Since January, the super PAC supporting Jeb Bush has done one thing, and done it well: amass a nine-figure fortune, in hopes of making the former Florida governor's Republican presidential bid a political death star.
Now, as that super PAC prepares a post-Labor Day television advertising blitz in three critical early voting states, the question is whether the juggernaut designed to build and sustain Bush’s momentum has already missed its chance to reinvigorate a waning front-runner.
When the super PAC Right To Rise was created, few anticipated Bush's summer struggles. Bush, as a two-term governor of the biggest U.S. swing state, a card-carrying member of America’s most famous Republican family and a Spanish-speaking reformer who purported to give the party its best chance to retake the White House next year, was supposed to have scared potential rivals from jumping into the race.
Instead, Bush finds himself facing 16 GOP foes of varying formidability, but a shared conviction on one thing: Bush absolutely can be beaten.
A slew of rhetorical missteps has kept Bush from breaking away from the pack, while an unexceptional performance at the first Republican debate in Cleveland appears to have consigned him to not-quite-frontrunner status. The candidate who appeared at the outset to have the most political assets has become highly dependent on just one -- money -- and in desperate need of another -- energy.
“There’s still time,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, in assessing the ability of Bush to right the ship. “[But] I would disagree with those who just assume this will pass, and instead I'd be arguing that you have to move more aggressively at this stage.”
Pat Buchanan, the longtime conservative firebrand and former Nixon presidential aide who knows something about how to take on a vulnerable front-runner -- having beaten Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire GOP primary -- echoed that sentiment.
"Bush 45's engine has been idling all summer," Buchanan said, using the shorthand for a third Bush presidency that would follow his father’s (Bush 41) and brother’s (Bush 43) White House tenures. "He needs to get it into gear, and start moving."
Bush's allies apparently agree. Over the weekend, Right To Rise announced it would spend at least $10 million on TV ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The investment promises to be merely the opening salvo of a sustained effort for a group with the firepower to give Bush a sizable financial edge over every other Republican not named Donald Trump.
Bush’s coffers aren’t going to dry up any time soon. The $103 million his super PAC raised in the first half of this year is nearly three times the total that its nearest competitor -- Ted Cruz -- managed to bring in through four affiliated super PACs. And with a veteran operative running the show -- longtime Bush confidante Mike Murphy -- Right To Rise isn't likely to burn through its resources in a fit of panic. Murphy certainly has been cognizant of the truism of politics that relatively few voters are paying attention in the summer before an election.
"I actually think it is still too early for them to spend it. What he has got to do is to just outlast everybody," said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist who ran Howard Dean's 2004 campaign.
But the impending ad buy suggests that Murphy knows a change in momentum is needed before voters' perceptions of the candidates become more ingrained later in the fall. Some Republicans, indeed, have begun privately wondering whether the super PAC waited too long to provide financial cover to a candidate who has struggled to define how he is different from his father and brother. Throwing money behind ads is easy when you're sitting on millions, they argue. But doing it in a way that effectively moves voters can take a sustained investment.
"With their massive financial advantage, they have the ability to dominate the airwaves and drive a message in early states that no other candidate -- on either side of the aisle -- has the ability to do," one senior Republican operative said of Bush’s predicament. "But, early ads are like starting a fire. If the log doesn’t catch and the flames don’t spread, it should be cause for concern."
Nowhere is the need for the Bush camp to move aggressively more glaring than in New Hampshire -- the early state that he appears best-positioned to win, but where he currently sits in a distant second place behind Trump, according to an average of recent polls.
But the real surprise in New Hampshire hasn't been the staying power of Trump. It's been the quick ascendance of the man in third place: Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Longtime GOP consultant John Weaver offered Kasich an upbeat prediction shortly after he signed on as senior strategist in June: Kasich would be polling among the top three Republicans in New Hampshire by Labor Day.
The forecast wasn’t optimistic enough.
Kasich, surging from a widely praised performance in last week’s debate, an early TV advertising push and a successful sting of on-the-ground campaigning in the first primary state, now threatens to overtake Bush in a state critical to the 2016 hopes of each.
“The Kasich campaign has definitely cleared the launching pad,” Dante Scala, a longtime observer of the state’s presidential politics at the University of New Hampshire, said in an email. “And for a center-right candidate, that's important. See: Huntsman, Jon. Kasich has to walk the line of being moderate on some issues (Medicaid expansion) without seeming to renounce his fellow partisans. So far, so good.”
Senior officials in Bush’s camp have long eyed Kasich as their biggest threat in New Hampshire, reasoning that the Ohioan brings an establishment pedigree from another major swing state, a compelling record as governor, and general election chops, without the baggage that comes with the Bush name.
And Team Kasich is sounding awfully confident these days.
“He talks a language that voters understand,” said Tom Rath, a longtime New Hampshire GOP operative, who signed on with the Kasich campaign last week. “I think there is something in his message that people are paying attention to. There’s a palpable buzz.”
While Kasich still fails to make much of a dent nationally, Weaver said he sees echoes of John McCain’s 2000 White House run, in which the Arizona senator scored a surprise 19-point shellacking of George W. Bush in the New Hampshire.
“It has the feel of McCain 2000, at least in the organic growth of the organization,” Weaver, a veteran of McCain’s 2000 campaign, told HuffPost.
But no Republican candidate in New Hampshire -- nor anywhere else, for that matter -- is generating the massive audiences and around-the-clock media obsession that Trump continues to command.
Bush’s camp has long seen Trump as an asset -- a useful tool to prevent any “credible” challenger more popular with the grassroots right from emerging to take on the true frontrunner one-on-one.
But the longer Trump continues his scorched-earth march through the 2016 battlefield without suffering in his own standing, the more glaring the question becomes: Has the party establishment underestimated Trump’s staying power and potential to be a real contender for the nomination?
"Bush 45 is raising the DEFCON," Buchanan emailed, after news broke that Bush's super PAC would be spending on television ads. "The Donald has forced him off his grand strategy. Jeb should be nervous."
It is only August. The race will remain volatile over the next few months, and presidential candidates with a cash advantage like Bush's succeed more often than they crash and burn. Though it's about to start spending serious money, the Bush world isn't showing the panic that Buchanan said they should -- at least not overtly.
“Boosts are nice, but what's nicer is sustainability,” said New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Jamie Burnett, who is supporting Bush. “I don't get too excited about polls at this stage, no matter who they say is leading.”
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