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

Negativity is a staple of American politics for one simple reason: Time and again, it works. "Didn't Jefferson say some incredibly offensive things about John Adams and pay others to anonymously say incredibly negative things about him? Didn't they describe Lincoln as looking like a baboon?" Bill Armstrong says. "People say the process is a lot less civil than it used to be, but I don't buy into that."

The explosive evolution of media, particularly the rise of the Internet, and of 527 special-interest groups—the notoriously slanted, tax-exempt lobbying organizations that introduced "Swift-boating" into the American political lexicon—has instilled the sense that candidates must define themselves before their opponents do it for them, and that they must respond to even the tiniest gaffe immediately and forcefully. "The outcome of elections is now determined by whether 527s form, how much money they raise, and how effective their ads are," says Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College. "To not develop the negative side is to lose the election. This is how the game is played now, and candidates who want to win need a manager like Dick Wadhams."

Even before he started managing campaigns, Wadhams developed the strategy that his candidates have, more often than not, ridden to victory: Find your message, phrase it in the simplest, most memorable terms possible, and bludgeon voters and the media to death with it. Wayne Allard won two terms by religiously following the Wadhams blueprint that characterized Allard as the small-town veterinarian and his opponent, Democrat Tom Strickland, as a lawyer-lobbyist—a label he never could shake. "One of the mistakes we made was that we tried to be really substantive and come up with great ideas," says a source who consulted on both Strickland campaign teams. "We tried to talk about those things and hoped that voters would see the race as this thoughtful guy versus this really disciplined, destructive guy, but Wadhams came up with the 'lawyer-lobbyist' tag and used it like a hammer."

Even Allard admits such tactics can become monotonous. "A lot of superfluous stuff flows into a campaign, but Dick is able to figure out the areas that really matter and keep you focused," he says. "It gets downright boring, but it keeps you out of trouble." For his part, Wadhams is incredulous that his opponents never saw the races as clearly as he did. "Democrats never gave Allard credit for coming across as the average Coloradan," he says. "Coloradans first want to know if they like you, then they'll listen to you on the issues. But if they don't like you, they won't care where you stand."

Along with the insistent messaging come the tricks. Supporters of Wadhams' candidates have heckled the opposition in parking lots outside campaign events, and he's notorious for drawing attention to himself when things aren't going well for his boss. "I've seen his candidates get their asses handed to them in a debate, and rather than talk about that he'll storm out and get into a yelling match with his opponent's staff," says the Strickland consultant. "So instead of the [news] story being about his guy getting destroyed, it's about the fight Wadhams got into." During Strickland's second campaign, in 2002, the candidate's team wanted to showcase his environmental credentials, so they had volunteers fan out across Colorado to climb all the state's fourteeners in a single day. When Strickland's group got halfway up their peak, they encountered a band of "lawyer-lobbyist" sign-waving, insult-shouting Allard supporters. "It was just a distraction technique that had no meaning, but they got what they wanted," Strickland's then-communications director, Chris Watney, says today. "It was a brilliant Wadhams moment, but at the time I thought it was gross."

The Full Wadhams was on display in the Daschle race in South Dakota. Wadhams agreed to manage Senate hopeful John Thune after meeting with him and sensing a simpatico resolve. Thune had lost a bruising Senate election to Democrat Tim Johnson in 2002 by only 524 votes and wanted to jump right back into the fire. Wadhams admired Thune's resilience and, he admits, saw a chance to burnish his own reputation against the powerful Daschle. "When you lose a race like [Thune] had lost, the hardest thing to do is get back into another race," Wadhams says. "He wanted to run against a tougher opponent with a 26-year track record. I thought he had to be either crazy or one of the most tenacious people you could be, and taking on the most powerful Democrat in Congress was very appealing to me."

Their message: Daschle had drifted left and thus out of touch with South Dakotans' values. Daschle's stature and vulnerability brought national scrutiny and about $35 million in total campaign spending to a state with a population of only 770,000. The gamesmanship ran right up to Election Day, when a judge issued a restraining order preventing Republicans from writing down license plate numbers of vans bringing Native American voters—a key Daschle constituency—to the polls. Thune upset Daschle by winning 51 percent of the vote, ousting a Senate party leader for the first time in half a century.

Once the campaign was over, stories emerged that claimed Wadhams had paid two South Dakota bloggers to wage a publicity war against the state's largest newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader. Wadhams had grown frustrated with what he perceived to be the paper's institutional bias toward Daschle, and today he says he paid the two bloggers to do opposition research on Daschle's record, not to blog for his candidate, which "they were going to do whether or not I was there." Some reports say the bloggers' repeated attacks spurred the paper to shuffle experienced political reporters away from its campaign coverage, which the paper has always denied. (The Argus-Leader did not respond to requests for comment.) Wadhams says he regrets how relentlessly the bloggers went after a particular reporter, but he says that his payments were neither "secret" nor underhanded. Ethical guidelines for bloggers have yet to emerge and certainly didn't exist in 2004, so Wadhams was merely doing what the system allowed. "I have a funny way of 'secretly' paying somebody," he says. "It's right there in our FEC filings: how much I paid them, and when."

Critics of slash-and-burn campaigning see sinister motivations behind such antics, especially when they come from the Republican side, which usually benefits from lower voter turnout. "The theory is that if you can create an atmosphere in which both candidates are sparring and reinforcing the worst fear people have about candidates and campaigns, Republican candidates are better able to hold their voters than Democrats do in a negative environment," says Democratic consultant Mike Stratton. "In a state like Colorado, where there's a plurality of independents, if you can turn those people off you've succeeded."

Even Mark Udall's campaign deploys Wadhams-like tactics because, of course, they have a successful track record. "They like to talk about 'Big Oil' Bob Schaffer—fine," Wadhams says. "That's the give and take of a campaign. I do believe in staying on message, and as simple as it sounds it's the single hardest thing for campaigns to do. It's so easy to get diverted." It's a lesson that Wadhams, flirting with political superstardom after his stunning Thune victory, seemed to forget when he took his act beyond his comfort zone.