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Once again, a high-magnitude political earthquake has shaken the campaign for control of the U.S. Senate. And once again, the epicenter was a historic 19th century brick manse a few miles outside Columbus, Ohio.
That’s where Missouri Rep. Todd Akin arrived midday Monday in an urgent effort to rescue his bid against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. The Republican congressman threw his campaign into a state of crisis last weekend when he told a local TV interviewer that he believed victims of rape rarely become pregnant.
A day later, Akin was at the offices of the Strategy Group for Media in a Delaware, Ohio, building known as the Gooding House. There, he spent Monday afternoon taping a television ad that offered a direct-to-camera apology to Missouri voters: “The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold. I ask for your forgiveness.”
It was a hurried attempt by Akin to avert a total collapse of his campaign. A week later, he has dug in and vowed to say on the ballot, even as national Republicans fume that he’s imperiling their chances of taking the Senate majority.
And they’re not just fuming at Akin. In private — for the most part — Republican strategists are also raging that Akin’s consultants have helped gird him against outside pressure to drop out.
Akin’s advisers reject that characterization and dispute reports suggesting that Akin stayed in the race at their urging. The top executives at the Strategy Group learned of Akin’s grievous misstep after disembarking from a cross-country flight Sunday afternoon, and realized the immediate task at hand was getting an apology on the air. Akin, they say, was determined to stay in the race upon his arrival in Ohio, where he used SGM’s production facilities to shoot an ad, edit it and send it to stations by Tuesday.
“We had to immediately protect his character, integrity and honor and we had to give him the opportunity to do that to the people of Missouri,” said Nick Everhart, the 32-year-old SGM president, who pointed out the firm has advised Akin since the start of his congressional career. “We’re working for a guy who we’ve worked with for this long, who we can’t just abandon.”
Rex Elsass, the founder and CEO of the firm, defended Akin and SGM’s work for him in a local TV interview Tuesday: “We’re giving a very good man an opportunity to speak directly to the electorate.”
This is not the first time that SGM has been at the center of what national Republicans view as an electoral emergency. In 2010, the media company guided now-Sen. Rand Paul to his victory in a Republican primary — only to see Paul, several days later, criticize the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. Paul ultimately won the race, but not before causing an excess of heartburn for Washington Republicans.
As national party leaders gnashed their teeth this week about the Missouri situation, calls flowed into the SGM offices from elected officials and operatives seeking to reach Akin and lean on his team.
Meanwhile, speaking anonymously to reporters, GOP strategists hurled a variety of accusations at the Ohio-based firm and Elsass, a colorful, hot-tempered, Bentley-owning, private jet-flying ad man who seems to have angered almost every Republican in Washington at one point or another in his career. Even in a business that’s known for vendor-on-vendor feuding, the intensity of Republican seething at Elsass & Co. has been on a different plane.
The reality, though, is that there’s only a limited amount of pressure that national party leaders can apply to the firm, thanks to a business model dependent on fiercely close relationships with clients and relatively little help from committees and PACs in Washington. They don’t even need to work with other vendors on the basics of political consulting: unlike most media firms, SGM does all its work — from shooting video to producing spots to buying airtime — in-house.
Longtime GOP presidential strategist Ed Rollins, who worked with SGM on Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign last year, said he had been planning to hire them to advise Mike Huckabee if the former Arkansas governor ran for president in 2012.
“I liked the style they had — they had a lot of the Reagan, morning-again-in-America, kind of feel-good emotion in their ads,” Rollins said. “Rex has a real spiritual side to him. He’s a real believer. He basically has close ties to that whole born-again community. Obviously he understood Bachmann pretty well — I don’t think anybody got close to her, but you know, he basically knew that her religion was sincere.”
Indeed, on the SGM website, the two most striking things are the explicitly religious, value-driven mission statement — “We have been blessed with an opportunity to change America for the better” — and a vast client list that includes not just federal officials and governors, but also elected judges, state legislative caucuses, attorneys general, secretaries of state and more.
Everhart said the firm, which has about 30 employees, is proud to number some strongly “ideological” conservatives among its many clients: “We want to work with the person we connect with the most. We truly feel like what we do is share people’s heart, tell their story, connect emotionally. People vote with their heart, not their head.”
The firm’s top candidates include a roster of more conventional Republicans: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for one, along with Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, who’s running for governor; Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel; former Wisconsin Gov.-turned-Senate candidate Tommy Thompson; and a host of congressional Republicans. They are cutting TV ads for several front-line House challengers this year, including Pennsylvania’s Keith Rothfus and Kentucky’s Andy Barr.
