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.
HARWOOD: Was there any particular genius you think about that low-energy title?
MURPHY: It wasn't about energy, it was about tone. It was a smart way for Trump, in his kind of weird savant gift he has to craft good insults, to take what was Jeb's strength as a president and make it a minus in the circus reality show of debates in this cycle and in this campaign.
In the later debates I think he held his own or more with Trump. But it took him a while to understand that he's in Kardashian World now. Which, if you're a smart guy who wants to run an accretive campaign with nongrievance politics, is waking up in the middle of a nightmare.
You know, we spent a lot of money and didn't get many votes. But everybody I know in the Jeb operation sleeps pretty well at night. We never said anything we're ashamed of.
HARWOOD: You raised $100 million for your super PAC.
MURPHY: A little more than that, though we refunded about 12 percent of what we raised to our donors.
HARWOOD: How much blowback have you gotten, if any, from donors who were like, "We paid all this money," there were stories that came out that said Murphy made $14 million in the campaign?
MURPHY: God, I wish. You know, the truth is I've taken so much press crap over that, I kind of thought, "God, I should have paid myself a lot more" — jokingly.
The way our money worked is, there were always concerns early about donors in the super PAC world of "What's the governance?" You know, how is the money, kind of the budgeting, done? One of the reasons Jeb tapped me to run the super PAC was to be a cheap bastard with the money.
And that's why the calls I'm getting from donors, mostly, overwhelmingly, are, "My God, I just got a refund. I've been giving political money for 20 years and nobody's ever managed their cash in a way that, if things didn't work out, I got a significant refund check here." The idea I made millions of dollars is absolutely ridiculous.
HARWOOD: Did you make less than $1 million?
MURPHY: Yes, I did. Personally, definitely less than $1 million.
HARWOOD: Can you say how much?
MURPHY: Well, you know, I hate being goaded by the media into, like, releasing my tax returns. I would say, if I did, the year I worked on the super PAC my income went down, not up. I was generously paid, but it was in the mid-to-upper six figures.
HARWOOD: I've seen somewhere $600,000.
MURPHY: Well in that range. I don't want to do an exact number of what I personally was compensated.
HARWOOD: Is Jeb at peace with how it came out?
MURPHY: Yeah, I think so. I mean, he knows he worked really hard. I mean, for all the low energy stuff, the truth is, if Trump had Jeb's schedule for three days, he'd be in the hospital.
And he's worried for the country now. He's one of the very few guys, along with Mitt, who refuses to support Trump, to his great credit. I've been surprised at the magnetic field of blind party loyalty, and a little disappointed by it.
HARWOOD: Some of the polling now shows that he has gone from mid-70s, in terms of support from Republicans, to the mid-to-high 80s. Does that mean that the notion of party unity is not a problem for him?
MURPHY: We don't really know yet. You want to be in the low 90s — 94, 95 — and he has managed to break through to the mid-80s now. So he's still short of what he needs. Remember Romney lost the election with 94.5 percent, 95 percent.
HARWOOD: What do you expect that House and Senate candidates are going to do?
MURPHY: They're in a tough position. They're thinking, "All right, I've got primary voters who love Trump. I'm hoping for this magic Trump vote to show up which we've never seen before," which is a mirage, but hope springs eternal. And, "I've got swing voters who can't stand the guy, who I need to win."
So if they're in a safe Republican district, they can probably be for Trump and be fine. If they're in any kind of competitive district, he's going be toxic, and they're trying to navigate that. And I think a lot of them are going to get in trouble because they'll get close to him, they'll back off, and it'll be inconsistent, which will not help.
HARWOOD: Paul Manafort, Tony Fabrizio who have gone on board with Trump: What is their capacity to overcome some of this resistance with their connections, their knowledge of the party, their ability to talk to Republican audiences?
MURPHY: Well, they know how to do the basic mechanics, but that's a commodity. Cory Lewandowski knows how to, you know, rent a hall.
The problem is they're like Charlie Manson's fox trot instructors. Yeah, they could teach him how to dance. But he's too busy trying to cut their heads off, because he's insane.
So they can add the noise of a campaign. But it's ultimately all about Trump. And Trump's favorite thing to do is rent a hall, read the crowd, tell them what they like to hear, and then get on his plane and watch himself on cable.
They can't change him. And he's the strength of the Trump campaign, and he's the fatal flaw.
HARWOOD: What is the possibility that he wins the election, in your view?
MURPHY: This is not a year to say "impossible." But to win what Trump would have to do is change the perception women have of him. Because white men are only a third of the electorate. So you can win them by 40 percent and it's still not enough if you 're losing the other two groups by double digits, which is where he is today.
He would need to dramatically change the perception people have of him now. And since Trump can't change, I think his answer is less in political strategy and more in a team of shrinks to get him back into some sort of mentality where he understands he has to change.
HARWOOD: There are some people who have been making the argument that he would be a threat to democratic institutions. Is that something that you look at and think there's something to that?
MURPHY: I think there's something to it. He's not a fascist, but he has fascist tendencies.
In every question of politics, he goes to one analogy which is, "What's my leverage to, like, not pay the loan?" So if his main thing is, "Well, I just won't pay, I'll start a trade war as an instrument of policy" — it's so blindingly stupid. I mean, the problem is Trump doesn't know what he doesn't know, and he doesn't know very much. And so that would leave him with a very small arsenal of blunt instruments as president.
If we become a dysfunction banana republic, are we still the reserve currency? You know, because right now, the dollar's the safest thing in the world because we're seen as stable. If we're a banana republic, that goes away. And it would be a catastrophic loss for our country and our geo-political position. And a clown president would do that.