Democratic media consultant John Rowley remembers a time when federal candidates didn’t want to give a political consulting firm based outside the Beltway a second thought.
“In the 1990s, when I was first getting started, not being based in Washington was a big knock on us, and we definitely lost business because of it,” says Rowley, co-founder of the media firm Fletcher Rowley. “But as the industry has evolved it’s now a huge advantage. Candidates are just dramatically more informed consumers.”
While some campaigns still lack the shopper savvy to recognize a firm with the cachet to win in Washington regardless of the office address, Rowley says the ground has shifted in recent cycles. More new firms have been founded and headquartered outside the Beltway while still managing to land federal campaign business.
Launched in 1996, Rowley’s media consultancy is based in Nashville, Tenn., and has worked on Democratic campaigns in practically every state. These days, Rowley says, D.C. firms tend to lean Democrat—at least some major Republican firms prefer locales outside the Beltway to be closer to corporate or nonpolitical clients.
Chris Wilson, partner at Wilson Perkins Allen research, founded the Republican polling firm in 1998. He says living in McLean, Va., it made sense to headquarter the company in D.C., although the firm now has satellite offices in Oklahoma City, Austin and Sacramento.
Wilson and his partners Chris Perkins and Bryon Allen each spend one week per month with the research team in D.C.—one partner inevitably spends an extra week to handle some client operation or crisis. Living in Oklahoma City, says Wilson, allows him to be a father and husband and keeps him sane, but he’s still hesitant to have the firm’s headquarters there. It’s a bit too much of small town for a national polling firm, Wilson admits.
“For polling firms it’s very difficult to not have a D.C. presence,” he says. “When people are in states they tend to concentrate on that state or region sort of in lieu of their work nationally.”
There are definite trends when it comes to where the political industry’s top talent is located. Most of the industry’s big-name polling firms aren’t just located inside the Beltway—the majority of them have actual Washington, D.C. addresses. And the ones that don’t are typically headquartered within shouting distance of the U.S. Capitol in Northern Virginia. It’s similar for the campaign world’s larger media firms. If the firm’s main principles aren’t operating out of Washington, D.C. or Alexandria, Va. daily, the company typically has at least one D.C.-area office.
For Wilson, his travel schedule allows for the best of both worlds. He comes to town for meetings with
Republicans and party committee staff on the Hill, and he always ensures weeks in D.C. happen when Congress is in session. While he’s in town, Wilson says the Beltway media bubble offers a perspective he doesn’t necessarily get back in Oklahoma.
“I do think there’s a certain degree of drinking the Kool-Aid when you’re inside the Beltway,” Wilson says.
Broadly speaking, direct mail firms are more likely to headquarter their offices outside of Washington, D.C. That desire to not be caught up in Beltway politics is one of the reasons Trey Ourso is glad his Democratic direct mail firm, Ourso Beychok, is based in Baton Rouge, La. He and business partner Michael Beychok launched the firm there back in 2001 because they both wanted to be close to their families.
Among the many drawbacks they considered when weighing the idea of opening a D.C. office: paying a boatload of money to rent office space they didn’t really believe they needed in order to do their jobs well.
“We do have a lot of national clients,” Ourso says. “Over a four year cycle, 65 to 70 percent of our business has been outside of Louisiana, but we made a conscious decision to reduce overhead and serve our clients the way we thought they should be served. In today’s world, with the ease of travel and computers, most of the business back-and-forth and proofs are going out over email anyways.”
Even with a D.C. office, Ourso would still have to catch a plane for frequent work and client meetings in Maine or Kansas. So ultimately that Beltway address wouldn’t do the firm all that much good. Ourso also points out it’s not just the cost of office space consultants have to worry about when locating their firms inside the Beltway.