Since last November, politicos, publishers, and pundits across Virginia have focused near-endless speculation on which candidate, if any, would secure the support of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Speculation focused largely around Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, both of whom were guests at Cantor’s Richmond fundraisers in February. Some favored one of the two, while others insisted Eric would play a diminished role given his departure from making day-to-day political headlines.
That speculation ended tonight. As first covered by Bearing Drift’s Norm Leahy, Eric Cantor has endorsed Jeb Bush for President and will be serving as the Virginia co-chair of his campaign, alongside former OPM director Kay Coles James and former Virginia Lt. Governor John Hager.
While an official statement has yet to be released, Politico has given us a glimpse of what’s to come:
“Eric Cantor, former House majority leader, will endorse Jeb Bush on Thursday evening and be named a Virginia state co-chair of his presidential campaign, Republican sources tell POLITICO.
Cantor is to introduce Bush on Thursday evening at a fundraiser in Richmond and then will appear with him Friday morning at a VFW post in Norfolk, for a town hall focused on veterans issues.”
What does this mean for the state of the race in Virginia, as well as nationwide?
As Norm said, “Let the games begin” – and begin they shall.
From the start, this endorsement will send shockwaves through Virginia’s political circles and will surely reignite the fierce debate over the 2014’s 7th Congressional District primary. However, while the factions relitigate that last battle, Bush will be busy tapping Cantor’s extensive political network and fundraising operation for a much-needed turnkey boost against Donald Trump.
This key endorsement also opens many doors across the Commonwealth and summons forth from the benches well-connected local political leaders to finally pick sides in a field of record depth.
Furthermore, Cantor’s endorsement brings with it an extensive and ready-to-go fundraising network which Bush’s campaign sorely needs if it is to halt Trump’s continued rise in the polls.
In politics, money is message, as a message unheard is a message unknown. Every dollar will be necessary if Jeb is to successfully communicate his record as Florida’s governor to primary voters in the other 49 states in against a skeptical conservative press and hostile segments of the activist base.
It’s been said that governors make excellent presidents but lousy campaigners, as their experiences as chief executives in their home states must be communicated on the national stage to an electorate more inclined to know of their shortcomings. By contrast, Congressional leaders begin with a natural national advantage, as the federal scope of their policymaking is more known nationwide.
To secure the nomination, governors must be able to communicate, and in an increasingly media-driven political climate, a winning campaign’s foundation is built upon its media budget.
Back in March, Jeb’s allies released a 40 point list of his accomplishments as governor – a list which is relatively unknown among rank-and-file Republicans outside Florida. If Bush is to have any chance at securing the nomination by competing for the increasingly scarce political oxygen in a race currently dominated by a reality television star, he’ll need to extensively promote that record through paid communications capable of breaking through the Trump-dominated media frenzy.
Cantor’s support will also connect Bush’s campaign with the growing ranks of Jewish Republicans nationwide through Cantor’s longstanding ties to key leaders and influencers from coast to coast, cultivated through his standing as the highest-ranking Jewish officeholder in American history.
Though often known for his work through the Republican Jewish Coalition, Cantor’s expansive personal Rolodex includes Jewish leaders of all political persuasions. The working relationships he’s cultivated throughout his career will become a key asset for the Bush campaign, as Jeb’s pragmatic brand of reform conservatism speaks to many of the same concerns which commanded Eric’s attention during his tenure in the House and endeared him to his loyal network of supporters.
Over the past six years, the Democratic Party’s continued march leftward away from the mainstream combined with President Obama’s embrace of a disastrously weak foreign policy has brought increasing numbers of Jewish voters into the Republican coalition. When polled by Gallup in January 2015, 61% of American Jews identified as Democrats or Democratic leaners, down a stunning 10% from just six years earlier, with Republican identification posting a 7% gain.
However, Gallup’s poll understates the case. Since January, President Obama’s dangerous embrace of a see, hear, and inspect-no-evil approach towards Iran’s now-unchecked nuclear ambitions has only alienated additional Jewish voters from the Democratic Party. A July poll by the Jewish Journal found only a 49% plurality of support for the deal despite a broad, pre-existing support level of 67% for the President among what is traditionally a solidly Democratic constituency.
Most worrying for Democratic strategists should be the Republican opportunity for party building, as a scant 28% of respondents believed the President’s deal would increase Israeli security.
As Republicans face a prime opportunity for party building, Cantor’s endorsement positions Bush to make that case during the primary while developing the longer-term relationships needed to win critical Jewish votes – most importantly in Florida – should he ultimately secure the nomination.
In a field this crowded, every vote counts. A campaign’s ability to engage and mobilize non-traditional Republican primary voters confers a clear strategic advantage, both in raising the candidate’s overall ceiling of potential support, as well as mobilizing more voters per dollar spent.
Make no mistake: in high-stakes campaigning, turning out new voters is almost always more effective, dollar-for-dollar, then squabbling over the existing electorate.
Indeed, this ability to shift the turnout model has been responsible for much of Trump’s strength in recent polls. While he does enjoy sizable support among dependable Republican primary voters, Trump’s status as a political outsider and tough-talking television personality has given him a reach into corners of the American electorate otherwise off-limits to traditional Republican contenders.
Only time will tell whether Jeb Bush can leverage this key endorsement to reach beyond the ranks of traditional Republican primary voters, but in the meantime, support from Cantor’s ready-made political network and fundraising operation will only strengthen Jeb’s campaign across Virginia.
With the speculation over Eric Cantor’s endorsement now over, and with the presumptive 2017 Republican gubernatorial nominee Mark Obenshain now solidly behind Scott Walker as his Virginia campaign chairman, our urge to speculate may now shift elsewhere, as Virginia Republicans ask themselves the next big question: which candidate will earn Ed Gillespie’s support?
*N.B., In the interests of full disclosure, I am not currently paid by any presidential campaign.