As George W. Bush's public image improves, more former Bush officials are running for office — and are starting to tout their connections to the former president rather than running from them.
Gillespie isn’t the only Bush alumni looking to be on the ballot this fall. The former Republican National Committee chairman joins a long list already looking to launch their own electoral careers: Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan (R); Elise Stefanik, the current GOP front-runner for retiring Rep. Bill Owens's (D-N.Y.) seat in upstate New York; North Carolina congressional candidate Taylor Griffin (R) and West Virginia House candidate Charlotte Lane (R).
Former Bush officials Tom Foley (R) and Asa Hutchinson (R) are also running for governor in Connecticut and Arkansas. Neel Kashkari, who served both the Bush and Obama administration as assistant Treasury secretary running the Troubled Asset Relief Program, is mulling a bid to the GOP nominee for governor in California. One of Gillespie’s little-known Republican primary opponents, Howie Lind, served in Bush’s Department of Defense.
Bush veterans privately admit the president, who left office in 2009 with an approval rating that dipped as low as 25 percent, was an albatross for many years in both primaries and the general election. The Wall Street bailout and other expensive Bush-era programs infuriated the Tea Party base, while Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War tarnished him with independents.
But five years later, they say things have changed and that he’s no longer toxic. The former president’s personal approval ratings reached positive territory last year for the first time since early in his second term.
“His approval rates are up — he's viewed as someone who as president did his level best everyday to do what's in the best interest of the country and that's respected,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was Bush’s former Office of Management and Budget director and one of the first administration alumni to win office in 2010.
Portman, a vice-chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the current crop of candidates “will be judged on their own merits, just as I was,” and said he now thought the Bush connections could be an asset in some races.
In Alaska, Sullivan is one candidate who is benefitting from his connections to the Bush alumni network, especially as he looks to navigate a crowded GOP primary. Sullivan and Portman are from the same town originally and have a strong relationship, and Portman and other Bush alumni helped Sullivan make a big fundraising splash this quarter. He raised $1.25 million in his first three months for the primary to face Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).
Like Gillespie, Sullivan isn’t running from his Bush connections, but is making sure to paint a broader picture of his resume.
"I have been and will continue to campaign on my record of serving my state and my country. Like many Alaskans and other Americans in the Bush administration, I was motivated to serve my country after the terrorist attacks of 9/11,” he told The Hill via email.
"I am proud of my service as a director on the National Security Council staff and as a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State under President Bush and Secretary Rice, as well as working with Governors Palin and Parnell as Alaska’s Attorney General and Commissioner of Natural Resources,” he continued. “Additionally, during my time in the Bush administration I was recalled to active duty by the U.S. Marine Corps for a year and a half. These broad-based experiences will enhance my ability to be an effective U.S. senator for Alaska."
Running in a competitive open seat in New York, Stefanik also said voters were coming around on Bush.
“In previous races it was a little bit different to have 'Bush administration official’ next to your name.” the first-time GOP candidate said. “President Bush's approval numbers are going up as President Obama's is going down. Regardless of whether people agreed with his policies, there's respect for his courage of conviction on his issues, and all the work he's done post-presidency.”
The 29-year-old candidate, who worked for Bush Chief of Staff Josh Bolton, is using her time working in the White House to convince voters she has the experience for public office.
Stefanik said she had received a “huge boost” in fundraising from the Bush alumni network — donations have come in from major Bush players including Gillespie, Bolton and advisor Dan Meyer — that is loosely connected by an email list run by former Bush official Brian McCormack.
Stefanik praised Bush, but she was still careful to put distance between herself and the administration, noting she disagreed with the Wall Street bailout.
“I've seen firsthand how Washington is broken,” she said. “I'm also emphasizing my family's small business background. My experience is a mix of understanding Washington needs to be fixed firsthand and my own business experience.”
The current crop aren’t the first Bush alumni to run for office — Portman and Reps. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and Roger Williams (R-Texas) are also former Bush officials, as are several other office-holders and failed candidates. Griffin is retiring this year, but McCormack still says there’s been a major uptick in campaigns by veterans of the Bush administration.
“I certainly have seen more names this time than I have in 2010 and 2012,” he said.
Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino says that’s because people needed to return to their normal lives after the White House grind. But those who caught the political bug may now see a favorable midterm climate as the right time to return.
“I don't know of anyone who was ready to run for office right away,” said Perino, now a Fox News host. “The Bush administration gave a lot of us a ton of experiences. Then you leave, you start a family or a business and get your footing somewhere — you've been living in Washington for a while and you need to get your bearings in your new hometown or back at home. So it's a natural progression of things.”
Democrats argue the Bush connections could still hurt GOP candidates, and won’t hesitate to use that line of attack against them this fall.
“It's not going to help for candidates to be a Bushie. That's part of the bad Republican brand,” said Democratic strategist Steve Murphy. “They have a lot going for themselves going right now but the Republican brand problem is their weak spot and Bush is a big part of that.”
Bush alumni admit the former president will never be the campaign asset Bill Clinton has become for Democrats, but believe he's lost his toxicity.
“It's not like he's reached Clintonian levels of popularity,” said one. “But it's become acceptable as a key part of your resume.”