The sudden end to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign this month appeared to bring another chapter to a close: his long and fruitful partnership with Republican admaker Mike Murphy, the brash strategist who has been at his side for nearly two decades.
Since 1998, when Murphy helped Bush remake his image and win the Florida governor’s office after an earlier failed bid, the strategist’s firms have received nearly $36 million from Bush’s campaigns, allied political committees and educational foundation, according to campaign finance and tax records compiled by The Washington Post. While the vast majority of the money went to purchase advertising, Murphy got a significant cut as the media consultant.
In this year’s presidential contest, the pugnacious strategist helmed the big-money super PAC that Bush and his allies believed would give him a key edge in the race. By the time the former governor bowed out, Right to Rise USA had raced through more than $101 million of the nearly $119 million it had amassed, to little effect.
Murphy’s work for Bush over the years underscores how a long-term relationship with a politician can pay dividends for a political consultant, even in defeat. That’s particularly true in the current era of independent super PACs, which can scoop up unlimited donations from individuals and corporations without having to answer to a candidate about how they use the funds.
Right to Rise’s approach will be studied as a test of the kind of fiscal accountability that donors demanded after the 2012 election, when Republican super PACs and other groups unsuccessfully plowed hundreds of millions into costly television campaigns seeking to prevent President Obama’s reelection.
In an interview, Murphy rejected speculation in news reports and on Twitter that he made millions from Right to Rise. His total compensation was capped, he said, ending up in the “middle six figures.”
While campaign finance reports show Right to Rise paid two Murphy firms $6.35 million for media production, consulting and ad placement, most of the money went to purchase digital ads, according to people familiar with the spending.
Overall, less than 5 percent of the $81 million that the group spent on TV and digital ads — or less than $4 million — went to commissions for an ad-buying company and the firms run by the super PAC’s two media strategists, Murphy and Larry McCarthy, officials said. Vendors were also capped at a certain level of compensation.
Murphy rejects the idea that the group generated a cash bonanza for anyone involved. Overall, $94 million of the super PAC’s $101 million in spending went to political activities, while administrative overhead and fundraising costs totaled about $7.6 million, officials said.
“One of the reasons I was running the super PAC is because Jeb trusted me not to let the usual D.C. vendor class pick it clean,” Murphy said. “One of the things I was paid to do was manage the money appropriately and make sure that Right to Rise was the opposite of the caricature of the non-transparent, non-competitive-bid-driven, pocket-packing super PAC.”
“Even though our top line was the highest, due to the fundraising success Jeb had, our operation was tight as a tack,” Murphy said. “Warren Buffett would approve of our overhead philosophy,” he added, referring to the famously penurious investor.
In the wake of Bush’s loss, some big check-writers to Right to Rise are skeptical of how the group deployed its financial arsenal.
“I can’t micromanage them, but from what I see, it seems like they overspent on a lot of things,” said Andrew Sabin, the New York-based owner of a precious-metals refinery, who gave the super PAC $95,000. “It just seemed like a lot of money to spend on a couple of states.”
Super PAC officials noted that major expenses were approved by a donor governance committee made up of Florida developer and former Bush ambassador Mel Sembler; Jeanne Phillips, a major Republican fundraiser in Dallas; and Ray Hunt, the executive chairman of Hunt Consolidated, a privately held energy and investment holding company.
The group is now calculating pro-rated refunds for donors and plans to send contributors a memo accounting for its spending.
“We had confidence in Mike, and I think we did the best we could in deploying of resources,” Sembler said in an interview last week. “It looks to me that major money in advertising in this campaign is not making the difference.”
For his part, Murphy said the outcome had little to do with how the super PAC engaged in the race.
“We lost because people wanted something other than the vision that we were offering,” he said. “They wanted an anger candidate, and that, to his great credit, was not Jeb.”
People familiar with Bush’s thinking said he is not second-guessing the super PAC’s strategy.
“Mike is a great talent and a loyal friend,” Bush said in a statement. “We both share a vision for the future of the conservative movement that is hopeful and optimistic.”
Murphy’s relationship with Bush dates to 1997, when the candidate tapped the admaker’s firm at the time, Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome, for a second run for the Florida governor’s mansion after losing in 1994.
Murphy helped soften Bush’s image, emphasizing his commitment to education with ads in which the candidate pledged to “give every school the resources to succeed.” Spots sponsored by the state GOP showcased Bush with his young family and black Labrador retriever.
Bush brought Murphy back for his reelection bid in 2002, a campaign that again focused heavily on his education record.
