The Return of Marvin the Dog

If you’re wondering why Jeb Bush thought of just offloading his entire campaign to a Super-PAC before anyone else did, it turns out he’s done something a lot like this before, as reported by National Journal‘s S.V. Date:

As Jeb Bush circa 2015 considers pushing the campaign finance envelope by offloading expenses to an outside group, he has a ready model to emulate: Jeb Bush circa 1998.

That’s the year the Republican Party of Florida paid for his TV ads, his polling, and even his campaign staff’s salaries as he ran for governor.

The advantage was millions of extra dollars. There was a $500 limit on individual contributions to Bush’s regular campaign, but the state party could accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. So Bush spent less time at fundraisers than in his previous run, but socked away far more money thanks to five- and six-figure checks.

The airwaves, meanwhile, were flooded with 60-second ads featuring 58 seconds of Bush and Bush’s family and Bush’s dog Marvin—but finishing with a car-commercial-style voiceover endorsing the GOP candidates for insurance commissioner and comptroller. That disclaimer at the end technically made it a party ad, not a Bush ad.

Robin Rorapaugh, Democrat Buddy MacKay’s campaign manager that year, recalled seeing her first “three-pack” ad on television one day: “Surely this must be against the law. That’s the first thing I thought.”

Actually, as Date explains, Florida Republicans got a campaign reform bill enacted the previous year that made what he subsequently did legal, if not by any stretch of the imagination kosher.

You can watch that 1998 ad here, and note that Marvin the Dog gets a lot more airplay than Jeb’s GOP running-mates. And guess who’s running the “independent” Right to Rise Super-PAC that’s basically doing for Bush today what the Florida GOP did in 1998?

[W]hile coordination is illegal, key people in Jeb World will be running the Right to Rise Super PAC. At the top: Mike Murphy, the consultant who handled Bush’s TV campaigns—including the Marvin the dog ad—in 1998 and 2002. Murphy worked closely with Bush’s closest confidant, Sally Bradshaw, in those successful campaigns and has been working with her again in recent months. Murphy and Bradshaw did not respond for this article.

I bet they didn’t. As for the “no coordination” rule, it’s not even an issue right now since Jeb Bush is not a declared candidate for president. You can pretend if you want that’s because he
hasn’t made up his mind to run.

Another blast from the past, Bush crony Al Cardenas (who was, in fact, appointed chair of the FL GOP by Bush the year after the party ran those Marvin the Dog ads), tells Date Jeb is offloading his campaign because he fears other candidates will have massively funded Super-PACs.

“He’s concerned about the role of major donors,” Cardenas said.

Rick Hasen, a professor of campaign finance law at the University of California at Irvine, has a slightly different take on Cardenas’ billionaire worry, which is that what Bush is doing will be copied by other candidates in both parties, effectively making the $2,700 federal contribution limit meaningless—just as the $500 limit was made meaningless in Florida after Bush’s use of unlimited party money.

“If you believe there needs to be a limit of what goes to a candidate directly, because of the appearance of corruption, you should also be concerned about what goes to a super PAC that’s aligned with a candidate,” Hasen said.

And it’s not like anybody’s going to send Jeb or his “independent” friends to the hoosegow over it.

Another GOP donor, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there is little risk of any actual consequence, even if the Bush operation does wind up violating the coordination rules. “Yeah, the FEC,” he said. “If they tried to prosecute, they could nail him by 2038.”

Hell, that would probably be well after the George P. Bush presidency, though it is just a little over three dog years away.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.