On a hot day last spring, Fred Davis found himself sitting on Iowa Republican Steve King’s back porch. The Hollywood-based media consultant had flown to Omaha, Neb., rented a car and driven to western Iowa to assess taking him on as a client.
He knew the outspoken congressman was in a tough fight for his seat. President Obama was pouring money into the state. King was facing a popular challenger in Christie Vilsack, Iowa’s former first lady. And it didn’t help that he had a growing reputation as a party firebrand, which was how Davis had first been introduced to him before making the trip out from Los Angeles.
“I was expecting to report in that Steve King was just like those [videos] and we probably wouldn’t be handling the campaign,” he recalls.
There’s often tension in the candidate-consultant relationship, particularly when the consultant has to ask his client to try something new. But Davis found King was nothing like his out-of-context online video reel. They got along well and King was receptive to his strategic advice.
“Steve enjoys a colorful phrase or two, but that was not the type of campaign we ran. We went back to the basics, with Steve totally on board,” says Davis. “The most important decision of his campaign was to, not by any stretch of the imagination, disavow his principles of being a fairly far-right congressman; but instead to run on what kind of person he is—40 years, same house, same wife. He was part of the community. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps.”
King’s bio includes failed businesses and near financial ruin, the kind of circumstantial “lying low” that his party now faces. As the GOP goes through a prolonged session of hand wringing, consultants have an important role to play. Ask Davis what that is, and he’ll say help the candidate to find a new path. It’s time to stop relying knee-jerk on what’s worked in the past. This will undoubtedly require the paid help be willing to risk their retainer by telling a client something he or she might not want to hear. But for Davis, that’s the price of progress.
“There are two types of consultants,” he says. “One fills orders and simply makes the ads that the client and campaign team want; the other contributes to that discussion, is an important player at the table and can say, ‘Hey, yes, that’s the way it’s been done in the past, but look what happened in 2012 and is that what we want to repeat?’”