Will Jeb’s Hired Gun Take Out His Rivals—Or Murder His Campaign?

Mike Murphy, who runs Jeb Bush’s super PAC, has a lousy record in getting presidents elected—which makes Bush’s faltering campaign a very personal crusade.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

“This campaign is not dead,” Jeb Bush assured supporters Tuesday night as the results of the New Hampshire primary rolled in—a tentative diagnosis of political viability, perhaps, but hardly a ringing call to arms as the Republican presidential battlefield shifts to the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary.

Bush’s wan declaration was especially poignant given that his Right to Rise Super PAC, for which the former Florida governor expended blood, sweat and tears to raise more than $100 million, has burned through well over half of its once-intimidating bankroll—almost $65 million in outlays as of Jan. 31—largely to hurt Bush’s rivals among the professional politicians (Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Ted Cruz) instead of waging a full-bore attack on neophyte frontrunner Donald Trump.

That, along with an additional $25 million as of Jan. 31 (certainly more, by now) spent by the Bush campaign proper, achieved 6th place in the Iowa caucuses with 2.8 percent of the vote, and 4th place in the New Hampshire primary with 11 percent—or less than a third of the victorious Trump’s 35 percent landslide.

At least Bush could console himself Tuesday night with the knowledge that he narrowly beat his protégé-turned-nemesis Rubio, Florida’s junior senator who earned an even feebler 10.5 percent in New Hampshire, owing partly to his embarrassing performance in Saturday’s final debate before the balloting.

Such solace is not necessarily available, however, to Republican media consultant Mike Murphy, whose management of the dwindling resources and scorched-earth strategy of Right to Rise has come under increasing condemnation by political pros and even a few angry Bush donors—one of whom groused anonymously to Politico: “You might as well light all this money on fire.”

Right to Rise, which recently added $2 million to an already healthy television and radio buy in South Carolina, was airing two positive Bush commercials on Wednesday in the Palmetto State—a spot starring the candidate’s big brother, Bush 43, and a spot featuring the endorsements of Medal of Honor recipients.

But a source at the Super PAC advised The Daily Beast to expect a fusillade of “contrast” ads attacking Rubio and Kasich in the next 10 days as Jeb tries to clear the so-called “establishment lane” and turn his rivals into roadkill.

New Jersey Gov. Christie, who mercilessly skewered Rubio in Saturday’s debate, is already a bloody heap in the rear-view mirror. Ditto Carly Fiorina.

Ohio Gov. Kasich, who placed second in New Hampshire with 15.8 percent, is this cycle’s Jon Huntsman, said the Right to Rise source—a reference to the former Republican governor of Utah and Obama administration ambassador to China who performed similarly in the 2012 New Hampshire primary and then dropped out, lacking the resources to compete in South Carolina.

Although Right to Rise has spent more than $5 million on anti-Trump commercials, including at least $4 million in New Hampshire—far more than any other Republican contender or PAC—the conventional wisdom is developing that Team Bush is aiming its howitzers at the wrong targets, even as candidate Bush, on the stump, regularly assails the potty-mouthed, thatch-roofed reality-TV mogul.

Murphy, of course, would argue that it’s not the Bush Super PAC’s job to do a huge favor for Kasich, Rubio, and Cruz—who have yet to spend serious ad money against the frontrunner—by blowing Right to Rise’s budget in an altruistic crusade to depress Trump’s numbers.

But during candidate Bush’s appearance on Wednesday’s installment of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, NBC News political director Chuck Todd put it this way: “I think some of your campaign strategists, some of your strategists for the Super PAC, they’re targeting Kasich or targeting Rubio. You, as a candidate, target Donald Trump. Do you hope that your Super PAC follows suit? It seems as if you’re not gonna be the nominee, you’re not gonna win South Carolina, unless you go and try to get the frontrunner.”

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“Well, that’s what I’ve been doing,” Bush replied, “and I can’t control what goes on in the Super PAC. I’ve stopped even worrying about it.”

Assuming the Bush campaign is following the law and not coordinating with or even speaking to Murphy—a notion some observers greet with skepticism—it beggars belief that the candidate is not concerned about his disappointing return on investment.

Yet Murphy is a brilliant and persuasive salesman who, in the past, has usually managed to convince his clients that if they hire him, they will win. And Right to Rise does have a theory of how Bush can gain the White House—a debatable theory, to be sure.

The Super PAC, according to a well-informed source, is operating on the risky premise that in order to prevail in the 2016 campaign, Bush must steer his messaging toward the general election.

While positioning himself as the campaign’s true conservative, touting his oft-praised record as Florida’s two-term governor from 1999 to 2007, Bush must avoid pandering to the right-wing base of the Republican Party and boxing himself into positions (such as Rubio’s across-the-board opposition to abortion rights, even in cases of rape, incest and threat to the mother’s life) that are unpalatable to large swaths of the national electorate.

Bush must also resist the temptation—which he is unlikely to harbor, anyway, given that his wife is Mexican-born and he speaks fluent Spanish—to become a “grievance candidate,” à la Trump, in an attempt to exploit the sometimes racially charged rage and xenophobia of economically depressed white Americans who fear that immigrants are taking their jobs.

Given the rising prominence of Latino voters, that would be a recipe for defeat.

Of course, one aspect of Right to Rise’s strategy—dubbed “Shock and Awe” by the media-political complex—has already failed miserably: By raising so much filthy lucre, the Super PAC was hoping to scare other candidates out of the race.

Instead, Trump’s surprising entry into the fray last June—along with the candidacies of Cruz and other hard-right conservatives—has exploded many of the assumptions on which Right to Rise was conceived, according to University of California political scientist Lynn Vavreck.

