Bush Takes Christie’s Place as Party’s Mainstream Favorite

With Chris Christie embroiled in scandal, Jeb Bush looks like a more credible contender for 2016.

Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey speaks in Voorhees, May 10, 2011
Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey speaks in Voorhees, May 10, 2011 (Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen)

New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s presidential prospects appear to have faded since he became involved in a political scandal. In his stead, Jeb Bush, the former governor or Florida, has emerged as the Republican establishment’s favorite for the next presidential election, due in 2016.

Bush, the son of one former president and brother of another, is appearing with Republican candidates for this fall’s elections across the country and delivering speeches on education and immigration reform.

With no clear presumptive nominee for the next presidential election yet, Bush, a relatively moderate conservative who won considerable support from black and Hispanic voters in Florida — constituencies the party has struggled to appeal to nationwide — is seen as one of few prominent Republicans who could successfully challenge Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, should she decide to run.

It is the very prospect of another Bush-Clinton showdown that worries activist Republicans who are hankering for a radical break with the past. They see John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s defeats in 2008 and 2012, respectively, as proof that the party should nominate an uncompromising conservative next time around — such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas or Rand Paul of Kentucky.

But Cruz, a right-wing firebrand, would be hard pressed to win over centrist voters who traditionally decide presidential elections while Paul’s libertarian views on civil rights and foreign policy contrast with those of the party’s socially conservative base.

Signaling a more conciliatory tone, Bush suggested last week that illegal immigrants should not be punished as though they had committed a “felony” — in spite of breaking the law. “It’s an act of love, it’s an act of commitment to your family,” he said of those who cross the border with Mexico illegally in hopes of finding work in the United states.

Most Republican presidential candidates in recent years have called for stricter immigration controls, something that won them conservative applause but also alienated some Hispanic voters.

To win Hispanic votes, Republicans don’t necessarily have to change their immigration policy, Bush said last year — although he later proposed giving illegal aliens some form of legal status short of citizenship. “You have to show a respect that the louder, angrier voices of the Republican Party don’t understand.”

Bush won 80 percent of the Cuban vote when he ran for the governorship of Florida in 2002 as well as a majority of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney, by contrast, got only 27 percent support from Hispanic voters.

In a presidential election, Florida’s 29 electoral votes could make a crucial difference. Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, states with large Hispanic minorities that Barack Obama won in the last election, could also become competitive if Republicans are able to overcome Hispanic skepticism.

Challenging rightwingers who call for ideological purity in the wake of two presidential election defeats, Bush argued in an interview last year, “We need to be the governing party. The whole point of this is to take conservative principles and apply them. And the only way you can do that is get fifty plus one.”

Chris Christie, who governs in a state Obama won by almost 18 percentage points in 2012, has made the same argument. “We don’t get to govern if we don’t win,” he told a conservative conference near Washington DC last month.

Christie’s ability to win over centrist and Democratic voters in New Jersey had made him seem a viable presidential contender until it was revealed late last year that some of his staffers had conspired to create a traffic jam in Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from New York City, apparently in retribution for the city’s mayor’s refusal to endorse him for reelection. Christie denied knowledge of and involvement in the lane closures but the revelations nevertheless undermined his credibility. Unless he is cleared of wrongdoing by three different investigations that are currently looking into the scandal, Christie’s presidential prospects look dim.

Bush has said that he will decide whether to run before the end of the year.

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