Feature

See Dick Run

And holler. And distract. And infuriate. And, usually, win. It's all part of the grand plan for Colorado Republican chairman Dick Wadhams. But after a devastating political loss in 2006, can the man who was once dubbed the next Karl Rove get his groove back?

November 2008

Check out our roundup of Dick Wadhams' most unforgettable quotes and campaign commercials here.

Senior editor Luc Hatlestad discusses his time with Dick Wadhams.

At 5:29 p.m. on Friday, August 11, 2006, George Allen was rolling. As he prepped for that evening's stump speech, the Republican incumbent senator from Virginia scanned the small crowd. Sure enough, just as Dick Wadhams had predicted, the kid with the video camera was there.

Allen had recruited Wadhams, the emerging Republican operative from Colorado, to be his chief of staff a year earlier, and later tapped him to run his reelection campaign. It was supposed to be a cakewalk, a rehearsal for Allen's White House run in 2008, and as Virginians settled down to dinner that night, the campaign couldn't have been going much better. Allen enjoyed a healthy lead in the polls, and he had several million dollars in the bank. Democratic opponent Jim Webb's operation was in such financial disarray that it seemed certain that Allen would cruise to victory in November.

By the time Virginians got to the breakfast table on Monday, it had all gone to hell. In their morning papers and on the TV news, they learned about the kid, a mocha-skinned young man, a Webb volunteer following Allen with a camera to make sure he wasn't saying one thing in one part of the state and contradicting himself elsewhere. It was standard campaign due diligence; the Allen folks had their own staffer doing the same thing at Webb's events. Campaign strategists had told Allen to point out the young man, whose name happened to be S.R. Sidarth. Nothing fancy, just a playful little wink to the crowd that said, "Friends, they've got their eyes on us, and we know it."

On the small makeshift stage that evening, Allen flowed seamlessly from his prepared remarks to the aside that would change everything. Just one word. A word that almost no one had heard before, a word that, with shocking virulence, would destroy Allen's career and cripple Wadhams' own budding notoriety. A word that would become synonymous with political suicide.

"We're going to run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas, and it's important that we motivate and inspire people for something," Allen told his audience. "This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great.... Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

Almost two years after Allen's spectacular flameout, the man some call "Dick Wad" is at it again. Fiery rays of midmorning July sunshine stream through the glass-walled cafeteria in which Wadhams and Republican Senate hopeful Bob Schaffer sit quietly. Schaffer's first debate against Mark Udall, his opening skirmish in this uphill election year, is moments away, and the showdown will be an early indicator of whether Republicans, so humbled in recent statewide and national races, can cling to a desperately needed Senate seat. It also will reveal whether Wadhams, Schaffer's campaign manager and the head of the Colorado GOP, can return to his old kingmaking ways. Each man has doubters, yet with each of their political futures a few months from being either exalted or impaired, they're conveying all the tension of a couple guys waiting for a bus.

Schaffer grabs an accordion-style folder crammed with papers and strides into the lecture hall where the debate will take place, causing the low-level hum to spike into a rousing welcome. He wades through the crowd of about 500 people toward the stage, shaking hands and weathering backslaps as his supporters wave red and white signs and holler his name. After securing seats up front for Schaffer's wife and daughter, Wadhams stations himself in the back of the room while Udall's fans, a beat late, try to outdo the Schaffer folks with their own enthusiasm.

About 40 minutes into the hour-long debate, amid the pro forma back-and-forth, Schaffer goes for the knockout. He begins reading a document pulled from his accordion folder: "Whereas Iraq's failure to comply with its international obligations to destroy or dismantle its weapons of mass destruction program...." It's the House resolution introduced in the fall of 2002, the one that empowered President Bush to enter Iraq, the one that makes so many people—politicians and citizens, red staters and blue staters—for so many reasons, long for a mulligan.

Schaffer finishes reading and asks who in the room still supports the resolution. Most of the hands on his side shoot upward; not a single one rises among Udall's supporters. Like a magician unveiling the prestige, Schaffer says that the resolution's author was none other than Mark Udall. A startling whoop engulfs the room as Wadhams explodes. "That's yours, Udall!" he shouts with unrestrained glee.

Moments later, as the crowd streams from the hall, Wadhams beams triumphantly—at home in his element, and up to his old tricks. "In my opinion," he says, "that was an old-fashioned butt-kicking."

The debate "gotcha" was vintage Wadhams, a well-known wielder of a cheeky campaign-trail arsenal that his allies laud and his detractors begrudgingly acknowledge for its effectiveness. Schaffer was indeed reading from the resolution that Udall authored; however, it wasn't the one that ultimately passed. The resolution Udall helped introduce—which failed—contained a key difference: a provision that would allow Congress to withhold approval for an invasion of Iraq until all diplomatic measures had been exhausted.

Only the Colorado Statesman, a weekly nonpartisan political newspaper with a circulation of about 6,000, offered a detailed breakdown of the chicanery. "It was said in an awkward way," Wadhams was quoted in the Statesman, offering a flim-flammy rationalization for something that was clearly designed to mislead. Udall's limp response—he failed to point out the discrepancy between what Schaffer led the crowd to believe and what actually happened—didn't help. Udall consultant Mike Stratton later suggested that the Schaffer supporters had been "cued" to expect theatrics of some sort. "It was totally nefarious, designed to make a scene and knock Mark off his game," Stratton says.

Such is life when the foe is Dick Wadhams, the Karl Rove acolyte who has built his reputation around winning ugly. Armed with a genius for details—associates marvel at his ability to remember obscure factoids from long-ago campaigns—simplicity, and mischief, Wadhams knocks his opponents off message and makes distractions, not the more substantive issues, what voters remember and respond to. The blogosphere runs stories about his hair-trigger temper and nose-thumbing appeals to the lowest common denominator, while commentators ridicule his ad infinitum use of the "Boulder Liberal" tag for Mark Udall in this year's Senate race. All of which means that, for the most part, his methods are working.

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