She argues that Cruz and Rubio not only raised substantial amounts of money, they also managed to outflank Bush on the right, undermining the Super PAC’s conservative identity and avowed mission.

“You’ve got this awkward fight over who’s really representing the conservative end of the argument, and who’s the real conservative,” Vavreck told The Daily Beast. “Then you’ve got this Trump guy out there who blows up the whole place, whose popular appeal cuts across the Tea Party, people who are very conservative, people who are less conservative, and even some Democrats.

“Trump cuts up the prize completely differently than in the past. Now it’s about people’s levels of racial anxiety and people’s fear of a changing America, and their anxiousness about an America in which they are no longer the majority.”

Recent studies, including a Rand Corporation survey for which Vavreck was a co-author, indicate that Trump supporters, compared to other segments of the electorate, have “high levels of racial animus,” she said.

Trump has also benefited from largely uncritical media coverage that focuses on his showmanship and success with voters—while live-streaming his rallies on cable television, in what amounts to free advertising—without holding him accountable for his lack of policy chops, his unsupported fact-free assertions, and his intolerant attacks on Muslims and immigrants.

GOP political consultant and Daily Beast contributor Stuart Stevens, who strategized for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and has frequently opposed Murphy in statewide and national Republican primary races, argued that Trump, and even Cruz, have been helped by Right to Rise’s focus on establishment Republicans.

“Basically much of the civilized world raised an army and entrusted it to Jeb Bush’s PAC, and instead of fighting the barbarians, they used that to go off and kill the people who most agree with Jeb,” Stevens said. “That has greatly benefited the barbarians.”

The normally voluble and press-friendly Murphy declined to provide a comment for this article—having promised Bush that he would keep quiet, at least officially, while the campaign forges ahead.

But a source close to the Right to Rise leadership retorted to Stevens’s complaint: “All of our ex-Romney donors tell us that whatever advice you get from Stuart Stevens, please, please, do the exact opposite.”

Stevens fired back: “This will be Mike’s third attempt to get a candidate past South Carolina. He hasn’t been successful yet. I’ve worked for two candidates who won the nomination. I like Jeb Bush. He’s attacking Donald Trump. He needs help.”

In 2000, when Murphy worked for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, Stevens worked for George W. Bush, and was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012.

Murphy—who frequently touts a list of clients who’ve won statewide races in Democratic-leaning and swing states, notably Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 campaign for governor of California and Jeb’s successful 1998 and 2002 races—also toiled on the presidential campaigns of Sen. Bob Dole in 1988, when Murphy was all of 26 and running Dole’s media strategy with Alex Castellanos, and former Tennessee governor, now senator, Lamar Alexander in 1996.

Among the Republican Party’s most experienced operatives, Murphy, now a wizened 53, has made ads for dozens of campaigns and become very rich in the bargain.

But if a recent takedown in Buzzfeed is to be believed, he is fast becoming the most reviled political consultant of the 2016 election cycle if not the 21st century.

Judging by the Buzzfeed article, Murphy is widely disliked (in some cases envied) by his fellow Republican consultants, who roll their eyes at his mushrooming bank account and political-junkie celebrity status despite his failure to steer any of his clients to the White House.

Among Murphy’s staunchest defenders, meanwhile, are Democrats, who, like members of the political media, are charmed by his mordant sense of humor, hilarious takedowns of rivals and opponents, and his rapid-fire delivery—the political strategist as standup comic.

“It’s kind of a natural thing for a lot of people, who may not like Mike, or may be jealous of him, to go after him and scapegoat him, which is wrong,” said University of Southern California political science professor Robert Shrum, who got accustomed to absorbing public abuse himself as a high-profile Democratic political consultant who played a prominent role in half a dozen unsuccessful presidential campaigns.

“I think his problem is that Jeb is a candidate out of season,” Shrum continued. “He doesn’t fit the mood of the Republican Party, and it has nothing to do with the advertising. What Murphy is doing now, in going after the other candidates, is trying to shore up Jeb, which is actually how Romney eliminated his rivals in 2012.”

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, meanwhile, calls Murphy “one of the Republican consultants that I worry about if he’s working for the opposing campaign.”

Yet Murphy, who runs Right to Rise from Los Angeles and hobnobs in Hollywood while working on screenplays and other projects, was ostensibly retired from American politics when he officially joined Team Bush last summer.

Before that, his last campaign was in 2010, when he helped steer Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, the super-rich co-founder of eBay, to a $178.5 million self-funded defeat against former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s parsimonious $36 million juggernaut.

Trippi, who advised Brown six years ago, has a sense of déjà vu as he watches the progress of Right to Rise.

“The thing that was clear to me about the Meg Whitman campaign is that they had way too much money,” Trippi told The Daily Beast. “It was as if they never worried what would happen when they ran out. It allowed them to start way early with TV and mail and everything. There didn’t seem to be any coherent strategy, other than ‘We’re just going to go with volume.’”

Murphy might argue that Whitman had to get through an expensive and ugly primary race against tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner, a wealthy candidate whose strategist, coincidentally, was Stuart Stevens.

“If you have so much money, you don’t have to be strategically careful,” Trippi added. “If somebody walks in and gives the four things you can do, you do all of them, because you have the money, but you don’t have the strategic discipline.”

Trippi, who managed then-Vermont governor Howard Dean’s front-running 2014 primary campaign until Dean lost in Iowa and emitted his notorious scream, said he empathizes with Murphy’s current predicament.

“I was the conquering hero all the way up, I was a genius, the swami guru, and amazing,” Trippi recalled, “and then suddenly, after the scream, I turned into the blithering idiot who blew it.”

Whether Murphy meets a similar fate will be determined in South Carolina.