Campaign Consultants Increasingly Fleecing Their Candidates

There is an old saying that goes, “a fool and his money are soon parted.” Some attribute it to poet Thomas Tusser almost 500 years ago, perhaps inspired by the Old Testament’s Proverbs 21:20.

In the early 20th century, journalist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken gave us the related bit of wisdom that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” And of course, there’s circus owner P.T. Barnum’s famous line that “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

None of the three were talking about politics specifically—but they sure could have been. These old adages came to mind as I read Meagan Flynn and Michael Scherer’s front-page story in The Washington Post on Wednesday about congressional candidates getting hosed by campaign consultants. 

In this case, it was hapless GOP challenger Kim Klacik, who spent $8.3 million for the honor of losing to Democratic incumbent Kweisi Mfume by 44 points, 72 to 28 percent, in Mencken’s home city of Baltimore.

If you’re curious about the arithmetic, that amounts to almost $90 a vote in campaign spending.

Klacik, now a commentator on Fox News, had been bragging about a three-minute online spot that allegedly raised close to $2 million, though her campaign ended up seeing very little of it. Other GOP candidates were featured as well, with their consultants often pocketing between 80 and 90 percent of new contributions raised. (For the record, I have known hundreds of campaign consultants from both parties over almost 50 years in and around politics. I had never heard of any of these guys and don’t know any consultants doing anything remotely this appalling.)

I don’t want to single out Klacik (she did come out of the race with a primetime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention and a Fox deal). After all, there’s also Lacy Johnson, who lost to Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar in Minnesota’s 5th District by 39 points, 65 to 26 percent; and to Joe Collins, who lost by 39 points to Rep. Maxine Waters in California’s 43rd District by 44 points, 72 to 28 percent.  

This isn’t partisan, there are and have always been smarmy consultants in both parties looking to fleece candidates and donors, just as there are candidates who drink their own Kool-Aid and think that they can be the exception to the rule when the rule seems to be carved in granite.  My heart bleeds every time I hear about a candidate who mortgages his or her home or accrues a mountain of personal debt to finance a race they have minimal, if any, chance of winning.

The same goes for the (presumably well-intentioned) donors who send piles of money to candidates that they just heard about that day when they sat down at their computer and watched an ad. It would seem these people do little if any due diligence, causing me to wonder if they would buy stock of a company that they knew nothing about or would meet someone on the street and immediately invest in a new business enterprise.  

It really isn’t hard to check out a race to see if it is even remotely competitive. Find a copy of The Almanac of American Politics (I am a co-author but receive no proceeds), whose 2022 edition comes out later this year, to learn about that state or district and how candidates of each party tend to do there. Putting aside a little enterprise that I started 37 years ago, www.cookpolitical.com, there are competitors that I can recommend without reservation, like Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales, the publication that took over from my longtime dear friend, Stu Rothenberg (we still talk frequently and in non-COVID times get together for dinners with spouses. Yes, Stu’s doing fine). Sabato’s Crystal Ball, published by Larry Sabato and his terrific team at the University of Virginia, headed up by Kyle Kondik, is another great resource.

Of course, almost every year there are some long-shot candidates who defy the odds and pull off upsets, but those aren’t the kinds of races I am talking about. God did not intend for every single state and district to be winnable by either side. Sure, some are purple swing states and districts that frequently flip back and forth; others are more pale red or pale blue that can be picked off under certain circumstances or a good year for that party.  

It’s fine, admirable, and fun to look for Cinderella candidates, just as you might want to include a few dark horses in your upcoming NCAA basketball bracket. But there is generosity and then there is foolishness. 

I’ll close with another Bible verse: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Best that that comes from a place of love and generosity, not of being gullible and getting fleeced.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on March 5, 2021.