Jeb Bush doesn’t think the next president of the United States will have to raise $1 billion in campaign cash. But he’s on his way toward a big fund-raising haul anyway, before he has even made his candidacy official.
Bush told political donors assembled on South Beach over the weekend that his presidential campaign-in-waiting has raked in a historic amount of money. He wouldn’t disclose exactly how much, but Bush declared at a dinner for more than 350 benefactors held at a ballroom of the new 1Hotel that fund-raising at the 100-day mark had broken past records set by Republicans.
Unlike in prior elections, however, the money didn’t go into a “Jeb Bush for President” campaign. It flowed to his “super PAC,” a political action committee that can accept unlimited donations. That makes comparing Bush’s haul to past candidates’ impossible, since those records were set from limited contributions directly to candidates — known in campaign-finance parlance as “hard money.” Bush advisers have tried to tamp down reports that his Right to Rise super PAC hoped to bring in $100 million in its first fund-raising quarter.
Bush bragged about the fund-raising haul Sunday hours after he had opined that the eventual 2016 presidential nominees might not have to collect $1 billion — the mark topped by both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney four years ago — if candidates run strong campaigns.
“I don’t think you need to spend a billion dollars to be elected president of the United States in 2016,” Bush said outside Burger & Beer Joint on Sunday. “I don’t think it’s necessary if you run the right kind of campaign. You don’t need to have these massive amounts of money spent.”
He did acknowledge, though, that “in order to be competitive you have to raise a significant amount of money to build a first-rate policy team and a great campaign.”
Benefactors at the hotel were met by a robust number of Bush volunteers or staffers — his spokesman declined to say how many are actually on the payroll — and given baseball hats emblazoned with “RTR,” for Right to Rise. In a sign that an official announcement is imminent, several top Bush advisers have moved or plan to move in the next couple of weeks to Coral Gables, Bush’s home base.
The Bush camp has indicated Right to Rise would play a far larger role than super PACs, a relatively recent creation, have in previous campaigns. Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating certain matters with campaigns; one of the reasons Bush has yet to announce his candidacy is so that he can more easily raise money at PAC events. Contributions made directly to candidates are limited to $2,700 per person per election.
Campaign-finance watchdogs have accused Bush of skirting laws that require candidates “testing the waters” to face contribution limits and disclosure requirements.
“Jeb Bush’s game of charades has consequences,” David Donnelly, chief executive of Every Voice, a nonprofit group that advocates for campaign-finance reform, said in a statement. “By flouting the law and delaying an announcement of his candidacy for President, Jeb Bush is letting million-dollar donors underwrite his campaign, effectively placing the White House on the auction block. His actions only deepen the cynicism that Americans acutely feel about a political system that works for those at the top, and not for the rest of us.”
“We’re living within the law, for sure,” Bush said in New Hampshire two weeks ago when reporters asked him about the watchdogs’ complaints.
Bush’s strategy, dubbed “shock and awe” by supporters and unveiled after he said in December that he would explore a 2016 bid, has so far failed to scare away other potential GOP candidates. Eighteen other politicians are running or flirting with running, and most of them have various PACs raising money for them. Only three senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — have launched actual campaigns. Rubio held a far smaller donor meeting of his own at the Delano Hotel on South Beach in January, three months before he announced his candidacy.
Cruz reportedly raised $31 million through three affiliated super PACs in the first week after inaugurating his campaign. Rubio is said to have secured financial commitments surpassing $40 million in his first week.
Bush’s super PAC doesn’t have to disclose fund-raising totals or contributors’ names until July.
Among the Bush backers present for at least parts of the two-day conference were Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford — all considered likely GOP candidates for higher office.
Sunday night, the former Florida governor was accompanied by his wife, Columba, and introduced at the chicken dinner by his youngest son, Jeb Bush Jr. Donors said Bush offered no details as to when he might kick off his candidacy. On Monday, the financiers participated in various policy discussions and had lunch with Bush, who then posed for photographs.
His lunch Sunday at Burger & Beer Joint was far more colorful.
The former Florida governor was served a special burger — lettuce-wrapped bison with chipotle ketchup, sauteed onions and jalapeños, no bun, no cheese — to fit his Paleo diet, which shuns dairy and starch. It was designed and served by waiter Tommy Strangie — who, in an only-in-Miami-Beach twist, is also a semi-retired drag queen, Shelley Novak.
“I don’t know the first thing about politics,” said Strangie, who joked he would wait to take a selfie with Hillary Clinton but had nothing but praise for Bush. “He was very nice and very down to earth — and a great tipper.” Bush left 25 percent.
Bush, wearing no tie or jacket in the record-breaking heat, treated Zeus and Dana Rodriguez of Wisconsin to lunch. The couple won an expenses-paid trip to Bush’s confab after entering a contest organized by the PAC which requested a $3 donation. The winners were quintessential Bush: Hispanic Republicans from a swing state (with a likely GOP presidential candidate of its own in Gov. Scott Walker) who strongly support taxpayer-funded vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools — a longtime Bush cause.
“I really like his holistic approach to the campaign,” Zeus Rodriguez said.
“What campaign?” Bush said with a smile, putting his arm around Rodriguez.
“I’m sorry! That’s if he runs,” Rodriguez said.