DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are cracking open a tea party door for Republican Jeb Bush, a welcome opportunity for the former Florida governor whose presidential competitors include several big tea party success stories.
On Friday in Columbus, Bush is making his first appearance at the annual summit of Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ flagship conservative organization. He’ll address an expected 3,000 activists as keynote speaker.
The Kochs introduced Bush earlier this month to some of the most generous donors in their political network. And about a month ago, Bush shared the stage with a top Americans for Prosperity official at a town hall in New Hampshire, the first primary state.
Such overtures are giving Bush the chance to develop goodwill among activists and donors aligned with the tea party, a small-government movement that came to prominence two years after Bush left office in Florida in 2007. A strong performance in Columbus could help him poach some of the activists who worked to elect Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, all of them now presidential contenders.
“There are some things in his record we like, and want to hear more about his economic agenda and how he’s going to get this country moving,” Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips said about Bush. “We’re not endorsing anyone. But for those reasons, we’re glad to have him at the summit.”
Five of the 17 GOP presidential candidates, including Cruz and Rubio, plan to be in Columbus. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry are also speaking at the two-day summit.
Notably absent will be Ohio’s own Gov. John Kasich, whose office is less than a mile from the convention hall. Americans for Prosperity objected strongly to his acceptance of federal money in exchange for expanding Ohio’s state-run health insurance program for poor people under the 2010 health care law.
Levi Russell, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, declined to say whether Kasich was invited.
Bush’s record governing Florida for eight years beginning in 1999 holds potential appeal for tea party activists, Phillips said. Bush cut taxes and reformed health care and education. Yet some Florida spending grew under Bush’s watch, a time of economic growth just before the recession began.
It’s obvious, not everyone milling in the hallway before Bush’s early afternoon speech was ready to embrace him as their own.
“He’s not part of my top three,” said Kelly Gunderson of suburban Minneapolis. “The good thing about Jeb Bush is he can raise money.”
Where Gunderson objects strongly to Common Core education standards, voluntary math and language arts goals established by a group of governors, David White says Bush’s last name gives him pause.
“From what I know now, no,” White, a southeast Ohio county commissioner, said about supporting Bush. “Some of that is the fact that he’s a Bush.”
Phillips indicated that Bush’s perceived campaign strength — including his fundraising — is also a reason some Americans for Prosperity supporters are taking a closer look at him. Bush and an allied super PAC raised $114 million in the first six months of the year, giving him more than double the resources of any other GOP contender.
“There is no perfect candidate,” Phillips said. “Losing on principle only goes so far.”
Bush’s foray into the Kochs’ political network holds a bit of irony: The brothers ramped up their engagement in 2003 partly as a reaction to what they perceived as out-of-control government spending by President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush’s brother.
At the beginning of the month, Jeb Bush became the first member of his family to speak at a Koch donor summit, this one held at a luxury resort in Dana Point, California. The 400 attendees provide funding for Koch-approved political and policy groups and educational causes that will spend an estimated $889 million this year and next, much of it aimed at the 2016 elections.
The donor group also heard from Walker, Rubio, Cruz and former technology executive Carly Fiorina. Bush was received warmly. One donor, Maryland automobile dealer John Pohanka, described himself as “a Jeb fan.”