A Best Practice From Oregon Could Improve The Standards For Louisiana’s Political Consultants

Editor’s Note: This is Part Three of a three-part series examining the performance of political consultants in Louisiana in the aftermath of the primary in the Secretary of State race. For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here.

Before we begin, a couple of housekeeping items – because we’ve received a good deal of feedback from our first two posts in this series, both from political consultants, some of whose work has been discussed in this series, and from candidates for various offices. Most of that has been positive, but some has not.

And in answering that feedback, we’d like to offer the following clarifications.

First, we didn’t name names of any consultants in our post discussing the possibility of a blacklist, and that’s for a reason. The Hayride isn’t going to make such a list, because The Hayride isn’t a political action committee and The Hayride isn’t in the business of supplying financial resources to candidates. Any blacklist of bad-actor political consultants, were it to have any substance, would have to be made and enforced by the institutional players who supply such resources. Our discussion of the possibility of such a list came from conversations we’ve had with people in the PAC world, and it’s going to be their decision whether to impose it and on whom. Where we’re coming from is to note that this is being discussed, because there is such dissatisfaction with the state of performance by Louisiana’s political consultants – or at least some of them.

Second, no – decisions by some political consultants to advertise, or not to, here at the site don’t play into this discussion. We had some partisans of some losing candidates in the Secretary of State race make allegations to that effect in comments on The Hayride’s Facebook page, and we also had that come up on Twitter courtesy of leftist blogger Lamar White, who thought he discovered some major revelation in finding a line item on a Kyle Ardoin campaign finance report to the effect that the candidate had bought ads here. As it turns out Ardoin purchased a table at The Hayride’s 2018 Truth And Consequences tour stop in Metairie, and also spent $300 to reserve banner ad space. White’s research skills were somewhat substandard in this regard; if he’d truly done his work he would have seen that Rick Edmonds and A.G. Crowe also bought tables at that event – facts which were also available to those perusing campaign finance reports from those two candidates.

We’ve put up with these accusations before, and they’ve never had merit and never will. In 2015, for example, White made a big show of declaring that David Vitter had “bought” the support of this site by spending $1,000 per month on banner advertising space during that year’s gubernatorial race. Anybody who spent time here already knew Vitter was advertising on the site; his banners were readily apparent at the top of the page and on the sidebars. But so was Scott Angelle, and in fact Angelle actually spent three times as much with us as Vitter did. That played no part in our decision to support Vitter over Angelle – Vitter’s campaign and his message was objectively better than Angelle’s, and we weren’t alone in making that judgement. Vitter, after all, made the runoff, and Angelle did not.

If you want to know who spends money with The Hayride, just come here and look at the pages on the website and you will be enlightened. We sell advertising banners. The editorial content, we don’t sell. That’s ours. Lamar, who claims virtue in not having any advertising at the Bayou Brief, has styled his site as a 501(c)4 so that he can take donations and not disclose the identity of his funders, while he then endorses candidates in what we believe (and we are not alone) is a violation of federal campaign finance rules – and yet he has the unmitigated gall to accuse us of hidden agendas and pay-for-play. Let him provide a list of his donors before he claims moral superiority, and then we’ll see whether he stands on his own two feet.

With that out of the way, Our intention with this installment of the series on political consultants was to present a best-practices case study on how political consultants in Louisiana have established high standards of performance. But as we were mulling over how best to do that without having the message muddled by accusations of favoritism toward this consultant or that, we were contacted by an old friend who’s in the business with a better idea. David Huguenel is a New Orleans native who’s worked literally from coast to coast in the political game; he’s had positions with state Republican Parties in both New Jersey and Oregon, and he now works as a consultant for Jamestown Associates. Readers of Scott’s American Spectator column might remember back in June an interesting interview with Huguenel regarding the potential effects of the Janus v. AFSCME case at the Supreme Court.

Huguenel’s offering was a different case study, and it was one from his own experience. In 2015 and 2016, while he was working for the Oregon Republican Party, one of his roles was to serve as executive director for Promote Oregon PAC, which was the political action committee for Republicans in that state’s legislature. And what Huguenel noted was that while demographics played a big part in the Oregon GOP’s historical sad-sack performance in legislative and statewide elections – geographically Oregon is a quite red state, but the vote out of Portland is just more than the rest of the state can overcome – what was also a problem was some incredibly poor work by political consultants managing Republican candidates there.

