SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — Some of Jeb Bush’s most steadfast allies think Saturday might be the end.Donors, who poured millions into his campaign and super PAC, have stopped giving – one refusing a direct request to raise $1 million this week. Bush himself is hitting the phones, pleading for patience with his most influential supporters. And even some of his confidants are suddenly dejected after a dispiriting week capped off by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley rejecting Bush in favor of Marco Rubio.
“What a kick in the balls,” said one of Bush’s closest supporters and one of the more than a dozen major Bush donors interviewed for this story.
The Bush team had been banking on a strong week, believing their candidate’s first solid debate performance last weekend would move the numbers in South Carolina. They thought bringing in George W. Bush on Monday night would generate more enthusiasm and positive earned media than it did. They held out hope that the former president could convince Haley, who’d hedged on backing Rubio after his slip in New Hampshire, to support a fellow governor.
But none of it panned out.
“The Haley endorsement just hurt,” said a Florida-based fundraiser who is close to Bush and had up to now remained optimistic about his chances. “We felt we had some momentum after New Hampshire. And Jeb was feeling good about his brother. But it wasn’t as good as we thought it would be. Then this happened.”“It’s bad for the staff, for morale,” that donor said. “People are working hard and it’s tough when this happens. But this stuff happens.”
But even before Haley’s endorsement, several long-time Bush donors were emailing each other Tuesday morning, expressing a collective readiness to intervene and tell Bush, depending on his finish here Saturday night, that his time is up.
“People are going to wait and see what the sequence is in South Carolina, but they’ve put all the players on the field at this point, including W,” one donor on the email chain said. “If he finishes significantly behind Rubio in South Carolina, I think a lot of the people who are personally close to him, including donors are going to say, don’t stay in until money runs out, don’t stay in just to be a spoiler. We’re thinking about legacy now.”
On a donor conference call Wednesday night hours after the Haley endorsement, the mood was even more grim. Bush himself wasn’t on the line when one donor asked about the cash situation. They were told that the Right to Rise super PAC has $15 million left in the bank. The implication, however, “was that the hard money is about used up,” said one donor.
At the beginning of the week, Jack Oliver, the Washington attorney heading up the campaign’s fundraising efforts, was calling campaign bundlers. The “ask” to one Texas bundler: Can you raise $1 million this week? The answer was no. “Every single person who can write a $2700 check has already written it,” one Florida-based Bush donor said. “I think they’d like to keep going, I just don’t think they can.”Bush himself began working the phones immediately following his fourth place showing in New Hampshire 10 days ago, calling several of his most loyal and influential supporters, all of whom long ago maxed out to his campaign and most of whom who’ve been reluctant to keep writing checks to the super PAC. According to one source that received such a call, Bush was pleading for patience.
“Stay with me through Nevada,” is how one Washington, DC bundler paraphrased Bush’s message to him. “For a guy who’d built a campaign to go the distance, it was telling.” Bush may not even make it to Nevada. On Wednesday, a poll showed Bush drawing just 1 percent of likely Nevada caucus-goers.
On Thursday, Bush’s communications director Tim Miller shot down reports that the campaign held a call informing staff that it would be out of money as early as Saturday.
To the contrary, the campaign just made an additional six-figure investment in voter contact efforts for phone banks and digital and radio advertising due to money raised at three separate events this week, according to Miller.
“Marco’s campaign is hemorrhaging cash in South Carolina and likely won’t be able to fund their effort following another disappointing result like New Hampshire,” he continued. “Three polls in the last two days have a statistical three-way tie for second in South Carolina. We look forward to surprising people on Saturday here in Bush Country.”In private conversations, Oliver and two others close to Bush have been insisting that Bush will continue through Nevada and the Super Tuesday contests on March 1 unless he finishes a distant fifth or sixth in South Carolina. But the hard money situation, several sources close to the campaign acknowledge, is bleak.
“The donors are not as giving as blindly this year as they did to [Mitt] Romney,” one longtime Bush ally said. “They learned to look at their investment and to assess if and where it might pay off. If the numbers in Nevada and Florida aren’t good, whatever happens in South Carolina, the reality is it’s going to be very hard to pick up delegates in the places he has to win.
“The fact of the matter is there isn’t strength anywhere.”
