George W. Bush re-emerged as a central figure in Republican presidential politics for the first time in nearly a decade Monday, but in a decidedly different role.
The Bushes—a single household that for generations held a tight grip on the nation’s foreign and domestic policy like no other—are now underdogs.
And so are their donors, former staffers, and longtime associates.
The cause that brought the 43rd president back to the political spotlight—and the family’s wealthy supporters out of their executive suites and onto the campaign trail in South Carolina—is, of course, the foundering White House bid of his younger brother, Jeb Bush. And though the former president’s popularity remains in the upper 70s among Republican voters, it remains unclear whether his star power can, at this stage in the race, do for his brother what the Bush family’s vaunted fundraising network has not.
As Bush’s campaign has been eclipsed by the rise of outsiders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the family’s financiers have headed for the doorsteps in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, asking for one vote at a time. The former president, who has mostly eschewed politics since leaving office in 2009, is now the de facto ringleader of this surprisingly large effort from establishment backers to revive what so far has been a disappointing effort.
“If serving as president makes me a part of the so-called establishment, I proudly carry that label,” the former president said Monday during a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina.
This uprising of the 1 percent includes Woody Johnson, the New York Jets owner and great-grandson of a Johnson & Johnson founder, who made his best pitch at the home of an Iowa man living on Social Security that a third Bush administration would be the best shot to spark economic growth.
Jean Becker, the chief of staff for former President George H.W. Bush, knocked on doors for the first time and had Barbara Bush on speed-dial, ringing the former first lady whenever she needed help closing the deal with a voter.
“I’ve never felt this frustration before,” said Becker, whose home state of Texas doesn’t hold its primary until March 1. “It’s frustrating when you feel strongly about a candidate and you’re powerless to move that ball forward because you can’t vote.”
Becker walked New Hampshire streets with members of the Bush extended family, senior staff from George H.W. Bush’s White House, and Craig Stapleton, George W. Bush’s ambassador to France. “People were so shocked we were on their front porch in the snow, I think we got the pity vote,” she said.
Other New Hampshire residents opened their doors or answered their phones last week to find Patrick Durkin, one of Barclay’s top lobbyists in Washington; Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff; or Beverly Bruce, Mitt Romney’s finance director in the state four years ago.
Alex Navab, the head of KKR’s private equity business in the Americas, volunteered in New Hampshire, as did Clifford Sobel, George W. Bush’s ambassador to Brazil, and Mel Immergut, a venture capitalist and Republican fundraiser.
Many of these troops—Bush’s team claimed to have 400 staffers and volunteers in New Hampshire last week—have already descended upon South Carolina, or plan to later this week.
Immergut, who was active in the Republican presidential campaign for Romney and Rudy Giuliani, said he’s never seen donors and top staff engaging in they type of campaign work usually reserved for college-aged supporters and other entry-level volunteers. “I’ve never don’t this before,” he said.
“What’s unusual here is that we have a fair number of senior volunteers for the campaign going door-to-door,” Immergut said. “But these are people who feel so strongly about Jeb that they’re willing to go out when its 5 degrees, walking up icy, unplowed walkways to help the effort.”
Immergut, who said he knocked on about 70 doors in one day in New Hampshire, attributed the show of support to the loyalty to Jeb Bush, and belief that he’s the party’s best candidate.
There’s also an undeniable sense of urgency.
The son and brother of the past two Republicans to hold the office, Bush improved from his sixth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 to finish a distant fourth in New Hampshire last week. A slide this week in South Carolina—the only early primary state that his family has never lost—will again bring out the doubters and fuel further donor unrest.
“Bush values are South Carolina values, and that will be important in this race,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said on Monday as the Bush brothers held a campaign stop at an American Legion post in Columbia. “South Carolina will help consolidate the field.”
Bush has been propped up largely by the $100 million he helped the super-PAC raise in the first six months of the year. Consider that Mike Huckabee dropped out of the race after Iowa’s contest, despite earning just as many delegates as Bush.
Bush has also been helped by the failure of other would-be establishment favorites to consolidate support. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a one-time ally of Bush’s in Florida, has drawn large crowds but struggled to surge in the polls. Ohio Governor John Kasich had a surprisingly strong showing in New Hampshire, but faces questions about his long-term viability.
Now, Bush’s enlistment of his brother has the feel of a last-ditch effort aimed at coalescing establishment backing.
When Trump supplanted the former governor atop Republican presidential polls in July, supporters urged patience until the pro-Bush super-PAC started spending money. When Bush continued to fall even as the super-PAC, Right to Rise USA, aired TV ads, his allies said no votes had even been cast.
Now, two states into the nomination race, Trump is as strong as ever in the polls. A CBS/YouGov poll of registered Republicans in South Carolina, which holds the first-in-the-South primary on Saturday, showed the former reality TV show host at 42 percent, more than double his closest rival.
“Americans are angry and frustrated, but we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our frustration,” George W. Bush said on Monday in a subtle shot at Trump. “In my experience, the loudest person in the room is not always the strongest person in the room.”
Dressed in a dark brown blazer with a red and white “Jeb! 2016” sticker on the lapel, George W. Bush held captive the crowd of about 1,300 as he joked about his post-presidency “afterlife” in Texas, reminisced about campaigning in South Carolina, and promised that his brother would replicate his conservative record as Florida governor on a national stage.
In an exhibition hall with cement floors and a 30-foot high ceiling with exposed beams and ventilation ducts, George W. Bush described his brother as a “man of deep and humble faith that reveals itself through good works, not loud words.”
“All of the sloganeering and all of the talk doesn’t matter,” the former president said, “if we don’t win.”
With just four more days until South Carolina Republicans head to the polls, Bush is about to find out just how much sway his brother still has left.