Bill Russell couldn’t catch a break. He’d made his first run for Congress in 2008, as a Republican trying to take down Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), and winning broad support with grassroots conservatives. He’d lost that race by 16 points and kept on campaigning, eyes on the prize — until, on Feb. 8, 2010, Murtha died from complications related to gall bladder surgery. That forced a special election for May 19, and gave the power to choose a GOP nominee to a conference of local Republicans. On March 11 they met and handed the nomination to Tim Burns, a businessman making his first bid for office.
[GOP1] Russell, speaking to TWI on March 12, explained his thinking on just how he’d lost. One factor was the “coercion” of Republican officials by the state party chairman, Rob Gleason. But another factor was a “whisper campaign” against Base Connect, the Washington, D.C. political firm that Russell has employed since 2008 for direct mail fundraising. While Base Connect paid for ads and polls in the district to show Republican voters backing Russell over Burns, the word went out from Burns supporters that the D.C. firm could not be trusted. (See Base Connect’s mailings for Russell here.)
A few weeks before the candidate selection vote, in an interview with TWI, Gleason pointed to Russell’s high “burn rate” as a reason to be skeptical of his chances. A week later, influential political strategist and blogger Bill Pascoe accused Base Connect of “subprime fundraising” and “highway robbery.” The next day, Erick Erickson of RedState tweeted that hiring Base Connect could cost candidates support from his website; hours later, the influential blog endorsed Burns. If it wasn’t the key factor in denying Russell the nomination, it still struck the candidate as playing dirty pool.
“There were certain people who were posing as journalists, like these guys from RedState, who were making a bid deal out of how I use Base Connect,” Russell told TWI. “Well, in the last ten days I netted $112,000. That’s after expenses. What they were attacking me on, and attacking Base Connect, on was baseless.”
The episode has brought the spotlight back to Base Connect, a direct mail firm with millions of dollars in business and a persistent chorus of critics on the right and left.
Inside of Base Connect, Russell’s setback was no surprise. The special election nomination might have been a poison pill anyway, as one internal poll showed any of the likely Democratic candidates trouncing Burns or Russell. But the fact that it had become an issue was upsetting. The same week that Russell lost, TPM Muckraker ran a story accusing Base Connect of “fleecing longshot candidates,” basing the charge on ugly 2008 stories about defeated Base Connect candidates and the current coverage of Russell. The panicked campaign of Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) scrambled, telling local reporters that it was cutting off business with Base Connect. According to Base Connect Chief Operating Officer Michael Centanni, the Cao campaign spoke too soon — Base Connect had just dropped another Cao mailer to more than 10,000 people, and at the beginning of April it would assess whether Cao was still able to benefit from its services.
“What happened with Cao,” said Centanni, “is that our first piece of mail was a huge success. Then he voted for the health care bill, and the drop-off in donations was just massive.”
In a conversation with TWI, Centanni had responses for all of the charges that have bedeviled the firm for three years, before and after the name change. (The change to “Base Connect” happened in 2009 — one staffer acknowledged that the bad press was one reason for the change, but Centanni said it was wholly the result of a “cease and desist” letter from the car company BMW.) Critics, said Centanni, simply don’t understand how direct mail works.
“Some of these folks say, oh, they raised a million dollars and only got $250,000,” says Centanni. “Well, these candidates probably don’t have a way to replace that $250,000. Let’s look at Bill Russell. Twenty-year army veteran. Not a rich guy. He decides he’s going to run this race out of principle. We look at that race, and we’re of the opinion that it’s a bad thing to let incumbents go unchallenged.”
The huge initial hauls help the candidates generate headlines about — to use Russell’s 2008 run as an example — how they raised $700,000 in a single quarter. That, says Centanni, lets them build more buzz.
“Russell raises $700,000 and what happens? Michelle Malkin sees it and publishes an article: ‘This might be the guy to beat John Murtha.’ In the next 24-48 hours, $150,000 comes in online — which has a much lower cost. How is that possible without direct mail?”
