There were quite a few special elections around the country yesterday but just one was competitive, a statewide race for Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction. The progressive in the race, Jill Underly beat the conservative, Deborah Kerr, 377,131 (56.9%) to 296,028 (43.1%). If it's harbinger for the midterms, the smug smiles on Republican faces disappeared last night once the votes were counted. Both former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Trump anti-education secretary Betsy DeVos had strongly backed Kerr. This morning Trumpist senator Ron Johnson is staring into the face of repudiation and defeat.
Gallup released a new poll before dawn this morning: about party affiliation duding the first quarter of the year and found the largest gap in a decade. With 49% of Americans self-identifying as Democrats (or Democratic-leaners) and 40% as Republicans (and GOP leaners), the gap is 9%-- about double the usual Democratic advantage. It is also worth noting that the current level of independent identification (44%) is historically high and the increase comes at the expense of the Republican Party after Trump's violent, failed coup.
Perhaps the gap wouldn't be so favorable for the Democrats if more people had read Ryan Grim's and Rachel Cohen's Intercept essay yesterday: The Democratic Party's Consultant Factory. It may be impossible for a normal person to identify as a Republican but it is becoming more and more difficult to identify as a Democrat as well. Perhaps that's why firm partisan affiliation breaks down like this today:
The cycle the DCCC lost 15 blue seats, often by insisting Democrats run as GOP-lite candidates to the right of the voters. Medicare-for-All, for example, was a no-no... the by disparaging it, the conservative corporate whores who run the DCCC nearly lost the House majority. Cheri Bustos, arguably the worst DCCC chair since Rahm Emanuel, her mentor, fell on her sword and has been replaced by a doppelgänger of herself, Wall Street owned and operated New Dem Sean Patrick Maloney. There is no reason to believe that Maloney won't do as bad-- or a worse-- job than Bustos did. "In most industries," wrote Grim and Cohen, "a failure that stark would lead to an autopsy, a round of firings, and a reformulation of strategy to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The stakes are particularly high for the 2022 midterms; next time, the same miscalculations could cost the party its thin majority, and with it the ability for the Biden administration to legislate. Instead, according to a review of federal election records and interviews with senior party operatives, the calamity has led to promotions and expanded business opportunities for those at the top."
Take Lucinda Guinn, the outgoing executive director at the DCCC. In July 2019, Black and Hispanic lawmakers publicly criticized the DCCC for a lack of diversity in senior positions, with particular emphasis on a lack of Latino leadership. Within days, the executive director and five other senior aides all resigned, and Guinn, who identifies as Latina, was brought in shortly after, in September, to be executive director.
The diversity-driven shakeup left Guinn and her new team with much less time to prepare for the cycle. After the disappointing results, Guinn left and was named a partner at a major consulting firm: Ralston Lapp, now Ralston Lapp Guinn, which was founded by a former executive director of the DCCC. Her move to the firm will be a boon to a company that has long done millions of dollars in business with House Democrats and the DCCC.
In her place, and without an open search, a former DCCC adviser, Tim Persico, was elevated to executive director. New operatives have also been installed to lead major Democratic committees and super PACs with no competitive, transparent hiring process. New media firms, which routinely receive some of the most lucrative contracts in the business, continue to be founded by staffers leaving top jobs. Megan Clasen, who ran the Biden campaign’s $250 million digital ad program, and Patrick McHugh, who led Priorities USA, the party’s biggest super PAC, created the media firm Gambit Strategies, poised to become a powerhouse firm.
Bromley, a former corporate consultant, is partnering with another for a major research project into Latino political attitudes, he said, hoping to finish this year in order to put the findings into the field. “All I’m doing is trying to take all these years of learning in the Hispanic consumer market to the Hispanic voter market,” he said.
The self-dealing nature of party leadership transitions has long been endemic to both parties, and for a long time it kept the most lucrative consulting positions mostly in the hands of white men. That’s now changing slightly, though the ecosystem continues to function largely as before.
...The party's campaign structure as it exists today runs in a direct line from Rahm Emanuel’s regime at the DCCC in 2006, with marriages and friendships interlacing with business and campaigning over the next 15 years.
2006: That year, the DCCC was run by John Lapp and his deputy, Ali Ward, who is now Ali Lapp. Executive Director John Lapp would go on to create the firm Ralston Lapp Media, now one of the major firms servicing the DCCC. As DCCC chair, Emanuel recruited conservative, business-friendly veterans, and managed to win back the House with the wrong strategy at the right time.
2008: In the 2008 cycle, the DCCC was helmed by Brian Wolff, a Nancy Pelosi aide who had been a deputy director under Lapp during the previous cycle. When 2009 brought full Democratic control to Washington, K Street was in need of Democrats with ties to the party leadership, and he broke the typical DCCC pattern by becoming a lobbyist, at the Edison Electric Institute, rather than a consultant. He currently sits on the board of the party’s super PAC, the House Majority PAC.