Bush is facing serious problems on the ground in South Carolina, where he’d been hoping to reinvigorate his campaign by beating a weakened Rubio in a second straight primary. But while Rubio has rebounded, Bush has remained stuck, his support somewhere around the 10 percent mark according to an average of the most recent polls. His close confidants and long-time friends are dejected. They know that finishing behind his former protégé here could be the deathblow.
“People would love to get Jeb all the way through the convention, but I’m not sure given where things stand, that’s not realistic,” said a Florida Bush supporter who’s been close to the family for the better part of three decades. “The question is: Will Jeb Bush do what’s best for the country, especially with Trump in a position to run away with it?Or is too personal for him to quit. This is a gut check moment Saturday, depending on the outcome. “
Things seemed to be headed in the right direction after last Saturday night’s debate in Greenville, where Bush aggressively went after Donald Trump, fighting back after the front-running businessman criticized his brother, former president George W. Bush, blaming him not just for the Iraq war but the 9/11 attacks that happened, Trump said, “on his watch.”
Following the debate, Bush’s team was downright jubilant. Inside a crowded spin room, Miller, lingered just over Trump’s shoulder, smiling cheekily, as the businessman answered questions into a sea of microphones and cameras. Later Miller made a photo of his in-person Trump trolling his new Twitter avatar and posted a picture on his Instagram feed with the caption, “Good night for the home team.”
Indeed, it was Bush’s strongest performance on the debate stage; but it does not appear to have yielded much benefit to the candidate himself. By mid-week, public and private polls, including two conducted over three nights of live calls, showed that Trump might have lost some of his support in the days after the debate, but that Bush’s numbers hadn’t really moved.
Bush knew he had to put the pedal down in South Carolina this week. Plans for a strong showing in Saturday’s first in the south primary have been in place for weeks: busing dozens of volunteers up from Miami to canvass across the state and bringing in his brother, who enjoys an 84 percent approval rating among South Carolina Republicans.But Trump, after sparring with Bush on the debate stage Saturday night and challenging his assertion that George W. Bush “kept the country safe after 9/11,” made sure he continued to dominate the media coverage on Monday, holding an hour-long press conference where he continued to criticize the former president just four hours before the Bushes rallied just up the road on the outskirts of Charleston.
Only 3,000 people showed up to the North Charleston Convention Center, filling just half of the cavernous exhibition hall (by comparison, the day before in a rural town of just 20,000 people, Marco Rubio had drawn more than 2,000 on a Sunday afternoon). And multiple news accounts of the event included interviews with attendees who’d gone to see the former president but were hesitant about voting for his brother.
Among Bush supporters the following day, depression began to set in.
“We thought we could get a bigger splash with that event,” one of Bush’s most loyal Florida backers privately admitted. Instead, the attempt to remind Republicans here of their lasting affinity for a family and its dedication to public service only served to further position Jeb Bush as the last scion of a passing dynasty—in direct contrast to Rubio, who by week’s end was stumping across the state with three of South Carolina’s most popular conservative officeholders, Senator Tim Scott, Congressman Trey Gowdy and Haley, the collective embodiment of a new, more diverse and aspirational generation of Republican leaders.
Haley’s endorsement Wednesday stung even more because of an interview Bush had done on his campaign bus just a day earlier, when he told NBC’s Peter Alexander that the Haley endorsement, “if she is to give an endorsement, it would be the most powerful, meaningful one in the state.”
“When they rolled out that clip right after Haley endorsed [Rubio], it was just devastating,” another Florida-based Bush supporter said. “You just shake your head watching that. He should have known better than to say that, unless somehow he had a sense she was going to endorse him. It just shows that he doesn’t get the messaging piece of this, or that he’s insulated from what’s actually happening out there.”
Many of Bush’s “alumni,” those who broke into politics on his past campaigns and served him as governor, remember a commanding, keenly aware executive—and one who, just a decade ago, himself seemed emblematic of the GOP’s future, not its past. They imagined him as a future president; and they remain unwavering in their belief that he’d make a great one. But they are no longer sugarcoating the reality—and hoping Bush himself can ultimately accept it—that it might no longer be his time.
“I love this man,” one Jeb alumnus said. “Watching this play out is painful.”
Even Bush sounds funereal.
“I hope you don’t think the end is near,” he said in South Carolina on Thursday at the end of his speech.