Jeb Bush staffs up for presidential campaign, hires Mitt Romney adviser

Jeb Bush’s PAC has opened its Tallahassee headquarters.
Jeb Bush’s PAC has opened its Tallahassee headquarters.
Published Jan. 30, 2015

From Florida's capital to early voting Iowa, Jeb Bush dramatically beefed up his political committee this week making it the largest GOP presidential campaign-in-waiting.

Bush's Right to Rise PAC officially hired Iowa strategist David Kochel and opened its Tallahassee headquarters where at least eight staffers are based.

The moves are the latest in a series of aggressive steps Bush has taken as he seeks to dominate the critical early game of lining up key staff and campaign money.

Kochel is an important hire. He ran Mitt Romney's campaign in Iowa, which holds the nation's first nominating contest, in 2008 and 2012. By joining Bush, Kochel sends another sign that Romney's recent entry into the mix has been met with little enthusiasm among the political elite.

"I'd encourage Gov. Bush to take his record of accomplishment and dynamic, conservative ideas to the whole nation," Kochel told the Des Moines Register on Thursday.

Kochel would slide into the role of national campaign manager should Bush formally enter the race — and it's inconceivable at this point he will pull back. He gives Bush someone with presidential experience but is far from the Washington, D.C., bubble.

But Bush did focus on Florida's power center. Starting this week, Bush's nascent political operation began working for his Right to Rise political action committee in Tallahassee, forming the nucleus of a campaign team if the former Florida governor seeks the White House.

Tallahassee was a natural pick for a Bush political team because it's populated with fiercely loyal Republicans and former employees of the governor — starting with Bush's longtime adviser, Sally Bradshaw.

"It reflects the overall ethos that Jeb has — a sense of cause, a sense of principle that he inspired in others," said Brett Doster, a longtime Bush backer and Romney's 2012 Florida campaign manager.

"People get into politics to be part of something greater than themselves," he said, "and Jeb Bush gave them an outlet."

The staffing-up of Bush's operation happens at the same time that the Republican Party of Florida is in turmoil.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has signaled he wouldn't raise money for the party after his hand-picked chair was defeated by rank-and-file party voters this month. The Florida Senate has moved its fundraising operations out.

Also, Scott's fellow statewide elected Republicans — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — have criticized Scott's administration for the heavy-handed and misleading way in which the state's longtime top law-enforcement officer was pressured to quit.

By contrast, Bush's tenure leading Florida Republicans was largely free of the bitterness and intrigue currently gripping the state GOP. For many Republicans who fondly recall the Bush era, the PAC's location in Tallahassee is a welcome reminder of better days for the party.

Though titles haven't been officially released, here's a partial list of the Tallahassee PAC's staff:

Bradshaw: A longtime Bush confidante, Bradshaw lives near Tallahassee and is the Right to Rise director. Bradshaw abruptly resigned her post as a state Board of Education member in 2013. Before then, she co-chaired what was called the GOP's post-2012 "autopsy" report to figure out how to win presidential elections. Before the 2012 elections, she briefly worked for former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's political committee as he mulled a run for president. Bradshaw also served as an adviser to Romney in his 2008 presidential bid.

Kristy Campbell: Bush's top spokeswoman packed her bags and left Washington last week and moved back to the state capital, where she had worked for Gov. Bush before joining Attorney General Bill McCollum's unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010. Campbell worked communications for Romney's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

Matt Gorman: The former rapid-response director for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014, Gorman was a deputy rapid-response director for Romney's 2012 campaign. He moved from Washington and began working at the PAC's Tallahassee offices this week.

Jesse Hunt: The former deputy communications director for Scott Brown's U.S. Senate campaign in New Hampshire, Hunt worked briefly for the Republican Party of Florida, America Rising PAC and the Massachusetts Senate campaign of Gabriel Gomez in 2013.

Josh Venable: A former Republican National Committee deputy finance director, Venable worked for Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education nonprofit before signing on with Right to Rise and moving to Tallahassee.

Karen Unger: A Tallahassee resident, Unger served as Bush's 2002 re-election campaign manager and was the Bush campaign's Broward and Palm Beach field director in 1998. She worked for Bush as deputy chief of staff and as a director for external affairs and appointments. Unger worked as Rudy Giuliani's senior adviser for Florida during his 2008 presidential race. She also served as campaign manager of former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw's 1996 re-election campaign.

Brandi Brown: A Tallahassee resident, Brown is leaving her post as external affairs director for Bush's foundation and will serve in a similar capacity for Right to Rise. She worked for Bush's 1998 campaign, worked in a variety of posts for Bush's administration and became deputy staff chief at Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration. In 2004, Brown also worked for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in Florida.

Pablo Diaz: A Tallahassee resident, Diaz was Bondi's campaign manager in 2014 and, before that, was the lead lobbyist for the conservative National Federation of Independent Business/Florida. Diaz was tapped by the new RPOF chairman, state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, to lead transition efforts at the party where he once served as a deputy executive director.

Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.