In all, Bush’s campaign committees and the state party paid Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome $25.8 million during the two gubernatorial races, Florida campaign finance records show.
A large share went to purchase TV airtime. Murphy dismissed the idea that the campaigns were particularly lucrative, but he declined to specify what he was paid.
“I did not get 15 percent, which is the great fiction,” he said. “I did two statewide campaigns where I got normal money.”
Fees for media consultants vary widely. While ad buyers typically get between 2 percent and 5 percent to purchase television airtime, admakers and media strategists that once got as much as 15 percent in commissions now typically get paid an initial flat fee and then commissions on a sliding scale.
In the run-up to Bush’s presidential campaign, Murphy was hired by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit group started by Bush that promotes the student testing and school accountability measures he championed as governor.
Between 2013 and 2014, the foundation paid Murphy’s current firm, Revolution Agency, $3.4 million to run a media campaign touting Common Core standards and student testing — dubbed “Learn More. Go Further.” — according to tax records and people familiar with the project. The Wall Street Journal first reported the payments.
Revolution got the contract after a competitive bidding process, according to a foundation spokeswoman. One factor in Murphy’s favor was his familiarity with the overhaul of Florida schools that occurred under Bush, according to a person with knowledge of the selection process.
By that time, Murphy was settled in Los Angeles, where he and his wife now live in the tony Hancock Park neighborhood. He rents out two other houses he owns in the area: a home perched in the Hollywood Hills above the famed Chateau Marmont hotel and a bungalow in a suburb east of the city. After working on high-profile California races such as former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 campaign and technology executive Meg Whitman’s failed 2010 gubernatorial bid, the media man had largely retired from politics, focusing instead on corporate clients.
But last year he agreed to assist Bush’s presidential run, choosing to run the super PAC from Los Angeles so that he did not have to leave his family. Murphy envisioned the group, which could not directly coordinate with the campaign, as a massive amplifier of Bush’s message that would put an early focus on positive ads.
Right to Rise spent tens of millions last year rolling out spots that detailed Bush’s record as governor. In January, the super PAC loaded a 15-minute documentary it produced called “The Jeb Story” onto individual media players and mailed them to supporters and donors in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Many Republican strategists said the group’s emphasis on Bush’s record was dated and out of step with this election’s bellicose climate. Bush’s favorable rating actually plummeted over the course of the campaign, falling from 63 percent in July to 44 percent in January, according to Washington Post-ABC News polls of Republicans nationally.
“This is not the cycle for the gauzy positive bio spot,” said GOP admaker Brad Todd. “This is the cycle for showing how you’re going to solve the crisis. When there’s a wolf at the door, you deal with the wolf.”
Right to Rise initially held back from hitting front-runner Donald Trump, a decision that drew sharp criticism from other party strategists. Of the nearly $87 million it spent on a blizzard of ads and mailers, $3.7 million went to spots that criticized Trump, according to the group’s Federal Election Commission filings. (Super-PAC officials said that new anti-Trump ads were substituted for other ads, bringing the total up to $9.5 million.)
“Our early polling showed Trump voters were strongly anti-Jeb, so we thought if we spent the bulk of our ads attacking him, we’d only drive voters to [Ted] Cruz and Marco [Rubio],” Murphy said. “Later, we did attack him far more than anybody else and had much more anti-Trump stuff ready to go.”
By Feb. 20, when Bush dropped out of the race, the super PAC had run through $101 million.
FEC reports show nearly $74 million went to Oath Strategies, a limited liability company set up last June by GOP media buyer Patti Heck and longtime Murphy associate Brad Mont, who together placed the Right to Rise TV buys. Murphy does not have a stake in the company.
Oath Strategies’ cut was less than 2 percent, according to two people familiar with the figures.
Other major vendors included Redwave Communications, the Des Moines-based company run by Bush campaign adviser David Kochel, which got $4.5 million for direct mail and political strategy consulting. Since he worked for the campaign, Kochel was walled off from the super PAC’s activities and his colleague handled the Right to Rise work, officials said.
In the coming months, Right to Rise’s finances and strategy will be closely dissected by political operatives questioning the impact a big-money super PAC can have on a race. But even some longtime competitors said there was little Murphy could have done to alter Bush’s fate.
“It was just the wrong time for him,” said veteran Democratic admaker David Doak, who faced off against Murphy in Florida and other campaigns. “When you’re in that situation, you try everything in your power to unlock the box you’re in. Often you can’t do it — no matter how good you are, how much money you have.”
Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.