Trailing in the polls and struggling to settle on a clear message, Jeb Bush’s announcement Friday of plans to reshuffle his staff seemed to some like the early signals of Bush’s eventual demise.
But conversations with more than a half-dozen Bush donors and bundlers, some of whom attended a Bush family gathering last weekend aimed at addressing concerns about the direction of the campaign, remain optimistic, warning reports of Bush’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Mike Fernandez, the Miami billionaire who, at $3 million, was the top contributor to Bush’s super PAC, said he wrote a “substantial check” to the group on Friday and spent the weekend calling Bush’s most loyal donors encouraging them to give. Over the weekend, Fernandez said, he raised “over a million” for the super PAC.
But he also said he expects to see changes from Bush and his campaign.
“Do I think they can do better? Absolutely,” he said.
Fernandez said the move to cut salaries by 40 percent was a “major step,” citing “some concern from many of the donors that the campaign was top-heavy.” He said, though, that campaign advisers “need to let Jeb be Jeb.”
“What we’re missing is the most important part. The most important part is the connection, and I think if we let Jeb be Jeb that’s what will happen,” he added.
Fernandez said he had heard from donors in Texas who wanted Bush to hold more Spanish-speaking events in their state — a move that could draw attacks from Donald Trump, who derided Bush for speaking Spanish earlier in the cycle. He said he’d like to see Bush, “on the way to a high-dollar donor event, stop by three events at a playground in an inner city and see the people that would be voting for you.”
Fernandez insisted, however, that he has no plans to abandon “the guy who has the values” to be president, despite the fact he’s been courted by other candidates. Fernandez said he received a call on Monday from “the campaign head of Marco Rubio,” who said, “I understand you’re not happy. We want to have you on our team.” But he declined.
Former Florida Sen. George LeMieux, a longtime Bush backer who was at the briefing this weekend, said he has “a lot of confidence” in Bush and his campaign.
LeMieux chalked the issues with Bush’s campaign up to Trump’s unexpected strength in the race, and said the staff reshuffling was just a move intended to make the campaign better able to deal with that unforeseen challenge.
“No one expected that we’d have a television reality star running for president with about 10 years of experience branding himself, who would say anything to get attention.”
Other attendees said that the move to downsize the campaign was, as Florida GOP lobbyist and Bush bundler Justin Sayfie put it, a much-needed “reality check” that put some perspective on the race.
“Part of it is, honestly, the expectations were so high from the beginning. Some people thought, mistakenly, this was going to be a wire-to-wire lead and he was going to win 50 states,” Sayfie said.
“All those expectations have been put in check. It’s a needed reality check that it should be difficult, and it’s going to be difficult.”
But Sayfie said the briefings were a needed reality check in the other direction as well — that Bush still has a “pretty solid” foundation for his run.
“It was a good reality check to remind everybody that, even though there’s been some turbulence, the fundamentals are still pretty solid — they have a good game plan, their fundraising is solid. From that perspective, I think they addressed a lot of the concerns people had,” he said.”
But other donors and bundlers still said the issue with Bush’s campaign run deeper and will require a bigger fix than simply reshuffling staff.
“I think he’s got serious problems,” one major Bush bundler said in an interview last Friday. “Today’s news was less than helpful as well. I think the super PAC continues to raise decent money, but I don’t think the campaign’s going to.”
This bundler said donors have “lost faith” in the campaign staff, and “believe money has been wasted,” pointing to the millions spent on advertising in early states that haven’t managed to stem Bush’s slide in the polls. The dropoff in fundraising over the last 10 days, the bundler said, was “shocking.”
“The burn rate is higher than the income rate, and that has not happened before,” the bundler added.
The only thing that would bring donors back around to supporting Bush, the bundler said, would be a staff shakeup, potentially at the very top of the campaign. Donors, the bundler said, aren’t happy with campaign manager Danny Diaz, whose aggressive style has been known to clash with others.
“I think fundraising, unless there's a personnel shakeup, is going to be pretty nonexistent,” the source said.
Even some who expressed optimism about Bush’s future in the race admitted his current position in the polls and fundraising challenges are significant. Fernandez said he told the top Bush donors he called this weekend to step up because they were some of his most loyal and Bush is “not going to get new donors” right now.
And Bob Martinez, a longtime Bush family friend and bundler, said that most of the people he interacts with are “overwhelmingly for Jeb,” and his poor position in the polls “is a topic of conversation.”
“We do chat about it,” he said. “We all would like the numbers to be better, no doubt about that.”
But Martinez said he and his friends and associates, all Bush fans, aren’t counting their candidate out yet.
“Although they’re disappointed to see it, they know there’s a tomorrow here. It’s not anywhere near the end of the game, it’s just the beginning,” he said.