2010: For the 2010 midterms, the DCCC hired Jon Vogel as executive director. Vogel had been a DCCC deputy in 2006 and, in 2008, had run the organization’s $85 million independent expenditure. In its first cycle in business, 2010, Ralston Lapp Media billed the DCCC and House Democrats running for reelection more than $3 million for media work.
Vogel hired Robby Mook, who had served as a top operative on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 failed presidential bid, to serve as his political director. Democrats were then wiped out in the tea party wave, and Vogel left to form MVAR Media. Over the past two cycles, the DCCC and House Majority PAC have spent roughly a million dollars through MVAR Media, which boasts a slew of House candidates as clients.
2012: Vogel was replaced in the 2012 cycle by Mook. Mook then went on to manage Terry McAuliffe’s successful campaign for Virginia governor, directing millions to the consulting firm GMMB.
In April 2011, in the wake of Citizens United v. FEC, the party created its super PAC; Ali Lapp was named to run it. In the 2012 cycle, Ralston Lapp Media began billing House Majority PAC and has done more than $250,000 worth of work for it since.
2014 and 2016: In 2014, the top DCCC job finally went to a woman: Kelly Ward, now Kelly Ward Burton, a veteran operative and the spouse of Bill Burton, who was a top 2006 Democratic operative before playing a lead role on the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama. Ward had been the DCCC’s political director in 2012 and stayed for two cycles as executive director. During that time, money continued flowing to MVAR and Ralston Lapp. Ward, who broke the pattern and did not cash in by returning to consulting, now leads the party’s crucial redistricting effort.
Mook was named to run Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president and brought GMMB on as the operation’s media consultant, pumping more than $300 million through it.
2018: That gets us to the 2018 cycle, when Democrats finally reclaimed the House. Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico took over as DCCC chair. He promoted Dan Sena from a deputy executive director position to executive director. Luján and Sena, who both identify as Hispanic and are both from New Mexico, arrived at a DCCC with little in the way of minority consulting infrastructure and worked to bring new people in.
To make sure there was finally a Latino-run firm doing real business with the DCCC on the media side, they turned to Ernest Bromley. Bromley, who has a Canadian father, a Puerto Rican mother, and did high school in Mexico City, was a high-powered corporate ad executive in Texas who shied away from political work for decades, while his lead partner, a Republican, helped reshape Texas. After Trump’s election, Bromley retired from the firm and, determined to get involved in politics, teamed up with Democratic operative Laura Hernandez to create Pescador Public Strategies. Luján brought them on to begin doing work with the DCCC.
2020: After 2018, Sena left to form Sena Kozar Media. In his first post-DCCC cycle, Sena’s new firm billed the party $2.5 million, working for House candidates and the DCCC, plus Luján’s successful Senate race and the PAC for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
House Democrats relied almost exclusively on the firms owned by Bromley and Sena for their messaging to Latinos, even though both firms had expertise that extended beyond that community.
In July 2019, Black and Hispanic lawmakers publicly aired frustration at a lack of diversity at the top ranks of the DCCC and the senior staff was pushed out. Two months later, Bustos tapped Guinn, who had previously done two stints at the DCCC, along with five years at EMILY’s List, as executive director. Her most recent job had been at the consulting firm 4CM+M. Guinn, billed as the DCCC’s first Latina executive director, left after the disappointing election to join Ralston Lapp, which became Ralston Lapp Guinn. That cycle was a good one for the new firm, upping its direct take from the DCCC to just shy of $500,000.
Mook, for the 2020 cycle, became president of House Majority PAC, with Ali Lapp remaining as a senior adviser.
House Majority PAC also launched a 501(c)(4) called House Majority Forward, and its opaque tax structure leaves less visibility into its consultants and vendors, though it counts Pescador and Sena Kozar among them.
2022: This cycle, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is chair of the DCCC and tapped DCCC operative Tim Persico for the top job. Persico had previously served as Maloney’s chief of staff.
Mook remains president of the House Majority PAC, while Abby Curran Howell, a DCCC veteran, serves as executive director. Mook, a member of the Navy Reserve, will soon be deploying abroad for a year; Lapp will fill in for him, a spokesperson said.
In 2019 the DCCC finally made explicit a policy that had long been implicit: No firm could do business with the party committee if it worked for candidates taking on Democratic incumbents. The blacklist was put in place at the behest of the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus and had been a promise made by Bustos when she ran for DCCC chair. CBC leaders were concerned that the new leftist energy embodied by progressive representatives like the Squad and groups like Justice Democrats would target CBC members serving in deep-blue districts who hadn’t faced competition in decades. By entrenching not just incumbent politicians but also incumbent firms, the policy cut against the party’s efforts at diversifying the ranks of its operatives.
The DCCC recently announced it would be ending its controversial blacklist policy, but at the same time, Maloney, the current DCCC chair, has all but said the ban is still in effect. “No one should be looking for work around here if they want to go after one of our members at the same time,” he told Politico.
Atima Omara, a veteran Black strategist who started her own consulting firm in 2017, said that the blacklists, explicit and implicit, keep the ecosystem closed off.
