Finkelstein’s Protégés Are His Best Revenge

Posted July 30, 2003 at 6:33pm

Derided by many in the political establishment as an odd and increasingly ineffective strategist, Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein is gaining a measure of revenge against his critics.

Even as Finkelstein plays a less and less prominent role in campaigns, his acolytes have established themselves as some of the nation’s leading political practitioners.

“Arthur has always been the anti-establishment consultant,” said media consultant Rick Reed, who worked under Finkelstein in the early 1980s. “He’s not one to spend a lot of time trying to curry favor with the party hierarchy, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Aside from Reed, who is a partner in Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, John and Jim McLaughlin of McLaughlin and Associates, Tony Fabrizio of Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, Kieran Mahoney, and Alex Castellanos of National Media are also part of the new generation of Finkelstein-trained consultants.

All told, these individuals have helped elect — or re-elect — 11 Senators since 1998, a roster that includes Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) as well as current National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.). They have all done work for the House and Senate campaign committees; John McLaughlin is the de facto in-house pollster of the NRSC.

Jon Lerner, a Finkelstein protege and relatively recent entrant into the political consulting world, found success in the past cycle with the election of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. Lerner also does work for the Club for Growth.

“Everybody that has gone through his shop has come out the other end and been a player,” said Mahoney. “The common denominator is that Arthur is a great teacher.”

A number of others involved in Washington’s political industry, including Recording Industry Association of America Chairman Mitch Bainwol, DCI Group’s Jim Murphy and controversial on-again, off-again consultant Roger Stone, have strong connections to Finkelstein as well.

And, to a man, Finkelstein’s protégés speak highly of the consultant after whom many of them have modeled their careers.

“Arthur Finkelstein is the Roger Clemens of political consulting,” Lerner said. “When he retires everyone knows he’s going to the Hall of Fame, but before he retires he still has a lot of good games left in him.”

“I wouldn’t be doing what it is I do if it wasn’t for him,” Fabrizio said.

Neil Newhouse, a partner in the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies and a sometime rival to Finkelstein, noted that Finkelstein himself has largely disappeared from the arena of campaign politics over the past decade, but many of his former associates have picked up his mantle.

“The first 15 years his mark on politics was the people he elected and the style of campaigns,” Newhouse said. “The second 15 has been about his disciples.”

Finkelstein has long been an enigmatic personality in the consulting world, the most unknowable figure in an industry populated with quirky individuals.

He shuns nearly all media inquiries, is known for his distaste for neckties, frequently discards his shoes during business meetings and works diligently not to be photographed. He did not return multiple calls for comment on this story.

As a result of his personal style and slash-and-burn approach to campaigns, Finkelstein has never been a darling of the political class in Washington and has as many detractors among his colleagues as he has advocates.

Finkelstein briefly assumed a prominent role in the National Republican Senatorial Committee when then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.), a longtime associate of the pollster, headed the committee during the 1996 election cycle. Finkelstein handled the consulting for six of the competitive races that cycle.

D’Amato said Finkelstein was “way ahead of his time,” adding: “It is unfortunate that his talents are not called upon more.”

The presence of Finkelstein-trained consultants, however, ensures that his philosophy, centered on the compartmentalization of GOP voting groups, will continue to influence the way campaigns are run.

“He has taken the most dispassionate, comprehensive analysis of how the American electorate works and why of anyone I know,” Mahoney said.

D’Amato noted that while most professional political pollsters can produce an accurate set of numbers, Finkelstein distinguishes himself with his “capacity to pick up on the subtleties and nuances.”

Many of Finkelstein’s opponents respond that he has relied too heavily on his trademark “too liberal” tag line regardless of the circumstances in a campaign.

“The guy looks at elections as though it’s still the 1980s, and his strategy is always the same,” said one GOP political consultant. “Democrats know exactly what’s coming, so it’s easy for them to handle it.”

On more tangible ground, Finkelstein’s approach to campaigns has focused on identifying and turning out the most conservative voters and an aggressive — even brash — approach to the back and forth of a campaign.

“On a practical level, he taught a lot of people about ‘wing’ candidacies and how the conservative activists on the Republican side were the ones who controlled the nominating process,” Reed said.

Finkelstein has helped steer a number of prominent Senate conservatives through tough races, including Sen. Don Nickles’ (R-Okla.) first victory in 1980 and his 1986 re-election, then-Sen. Jesse Helms’ (R-N.C.) 1984 race against then-Gov. Jim Hunt (D), and former Sen. Bob Smith’s (N.H.) 1990 and 1996 races.

Finkelstein is perhaps best known for his work on behalf of D’Amato starting with his 1980 primary defeat of liberal Sen. Jacob Javits (R) and ending in his 1998 loss to now-Sen. Charles Schumer (D).

When asked about Finkelstein, Schumer said the two had never met, although “he has made a lot of films about me.” As to the harshly negative nature of the campaign that saw the two men spend better than $40 million, Schumer said: “[Finkelstein] has the reputation of being hard hitting, but we hit pretty hard in that campaign too.”

Although D’Amato does not blame Finkelstein for his 1998 defeat, that race, coupled with the losses of Sens. Lauch Faircloth (although Finkelstein joined the North Carolina race in the closing frames after the incumbent had fallen behind Democrat John Edwards) and the subsequent defeats of Bill Roth (Del.) and then-Rep. Bill McCollum in a Florida open Senate seat race have diminished his standing among the political class.

Even some of those who consider themselves Finkelstein’s allies, however, admit that he has undergone a diminution of his standing in Washington as a result of the string of defeats and the retirements or deaths of several former allies.

The departures of Helms, Thurmond, Faircloth and Smith, as well as former Sens. Connie Mack (Fla.) and Larry Pressler (S.D.), have limited the number of Members with direct connections and affection for Finkelstein’s work, several GOP sources said.

In the previous cycle, Finkelstein had only two stateside clients — Pataki and Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Both won their races.

Finkelstein also worked with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he won a second term in late January; he had previously served as a consultant to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Several of his former associates quickly sought to explain the reasons behind Finkelstein’s shrinking client list.

They noted that as a general consultant in a world filled with specialized practitioners, Finkelstein spends much more time with each candidate than his competitors, which limits the number of candidates he can take on.

“Because of the way he operates, as a one-man gang, he has never been like POS, which has 20 big races in a cycle,” said Lerner.

Another reason for Finkelstein’s smaller client list is the increasing number of consultants, all aiming for the business of the same pool of candidates, argued Mahoney.

“Part of Arthur’s problem is that he has trained a bunch of guys like me who now go out and pitch races against him,” Mahoney said.

“Arthur is at the point in his life where he does the races he wants to do,” added Fabrizio. “You get old enough that you don’t care about running to Utah to meet with a Congressional candidate.”