Dean Appears to be Holding All the Cards After Drawing Hot Pair

Posted September 10, 2003 at 4:21pm

For all of the attention paid to the so-called Bob Shrum primary, which tracked the high-profile Democratic consultant’s signing on with Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) campaign, the big consultant development so far in the Democratic presidential contest has been former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s hiring of Joe Trippi and Steve McMahon. [IMGCAP(1)]

The duo, who have spent much of their careers helping long-shot underdogs battle the party establishment, are a significant part of the reason Dean has become the hottest Democratic commodity of 2003. And they deserve more of the credit than they’ve so far received.

Both consultants, along with their partner Mark Squier, have had a long relationship with the onetime governor. Their firm, Trippi McMahon & Squier, handled Dean’s media and general strategy in 1992, shortly after the Democrat succeeded the late Richard Snelling (R) as governor of Vermont.

But Dean is simply the latest in a long line of political outsiders, long shots and nonestablishment candidates whose campaigns have had the Trippi-McMahon fingerprints all over them. Both consultants acknowledge that they have earned a reputation as willing to sign on with candidates dismissed by most insiders.

The firm’s list of nonestablishment candidates includes two-time Oregon Senate hopeful Harry Lonsdale, the Senate campaign of Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), the presidential campaign of Jerry Brown, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Mark Singel, former Iowa Congressional hopeful Matt McCoy and 1990 Florida candidate George Stuart.

A businessman without political experience, Lonsdale was the Democratic nominee in 1990 (nearly upsetting GOP Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon) but still managed to run as an anti-establishment outsider in the 1992 Democratic Senate primary against then-Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), the favorite of party insiders. Lonsdale lost to AuCoin by just 330 votes even though virtually every party type backed the Congressman.

Former California Gov. Brown entered the 1992 presidential race relatively late, setting himself up as the anti-establishment alternative to then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Brown didn’t have enough money or organization, but his consultants had a strategy.

“Our goal back then was to beat somebody we weren’t supposed to in every contest we were in until we were the last guy standing against the establishment candidate,” McMahon recalled recently. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

Braun was the long shot in the 1992 Illinois Democratic Senate primary, against a wealthy attorney, Al Hofeld, and an incumbent Senator, Alan Dixon (D). She lacked statewide name identification and money, but that didn’t stop her from winning when the two white males attacked each other.

In Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate race, TMS’ candidate, Singel, was the sitting lieutenant governor, but that didn’t make him the favorite of the party establishment. Pro-choice businesswoman Lynn Yeakel held that honor, even though she was a political novice. In the “Year of the Woman,” Singel was both too political and too moderate for many in the Democratic establishment. Yeakel won the primary but lost to Sen. Arlen Specter (R).

Two other TMS candidates, Kitzhaber and McCoy, entered races against Democratic incumbents, a no-no in party establishment circles.

Kitzhaber, an Oregon doctor-turned-state legislator (hmmmm), announced he was running for governor even though the incumbent, Barbara Roberts (D), hadn’t ruled out a run for re-election in 1994. And McCoy, a state legislator, insisted that he was running in Iowa’s redrawn 3rd district in 2002 even though Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) was also expected to run in the Des Moines-based district.

Roberts and McCoy eventually dropped out of the races, but that shouldn’t minimize the chutzpah shown by TMS in taking on candidates who announced that they were planning to primary Democratic incumbents.

Finally, state legislator Stuart entered the 1990 Florida gubernatorial race as a prohibitive underdog for the Democratic nomination against then-Rep. Bill Nelson. Stuart’s early campaigning received raves, and he succeeded in shaking up the contest so much that former Sen. Lawton Chiles (D) jumped in. Stuart ultimately dropped out, but not before his consultant, Trippi, demonstrated a knack for running outsider campaigns.

Dean seems to benefit from his association with Trippi, McMahon and Squier in at least two ways. First, he is relying on a team of strategists who have been with him, and with each other, for a long time. Other campaigns may have more consultants or better known operatives, but only two, Dean and presidential hopeful Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), have teams that are so tight-knit and long-lasting.

And second, Dean’s strategists have so much experience handling long shots and outsiders that they were at ease with the former governor’s initial standing and comfortable with the message of insurgency that he has been delivering.

“When people say, ‘It can’t be done,’ then that’s the race I want to do,” Trippi told me recently.

But now Dean is the Democratic presidential frontrunner, and the question is whether Trippi, McMahon and Squier can help keep him there. Can Dean continue to perform under the increasingly bright spotlight, or will he fall into an old political trap and start running like the frontrunner? That may be the ultimate test for the duo.


Rothenberg Political Report