“Because the Democratic committees have these blacklists, because they tell candidates you have to work with a certain type of consultant to get our support, already that creates a system where folks like myself have to go work with primary challengers and only in open seats,” said Omara. “So because you worked with primary challengers, or because you worked with people in unimportant races, then you’re never working with incumbents.” In effect, Omara concluded, the people who end up getting the big contracts are those who “have already been in [the] system and valued, and they tend to be white-led firms.”
Traditionally the Democratic party committees-- like the DCCC, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Democratic Governors Association-- look to hire campaign staffers who worked on so-called top-tier congressional or gubernatorial campaigns. A staffer will be hired out of those campaigns to go work an election cycle or two at the party committees and emerge well-positioned to get a job at one of the consulting firms they interfaced with as a staffer. And since political campaign jobs have historically not paid well, staffers often come from backgrounds where their families can subsidize rent and cushion their off-cycle employment lags. And if you’re a staffer not working on a top-tier race, Democratic veterans said, the party committees are far less likely to take your political skill set seriously.
Some of the challenges, observed one Black political consultant, are about creating the conditions where you can afford taking small risks on so-called untested firms. They said it doesn’t bother them if people want to spin off from campaigns and hire people they’ve worked with before, who they trust. “That’s how business is done, it just makes sense,” they added. “The question is, is it a ‘yes and’ conversation, are you also expanding who is at the table, making space for those other communities?” Some of the consultants spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to alienate potential clients.
...Sena, the 2018 DCCC executive director who’s now a partner at Sena Kozar, said that institutional blinders are still preventing many Democrats from seeing what they’re doing wrong. “Too often the Democratic Party looks at you like you’re a person of color first, rather than as a smart, capable operative who happens to be a person of color. That’s the biggest challenge,” he said. “The other challenge is ensuring that the work that minority firms do is representative of the total battleground, not just communities of color projects.”
...Many of the firms who manage to get business from the party, whether white-owned, minority-owned, or a blend, may be limited by the substantial amounts of corporate work they do at the same time-- work that often conflicts with Democratic voters’ priorities.
House Majority Forward, the dark-money group aligned with House Democrats, and House Majority PAC have done work with HIT Strategies, which lists Big Pharma as a client alongside progressive causes.
After working on the Obama campaign in 2008 and then becoming executive director of the Democratic National Committee, Jen O’Malley Dillon co-founded Precision Strategies, which combined political work with consulting on behalf of health insurers, Silicon Valley, Bank of America, and other major corporations. In 2020, she became Joe Biden’s campaign manager after he had sewn up the nomination.
Dewey Square Group, where Minyon Moore leads both the State and Local Affairs and Multicultural Strategies practices, does work for the party as well as major corporate clients, including fighting to roll back Ohio’s renewable portfolio standards.
SKDK, formerly SKDKnickerbocker, a firm staffed by former DCCC operatives that does millions of dollars of work for the DCCC and the party, also does corporate work for clients like Gillette and American Airlines.
“SKDK is a well-known advertising and communications firm and they helped shape our advertising campaign in 2011 and 2013 to help counter the misinformation opponents of the Keystone XL proposal were spreading about TransCanada and the pipeline,” a TransCanada spokesperson told the Washington Post in 2014. “We have hired them for their communications and advertising expertise and we will continue to hire them and are proud of our association with them.”
GMMB, a DCCC mainstay that is stocked with veterans of the organization, also does corporate work. GMMB has been dealing with internal turmoil over the heavily white composition of its leadership structure.
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, the DCCC’s lead polling firm, also does heavy corporate work in banking, health care, and tech, and has represented everyone from Monsanto and Verizon to Blue Cross Blue Shield and UnitedHealthcare. In 2020, the firm listed the Business Roundtable, a collection of the nation’s largest corporations, as a client. Elizabeth Sena worked for GQR, where she’s a partner, while her husband, Dan Sena, was executive director of the DCCC in the 2018 cycle. The spousal connections go higher: Stan Greenberg was the top pollster for President Bill Clinton and is married to Rep. Rosa DeLauro.
Hart Research, another DCCC polling firm, similarly does expansive work for corporate clients, including the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the powerful trade association for Big Pharma. Hart’s client list also includes Eli Lilly, the drugmaker sued for driving up the price of insulin.
In effect, the party routinely commissions polls from firms about issues that implicate companies that the consulting firms simultaneously represent. Such entanglements raise questions about the polling and focus group work conducted, and the party’s ability to follow the results of said research: Even if focus group and polling data suggested that a campaign be run against Eli Lilly’s high insulin prices, it would take a consultant with serious fortitude to recommend it, rather than suggesting, say, a broad campaign against high drug prices generally. Those corporate conflicts might narrow the horizons of what Democrats advocate for in the economic sphere, but culturally, there are no such conflicts with corporate America, as Republicans are quick to complain. That creates incentives for the party to push on the cultural front but not on economic issues, regardless of the electoral implications.