Parties Divide and Conquer Independent Spending

by Nathan L. Gonzales May 8, 2015 · 9:52 AM EDT

Having more than $50 million to spend on House races in the final months of the campaign may sound like fun, but both campaign committees have figured out it’s not a one-person job.

Each election cycle, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee designate a trusted operative who will eventually be walled off from the official committee to direct the independent expenditure effort.

But tracking between three- and six-dozen races while trying to guide and implement the party’s push for the majority from a virtual island is not easy.

“The volume of races is overwhelming,” said Democratic media consultant Travis Lowe, who was the DCCC IE director in 2012.

That’s why the NRCC and DCCC now utilize a divide-and-conquer strategy.

For example, in 2014, Rich Dunn, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee political director, served as the NRCC IE director, but he also had help from six “captains” who each served as a general consultant for a batch of races.

Last cycle’s captains included former NRCC IE Director Joanna Burgos and former NRCC Executive Director Guy Harrison of On Message Inc.; former NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer and Terry Nelson, a veteran media consultant and the Bush-Cheney 2004 national political director, of FP1 Strategies; veteran direct mail consultant Martin Baker of Political Ink; and Brandon Moody, former chief of staff to Wisconsin Rep. Sean P. Duffy, of Axiom Strategies. (Jesmer, Nelson, Baker and Moody also worked previously at the NRCC.)

Captains oversaw the respective media consultant and pollster for each of their assigned races and made sure tasks such as polls and television ads were conducted in a timely manner and matched the party’s themes. The structure, which Republicans have been using since 2012, also gives the director more strategic minds at his or her disposal.

Democrats have utilized a slightly different formation for their IE arm since 2006.

For example, in 2014, DCCC IE Director Jesse Ferguson (who is now deputy national press secretary for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign) organized nine consulting teams (each consisting of a media consultant and a pollster) under four “desks.”

Each “desk” consisted of a lead political person, who acted as the manager for the assigned batch of races, as well as a political associate and two researchers. The desk was in charge of implementing the strategy and operated as the liaison between Ferguson and the consulting teams.

Last cycle, the “desks” included former John Oceguera campaign manager Adam Weiss, former Ron Barber campaign manager Jessica Floyd, communications consultant Elizabeth “EB” Nesbitt, and Daniel Barash, a former associate with Democratic media firm Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly.

Past “desks” have gone on to bigger things. Lucinda Guinn worked as a desk in 2008 and is now vice president of independent expenditures for EMILY’s List. Andrew Piatt went from an IE “desk” in 2012 to the DCCC’s Southern regional political director in 2014. And desk alumnus Charlie Kelly is now deputy executive director of House Majority PAC, the go-to outside group for Democratic organizations interested in House races.

Compiling consulting teams can be challenging for both parties because none of the operatives can have a conflict of interest in their assigned race by already working for the candidate or other interested outside group. But once the teams are defined, the structure can help those consultants be more efficient with their time, minimizing the number of conference calls since they can discuss a handful of races at a time.

“The reason why I think it’s survived is because it works,” Lowe explained about the structure. “But it has evolved.”

No two election cycles are the same, and the size and budget of the IE adjusts accordingly. But the scope of the work performed by the IE has also changed over the last decade.

In 2006, the DCCC IE handled television and direct mail. Two years later, the IE arm added a field component. In 2010, field was excluded and the IE focused on only television and mail again. In 2012, Democrats shifted direct mail to the state parties while the IE handled television with a new digital component. And in 2014, the television and digital focus continued on the Democratic side.

The variation in the IE structure is at least a partial reflection of how the two parties employ consultants. Individual Republican campaigns most often include a general consultant, while in Democratic campaigns, particularly in House races, the media consultant often serves as the general consultant.

Independent expenditures are a staple of modern congressional campaigns, and they will remain so until campaign-finance law is changed. For now, the party committees simply try to find the most efficient way to spend tens of millions of dollars in the final three months of the campaign.