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Sanders Consultants Carving Out Risky 'Outsider' Niche

Sanders ' top consultants have also signed on to two Senate contenders who are running in primaries against candidates endorsed by national Democrats. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Four of Sen. Bernard Sanders' top consultants are carving out a niche for themselves for 2016 — working for upstart Democratic candidates who rankle the party establishment.  

Tad Devine, Julian Mulvey and Mark Longabaugh — as well as Sanders' pollster, Ben Tulchin, are also working for two Democratic Senate candidates who are not the pick of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Democratic strategists say it's a move that could either pay huge dividends if those candidates were to win, or could burn bridges with party insiders who could shut off the spigot for future business.  

All four are working on the campaigns of former Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp and Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.  

Zopp is challenging DSCC-endorsed Rep. Tammy Duckworth for the Democratic nomination in Illinois for the chance to take on GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk — arguably the most vulnerable Republican senator up in 2016. Sittenfeld is running against DSCC-endorsed former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to take on GOP Sen. Rob Portman in the ultra-competitive Buckeye State.  

"Consultants tend to occupy certain lanes. You're either a consultant that tries to be an establishment-focused member of the club, or you operate outside the establishment and not as a member of the club," said Steve McMahon, CEO of the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies who worked on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "They’ve obviously made their choice this cycle."  

Both Tulchin and Devine say they have made a career working for candidates whom party insiders initially doubted could win.  

I've been doing races like that for a long time for people who the conventional wisdom was they had very little or no chance of winning," said Devine, who was a senior adviser to the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign in 2004. "My experience in working for campaigns like that is they're great campaigns if you can find a way to victory. They're just incredibly exciting and tremendously rewarding to be part of something like that."  

Tulchin, whose polling firm is based in California, added that the dynamics of the cycle have led him to work for more outsider candidates.  

"If you want to do more work and make a name for yourself, you have to work for candidates trying to break through," said Tulchin, who does a lot of work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's partly strategic, and partly the reality of opportunity for Democrats right now."  

Besides embracing the challenge of running outsiders' campaigns, all four also had established relationships with Sittenfeld and those close to Zopp.  

Tulchin and Longabaugh worked on Sittenfeld's 2010 city council race. And both Tulchin and Mulvey do business in Illinois for the Democratic state legislature, which connected them to folks working on Zopp's bid.  

Still, working for candidates such as Zopp and Sittenfeld — whom some national Democratic strategists feel are draining resources from candidates who are the prohibitive favorites at the nomination — could prove problematic for a consultants' career.  

Being in committees' good graces could steer more business to consultants in the case of top candidates, as well as independent expenditure work. The national House and Senate committees on both sides of the aisle spend hundreds of millions in IE ads and polling to help get their candidates elected — a cut of which goes to the consultants who produce them.  

And rankling those committees could shut that line of work off.  

Last cycle, on the GOP side of the aisle, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee blackballed the GOP firm Jamestown Associates for working for the Senate Conservatives Fund — group that backed insurgent Republican candidates who could have thwarted Republicans' chances at winning back the Senate.  

But despite the establishment's attempts to punish Jamestown, it's doing record business this cycle, including partner Jason Miller advising GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign.  

Taking on upstart candidates could also be a boon to business. Democratic strategists pointed to President Barack Obama's consultants from 2008 — such as David Axelrod, Dan Pfeiffer and David Plouffe — who helped Obama defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in a bloody Democratic primary.  

"In any career you have to take risks," said one longtime Democratic strategist. "And if by working for Bernie Sanders and two other upstarts, if you win any of those races this year, not only will you get more business, it's hard to imagine the DSCC doesn’t come back knocking at your door."  

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