In the so-called Invisible Primary of 2016, Jeb Bush is the invisible man — and he prefers it that way.
After taking the political world by surprise in early January with the formation of a shiny new political committee, Bush has largely receded from public view, instead putting an acute focus on raising money and building what his growing team of aides describe as a “shock and awe” campaign operation.
Aside from some previously-booked paid speeches, a series of banal postings on Instagram and Twitter and a few random run-ins with scrap-hungry reporters, the former Florida governor seems determined to avoid the traps of the horse race-driven daily news cycle and the expectations game that comes with it.
Bush’s mission in these early days of the cycle is to keep his head down and raise as much money as possible in an effort to muscle out his closest Republican rivals, hire a talented staff and build a high-octane campaign apparatus that can go the distance against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“There is a lot going on under the surface,” said one Bush-aligned strategist who, like most allies interviewed for this story, refused to talk on the record about any campaign plans. “He is still in the process of considering whether to run, but we are building and organizing. It’s a pretty muscular financial and political organization.”
Bush skipped the first big Republican event of the presidential cycle this weekend, an “Iowa Freedom Summit” that attracted almost a dozen Republicans pondering presidential bids and a conservative audience that winced at any mention of the former Florida governor, a perceived moderate in the wide-open GOP field. Nor did Bush attend a California forum organized by the Koch Brothers fundraising network, a confab that drew three other senators mulling White House bids.
His staffers, meanwhile, are fiercely tight-lipped about his plans and calendar, including a forthcoming book rollout, offering only the blandest of comments to reporters.
Bush himself is adept at dodging press inquiries. Last week in Washington, when Bush was in town meeting with financial supporters, a pair of intrepid television producers staked out the potential candidate at a building near the White House. Bush, though, escaped through a back entrance without being seen. The next morning, a group of reporters spied Bush at Reagan National Airport on his way to Utah for a hush-hush meeting with former Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a possible GOP rival in 2016. He swatted away to their queries with practiced ease.
“I like to ski, I can’t comment,” Bush told one reporter.
When big issues have surfaced – like President Barack Obama’s dramatic changes to the country’s decades-old Cuba policy – Bush has played it safe, opting to make his opinions known on Facebook rather than on television news.
Bush’s decision to shun the limelight in January 2015 makes sense to veterans of the presidential process. Though the 2016 race would be his first presidential bid, Bush seems determined to avoid the flame wars and Twitter spats that other first-time candidates are dabbling in, attention-sucking moments that can distract a candidates and staffers from their day-to-day goals.
“There is still plenty of time,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. “The caucuses are more than a year away.”
Bush’s most high-profile appearance came last Friday during a paid speech to the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in San Francisco. Close-political watchers mined his appearance for clues about a possible message, but he revealed little new about his thinking beyond now-familiar calls for immigration reform and a more “adult” political tone in Washington.
Bush advisers are promising a splashier showing on Feb. 4, when Bush is set to address the Detroit Economic Club, a frequent stopover for ambitious Republicans.
In the meantime, Bush has been flying around the country courting big Republicans donors and asking them to contribute to his political action committee, Right to Rise PAC, and an affiliated super PAC.
“It’s a smart strategy, because you have got to have a lot of money to run,” said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, who said Republicans “will have a better chance” in 2016 if they nominate a governor or ex-governor not associated with the unpopularity of Congress.
According to some Republicans, the Bush committees together are raking in daily sums in the mid-to-high six figures, an intake that should guarantee an impressive showing once the first fundraising quarter concludes in March.
“Other candidates aren’t doing that,” said one unaffiliated Republican in Washington who had been recently briefed on the fundraising.
Still, Bush backers vigorously deny a report from earlier this month that they are planning to haul in $100 million in the first quarter, a near impossible goal.
Much of the news about Bush’s financial activities is emerging from supportive donors leaking tidbits to reporters. On the staff side, it’s no-comment, all the time.
“It’s the Jeb Bush culture,” said one Florida Republican who knows the likely candidate. “It’s consistent with how he ran previous campaigns. Consistent with how he governed. Focus is execution, getting things done and lack of turmoil. That’s the goal anyway. You always fall short from time to time.”
