Luntz, Reid an Odd Couple

Posted March 2, 2005 at 6:46pm

Just a few weeks after Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) secured enough votes to become Minority Leader, the Democratic Senator paid Republican pollster Frank Luntz $5,000 out of his personal campaign account last year to settle a billing dispute Luntz had with the state of Nevada.

The Nov. 23 disbursement came more than two years after Luntz was hired as part of a team of consultants to help drum up opposition to the federal government’s efforts to permanently relocate 77,000 tons of the nation’s nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, a site located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Two months after receiving the payment from Reid, Luntz was briefing Republican House Members on a variety of issues during a six-hour train ride to the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, site of the GOP’s annual retreat. At the January bicameral meeting, Luntz also instructed Republican Senators on the buzzwords and catch phrases he said would improve their Social Security messaging.

While Luntz frequently meets with GOP leaders and staff to help craft political strategy — in mid-January, for instance, the pollster met with Republican Policy Committee aides — Reid said he has no regrets about compensating the Republican pollster for his work on the Yucca Mountain issue.

“I thought the state owed that to him,” Reid said. “I thought he was treated unfairly, so I told him I would take care of it.”

The $5,000 payment to Luntz was listed in Reid’s most recent Federal Election Commission disclosure report.

But the relationship between Reid and Luntz’s is raising concerns on both sides of the political aisle, as is some Republicans’ puzzlement that the pollster made a “donation” to America Coming Together, a political organization that worked to defeat President Bush in the 2004 elections.

Luntz contributed $308 to ACT on Oct. 1, 2004, the organization’s FEC report shows. The donation was payment for admission to one of ACT’s fundraising concerts headlined by Bruce Springsteen. The GOP pollster said at first he did not know the concert would benefit ACT’s political activities, but upon finding out decided to attend anyway.

“I am not going to let politics get in the way of music that I enjoy,” said Luntz, who describes himself as a fan of both Springsteen and another act featured at the ACT concerts, the band R.E.M. “I work really hard seven days a week, 24 hours a day. I have the right to take a few hours off.”

It is this blasé attitude that has made Luntz both one of the most maligned and revered pollsters as he rose to prominence after helping craft the Contract With America. He is regularly quoted in the media about political trends and frequently has private audiences with some of the most influential Republicans on Capitol Hill, such as Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Several Republicans said they were baffled to hear that Luntz decided to pay to attend the ACT concert, as well as accept money from one of the nation’s most powerful Democrats. These Republicans, ranging from Senators and Representatives to aides and strategists, suggested it could give the appearance that Luntz is working both sides of the political aisle to help boost his stable of corporate clients.

“Some people do get nervous about consultants and pollsters who come and meet with Republicans [and] play it both ways,” said Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), who worked with Luntz during his tenure as the Senate Republican leader. “He needs to be careful doing that sort of thing.”

Other Republicans were more blunt, saying Luntz’s relationship with Reid presented a glaring conflict of interest.

“It is a little unusual, I think, that he is involved as he is in seeking to set a strategy for the Republicans to be successful and yet apparently working a little bit for the other side,” said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.).

“It is a significant problem,” added a Republican strategist, who spoke about Luntz on the condition of anonymity. “When he is at the Republican Members retreat he has access to a lot of privy conversations and presentations and it would be disconcerting to know he has an ongoing political dialogue with the Senate Minority Leader, whose agenda is in exact opposition so far to the Republican majority.”

There was equal surprise from Democratic quarters that Reid would help settle a debt for a GOP pollster who is offering Republican leaders advice on how to scuttle the party’s policy goals as well as defeat Democratic candidates.

Reid “is obviously a good Democrat and obviously wants to do what is right, but Democrats are tending to believe these days that we have got to keep our base excited, and this is just the [kind of] thing that quashes that excitement,” said a Democratic fundraiser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Two of Reid’s Democratic Senate colleagues, who would offer reaction only if they were not named, were more succinct in their comments. “It is strange,” said the first Democratic Senator.

“It just doesn’t square,” added the second Senator.

But Reid and Luntz said their relationship transcends Washington, D.C., politics. Luntz said he does “a lot of work in Nevada” and counts the casino industry among his clients.

“He is interested in what is going on in his home state,” Luntz said of Reid. The Minority Leader’s spokeswoman echoed the GOP pollsters description of the discussions between the otherwise politically opposite men.

