Jeb Bush's ambitions paid dividends for GOP ad maker Murphy over the years
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 ad maker 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 a 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 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 buy 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,” he 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 last week. “It looks to me that major money in advertising in this campaign is not making the difference.”