How Jamestown Associates Adapted and Prospered

by Stuart Rothenberg February 24, 2014 · 11:29 AM EST

You probably think the recent spat between the National Republican Senatorial Committee (and really the entire GOP establishment) and Jamestown Associates, a GOP consulting firm, is interesting because it reflects the fissure in the Republican Party. But after covering campaigns for decades, I think it’s also a fascinating story of how a media firm has evolved and adapted to a changing political environment.

In late January, the Club for Growth announced that it was adding Jamestown to its media team and planned to use the firm in Mississippi, where the club is supporting state Sen. Chris McDaniel’s challenge to veteran Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, and in Nebraska, where the group is backing Ben Sasse’s bid for the GOP Senate nomination.

The club’s statement wasn’t shocking, of course, since Jamestown had already done work for the Senate Conservatives Fund in Kentucky (supporting the primary challenge of Matt Bevin to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), and been blacklisted by the NRSC and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

For years, certainly throughout the 1990s, I viewed the New Jersey-based Jamestown as a regional consulting firm that worked mostly with moderate or even liberal Republicans running in the Northeast. Now it has become a national firm (with offices around the country) that will be one of a handful of firms promoting anti-establishment libertarian and tea party hopefuls this cycle.

In New Jersey’s 2005 gubernatorial race, Larry Weitzner, one of the founders of Jamestown Associates and the current CEO, worked for moderate Republican Doug Forrester, whose campaign chairman, Lew Eisenberg, helped bankroll the Republican Leadership Council, a moderate GOP group that dissolved in 2011.

Jamestown’s client list has included (or in some cases still includes) Gov. Jodi Rell and Reps. Nancy Johnson and Chris Shays (all of Connecticut), as well as Reps. Jim Saxton, Dick Zimmer and Leonard Lance (all of New Jersey). Add to that roster names like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, New York’s Susan Molinari, New York’s George Pataki and Hawaii’s Linda Lingle, and you had a firm with a certain profile. And that profile definitely was not conservative or anti-establishment.

But Jamestown also did some work that was clearly outside its ideological box.

For example, the firm worked for New Jersey Republican Mike Ferguson in his five races for Congress, from 1998 to 2006. By New Jersey standards, Ferguson was a conservative, and he certainly wasn’t the establishment choice in the 2000 race, when he defeated Tom Kean Jr. in the GOP primary.

Around the middle of the decade, friends in the campaign consulting community introduced Jamestown to some more conservative candidates.

In 2006, Jamestown worked for Tim Walberg, a social conservative who knocked off moderate Michigan Rep. Joe Schwarz in a bitter, ideological GOP primary. The following cycle, Jamestown worked for Maryland conservative Andy Harris, who knocked off incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in another ideological Republican primary.

In March 2007, The Hotline did a Q-and-A with Weitzner, asking, among other things, about his “proudest moment professionally.” The consultant cited a number of contests, including two 2006 contests, Rell’s victory “in a very blue Connecticut” and Shays’ re-election; Ferguson’s 2000 primary win over Kean; and the 2004 victory of (moderate incumbent) Jim Kolbe, “a gay, pro-choice, pro-immigration Republican” in an Arizona GOP primary. He chose not to mention Walberg’s defeat of Schwarz the previous November.

It wasn’t until 2010 that names like Joe Walsh (Illinois) and Justin Amash (Michigan) started to appear as clients, still along with more moderate Republicans like Robert Dold (Illinois) and Richard Hanna (New York).

This cycle, the firm seems to have taken another step away from the establishment. (Some will point out that the move was not entirely Jamestown’s choice.) Not only is Jamestown working for the SCF and the Club for Growth, but its principals are working for Georgia Senate hopeful Paul Broun, Kansas Senate challenger (to incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts) Milton Wolf, and congressional hopeful Barry Loudermilk, three very conservative hopefuls. The firm is also doing work for former California state Sen. Tony Strickland, a more pragmatic conservative.

The Jamestown team is understandably reticent to talk about their place in the larger “establishment vs. outsiders” fight within the GOP, but they make it clear that they work for a variety of Republican hopefuls, both ideologically and geographically.

And they note that the firm, which also worked for Richard Mourdock’s 2012 Indiana Senate bid (successful in the primary against incumbent Richard G. Lugar but unsuccessful in the fall election), has for years worked for anti-establishment candidates.

One former Jamestown client I talked with agreed with that assessment, telling me, “The firm never shied away from working for an outsider. They never were the establishment, the NRCC’s choice.”

Still, it is one thing to work for Ferguson or Texas GOP Rep. Sam Johnson, and quite another to work against McConnell and Cochran, or for Broun and Wolf.

It doesn’t appear that Jamestown made an ideologically based business decision to alter the kinds of candidates for whom it would work. Obviously, the decisions by the NRSC and the NRCC to freeze out the firm have forced it to look elsewhere for business. But the folks at Jamestown won’t say whether they were surprised by the NRSC’s strong, confrontational stance following the firm’s work in Kentucky, particularly given the establishment’s relatively muted reaction to the company’s earlier clients (Mourdock, Walberg, Harris).

Other Republican consultants speculate that the firm’s increasingly conservative and outsider positioning may well reflect both the shift in the GOP and Jamestown’s desire to become more of a national firm. As the party has weakened in the Northeast, firms that catered to those kinds of Republicans have had to evolve to prosper.

“Has Larry’s ideology changed?” asked one consultant rhetorically. “Probably not. He simply went to where the business is.”

“Larry isn’t ideological,” echoed another Republican veteran of the political wars. “He isn’t policy-driven. He has gone where his business has taken him. When you are successful in a certain niche, others in that niche turn to you.”

Jamestown had one niche in the 1990s. It has a very different niche now. And at the moment, there is plenty of business for them and others on the anti-establishment right.