LAS VEGAS — Politically, Jeb Bush wants voters to focus on his first name and his own political record. But when it comes to fundraising, he’s still banking on the success of his last name.
He hosted wealthy donors, many of whom backed his father and brother’s presidential bids, at his parents’ coastal estate in Maine this month. And on Friday night, he headlined a raucous dinner hosted by a PAC led in part by his two sons. It was held in a Venetian Hotel ballroom next to the theater where Diana Ross performs.
The group cannot officially endorse in the presidential race, so Bush and his family are drawing inspiration from the PAC as he continues fundraising. But the PAC is an outgrowth of the 2004 reelection campaign of George W. Bush — so, in essence, Jeb Bush is learning the lessons of his older brother.
With his father sidelined by injury and his brother staying out of the fray, Bush is deploying his wife and sons to appear at some of the 17 major fundraising events in 11 states and the District of Columbia that are scheduled through September.
Bush raised $11.4 million for his campaign in the last quarter — he was a candidate for just 16 days of the period. The sum was part of an unprecedented $119 million raised on his behalf by an allied super PAC and another leadership PAC. Most of his campaign money came from donors cultivated by the Bush family for more than 40 years. Just $368,000 came from people giving less than $200. Bush himself gave more to his campaign — $388,720 — to cover expenses.
Asked about the paltry sum of donations from small-dollar donors, Bush says that there will be plenty of time to cultivate grass-roots supporters.
“We had 16 days, and we wanted to send a statement of seriousness about the campaign. It was launched and, in 16 days, we raised $11 million. I’m proud of that,” he told reporters last week. “We’ll have ample time to broaden that out, that’s the intention.”
For now, Bush is focused on bigger dollars and his appearance on Friday night was a tacit acknowledgment of the work his sons are doing to help.
He appeared at a conference hosted by Maverick PAC, a group of wealthy Republicans under the age of 40 who support GOP political candidates of a similar age. The PAC was launched in Texas by about a dozen of George W. Bush’s “Mavericks,” or young professionals who helped raise at least $50,000 in 2004. In 2006, George P. Bush — Jeb’s older son — joined the group and became chairman in 2010. He expanded the PAC beyond Texas to include more than 20 chapters, with several in Florida and one in London.
As Texas land commissioner, George P. Bush can no longer actively participate, but his friend, Jay Zeidman, kicked off the event Friday night. He stood in jeans and a button- down shirt handing out awards to winners of a “40 under 40” prize while attendees dined on chicken and pork barbecue, cole slaw and potato salad.
Spotted in the crowd was Charlie Spies, a Republican campaign finance lawyer, who represents Maverick PAC and Right to Rise USA, the super PAC allied with Jeb Bush that raised a record $103 million last quarter.
Two younger conservative authors, Guy Benson and Kristen Soltis Anderson, sat on stage sipping beer while touting their books. Benson admitted he’d spent most of the day drinking by the hotel pool. Both lamented that too many liberals rely on comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver for their news and bemoaned the “stifling culture of political correctness.”
Bush applauded enthusiastically from the front of the room. He was later introduced to the crowd by Fritz Brogan, a Washington restaurateur who worked in George W. Bush’s administration and has grown close to Jeb Bush Jr.
Jeb Bush thanked his younger son for his early help and called out his wife, Columba, who was in the crowd.
“We’ve been married longer than the age of retirement of a MavPAC member,” he said.
Father and son later headed upstairs to Bouchon, the French restaurant by chef Thomas Keller, where they hosted a kickoff reception for “Mission: NEXT” — essentially the 2016 version of George W. Bush’s “Mavericks” group.
In a nod to his home state of Florida, Jeb Bush’s donor program is called “Mission 2016 JEB” — a NASA-inspired title for a program that will have three distinct tiers for top bundlers.
The first tier, called Apollo, will be for bundlers who can help Bush raise at least $75,000. The second tier, called Endeavour, is for donors who reach at least $150,000. Top-flight bundlers will reach the Voyager level as they help rake in at least $250,000.
Mission: NEXT will be for donors under 40 who can help raise at least $50,000. George P. and Jeb Bush Jr. will co-chair the group and said in a joint statement that it “will be the central program for youth involvement in the campaign.”
Through a spokesman, George P. Bush declined an interview request.
Jeb Bush Jr. said in a recent interview that when he meets with potential supporters, “I try to share my experience with dad, working with him the last six years, what he’s like as a dad or a grandfather, his experience in Florida as governor. And talk about potential solutions for things like student debt, the job market, health care, things that are facing millennials.”
The two brothers have tapped their own professional networks — wooing junior executives such as Zeidman, businessmen such as Brogan and attorneys, surgeons, investment bankers, accountants and other young professionals in Texas, Florida and elsewhere.
Andres Asion, a Miami real estate broker who is backing Jeb Bush and is friends with Jeb Bush Jr., said the brothers “have been raised in the business, per se, and they know their market and they know what they’re doing very well.”
Watching Bush’s new plans unfold are several former members of Maverick PAC who have aged out and remain active in GOP politics and fundraising.
Jonathan Neerman, the former chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, called the group “a starter PAC” that “was an introduction to the bundling world at a donor level that was not cost-prohibitive. Its genesis was really a networking opportunity for young bundlers from around the state to stay connected.”
Another presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is a founding member and standout alumnus. His campaign chairman, Chad Sweet, is a former member.
“I’ve been tremendously impressed by the success of MavPAC over the years, serving as a vehicle for young professionals to play a meaningful role in the political process,” Cruz said in an interview.
Clearly, Cruz learned from the experience: Despite trailing far back in most polls, he raised $14 million for his campaign last quarter, and another $37 million through a constellation of super PACs backing his campaign. The combined $51 million put him just behind Bush in the GOP money race.
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Washington Post staff writers Matea Gold, Tom Hamburger and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.