Mike Murphy: The Man Selling Jeb! to America

Mike Murphy: The Man Selling Jeb! to America
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In April 1988, the man who will try to sell Jeb Bush to America sat on a panel hosted by Campaigns and Elections magazine to discuss the “Secrets of Great Media.”

Mike Murphy and his then-business partner Alex Castellanos were rising stars in the Republican firmament, two young guns who were reimagining the contours of campaign messaging.

“They had the hot firm with the killer instinct,” recalled Republican strategist Terry Holt, who worked with Murphy on a winning congressional race that year.

Murphy, not yet 26, was fresh from a stint on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign when he sat down to explain how to sell a candidate. Republicans had not bought into Dole, in the end. But there would be other races, and Murphy would be at the center of many of them.

“To create media that is great in elections, you have to obviously respect the power of the medium,” Murphy began, peering out from behind a pair of 1980s large-frame eyeglasses. “Television is a very, very powerful thing.”

Murphy has mastered messaging across media, but he has an abiding respect for television; a love for it, even. Television has made Murphy what he is today: one of the best-known and well-respected consultants in politics. He has engineered some of the memorable campaign commercials of the past 20 years; meanwhile, he has dabbled as a writer and producer in Hollywood, hoping to break into television of a less political flavor. 

If he has crafted clean, telegenic narratives for many GOP candidates, however, Murphy’s own plot arc is sketchy. He has won many tough races at all levels, but he has also logged stinging defeats. His inflated sense of self and penchant for self-promotion have made him a polarizing figure in Republican politics. And the space on his mantle for the biggest trophy of all, the presidency, is empty.

Murphy has come out of semi-retirement from campaigns to make another go at that top prize in this election cycle, leading Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC. The group plans to take the lead on many of the traditional tasks of a presidential campaign, including television advertising, with nearly $100 million at its disposal to start. 

The campaign already looks familiar. On Sunday, Bush unveiled his logo, his name capped off with an exclamation point: “Jeb!” It recalls another Murphy campaign: Lamar Alexander’s bid for president in 1996, which incorporated “Lamar!” onto signs and swag. Bush has used his version of the enthusiastic calling card since his first, unsuccessful bid for governor in 1994, when Murphy began advising him.

After the 2016 logo went public Sunday, Murphy defended its merits on Twitter: “Why Jeb! Logo works well: clean, easy to see from far away, upbeat, and most of all; Consistent.” 

But 2016 is far removed from 2002, when Bush last used the logo, and when Murphy last helped to engineer a Bush campaign. And it’s leagues from that Campaigns and Elections panel in 1988, when Murphy mapped out the way to win — when one compelling television advertisement alone could sell millions of people on a product or a candidate.

At the end of his presentation, Murphy rolled some of his spots: A Bob Dole speech in Iowa set to an inspirational score, peppered with cutaways to awed faces in the crowd; biting attack ads from congressional races that left the panel’s audience in stitches. The spots were entertaining and slickly produced, and they were ahead of their time.

Since then, the game has changed. Has Mike Murphy?

Go Big, or Go Home

“If you’re not getting what you want in a meeting, you should throw an enormous fit and leave,” Murphy is said to have once told a colleague on a Republican campaign.

Murphy is widely known for his cutting sense of humor, but that particular remark might have been only half a joke. Murphy is also known for being unafraid to make a scene — or, if it comes to it, to walk.

As a Georgetown student focusing on Russian area studies, Murphy was copywriting for the National Conservative Political Action Committee, the precursor to many of today’s super PACs, when he “got tired of arguing in the dorm room and decided to go out and try to do something about it,” he said on C-SPAN in June 1992. He dropped out of college to focus full-time on making ads.

On that television segment, the host asked Murphy about a recent report in the Wall Street Journal that Murphy could be leaving President George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign “in frustration over unaggressive strategy, including plans to wait until just before the GOP convention to place ads.”

“It’s funny in campaigns,” Murphy responded, “because there’s a real focus in the media on process: who the consultants are, which consultant has which parking space, which consultant is mad about certain things.

“Much of the press here in Washington likes to cover the cookie factory, far beyond its importance,” he added. “So this is part of some internal campaign leaking and stuff that’s going on. I really don’t want to get into it, other than that I completely support the president, and I think that our campaign’s getting better every day.”

