If Jeb Bush becomes the Republican nominee, it will be as much because of the political operatives toiling away at his super PAC, Right to Rise USA, as because of the work done by his formal campaign. That super PAC formally launches today, complete with a website and a video introduction to the candidate.
The PAC’s public debut offers a window into the new, more public role that super PACs will play in the 2016 presidential race. The groups have clear advantages: the ability to raise unlimited funds and blanket the airwaves with attacks against their political opponents, which is dangerous for a candidate himself to do because it typically increases the negative perception of him, too, in the public eye.
As the PAC’s introductory video makes clear, the organization won’t just have the negative mission of most such groups. It will also try to define Bush. The video is set to music that is upbeat and almost childlike, and it recounts Bush’s record as governor of Florida. It’s an effort to remind voters that, yes, he governed as a conservative, cutting taxes, creating jobs, and taking on the teachers’ unions in order to introduce school choice and boost education standards.
Reinforcing the candidate’s message is a challenge for super PACs, which are not allowed to communicate with the candidates they’re supporting. “The most difficult thing in the world to do is to drive the message from the super PAC,” says a top Republican strategist not aligned with any campaign. “You have no access to the candidate, and you have to make sure they’re picking up what you’re putting down.”
Apart from offering a portrayal of Bush, the video also does something rare: It introduces Right to Rise as a super PAC. Words tick across the screen: “Wait . . . a super PAC? What is that?” The answer comes, too: “We’re an independent, transparent organization. Our goal is to show you Jeb’s heart & his results & advocate for his ideas.” That’s a departure: In previous election cycles, super PACs have operated in the shadows, and their role was understood exclusively by political elites. It shows that these organizations are now a part of the mainstream in American politics.
In the 2012 presidential election, neither of the primary super PACs supporting the presidential nominees introduced itself as a super PAC. They did, however, offer two different models for how super PACs might operate in the post–Citizens United era, after the Supreme Court removed individual, business, and union limits on political contributions.
Broadly speaking, there was the Republican model and the Democratic model. The super PAC backing Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, Restore our Future, spent over $125 million, the vast majority on attack ads against Romney’s primary opponents and then against Barack Obama.
Apart from offering a portrayal of Bush, the video introducing Right to Rise also does something rare: It introduces the super PAC as a super PAC.
Its Democratic counterpart, Priorities USA Action, spent less than half that much — about $65 million — defining Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat, but it also had an omnipresent spokesman, Bill Burton, the former White House deputy press secretary for the Obama administration; a Twitter account; and, through its partner organization, American Bridge, access to reams of opposition research.
In the most effective ads, Priorities tracked down men and women who looked into the camera and blamed Mitt Romney for firing them during his tenure at Bain Capital. Republicans were particularly outraged at one spot, “Understands,” in which Joe Soptic, a former Kansas City steelworker who was laid off after Bain purchased the plant he worked at, blamed Romney for his wife’s death.
Republicans concede that their opponents outdid them. “They played the long game, they did the research, they spent less money and had way more effect,” says another top GOP strategist.
#related#Right to Rise will more closely resemble the Democratic model. Though it’s unlikely to have a spokesman on television, according to a source close to the PAC, it will engage on social media, including Twitter, and employ a team of opposition researchers. “Simply running ads isn’t enough,” says the top GOP strategist. “You need to be on TV, online, in the mail, have a PR component, and be talking to reporters.”
Underscoring that dynamic, Bush’s longtime aide, Mike Murphy, is serving as chief strategist to the PAC even though it means he can’t have any contact with Bush or the formal campaign. Also on board is GOP ad man Larry McCarthy, who rose to prominence in 1988 when he helped to create the Willie Horton ad, which all but torpedoed Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign. The New Yorker has dubbed McCarthy “Attack Dog.”
If anything is clear in the Republican primary thus far, it is that, if Bush is to become the Republican nominee, he will need a muscular organization throwing elbows at his opponents. He certainly has one.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.
UPDATE: This piece has been amended since its original posting.