HOUSTON (AP) — The outside political group supporting Jeb Bush's bid for president with tens of millions of dollars in television advertising is considering placing organizing staff in Iowa and New Hampshire, a move that would follow the decision of his formal campaign to refocus its efforts on the two early-voting states.
Senior advisers to the group tried to paint an upbeat picture of Bush's White House prospects at the outset of two days of concurrent meetings held for major donors to Bush's campaign and the group, a super PAC known as Right to Rise USA.
Scheduled months ago as a reward for top money-raisers for the candidate once viewed as having the clearest shot at the GOP nomination, the retreat ending Monday comes just days after Bush's formal campaign cut employee salaries by 40 percent and said it would move jobs from its Miami headquarters to the leadoff-voting states.
A faithful core of roughly 175 Bush supporters made the trip to Houston for the meetings, fewer than expected due in part to the rains that pounded south Texas in the wake of Hurricane Patricia. Among the invited were people who had raised at least $50,000 for the campaign, and major super PAC donors also had access to some events.
Among them was a session with Mike Murphy, a longtime Bush aide who is leading Right to Rise. He played five ads for the donors as they fired off questions about when the super PAC, which is not subject to the contribution limits placed on campaigns and pulled in a record haul of $103 million in the first six months of the year, would start spending big.
Already, Right to Rise has spent $14.7 million on ads through the end of this week, mainly in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first three states on the 2016 nominating calendar. The group has reserved another $30 million in advertising through the week of Feb. 18.
But Right to Rise officials said options for what else the cash-rich super PAC can do are top of mind among some donors, including whether the group should hire staff to marshal a get-out-the-vote effort on Bush's behalf in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"We're looking at some of that. The campaign is front and center on that. But there are a lot of supporters around the country who might want to be organized to do some stuff like that," said a senior Right to Rise official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans are still being developed.
"There are limits to what a super PAC can do there," the official added. "But there's some energy we might channel."
Bush's super PAC has from its outset been primed to do more than just run television advertising, the activity of choice for super PACs in the 2012 presidential campaign. While federal law does not allow formal campaigns and super PACs to coordinate their activities, Bush has long planned for Right to Rise to perform some functions of a traditional campaign.
"Our primary mission is to tell Jeb's story through paid advertising, but we're always exploring other ways we can help amplify his positive message," said Right to Rise spokesman Paul Lindsey.
Bush and Right to Rise are not alone in taking this approach. The outside group backing former technology executive Carly Fiorina handles the vast majority of communications with supporters. This past weekend, a super PAC supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich marshalled 40 volunteers to go door-to-door in New Hampshire to promote his White House bid.
Bush was loudly cheered as he took the stage before a group of Right to Rise donors Sunday afternoon at a downtown hotel ballroom. Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, and mother, Barbara, had arrived at the hotel for events scheduled to include a Sunday dinner with the candidate, and with their eldest son, former President George W. Bush.
Jay Zeidman, a Houston fundraiser for Bush who attended the Right to Rise briefing on Sunday, said he felt "reassured" after listening to the super PAC leadership, which underlined in its presentation to several dozen attendees that in past election cycles the front-runner had yet to emerge by mid-October.
"They're going to be the asset that we thought all along," he said of Right to Rise, which sketched out a massive advertising plan. He said the "capital" and "leadership" that Right to Rise has makes it — and therefore Bush — a formidable competitor in the primary.
Although neither Bush nor his campaign can direct the super PAC's spending, the close relationship between the two entities was on display Sunday, as donors hopscotched between Right to Rise and official campaign events. Many attendees sported lanyards bearing logos of both the campaign and the super PAC.
In a light moment aimed at underscoring their concern for following the law, Bush stepped off a hotel elevator and spotted Murphy, his longtime political confidant. The two men hugged, before parting in silence.