Jeb Bush’s Common Core problems may just be getting started.
Karl Rove has already said the former Florida governor’s support for the set of nationalized education standards will be his biggest challenge in seeking the GOP presidential nomination. His likely rival, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has predicted it will doom Bush in the primaries.
That starts in Iowa and South Carolina, where conservatives there say backlash against Common Core has become the hot-button issue among grassroots voters in their states.
"It's huge,” said Sam Clovis, an influential conservative activist in Iowa. “I think it's a disqualifier…we have pretty strong feelings out here about life and marriage, and Common Core is right up there as an issue that really energizes the base.”
Luke Byars, a South Carolina GOP strategist, called Common Core a “hornet’s nest” and “the defining issue” of the state-level elections in 2014 in the Palmetto State, predicting it will “boil over” into 2016.
“If you had any shade of gray or neutrality on it, you were in trouble,” he added. “Everyone running in the primaries was running as fast as they could to get to the right of everyone else.”
That’s already happening in the field of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates, too.
Paul, who campaigned against Common Core on a swing through New Hampshire this week, has joined Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as co-sponsor on a bill to protect state and local school districts from federal intrusion.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is suing the Obama administration on the matter, alleging that the feds are forcing states to adopt the standards.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose star rose under Bush in the state legislature, has joined the chorus of conservatives decrying a federal takeover. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who in the past was a Common Core supporter, has declared it “toxic” and “dead as a brand.”
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has established a commission to evaluate whether the state should reverse its adoption of the standards.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney sees an opening to run to the right of Bush on the issue. The 2012 nominee is considering another White House bid in part because he believes Bush will struggle in the primaries because of his positions on Common Core and immigration.
“Jeb Bush's bigger problem is Common Core, not immigration,” said Alfonso Aguilar, an immigration adviser to Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush.
It’s a striking reversal of fortune for Bush, who has staked his reputation since leaving the governor’s mansion on education reform. Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which counts Common Core among its myriad policy initiatives.
Just five years ago, 46 states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards. That came at a time when state budgets were feeling the pinch, and the Obama administration dangled stimulus money to states that would adopt Common Core principles. Conservatives now decry that move as a bribe.
Furthermore, Republicans in some states say they have buyer’s remorse over the standards, but say the Obama administration is using congressional gridlock to keep them trapped in it.
Because Congress has failed to update benchmarks set by No Child Left Behind, many states are missing their educational marks and find themselves subject to federal penalty. The Obama administration is offering penalty waivers to those states that keep the Common Core framework.
“The pushback here is because a lot of conservatives believe the federal government is playing way too big a role in all of this,” said Mike McShane, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
Still, as a general election issue, education reform barely registers on the list of voter concerns nationally. Strategists also note that many of those voters who are energized by Common Core wouldn’t be considering Bush as a candidate to begin with.
In the more centrist New Hampshire, for instance, conservative strategist Fergus Cullen says Common Core is unpopular with Republicans, but not nearly the wedge issue that it is in states with more conservative primary electorates.
“Ask any Republican primary voters here to rank their top five issues and Common Core won’t be there,” Cullen said. “It’s not that it’s unimportant, but compared to jobs, the economy and taxes, it’s pretty minor. It has some passionate opponents and zero advocates, but for most people it’s not at the top of their minds. It doesn’t harm him politically.”
Cullen noted that Bush has a strong record on education reform apart from Common Core. The Foundation also promotes digital learning, reading at a young age, and school choice. Bush supports charter schools and voucher programs, and counts Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as an ally on these issues.
In addition, experts say Bush has an opening to thread the needle on Common Core.
“If Jeb can say that he supports the high standards for students associated with Common Core, but argue convincingly that he wants states to be able to adopt these by their own volition, that could be a way out of this,” McShane said. “He needs to make clear that he doesn’t believe these standards should be codified in federal law and that the government isn’t going to be pushing this on the states.”
But that message isn’t as bumper sticker-ready as the attacks that will be coming at Bush from his opponents, who are already gleefully bashing him as a moderate for his immigration and education positions.
“Many conservative voters might not be able to define what Common Core is,” Cullen said. “But to them, it’s a proxy issue, and it represents federal intrusion. That’s never popular.”
Cameron Joseph contributed.