Jeb Bush

Supporters of Jeb Bush in Spartanburg, S.C., on Feb. 19. Mike Murphy, the man behind Bush’s super PAC, says he is still “proud of him.” (Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Seema Mehta
March 8, 2016

No one can argue that Mike Murphy didn’t try.

The political strategist who spent more than $100 million to get Jeb Bush the presidential nomination saturated the airwaves with ads. Red billboards flashed Bush quotes. A plane towing a Bush banner buzzed a Donald Trump rally. He went so far as to mail Iowa voters digital video players loaded with a biographical documentary.

It was all for naught. The best Murphy’s effort could buy was a finish that was 1,879 votes shy of third place in New Hampshire for the man once presumed to be the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

Murphy, a Los Angeles-based Republican consultant with dozens of major wins, has accomplished a lot in unexpected places: He got a Hollywood action hero elected governor of California. He got a wealthy Republican businessman elected governor in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.

For all those victories, though, he’s known these days for his role in the Bush super PAC, Right to Rise, one of the most expensive failures in American political history.

He has been accused of enriching himself through the super PAC, a charge he strongly denies. He has been berated for failing to recognize the threat Trump posed and for not understanding how off-putting the Bush name was in an election season seething at the Republican establishment.

Rumpled, stout and gregarious, the 53-year-old Murphy has defended himself and Right to Rise, which spent most of the $119 million it raised to boost Bush’s candidacy.

Murphy, who also writes screenplays in an office on Paramount’s Hollywood lot, said he earned in the mid-six figures for his work with Right to Rise. He dismissed the criticism, saying it comes from unnamed sources and rivals.

“The truth is I don’t care. There’s nothing lower in my book than second-guessing,” he said in an interview. “There are a lot of people in the cheap seats with a lot of opinions. What have they done?”

Over his career, Murphy had earned a reputation as a “candidate whisperer,” someone with the stature and willingness to challenge his candidates, whether it’s the scion of a powerful political family like Bush, a war hero like John McCain or a global celebrity like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Political observers wonder whether Murphy would have been more effective had he been directly involved with the campaign, able to coach Bush to turn in more aggressive debate performances. As head of the independent super PAC, he could not communicate with the Bush campaign.

Viewed by friends and foes as an eager self-promoter, he kept an unusually low profile while directing Right to Rise. In years past, he was quoted regularly and was a frequent analyst on television.
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy says of his critics: “There are a lot of people in the cheap seats with a lot of opinions. What have they done?” (William B. Plowman / NBC)

“He’s a very talented guy. He’s witty and he’s funny,” said Don Sipple, a GOP consultant who has known Murphy for more than 25 years.

The men worked together on Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and Schwarzenegger’s 2003 gubernatorial run in California, and against each other during the 2010 California governor’s race.

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