Murphy ultimately quit the campaign, although two senior strategists from that team could not remember why. “The ‘92 campaign had an advertising team of over a dozen people, on which Mike played a minor role,” said one. “If he threatened to quit, it never came to my attention.”

On Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, Murphy said he quit when he left two months before Election Day. But that frame changes depending on the source. A New York Times article from the time characterized Murphy as having been “squeezed out.”

When you sign Murphy, you’re signing up for a ride with one of the most vivid characters behind the curtain in Republican politics. He is profoundly talented, and he knows it. As a result, he can be difficult to work with — and he knows that too. 

“Fundamentally, everyone in America has a television set, and enough Americans vote that almost anybody thinks they’re an expert on political advertising. So, when you’re a real-life expert on political advertising, you have to put up with a lot of people with a lot of opinions. We creative types want to have our way,” Murphy said in a 1995 interview on C-SPAN. “That said, governors and senators run things, they have strong opinions. It’s their name on the ballot. So, somewhere that relationship works out.”

Disappointment in 2000 

The relationship has often worked out for Murphy, who is described in glowing terms by many former colleagues and candidates. But not always.

“Mike can be very charming, smart, quick-witted, and confident. There was a lot that would make a candidate superficially comfortable,” said one candidate for whom Murphy worked. “One of Mike’s negatives is that he does tend to focus on promoting himself, and I think that can be to the detriment of the candidate.” 

Murphy has become a familiar political pundit for his regular TV appearances over the years, on behalf of his candidates or himself. He also established close relationships with reporters, who have written Murphy into their stories as a primary character. 

On John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000, Murphy helped engineer and harness a groundswell in the primary against George W. Bush. But when McCain lost, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz published a story of the entire campaign as told to him by Murphy, which cast Murphy as the sole protagonist. 

“That’s just Murphy being Murphy,” McCain reportedly shrugged at the time. But others from the campaign were less than pleased.

In general, the 2000 election cycle did not agree with Mike Murphy.

When Murphy decided to work for McCain, he was still under contract with the Florida Republican Party after having helped Jeb Bush win the state’s gubernatorial race in 1998. But Murphy couldn’t simultaneously work for and against a Bush — and when Murphy picked the presidential race, Jeb Bush fired him for the cycle.

In the Republican presidential primary, McCain won momentum with a surprising victory in New Hampshire. But, in South Carolina, McCain’s campaign could not beat back a barrage of negative, even scurrilous, attacks; meanwhile, Bush successfully commandeered McCain’s identity as the reformer candidate.

As the campaign’s message unraveled, Murphy held fast to the original plan.

“For a smart guy, Murphy was slow to recognize obvious trends,” said one senior Republican who was close to the McCain campaign. 

And, then, Murphy ceded a banner Senate race to Hillary Clinton.

“Warts and All”

“One thing I like to do is put the camera on the candidate,” Murphy said at a forum hosted by Congressional Quarterly in 1993. “You’re selling the candidate, warts and all. They want to see the candidate. If the candidate can talk, all the better.” 

So Murphy might have known he was in trouble when he could not in good conscience let Rick Lazio talk.

Lazio, the last-minute Republican candidate to take on Hillary Clinton for New York’s Senate seat, had a voice problem. Focus groups concluded it was too high, too squeaky, and lacking authority.

“The face-to-camera was — oh, my god,” one former Lazio campaign aide recalled. “The audience couldn’t stand Rick’s voice.”

That ad was scrapped, but Murphy’s first fight against Clinton got no smoother. 

There was little love between candidate and consultant, down to the smallest quirks. It drove Lazio crazy that Murphy, with his heavyset frame, snacked on candy. 

Then came the larger strategic disagreements. Murphy advised that Lazio should travel to California to appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a host with whom Murphy had a longstanding relationship. Lazio wanted to do David Letterman’s show, which taped in New York and would not necessitate cross-country travel or eat as much into campaign time. Murphy won that argument, and, in early September, Lazio appeared on Leno. 

But it was another live television event that sealed the race, when Lazio faced Clinton in a debate one week after his appearance on Leno.