But the stories of the last month have emphasized the second act of those fundraising stories. When news outlets decide to dig into FEC records, and when they find out how much Base Connect and its components are being paid, the negative coverage starts to churn. That’s not fair, argues Centanni. First, if the cost-to-fundraising ratio of early mailings are high, the system is working. One Base Connect staffer argued that if you looked at the numbers in April, you would think the candidates were being fleeced; look again in October, and the money has rolled in for a serious ad campaign. Second, Base Connect doesn’t conceal the fact that its clients are billed for the services of several different components of the firm, based in the same suite of the same office building. The placard at Base Connect’s 15th Street headquarters informs visitors that they’ve arrived at Base Connect Inc, Century Data Systems Corp, and Legacy List Marketing Inc.
“Every direct mail operation is the same,” says Centanni. “There is a creative agency — do you remember the show ‘Bewitched?’ Darren worked at a creative agency. That’s what Base Connect is. We’re the creative agency. The next piece of it is Legacy List — we get a book here, about the size of the Manhattan telephone book, with nothing but lists in it. We have lists that we market and lists that we mail.”
The defeats of candidates like Russell, Centanni argues, doesn’t prove that the strategy isn’t working. They choose long-shots because they want everyone to be challenged. “Every other time he ran,” says Centanni, “Murtha was able to dip into his war chest and give that money to other candidates. He couldn’t do that in 2008.” Their high-profile candidates lost in years when, as he puts it, “everybody lost.”
There’s a certain type of long-shot that Base Connect seeks out. To succeed in direct mail, the candidate needs either a hated opponent or a compelling narrative. That’s where the African-American candidates come in — and where some of Base Connect’s image problem also comes in. Two of Base Connect’s eight current clients — Florida’s Allen West and Alabama’s Les Phillip — are African-American. Appeals for previous African-American Base Connect clients like Ada Fisher and Deborah Honeycutt stressed the threat they posed to the African-American political establishment. But up to now, these candidates have been among Base Connect’s least successful. One strategist credited some of Honeycutt’s problems to a “blinged out” campaign that spent money unwisely. That doesn’t explain the low hit ratio of the Black Republican PAC, a Base Connect project that has crystallized this narrative to, so far, little impact. In 2008, the Black Republican PAC raised $1.3 million. By the end of the cycle, only $5000 had been given to black candidates. If that looks fishy, says Centanni, it’s another misunderstanding.
“Black Republican PAC was a new organization for the 2008 cycle,” says Centanni. “And you know what? It might take two or three cycles for it to become a political PAC that becomes really effective. So what you need to look at is whether it’s becoming more effective each time.”
Allen West — also a recipient of $1,000 from Black Republican PAC in 2008 — stands by his partnership with Base Connect. “It’s kind of like investing,” he told TWI, analyzing the high cost, eventual high return strategy. “If you’re a nervous nellie and you screw around with your investments early on, just because they’re not immediately gaining a lot, you can screw with your portfolio.”
West also nailed down a reason why, despite some off-the-record attacks of the kind that helped Tim Burns, Base Connect endures its bad press. It’s got connections. West got a prime speaking slot at CPAC, right before Glenn Beck, through Base Connect’s President Kimberly Bellissimo. “They open the doors to influencers,” said West.
Base Connect’s strategies also drew some support from Richard Viguerie, a pioneering Republican direct mail strategist who, at every point in his career, has faced the same criticism over the high cost of his work. (He doesn’t exactly conceal the mostly meaningless “gross” numbers, claiming on his web site to have raised “more than $7 billion” in the mail.)
“I was roundly attacked in the 1960s and 1970s for what I was doing,” Viguerie told TWI. “All of the criticism stopped in a few hours on election night 1980. That’s when they stopped and said, a-hah! That’s what Viguerie’s been up to! Building these lists!”
Centanni looks to similar vindication from what looks to be the first strong election cycle for Republicans since 2004.
“People are going to take another look when Allen West wins,” he says. “Hopefully Allen will give us a little bit of credit.”
Rachel Rose Hartman contributed research to this story.
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