WASHINGTON — If former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stumbles in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, many Texas Republicans point to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio as the likeliest suitor to a vast network of donors in the state who may be on the hunt for a new presidential candidate.
Leaning on 50 years of campaigns and connections in the state, Bush has been especially effective over the last year at consolidating the state’s fundraising network behind him — and keeping his rivals at bay. But recent polling suggests Bush could be headed for a weak finish in New Hampshire, an outcome that, after coming in sixth in Iowa, could set off a full-on donor exodus to his fellow Floridian in the race, according to various state and national fundraisers and operatives with ties to the campaigns.
For now, Bush's backers are holding strong. To the older — and richer — generation of Texas donors, the Bush family is a beloved political and social state institution. But in the undercurrent of state Republican politics, the feeling in the air is that patience with Bush is running out.
New Hampshire's primary is where many “establishment” candidates — Bush, Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — have staked their campaigns. Real estate magnate Donald Trump is currently leading the polls in the state, but U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — fresh off his win at the Iowa caucus and widely viewed as the strongest of the more conservative candidates still in the race — could also finish well there.
"What all of them have to show — Chris Christie and John Kasich too — is that they can be an alternative to the Trump-Cruz wing of the party," said Jonathan Neerman, a former Dallas GOP chairman who recently left the Bush campaign for Rubio's camp. "Whichever one of those in that group can finish third has a credible argument to continue on to South Carolina."
Brian Haley of Austin, who was deputy finance chairman for U.S. Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said any establishment candidate who places well in New Hampshire will instantly be at the center of a fundraising storm.
“The sheer volume of momentum that’s going to come from major establishment donors is going to be pretty unfathomable,” Haley said. “We saw this in 2008 when McCain won New Hampshire and South Carolina.”
History suggests a poor showing from any of those four establishment contenders will almost certainly mean the end of their campaigns.
“[Bush] has to beat Marco," Neerman said.
For now, the Bush campaign is planning to compete in South Carolina on Feb. 20, regardless of how he performs in New Hampshire. Bush plans to tap the support of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who oversees his own vast political network in the Palmetto State. The campaign also plans for members of Bush's family — including his brother, former President George W. Bush — to make appearances there later this month.
"We are grateful for the support we have received from Texas leaders across the state who have been behind Jeb and are confident in our plan to win," said Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger. "Jeb will campaign across the nation as our momentum for his message and record of experience continues to grow."
Since launching his presidential bid, Texas support has served as a lynchpin to Bush's campaign. With the help of his father and brother and their allies, the Bush donor network in Texas was viewed as so strong that it would hobble other candidates hoping to take advantage of their own Texas ties, including former Gov. Rick Perry and Cruz.
But Bush's performance as a presidential candidate has been viewed as awkward even among his supporters, and there is now a stronger sentiment swirling around establishment Republican circles than loyalty to the Bushes: terror of the notion of a Trump or Cruz nomination.
There is no clear signs which, if any, major Bush donors in Texas are about to fall. But unaligned operatives say the donor wish list in a post-Bush world is obvious: Fort Worth philanthropist Kit Moncrief; Dallas oilman Ray Hunt, who donated $1 million to Bush’s super PAC in 2015; and two bundlers, East Texas attorney Gaylord Hughey and former U.S. Rep. Tom Loeffler.
Since Rubio's rousing speech following his better-than-expected third place showing at the Iowa caucus Monday night, various high-profile national Republicans began falling in line for Rubio. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum endorsed Rubio immediately after ending his own presidential bid, and he was quickly followed by fellow Pennsylvanian Sen. Pat Toomey. That process has moved much slowly in Texas.
Neerman said he decamped to Rubio's team over the tone of an unaligned Bush super PAC's bare-knuckled television advertising targeting Rubio and other candidates. A Rubio campaign spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
Beyond the potential fallout from a poor New Hampshire performance by Bush, there could be other shakeups. Christie and Kasich have state fundraising networks that are worth a look. Christie, specifically, has the support of former Republican National Committee finance chairman Ray Washburne of Dallas.
Hovering around all of this Texas strategizing is Cruz, the native son still in the race.
Few in Texas predict Cruz can capitalize in the state or nationally off of the Bush network. Many Bush donors come from old oil money in wealthy enclaves like Dallas' Highland Park, Houston's River Oaks and Fort Worth's Westover Hills. Cruz's more polarizing style is said to rub the old guard the wrong way.
“People who are naturally Bush people are not going to be Cruz donors,” said Neerman, the Rubio backer, expressing a much agreed-upon sentiment.
But some operatives caution that Cruz’s salesmanship in one-on-one meetings has proven surprisingly effective.
And some Texans could ultimately fall in line with Cruz out of personal interest. While the instinct of many Bush backers might be to line up with Rubio, some may hedge their bets out of an acknowledgment that Cruz either will be the party's nominee or will continue to wield influence over local interests as a U.S. senator, according to GOP insiders.
The single most consequential factor in determining what Bush's backers would do if their candidate dropped out would be if Bush opted to endorse, a move that would be seen as a strong signal to donors to line up behind the endorsee.
For now, most Bush donors are sticking with their candidates, but a benign dance is occurring on the sidelines. This is not the time for a hard ask for support, but for gentle grooming.
Haley said Rubio, Kasich or just about any other Republican not named Cruz or Trump aiming to place well in New Hampshire must “be prepared and laying the groundwork over the next 10 days” to poach newly unaffiliated donors.
“If a campaign is not doing that now, they’re not going to be able to survive.”
Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post and Patrick Svitek of The Texas Tribune contributed to this story.