Practicing what you preach

Practicing what you preach
Does being a consultant make you a better candidate?

No matter how many campaigns they’ve worked on, consultants who go to the other side of the microphones say they’re often surprised how difficult it is to make the transition.

It’s something Ed Gillespie, the long-time GOP adviser and party chairman, is experiencing now, although from the outside his nascent campaign appears to have had a smooth start. He’s launched his Virginia Senate candidacy with an ad one observer called a “political consultant’s dream.” But it’s possible for that dream to morph into something else, whether he gets the job or not.

Consultants know well how to run for office—the pitfalls, the shortcuts, the inevitable tediousness of the trail. But clinically observing and providing advice is not quite the same as being the man or woman behind the podium. Moreover, being so close to the action isn’t always the best rehearsal for the action itself.

For Nick Zoller, a Republican consultant who got into the race to succeed the late Florida Rep. Bill Young (R), the hardest part of becoming a candidate was the changes to long-established relationships.

“Though you might have relationships with donors, and though you might have worked with various donors for years and years on different campaigns, those are not your donors,” Zoller says. “Just because you worked closely with a candidate they supported does necessarily mean they’re going to then open their checkbook to you.”

Most candidates shudder at fundraising, but one benefit to being a former consultant or staffer is calling in favors and, in the process, saving a few bucks. That’s what’s helping Teddy Davis, a former staffer-turned-candidate for city council in Los Angeles.

“I’ve got to raise money, and I’m doing everything I can to not spend it,” says Davis, who recently served as spokesman for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). “So I’m very lucky to have worked in politics, and I have a lot of great friends who’ve worked at very senior levels who give great advice and have been helpful to us on the campaign. I’ve been able to use that great advice without paying for anything right now.”

After Nancy Biery, a long-time adviser to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) entered the race for the chairmanship of the Washington state Democrats in early November, she was besieged by counsel, she recalls. “I had so many people come up to me and ask me, ‘What can I do to help?’Everyone’s got 100 opinions. My biggest challenge was just keeping everyone on the train. It’s really, really hard work. I don’t think most people understand how hard it is.”

Despite a promising candidacy, the intra-party politics became a challenge to maneuver. Right before Christmas, Biery dropped her bid.

“The governor’s office made it abundantly clear to me they didn’t want me to be the next party chair,” she says. “I’m enough of a realist to know my life would have been hell for the next year.”

Robert Cunningham, a Massachusetts-based consultant, doesn’t use Biery’s description of landing a state party job, but acknowledges it’s harder than he thought.

Cunningham, who has consulted for former Sen. Scott Brown and other Bay State Republicans, was confirmed as the executive director of the state GOP in August after his predecessor, Nate Little, resigned. At first, Cunningham says, he wasn’t prepared for the mental switch from consultant to administrator.

On a campaign, he says, “you’re all pulling in the same direction.” Running a state party, “you’re trying to juggle competing priorities in a body rather than trying to provide quality guidance and management to campaigns,” he says. “Priorities are far more diverse. You’re dealing with how much do we invest in outreach, into field staff, into building data systems, versus fundraising and training? Managing the day-to-day stuff, which takes you away from the reason you got into consulting in the first place.”

The creativity and freedom that come with being outside a campaign’s staff structure is difficult to maintain as a candidate. But Zoller, who didn’t run in this month’s special election for Young’s seat because he doesn’t turn 25—the minimum age requirement—until October, says he doesn’t want to fall into the trap of a traditional candidacy.

“A lot of times candidates are reluctant to step away from the stump speech,” says Zoller, a field specialist who has consulted for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), Connecticut Republican Peter Schiff and on some House races. “They aren’t necessarily comfortable on every single issue. A lot of candidates don’t want to put the hard work into researching and understanding every issue at play instead of the hot-button ones.”

Zoller’s now laying the groundwork for a primary bid next year. He’s hired a scheduler and created a policy team to help him craft detailed approaches to every issue facing Florida’s 13th district. 

“My experience from the consulting and campaign-staffer side of it prepared me well for things that I wanted to do that I never necessarily had the opportunity to do with other candidates,” he says. “My ideas of how to run a race can really be reflected in my own race.”

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