No one can argue that Mike Murphy didn’t try.
The political strategist who spent more than $100 million to get Jeb Bush the presidential nomination saturated the airwaves with ads. Red billboards flashed Bush quotes. A plane towing a Bush banner buzzed a Donald Trump rally. He went so far as to mail Iowa voters digital video players loaded with a biographical documentary.
It was all for naught. The best Murphy’s effort could buy was a finish that was 1,879 votes shy of third place in New Hampshire for the man once presumed to be the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Murphy, a Los Angeles-based Republican consultant with dozens of major wins, has accomplished a lot in unexpected places: He got a Hollywood action hero elected governor of California. He got a wealthy Republican businessman elected governor in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.
For all those victories, though, he’s known these days for his role in the Bush super PAC, Right to Rise, one of the most expensive failures in American political history.
He has been accused of enriching himself through the super PAC, a charge he strongly denies. He has been berated for failing to recognize the threat Trump posed and for not understanding how off-putting the Bush name was in an election season seething at the Republican establishment.
Murphy, who also writes screenplays in an office on Paramount’s Hollywood lot, said he earned in the mid-six figures for his work with Right to Rise. He dismissed the criticism, saying it comes from unnamed sources and rivals.
“The truth is I don’t care. There’s nothing lower in my book than second-guessing,” he said in an interview. “There are a lot of people in the cheap seats with a lot of opinions. What have they done?”
Over his career, Murphy had earned a reputation as a “candidate whisperer,” someone with the stature and willingness to challenge his candidates, whether it’s the scion of a powerful political family like Bush, a war hero like John McCain or a global celebrity like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Political observers wonder whether Murphy would have been more effective had he been directly involved with the campaign, able to coach Bush to turn in more aggressive debate performances. As head of the independent super PAC, he could not communicate with the Bush campaign.
Viewed by friends and foes as an eager self-promoter, he kept an unusually low profile while directing Right to Rise. In years past, he was quoted regularly and was a frequent analyst on television.
“He’s a very talented guy. He’s witty and he’s funny,” said Don Sipple, a GOP consultant who has known Murphy for more than 25 years.
The men worked together on Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and Schwarzenegger’s 2003 gubernatorial run in California, and against each other during the 2010 California governor’s race.
Sipple said Murphy was brilliant at reacting to a breaking campaign controversy but lacked the long-term thinking to be a strategist.
“Mike, I believe, is the kind of guy who sort of flies by the seat of his pants and makes it up as he goes along,” Sipple said. “He’s charming … but a lot of it is snake oil.”
Murphy, the son of Democratic parents, grew up in a suburb of Detroit. He described himself as a “movie nerd” who acted in children’s theater.
His grandfather was an elected judge, and political debates around the dinner table were a constant in his boisterous, Irish American, Catholic family.
Murphy’s conservatism was shaped during President Carter’s tenure — at a time when mortgage interest rates spiked to 16% and the Democrat was called weak for his inability to free hostages being held by Iran.
Murphy enrolled in Georgetown University’s school of foreign service but struggled with mastering a foreign language. He worked out of his dorm room, making television ads for a political group that was a precursor to today’s free-spending outside committees. Creating ads allowed Murphy to combine his twin loves: storytelling and politics.
A notable accomplishment was Mitt Romney’s victory in 2002 in Massachusetts.
“That Romney became governor here means that we were able to successfully take on the Democrats in the home of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney aide. Murphy “was the man behind the curtain pulling all the right strings.”
To make the wealthy corporate chief more relatable to average voters, Murphy had Romney embark on “work days,” when he would drive a tractor mowing hay on a farm or wear blue overalls and ride a garbage truck through Boston.
Murphy, who once had a vanity license plate reading “GO NEG,” excelled at crafting messages that resonated, whether it was a negative ad lightened by humor or staged events that left a lasting image with voters.
During Schwarzenegger’s 2003 campaign, Murphy came up with the idea of dropping a 3,600-pound wrecking ball on an Oldsmobile Cutlass. The dramatic made-for-TV visual memorably captured Schwarzenegger’s opposition to the tripling of a state car tax.
Just before election day, when The Times published articles detailing claims by multiple women that the movie star had groped them, Murphy orchestrated an apology.
“He put it on a card and gave it to Arnold on the plane,” recalled GOP consultant Rob Stutzman, who worked on that campaign. “He had the right sense of how to address the issue in a finessed way that fit Arnold.”
Schwarzenegger’s response (“Wherever there is smoke, there is fire — that is true”) and his admission that he had “behaved badly sometimes” on movie sets were considered key in helping voters look past the allegations.
He infuriated colleagues on McCain’s unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign when they learned that he had been secretly speaking with a Washington Post reporter throughout the effort for a story to be published after the race. The result — a 5,862-word treatise that detailed inner campaign divisions — cast Murphy as the central character rather than the Arizona senator.
Murphy moved to Los Angeles from Washington in 2003 during the Schwarzenegger campaign. He threw himself into life in Hollywood, hanging out with producers and writers, hiring an agent and a manager and eventually starting a film company.
In 2009, Murphy declined to run Republican Steve Poizner’s campaign for governor, saying he was finished with politics. But the Poizner campaign soon learned that billionaire rival Meg Whitman had invested more than $1 million in Murphy’s film company. He ended up serving as a senior strategist in her campaign.
The former chief of EBay ultimately spent $144 million of her own money on an unsuccessful campaign that cost nearly $179 million.
Many Republican strategists see similarities in the Whitman and Bush campaigns — free-spending failures centered on flawed candidates who ran in electoral environments that didn’t suit them.
Sipple, a colleague turned critic, said he was stunned that Murphy did not fully understand Bush fatigue and the anti-establishment mood of the electorate.
“If you have that kind of money and you’re firing blanks, you need to reexamine what you’re doing. They went backwards while spending $100 million and controlling the airwaves, which is unheard of,” Sipple said.
Others note that Murphy was far from alone: Rival GOP campaigns, political pundits and the media all predicted that Trump’s candidacy would be short-lived.
Murphy is unapologetic.
“I believe in Jeb. I’m proud of him,” he said. “Jeb was never going to run a grievance or anger campaign, and I’m proud he didn’t.”
Murphy first worked for Bush during his successful run for Florida governor in 1998, and remained a trusted advisor. Bush lamented that he could not talk to Murphy during the campaign.
After dropping out on Feb. 20 having contested just three states, Bush said, he couldn’t wait to reconnect.
“Mike is a real creative talent, a great and loyal friend and a visionary,” Bush said in an email. “I look forward to talking to him again in depth whenever the lawyers say it is OK!”
A staff member at Right to Rise declined to say how much money is left but indicated that donors will get a prorated refund.
After a grueling 14-month campaign that began with great optimism and ended in dismal defeat, Murphy says he plans to spend time with his family. He and his wife, entertainment executive Tiffany Daniel — who is a Democrat — live with their 2-year-old daughter in a $2.6-million Hancock Park home.
Then, he says, he’ll return to his Hollywood pursuits. His resume includes a short stint as a writer-producer for Dennis Miller and a script about politics titled “Hacks,” which was bought by HBO but never greenlighted. He says he already has a deal with a cable network.
Though the biggest political prize — helping win the White House — has eluded Murphy, there doesn’t seem to be a sequel in sight, for now.
Times staff researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.
MORE FROM POLITICS