We’ll let him tell the story of how he sought to address it…

I moved to Oregon in 2014 and became the Political Director for Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, which is the political arm of the Oregon House Republican Caucus. In what was supposed to be a good year for Republicans (and it was nationally) the House actually lost a seat, putting it only one seat away from being in a super minority. There was a lot of angst as to why we weren’t successful in Oregon that year, so when I was promoted to Executive Director in 2015 I worked on identifying institutional problems that I believe contributed to the string of losses the caucus had in 2012 and 2014.

First and foremost was what I considered to be a disorganized and expensive system in which campaigns selected their political consultants. Candidates were confused about the services they were purchasing, and I was of the opinion that a few consultants were charging more than what I considered to be the market rate for a down ballot seat in that state. In short, here’s what I identified as the key problems:

  1. Uninformed consumers (candidates) purchasing a complex product (political consulting/media services)
  2. Too much variety in the types of contracts being offered by consultants. Wildly different retainer levels, different retainer schedules, adding to the confusion of candidates and making it more difficult for the PAC to budget appropriately.
  3. Overall too much of a reliance on retainers for profit. This led to cashflow issues for campaigns with smaller budgets before fundraising picked up more heavily after Labor Day, leaving the campaign little resources to actually contact voters.
  4. Some candidates complained that the caucus was too “heavy handed” in forcing them to use one consultant over another.

What to do? Huguenel decided to draw up a “consulting agreement” for all the political consultants who wanted to work on campaigns taking money from Promote Oregon PAC to sign. He went around and rounded up a half-dozen consulting firms representing a big chunk of the market in that state, and if you were a GOP candidate running for the Oregon legislature in that cycle your consultant had to sign the agreement or else the PAC wasn’t cutting any checks.

And the agreement, which you can peruse here, contained a number of key provisions. It held down the monthly retainer consultants could charge – only $2,500 per month, which for legislative races is a pretty reasonable figure – and capped the rate consultants could charge in marking up printed materials or making media buys. This is significant, because “voter contact,” meaning TV and radio ads, digital media, direct mail, outdoor advertising and canvassing, is what a good campaign spends the vast bulk of its money on. The agreement set a standard that consultants signing it wouldn’t be able to make off with the PAC’s money which otherwise would be going toward soliciting votes. He also included some language about bashing other Republicans aimed at limiting the damage from internecine warfare.

That doesn’t mean Huguenel set out to impoverish the consultants. He didn’t set a limit on win bonuses, for example – the amounts often agreed to between candidates and consultants in the event of a successful campaign. A win bonus is an ideal fee agreement, as it perfectly aligns the candidate and the consultant in most cases. Of course, not all consultants will take on a tough race on the basis of a small retainer and a large win bonus – but it’s a hell of a lot better arrangement than the reverse, which as we know is far too common here in Louisiana.

What Huguenel then did, after getting the agreement out for most of the major consultants to sign, was to meet with candidates and offer them the approved list of consultants to pick from. And it turned out fairly well.

From a financial standpoint, it was a huge success. When I looked back at the 2014 expenditures and applied this agreement to what we actually paid, I estimated that the caucus would have saved in total around $90,000 if the agreement had been in place that cycle.

Candidates were also happier overall. Even though we were giving them a list of pre-vetted consultants to choose from, the process was very transparent and once a consultant signed the agreement there was no playing favorites, so candidates felt like they had an honest choice between those that were recommended to them.

I also believe the actual electoral results in 2016 spoke to the success of this model. Hillary Clinton won Oregon by 11 points in 2016, and in a year that Republicans were expected to lose seats (we had a few key retirements and Democrats outspent us by about 3 million on legislative races) we actually held our numbers. This made Oregon the only state west of the Mississippi (and I think one of only three states nationally) that didn’t lose legislative seats in a state that Hillary Clinton won. Given how close a couple of elections were I don’t think we would have done that if we hadn’t marshaled our resources effectively.

Now, Louisiana differs from Oregon in some important ways – so you probably couldn’t do a code of conduct agreement which is identical. But getting the consultants who work on races where institutional money plays to sign an agreement of this sort isn’t unreasonable at all.

The key difference here is that while Huguenel had some $6 million in cash to play with in those legislative races and he was the dominant player on the scene as a result, in Louisiana there are several major PAC’s – whether for trade associations like LABI, or having a relationship with the state party, or emanating from some of the major conservative donors – who would have to get together and agree on a set of standards they want to impose on campaigns they would back. But based on our conversations, the idea of agreeing on standards for political consultants is a pretty popular one. There might be quibbling as to what those standards might be, but that’s something which can be worked out in a conference room somewhere.

The point is, there is a way to clean up some of the worst excesses and mistakes which are being made, and in doing so move toward a more professional and orderly political process within Republican electoral efforts in advance of next year’s crucial statewide cycle.

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