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?
The Wikipedi-ized version of the George Allen story says he could have been our 44th president had he not committed the venal sin of uttering the word macaca. As always in politics, the reality was far more complex than the image. In 1993, Allen won the governorship of Virginia by the largest margin in decades, and he was the only Republican to unseat a Democratic incumbent senator in 2000. (State law limits Virginia governors to one term.) Wadhams calls Allen one of the most popular, "consequential" governors in Virginia's illustrious history, and as the 2006 elections approached he was widely pegged as a front-runner to succeed President Bush.
Wadhams joined Allen in 2005 as his chief of staff. Today, Wadhams says he'd have preferred that Allen vacate his Senate seat if he wanted to focus on a presidential bid, but Allen decided to run for a second term, putting Wadhams back where he was most comfortable: managing a high-profile campaign. The difference this time was that his man was expected to win easily. Whether it was hubris, bad luck, poor organization, taking their eye off the ball by looking ahead to 2008, or some combination thereof, the would-be Allen juggernaut imploded, and the fallout helped topple a line of Republican dominoes that the party still is trying to right.
No one disagrees, however, that the macaca incident was the tipping point in the campaign. The obscure term derives from the Bantu word for "monkey" and has been used by French-speaking colonialists as a pejorative for natives of the Belgian Congo. Though it seems unlikely that George Allen—the tobacco-chewing son of a legendary football coach who portrays himself as a folksy everyman—would be very well-versed in either African dialects or European colonial slang, the "macaca moment" started the wrecking ball swinging, and within hours television and the Web made the blunder national news. (Two years later, a Google search for "George Allen" still has the YouTube clip in its top five results.)
Soon, stories popped up alleging that Allen had freely used more common racial epithets as a young man, and Webb's campaign began gaining momentum. With Allen reeling, Wadhams, by most accounts—other than his own—mishandled the controversy. He was hostile with the press that had covered the incident, and—using his oft-deployed tactic of deflecting a criticism of him or his candidate back at the opposition—he rehashed an old accusation that the Webb campaign had sent out anti-Semitic flyers during the Democratic primary. He convinced Allen to delay an apology, and, once Allen finally issued his mea culpa, the campaign soon followed up with a Wadhams-penned memo to fellow GOP leaders, later leaked to the press, that all but retracted it.
Republican political operatives with ties to the Allen operation contend that the macaca debacle only exposed an already disorganized campaign. Shortly after joining the Allen team in 2005, these sources say, Wadhams froze out the Senator's old allies, and Allen didn't realize how isolated they were until well into 2006. Volunteers, vendors, and advertising executives who had worked with Allen complained that they'd been ignored or treated shabbily by Wadhams' operation, and that he'd spent little time trying to get the lay of the political land in Virginia. Though the campaign was flush with money until at least late summer of 2006, some say Wadhams apportioned it unwisely, dropping $20,000 a month on Allen's campaign headquarters, for example, while exerting little effort on the grassroots organizing—county chairs, volunteers, even signs and bumper stickers—that had been a staple of Allen's previous runs.
This all went down while Wadhams played his customary role as master distracter, thundering around the state and bellowing at the media and his opponents. It's always been his M.O. to do the dirty work so his boss doesn't have to. This time, it backfired. Allen had a pre-Wadhams image as an affable, successful politician, but Wadhams had salted the earth so much that the press was in no mood for forgiveness when the macaca story broke. "[Wadhams had been] striking out and calling reporters these hideous names and being downright rude or nasty to them," a longtime Allen associate says. "And now George Allen is getting portrayed as this mean-spirited, inconsistent political animal."
Though Wadhams laments the entire affair, he dismisses the armchair quarterbacking as predictably nitpicky. "So often, [political consultants] like to stand in the shadows and get big checks, but they never want to take responsibility for anything," he says. "They love to take credit when their candidate wins, but you never see them when they lose. There are very few people who put their names on the line like I do."
It's difficult to overstate the impact of Allen's Waterloo. Though he lost by only 7,200 votes out of 2.36 million, his political ambitions are history. Webb's victory gave Democrats control of the Senate and vaulted him to national prominence; he's been discussed as a possible Cabinet member in an Obama administration. The 2006 setbacks sent Republicans scrambling to rediscover the soul of their party, and the Allen embarrassment sent Wadhams home with wishes of good-riddance from Virginia. "Senator Allen regrets the macaca incident not just because of how it's portrayed on the Internet, but because it makes him look like somebody he's not," the Allen associate says. "Had he followed his instincts and not listened to Wadhams, yes, it still would've been out there in YouTube world, but it would be known as a silly mistake that all candidates make rather than a defining moment in the history of electronic campaigns. A lot of people are extraordinarily disappointed that Dick took someone who clearly could have been accepting the nomination to be president of the United States and destroyed his career."
Last year, back in the friendlier confines of Colorado, Wadhams was elected as the state's GOP chairman, running unopposed, and earlier this year Bob Schaffer drafted him to lead his pivotal Senate campaign against Mark Udall. As humbling as the Allen ordeal might have been, it hasn't spurred Wadhams to rethink his strategies, nor has it sapped his pugilistic resolve. "I certainly haven't taken a bunch of easy cases to bump up my win-loss record. After that pretty bitter defeat, I'm right back in the saddle in a race that could go either way," Wadhams says. "Anybody can manage a landslide, and I could've made a lot more money [as a consultant], but I want to be consumed by one goal, one fight, and I want to be the person driving it. I don't want to be a coach on the sidelines; I want to be in the game."
To the frustration of so many voters, "the game" seems nastier than ever. Backstage managers from both sides champion their candidates while artificially demonizing the opposition, yet they chat genially before and after events, and many of them are lifelong friends. What the public sees, it turns out, often is just a show. Even Wadhams recognizes the troubling disconnect. "The [party differences] don't mean Democrats are evil and we're the party of goodness. It just means they have a different view of how to go about things than we do," he says. "But I think activists on both sides get so wrapped up in the rightness of their cause that they start demonizing the other side because they have no [personal] contact with them."
So here's the problem: Once the performances are over, we're left with a fired-up electorate whose disdain for the other side often borders on irrational. "What's disturbing about Wadhams is that, to me, he comes off like this is just one big game," says Colorado Democratic chair Pat Waak. "He does the flashy sound bites. He's the classic spin guy. I give credit to the American public for having the discernment to see through the labels and negativity, and we're now seeing a new group of people coming into politics who want to see this kind of change."
That could be prescient or just wishful thinking. Voters say they want less negativity, and all the while political puppeteers keep winning elections by mud-slinging. They take a world comprised of infinite shades of gray and paint it black and white. As long as the media keeps playing along, more interested in covering how effective a campaign tactic is than in assessing its accuracy, the ones crafting the messages have little reason to modify their methods.
In the 2008 election, Wadhams has three not-so-simple tasks: helping McCain win Colorado, getting back some of the seats the GOP lost in recent state elections, and vaulting Schaffer into the U.S. Senate, not necessarily in that order. "Elections are about choices, and you've got to drive home the choice," Wadhams says. "Part of that is presenting what the opponent is, and in this election it is accurate to describe Mark Udall as a 'Boulder Liberal.' It might not be what he would like to be described as, but it's accurate and fair."
Translation: Anyone who thinks a tough defeat, or a personal tragedy, or a changing political climate might force Wadhams to rethink what it all means doesn't really know Dick. "There never was a time of soul-searching with him where he'd look me in the eye and say, 'What's the purpose of life?'" Bill Armstrong says. "Dick knows what the purpose of life is: At one point it was to get John Thune elected, and at another it was to get me elected. And now, it's to get Bob Schaffer elected."