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The Man Behind Massachusetts’ Republicans

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Eric Fehrnstrom (center) is a senior political adviser to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and he is also working on Sen. Scott Brown’s re-election. Fehrnstrom was in the spotlight last month when he compared Romney’s campaign to an Etch A Sketch.

Fehrnstrom declined to comment for this article, responding to Roll Call only with an email in which he said: “I really do think these elections are about the candidates, not the hired help.” Still, his preferred low profile has been increasingly difficult to maintain.

Fehrnstrom’s work for both the likely Republican presidential nominee and an incumbent Senator in one of the most targeted races of the cycle has caused angst in some GOP circles.

“Mechanically, when you’re running one of the most expensive and highly watched Senate races in the country, when you’re involved in that type of race, it’s tough to do that and a presidential race at the same time,” said a Republican political consultant familiar with Massachusetts politics. “If it ends up being $20 million spent just on the Brown side and let’s say $15 million of that is TV. I mean, you’ve got to make 15 to 20 ads, at least, in a short period of time and you can’t just wave a magic wand to do that.”

But those aware of Fehrnstrom’s work said he’s capable of juggling two big campaigns with sometimes competing messages that are offered by candidates with differing personalities. Romney presents the image of the prototypical Northeastern politician — dry and formal; Brown is the charismatic everyman — likable and easy to relate to.

“[Fehrnstrom is] an extremely talented guy and I have no doubt that he’s going to be able to take care of his responsibilities with the Romney campaign and also work with Scott Brown,” a top Republican strategist said. “If Romney headquarters were in Washington, D.C., it might be more of a challenge, but they’re all in Boston. It’s in his backyard.”

With Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty, Fehrnstrom is part of the Shawmut Group, a public affairs and political consulting group based in Chesnut Hill, Mass. The group helped with a series of political races in November 2010, but with limited success.

Political consulting was a relatively new game for him.

“He wasn’t really seen as a political operative until recently,” said the GOP consultant familiar with Massachusetts. “He was seen more as a flack who did some campaigns, but mostly government stuff.”

But Fehrnstrom is definitely a prominent political operative now.

He was thrust into the maelstrom of the news cycle last month when he told CNN that the Romney campaign would hit a “reset button” and “like an Etch A Sketch” start with a clean slate for the general election. Rival campaigns and the media pounced.

Those who have followed Fehrnstrom’s career saw it as an exceedingly unusual unforced error.

“That was just so uncharacteristic of him to go off script like that,” a Boston Republican consultant said. “If your coat was on fire, Eric wouldn’t tell you, unless it was in his talking points.”

Fehrnstrom’s Etch A Sketch comment didn’t just affect Romney, it leached into the talking points of Brown’s opponent.

At an event in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, the presumptive Democratic Senate nominee, weaved the popular children’s toy into a speech.

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