Wadhams Weighs Future

Republican Operative Called ‘Killer Cherub’

Posted September 9, 2003 at 6:09pm

Dick Wadhams has been called many names during his political career, from “campaign pit bull” to “Killer Cherub.”

But what he is most often called at the end of his campaigns is winner. He sports a record that has made him the most sought-after Republican campaign manager in the country over the past several cycles.

“You can’t argue with wins,” said Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), whom Wadhams has helped guide to victories in 1996 and 2002.

All told, Wadhams has played a critical role in seven statewide victories over the past 15 years — six of which have come in his home state of Colorado.

Small wonder that two of the top Republican Senate challengers in the 2004 cycle are bidding for his services.

With his typical “aw shucks” demeanor, Wadhams describes his successes as a byproduct of his unwavering commitment to his candidates.

“I’m always doing everything, every day to promote the candidates I work for,” Wadhams said.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who was re-elected in a tight 2000 race with Wadhams’ help, echoed that sentiment.

“Whatever skills he has, you get it all,” said the Montana Senator. “His mind never wavers off of your campaign.”

Wadhams is hoping to add another notch to his belt in 2004 as he ponders offers to manage the Senate campaign of Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) or the likely Senate bid of former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), according to several Republican sources.

If Wadhams chooses the South Dakota race, he will square off against Daschle campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, who is regarded by Senate Democrats as the top manager on their side.

Although Wadhams claims he is unofficially undecided, knowledgeable Republicans indicate that he is all but signed on to Nethercutt’s race against two-term Sen. Patty Murray (D).

“We believe Dick would be a very good fit for Washington state,” said a National Republican Senatorial Committee official, who requested anonymity.

The market for Wadhams’ talents reflects his success over the past decade in some of the most high-profile — and closely fought — Senate contests in the country.

Wadhams began his career working on the 1978 Senate campaign of then-Rep. Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.). From 1980 to 1989 he worked in Armstrong’s Senate office, taking time out to handle press on his 1984 re-election race.

In 1990, Wadhams managed the successful Senate campaign of then-Rep. Hank Brown (R), who won the contest to replace Armstrong. Two years later he filled the same role on the Senate campaign of former state Sen. Terry Considine (R). Considine lost that race to then-Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was then a Democrat.

Wadhams bounced back in 1996, leading Allard, a three-term House Member and veterinarian, to a shocking primary victory over state Attorney General Gale Norton and then to a general election win over lawyer Tom Strickland (D); Wadhams anchored Allard’s 2002 rematch against Strickland with a similar result.

Sandwiched in between those two races, Wadhams led little-known Colorado state Treasurer Bill Owens (R) to the governorship in 1998; two years later he moved his base of operations to Montana, helping Burns pull out a narrow victory over rancher Brian Schweitzer (D).

In discussions with Republicans who have worked with Wadhams and Democrats who have worked against him, a portrait emerges of a sharp-elbowed and masterfully effective tactician not afraid to draw attention — both positive and negative — to himself during the course of a campaign.

“He is the master of distraction,” said Democratic operative Mike Stratton, who managed Strickland’s 2002 campaign and is a longtime political rival of Wadhams’. “He takes the focus off of his candidate and engages the other candidate directly through some very insidious techniques.”

One Democrat who has worked against Wadhams in the past pointed to an incident during the 2000 campaign that typified Wadhams’ approach.

Following a debate in which by most accounts Schweitzer dominated Burns, Wadhams called the rancher a “smart-ass thug” — a charge that dominated the next day’s news coverage, leaving Burns’ debate performance largely unaddressed.

Wadhams dismisses the idea that he purposely takes attention from his candidate, noting that he firmly believes in participating in as many debates as possible to give his charge a chance to prove himself to voters.

“If you are afraid to have your candidate debate, the candidate shouldn’t be in the race,” Wadhams said.

He describes his tactics as nothing more than the regular give and take of a statewide race.

“My role as campaign manager is to make sure the campaign is aggressively responding to and counterattacking the charges that are coming our way,” he said. “[Democrats] don’t like people who hit back.”

Although Wadhams has never actually come to blows with representatives of a rival campaign, he has come close.

In the 1996 Allard-Strickland campaign, he was involved in a heated exchange with a Strickland staffer, who suggested Wadhams “try some decaf.”

“That’s real cute,” Wadhams retorted. “Get out of my face.” Wadhams later referred to another Strickland aide as a “goon.”

That incident aside, Wadhams prefers to engage in battles of words, not fists.

In the Allard-Strickland rematch last year, Wadhams labeled Strickland a “millionaire lawyer-lobbyist” so incessantly in the press that one local columnist wondered whether that moniker appeared on the Democrat’s birth certificate.

“His greatest strength is on the communications side,” said Stratton. “He works the press as well any operative.”

Allard said that Wadhams’ style with the media is so successful because he deals with them in a “forthright manner.”

Democrats vehemently disagree with that characterization, arguing that Wadhams often bends — and even breaks — the truth in order to score rhetorical points.

“Wadhams will do or say absolutely anything to accomplish his goal,” said one Democrat, who requested anonymity.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Wadhams is unlikely to disappear from the political scene in the near future and may even take on a more prominent role in 2008.

After shepherding either Nethercutt or Thune through the 2004 election, Wadhams is likely to emerge as the lead strategist for an oft-discussed presidential bid by Owens.

“Governor Owens is definitely presidential timber for the future,” Wadhams said.

As for his own role in a possible Owens’ presidential bid, Wadhams is more coy.

“It’s not something I have given a lot of thought to,” he said. “I would never say never if the right thing came along.”