Prior to the debate, according to a senior source on the campaign, Murphy brought some new poll numbers to Lazio. “The good news is, people like you more than they like her,” Murphy told Lazio, according to the source. “But they’re not sure you’re tough enough, so you’ve got to be really aggressive. If you come out of here as just a nice guy, you’re done.”

The other former Lazio campaign aide did not recall that discussion having taken place. Whatever the case, Lazio went onstage and famously approached Clinton at her lectern during the debate, waving a piece of paper.

Perfect — couldn’t have gone better, was Murphy’s assessment to the candidate after the debate.

But voters interpreted Lazio’s walk across the stage as antagonistic. “He reminds me of my ex-husband,” one woman commented in a focus group after the debate.

Asked about the incident by reporters, Lazio’s poorly calculated response dug a deeper hole. 

“The idea that somehow that there’s a double standard because you’re a man or a woman,” Lazio said, according to an ABC News report at the time, “and you can’t make a point forcefully if you’re a man, and the person you’re making the point with is a woman, I just think that’s sexist.”

The race was, in essence, over.

One day on the campaign bus in early October, Lazio asked Murphy about the messaging plan for the remainder of the campaign.

“It’s all in here,” Murphy said, pointing to his cranium.

“But he didn’t have an answer because he was making it up as he went along,” said the senior campaign source. “He was a smart guy, but he wasn’t that smart.”

Schwarzenegger Score

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unlikely campaign for governor in California began, fittingly, with an announcement on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

But it began without Murphy. At the time, Murphy was working overseas on an election in Georgia — but, according to a Los Angeles Times report, Murphy had happened to return to California to talk with another potential gubernatorial candidate, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. 

Riordan decided not to run, and instead set up a meeting between Murphy and Schwarzenegger. However improbable, the match worked.

Against the backdrop of the zany California recall election, and with only two months to campaign, Murphy let fly all of his favorite tactics at once. 

There was the classic face-to-camera spot, which Schwarzenegger tackled with aplomb. Murphy, who is fond of campaign bus tours, chartered the “California Comeback Express” to zigzag the state over 48 hours. When Schwarzenegger promised to “blow up the boxes” of state government, that was a Murphy line. 

To prepare Schwarzenegger for the debate stage, Murphy choreographed a rehearsal process that could only be compared to that in a modern presidential campaign, with each role carefully cast and rehearsed. For Schwarzenegger, preparing for a high-stakes performance and memorizing key lines turned out to be no problem.

The rehearsals worked. During the September debate, Schwarzenegger pitched an unforgettable zinger, describing a tax loophole as so large “I can drive my Hummer through it.”

With one week until Election Day, Schwarzenegger had climbed from underdog to frontrunner — until Schwarzenegger’s team faced a crisis. Multiple women had come forward accusing Schwarzenegger of having groped and otherwise sexually harassed them years ago.

But Murphy “focused Arnold on precisely what needed to be said, in the right tone,” said Rob Stutzman, who was the campaign’s spokesman. “Mike gave him the way to deal with that situation.”

“Yes, I have behaved badly some times,” Schwarzenegger said. “Yes, it is true that I was rowdy on movie sets and I have done things which were not right that I thought were playful, but now I recognize that I have offended people. And those people I have offended, I want to say to them that I’m deeply sorry about that and I apologize.”

The remarks were sufficient to stop the campaign’s bleeding until Election Day, and Schwarzenegger won.

In a statement to RealClearPolitics, Schwarzenegger credited Murphy in part for that outcome: “Mike Murphy is one of the best strategists in the business. He was a true asset to my campaign and I couldn't have done it without him.”

California Relocation

Like prospectors during the Gold Rush, East Coast political consultants often parachute into California looking to strike it rich. Take on a big initiative, make millions, and leave. 

Murphy has made millions, to be sure. But after the Schwarzenegger campaign, he stayed put.

He established a Sacramento office for his lobbying and consulting firm, DC Navigators, now Navigators Global, which inspired a series of unflattering articles in the San Jose Mercury News about influence peddling.

And Murphy meanwhile consulted for Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who he helped elect in 2002, helping to groom him for a presidential bid in 2008.

But, on the whole, Murphy shifted his focus away from campaigns and candidates, at least for a while, turning instead to private clients and to his other passion: entertainment.

