News & Politics

EXCERPT: Crashing the Gate

It's hard for Democratic candidates to sound like real people when Washington's consultant class holds the purse strings and the power.
Following is an excerpt from "Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics" by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Chelsea Green, 2006).

"I don't get it. When a consultant on the Republican side loses, we take them out and shoot them. You guys -- keep hiring them." --Nationally prominent Republican official

It was 1998 and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin was locked in a battle for his political life. Elected to the U.S. Senate six years earlier, Feingold was being nationally targeted by the Republican Party, notably for pushing campaign finance reform. His Republican opponent, Rep. Mark Neumann, was flush with cash, and the race was going down to the wire.

But Feingold had more than his Republican foes to worry about. The Democratic Party establishment was making his life difficult as well. Apparently Feingold wasn't running his campaign according to the script, and the party was determined to save the senator from himself. And as is the case with most political problems, money was involved. Feingold's crime, as the Democratic establishment saw it, was his refusal to accept political action committee (PAC) contributions or "soft money" expenditures by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

"[DSCC chair] Sen. Bob Kerrey came up to me on the Senate floor and says, 'You don't want soft money?'" Feingold recounted when we met him in Washington, D.C., in June 2005. "I said, 'No. I would rather lose than use unlimited contributions.' He said, 'Are you winking at me?'"

In a town full of winks and nods, Kerrey's question was understandable. But Feingold was dead serious. His position was one of extreme political courage, perhaps bordering on folly. Feingold's opponent had $11 million to work with, far outspending Feingold, who had vowed not to spend more than $1 per eligible voter -- about $4 million in all. But whether Feingold wanted it or not, the DSCC was determined to help him. "In the last couple of weeks, the DSCC decided to run these vicious attack ads on my opponent," Feingold said. "Of course, who is going to believe that I wasn't part of this effort? So I was finishing a debate in Green Bay, and I called up Kerrey and I called up everybody, and I said, 'These have got to stop!' because it undercut my credibility completely." Feingold eventually went to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle who then went to Kerrey and had the ads pulled. But the D.C. Democrats were not happy with Feingold.

"They were furious with me," Feingold said. "They said I was throwing away the seat because it wasn't my seat -- which of course is true. But it wasn't their seat either. It's the seat of the people of Wisconsin." The party thought it had better political instincts than Feingold, who had taken the seat in an improbable victory in 1992. They thought they knew Wisconsin better than Feingold, who had lived there his entire life. They thought they could impose their will on him, as is often the case with inexperienced candidates or those depending on the party for financial assistance. But Feingold was neither inexperienced nor dependent on the party for large amounts of money, and yet the heavy hand of the Democratic establishment in D.C. was bearing down on him.

Eventually, Feingold retained his seat, beating Neumann 50.8 percent to 48.7 percent. Since then, the maverick senator has voted against the Iraq war, was the lone vote against the Patriot Act, and his landmark campaign finance legislation (the McCain-Feingold bill) became law in 2002. Despite votes like that -- or perhaps because of them -- Feingold cruised to a comfortable 55 to 44 victory over Republican Tim Michels in 2004.

The bull-in-a-china-shop approach of the Democratic establishment is felt with some regularity by Democratic candidates across the country. It happened in Oklahoma, where Feingold's media consultant, Milwaukee-based Steve Eichenbaum, pitched a potential job to U.S. representative Brad Carson. A two-term congressman looking for a promotion to the Senate, Carson saw the open seat as the best possible chance in a state extremely hostile to Democrats in federal races (Bush beat Al Gore 60 to 38 in 2000 and Republican Sen. Don Nickles beat his Democratic opponent, Don Carroll, 66 to 31 in 1998). Any Democrat running for statewide office in Oklahoma is a serious underdog, and a "business as usual" campaign wasn't going to win Carson the seat. Despite being one of the top-tier races for the Senate in 2004, the campaign was one of the last to hire any media firms, seeking an outside-the-box mix of consultants.

The longer Carson waited on hiring a media firm, the more nervous and pushy the DSCC became and the more they upped the pressure. At one point, using a standard D.C. ploy, party operatives tattled to Chuck Todd, a political reporter at the beltway insider publication The Hotline, that Carson wasn't being a good trooper. "Insiders are extremely worried that Brad Carson is taking too active a role in his own campaign, refusing to hire talented outsiders," Todd reported. While the DSCC wanted Carson to hire inside-the-beltway consultants, Carson was keen on using Eichenbaum, a corporate advertising executive who first created waves by helping Feingold win his dramatic 1992 upset victory using innovative, funny and clever ads, and again helping Feingold win reelection in 1998.

Just as Carson was about to bring Eichenbaum on board, the DSCC weighed in saying, "If that is what you're thinking, we need to talk," Carson told us when we caught up with him in Tulsa, Okla., in May 2005. Like any nonincumbent, Carson was dependent on the DSCC for millions of dollars and in no position to reject their advice. Carson ended up hiring the uber-connected D.C. consulting firm of Murphy Putnam Media. (Steve Murphy ran Dick Gephardt's 2004 presidential campaign, among others.)

Things didn't go too smoothly. While he got along with Murphy, dealing with all the consultants from D.C. was an eye-opening experience for Carson. "That's the thing you'll learn about any consultant at the top level. They're above you in the food chain," said Carson. "You have to negotiate about what you do in your commercials. They call up the DSCC and complain if you're not doing the 'right thing.' They're a source of intelligence to people back in D.C. And these guys are all powerful people, prominent people. They aren't even working for you. It's an amazing thing in a lot of ways, really amazing." Carson lost the election 53 to 41 to Tom Coburn.

After his initial contact with Carson, Eichenbaum never heard back from the campaign and figured they just didn't see him as a good fit. When we went to Wisconsin and talked with him, he was rightly disturbed upon finding out that Carson was pressured to pick the other firm. "To find out that it was actually the party that told them that they couldn't use us after we ran a successful campaign for Feingold the last three times is really upsetting," Eichenbaum said. It wasn't the first run-in with the establishment for Eichenbaum, who was a key component of Feingold's "Miracle Campaign" in 1992. Feingold "ran against Democratic people that were pretty well entrenched in the party and the primary," recalls Eichenbaum. "One of them spent $3.1 million; the other one spent $4 million. We spent $220,000 and we got 70 percent of the vote. And those two other guys were so badly embarrassed and angry at us that the state Democratic Party people just locked us out."

You would think that scoring such an incredible upset would've been a rocket trip to the stars for the campaign consultants. But not for Eichenbaum. He serves mostly corporate clients and continues to do local political work and did Feingold's subsequent campaigns in 1998 and 2004, but any efforts to hire him got blocked by the Democratic establishment in D.C. Eichenbaum is not part of the D.C. consultant cocktail-party circuit. He's not one of them.
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