When state and local officials decided to form a public-private coalition in 2002 to raise money to fight the storage of nuclear waste on Las Vegas’ doorstep, it was Reid who urged them to hire Luntz as part of the consulting team.

The GOP pollster conducted focus groups for the coalition on the Yucca Mountain subject, but a disagreement arose over the amount of his contract. The state would not reimburse Luntz beyond what they believed was outlined in his contract, said an official who oversaw the coalition.

“It really was a misunderstanding about what he was contracted for,” said Bob Loux, director for the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.

Reid said that’s why he dug into his own treasury to pay Luntz.

But despite his respect for the Republican pollster, Reid is not above accusing him of trying to bend language and terms for the Republican Party’s political gain.

Just this week, the Minority Leader declared at a news conference that President Bush’s plan to revamp Social Security was about privatizing the system, not creating “personal accounts” as Republicans claim.

“Remember, that is a term that the Republicans have just come up with by virtue of Frank Luntz,” Reid said.

In an interview with Roll Call four and a half years ago, Reid referenced Luntz as the individual who crafted the talking points Republicans were using to speak about prescription drugs.

“Republicans love to use ‘states’ rights,’ ‘price control,’ ‘breaking the budget,’” Reid said in the July 2000 interview. “You know, all these buzzwords that they get from Frank Luntz. But the fact is that our prescription drug program would be received warmly by the senior population.”

Still, Reid made no apologies this week for occasionally speaking to the Republican pollster “when I get a chance. But the Minority Leader added, “He doesn’t give me advice.”

Luntz too, refused to disavow his association with Reid.

“The climate in Washington is so ugly that I could be afraid which toilet I use because someone could criticize me,” Luntz said. “I just don’t care.”

Reid, like many Republicans, believe Luntz has a knack for understanding average American’s views on issues. Luntz is also well known for his wordsmithing, a service he promotes on his Web site.

“Luntz Research has revolutionized the interaction between research and communication in America,” the Luntz Research Companies declares on its Web site. “Most pollsters give out numbers and not much else. A few will offer strategic direction. PR firms are often creative in their approach, but their advice is rarely derived from audience research. We alone offer numbers, strategic direction, and the actual words and phrases that can and have literally changed history.”

But Luntz’s approach to polling and messaging is sometimes considered questionable by his detractors who suggest he doesn’t always reveal data to prove his conclusions.

The American Association for Public Opinion Research in 1997 said Luntz violated their ethics code after he “repeatedly refused to make public essential facts about his research on public attitudes about the Republicans’ Contract with America.”

“In particular, the AAPOR inquiry focused on Luntz’s reporting, prior to the November elections in 1994, that his research showed at least 60 percent of the public favored each of the elements in the GOP ‘Contract,’” stated the April 23, 1997, press release. “When later asked to provide some basic facts about this research, Luntz refused.”

A senior Republican House Member described Luntz’s advice as “sometimes helpful, but other times it is a wing and a prayer.”

The scolding from the AAPOR, an organization he didn’t even belong to, did little to hurt his business. Nor have his Republican detractors. Luntz conducted focus groups for MSNBC and CNBC during the 2000 election and was planning to do so again in the most recent election cycle until MSNBC came under pressure not to do so because of his work for Republicans.

Luntz said he is puzzled by the latest criticism and suggested he is in a no-win situation.

“Republicans are complaining that I talk to Harry Reid and some people at MSNBC said I am too Republican,” an exasperated Luntz said. “Which is it?”

And Luntz defiantly declared that he would not allow others to dictate who he speaks with or how he conducts business.

“I am very happy with the people that I know and the relationships that I have,” he said. “I am very comfortable with the work that I do and as long as the work is good and smart and effective, I am going to keep doing it.”

While Luntz refused to describe himself as a Republican pollster, he did say he would never work for a Democrat.

Like many other pollsters and strategists, Luntz does his work for Republican leaders for free and at least two said they would continue turning to him for advice.

Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said he was scheduled to have dinner with Luntz last night and planned to “ask a question or two.”

“I think [what] we are a lot more concerned about is the advice we get from Frank Luntz good and worthwhile,” said Kingston. “For the last 10 years it has been pretty good stuff.”

“One of the things that I know is unless you are an employee, you are a businessman, and you’ve got to be careful what you say in front of business people,” Santorum added. “I don’t consider him part of my staff. I appreciate his advice but he is a man that gets paid by folks who want to get his advice.”