Jeb Bush is one of the leading 2016 possibilities among the GOP establishment, but he has an enduring problem among conservatives -- especially Laura Ingraham and other influential talk radio hosts.
Since his announcement in December that he would “actively explore” a White House run, conservative radio hosts have unleashed a torrent of criticism aimed squarely at Bush, whom they portray as an entitled, dynastic RINO (“Republican in name only”) out of step with the GOP base. That deep-seated disdain is bad news for Bush, who is already slated to navigate a competitive and crowded primary full of candidates eager to run to his right.
"Jeb is gonna go out there going, ‘Well, I'm not exactly like my brother but it's hard for me to figure out what I disagree with him on,’” Ingraham told her listeners Friday morning, referring to his older brother, former president George W. Bush. “I just don't see how this is going to work. It's not going to work. I know all these people out there are like, ‘Laura you've gotta be a team player.’ You know what I'm a player for? The American people and our future.”
Hosts like Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh have great sway over many of the voters who show up to GOP primary elections, even if conservative talk radio itself has taken a ratings plunge in recent years.
“There is no doubt that talk radio will have an influence on primaries as they roll through the calendar," said GOP strategist Bill Cortese. "Everyone is trying to be a kingmaker."
And many of them really hate Jeb.
“[W]hen you compare their positions, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, on the key important issues, they are two peas in the same pod," Rush Limbaugh said on his show shortly after Bush began laying the groundwork for a campaign. “He doesn't want to have to sell his soul for the tea party vote. What that means is, he doesn't want to have to pretend to be a conservative at any time during the primary to get the tea party or conservative vote."
The vitriol isn't entirely unexpected. Bush is a center-right candidate and a favorite of the Republican establishment, which puts him immediately at odds with many on the right of his party. But the level of negative attention he's receiving on talk radio so early in the race has outweighed criticism of his potential competitors. That includes Chris Christie, who has also been occasionally accused of being too moderate.
The two issues that most animate the far-right's disdain for Bush are immigration reform and the Common Core education standards, both of which Bush has said he supports.
Common Core was a central topic during last week’s Iowa Freedom Summit, a GOP cattle-call for potential presidential candidates that Bush conspicuously skipped.
"Every talk radio host in the country has either immigration or Common Core as the issue that fires them up," said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. "He is the national voice for both."
Radio host Mark Levin has gone so far as to call Bush a “good moderate Democrat.”
“For more than a decade he hasn't lifted a finger to help a single conservative or, for that matter, many Republican candidates," Levin said on his show recently. "But he’s decided he wants to be president now. The American people don’t want Jeb Bush as president. The vast majority of Republicans don't want Jeb Bush as their nominee.”
Former House majority leader Eric Cantor’s humiliating loss in last year’s primaries stands as an example of the influence that conservative radio shows still hold. Cantor (R-Va.) lost to little-known professor Dave Brat, whose candidacy was bolstered by vocal support from Ingraham. (At the same time, Ingraham also supported Senate candidates Joe Carr in Tennessee and for Chris McDaniel in Mississippi -- both of whom went on to lose their primary challenges.)
Bush has indicated that he’ll hold fast on his more moderate positions, saying in November that the eventual GOP nominee would need “to lose the primary to win the general" election. His team did not respond to a request for comment on his relationship with conservative radio hosts.
“You see, Jeb doesn't believe talk radio is adult conversation," Ingraham said on her show last week. "That's the truth. The Bushes didn't like coming on talk radio. We were the ugly stepchildren of the media. He would much prefer going on MSNBC or getting favorable coverage in the DailyBeast.com. That's where they feel most comfortable.”