Jeb Bush's Prospects in a Florida Senate Race

This isn't an especially auspicious time for the Bush brand. President George W. Bush's approval ratings are plumbing historic depths, and voters resoundingly embraced change in last month's elections. Yet despite all that, Jeb Bush—the president's younger brother and a two-time Florida governor—is considering re-entering the political arena. In the wake of Florida Sen. Mel Martinez's announcement this week that he wouldn't be seeking re-election, Bush made clear he was seriously considering a run for the open seat. "He will give it thoughtful consideration in the coming weeks and months," said a spokeswoman, who otherwise declined to discuss the matter. "Governor Bush hopes to play a constructive role in the future of the party, advocating ideas and policies to get the conservative cause back on track."

Could he win, despite the family baggage? The announcement has unleashed a torrent of speculation in Florida political circles and beyond. Bush's entrance would instantly make the state's Senate race one of the most closely watched in the country. Democrats regarded Martinez as a weak incumbent and were hoping for a pick-up that could help deliver the filibuster-proof majority in the Senate that eluded them this cycle. Now, they may have to contend with a political powerhouse with a solid legacy in the state and a vast fundraising and organizational apparatus at his disposal. Still, given his brother's dismal numbers, Jeb's prospects are anything but certain.

One of his chief tasks would be to reassert his independent political identity. President Bush is deeply unpopular in Florida, which has been devastated by the economic crisis and leads the nation in job losses. Democrats would relentlessly try to tie Jeb to him. Jeb "and his brother share most of the family traits of inflexibility, always being right, a tremendous distaste for government and a too healthy regard for the wealthiest few," says Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. "That's not the focus of the country right now and not the focus of Florida." Even many Republicans acknowledge that Jeb's position is delicate. "I have been thoroughly disgusted by the way his brother has run the presidency," says Tom Slade, former chair of the Florida GOP. "If Jeb were about to launch a national campaign … he would be damaged immeasurably by his brother's reputation."

Yet this, of course, would be a Florida campaign. And as Slade and other Republicans argue, the state's voters have tended to differentiate between the two Bushes. Near the end of Jeb's tenure in 2006, his favorability rating in the state was 64 percent—at least 20 points higher than the president's at the time—according to Mason-Dixon Polling. "People in Florida have a whole different Jeb Bush resume to look at," says Cory Tilley, one of the governor's former aides. "Voters in Florida are smart enough to know that it would be a completely different campaign. They would judge him on his record." Unlike his brother, Jeb established a reputation for reassuring competence. "The thing he has going for him is his leadership in times of crisis," says Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida, citing his performance during several destructive hurricane seasons. "He brought Florida's emergency management to the best in the nation. That's probably what people remember him most for."

Given Jeb's taste for executive leadership, though, some wonder why he'd want to seek membership in a plodding legislative body. "He has always been an 'I'm-in-charge, I'm-the-boss' type guy," says Slade. "And the U.S. Senate is not a place where you exercise that particular philosophy." The answer, many say, is Bush's enduring aspirations for the highest office in the land. "He has long held a desire to be president of the United States, and this is probably the best launching pad for that desire," says Slade. "Each year he is out of public office, he will find it more difficult to launch a presidential campaign."

Others say Bush is motivated by a more selfless goal: to help repair a GOP in disarray. "He has grown increasingly concerned about the performance of the party," says Al Cardenas, a former state Republican chair and friend of Bush's. Chief among his complaints, according to Cardenas, is the party's abandonment of fiscal discipline, the ethical lapses of some members and the anemic outreach to key demographics like Latinos and young voters. "I think his mindset is, 'I have either of two choices. I either whine about what's going on or I get back in the arena and try to fix it'," says Cardenas. Bush's timing could be astute, given the GOP's leadership void. "National Republicans are seeking an idea generator, a leader who can present an agenda that transcends what we've been talking about for the last three years," says Brett Doster, a former Bush aide. "With Republicans in the minority and without their being a clear leader in the Republican field, I think that this potentially could be an opportunity to shape the future of the Republican Party."

News of Bush's interest in the Senate race has effectively frozen the state of play for the GOP. "If he gets in, it blows the field away," says one Florida Republican strategist who declined to be named discussing party machinations. "I can't imagine anybody else that could have the immediate sucking sound of endorsements, dollars, organization." As a result, other potential contenders—such as former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack—have declared their support for Bush and put their own ambitions on hold for now. (Potential Democratic candidates include Florida CFO Alex Sink and U.S. Rep. Ron Klein.) The only conceivable obstacle would be Gov. Charlie Crist, with whom Bush doesn't have an especially warm relationship. Crist, who is regarded as more consensus-minded than his predecessor, responded to all the talk of a Bush run by averring his love for his current job and offering this tepid statement to reporters: "We'll see what develops. I imagine a lot of people will have interest, and time will tell."

As he contemplates a run, Bush will have much to weigh. His wife Columba hasn't been a big fan of the political realm, and she probably wouldn't be thrilled at the thought of a move to Washington, D.C., says the state GOP strategist. Moreover, Bush has set up a number of lucrative activities in the private sector—a consulting firm, a slot on the speaking circuit and several seats on corporate boards. He also started a foundation that deals with education issues, one of his passions. Nevertheless, says a former aide who declined to be named speculating on Bush's thinking, "I think he might be a little restless." Whether Floridians would welcome his re-emergence, however, remains to be seen.

Jeb Bush's Prospects in a Florida Senate Race | U.S.