Following a disastrous performance at the previous GOP debate, Jeb Bush scrambled to reboot his campaign for the fifth time in as many months. This particular campaign reset came with a new campaign bus, some gentle profanity, and a brand new campaign slogan that skewed hopefully self-aware: “Jeb Can Fix It.”
This week, though, brought new signs that the former Florida governor has even more to fix than most observers thought.
Late Monday night, the New York Times reported that the Bush-aligned Right to Rise super PAC is “privately threatening a wave of scathing attacks” on Marco Rubio, hitting the newly anointed establishment favorite on everything from his hard-line stance against abortion (which they argue will make him vulnerable in the general election) to his poor voting record in the Senate. The group’s chief strategist, according to the report, “has boasted of his willingness to spend as much as $20 million to damage Mr. Rubio’s reputation and halt his sudden ascent in the polls.”
Why is this a problem for Jeb? For starters, those are hardly the most damning attacks. But it’s also never a good idea to warn your opponent before you open fire. If Bush didn’t learn that lesson after Rubio schooled him during the previous debate, he and his super PAC should know it now. The morning after the Times story went live, Rubio was ready with a 30-second ad highlighting the many times that his former mentor was caught on camera lavishing him with praise. Bush’s allies can press forward with their attacks anyway, but Marco’s made it clear he has a ready-made defense to blunt any damage.
If this wasn’t an unforced error on the part of Bush’s super PAC, it could represent something even worse for Jeb: A grudging acknowledgment from Bush’s allies that they can’t actually derail Rubio’s campaign—either because they believe his political ties to Jeb make him immune to their attacks, or because they believe the GOP establishment will step in to prevent Rubio from being battered too badly. (In these scenarios, the leak only telegraphed $20 million worth of negative ads that were never actually coming.) Bush’s well-funded super PAC was supposed to be his biggest advantage in this race. It still has millions in the bank, but right now it’s unclear whether it can put that cash to good use.
The bad news for Bush doesn’t end there either.
Bloomberg Politics on Tuesday offered a close-up look at what was supposed to be Jeb’s other remaining advantage heading into 2016: his massive political organization in those states that will make up the second wave of nominating contests that can decide a primary race. What Bloomberg found there, though, was far from pretty:
[A] survey of states with March primary and caucus contests suggests the former Florida governor has little advantage, so far, over his rivals. Interviews with political strategists—as well as with members of the grassroots network the Bush team has touted—reveal a campaign that’s struggling to recruit volunteers and gin up excitement amid Bush’s slide in the polls and poor debate performances. They paint a picture of a top-heavy campaign with plenty of endorsements that's still waiting for the candidate to turn on the ignition. …
Bush’s team has also rolled out campaign committees with dozens of names from across the country, with the aim of portraying a vast network helping the former governor. Yet interviews show the campaign’s Jewish Leadership Committee, for example, is mostly a fundraising organ at this point. The Religious Freedom Advisory Committee has done little advising. And the Hispanic Steering Committee has existed mostly in name only.
For everything that has gone wrong for Bush since he entered the race as the default favorite for his party’s nomination, he still has a plausible path to victory: hope Rubio wilts under an onslaught of criticism, and then rely on the organizational advantages of an establishment favorite to nickel and dime his way to a delegate victory before next summer’s convention. But if Bush’s super PAC can’t help him achieve the former, and his ground game can’t help him with latter, Jeb will have to do more than just fix his campaign. He’ll need to scrap it.