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.
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.”