WASHINGTON -- Conservative voters, regularly chided by the establishment for putting ideology above electability, are starting to come around to the importance of picking primary candidates who are best equipped to win a general election. But that doesn't mean they're jumping on board with Jeb Bush yet, even though he is considered in many establishment circles to be the most formidable candidate to topple Hillary Clinton.
This weekend, many of the nation's conservative voters convened at the sprawling Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington to watch as a parade of Republican candidates took turns making their pitch as to why they should be the next president and brandishing their religious credentials. It was the Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference, and 14 confirmed or likely Republican candidates showed up to make their appeal. The only ones missing were Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee.
"Electability is very important, absolutely," said Jerry Jenkins, 72, of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Jenkins is leaning toward Ben Carson, but he realizes that the neurosurgeon is going to face struggles and may not have enough political experience to win. When it came to electability, Jenkins pointed to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who he called “a guy who is the most impressive.”
It’s counter to the conventional wisdom that Bush is being painted as the most electable. “Jeb, I was disappointed,” Jenkins said. “Can he get the nomination? He might be able to pull off the nomination, but I think Hillary [Clinton] can beat him.”
The question of electability versus ideology has become pervasive through the GOP. Washington insiders have taken to procrastinating just what the electorate is going to be inclined to favor. The arguments tend to go one of of two ways. Some Republican voters see Clinton as so easily defeatable that any of the more than 15 likely candidates could topple her. They believe the best course of action is to nominate the most conservative candidate and ensure the White House doesn't get too moderate. This camp points to the defeats of John McCain and Mitt Romney -- two candidates closer to the center -- as evidence that a moderate can't win.
The opposing side believes that Clinton could easily defeat several of the Republican candidates. They believe that nominating a very conservative candidate -- particularly on social issues and immigration -- would give Democrats a bevy of possible attacks and weaken their chances. They point to tea party darlings like Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle as evidence that someone that far right -- even in favorable conditions -- can't get elected.
Many of the voters who convened for the Faith & Freedom event did seem to think that any candidate in their field could beat Clinton. But they’re still growing cautious about how Republicans should be approaching the election.
The warning signs are starting to go up. Katie Packer Gage, who was deputy campaign manager for Romney in 2012, penned a piece this week warning candidates against repeating the former nominees' mistake of trying to move to the right during the primary on immigration. “What we found is that GOP nominees chasing the relatively small group of anti-immigration primary voters — and giving opponents ammunition to portray them as anti-immigration — risk alienating 24 percent more voters in a general election than they attract,” she wrote.
Kathy Dwan, of Saginaw, Michigan, wants her party to stop talking about social issues. The self-described “far right” and “extreme” conservative said she sees among her friends those who don’t vote for Republicans because of social issues but would vote for the GOP if they dropped them.
“I really wish they would all stop talking about the social issues,” Dwan said. “To be honest, I think they should stay out of politics. I know I’m here at Faith & Freedom, and everybody is pro-life -- which I am -- but I think the government should stay out of the social issues...we should just talk about the health of our country fiscally and rule of law. We have to get back to some basics.”
Dwan -- who is leaning toward Rand Paul because she likes his message of personal liberty -- thinks the whole field can beat Clinton. But she isn’t sure who is in the best position to take on Clinton. “The jury is out on who might be the best because we’re just starting,” Dwan said.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz appeared to receive the warmest reception from crowds at the event, at least in the first couple of days before Scott Walker had a chance to woo the crowd. And Cruz is trying to court the evangelical vote, a path that candidates have previously taken to victory in the early primary state of Iowa. But political observers warn that Iowa -- and evangelical voters around the country -- are beginning to worry more about picking winners instead of picking those who are like-minded.
Some evidence that conservatives are looking beyond a strict set of ideological parameters could be the reception received from candidates who most dismiss as too moderate to ever win the far-right voters.
Brian Frey, 34, also of Saginaw, Michigan, walked away from the event impressed with a couple of candidates he had never seen speak before, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- who has yet to announce his campaign -- and former New York Gov. George Pataki. “I was kind of blown away by Pataki,” Frey said. “He is very electable.”
Kasich, Washington insiders will tell you, will never make inroads with conservatives because he expanded Medicaid in his state as part of the Affordable Care Act. Pataki, who was a three-term governor of New York, came under fire for naming a moderate Republican to challenge Chuck Schumer in the 2004 Senate race. And in the last 11 years, the political ecosystem has only made it harder for Republicans to overcome such criticism.
But most surprising was the warm reception New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie received. Conservatives began scoffing at the brash-talking governor after his much-derided embrace of President Barack Obama on a tarmac in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. While the criticism lacked much substance -- Christie has been a consistent critic of the president -- the imagery created headaches for the governor.
But Linda Cleaver of Chester County, Pennsylvania, said after hearing Christie speak Friday at the conference, he moved up her favorites list. Cleaver, who said she’s “one step to the left of radical” conservative and is a tea party member, said she was pleased to hear Christie talk about taking on entitlement programs.
“He would never have been my choice,” Cleaver said. “[But] I like somebody who just speaks and doesn’t pull any punches. They tell you the truth whether they think you can handle it or not.”
And what about Bush? “I will never vote for him,” Cleaver said. “Unlike other people, I did like George [W.] Bush, but he has the party message. Religiously, he’s good, apparently. But he has some positions that may change in time, but I think he’s just the party and that needs to change.”