Influential Iowa Republican snubs Jeb Bush for Scott Walker

Washington (CNN)By most accounts, Jeb Bush's first visit to Iowa last weekend was a success. He spent two days making the case to Republican voters that he is best positioned to be the party's next presidential nominee, deftly answering questions about his commitment to conservative principles.

But before he even set foot in the state, the former Florida governor faced an embarrassing setback: a well-known Republican privately rejected an offer to co-chair Bush's Iowa campaign.
    Chad Airhart instead chose to back Scott Walker in the 2016 GOP Iowa caucuses, a notable "get" for the Wisconsin governor and an early example of the political arms race between the Republican candidates to land high profile endorsements.
    Airhart, in an interview with CNN this week, acknowledged that he was offered a senior position in the Bush operation.
    "I was happy to be offered a leadership position on Bush's team here in Iowa," Airhart said. "But at the end of the day, after going through the thoughtful, deliberative process he wasn't the candidate or person I wanted to support in Iowa, Scott Walker was and I am happy to now be playing a role on his team."
    While Airhart would not talk about what the Bush team exactly offered him, a source with knowledge of the discussions told CNN it was to be a co-chair of Bush's Iowa operation.
    Tim Miller, a Bush spokesman, countered and said no offers have been extended to anyone to join the governor's Right to Rise political action committee -- the legal vehicle Bush is using now to explore a presidential bid.
    "There is no campaign and nobody has been offered leadership positions in the PAC at this stage," Miller said. "We were pleased by the positive response in Iowa last week to Gov. Bush's message of economic opportunity and we're going to focus our efforts on advancing that."
    The importance of political endorsements is often overstated -- nothing more than a person agreeing that his or her name be added to a list of supporters. But in Iowa, endorsements can matter, not necessarily for the showcasing of a person's support but rather the political network and connections the endorser brings to the table.
    Airhart, the Dallas County Recorder, has significant experience in Iowa presidential politics. He worked for the re-election of President George W. Bush in 2004, Mitt Romney in 2007 and backed Romney in 2012 after his first choice, Tim Pawlenty, dropped out of the race. Airhart currently serves as chairman of the Iowa Republican County Officials Association.
    "Chad has a large network with friends in the tea party, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and establishment types," said an Iowa GOP insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he, himself, is in discussions with a handful of potential presidential candidates. "And Chad is very influential in Dallas County, which is a key county if you want to win the Iowa caucuses."
    Airhart said his ultimate decision to back Walker stretched back to when the Wisconsin governor first won the governorship in 2010, followed by his subsequent victory in the 2012 recall election. And then Airhart saw Walker headline a Polk County GOP dinner in May 2013. "After watching him here in Iowa, he was on my radar," he said. "At the time, I didn't know if he was going to be returning to Iowa or not."
    Walker did return in January for the Iowa Freedom Summit, after winning re-election in 2014. During that visit, the Wisconsin governor invited a small group of Republicans, including Airhart, to a private meeting to discuss his record.
    "I was fortunate enough for him to phone me a while later and we visited some more in detail on a number of issues," Airhart said. "So I left that call saying. 'Okay, here is somebody at the top of my list.'"
    At the same time, Airhart said he was contacted by the Bush team and eventually he had a telephone conversation with the former Florida governor.
    "Gov. Bush called me and we spoke on the phone for some time, as well," Airhart said. "At the conclusion of both of those calls, I went through this deliberate process and thinking about the both of them and at the end of the day I decided should Gov. Walker decide he wants to be a candidate he is who I want to support."
    Airhart said when he told the Bush team of his decision it was amicable. "They just wished me luck and said they'd see me on the other side," he said.
    The organization that Walker created to help finance his own presidential exploratory effort -- Our American Revival -- announced on March 5 that Airhart and Marshall County Treasurer Jarrett Heil had joined his leadership team. Two days later, Bush, Walker and several other potential GOP presidential candidates appeared at the Iowa Ag Summit to answer questions about immigration, trade, ethanol and other issues of import to the agriculture industry.
    A February Quinnipiac University Poll showed that Walker is leading in Iowa with 25%, while Bush received 10% in that survey. Still, the Iowa caucuses are still 11 months away, and it is unclear who will be the frontrunner heading into the February contest.
    And if Walker doesn't win, Airhart said he would work to help the Republican nominee win the general election.
    "When it is all said and done with, we are going to have a nominee and my style of politics is we all come together and we support that person," Airhart said. "And I don't think it accomplishes anything for any Republicans to be tearing down other Republicans or saying anything bad about them."