Casey Phillips was listed at 6 feet 4 inches tall, 264 pounds, on the University of Wyoming football roster a dozen years ago, so it wasn’t difficult to spot him last week as he strolled through the revolving door of a restaurant in Arlington, Va.
The former offensive lineman, who just turned 32, is the owner of RedPrint Strategy media firm and is among the vanguard of young Republican strategists looking to steer the GOP on a path of electoral success in the 21st century. In his first cycle as a media consultant, Phillips earned a coveted spot in the stable of consultants for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure arm and produced ads in top races in California and Nevada.
In 2011, rather than join an established firm after spending the previous two cycles as a regional political director at the Republican State Leadership Committee and as an NRCC field representative, Phillips veered onto the road less traveled and struck out on his own.
“I had some good offers at some very good firms to be a junior partner, but I sort of wanted to do it a little differently,” Phillips said. “That’s the decision I made — to really do it my own way.”
Phillips is conservative, but not particularly ideological. He’s competitive, yet easygoing. He’s relatively new to the ad-making game, but he dived headfirst into the 2012 cycle and is now aiming to expand his congressional clientele for the 2014 midterms.
Sporting a red flannel shirt, dark jeans and brown cowboy boots, Phillips spoke softly between sips of iced tea as he ran through his bio. His roots are unique, even in a town filled with folks from everywhere else.
Phillips grew up on a South Dakota cattle ranch that’s been in his family for more than 100 years. He attended a one-room schoolhouse, sometimes commuting on horseback, until his parents decided he needed to attend a high school in town to fully realize his athletic ability. They bought a small house 50 miles away in Sturgis, where he lived during the school week.
After two years as a walk-on at Wyoming, Phillips transferred back in-state to Augustana College in Sioux Falls on a scholarship, started at center and served as team captain. Phillips, then with locks falling below his shoulders, also played bass guitar in a rock band.
After attending a meeting one day with the College Republicans, Phillips volunteered on former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby’s gubernatorial campaign, and later that year he scored a gig as a South Dakota Victory field representative, assisting then-Rep. John Thune’s first Senate campaign.
“That’s where the bug really bit me that made me want to get into politics,” Phillips said. “I met so many great people on that campaign and understood how a campaign worked and that it was a way for me to have my competitive outlet continue even after sports was over.”
In the Trenches
The bug delayed his graduation date by a couple of years, as Phillips took semesters off to work on campaigns. The first was in 2004 as political director on the Texas congressional campaign of Lyle Thorstenson, where he put together his first get-out-the-vote operation.
After the unsuccessful primary, media consultant Sonny Scott recommended Phillips move to southwest Virginia to serve the same role in Kevin Triplett’s congressional campaign for the general. Afterward, the NRCC asked him to help with now-Rep. Charles Boustany Jr.’s runoff in Louisiana.
Phillips finished his degree in spring 2005 before GOP operative Ward Baker asked him to run Anne B. Crockett-Stark’s campaign for Virginia delegate — his first race as campaign manager. On a shoestring budget, Phillips lived in an abandoned gas station, and the campaign was run out of a condemned house, where he laid down a linoleum floor and painted the walls.
The Red Jeep
As Phillips crisscrossed the country for campaigns, followed by field work for the NRCC and RSLC, the one constant was his 1999 red Jeep Grand Cherokee. After a dozen campaigns and nearly 200,000 miles, the SUV has been through a lot — it’s on its second engine, transmission and driver-side bucket seat, and the ceiling is completely covered in campaign stickers.
As he regularly does, Phillips had to jump-start the Jeep last week when he took CQ Roll Call on a quick spin. The engine’s screeching moan leaves the impression it might be suffering through its final days, but after his rookie season as a media consultant, Phillips is just getting started.
“I wasn’t going to be able to pitch against [GOP consultant heavyweights] Mike McElwain and Scott Howell and Fred Davis for congressional clients, but I could sure go to Mississippi and pitch against whoever was doing stuff down there for state Senate clients,” Phillips said.
RedPrint’s first ad ever, in 2011, was for a Mississippi agriculture commissioner candidate. It earned the firm a Pollie Award, which led to work for the NRCC and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., Phillips’ home-state congresswoman.
The Jeep made a cameo in an NRCC ad against Rep.-elect Steven Horsford, D-Nev. An actor playing Horsford crashed a car into the Jeep and then drove off, part of an ad campaign arguing that Horsford played by his own rules.
Another NRCC ad Phillips produced against a few California Democrats riffed on John Hancock ads that featured no talking — just people texting or chatting online to convey the message. The format allowed Phillips to shoot the ad before the Supreme Court ruled on the health care law in June, then slide in the text based on whatever happened. The court upheld the law on a Thursday, Phillips finished the ads in a few hours, and the NRCC launched the inexpensive campaign the following Monday.
“In a world that’s filled with consultants and vendors, he’s found a way to stick out amongst the crowd very quickly,” said Brian O. Walsh, president of the American Action Network and a friend of Phillips. “He’s part of this universe of the next generation of folks that are stepping into the marketplace.”
Phillips has no formal filmmaking training, so he read textbooks and attended film expos and even the Sundance Film Festival. He bought a high-powered RED Scarlet camera, and he’s currently working on a screenplay as an exercise to improve the dialogue in his ad scripts.
“I’m not some sort of genius by any stretch of the imagination,” Phillips said. “I’m a country boy from South Dakota. I think that I understand politics a little bit and I’ve certainly paid my dues in the trenches, but these ads are huge team efforts, and a lot of people are involved.”
Phillips relied on strategic partnerships, including with 8112 Studios, which is known for music videos, not political work. The partnership fit into Phillips’ effort to stand out. In that vein, he’s also hoping to help the GOP reach the next generation of voters, which Phillips believes is fundamental to its problem attracting minority voters.
“We have a marketing problem, which is something that I want to try to fix and I’m excited about,” Phillips said. “Because politics of division just don’t work anymore. And it’s too bad that they ever did.”
When he wasn’t on the road, Phillips worked out of a bedroom in his Arlington, Va., apartment. The lack of overhead helped the fledgling firm stay “light and nimble,” he said, but he’s looking to open an office and get some of the “bells and whistles” of a traditional media firm.
“This year,” Phillips said, “I’m going to certainly be more confident going into pitches against those established media firms, because I have a reel that’s sellable even against the best. I didn’t have that two years ago.”
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.