Republicans in 1994 had their best election cycle in decades. The GOP swept to joint majorities in Congress for the first time in 40 years. And the party picked up a net 10 governorships, giving them 30 of 50 overall.
But Jeb Bush wasn’t among them.
The Bush family scion came up short that year in his run against Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. Even as Jeb’s older brother George W. Bush toppled a Democratic governor in Texas, setting him on the road to the White House six years later.
Jeb Bush, a South Florida businessman, did go on to claim the Sunshine State governorship in 1998, and was re-elected easily in 2002. But those were against middling-at-best opponents, with the latter win in a strong Republican year.
This checkered electoral history is worth recalling as Bush dives deeper into his all-but-certain 2016 presidential run. Whatever his strengths on policy and his commitment to conservative values, he just hasn’t really won highly competitive races. Compared to battle-tested pols like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, or even Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Bush is going to have to seriously up his campaign trail game to emerge at the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
Back in 1994 Jeb Bush seemed to have the electoral wind at his back. Months before Election Day it was clear Republicans were headed for massive victories in the fall. Bush sported invaluable name recognition as son of former President George H.W. Bush, even if the father had left office involuntarily in 1992 at the hands of Bill Clinton.
Jeb Bush, then 41, ran as a self-proclaimed “head-banging conservative” who would dismantle state agencies with pleasure. But the rookie candidate incurred some self-inflicted wounds. Asked at one point what he would do for black Floridians if elected, Bush responded, “Probably nothing.” He explained further, “It’s time to strive for a society where there’s equality of opportunity, not equality of results.”
It was a laudable sentiment promoting meritocracy over group-based outcomes – but clumsily delivered. The campaign of Gov. Chiles was only too happy to seize on the gaffe. Chiles had been in elected office since the 1950s, first as a state lawmaker, then an 18-year U.S. senator, and as governor in 1990. In a highly negative campaign Chiles beat Bush narrowly, 50.7 to 49.2 percent.
Jeb Bush almost immediately began running again for Florida governor, this time with considerably more success. He emphasized conservative values, but also campaigned as a “consensus-building pragmatist.”
And Bush’s 1998 opponent was much weaker, Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, a former congressman from the Gainesville area and Chiles’s understudy for nearly eight years. But this time the Florida legislature had turned strongly Republican and the GOP had a natural edge. MacKay proved lackluster on the campaign trail. Bush won easily.
As he did in 2002. That year he faced off against highly touted Democratic recruit Bill McBride, a decorated Marine and prosperous attorney. But Bush’s glide to re-election as much reflected the Republican-leaning national mood. A little over a year after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush’s popularity helped sweep his party to big wins nationally, including helping his brother in Florida. McBride’s less-than-stellar campaign skills also provided Gov. Bush an electoral opening.
Now, as the 2016 Republican scrum heats up, Bush’s campaign skills are a matter of considerable debate. Bush famously fumbled predictable questions about whether he would have supported an Iraq invasion based on what is known now. The former Florida governor replied “Yes” and “I don’t know,” before finally concluding, no he would not have followed his brother’s Iraq approach.
At other times Bush has seemed disengaged from electoral mechanics. Including slow response times to breaking news events. And seeming to lack the proverbial, if now-clichéd, “fire in the belly” needed for a national campaign.
If Jeb Bush’s up-and-down campaign history is any guide, he’s got a long way to go.