RALEIGH, N.C. — The Sunday before Labor Day 2014, ahead of North Carolina’s competitive Senate race, GOP consultant Paul Shumaker took a break from debate prep with his client, Thom Tillis, to sit down for lunch.
A new poll had just come out showing Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan leading by several points, and Shumaker had already gone through the cross tabs. “You need to know that overall, we’re probably — worst case scenario — dead even,” Shumaker recalled telling Tillis.
More likely, he said, Tillis was leading by a half point to a point. That’s because Shumaker had seen that Tillis was leading with unaffiliated voters by 11 points.
“If I’m double digits with unaffiliateds, I usually win the state,” Shumaker said. Tillis went on to defeat Hagan by a point and a half.
“The poll wasn’t wrong; it’s just that the story’s not always in the topline,” Shumaker recalled, sitting in a corner booth at Raleigh’s Cafe Carolina this March. “It takes more than two to three minutes to have that discussion. And it’s also very boring to a lot of people,” he added, with a hearty chuckle.
Shumaker, 55, is a data guy. That perspective — he calls himself a business guy who does politics — is what many of his peers value most about his contributions, and what he’s drawn upon as general consultant to GOP Sen. Richard Burr, whose re-election efforts he’ll lead this fall. His affinity for numbers is partly the way he’s hardwired: he recently calculated that when he turned in his 2007 Chevrolet Avalanche, with 280,000 miles on it, he’d spent one year and four months in the driver’s seat.
But it’s also a reflection of the mentors he had. “I come out of the Jim Broyhill School of Politics,” Shumaker said, referring to former Sen. Jim Broyhill, for whom he interned. The late Brad Hays, architect of Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy and political consultant to former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, was a father-figure to Shumaker, and someone whose place in North Carolina politics Shumaker is on his way to filling. He learned how to interpret data from GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein.
Thirty-two years ago, when Shumaker started on his first campaign, Democrats outnumbered Republicans three to one in North Carolina. “I liked being the underdog,” Shumaker said. He’d initially registered as an independent to rebel against his staunchly Republican parents. But by 1984, he was a field director for Martin and moved up to political director four years later for his re-election— helping Martin become the only two-term Republican governor in the state.
Shumaker doesn’t like to be out in front of his candidates. “I’m a campaign guy, I try to stay out of the spotlight,” he said. (It took some convincing him that his was a story worth sharing.)
The one-time student body president from blue-collar North Carolina has always liked competition. “The fact of the matter is politics is the art of conflict. If you don’t like conflict, get the hell out of politics,” he said.
Still, he’s respected on both sides of the aisle. “He’s my favorite Republican,” said North Carolina Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson.
Shumaker’s experience makes him formidable, even intimidating, but he’s down-to-earth, too. On election night in 2014, when Hagan had not yet conceded the race and Tillis’ staff was getting frustrated, it was Shumaker who brought the empathy. “I said, everybody’s probably gotta understand, she’s probably never heard the word ‘lose’ before tonight. That’s a hard thing to do.”
As much as Shumaker was inspired by an earlier generation of Tar Heel Republicans, he’s excited by change. “I often tell friends and family that working with Paul is like working with my dad,” said Alex Johnson, director of strategic operations for the Burr campaign. “They are old school, but they know that if you want to remain successful you need to continually be learning and adapting to your environment and industry.”
“He’s a cut above most of the consultants in the state,” added GOP consultant Carter Wrenn, aide to the late Sen. Jesse Helms, who marveled at Shumaker’s ability to balance many races. Besides consulting for the two senators and Reps. George Holding and Robert Pittenger and running an issue-marketing firm, Shumaker keeps a full plate of local political clients.
But it’s not all campaigns for Shumaker. “I made a commitment to my wife when I told her I really wanted to go and do this full-time, that if I could not be there when my kids went to sleep at night, I’d be there in the morning when they woke up.” He wanted his kids to have a small-town upbringing, so moved them to Granite Falls, about 180 miles west of Raleigh. The importance of spending time with your children when they’re young, he said, is something he talks about with younger men in politics.
“This is what happens when you invest time with your kids,” he said, putting on “his readers” and pulling out his smartphone to find pictures of the 23-year-old son who’d chosen to accompany him on his annual fly-fishing trip to Montana. Fly-fishing is Shumaker’s other love. With a vise in his office, he ties flies when he’s on conference calls. “It’s a great way to clear the mind,” he said.
Candidates say Shumaker keeps them grounded.
“He’s become like a big brother to me, even though he’s a lot younger than me. He’s going to take care of me and bring me down to earth,” said North Carolina Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry, the first female Republican elected statewide, now running for her fourth term as Shumaker’s client.
“I’ve had candidates come in and say, ‘Did you hear my speech last night?’” Shumaker mused. “And I’ll say, ‘Yea,’ and they say, ‘Don’t you think it’s a great speech?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, what I want to know is that at 7:30 last night the lady who was putting her child to bed in North Raleigh, did she even know it was important enough to pay attention to?’”
How Tillis Beat Hagan
Finding out what’s important to voters is Shumaker’s calling. In 2014, Shumaker needed to find an issue that would give Tillis the upper hand against Hagan. “We were not going to win a U.S Senate race on the education issue against Kay Hagan. She beat us over the head with that,” he said.
His data team found the one issue that was a consistent concern for each sector of the white female voters Tillis was targeting — above and below age 40, with and without kids — was foreign affairs, specifically the Islamic State.
They produced an ad saying Hagan had missed a briefing on ISIS and tested it with a focus group.
“I have an 18-year-old son,” said one Hagan supporter in the group. “‘If that ad’s true, I can’t vote for her,’” Shumaker remembered her saying. He knew he’d found his issue.
“American politics is the purest free-market system that exists on the face of the Earth,” Shumaker said.
An ad for Coca-Cola, for example, couldn’t say that drinking Pepsi leads to death. “You couldn’t say that; you’d get sued,” Shumaker said. “But in a political ad, I can say, ‘If you vote for Bill Smith, he’s going to set up death panels that may decide who lives and who dies.’”