The expected flood of Jeb Bush backers into Marco Rubio’s camp should provide a big lift for the Florida senator’s presidential bid, nowhere more so than in his home state.
Much of Florida’s Republican political establishment has been loyal to Bush, the two-term GOP governor who bowed out of the presidential contest late Saturday after a disappointing finish in South Carolina’s primary.
Bush received endorsements from 11 of the state’s 17 GOP congressmen – compared to just one for Rubio – and had extensive support from major donors in the state.
But for many top Florida Republicans, choosing between Bush and Rubio was like choosing their favorite child. Both men are immensely popular among the state’s GOP political class. Rubio’s campaign is the natural home for many of Bush’s Florida supporters now that the former governor has departed.
“Among my friends almost all – in fact, all that I know – will be moving toward Rubio and I think the reason Jeb Bush got out was so that the people who think Trump would be a horrible nominee can coalesce around a more thoughtful, optimistic candidate than Donald Trump.” said Pat Neal, a prominent Southwest Florida homebuilder and Bush donor who was on his way to Naples Sunday evening for a meeting about trying to shift Bush’s Florida finance team to Rubio. “My friends are for Rubio, I’m going to be for Rubio and I’m going to work hard to make sure the Republican Party stays in the mainstream and has thoughtful, optimistic ideas.”
Rubio’s campaign was calling Bush supporters shortly after the votes were tallied Saturday and Neal said he plans to make calls today to Bush donors on Rubio’s behalf. Tramm Hudson, a former Sarasota GOP chair who has hosted fundraisers for Bush and volunteered for his campaign in South Carolina, said he received a phone call from a top Rubio fundraiser Saturday night.
“I just said: ‘Hey let’s talk next week. The corpse is not even in the grave yet,'” Hudson said, but he added that: “I’ve supported Rubio in the past.”
Sarasota GOP vice chairman Jack Brill, another Bush supporter, said he has a hard time envisioning any Bush backers going to Trump, the populist billionaire who came in first in South Carolina, or Ted Cruz, the ultra-conservative Texas senator who finished third.
“I really do think there’ll be a lot of support for Marco,” Brill said.
The consolidation will help establishment Republicans rally around an alternative to Trump and could be a difference maker for Rubio when Floridians vote on March 15.
“I think it gives him a much better shot,” Brill said.
Rubio needs to do well in other upcoming contests to maintain the momentum from his second-place finish in South Carolina, but the Florida primary could be especially critical. It offers him a prime opportunity to reset the race on his home turf, or even seize the advantage. It also likely would end Rubio’s campaign if he loses.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, the Okeechobee Republican chairing Rubio’s Florida campaign, said he expects a wave of contributions to Rubio from former Bush backers. The question is how that money can be deployed to blunt Trump’s momentum.
“I think that Marco’s about to get hit with a lot of money, whether or not we can spend that money and figure out how to take down Donald in Florida is my focus,” Rooney said.
Trump currently leads Florida by a large margin, garnering the support of 40 percent of GOP voters in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, compared to 19 percent for Cruz and 13.7 percent for Rubio. Bush was at 9 percent in Florida when he dropped out, so even if all of his supporters go to Rubio – and some portion will not — the senator still has a lot of ground to make up on Trump in his home state.
Trump has spent more time in Florida than many of the candidates, holding four rallies so far and opening a state headquarters in Sarasota.
Cruz has been less active in Florida but his campaign is ramping up field operations and looking for office space.
And while many now view the GOP primary as a race between Trump, Cruz and Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich remains a factor. Kasich, a moderate who also may appeal to many Bush supporters, is only polling at 2.3 percent in the average of Florida surveys. But Ohio votes on the same day and also is a big delegate prize.
The establishment split continues to be an advantage for Trump.
“When you’re looking at Donald Trump and the momentum he has, the only way someone else wins is if that (establishment) support consolidates,” said Christian Ziegler, a Republican state committeeman from Sarasota. “Even if it consolidates it could be hard to catch up with Trump.”
No Republican has won both the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and failed to secure the party’s nomination in recent decades.
This is an unusual cycle, though, and there are a lot of delegates up for grabs in March and beyond. Only 5.4 percent of the GOP delegates are awarded in the four early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Even after 12 more states vote on the March 1, only 31 percent of the delegates will have been awarded. Before March 15, delegates are divided up proportionally based on a candidate’s share of the vote. Florida and Ohio are among the first winner-take-all states.
If no candidate amasses a big delegate lead, March 15 could reshape the race.
“It’s going to be exciting; I think Florida’s going to really decide who the nominee is,” Ziegler said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.