As the prospects for President Jeb Bush fade, his fans should consider a fallback plan: U.S. Sen. Jeb Bush, R-Florida.
That goal has many advantages. It allows Jeb to concentrate on a single state, and a state that knows him better than Iowa or New Hampshire. He has higher name recognition in Florida than any of the potential Republican or Democratic candidates, even though he has not stood for election in Florida since 2002.
Campaigning for the U.S. Senate would allow Jeb to sort of stick it to current Sen. Marco Rubio. Jeb could campaign as a senator who would actually show up to vote. Jeb could even use a variation of that attack against Carlos Lopez-Cantera, one of the more prominent Republicans who is running for the Senate seat Rubio will vacate. Lopez-Cantera is – as almost nobody knows – Florida’s lieutenant governor. And he does … pretty much nothing. Like Rubio, he’s another politician running for higher office while doing close to zip in lower office.
A successful Bush campaign would allow the GOP to retain a Florida senator, an outcome far from certain as the Democrats choose between major candidates Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson.
A successful campaign also would allow Jeb to retain some dignity. Rather than simply washing out as a presidential candidate, he could – like his grandfather Prescott before him – belong to an elite club of just 100 politicians. Jeb’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, served two terms in the House of Representatives (along with many other posts) before becoming a one-term president.
Finally, a Sen. Jeb Bush would be well-positioned in four or even eight years – when he would be 70 – to take another shot at the presidency. At that time, Jeb would have experience not only as a governor but also as a senator from a key swing state.
Rubio also has a backup plan if he doesn’t win the presidential nod, of course. It is to be the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate. It remains to be seen how that shakes out. Jeb, on the other hand, seems unlikely to be anyone’s choice for vice president. So that fallback would not be available to him.
If he runs for the Senate, Jeb would follow in the path of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat who was governor from 1979 to 1987 and then a U.S. senator from 1987 until 2005. Former Gov. Lawton Chiles, also a Democrat, took the reverse route. He went from a distinguished career in the Senate – from 1971 to 1989 – to be Florida’s governor from 1991 until his death in office in December 1998.
Of course both Graham and Chiles previously had cut their teeth in the Florida Legislature, a step Jeb apparently considered beneath him. When it came to elective state office, Jeb thought he deserved to start at the top. His run for president indicates he feels the same about federal office. But if that is not going to materialize, why not consider the Senate?
Back to Chiles for a minute. He defeated Jeb in Jeb’s first run for governor, famously flummoxing Jeb during a 1994 debate in which Lawton – who was considered to be on a losing spiral he could not reverse – intoned, “The old He-Coon walks just before the light of day.”
Jeb had no idea what to say to that and stood there, slack-jawed. The inability to think on his feet during debates – or under questioning by the media – has been a major liability for him.
Perhaps it’s because Jeb actually thinks about questions and sees nuanced and complex answers. Rubio, in contrast, has bumper-sticker responses that he (usually) delivers with shameless bravado. During last week’s debate, for example, Rubio never actually answered the perfectly legitimate question about his absenteeism. Jeb sometimes is portrayed as a candidate who has a sense of entitlement, but that label seems to stick better to Rubio, who is on the public payroll but thinks he doesn’t need to show up for work.
Qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Senate race still is more than seven months away. So Jeb could play out his presidential fantasy a bit longer before switching to that race.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Jeb could win a Senate seat. He’s a long time out of office and could find his unwavering support for high-stakes standardized testing in public schools to be a difficult hurdle.
By running for the Senate, Jeb would run the risk of a very serious further blow to his ego. It’s one thing to be rejected by the nation (he always could blame lingering antagonism toward George W. Bush’s mistakes), it would be quite another to be rejected by Floridians who once embraced him. If Jeb won, on the other hand, he could salvage his political career and still have hopes to run for the White House.
Donors might not be as interested in a Senator Bush. They’d rather own a president. But if being a senator can be a consolation prize, so might owning one.
Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida.
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