The no-nonsense posture of Bush-world makes for a striking contrast when compared to the daily palace intrigue swirling around Romney, Bush’s closest competitor for establishment Republican support.
Ever since Romney told a room full of New York donors — many of them already committed to Bush — that he was seriously considering a 2016 bid, seemingly every Romney meeting, lunch, phone call and “private meeting” has surfaced in the press.
The read-all-about-it Romney drama is fueled, in part, by a circle of advisers that forged chatty relationships with the national press over eight years of campaigning and are happy to puff up their boss in the media. But despite Romney’s bold moves in recent weeks, even some of his most devoted aides remain uncertain about his 2016 chances. Some believe he’s best-positioned in a wide-open field while others are more torn about his re-emergence, but remain loyal to him nonetheless.
Romney’s will-he-or-won’t-he act has a short shelf life, a range of top Republicans and donors groused to CNN.
“I think there is a clear connection between endless leaks about high-level staff meetings and tremendous campaign insecurity,” said one senior Republican sympathetic to Bush who has spoken with people in both the Bush and Romney orbits. “Jeb-land seems too busy organizing to worry about leaking trivia.”
Romney is expected to make a decision about the race in the next two weeks, according to people who have spoken with him in recent days.
But Bush’s quick start might have already boxed out Romney on the fundraising front. In Republican financial circles, talk over the last week has centered on how Bush has already secured commitments from a large swath of Romney’s biggest bundlers and contributors, raising the former Massachusetts governor’s barrier to entry.
Bush is also ahead of Romney in the race for campaign talent, though the hiring process is moving at a somewhat slower pace than the money chase.
Since before the holidays, Bush’s two closest political advisers — Sally Bradshaw and Mike Murphy — have been recruiting staffers and consultants with a blizzard of phone calls and a cascade of meetings in Washington and elsewhere. They have focused heavily on staff talent from party committees in Washington and consultancies with ties to the Republican establishment. Already, Bush has tapped U.S. Chamber of Commerce political director Rob Engstrom, who helped engineer the Republican establishment’s national drubbing of the tea party in 2014, as a top adviser.
It remains unclear who will run the campaign. Bradshaw, several Republicans said, is likely to remain in a senior adviser role. Sara Taylor Fagen, an Iowa native and former political director for George W. Bush, has been frequently mentioned as a likely campaign manager. Fagen did not respond to a request for comment.
Several Republicans familiar with the moves said Bush’s high command has been very aggressive on the digital side, promising to build a state-of-the-art data and digital operation. Bush team has had conversations with a variety of top digital firms in Washington, and Chris Georgia, a former digital staffer for the National Republican Congressional Committee now working for Bush, has already tried to hire away staffers from a handful of leading digital firms.
In the pivotal early caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Bush has been careful to manage expectations, moving slower than most of his rivals. Bush has called the Iowa GOP Chairman, Jeff Kaufman, and Grassley said he has made arrangements to speak with Bush on Tuesday. He has also dialed some party leaders in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but for now appears to be relying on goodwill from early state veterans of his father’s and brother’s political orbits.
Bush is also keeping an eye on Michigan, which has yet to move its primary date from a February slot to later in the year despite the threat of penalties from the Republican National Committee. Former Michigan governor John Engler is keeping tabs on on the state’s primary for Bush and his team.
Bush’s organizational strength, fundraising prowess and blooming establishment support have impressed Washington insiders. But his strengths have yet to be tested in the wilds of the campaign trail, where goodwill for Romney still lingers among rank-and-file Republicans. Bush will have to introduce himself to Republican voters, hold steady throughout the ups-and-downs primary grindhouse and explain thorny positions to a GOP electorate that has drifted right since Bush last held office almost a decade ago.
At some point in the coming months, Bush will have to show some more leg to the public.
In Iowa, Branstad said he spoke to Bush about coming to an Agriculture Summit for presidential candidate in March. Bush, he said, “has some real interest in that.”
“My advice to all the candidates is come early and come often,” Branstad said. “I hope he does.”