Here’s a business adage you’ve heard before: You have to spend money to make money. To rephrase that in the context of political fundraising: You have to spend lots of money on vendors to make money via direct mail.
That direct mail has high costs associated with it shouldn’t really shock anyone. From the creative to the printing to the postage, direct mail of any kind can’t be done on the cheap. But the question for campaigns that raise money through the mail is how much is too much when it comes to cost?
“Somehow folks have gotten to the point where they think it should cost nothing to raise money,” says Michael Centanni, the chief operating officer of Base Connect, a direct mail fundraising firm that works for conservative candidates and causes. The firm, led by Centanni and President and CEO Kimberly Bellissimo, has taken plenty of heat recently over the cost of its fundraising services, but Base Connect’s leaders are ready to defend their practices.
Last year the firm, formerly known as BMW Direct, changed names after a threat of legal action from the similarly named car maker. Despite accusations to the contrary, the company’s leaders say the name change had nothing to do with some of the negative press surrounding it. Some of its clients—mostly long shot GOP candidates running in Democratic districts—were unhappy with the rate of return from their direct mail fundraising programs. In the spring of 2008, The Boston Globe ran a story about the campaign of Massachusetts Republican Chuck Morse, a BMW client who was challenging Rep. Barney Frank. What caught the paper’s attention were the fundraising program’s high costs and the fact that the campaign was still pumping its list of donors after the campaign had ended with a series of “debt reduction mailings.”
The campaign itself was a failure; Morse didn’t even qualify for the ballot. The fundraising program didn’t work either; it was an effort Centanni and Bellissimo call one of the few they have overseen that simply didn’t pan out. Morse raised a healthy $700,000 for the race, but almost all of it went to cover the costs associated with the mail program.
The left-leaning blog Talking Points Memo picked up on the Globe story and looked into the topic some more. In all, TPM wrote more than a dozen stories about the firm and other outlets started paying attention. It was enough for MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann to single out BMW Direct as his “worst person in the world” in July of 2008. The temperamental talk show host selected the company as “worser” than staffers in the psychiatric ward of a Brooklyn hospital and Karl Rove.
The flap over the Morse campaign was part of a wider online battle between liberals and conservatives over the efficacy of direct mail fundraising—in truth, it’s a longrunning debate in the political community. Republican candidates and causes are generally more successful raising money through the mail than Democrats. It’s one area where the GOP holds a pretty clear strategic edge. The National Review’s Mark Hemingway defended BMW in a blog post. GOP web strategists Soren Dayton and Patrick Ruffini accused TPM of trying generally to discredit direct mail fundraising—a medium that has meant millions upon millions of fundraising dollars for the right. On RedState, conservative blogger Mike Krempasky said the negative attention resulted from complete ignorance of how direct mail fundraising works.
A similar storyline resurfaced earlier this year after Republicans in Pennsylvania turned a critical eye on Base Connect client and congressional hopeful William Russell’s inordinately high “burn rate”—the rate at which money coming into the campaign was being spent. Much of that money was going to Base Connect along with printers and list vendors to support Russell’s direct mail fundraising program. In this latest round of sparring, some criticism also came from the right. Republican strategist Bill Pascoe penned a column accusing Base Connect of “subprime fundraising” given the program’s high costs. (In earlier columns, Pascoe had written favorably about Republican Tim Burns, who was battling Russell for the party’s nomination.) Russell lost out on the GOP nod in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District—state party leaders eventually selected Burns to be the party’s candidate in the special election to fill the late Rep. John Murtha’s congressional seat.