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Jeb Bush quickly ramps up political operation, presses for big donations

🕐 5 min read

Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold (c) 2015, The Washington Post. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is quickly building a sophisticated political operation as he considers a presidential run, scooping up top GOP operatives and pressing party fundraisers to pull in large sums to back his efforts.

A day after Bush and his allies unveiled two political action committees, both dubbed Right to Rise, his aides were scheduling new finance events in Washington and other cities and pressing bundlers, who raise money from multiple donors, to make commitments to support the groups.

Some fundraisers have been asked to bring in at least $100,000 — either by collecting checks for the $5,000 maximum that can be donated to Bush’s leadership PAC or pulling in bigger donations for the super PAC, which can raise unlimited funds.

The intensive push for dollars is being overseen by Heather Larrison, a highly regarded Republican fundraiser assisting Bush’s efforts. She is part of a cadre of veteran campaign operatives who have signed on to help the former governor. Other longtime Bush family friends, such as veteran fundraiser Jack Oliver, are working behind the scenes informally to connect supporters to Bush’s new operation, according to people familiar with the outreach.

“This is a start-up, and what is incredible about this start-up is the amount of enthusiasm and support there is for the governor’s vision and message and leadership,” Oliver said in an interview.

A Bush aide, Kristy Campbell, described the effort as similar to those already set up by other potential presidential candidates.

“Governor Bush has not made a decision on whether he will run in 2016,” she said, describing the formation of the leadership PAC as a step “which will allow him to travel the country and talk about conservative candidates and causes.” Other possible candidates — such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — also have leadership PACs, which can finance their travel as they consider bids.

Bush’s announcement last month that he is actively considering a presidential campaign has scrambled expectations among Republicans and forced other contenders to speed up their timetables.

Defeated 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who has been encouraged by his allies to consider another run for the White House, was meeting Wednesday in California with several of his former political advisers. But Bush is rapidly scooping up senior party operatives with ties to Romney and other potential rivals.

Among those is Republican campaign finance lawyer Charlie Spies, who served as counsel to Romney and co-founded the super PAC that backed his 2012 White House bid. Spies set up the two PACs that make up Bush’s new political operation. People familiar with Bush’s plans describe an ambitious schedule of events being planned across the country, with supporters clamoring to host the former governor and introduce him to potential backers. Party leaders expect that the two PACs will bring in significant sums in the coming months.

“There’s a segment of Republican donors that is very, very enthusiastic about another Bush campaign,” said Frank Donatelli, a former deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. “They think of him as a known brand.”

Bush was set to hold his first fundraiser in Greenwich, Connecticut, Wednesday evening. In Washington, at least two events are being scheduled in coming weeks, including one billed as an intimate meet-and-greet for Bush and major donors, according to people familiar with the plans.

“He is definitely reaching out and making meaningful contact,” said Edwin Phelps, a private equity investor who splits his time between McLean, Virginia, and Palm Beach, Florida. “I don’t think he’ll have any trouble raising any funds at this stage.”

The intensity of the outreach — more than a year before the Iowa caucuses — has taken major donors by surprise.

“If you think how far ahead we are, it’s crazy,” Phelps said. “People aren’t really ready, but they will become engaged.”

Several senior Republicans said landing Larrison as a fundraiser is a major coup for Bush. She has been a finance aide for some of the most successful fundraisers in the party, including former president George W. Bush, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio). Most recently, she worked for the Republican Governors Association and National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Austin Barbour, a nephew of Barbour’s and a national finance co-chairman and senior adviser on Romney’s 2012 campaign, called Larrison “the best fundraiser in the country.” He said Larrison has particularly strong relationships with Republican donors in California, Florida and New York.

Along with Oliver, several other notable Washington campaign veterans are working informally to help Jeb Bush. They include Dirk Van Dongen and Richard Hohlt, prominent Washington lobbyists and fundraisers. Rob Engstrom, senior vice president and national political director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is providing assistance by taking a temporary leave from his post there to help Bush for several weeks. The chamber has had enormous success in recent cycles, raising money from its corporate members for political advertising and voter mobilization activities.

As he builds his political operation, Bush is seeking to head off questions about his record as governor or personal finances. He plans to release all his emails from his two terms as Florida governor. Politico reported Wednesday that he also plans to release at least a decade worth of tax returns — a sharp contrast with Romney, who reluctantly released just two years of returns in advance of the 2012 election. A source close to Bush said the report in Politico was premature and not accurate.

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Robert Costa and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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