Jeb Bush doesn't think a 2016 presidential contender needs to raise $1 billion in campaign cash. But, just in case, his campaign-in-waiting seems intent on dominating the fundraising competition anyway.
Without revealing any specifics, Bush told well-heeled political donors he invited to Miami Beach over the weekend that his organization has collected a "historic" amount of money. The former Florida governor declared at a dinner for more than 350 benefactors that the 100-day fundraising mark had broken past records set by Republicans.
Bush announced in December — 131 days ago as of Monday — that he would consider a Republican presidential bid. Yet he remains an undeclared candidate, which means the money he crowed about to donors Sunday hasn't gone into a "Jeb Bush for President" campaign.
Instead, it has flowed into his Right to Rise Super PAC, which can accept unlimited contributions. That makes comparing Bush's haul to past candidates' impossible, or at least imperfect, since those records were set from limited donations given directly to candidates, known in campaign-finance parlance as "hard money." Bush advisers running Right to Rise have tried to tamp down reports that the group hoped to raise $100 million in its first fundraising quarter, or at least in the first half of the year.
Bush didn't give donors a fundraising total so far. But he bragged about the amount hours after he had opined that the eventual 2016 presidential nominees might not have to collect $1 billion — the mark topped by President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney in 2012 — if candidates run strong campaigns.
"I don't think you need to spend a billion dollars to be elected president of the United States in 2016," Bush said outside Burger & Beer Joint on Sunday. "I don't think it's necessary if you run the right kind of campaign. You don't need to have these massive amounts of money spent."
He did acknowledge, though, that "in order to be competitive you have to raise a significant amount of money to build a first-rate policy team and a great campaign."
Keen on showing off his own prospective team and campaign organization to generous financiers, Bush had his donors met at the new 1 Hotel on South Beach by a robust number of Right to Rise volunteers or staffers. A spokesman declined to say how many are on the actual payroll. They were given baseball hats emblazoned with "RTR," the Super PAC's initials.
The Bush camp has indicated Right to Rise would play a far larger role in a potential Bush campaign than Super PACs have in past presidential elections, allowing the candidate to hand off many expensive tasks from the campaign to the deep-pocketed organizations. Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating certain matters with campaigns; one of the reasons Bush has yet to announce his candidacy is so that he can more easily attend and ask donors for money at PAC events. Campaigns can only accept donations of $2,700 per person per election.
Campaign-finance watchdogs have accused Bush of skirting laws that require candidates "testing the waters" to face contribution limits and disclosure requirements. The liberal American Democracy Legal Fund filed a second complaint Monday against Bush with the Federal Election Commission. The Campaign Legal Research Center, in conjunction with Democracy 21, filed the first one in March against Bush and other would-be candidates with similar financial arrangements.
"Jeb Bush's game of charades has consequences," David Donnelly, chief executive of Every Voice, a nonprofit group that advocates for campaign-finance reform, said Monday in a statement. "By flouting the law and delaying an announcement of his candidacy for president, Jeb Bush is letting million-dollar donors underwrite his campaign, effectively placing the White House on the auction block. His actions only deepen the cynicism that Americans acutely feel about a political system that works for those at the top, and not for the rest of us."
Asked about the complaints in New Hampshire two weeks ago, Bush dismissed the criticism: "We're living within the law, for sure."
Bush's strategy, dubbed "shock and awe" by supporters, has so far failed to scare away other potential GOP candidates. Eighteen other Republicans are running or flirting with running, and most of them have various PACs raising money for them. Only three, all senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — have launched actual campaigns.
Rubio held a far smaller donor meeting of his own at the Delano Hotel on South Beach in January, three months before he announced his candidacy. In a sign that an official Bush announcement is imminent, several top Bush advisers have moved or plan to move in the next couple of weeks to the Miami area — particularly to Coral Gables, near Bush's home.
Cruz reportedly raised $31 million through three affiliated super PACs in the first week after inaugurating his campaign. Rubio is said to have secured financial commitments surpassing $40 million in his first week. Bush's Super PAC doesn't have to disclose fundraising totals or contributors' names until July.
Among the Bush backers present for at least parts of the two-day conference were Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford — all considered likely GOP candidates for higher office.
Sunday night, the former Florida governor was accompanied by his wife, Columba, and introduced at the chicken dinner by his youngest son, Jeb Bush Jr. On Monday, donors participated in various policy discussions and had lunch with Bush, who then posed for photographs.
"Mission accomplished," said Jorge Arrizurieta, a local Bush fundraiser and longtime friend, in a text message. "Everyone is energized and ready to multiply the effort exponentially the minute the Governor says, 'Let's go!' "
Arrizurieta also accompanied Bush to Burger & Beer Joint on Sunday, sitting in a neighboring table for what was a far more colorful meal than the ones at the hotel.
Bush was served a special burger — lettuce-wrapped bison with chipotle ketchup, sauteed onions and jalapeños, no bun, no cheese — to fit his Paleo diet, which shuns dairy and starch. It was designed and served by waiter Tommy Strangie — who, in an only-in-Miami-Beach twist, is also a semi-retired drag queen.
"I don't know the first thing about politics," said Strangie, who joked he would wait to take a selfie with Hillary Clinton but had nothing but praise for Bush. "He was very nice and very down to earth — and a great tipper." Bush left 25 percent.
Bush, wearing no tie or jacket in the record-breaking heat, treated Zeus and Dana Rodriguez of Wisconsin to lunch. The couple won an expenses-paid trip to Bush's confab after entering a contest organized by the PAC which requested a $3 donation. The winners were quintessential Bush: Hispanic Republicans from a swing state (with a likely GOP presidential candidate of its own in Gov. Scott Walker) who strongly support taxpayer-funded vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools — a longtime Bush cause.
"I really like his holistic approach to the campaign," Zeus Rodriguez said.
"What campaign?" Bush said with a smile, putting his arm around Rodriguez.
"I'm sorry! That's if he runs," Rodriguez said.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.