In House Races, Candidates Unafraid To Tout Bush Ties

Three onetime aides to former President George W. Bush aren't hiding their White House roots as they run for Congress.

Former President George W. Bush sits in the stands during a college basketball game between Sam Houston State and SMU on Nov. 14 in Dallas.  (AP Photo/LM Otero)

In the presidential race, Jeb Bush’s last name is one of his biggest liabilities on the trail. But in battles for a trio of House seats, three Republicans who were aides in his brother’s White House are proudly talking up those ties.

In Texas, Jodey Arrington is running in a crowded primary to replace Rep. Randy Neugebauer. In North Carolina, 2014 candidate Taylor Griffin is launching a repeat bid to unseat Rep. Walter Jones. And in California, small-business owner Denise Gitsham is vying for Democratic Rep. Scott Peters’s moderate seat.

They're quick to note that they aren’t staking their campaigns on a connection to the former president. But they all say they proudly stand by their work in the George W. Bush White House, touting the knowledge of the federal government they gained.

For their campaign, it’s a strategy that could carry both risks and rewards.

“In an era in which some people value experience and other people don’t, it certainly shows experience,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as a press secretary for the 43rd president. “It shows a knowledge of how to get things done, which for some voters can be an asset and for other voters can be a liability.”

In the West Texas seat where Arrington is running, he said his Bush ties will be a strong plus in a field that includes eight other Republicans. Located close to Bush’s hometown of Midland, the district is solid Republican territory.

“This is Bush Country,” Arrington said. “This is where George W. Bush grew up and came back to work. This is his home.”

Arrington worked first for Bush when he was Texas governor, following him to the White House, where he was stationed in the Office of Presidential Personnel. Arrington later moved to the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

“The president’s mindset was results-oriented,” said Clay Johnson, an Arrington ally who was Bush’s chief of staff as governor and his deputy director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget. Arrington “has got that mindset.”

But ties to the Bush name aren’t necessarily a lock for success, even in a state where the family built its brand. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey released this month, 25 percent of Texas Republican voters said they would definitely not support Jeb Bush, the highest of any GOP candidate.

“It’s not as if the Bush name is particularly current right now,” said Jim Henson, the poll’s codirector. “It’s a very different Republican Party.”

The Bush name may also become fodder for attacks.

In 2014, when Griffin tried to unseat Jones from his coastal North Carolina district, he was tagged as a carpetbagger and a Washington insider. Griffin—who worked for George W. Bush in the White House, on his 2004 reelection campaign and at the Treasury Department—lost to Jones by 6 points in the GOP primary.

The Jones team plans to use that line of attack against Griffin again, a source close to his campaign said. The other Republican in the primary, Mar­ine Corps vet­er­an Phil Law, also said he’s planning to also turn Griffin’s Washington experience into a negative.

“This country wants fresh blood and new leadership,” Law said.

But Griffin maintains his Bush ties are an advantage—and an experience he’ll highlight often. He pointed to his time working in the Treasury Department, where he tracked down terrorist financing, as a key accomplishment.

“It has uniquely prepared me to be effective at helping to get conservative values accomplished,” Griffin said.

George W. Bush’s approval rating has also soared since he left Washington. In June, a CNN/ORC poll found that 52 percent had a favorable view of the former president, while 43 percent reported an unfavorable view. When he left office in 2009, just one-third of Americans rated him positively.

In the moderate San Diego-area seat that Gitsham is running in, Bush’s name might play differently.

The state’s quirky primary system also means the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party. That puts Gitsham in the same primary as Peters and one other Republican opponent, Marine Corps combat veteran Jacquie Atkinson.

Gitsham—who worked in the White House’s Office of Agency Liaison and for the President's Commission on White House Fellows—said she won’t “hide” from her biography on the trail. But she emphasized her Bush ties aren’t a big part of her campaign.

“I don’t see how it helps me in San Diego,” said Gitsham, who donated to Griffin's campaign in 2014. “This is a local race.”

Gitsham, who’s now a small-business owner, also worked as an unpaid intern for Karl Rove during Bush’s first presidential campaign. Her business partner, Sheena Tahilramani, is a former chief of staff to Rove.

In the past, former Bush aides have had mixed results at the polls. In 2014, former Bush aide Elise Stefanik won a House race in upstate New York, while former Bush adviser Ed Gillespie lost a close Virginia Senate race.

“No matter what, candidates have to go beyond their resume and prove to voters that they have the right skills and right ideology to be elected,” Fleischer said. “The White House is a credential, but it’s not the only credential.”