The decision last week by media guru Bob Shrum to sign onto the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) sent ripples through a Democratic consulting world that has already withstood significant shake-ups since the 2002 elections. Already five Democratic consulting firms have either dissolved or seen a partner leave — changes that come amid the scramble by the ever-growing presidential field to secure premier political consulting talent.
The realignment involves such media consulting powerhouses as Struble Oppel Eichenbaum Communications, where Tom Oppel has departed to start his own firm, and Fenn & King Communications, where Peter Fenn and Tom King have decided to part ways after 15 years of cutting spots together.
Without a doubt, however, Shrum’s choice to throw in his lot with Kerry is the largest shoe to drop in the race for professional political talent among the nine candidates currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Kerry had already been using Jim Margolis of GMMB as a media consultant.
“We are fortunate to have what we consider the two best media firms in politics,” said Kerry spokesman Robert Gibbs. “Jim Margolis of GMMB with Bob Shrum, Tad Devine and Tom Donilon are a great team that we are lucky to have on our side in this election.”
Shrum was a top adviser in the 2000 presidential campaign of then-Vice President Al Gore and is generally regarded as the most talented speechwriter in Democratic politics. He came to prominence while writing speeches for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and penned the final four State of the Union addresses for then-President Bill Clinton.
Shrum had previously worked for Kerry —most notably in his 1996 Senate race against then-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld (R) — and another presidential contender, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), when the high-profile trial lawyer unseated Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) in 1998.
The impact of Shrum on the Kerry campaign remains an open question, according to several consultants not currently working with any presidential campaign. Oppel said that Shrum “may make a difference at the margin” but is not likely to be the deciding factor in the nomination fight.
“It is not the sole determinant of victory but it is critical,” said another consultant when asked about the value of a top-tier consulting team to a winning candidate.
“Does George Bush win the presidency without Karl Rove? I like his chances a lot better with him than without him,” the consultant added.
With Kerry already carrying a top-flight team of consultants, one operative compared Shrum to high school basketball phenom LeBron James.
“It’s like adding LeBron James to the [Los Angeles] Lakers,” the consultant said. “It could be good, but it could be disruptive.”
“There is no doubt LeBron James is talented, but how does he fit into the mix of the team?” the consultant asked.
On the survey research front, the Kerry campaign is working to arrange a collaborative effort between Mark Mellman and Tom Kiley, a Boston-based pollster who has worked on Kerry’s previous campaigns, a source familiar with the process said Friday.
Shrum’s departure leaves Edwards without the only media consultant he has ever worked with in his abbreviated political career. Last fall Shrum produced $1 million worth of ads that ran in North Carolina (and parts of South Carolina) encouraging voter participation.
Edwards’ campaign was struck by a blow Friday when senior adviser Steve Jarding, who had run Edwards’ New American Optimists leadership political action committee, announced his resignation. Jarding’s departure had been expected for months and came as little surprise to the Edwards inner circle.
The Edwards campaign refused to speculate on the search for the person or persons that will handle their ad-making.
“The Senator is pleased with the team we have out together,” said Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri. “Over the next several months we will be looking to add more staff to our campaign including media consultants.”This stance did little to staunch speculation, however.
Among the firms mentioned: Axelrod and Associates, Doak Carrier O’Donnell and Associates, and Dixon-Davis Media Group.
Harrison Hickman, who himself lost partner Kirk Brown after the 2002 election, is Edwards’ pollster. Brown is now policy director for new Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D).
Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) already has a full complement of campaign consultants on board, with Ed Reilly (as he did in the Missouri lawmaker’s 1988 presidential bid) handling the polling; Bill Carrick of Morris Carrick & Guma and Murphy Putnam Media will make the ads. Steve Murphy, one of the founding partners of the firm, is Gephardt’s national campaign manager.
Both former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) are still in the process of finalizing their teams.
Lieberman will use Penn Schoen & Berland Associates Inc. as his pollster but has not yet made a decision on a media consultant. Mark Penn handled the polling for Clinton’s 1996 re-election as well as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) 2000 race.
Dean will employ Trippi McMahon & Squier as his media consultant. While no decision has been made on a pollster, Dean’s campaign manager, Rick Ridder, did polling while a partner in Ridder/Braden, a Denver-based general consulting firm.
None of the other candidates in the race has hired professional consultants, according to their campaigns.
Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.), who filed a presidential exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday, has used Squier Knapp Dunn as his media consultant and Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group as his pollster in past Senate races. Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun employed pollster Celinda Lake and Axelrod in her losing 1998 re-election race against Peter Fitzgerald (R).
Aside from the presidential maneuvering, the most high-profile development in the Democratic consulting world was the decision of long-time partners Peter Fenn and Tom King to go their separate ways.
Their media firm was formed in 1983 by Fenn; King became a partner in 1987 fresh off a stint as political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Both Steve Murphy and Mark Putnam were also under the Fenn & King umbrella in the early 1990s before leaving after the 1996 election to start their own firm.
“We had a really good, long association,” said Fenn, who will retain the firm’s offices and staff. It will be renamed the Fenn Communications Group.
Fenn said that he wants to focus more on association and corporate work and had been gradually taking on fewer campaigns over the past several cycles.
“I have moved from 80 percent campaigns in the old days to about 25 or 30 percent campaigns now,” he said. “I want to work for a handful of candidates that I really like and find challenging.”
King’s future is less clear, although he said Friday he would remain a media consultant.
“What exact form it takes has not been decided,” he said.
King was mentioned as a potential political director at the DCCC for the 2004 cycle before Peter Cari was given the job last week.
Another titan of the media consulting world, Struble Oppel Eichenbaum Communications, is now simply Struble Eichenbaum. Tom Oppel has set up a new firm — All Points Communications — with his wife.
“Karl and I were together for 10 years,” said Oppel. “It was time to try something a little different and a little fresh.”
Oppel noted that he and Struble left on good terms. “Karl Struble is the best in the business,” he said.
Over the past decade, the firm had developed the reputation as the go-to shop for top-tier Senate races, in part because of Struble’s close relationship with Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.).
In the 2002 election the firm handled the media for the successful candidacies of Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Tim Johnson (S.D.); it also cut the ads for losing candidates Sen. Max Cleland (Ga.), Lois Combs Weinberg (Ky.) and Ron Kirk (Texas).
Oppel said his decision to leave the successful partnership hinged on his desire to get involved in more state and nonfederal races. Even so, Oppel expects to retain a majority of the Congressional clients he worked with, including Reps. Baron Hill (Ind.), Mike Michaud (Maine) and James Langevin (R.I.).
Meanwhile, David Heller and Erick Mullen, the two partners of Main Street Communications, another Democratic media firm, also have split. Heller and Mullen were partners in the 2000 and 2002 cycles.
While it isn’t clear why they broke up, both are known as volatile personalities. In a widely reported incident last fall, Mullen almost came to blows with a top aide to New York Gov. George Pataki (R) while he was working for Independent gubernatorial candidate Thomas Golisano.
A Democratic consultant who has served clients with Main Street in the past said that Mullen’s decision to work for Golisano — separate from his work for Main Street — was both a symptom of the partners’ growing estrangement and the final straw in their professional relationship. In an e-mail to associates announcing his decision to start his own firm, Mullen called Heller his “great friend.”
In other Democratic moves, Jim Crounse has left his direct-mail partnership with Hal Malchow to start Crounse.Mail, and Christopher Klose, a partner in the media firm Shorr Johnson Klose, is currently exploring other options. Klose, who was also mentioned for the DCCC political director slot, is still with the firm he joined in 1994 but said he “is looking around to see what other opportunities are out there.”
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.