Awhile back, the NYT's Jonathan Martin wrote a story about the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC's) decision not to contract with Republican direct mail/ad firm Jamestown Associates for future work, in view of the firm's existing relationship with the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF)-- the group that has had a habit of supporting strongly conservative candidates branding themselves as anti-establishment in important Senate races. The piece generated a lot of chatter among conservative campaign folks and commentator types, so it's little surprise that the news that other committees may also be dumping Jamestown is doing the same. Generally, this type of maneuver is being described as "blacklisting," and there's a lot of argumentation back and forth about whether it's fair, whether it's right, etc., etc.
I keep getting asked about this, as a consultant who has worked for both deeply conservative and "anti-establishment" candidates as well as rather moderate, rather establishment candidates, so I figured I might as well take a few minutes and put pen to paper here and share some thoughts.
My first thought is this, which seems not to be being seized on much by a lot of the folks writing on this topic: Although in the case of the NRSC, we know that the committee expressed explicit discomfort with working with SCF on the basis of the fact that SCF often appears to be "against the NRSC" on spec, there's another really good reason why if I were running a committee, I'd be concerned about contracting folks who were simultaneously working for outside groups, superPACs, etc., etc.: Legalities and firewall problems.
In the 2012 cycle, there was far more minimal media scrutiny of weak or frankly could-not-exist-in-reality firewalls separating off work being conducted by a number of firms from work the same firms were conducting for people with whom one of their clients were legally barred from coordinating. There was at least one piece written about the lengths being taken in certain Democratic circles to ensure that no accusation of coordination could ever be raised-- friends who went months without speaking to each other, because one worked for such-and-such group and the other worked for a campaign committee, etc. The Republican side, I believe, has been a little less diligent when it comes to this and given the rigorous regulatory focus that some people believe has been brought to bear far more harshly where right-of-center politics, policy and advocacy are concerned, and given that we are talking about *paid media* in the case of Jamestown, it seems to me that if they are committed to doing work for SCF, no matter how robust a firewall they may have in place, there could be legitimate concern about them handling work for committees-- independent expenditure arms or not-- as such. And if no concern about coordination exists, there is of course a legitimate concern about conflicts if work done for the SCF entails attacking the NRSC in paid media, or vice versa.
It may be that Jamestown has extremely robust firewall procedures in place (I know people at the firm but haven't asked), but the odds are that a) they are less rigorous than, say, what you'd find at a law firm employing thousands of people and b) even if they are, that doesn't eliminate the underlying conflict concern-- and if it doesn't, it's not surprising that one client might take a pass on continuing an arrangement where mixed loyalties are on offer, together with the possibility of leakage. The bottom line is, there is the potential for some professional ethics concerns to arise here and political consulting firms rarely being massive, hundreds-employing entities, they are rather tougher to satisfactorily manage than they are in, say, law firms, accounting firms, large ad agencies, and so on. That's not a knock on Jamestown; that's a reality of the business that we're both (generally) in. We all have to deal with it. It sucks when you lose a client or a prospective client as a result of it, but it's happened to all of us. This is part of the game.
What is arguably not part of the game is winding up with a former client apparently being willing to complain to the press about the work you continue doing when that client has made a decision to walk away. Typically, complaining about someone with whom one was in (or had the possibility of being in) a professional relationship with is reserved to the aggrieved consultant, as opposed to the person cutting the checks. But in this case, it seems clear that some "establishment" types have been willing to vent a little in the press. That, plus the fact that it is looking like pretty much all "establishment" types have either taken this same decision not to use Jamestown and/or advise others not to use them-- and more importantly, the fact that this is being aired in the press-- is what I think strikes people as less usual or explicable.
But is it as big a deal or as big a problem as people pretend?
Maybe I'm being callous, and it's possible this comment and this post will come back and bite me in the ass one day, but I tend to think not.
The reality is, this stuff (blacklistings, decisions not to hire X consultant because of their affiliation with X-- opposed to their quality of work) happens all the time. It's happened to me with both types of candidate. I've been aware of extremely conservative candidates I've pitched being warned against hiring me because I worked for the RNC in 2008 and am a total RINO/am an untrustworthy Paultard (interesting how those two accusations can be peddled simultaneously, with the same intention) and I've had to answer questions about both and attempt to allay concerns about both before getting anywhere close to being able to take on a candidate (and as much as I'd like to say I've been consistently able to allay such concerns, the reality is, I have not, and it's cost me business and clients). I've also had at least one more establishment figure's personnel freak out over my having worked for more conservative figures (in addition to, again, being "too much of a Paultard"-- I love how that one cuts both ways!).
Is this fair or right?
Possibly not. I'd like to think everyone gets judged, hired and fired on the basis only of the quality of their work (which in our firm's case is exceedingly high).
But it is the reality. How many political consultants can you think of who obviously suck at their jobs, but keep getting hired for all the biggest/highest-remunerated/most high-profile roles, likely because of who they know, who their friends are, and quasi-nepotistic concerns? I'm not one for making public enemies, on the whole, so I won't name names here, but suffice to say, I see this all day long, every day, and to my mind, it's something that ought to be of far greater concern than blacklisting of a firm over the work they do for an organization that a) they can't risk the appearance of coordination with and b) they would never want their stuff leaked to, even inadvertently, even if purely by accident. The latter is a risk judgment call. The former is a pattern that is pervasive on both sides of the aisle, and which in the GOP case, unfortunately (I believe) often puts my party in a position where the best candidates (moderate or conservative, establishment or not) are not going to battle with anything close to their best troops or best weaponry. And then we lose when we should not.
The bottom line here? If you're a GOP candidate or organization and you're looking for a direct mail and/or ad firm, my guess is you're going to hear the name Jamestown a lot. If you have concerns about coordination or leakage based on their existing client list, then I think there's a valid reason to a) raise the issue and b) if the concern is not allayed, shop around some more. But please, don't hire any of us-- including myself and Jamestown-- just because some person we're buddy-buddy with and you're buddy-buddy with told you you should, and without having regard to the quality of our work.
The fact that the latter thing even has to be said is an indicator of the true controversy with regard to political consulting and contracting within the GOP: It's not the blacklisting, it's the quasi-nepotism. [intro]