Strategic Perception, Inc.

Political Firms Find D.C. Office Means Business

By Shira Toeplitz, Roll Call Staff
July 23, 2009

While it’s commonplace for candidates to run as far away as possible from the “gone Washington” label, lately more and more political consulting firms are embracing it.

Some firms have shied away from setting up shop in Washington, D.C., in order to maintain an outside-the-Beltway image for prospective clients. But several, especially Democratic, firms have bucked that philosophy recently and set up offices in the nation’s capital.

Fresh off back-to-back winning election cycles, Democratic consulting firms have found that a D.C. office can be a helpful tool in dealing with some of their top clients — who are now Members of Congress.

Dover Strategy Group, which has several offices around the country, found that without a D.C. office it was hard to offer its winning clients — such as Reps. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) and Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) — services once they became Members.

“After the 2008 elections, we didn’t have a D.C. office,” said partner Mark Nevins. “We didn’t have the services needed to help those clients once they were elected. So we figured out we needed to expand our services to provide assistance to people who won.”

Dover hired a fundraising specialist, Meghan Gaffney, to help its Member clients with call time in the District. By the time another of their clients, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), won a special election in April, Dover was able to help him with call time as soon as he arrived in D.C.

The Baughman Company, a San Francisco-based Democratic mail firm, put D.C. political veteran Achim Bergmann in charge of opening its national office in May. Now that the firm has done work for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm, it figured an office within walking distance of Democratic National Committee headquarters would be good for business.

“It’s efficient to have an outpost in Washington so, as people are coming through, it’s easy to have an avenue to reach them,” Bergmann said.

However, according to committee staffers on both sides of the aisle, having a D.C. address does not necessarily put a firm in a better position to get business from the party’s campaign committees or candidates.

“My guess is that it helps them marginally with candidates who come here so often, but it has almost zero bearing on us as far as committee work,” said a Republican committee staffer.

The staffer said the committees already have a strong opinion about which firms they would like top candidates to use, and location doesn’t matter.

A Democratic committee staffer echoed that notion, saying there are many good consultants both outside and inside the Beltway, adding that for campaigns it’s often “good politics to use someone from that state.”

“Geographically, it often helps because it is the center of the political universe to be in D.C.,” said the Democratic staffer. “At the same time, there are a lot of great consultants — and a lot of not-so-great consultants — out there in the field.”

California-based Strategic Perception is known for producing creative TV ads for Republicans, including Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), plus its work on several presidential campaigns. The firm’s chairman, Fred Davis, said he fought having a Washington, D.C., office for years because he liked his firm being associated with the creative film capital of the country — Hollywood.

“I always thought that one of our unique selling features was the fact that we were not constricted by the Beltway mentality and therefore our advertising would be more mainstream American and would be more Budweiser-like than typical political-like,” Davis said.

But in February, Davis caved in and hired Brian Nick, who was a top aide to former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), to open and run the firm’s D.C. office. Above all, he said it helps to have someone in Washington who can network with potential clients and candidates after the workday is done.

“I don’t know another industry other than politics that places such an emphasis on what happens after 6 p.m.,” Davis said.

What’s more, because of campaign finance regulation changes in the past decade, there are more third-party groups based in D.C. who are looking for consultants, such as political action committees, independent expenditure operations and trade associations.

Adelstein-Liston is a Chicago-based Democratic media firm that had been known primarily for its work in Illinois, for clients such as Rep. Melissa Bean (D). But the firm branched out across the country in recent years, working for Reps. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) and Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.).

This spring, Adelstein-Liston tapped Raghu Devaguptapu to open and run its D.C. office. With experience working at several Democratic organizations such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Devaguptapu knows firsthand that having a D.C. office is important when it comes to landing association clients.

“Much of the association work is based out of Washington, D.C.,” Devaguptapu said. “It’s advantageous to be here to work more closely with them.”

Alabama-based Democratic pollster John Anzalone recently hired a vice president to run his D.C. office because, he said, it was good for business — and business is good. With Democrats on a winning streak these past two cycles, Anzalone Liszt Research now boasts a client list that includes 21 Members and works with the DCCC, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Governors Association.

“And then we became part of the [Barack] Obama polling team, and he won and there were all of a sudden even more opportunities beyond just candidate elections,” Anzalone said.

Aside from Davis, a handful of other GOP firms have also opened up shop in the District recently.

Erik Brown runs a direct-mail and consulting shop based in California, but he recently opened a D.C. office to expand his business to political causes in other states.

“We’re really going after constituent services, franked mail, and that sort of thing,” Brown said. “Having that point of contact opens up doors of opportunities to connect with PAC directors, trade associations, professional fundraisers and issue advocacy groups — people who need to get their message out.”

So far, Brown reports that his firm does franked mail for a couple of Members and two trade groups, the American Society of Anesthesiologists and a group representing ophthalmologists. He also said they have expanded to work on Congressional races in North Carolina and South Carolina and possibly New York this cycle.