Congressional Races Launched Axelrod

Posted August 27, 2008 at 8:00pm

When Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination tonight, it will represent the pinnacle thus far in the career of David Axelrod, the Illinois Senator’s chief political strategist.

Axelrod is viewed as one of the most important driving forces behind Obama’s meteoric rise from state Senator to White House nominee in just four years.

While that feat alone is one to marvel at, when viewed through the lens of Axelrod’s early years in the political business, it is easy to see how the foundation for his later success was laid in some of his early work as a Congressional campaign consultant.

Axelrod left his job as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 1984 to join the Senate campaign of then-Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), eventually becoming campaign manger.

After Simon’s win, he formed his own consulting firm, Axelrod & Associates, in 1985.

Early on, Axelrod showed a proclivity for underdog candidates. He also seemed especially fond of political reformers whose message focused on changing the status quo and challenging the establishment.

“He’s always been drawn to reform,” recalled Democratic strategist Chris Sautter, who worked for Axelrod early in his career and opened the Chicago-based strategist’s Washington, D.C., office in 1988. “I think that goes back to his days as a reporter, uncovering the truth and trying to hold politicians accountable. And many of his candidates have been those kinds of candidates.”

In addition, Axelrod built his business by winning races in areas that were not in traditionally friendly territory for Democrats, a theme that is especially salient in the context of the 2008 presidential race.

“In those early days, the firm was trying to get its footing and we took on a lot of tough races, which we won,” Sautter said. “I think he really, just as he took on Obama at the time he got in [the 2004 Senate race], they thought he was going to flame out, they certainly didn’t think he was going to be the nominee,” Sautter said. “That may be why he and Obama are good mates in this journey, because both are willing to take on tough races.”

Among the contests that are touted on the Web site of AKP&D Message and Media — the firm that grew out of the former Axelrod & Associates — is a 1989 special election victory in one of the most Republican districts in the country.

“The Congresswoman who won Dan Quayle’s old seat in an upset that caused the Republican national chairman to say he was ‘ashamed,’” reads the narrative touting a list of victories that no one thought could be won. “Wherever you’re located; whatever the odds; we can help you write history — whether you’re the favorite or the underdog.”

After then-Sen. Quayle (R-Ind.) was elected vice president in 1988, then-Rep. Dan Coates (R) was appointed to fill the vacancy. His 4th district seat was among the most Republican districts in the country and at the time, a Wall Street Journal item reported that Democrats considered the seat unwinnable.

Axelrod went to work for Jill Long (D), who was running against political aide Dan Heath (R) in the special election as an ethics-reform focused, independent-minded Democrat in the mold of then-Gov. Evan Bayh.

The special election was a short sprint, and Long’s campaign ran eight weeks of TV advertising.

Sautter recalled that the opening ad was positive, and then all of the remaining ads hammered Heath.

“We assigned to him the sins of his bosses, and that’s really how we were able to define him,” Sautter said in an interview last week.

Never one to shy from negative advertising, Sautter added that he sees the irony in Axelrod now working for a candidate who “seems somewhat averse to hardball campaigning.”

“You know, he’s called the axman,” Sautter said.

In the end, Long won 51 percent to 49 percent. It was a big win for Axelrod’s still-emerging firm and also represented a major victory for EMILY’s List, where Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was executive director.

The former Congresswoman now known as Jill Long Thompson is running for governor of Indiana.

“You had a very seasoned candidate who, frankly, took a page out of our book — ran an attack campaign, started out very early, very aggressive,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater said after Long’s win. “She ran a campaign that I would be proud of.”

But not all of Axelrod’s races turned out as successful.

In 1988, Axelrod was the media consultant for Erie County Clerk David Swarts (D), who was running for the Buffalo-based open seat being vacated by then-Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). The district was reliably Republican, but Democrats thought a young and telegenic candidate like Swarts had the type of profile that could make the race competitive.

Swarts was recruited to run by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), then the political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with long-running Chicago ties to Axelrod. Emanuel, now the House Democratic Caucus chairman, later went on to work in the Clinton White House in the 1990s and, in 2002, was elected to Congress.

