Smoot’s Charge: Hold at Least 50 Senate Seats
August 12, 2010 · 10:01 AM EDT
Last in a series of profiles of committee independent expenditure directors.
Democratic operative Brian Smoot has been in tough spots before, but preserving the Democratic majority in the Senate this fall tops the list.
As director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure effort, Smoot will oversee tens of millions in spending without coordination with DSCC staff in the middle of a deteriorating national environment for his party.
“A tough cycle doesn’t scare me,” Smoot said with a smile on his face, sitting in the Chinatown offices of his firm, 4C Partners. A friend gave him the framed, black-and-white Willie Stark for Governor poster that hangs on the wall behind him. A dartboard hangs on another wall.
“I like a challenge,” he said.
It’s a good thing. While the Democratic target list includes a handful of opportunities in Republican-held seats, the list of Democratic vulnerabilities has grown to a dozen.
“Brian Smoot is a guy who is fearless,” according to Democratic consultant John Lapp, who knows Smoot from their past work on House races. “He’s gone into unwinnable races in Louisiana and Florida and won.”
In 2002, Smoot moved to Louisiana to become finance director for Democratic state legislator Rodney Alexander, who was running for Congress in a Republican open seat that George W. Bush had won by 17 points just two years earlier.
It was a big job for someone with a thin political résumé at the time.
Smoot was born and raised in Kingston, N.Y., southeast of Woodstock, the son of a recently retired Methodist minister.
He came to Washington, D.C., for college, earning his degree in international politics from American University before getting a job on Wall Street working in investor relations. It took him six months to realize “this wasn’t for me,” and he started to look for ways to get back to the capital.
Smoot, now 33, attended George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and interned for Tina Stoll at Campaign Finance Consultants. It didn’t take long for him to put his graduate degree to the test in the competitive Louisiana race, where he needed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“He was persistent,” Alexander recalled in a recent interview about Smoot’s fundraising efforts. “He always had a routine and a list of names so that when we sat down to make calls, he wasn’t wasting your time. He was very good at that.”
With Smoot’s help, Alexander raised and spent more than $830,000 in the race, finished first in a six-way contest in November and defeated Republican Lee Fletcher by 974 votes in a December runoff. It was the second-closest race of the cycle and one of the few Democratic takeovers that year.
The victory earned Smoot a ticket back to Washington, where he worked part time as the Congressman’s deputy chief of staff and part time on the campaign side. From the first days in office, Smoot emphasized the need to raise money and be prepared for the next race, according to Alexander. But that next race would get complicated.
Smoot was promoted to chief of staff in early 2004. But in August, Alexander shocked the political world in Louisiana and Washington by switching parties just minutes before the candidate filing deadline. Smoot and the rest of Alexander’s staff parted ways with the new Republican Congressman.
Out of a job in August of an election year, Smoot finally landed in Pennsylvania’s 8th district in the middle of a tense situation. He was sent to manage Democrat Ginny Shrader’s campaign, but she was one of the first net-roots candidates who bridled at all things Washington, and the liberal blogosphere vehemently disagreed with how the DCCC in Washington was handling the race.
In the end, Schrader lost to Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, 55 percent to 43 percent, in the 2004 general election.
It didn’t take long for Smoot to land in the middle of another tough race. In 2005, he signed on to manage state Sen. Ron Klein’s (D) race against 13-term Rep. Clay Shaw (R) in Florida’s 22nd district.
“I had run many races in the past, but never one this competitive,” Klein remembered. “Rahm Emanuel recommended Brian, and after meeting him, I offered him a job on the spot.”
“Brian was the general that executed the plan — everything from fundraising to polling, back to fundraising, to field strategy, and back to fundraising again,” explained Klein, who raised and spent $4.2 million compared with Shaw’s $5.2 million in one of the most expensive House races in the country.
The race was difficult because Shaw was a well-regarded Congressman. But the Klein campaign was relentless in tying the Republican to an increasingly unpopular President George W. Bush, and Klein won by 4 points.
“Brian has learned the art of message discipline,” said Democratic direct-mail consultant Wooten Johnson, who worked closely with Smoot on the campaign in Louisiana and preceded him as Alexander’s chief of staff. Brian is “hard-driven and he’s a kick-ass type of guy to take it right to the gut of Republicans.”
Founding 4C Partners
After working as Klein’s chief of staff, Smoot moved to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He started as director of incumbent retention and campaign services and moved to become political director when Jon Vogel left the official DCCC staff and went to the other side of the wall to run the IE.
Democrats expanded their majority by another 21 seats in 2008, and Smoot and some of his DCCC colleagues formed their own consulting firm: 4C Partners. He was also briefly executive director of the National Redistricting Trust (which was formed to coordinate the Democrats’ legal strategy surrounding redistricting) before Senate Democrats came calling.
“As political director at the DCCC in a very successful cycle, he’s got talent and acumen for challenging races,” DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch said. “He’s bright and talented and full of energy. He’ll do a great job.”
Smoot’s role must be bittersweet as he focuses his efforts this year on the Senate and away from dozens of Democratic incumbents in the House that he helped elect or re-elect.
“He’s a heck of a multitasker, which you need in that job,” explained Lapp, who ran the DCCC’s IE in 2006 and is consulting with the DCCC IE this year.
The IE is slightly different on the Senate side. Instead of one operation, Smoot will essentially compile teams of pollsters and media consultants in a dozen or so different states.
“It ain’t always a wave election in your favor,” said Smoot, who is clearly aware of the difficult task at hand and knows he’ll need to rely on others for help. But he’s always willing to learn. “In this business, if you pretend that you have all the answers, you’ll be led astray.”