Jeb Bush Donors Gather to Hit Reset Button On Campaign

The former Florida governor met with fundraisers in Houston on Sunday to try to assure them he has a plan for victory.

Jeb Bush Addresses LIBRE Initiative Forum In Nevada
Photographer: David Becker/Getty Images

Jeb Bush’s one-time running mate in Florida, Tom Feeney, couldn’t find a cab amid the heavy rainfall on Saturday in Houston that stranded cars and flooded parts of the city. His umbrella broke on the walk back to the hotel, and his jeans were still damp on Sunday when he arrived at a series of meetings called by the former governor's presidential campaign.

The two days of private meetings for the Bush campaign’s top donors, which continue on Monday, were supposed to start with a reception Sunday afternoon at the three-bedroom, five-and-a-half bath brick home of former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. The slow moving remnants of Hurricane Patricia that drenched the most populated city in Texas—and much of the Gulf Coast—forced them to gather instead in a nondescript ballroom at the Hilton Americas-Houston. 

And so it goes for Team Bush.

The one-time front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination had pitched the meetings months ago as a “celebration,” a treat for fundraisers who had met their quotas to mingle with both his father and brother, the last two Republican presidents, in this pivotal city in Bush family history.

Instead, the gathering at the downtown hotel, which the Bush team shared with a convention of quilters, was a moment for about 175 of Bush’s financiers to hit the proverbial reset button. Coming two days after Bush ordered major cutbacks—he cut ties with some staffers and consultants, and ordered a second round of pay cuts for those who remained—the summit marked either the start of Bush’s comeback, or the beginning of the end of the campaign.

“Things have changed,” said Marc Stern, chairman of TCW, a Los Angeles-based investment firm, and one of Bush’s top fundraisers. “This is adjusting to the change in a positive way.”

The campaign sought to inject hope into their team that has helped raise nearly $30 million for Bush's campaign and leadership PAC—and more than $100 million for the super-PAC—only to watch his poll numbers dip in key states. The super-PAC, known as Right to Rise USA, showed donors a series of positive ads it has produced about Bush, and the former Florida governor gave an upbeat speech during an evening barbecue dinner with his parents, 

On Monday, donors will get more detailed briefings from staff, including one from Sally Bradshaw, Bush's chief adviser. The summit will conclude with remarks from former President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush's brother, and a photo opportunity with both former presidents and Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba. 

Speaking during a dinner reception on Sunday that included his parents and his wife, Bush told the group that “I wake up everyday” energized about the campaign. “I know how to fix it and I will fix it,” Bush said about Washington, according to one donor.

Bush talked about rolling out more policy initiatives, which pleased at least one attendee. “It’s time to quit talking about the previous record and start talking about the vision for the country going forward,” the donor said, requesting anonymity to speak about the private meeting.

In the wake of the campaign’s downsizing, the super-PAC is considering expanding staff and operations in early states to help Bush, a Right to Rise official said, requesting anonymity to discuss plans. The super-PAC, which can raise donations in unlimited amounts but can’t coordinate strategy with the campaign, so far has mostly focused on TV advertising.

The super-PAC privately briefed donors on Sunday in a hotel ballroom down the hall from where the campaign welcomed almost all of the same fundraisers. Mike Murphy, a longtime Bush confidant running the super-PAC, gave donors a rundown of the group’s activities and previewed a half-dozen TV spots. Bush spoke at the super-PAC's meeting and the campaign's event.

Murphy exited the meeting room as Bush was entering, and the two men embraced. (They stopped speaking months ago to comply with campaign finance laws.) When Bush entered, the room erupted in applause that could be heard down the hall where reporters were gathered. “They’re pumped,” Murphy told a reporter about the donors as he rode an escalator away from the meeting room.

Indeed, most donors were willing to accept—and repeat—the campaign's talking points that the changes would help Bush in the long run. Most said they can't imagine the party nominating Donald Trump, who has been ahead of polls since July, or another candidate with less experience.

“When the winds change you gotta adjust your sails, and he did,” said Ed Easton, a Miami-based developer supporting Bush, said as he walked from the super-PAC meeting to the campaign reception. “Jeb is a manager, basically. He’s a strategic thinker and he’s going to do the right thing. I think it was the right thing.”

Will Weatherford, a former Florida House speaker backing Bush, said the cutbacks cast Bush in the underdog role in the primary race. “That's a great position for us,” he said.

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