Just a couple of months after helping direct $65 million in 77 House races across the country, media consultant John Lapp was in Wisconsin pitching a candidate for county executive.
It didn’t seem like much at the time — a fun, off-year race for the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and senior adviser to the DCCC’s independent expenditure last cycle — but it turned into a symbolic victory for Democrats nationally.
On Tuesday, political neophyte Chris Abele (D) defeated state Rep. Jeff Stone (R) in the nominally nonpartisan race for Milwaukee County executive to take over the office vacated by Gov. Scott Walker (R).
“We always thought it would be a referendum on Walker and change, but certainly the scope of the race increased exponentially as the Walker showdown drew national attention,” Lapp said Wednesday. The Abele campaign spent approximately $700,000 on television and radio ads.
National media consultants get involved in off-year races for various reasons, but it’s rarely for the money or the fame.
About an hour south of Milwaukee in Illinois, City Councilwoman Nancy Rotering was elected mayor of Highland Park, population 35,000, on Tuesday by 347 votes.
Her media consultant is Eric Adelstein and his Chicago-based firm Adelstein Liston did television ads for the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of Teachers for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. It also has worked on dozens of races for the DCCC, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List, along with work for Democratic Reps. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Bobby Rush (Ill.), and Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), but took on the Rotering race because she was “a friend of a friend.”
“There’s not the same financial stress in the off-year. It’s much more of a break-even operation,” explained Adelstein. “The goal for us is to do well enough, revenue-wise, in the election year to reduce some of the financial stress in the off-year.”
“Anything you get in the off-year is just gravy,” added one GOP media consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid demeaning his 2011 clients.
Adelstein also worked on the mayoral race in Springfield, Ill., after aides to Sen. Dick Durbin (D) asked his firm to help out Sheila Stocks-Smith, the former director of the city’s Office of Education Liaison. She lost Tuesday’s runoff to former Mayor Mike Houston.
It’s often a personal or professional connection that draws consultants to these races. Consultants specialize in a specific region or state, or they’ve worked well with a campaign manager in one race and then get asked to do another when that aide moves to another candidate.
This year, Lapp is working with businessman Adam Edelen (D) in the race for state auditor in Kentucky. A decade ago, Lapp was chief of staff for then-Rep. Ken Lucas (D-Ky.). Now, Ralston Lapp Media works for Kentucky Rep. Ben Chandler (D).
Former DCCC Executive Director Jon Vogel lived in Evansville, Ind., for a year, a key reason his new firm Murphy Vogel Askew Reilly is helping elect Troy Tornatta mayor of the city, even though the company usually works on a much larger stage with clients including governors, Senators and Obama’s presidential campaign.
“Mayors races can be more fun. They’re most tangible to people,” Vogel said. “People know their mayor, and political ads aren’t going to fool voters. You are talking about local issues that people are familiar with and impact their everyday life.”
Vogel is also working in New York with Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone in this year’s Suffolk County executive race. Years ago, Vogel was Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) deputy chief of staff, so there is a geographic connection, but there was also symbolic potential by challenging incumbent Steve Levy. Levy was elected as a Democrat but switched parties to run for governor in 2010. He abruptly dropped out of the county executive race at the end of March to end a federal investigation into his fundraising activities.
Some firms try to carve out a geographic niche, leading them to races further down the ballot.
Seattle-based Democratic media firm Kully Hall has worked with Democrats including Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.), former Rep. Walt Minnick (Idaho), former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.).
Founding partner Brandon Hall managed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election last year in Nevada, but on Tuesday, the firm was focused on getting Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani into the runoff for Las Vegas mayor. She did, by 15 votes.
She’ll have a tough fight against Carolyn Goodman, wife of current mayor Oscar Goodman, in the June race. But Hall will have an even bigger battle next year when Tester faces Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) in one of the country’s biggest Senate races that could decide the Senate majority.
Even though off-year races don’t have the same impact inside the Beltway, these media consultants are not the party strategists who appear on cable news, but practitioners looking to hone their craft and their message for next year’s critical elections.
“There is an opportunity for Democrats to put a spotlight on Republican over-reach and energize the Democratic base,” Lapp said. “In 2012, drawing strong contrasts on the choices and consequences of a Republican agenda will be critical.”
For some media consultants, off-year races just don’t add up.
“We would love to do more off year work,” said one national GOP media consultant. “But signing it is sometimes more trouble than it is worth.” In some cases, larger, D.C.-based firms are pitted against smaller, local firms when pitching candidates in the off-year.
According to the GOP source, “For the most part it isn’t worth chasing five House of Delegates races to do some small cable buys.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.