Jeb Bush's Southern Puppet Master
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because parsing good old Dixie for signs of the future is a good lead-up to 2016.
By Mark Silva
Fresh from drills and inspections at an elite Southern military school, Brett Doster found his start in politics as a baggage handler and driver. Riding shotgun alongside Doster? One Jeb Bush.
It was August ’93 and the work was basic: juggling paper road maps and brick-sized cellphones; ensuring the boss’s socks matched each morning. But that kind of thing — it’s intimacy that you can’t buy. “We had to develop a bond of trust,” recalls Doster, now 43. The kind of trust that is clearly about to pay off. Doster has since run state campaigns for Bush’s brother, George W. (with triumphant endings) and Mitt Romney (less victory here). He’s built a thriving political and corporate consulting firm in Tallahassee, Florida. And now Doster is among a small advance guard for Jeb Bush in a crucial primary contest the family has won twice: South Carolina’s.
The stakes can’t be overstated. The Palmetto State’s open-primary voting puts the first Southern stamp on those aspiring to the American presidency. Almost all who’ve won its Republican primary have won the party’s nomination. And it’s sure to be especially important for Bush, who may lose Iowa’s opening caucuses to the more religious right, and who faces some challenges in New Hampshire too, where primaries tend to rally independents with a poke-in-the-eye penchant for establishment names like Bush. So goes the analysis of Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “South Carolina is a place where he will need to demonstrate that he has strong support.’’
South Carolina’s February primary will also set some momentum as “the table setter” for several other Southern contests in March, notes Neil Newhouse, an Alexandria, Virginia-based pollster. And all this in a year when, clearly, standard rules of the Republican road may not apply, thanks to the veritable hive of candidates buzzing around. “There’s no pressure on us,’’ Doster laughs.
After handling email past 1 a.m. and a morning run around his palmetto palm-studded fortress of an alma mater — the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina — Doster knocks back orange juice as we talk. “No better way for an old cadet to start his day in Charleston,’’ he says. “These days, I seem to live off of coffee and water alone.’’ Steely-eyed yet soft-spoken with an easy chuckle, his sandy temples are graying, hairline receding. “Probably teetotaling most of the time,” he calls himself a “reformed Presbyterian.’’ Here in Charleston, he has invested long days courting support. Which means the whole family is married to the campaign — including his Salvadorian wife, who home-schools two of their three young daughters. “We are kind of political vagabonds,’’ Doster says.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Doster was born to an accountant father and a mother whose family members “were a bunch of moonshiners and pine tree farmers.’’ He too was home-schooled — not due to a nomadic existence but because he flailed around in fifth grade. Mom took over. And he was ambitious: Sights set on the military, he headed to the Citadel, then an all-male institution filled with pomp — cadets wore full military garb even to classes. But he never enlisted.
Over the regimented lifestyle, he chose the roller coaster of campaigns. First stop: Jeb Bush’s 1994 race. Bush was “idolized,” Doster recalls. And losing was devastating, an experience “that knit us together like many families are not.’’ Doster retreated to oak-canopied Tallahassee to sell commercial real estate. Bush called again in ’98. This time, victory came, and with it “bear hugs” among the team. Doster became political director, No. 2-ranked, in George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign in Florida. By 2004, Doster ran the state’s Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. Those who’ve worked with Doster say you can still see the Citadel influence, though; military discipline adds a tough backbone to the otherwise scrappy grassroots world, says Jillian Hasner, who ran George W.’s 2000 Florida race. Oh, and Jeb? We asked him; he returned the compliments, calling Doster “one of the most honorable, principled men I have met.”
Despite his success, a networker, recruiter and team builder such as Doster will probably stay far from punditry and fame. He may never even get the credit for victory. And there’s also only so much any consultant can do. At some point, “political science breaks down and it comes down to political art,” he says. Case in point: Romney’s campaign, in which, he reflects in retrospect, the governor spent a lot of time in boardrooms and not enough in churches, as Doster puts it.
So what of South Carolina? So far, Bush’s support in the state that went for Newt Gingrich in 2012 starts at just 16 percent in polling averaged by RealClearPolitics — tying with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. South Carolina’s own Sen. Lindsey Graham enjoys only a 10 percent rate of support. Many others: single digits. In sum, “it’s a grab,” says Bruce Ransom, professor of political science at Clemson University.
Democrats, for their part, are eager to downplay Doster’s shot at gold. Says Dick Harpootlian, former state Democratic Party chairman, Bush has “a hell of a fight on his hands’’ in South Carolina. “Jeb Bush is yesterday’s news, and everybody’s looking for today’s news.’’ But hey, it’s an election rife with familiar faces.
- Mark Silva, OZY Author Contact Mark Silva