Republicans face a serious political dilemma as long as Donald Trump remains a viable presidential candidate. Trump has lost one presidential election, contributed to significant Republican losses in 2018, the loss in the 2020 Georgia Senate runoffs, which cost the GOP control of the Senate, as well as the party’s poorer-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterm elections. Should he win the party’s nomination next year, the GOP’s odds of returning to the White House become dramatically lower.
At the end of the 1990s, the Republican Party faced a somewhat similar dilemma. Having twice lost to Bill Clinton and coming off a subpar midterm showing in 1998, the Republicans feared they were headed for a third straight loss in the 2000 presidential election. In response, the Republican establishment took aggressive steps to ensure its process produced a nominee capable of winning a general election — Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Might they try the same thing again this cycle with another big-state governor such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis? It might be their best chance to move on from the Trump era.
As in 2022, historical trends suggested a strong Republican showing in 1998. The “six-year itch” meant that Democrats should lose congressional seats in Clinton’s second midterm. The Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s looming impeachment seemed to increase the likelihood of this outcome. Instead, the backlash against independent counsel Ken Starr, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and their investigation of the president’s personal life cost the GOP five seats in the House, while their advantage in the Senate remained unchanged.
The loss prompted Gingrich to resign. Even so, the GOP went ahead and impeached Clinton, though the Senate did not convict him. The crusade damaged the party’s approval ratings, weakening its chances to win the 2000 presidential election.
One of the few GOP bright spots in the 1998 election was George W. Bush’s strong showing in Texas. Bush had only received 53.5 percent of the vote in his upset of incumbent Gov. Ann Richards in 1994, but he won a second term with an overwhelming 68 percent of the vote. The victory included a better-than-usual performance for a Republican among Hispanic voters — a very prized political constituency then and now.
Though Bush’s triumph came against a relatively weak opponent, he hailed it as evidence of the success of his “compassionate conservative” ideology. “The conservative philosophy doesn’t have to be confined to certain people,” Bush declared. He added that conservatism could “attract Hispanics if properly positioned. And the Republican Party needs to do just that.”
To many observers, Bush was a candidate who could appeal to a broad range of constituencies in a general election.
That stood in contrast to congressional Republicans. The impeachment saga had punctuated four years of the House GOP alienating moderate voters with everything from large proposed Medicare cuts to their social conservatism to the unpopular government shutdowns of 1995-96. Their agenda and strident style had allowed Clinton to seize the center of American politics and marginalize Republicans politically.
Frustrated by the damage caused by the divisive behavior of the congressional wing of their party, Bush’s fellow governors aggressively moved to change the Republican Party’s image by rallying around him. GOP governors viewed themselves as innovators who employed a less harsh and more constructive governing philosophy than their congressional counterparts. For example, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson had been a pioneer in overhauling welfare in a conservative fashion with more stringent work requirements, a crucial Republican agenda item in the 1990s.
“We didn’t all go out and do our secret handshake and do a vote,” observed Gov. John Engler (R-Mich.). “But,” Engler noted, “there was just a clear sense that George W. Bush would be a very good president and a feeling, ‘Hey let’s go out and do it.’”
Long-standing family connections helped Bush, too. Gov. Tom Ridge (R-Pa.) had worked on Bush’s father’s first presidential campaign in 1979-80. Some — like Thompson — even put aside their own presidential ambitions in 2000 to support Bush.
Engler, along with Bush’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and the Republican governors of Connecticut and Massachusetts, employed their own donor networks to assist Bush. The fundraising help from these New England leaders signaled that while the Texas governor claimed the mantle of Ronald Reagan and clearly signaled to voters that he was to the right of his father, Bush was still acceptable to the rapidly fading but still existent moderate wing of the party. The funds raised by the governors added to Bush’s own considerable resources from Texas and those from his father’s network.
As a result, Bush raised more money in four months in 1999 than any previous candidate had in any entire primary period. Given this fundraising prowess, Bush opted out of federal matching funds.
Bush’s overwhelming financial advantage — as well as the presence of multimillionaire Steve Forbes in the race, who was self-funding his campaign — made it difficult for other presidential contenders to keep pace financially. Former Tennessee governor and U.S. education secretary Lamar Alexander and former labor and transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the Republican presidential primary long before the first contests, in part due to their inability to compete financially. Alexander remarked, “I’d call people and they’d say, ‘I read in the morning paper that George Bush is already elected and you don’t have a chance. So it’s impossible for me to raise money for you.’” Dole — whose husband, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), had been the Republican presidential nominee just three years earlier — summed it up by saying, “I’ve learned that the current political calendar and election laws favor those who get an early start and can tap into huge private fortunes or who have a preexisting network of political supporters.”
Pundits noted that never had so many candidates dropped out so early in the process.
The establishment support didn’t make Bush completely invulnerable. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) skipped the Iowa caucuses and camped out in New Hampshire, wooing moderate Republicans and the independent voters who could vote in either party’s primary in the state. Despite Bush solidly winning Iowa, McCain overcame his financial disadvantages to win a shocking 18-point landslide in the Granite State, briefly jeopardizing Bush’s march to the nomination. But the Texas governor’s vast financial resources and institutional support helped him come back to win in South Carolina and eventually become the party’s nominee.
With the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush went on to win a narrow and deeply contested electoral college victory over Vice President Al Gore in the general election.
Could the Republican establishment accomplish the same thing in 2023-2024 with DeSantis, who is already registering strong polling numbers against Trump? There are important similarities. As in the late 1990s, the congressional wing of the party is deeply polarizing, making a governor a more appealing candidate. Like Bush, DeSantis won an impressive reelection in a large state. Like Bush, he showed broad appeal for a Republican, winning Miami-Dade County, a traditional Democratic stronghold. And pushing out weaker Republican candidates before the first primary contests begin could prevent the split field that contributed to Trump’s shocking nomination in 2016.
But there are also important differences between now and then. The Republican establishment is weaker than it was a generation ago — and was unable or unwilling to halt Trump’s rise in 2016. There is also no sign that DeSantis’s fellow governors are going to unite around him like they coalesced around Bush in 1999.
While Bush’s colleagues in more moderate Northeastern states saw him in the mainstream of their time, today’s blue-state GOP chief executives such as Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and the recently exited Larry Hogan of Maryland seem uncomfortable with DeSantis’s aggressive pursuit of the culture wars and are seriously contemplating their own White House runs. And DeSantis does not have a father who was a former president, or the personal and financial connections that come along with it.
Still, the Bush example represents a precedent for the GOP to follow that would significantly increase their chances of ridding themselves of the political albatross of Trump. It seems like Bush’s brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, an avowed Trump critic, may recognize this: He recently seemed to endorse DeSantis in an interview. The question is whether the rest of the party establishment will follow him.