Jeb Bush’s latest effort to court evangelical voters boomeranged when a Christian radio network boss challenged him for hiring two political aides who support same-sex marriage, and the former Florida governor conceded that he couldn’t identify any “genuine” conservatives in his inner circle.
The details of Mr. Bush’s private phone call in mid-April with Rich Bott, whose religious radio network of 100 stations stretches from California to Tennessee within potential reach of 51 million listeners, were confirmed to The Washington Times by Mr. Bott and top aides to Mr. Bush.
It is the latest bellwether of the former Florida governor’s struggles with certain constituencies inside the Republican Party’s conservative base who are wary of his potential positioning on marriage, education, immigration and spending heading into his bid for the White House.
“Who can you name in your campaign or administration that is a genuine movement conservative?” Mr. Bott asked during the call.
“You know, I don’t know who is a movement conservative these days because it’s all so mainstream,” Mr. Bush replied, according to Mr. Bott.
Movement conservatives say that has been a problem since Ronald Reagan made conservatism fashionable in the 1980s. Almost all Republicans since then claim to be conservative even if they can’t define the word or don’t necessarily like its meaning.
Likewise, Mr. Bott said he challenged Mr. Bush for hiring two proponents of same-sex marriage inside the political machine that is helping him explore a bid for the Republican nomination for president next year.
“When Gov. Bush called me that morning on April 17, I figured he was reaching out to a number evangelical Christian leaders across the country,” Mr. Bott told The Times in an interview. “I expressed appreciation for his and his family’s commitment to public service.
“But told him I find it incomprehensible how you could have these people at the top of your campaign and not expect them to influence policies going forward,” Mr. Bott said. “Gov. Bush replied, ‘I don’t ask questions about their sexuality.’”
Bush spokeswoman Kristi Campbell did not dispute Mr. Bott’s account of the call. She said her boss “is committed to picking the best individuals for his team. He has never discriminated in the past and is not going to start now.”
She said, “Gov. Bush’s position on gay marriage is clear. If he goes with a run, it will be premised on his agenda, not anyone else’s.”
Gordon Sekulow, the evangelical senior adviser to Mr. Bush’s Right to Rise PAC, noted that in South Carolina on Saturday, Mr. Bush had “breakfast with nearly 40 pastors and faith leaders and earlier in the week spent time with conservative faith leaders in Texas.”
“As these conversations continue, Gov. Bush is committed to protecting the religious liberty in America and promoting religious freedom abroad,” Mr. Sekulow said.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in February, Sean Hannity asked Mr. Bush whether he had changed his position on same-sex marriage.
“No, I believe in traditional marriage,” Mr. Bush responded. He has not, however, said he opposes recognition of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.
Mr. Bush earned high marks from conservatives of all stripes during his gubernatorial terms for his stands on economic and social issues. Mr. Bott and other evangelicals praised him for siding with Terri Schiavo’s brother and parents in wanting to prolong her life support in the famous right-to-life case a decade ago.
But Mr. Bush’s relations with evangelical voters have grown strained since, in part because of comments he has made since re-entering the private sector.
That poses a challenge for him given that more than half the voters who choose the Republican presidential nominee in state primary elections and caucuses next year are likely to be born-again Christians, based on exit poling of previous election cycles.
“I’m ready to rule out anybody who’s hiring a bunch of staff members who have a same-sex marriage agenda,” Jerry A. Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, said of the field of Republican presidential candidates.
Iowa Republican and evangelical activist Bob Vander Plaats said he wouldn’t comment on Mr. Bush specifically but that he agreed with Mr. Bott.
“Rich is right,” he said. “We value three things in candidates: character, meaning what you say; competency, knowing how to carry out what you promise; and company, you reveal who you are by the people you surround yourself with, the company you keep.”
“If a candidate hires or appoints people who are not like-minded with him or her on basic moral issues, it raises huge red flags,” Mr. Vander Plaats said.
Mr. Bott said it’s “hard to imagine evangelicals being excited about a Bush candidacy if he has well-known advocates of homosexual marriage leading his campaign.”
Mr. Bush is on record as opposing same-sex marriage but hired David Kochel to run his campaign organization when it becomes official. He also hired Tim Miller to be the communications director of the campaign when it gets underway, presumably later this spring.
Mr. Kochel and Mr. Miller publicly advocate same-sex marriage, arguing that it should be guaranteed under the Constitution.
Mr. Bush, 62, is five years younger than Hillary Rodham Clinton, the top candidate for the Democratic nomination who says same-sex marriage is a right afforded by the Constitution. He will be competing with a bevy of contenders out to win evangelical voters’ affection or at least acceptance.
Mr. Bush has said he supports traditional marriage but respects those who want to marry people of their own sex.
What rankles many evangelicals is that Mr. Bush’s brother, George W. Bush, opposed same-sex marriage through two successful gubernatorial campaigns and two successful presidential bids, only to have his wife and two daughters acknowledge afterward that they supported same-sex marriage.
The families of John McCain and Mitt Romney, the 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential nominees respectively, also made post-campaign revelations in support of same-sex marriage.
For a party that claims to champion traditional values, Republicans have afforded major roles to many homosexuals, including Ken Mehlman, who was President George W. Bush’s White House political director, his 2004 campaign manager and then Republican National Committee chairman.
Jeb Bush’s choices of top aides remind religious conservatives of what Pastors & Pews founder David Lane calls the “deceitfulness” of Republican leaders and their operatives who claim to be one thing then govern another way.
“Saying one thing to be elected, and then governing in the opposite way has consequences,” said Mr. Lane, who brings evangelical pastors and social-conservative candidates together. “Lies unleash misery on a community. The political system is viable only if politicians can, on the whole, be relied on to produce honest answers to questions and issues.”
Evangelicals are concerned that this issue is being forced on business owners, ministries, Christian colleges and seminaries. The Supreme Court is expected to rule by summer on the constitutionality of the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
“If the court rules there’s a constitutional right to same sex marriage, then Christians in business and ministries will be silenced,” said Mr. Johnson of the Religious Broadcasters Association. “More cake makers will be put out of business for refusing to bake for homosexual ceremonies. We will see more florists fined and photographers put out of business. Christian colleges will lose accreditation.”
Christian broadcasters are particularly worried.
“We are concerned that the Federal Communications Commission will eventually threaten the broadcast licenses and the IRS will threaten the tax status of those who disagree with any government edict on same-sex marriage,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Lane sees in the apparent drive for rights the creation of wrongs.
“It appears that radical homosexual activists have progressed from their former libertarian position: ‘Allow us to live our lives in the privacy of our homes,’” he said. “Now, they exhibit a totalitarian posture: ‘You are going to take part in our weddings, or we will destroy and bankrupt you.’”