In California, some Republican consultants are getting rich while their party sinks to new depths of electoral failure. At least, that’s how Shawn Steel sees it.
Steel, a Republican National Committeeman and former head of the state GOP, is pointing the finger at the paid help for the (largely negative) electoral outcomes of his party’s candidates in recent years.
“In California we have the worst of the worst and the slowest of the slow,” Steel says of the state’s consulting class.
Democrats have gone through their period of culling the ranks of never-wins from the consulting roster. Now, Republicans may have to do the same, particularly as California epitomizes the changing demographics in which they need to be competitive. But in the Golden State, consultants and officials blame each other for their party’s dismal showings.
How bad is it? Republicans don’t hold statewide office in California. Their numbers in the state legislature are dismal, holding 25 seats in the 80-member Assembly and only 11 in the 40-seat Senate. That gives the Democrats supermajorities in both chambers—the first time a party has had that power in 80 years.
The lows of the 2012 cycle came two years after the GOP lost an initially promising Senate race and Meg Whitman, the most generous self-funder in American history, was defeated by current Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who at the time was mounting a political comeback.
For Steel, it’s former Whitman consultant Mike Murphy who epitomizes what’s wrong with California’s Republican consultants.
“He takes in vast amounts of money and never wins,” says Steel. “In California, Republicans have developed a class of unsuccessful, technically childish millionaires who consistently lose elections.”
Steel points to the fact that Murphy benefited from commission on Whitman’s massive media buys—though that’s standard practice for media consultants. The percentages are negotiable, but Whitman’s having spent $160 million of her own fortune on the race, including $11.6 million for political consultants, makes the transaction stand out.
Murphy is quick to shoot back. “Having been [a] media strategist for more than twenty winning statewide gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns I find his comments laughable,” he tells C&E in an email. “I’m not surprised. Shawn Steel is such a hapless political amateur I wouldn’t hire him to oversee a yard sign supply room, let alone an actual campaign.”
With their expertise under fire, some GOP consultants took aim at the state party, arguing their campaigns are underfunded and handicapped by the machinations in Sacramento. The state party, these critics say, was supposed to fund voter registration efforts and coordinate GOTV, but it hasn’t done so in recent cycles.
“It’s difficult to point your finger at the consultants as being responsible for the outcomes in California,” says Jason Roe, a principal Revolvis, a California-based firm that specializes in campaign management. “There are a lot of contributing factors that put us in the position that we’re in today—demographic changes, poor political decisions on hot-button political issues that affect the new, growing non-white communities in California and a dysfunctional state Republican Party.”
Instead, Roe argues the consultants should be credited with keeping the party from suffering the fate of its colleagues in, say, Massachusetts.
“We might be part of the reason we’re still where we are,” he says.
Roe admits some of his colleagues are guilty of what he calls “lazy” campaign management, notably sending mail pieces out far and wide when a targeted approach would be more politically and cost effective.
“There are plenty of lazy consultants that are going to make just as much money sending to every likely voter as they are spending the time to break down those mailings into subgroups and developing unique messages for each one,” he says.
Moreover, Sacramento media consultants admit it was a mistake for a group of them to convince some major donors and businesses to bypass the party and fund Independent Expenditure activity.
One Republican media consultant was pithy in his assessment: “Huge disaster.”
Still, many of those who are doing the California GOP’s grunt work aren’t willing to accept blame for the party’s political misfortunes.
“You’re dealing with a big state,” says Vince Monaco, an Orange County-based mail consultant, who argued the consulting industry does the party’s “yeoman’s work.”
“They’re certainly not anywhere near to blame for the debacle that’s going on right now,” he says
The consultant-party blame game is likely to drag on. That is unless GOP candidates start mastering the intricacies of the state’s new top-two primary system. If that happens, they'll likely be another Republican scrum, albeit one to take credit for the party's turnaround.