In 2004, he wrote for one season for The Dennis Miller Show, until it was abruptly canceled; shortly thereafter, a profile in the Boston Globe said Murphy hoped “to spend more time in LA, working on script-writing and other show-biz projects that haven't quite taken off.”

Publicly, at least, they never seemed to. In late 2008, however, Murphy’s production company, Tools Down!, received something of a windfall: an investment in excess of $1 million. But the investor was former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, and she made the investment shortly before Murphy took a job with her campaign for governor. 

Like Schwarzenegger, Whitman was another first-time candidate with plenty of money to spend. But Whitman faced stiff opposition from former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. 

As he has with many candidates, Murphy helped her to feel comfortable with the steep climb ahead.

“It’s part of Murph’s personality: he’s able to get a good read on a room, on a person, and inherently know what they’re thinking, what people will be comfortable with and what they won’t,” said Sarah Pompei, Whitman’s spokeswoman on the campaign.

Murphy would present Whitman as a non-politician problem-solver, much as he had Schwarzenegger. There were other obvious parallels to Schwarzenegger’s campaign, including a bus tour of the state — this time with a green bus emblazoned with the tagline: “Jobs are on the way.”

The contest was close for much of the race, and Whitman’s personal wealth enabled her campaign to blanket the airwaves at pace with Brown. One ad opened with a record player, as a female narrator said: “The Jerry Brown story. The real story. Forty years of politics, and failure has followed him everywhere. 

The spot, which flipped through Brown’s decades in politics, had all the markings of a Murphy attack ad: It was entertaining and moved quickly, heavy on facts but packaged attractively.

But the tack did not take into account that many Californians outside of the Bay Area were unfamiliar with or agnostic about Brown, who had last served in office in California in the 1980s 

At the same time, Brown’s campaign was portraying Whitman as wealthy and out of touch, someone who felt entitled to the governor’s mansion.

It was the latter message that resonated, not Murphy’s. Despite spending $140 million of her own money and running in a banner year for Republicans, Whitman lost.

Return to Politics

Murphy has threatened to retire from politics since at least 2006 — but after Whitman conceded defeat in 2010, it looked like he might finally be serious.

He married in 2011 and now has a son with his wife. He did not sign on to a presidential campaign during the 2012 election cycle, although he frequently voiced his opinion as a pundit on television. 

Many people who know Murphy figured he was finally answering Hollywood’s siren call. But, aside from his Dennis Miller gig, Murphy has no screenwriting credits on file with the Writers Guild. The New York Times reported in 2010 that Murphy had sold a script to HBO for a show about political consultants — but that project, “Hacks,” was never green-lighted. Murphy’s agent, CAA’s Joe Cohen, did not respond to a request for further detail on Murphy’s entertainment portfolio. 

If Murphy won’t win an Emmy, however, he is betting in this election that his work on television could still win him the White House. 

“It’s the big one that Mike hasn’t won yet,” said Stutzman. “In my view he’s more talented than some that have, so I think that might be part of what drives him.”

But Murphy has long been out of the game, and he returns to a changed political and media landscape. He has not worked on a presidential campaign in the age of Twitter or Snapchat, when the media that shape elections are as often viral videos as pricey ad buys. 

Personally, Murphy can be clever on social media: Last week, he live-tweeted while he sat next to Sen. Rand Paul, one of Bush’s Republican challengers, on a flight, an episode that drew some laughs among the Beltway crowd. Whether that translates to a larger message is another matter — and Murphy will have to divine his strategy while legally separated from Bush and his official campaign.

“He seems to understand that the media landscape has shifted and campaigns need to adapt to be successful,” said one Republican strategist who met with Murphy. “We’ll see if that’s real.”

But the Bush campaign, as executed on the super PAC side, promises in many respects to be a classic Mike Murphy production. Murphy will spend a lot of money, and he will conjure brutal, funny attack ads. There will be internal drama — and, indeed, there already has been: The New York Times reported that Murphy “clashed” with Jon Downs, who will head up advertising for the campaign. 

Except, this time, Murphy seems determined to write himself out of the script.

“My story is very boring,” Murphy emailed last month, as he declined to be interviewed for this piece. “Mostly about hair loss.”

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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