb Bush since George H.W. Bush ran for president in 1980. Not everyone will say it publicly, but among these veterans, almost everyone sees Bush, 61, as a nearly insurmountable obstacle to Rubio raising sufficient money to mount a strong campaign.

“If I had to prognosticate, I would say that Marco would be running for Senate in 2016,” said Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer and former Republican National Committee finance chairman who was a national finance co-chairman for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Rubio’s current seat is up for re-election this next cycle, complicating his future more. He has time to explore a presidential run but ultimately cannot do both because of state law and will feel pressure from a battery of ambitious Republicans who would love to take his place in the Senate.

“Most people that do like them both would say something similar, that Marco’s got lots of time to focus on being a good senator and if Jeb does definitely decide to run, we’re going to be with him,” said former Florida GOP Chairman Van Poole, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for George W. Bush’s campaigns.

A Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll of more than 150 of the state’s most plugged-in political players conducted after Bush’s big step toward running found that eight in 10 said Bush would be stronger than Rubio in the Republican primary, and nine in 10 said the former governor would be stronger in the general election.

In the unscientific survey of veteran campaign professionals, lobbyists, fundraisers and political scientists, 80 percent doubted Rubio could raise enough money to be competitive, if both he and Bush were running for the Republican nomination. Nearly three-quarters of the Insiders doubted Rubio would run for president now that Bush is poised to do so.

Rubio’s political machine

Rubio has been underestimated before.

He threw himself into a quixotic-looking bid for Senate in 2010 against then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and scrapped his way to the top, aided by Crist’s falling out with conservatives and a tea party uprising. A presidential campaign is an entirely different beast, but Rubio demonstrated he is willing to take risks.

People close to him insist he’s as “serious as a heart attack” about making his mind up independent of Bush and that there is room for both of them on the campaign trail, which should be spilling with Republicans in the most wide-open contest in decades.

Next month Rubio will publish a book that will take him on a tour of states, giving him media exposure at an opportune time. (Bush is working on an ebook about being governor and plans to release 250,000 emails from his time in office.) Already a prolific fundraiser, Rubio has a frenetic January lined up, including a big gathering of donors in South Beach.

Rubio has built a political machine through his Reclaim America PAC, hiring strategists and fundraisers and paying for what has become a robust direct mail operation targeting small donors. About 100,000 people have contributed to him since he ran for the Senate.

Allies of Rubio acknowledge the fundraising challenge with Bush, but Bush also could falter early on. One only has to recall the demise of Fred Thompson in 2008 or Rick Perry in 2012, both of whom were supposed to smother the GOP field.

Much has changed since Bush last ran a campaign in 2002. Social media now helps propel storylines and attacks. Opposition researchers show up at events to record every word and quickly circulate gaffes and controversy.

A crop of online news outlets have added to the din, and some conservative sites, such as Breitbart News, aren’t afraid to relentlessly flog Republicans they view as soft on key issues like immigration.

The establishment donor system still matters, profoundly, but the Super PAC era means a single person can fuel a candidate. Rick Santorum was able to stretch out Romney’s path to the nomination in 2012 in large part because of the backing of a wealthy benefactor.

“We have learned that a lot of the rules don’t pertain anymore,” said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire who says Bush would enjoy broad support in the nation’s first primary state but that Rubio, who has visited several times this year, has his own following. “He’s an incredibly attractive candidate.”

Jeb’s heir apparent

On the morning Bush announced his plans to explore a run for president, he called Rubio. It was a sign of their friendship, forged years ago when Rubio was a baby-faced politician from West Miami. Aided by Bush and other key Republicans, including Al Cardenas, a lawyer and former chairman of the state GOP, Rubio quickly became a favorite son in Tallahassee.

In a 2005 ceremony, Bush presented his understudy with a sword to signify “a great conservative warrior.” The following year, Rubio began his tenure as House speaker. He was the first Cuban-American to hold the position.

Rubio brought his own skills to the table. He oversaw an effort to raise ideas that would guide the Legislature and propel the notion he was Bush’s heir apparent. His speaking skills far surpass his mentor, and unlike Bush, Rubio grew up outside of privilege, the son of working-class Cuban immigrants. His American Dream speeches can bring people to tears.

“It’s very Reaganesque,” Bush said in a 2010 television interview as Rubio was headed to victory in a three-way Senate race with Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek. “For our party to be successful and to renew itself … we’re going to need leaders that lift the cloud up and offer an alternative that is more hopeful and optimistic. I’m a huge Marco fan and I have been from the beginning.”

But Bush, who passed over an opportunity to run for the Senate seat, seems to have found the stomach to test himself on the national stage. Over the past year he has been urged on by an establishment that wants a conservative but also a pragmatist who talks about immigration reform and raising education standards — issues that will provide challenges among GOP primary voters.

Aside from Rubio’s criticism of Common Core, there’s not a lot that differentiates the two on issues. Bush, too, has spoken of running on a more “joyful” and optimistic message.

“Early on, does Rubio kick the tires and see if Jeb hangs around? I think that’s possible,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist and fundraiser. “But if Jeb runs, there’s no space for two of them. It’s awkward.”

Ana Navarro of Miami was among the earliest Republicans to actively raise money for Rubio in 2010 when almost no one felt he had a chance to beat Crist.

“The people that were big Marco fundraisers? Bar none, all of those people are Jeb people first,” Navarro said. “We love Jeb, and we love Marco. But we’ve loved Jeb longer.”

Contact Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Contact Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports and @adamsmithtimes.

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