The cost of hiring people to staff that office, and potentially taking on another partner to run it has the potential to substantially increase overhead for firms.
“Our number one goal is to win races, but we’re also a business,” he says.
When it comes to pitching clients, Ourso says the Outside-the-Beltway mentality has landed the firm work.
Oftentimes a campaign may already have a pollster and media consultant based in D.C., and rather than looking for another D.C. consultant the campaign may be searching for an outside perspective on what’s driving voters.
The one drawback of having an office far from the Beltway, admits Ourso— missing out on the D.C. consultant social scene and the networking that comes along with it.
“One of the disadvantages to not being based in D.C. is just a lack of camaraderie with other consultants and people with the national committees— face time. Out of sight, out of mind,” Ourso says.
Washington was never a realistic option for Republican consultant Chris Russell when he was in the process of launching Chris Russell Consulting.
The direct mail firm is headquartered in Jackson, New Jersey where Russell lives with his wife and kids. The clients Russell intended to base his business around were all in-state, but he still makes it a point to travel to Washington as much as he can.
“I think people who don’t spend any time there are foolish,” Russell says. “I try to make it down once a month for a day or two just to make sure I maintain contact with people down there.”
He might not crack all of the relationships to be had in D.C., but Russell says it by no means has cost him work. And geography cuts both ways.
Just like Wilson and Ourso, Russell argues that regional firms offer a much needed alternative to the Washington, D.C. mindset.
“You kind of escape the D.C. groupthink and offer a different perspective,” he says. “When you’re in one place and you’re surrounded by one set of people that you network with, you become susceptible to a set of opinions.” New Jersey and other state-based consultants can be equally susceptible, Russell concedes, so he advises campaigns not to limit themselves when choosing the consultants they work with.
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do in one place that you can’t do in another,” says Sean Whitson, founder of the Democratic firm Trail Ready Communications. “The way technology is now, you don’t have to do this inside the Beltway.”
In 2012, Whitson established his direct mail firm in Upstate New York, because his wife’s work was more important, according to him. She’s a doctor. Given that he’s outside the Beltway, Whitson likes to say that his firm is more mainstream than the ones you find on K Street or closer to D.C.; he can go to the local Wegmans and interact with average voters. On top of that, Whitson can pull from a large pool of local graphic designers who aren’t necessarily used to political work— handy when he needs political mail that doesn’t look like political mail.
Despite the greater number of political firms located outside the D.C. Beltway, some consultants maintain that the only way to cultivate the kind of relationships you need in politics is to have that Washington address.
“Living and working inside the Beltway provides a significant amount of access to the tools that a modern campaign needs to nationalize itself—to raise national money, raise national prominence and to have the best possible avenue to success,” says Tyler Harber, managing partner at Harden Global. “It’s important to this generation of candidates that consultants be more than just an advisor; they want them to be the chief engineer of their campaign and the chief relationship builder.”
In January, Harber merged his firm with a shop run by David Denehy. The new firm—Harden Global—is situated inside the Beltway with an office in Alexandria, Va. Harber says his proximity to Washington allows him to pursue relationships that pay of economically. Easy access to decision makers on Capitol Hill and at the national party committees—not to mention Super PACs—increase any firm’s money-making potential.
Harber also thinks regional consultants may have lost their selling point. Many regional firms tout their ties to the local political community, but thanks to the weakening of state and local parties courtesy of McCain-Feingold, D.C.-based Super PAC money and other issue groups have quickly risen in importance.
It’s a hypothesis that John Rowley rejects. He thinks regional consultants are right to question the importance of Super PACs going forward. “I’m skeptical that consulting firms are going to locate or not locate based on Citizens United or some interest groups,” Rowley says. “Citizens United hasn’t yet really revolutionized the consulting business.”
Harber says the benefit to being located outside the Beltway is the ability to gobble up regional work unimpeded. But from experience he’s found that even the most qualified regional firms can be viewed as unqualified because of their headquarters.
“Candidates pick consultants sometimes for superficial reasons, and that includes where their offices are,” Harber says. “And you’ll see that a lot of people show Washington D.C. addresses; you won’t find a lot of the inner-Beltway consultants list addresses out in the South, Midwest, North or East because there’s not an inherent benefit to that.”
Still, the consensus is that consultants thinking about striking out on their own and weighing exactly where they should locate their office, may not be well served if their first concern is the perceived prestige of a Washington address. Sitting in a high priced office with a great view of Washington, D.C. or the Capitol doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t quickly bring in business and develop a solid track record.
Regional firms and consultants insist that knowledgeable campaigns seek variety among the firms they hire. Some shops located outside the Beltway even find they stand out among D.C. competitors.
“Call my office in D.C. initially and you’ll probably find I live in Oklahoma City, but campaigns are OK with it,” Chris Wilson says. “Maybe it’s because we deal with conservative clients, but they like the balanced approach, they like the commitment to family and they like our outside mentality.”