Mike Murphy has been a fixture in national Republican politics for a quarter century. After making his name as an ad maker, he has advised presidential candidates including Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander, John McCain — and, most recently, the super-PAC behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
After an impressive fundraising haul exceeding $100 million, the Murphy-led Right to Rise PAC proved a spectacular flop. Though Bush is the son and brother of former presidents, he failed to gain traction as first-time candidate Donald Trump surged to become the presumptive Republican nominee. Even Bush's much younger one-time ally Marco Rubio outlasted him in the primary contests.
Murphy, 54, sat down recently with me in a Georgetown tavern to reflect on the Right to Rise misfire, the state of the Republican Party and the emergence of Trump. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: A lot of Republicans sitting around are still saying, "How did this happen? How did Trump get to be the nominee?"
MURPHY: Well, the archaeologists will be studying the ruins for a while.
HARWOOD: You're one of the most accomplished political consultants in your party. Do you feel guilty that you weren't able to stop this?
MURPHY: Yes. I think my powers are overrated and limited. There's been some criticism, much of it from what I call the helicopter moms around Marco Rubio, that, "Oh, how come you guys didn't spend your money with Right to Rise attacking Trump early?"
Well, Jeb did take Trump on more than anybody else, particularly Marco, who's about to get on the Trump bandwagon. But we go blast Trump early, we'd move a lot of numbers over to [Ted] Cruz, a few to Marco. Our plan was to clobber him later. Well, we never got to later. We eventually did spend more money on him than anybody else, but that wasn't our key thing.
If I go back in a time machine, maybe one of the arguments I would have made, and I think the other campaigns would have passed on it was, "We have a systemic threat with Trump here. I'll match all you guys."
HARWOOD: Is there any particular moment, event, decision that you can remember, that you say, boy I blew that?
MURPHY: Fundamentally it's hard for me to see, in this environment we had, a scenario where we won. You know, once the debates started and it was clear that Jeb's style, which would lend itself very well to a president of the United States or even a general election candidate, was the opposite of what they were looking for in the primary — I mean, when Trump said low energy, what he was really saying was too polite, too civil, too many big words. Jeb's not built for the stupidest campaign in the world.