After eight years of largely abstaining from politics, former President George W. Bush is throwing himself into an effort to save his party’s most vulnerable senators, including several whose re-election campaigns have been made more difficult by Donald Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket.
In the weeks since Trump emerged as the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Bush has hosted fundraisers for two Republican senators and has made plans to help three more. Among them are Sens. John McCain of Arizona, who was one of Trump’s earliest targets of derision, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who has struggled to respond to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.
Friends say the former president is deeply bothered by Trump’s campaign message, especially his derogatory remarks about Muslims and immigrants. At the event with McCain, Bush stressed the importance of preserving the Republican-held Senate as a “check and balance” on the White House, suggesting that such a check was needed, whether the next president is Trump or Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Bush announced through a spokesman last month that he would not support Trump’s candidacy and would not attend the Republican convention in Cleveland next month. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, and his brother Jeb Bush, who was defeated and ridiculed by Trump in the primary, are also staying away.
It has been a painful year for the Bushes, as Trump has not only upended the party that they dominated for decades but has done so by publicly repudiating the 43rd president’s legacy. Trump denounced the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a foreign policy disaster, blamed Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and painted his presidency as a failure. Yet Trump suffered little backlash from voters in the Republican primaries as a result.
While Bush raised money for his brother Jeb and appeared at a South Carolina rally for him, he has largely refrained from taking on Trump, or overtly engaging in politics in any way. But he is motivated to try to shore up Republican control of the Senate, which he views as a force for stability at a chaotic time in politics, and to help those who reflect his more inclusive brand of conservatism.
“President Bush believes that it’s critical to keep the Senate in Republican hands,” said Freddy Ford, Bush’s spokesman, who confirmed the heightened activity. “He is actively helping some senators in tight races who are strong leaders and share timeless conservative values.”
The fundraisers held by Bush are expected to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for the candidates, in total.
Next week, he will appear at a fundraiser for Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. And similar events are being planned for Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rob Portman of Ohio.
“I’m pleased he is coming,” Blunt said in a brief interview this week on Capitol Hill. He added: “He hasn’t given a political speech since he left, so I am interested to hear what he has to day. In Missouri he is still very popular, as he is more and more all over the country.”
Johnson said he was looking forward to his reception with Bush, in part because he has never even had a conversation with the former president, underscoring how much Bush has withdrawn from politics.
“All the Bushes are people of integrity,” said Johnson, who is locked in a difficult race with former Sen. Russ Feingold.
Trump said today he was just fine with Bush’s activities. “I like that he’s helping certain Republicans,” Trump said, adding that Bush’s brother “had a great chance to beat me” and did not.
Bush’s effort to help down-ballot candidates fill their campaign coffers underscores how fissures in the Republican Party are affecting fundraising. The senators are not receiving any fundraising help from Trump, a typical role for the party’s standard-bearer. And few congressional candidates have sought Trump’s endorsement, given his high negative ratings in polls and unpredictable nature. At the same time, Trump is relying heavily on the Republican National Committee for his campaign infrastructure.
The support from Bush also reflects a significant uptick in his standing. He was toxic to his own party in the final years of his presidency and left the White House deeply unpopular after two wars and a financial collapse that plunged the nation into recession.
Few candidates were clamoring for his help. Outside of helping his brother and his nephew, George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner, and his friend Ed Gillespie in a Virginia Senate race, Bush has largely stayed away from campaigns since returning to Texas in 2009, writing only a handful of personal checks for candidates who visited his Dallas office.
But 47 percent of people nationally view him favorably now, according to a February poll from Quinnipiac University. (Trump’s favorability was at 31 percent in a June 15 national poll from Bloomberg Politics.)
Further, Bush is highly popular among Republicans, especially the party elites who are big campaign donors. The hosts listed on the invitations for the fundraisers for McCain and Blunt include some of the country’s leading Republican contributors who have recoiled from Trump’s candidacy.
In retirement, unlike former President Bill Clinton, Bush does not devour daily political developments and intrigue, and largely shuns television news coverage. But Trump has presented a message starkly different from the one offered by Bush, especially on terrorism and racial tensions.
At a debate in February, Trump said Bush’s administration “lied” about intelligence to justify the war in Iraq. And he excoriated Bush for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush, right? I mean, it came down,” Trump said at a news conference. “We weren’t safe.”
At a rally that night in support of Jeb Bush, the only public event he appeared at for his brother, the former president seemed to refer to Trump without naming him.
“I understand that Americans are angry and frustrated, but we do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and frustration,” Bush said. “We need someone that can fix the problems that cause our anger and frustration.”
This week, after the deadly shooting in Florida by a U.S. citizen whose parents were from Afghanistan and who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, Trump called for an expanded ban on Muslim immigrants.
“We need to tell the truth also about how radical Islam is coming to our shores,” Trump said, accusing Muslims in the United States of not doing enough to stop terrorism.
Trump’s speech was in stark contrast to the approach Bush took after the 2001 attacks.
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” Bush said in a speech on Sept. 17, 2001, at the Islamic Center in Washington. “Islam is peace.”
He criticized reported attacks against Muslims in America. “They need to be treated with respect,” Bush said.
This week, the candidate who most echoed Bush’s message was Clinton.
“President Bush went to a Muslim community center just six days after the attacks to send a message of unity and solidarity,” Clinton said in a speech in Ohio, adding, “It is time to get back to the spirit of those days, spirit of 9/12.”
Bush declines to praise or criticize either Trump or Clinton in public settings. “My candidate lost,” he tells audiences, referring to his brother.