Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime ally of his state's wealthy sugar producers, is parting ways with the industry and calling for an end to government subsidies that have boosted company profits for decades.
The move, a surprise to industry lobbyists, could help the Republican's struggling presidential campaign court conservative activists and competing industries that decry the sugar program as "crony capitalism."
Bush's position, confirmed this week by campaign aides, comes as he retools his operation to focus on early-voting states, including Iowa, where the corn industry is preparing to begin an ad campaign attacking the subsidy. His stance puts him at odds with his in-state presidential rival, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who is being backed by members of the Florida-based Fanjul family, which controls one of the world's biggest sugar empires.
Bush favors "a phase out of the program," spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said. She added that Bush "believes we should constantly be moving to reduce government interference and create a level playing field for all commodities on the world market."
Although Bush aides say the governor has held this view for some time, his position caught activists and lobbyists on both sides of the debate off guard.
Bush has been widely viewed as a sugar industry ally. Sugar companies and executives have donated nearly $600,000 to his campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign research organization.
"I had never heard about Bush's opposition before, but it describes a difference with the position of the sugar industry," said Bill O'Conner, a staff member at the Sweetener Users Association, which opposes the sugar subsidy. O'Conner described Bush's stance as "good news."
Phillip Hayes, a spokesman for the American Sugar Alliance, a leading industry group, declined to say whether he was surprised by Bush's position. He said Wednesday morning that the industry is grateful for Bush's past support.
Rubio has said he only supports an end to the sugar program if other countries stop subsidizing their crops.