What Does It Take To Crack the Inner Circle of Political Consultants?
December 10, 2015 · 10:12 AM EST
Democrat John Bel Edwards’ “prostitutes over patriots” ad will be remembered as one of the most-hard hitting television spots in campaign history. But did it catch the attention of national Democratic strategists?
Political consulting is a competitive sport with millions of dollars at stake. There is plenty of jockeying to be on top strategists’ unofficial list of approved consultants in order to be recommended to candidates and be in line for independent expenditure work.
“It takes more than one good ad,” according to one Democratic strategist, “But maybe it gets your foot in the door.”
This year in Louisiana, the memorable ad that brought down GOP Sen. David Vitter was created by 31-year-old Jared Arsement, a protégé of the late New Orleans media consultant Ray Teddlie, according to a great post-mortem piece by Tyler Bridges in The Advocate in Baton Rouge. The story goes behind the scenes of the “prostitutes” ad, and others, and is a fascinating look at the relationship between Arsement and the candidate.
So what would it take for Arsement to become a known and trusted commodity inside the Beltway?
“As a political consultant, reputation and results matters,” said J.B. Poersch, former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and senior adviser to Senate Majority PAC. “But, it’s probably true that you’re only as good as your last race.”
“So, if you’re new to the fray and you win; people notice,” Poersch added. “And everyone has to keep proving themselves. It can be a mean business.”
A third Democratic strategist, who didn’t want to be quoted in order to offer a candid assessment, said Arsement should be given credit for being bolder than what most of the approved consultants would have been comfortable with.
But Arsement also made a couple of “rookie” mistakes, including using imagery of Arlington National Cemetery and using photos of Edwards in uniform without the proper disclaimer. Obviously, neither mistake was fatal to Edwards’ chances, but they are regarded as unforced errors.
Democrats weren’t too worried about the argument over the disclaimer because it only reminded people Edwards served as an Army Ranger running against Vitter, a politician who never served in the military. In comparison, Republican Matt Bevin appeared in military uniform in some of his ads in this year’s gubernatorial race in Kentucky, but Democrats made a strategic decision not to challenge his lack of a disclaimer because they didn’t believe it would benefit their candidate.
“I do think breakout races help new media consultants get noticed and get work with the party committees and big SuperPACs,” said a fourth Democratic strategist. “I can only speak for myself, but what I look for in a media consultant is good ads, good political instincts, availability (not too busy for the work), and someone who is going to accept our reasonable commission rates.”
“I also think the people who run party committees and superPACs have relationships with various consultants who they are comfortable with,” the source explained. “That’s not to say we don’t hire new people from time to time, but often you go back to the people you’ve worked with and have confidence in.”
Arsement, or other local consultants, don’t have to become national players in order to get in on some of the business. Some consultants carve out a specific geographic niche and make a fine living.
But Democratic candidates tend to assemble their campaigns differently than Republicans by eschewing the general consultant position and having the media consultant play an oversized role as the chief strategist. That can make it more difficult to crack the circle of trust.