Newcomer to Koch scene, Jeb Bush competes for tea party support

Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity onFriday at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio. [Associated Press]
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity onFriday at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio. [Associated Press]
Published Aug. 21, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Casting himself as a tax-cutting, passionate government reformer, Jeb Bush drew merely polite applause Friday from thousands of the nation's most-active tea party conservatives gathered at the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers' summit.

Only when the Republican presidential candidate wrapped up his 20-minute speech by calling for a military buildup did the more than 3,000 conservatives from around the nation join in a sustained cheer for Bush, a familiar face in American politics but a newcomer in front of the tea party crowd.

"I promise you, if I'm elected president of the United States, I will restore the traditional role of the United States as a leader for peace and security," Bush declared at the annual summit of Americans for Prosperity.

He snapped a salute to the audience before he left the stage.

Industrialists Charles and David Koch have cracked open a door to tea party support for Bush, a welcome opportunity for the former Florida governor whose presidential competitors include several big tea party success stories.

He was addressing the Kochs' flagship conservative political organization's annual summit for the first time.

For most of his speech, even Bush's most impassioned lines were met with only applause during an event that has the feel of a rock concert, complete with pyrotechnics during the National Anthem and a Olympic-style torch inside the convention hall.

"We are going to win as conservatives if we solve problems by reforming things for everybody," Bush said, his voice echoing until applause began to trickle across the hall.

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 him a chance to develop goodwill among activists and donors aligned with the tea party, the limited-government movement that came to prominence two years after Bush left office in Florida in 2007. Supporters hope his 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, planned to be in Columbus. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry are also speaking at the two-day summit.

Notably absent is 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 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."

David White said 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 one 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."