What unfolded in the contest between Swarts and then-New York Assemblyman Bill Paxon (R) would lead to one of the most infamous tales in Democratic Party lore and cement Emanuel’s reputation as a top-rate political brawler.

The Swarts campaign was able to raise some money, but not enough to sustain TV advertising through the end of the campaign. The strategic decision was made by the DCCC to do three weeks of media and then conduct a poll to see if Swarts’ numbers had moved. Democratic pollster Alan Secrest did the survey, which Sautter said showed that the Democrat had lost ground after the ads and that he was losing even in Democratic areas. A dispute ensued between the DCCC and the pollster over whether the poll was bogus, during which time the DCCC was forced to go dark for about 10 days. Secrest eventually agreed to do another poll, paid for by the DCCC. But by then it was too late, and on Election Day Paxon won 53 percent to 47 percent.

As Sautter tells it, after the election, Emanuel’s counterpart at the National Republican Congressional Committee called and asked specifically why Democrats had gone off the air in the New York district because at the time they went dark the NRCC’s tracking polls showed Swarts within 2 points of Paxon.

An irate Emanuel and some others signed a note and sent a smelly fish to Secrest to express their distaste for his work, leading to a longstanding feud that Sautter said he believes the men eventually got over.

Aside from some Congressional work, Axelrod largely built his reputation in the late 1980s and 1990s working on inner-city mayoral contests, beginning with the 1987 re-election campaign of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington (D), the city’s first black mayor. Building on that win, Axelrod gained a reputation as one of the premier urban media consultants in the country.

In 1990, he did the media for attorney Eleanor Holmes Norton, running in the Democratic primary to be the delegate for the District of Columbia in Congress. Norton wasn’t widely known in the city, except for in largely white Ward 3 because she had appeared as a commentator on PBS’ “McNeil-Lehrer News Hour.” She began the contest in third place, and Axelrod’s strategy focused heavily on using black media to introduce her to voters. The campaign ran only one TV ad, which Sautter remembers very effectively used various black-and-white still photos to tell her story.

In the end, Norton defeated City Councilwoman Betty Ann Kane despite the last-minute revelation that Norton had failed to pay income taxes for several years and owed thousands of dollars to the D.C. government.

Axelrod also had a string of successes in Ohio in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Cleveland Mayor Michael White (D) and Rep. Eric Fingerhut (D-Ohio).

Axelrod did a pro bono commercial for Fingerhut in 1990 during his state Senate race. Then in 1992, Fingerhut launched a bid for an open Congressional seat in Cleveland and hired Axelrod. Among the candidates that Fingerhut — and by extension Axelrod — beat in the Democratic primary that year was now-Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the former mayor of Cleveland. Fingerhut won the general election but was defeated two years later by now-Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio).

In 2006, Axelrod served as the chief strategist for the DCCC, which was then under the direction of his old pal Emanuel.

The highest-profile race he was involved with was that of Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who was the DCCC’s hand-picked candidate for an open seat in suburban Chicago. Duckworth lost to now-Rep. Peter Roskam (R) in a race that cost the national parties more than $7 million combined and was one of the Democrats’ only black marks in an otherwise great cycle.

For all of his wins and losses, there are also those races that Axelrod has turned down over the years, including a chance to work on Rep. Melissa Bean’s (D-Ill.) 2004 upset of veteran Rep. Phil Crane (R). Axelrod jokes now about the fact that he turned down the underdog candidate.

He also turned down his first chance to work for Obama, then a state Senator who challenged Rep. Bobby Rush (Ill.) in the 2000 Democratic primary. Axelrod thought his involvement in the race would be viewed as retribution after Rush challenged Mayor Richard Daley (another Axelrod client and close ally) in the 1999 mayoral primary.

Sautter was in Chicago recently and said he had the chance to visit briefly with Axelrod, who gave him his season-ticket seats for that night’s Cubs game.

“This might be a Chicago quality, but he is unbelievably loyal to those who are loyal to him,” Sautter said. “I think Rahm is that way too.”