It’s clear those running the party aren’t looking for old ideas. But if new blood is needed to come up with new tactics, where does it come from? Does it come from Washington or the local ranks? Wayne Johnson, a Sacramento-based media consultant, says it’s time for Washington to invest more control with the locals and loosen the purse strings.
“That’s always been a sore spot with consultants in the field—money never seems to get out of the Beltway,” he says. “I think there’s a strong argument that there needs to be some serious decentralization in the next cycle.”
The amount of money spent this year by Super PACs dwarfed the amounts spent by candidates, particularly those running for House. In places such as California, the Super PAC spots served to link local Republicans to their national colleagues—an anathema to voters in the Golden State.
“In most places, the candidate campaign was a minor player in the election, and that has to change. They didn’t have the ability to run and shoot with the opposition,” Johnson says. “I love Karl [Rove] and he deserves all the credit in the world, but the folks who were producing these ads just didn’t have the bandwidth” to deal with 80 competitive races.
Of the 10 most expensive Senate races in 2012, only three were won by the candidate who received the most spending support by outside groups, according to a report from the Campaign Finance Institute. In House races that cost more than $2 million, the candidate with the outside spending advantage lost 21 times and won 16 times.
“It’s a bad model,” says Johnson. “We have to make sure there isn’t a Super PAC out there spending $200 or $500 million dollars. The money needs to go to the candidates. It needs to go to the campaigns.”
Phil Young has been on both ends of the top-down approach. He spent eight years in Washington, D.C. running national issue campaigns and working in the Reagan White House, before returning home to Nebraska to launch his own firm. Last cycle, he helped Deb Fischer go from state lawmaker to Senator-elect, most recently serving in her kitchen cabinet while she successfully maneuvered past two well-financed opponents in the primary—one of whom was the “unofficial favorite” of Washington: Jon Bruning, the state’s attorney general.
“A committee may not overtly back a certain candidate, but the word, the buzz, when the committee’s people are talking to other lobbyists or PACs who may call up and say, ‘What’s the deal in Nebraska or what’s the deal in Nevada?’ There’s a sort of an unofficial favorite,” Young says.
Fischer’s primary win was a surprise to many in Washington, but Young says anyone could see it coming from the ground in Nebraska. Still, the National Republican Senatorial Committee once again found itself having to establish a new working relationship with a candidate who won in an upset.
“When that unofficial favorite gets dumped by the actual voters in the state, then all of a sudden you have the committee scrambling to figure out what to do,” Young says. “Then it becomes a challenge for the committee to kiss and make up, or they may want to wash their hands of them altogether.”
Young says there’s a bias in Washington against candidates with local campaign teams who haven’t come to the capital and made the rounds. But now that he’s no longer D.C.-based Young realizes that having a Washington address doesn’t mean a firm knows the local terrain, and on the flip side having a local area code “doesn’t mean they’re stupid.”
“Local consultants can probably do more to maybe establish working relationships with [committee] people so that you’re a bit more of a known entity,” he says. “But at the same time I do think it has to be an attitude change at the national level so the response is not, ‘You’ve got to pick somebody from our list, if you want our support.’”
At the presidential level, the problem isn’t as apparent because the party’s nominee will always have leverage to pick his or her own campaign team. Stuart Stevens, the principal consultant on the Romney campaign, has received his share of criticism for some of the campaign’s missteps. But he insists that campaign 2012 was a collaborative consulting effort.
“Throughout the Romney race I reached out to different consultants for advice and often received good suggestions from various consultants who weren’t formally working for the campaign,” he said in an email to C&E. “It was all very helpful. Since the race, I think it’s been very positive and frankly supportive.”
Stevens also disputed the suggestion that Super PACs took the microphone out of the hands of the candidates, despite the fact the Romney campaign was outspent by issue groups by more than $200 million, according to one estimate.
“We didn’t create [Super PACs] and we can’t make [Super PACs] go away,” he wrote. “The greatest advantage the Obama campaign had resulted from their blowing up federal financing for the general election. That gave them four years and the power of the presidency to raise over a billion dollars. That’s how they outspent the Romney campaign 2-to-1 on television.”
”Next cycle,” Stevens added, “there won’t be an incumbent president with four years to raise a billion dollars. This should be less of a factor.”