They also advised both Bachmann and Newt Gingrich in the 2012 Republican primaries, cut TV ads for activist favorite Ted Cruz in the first round of this year’s Texas Senate primary, and led the unsuccessful fight to protect Kasich’s overhaul of public labor laws in a 2011 referendum. Four years ago, they worked on Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, prior to linking up with Rand and before the elder Paul was viewed as a remotely credible candidate.
In a more recent slight to the national establishment, SGM cut the TV ads for upstart House candidate Thomas Massie in this year’s primary to replace outgoing Kentucky Rep. Geoff Davis. The retiring congressman endorsed a different candidate to succeed him, but the SGM-advised, Rand Paul-endorsed Massie carried the day.
“They have like 300 clients. They have a ton of clients,” said Republican strategist Dave Carney, who has known Elsass and another SGM executive, Brian Berry, for decades. “[Elsass] goes in and works for people who aren’t the establishment candidates and he beats them sometimes, and nobody likes to lose.”
Carney dismissed the venom directed this week at SGM and its leadership from national Republicans, though he agreed that Akin’s woes “really undercut the ability to win that seat.” If other consultants are irritated by Elsass’s plush lifestyle (off record, they’ll almost unanimously tell you they are and argue that any consultant with a Bentley is making too much money off his clients) Carney chalks it up to envy.
“I guarantee you that colleagues of his, competitors of his, hate that, resent that, particularly when they’re sitting at BWI waiting to get the next flight to Louisville or wherever. It pisses them off,” Carney said, adding of Elsass: “He’s a gregarious guy, he’s got a big laugh and he doesn’t really care about the tribal traditions.”
Others in the party are not so forgiving. What the Ohio firm and its friends call a fierce commitment to Akin as a client and friend, other strategists describe as an almost pathological need for competition and confrontation — and a desire on the part of consultants who won a difficult Senate primary not to give up on what could have been a lucrative race.
Florida-based GOP consultant Rick Wilson — no establishment squish himself — said the argument that SGM was simply standing by its client amounted to “the consulting Nuremberg defense of saying, I’m just following orders.”
“It’s a distraction from the core message. We’ve been off it for five days, all because of one idiot and his consultant who is enabling him,” said Wilson, who was an informal adviser to one of Akin’s primary opponents. “Anybody who’s helping [Akin] do this right now, anybody who is counseling or encouraging him or advising him, is effectively working to reelect Claire McCaskill and Barack Obama.”
One Republican detractor put a more personal edge on his criticism, comparing Elsass to “a carnival barker, but he’s not that honest,” jabbing: “He’s the Elmer Gantry of media consulting.”
Another Republican who called himself an admirer of Elsass and his firm chalked up the intensity of the anger at the SGM founder to the man’s “flamboyance — he’s got a bigger-than-life personality. He’s made a lot of money, got a lot of money and, you know, lives well.”
“The world is coming after them at this point in time and I think he cares deeply about his client,” the Republican said.
To Everhart, who took over the job of SGM president in April, the criticism of his firm rings hollow, and he emphasized repeatedly: “This isn’t about self-indulgence for us. This is about building a company that can service candidates the way we do for a long, long time.”
“I think our track record speaks for itself,” he said. “If that rubs people the wrong way, I don’t know what to say.”
The closeness of SGM’s relationship with Akin is exceptional, even for consultants who emphasize a personal and ideological bond with their candidates: they have advised him since his first campaign for Congress and all through a Senate nomination fight he wasn’t supposed to win.
The determination to forge a personal, even emotional connection — even across a giant client base — is a trademark of the firm. With some clients, that involves praying together. With others, it’s just a matter of tracking them down virtually the second they announce for office and signing them for the long haul.
Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who now heads Harvard’s Institute of Politics, recalled the way SGM enthusiastically recruited him in his first run for office in 2003. The firm did his TV ads that year and in his 2007 reelection for secretary of state. It then worked against Grayson in his 2010 primary with Rand Paul, when Grayson hired a different media vendor.
“I still remember when they reached out to me when I first filed for secretary of state. I got into the race and I didn’t have any consultants and they were the first to reach out to me. It was kind of like, wow, I must be pretty important to have these national people reach out to me,” Grayson said. “They reach out to all these first-time candidates, they have all these congressional candidates, they have a lot of down-ballot state candidates. And they’re good at it. Some of us win and then they keep us on for future races.”
There may not be any future races for Akin. Even if he stays on the ballot all the way to Election Day, his challenge to McCaskill could be his last campaign. And national Republicans are still holding out hope that Akin will buckle under pressure and a simple lack of funds.
For now, though, the embattled Senate candidate isn’t going anywhere — and neither are his media advisers.
At a Friday afternoon press conference in Missouri, Akin repeated to reporters: “We’re going to be here through the November election and we are going to be here to win.”