US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Before Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz announced he was running for president, he first talked with Glenn Beck. “It was just a personal call, just a chat for a few minutes,” Beck told his radio audience on Monday, “and we talked about the importance of prayer.” But the content of their conversation was far less important than the fact of it. Cruz understood that before vying for the Republican nomination, he had to shore up his media base.

The question of conservative media’s power looms large over the coming Republican primaries. On Sunday Politico ran a long piece detailing Jeb Bush’s “talk radio problem.” At the moment Bush, another likely 2016 candidate, has a contentious relationship with most of conservative talk radio. Rush Limbaugh has said the former Florida governor is “not a conservative.” At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Bush sparred with Sean Hannity over immigration and Common Core, unwilling to shift toward Hannity’s position. All of which holds out a tantalizing prospect: Could 2016 be the year a Republican candidate breaks the clout of conservative media?

If so, it would mark a radical departure from recent Republican politics. The courtship between Republican candidates and conservative media has been going on for some time. In the build-up to the 1968 election, Richard Nixon wooed the editors of National Review in hopes of winning their support (which he did). In 1992, George H. W. Bush, facing a tough re-election fight, worried Limbaugh’s support for Pat Buchanan would cost him conservative votes. To win over Rush, Bush invited him to the White House for an overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom. Limbaugh began backing Bush shortly thereafter.

While it’s clear conservative media personalities play a role in shaping Republican primaries, the exact contours of their power is difficult to pin down. They aren’t kingmakers. Sen. John McCain won the 2008 nomination without their support, and Mitt Romney nabbed the 2012 nomination even though they seemed “wary, cynical, or downright hostile” to his candidacy.

But while conservative media can’t dictate the field, they can mold it. As proxies for the base, conservative media command the respect of candidates, helping pull the field to the right. For instance, when Romney said in 2011 that he believed in human-caused global warming, attacks from Limbaugh helped bring Romney to heel.

By 2012 conservative media seemed to have an unshakeable hold on the Republican field. In late 2011, Dick Morris sat on the red sofa at "Fox and Friends," the morning show on Fox News, and declared, “This is a phenomenon of this year’s election. You don’t win Iowa in Iowa. You win it on this couch. You win it on Fox News.” A few months later commentators wondered at the unwillingness of Republican candidates to denounce Rush Limbaugh’s off-color comments about Georgetown law school student Sandra Fluke.

This media fealty didn’t just lead candidates to pull their punches. It helped lash them to right-wing orthodoxies on taxes, climate change and immigration. (Remember Romney’s plan for self-deporation?) Though reform conservatives had generated compelling ideas for right-wing governance, those innovations failed to penetrate the Republican presidential field.

Which is why Jeb Bush’s independent streak is so intriguing. If he can nab the nomination without tying himself to conservative media, he could open a new chapter in Republican politics, forging a platform appealing enough to win a national election and flexible enough to govern effectively once in office.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report