Can a camera-shy Dave Carney put Rick Perry in the White House?
Before most people had ever heard of Karl Rove, a heavyset, disheveled wunderkind from New Hampshire named Dave Carney was the Republican Party’s top young political consultant.
He had risen quickly through New Hampshire politics and, before he turned 30, followed his mentor John H. Sununu to the White House, where Carney served as special assistant to President George H.W. Bush. At 33, Carney was national field director for the 1992 Bush-Quayle reelection campaign. It wasn’t unusual at the time to see him on CNN debating Bill Clinton’s top lieutenants. When then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was ready to run for president in 1996, he knew which consultant he wanted on his team.
“Having Dave helps me sleep at night,” Dole told Time magazine. The story, titled “Dole’s Kitchen Magician,” was an ode to Carney. He had become well known in consulting circles for designing creative campaign strategies. Time reporter Michael Kramer wrote, “At 36, Carney is already a legend among Republican operatives.”
And then Carney’s career took an odd turn. The legend suddenly disappeared from public view.
After Dole’s 1996 defeat, Carney left Washington, D.C., and vanished from the national political scene. He retreated to Hancock, New Hampshire, the tiny town where he’d grown up. He focused on building his own consulting firm, flitting around the country between minor local and state races. He remained in the game, but no longer in the major leagues. No more national campaigns. No more magazine profiles. In 1998 he showed up in Texas, where a second Bush was preparing a presidential run. But that wasn’t what brought Carney to the state. The consultant who’d once helped oversee two presidential campaigns had arrived in Austin on a far less glamorous mission: to help a young Texas agriculture commissioner in his first race for lieutenant governor.
Rick Perry’s 1998 run for lieutenant governor wasn’t a high point, at least for the man who would later become Texas’ longest-serving governor. There was tremendous pressure, with then-Gov. George W. Bush eyeing the White House and Republicans desperate to have one of their own ready to step in as governor. Perry faced a formidable opponent in Democratic Comptroller John Sharp. Even with the overwhelmingly popular Gov. Bush winning a landslide reelection at the top of the ticket, Perry, with Carney’s help, barely squeaked by.
But the 1998 campaign marked the beginning of something unusual in politics: a true partnership. For the last 13 years, Carney has been integral to every Perry campaign. He molded the candidate and crafted the strategies that sometimes stunned onlookers. Over three gubernatorial races, Perry and Carney have become a much-feared political duo, fending off well-funded Democrats, a sitting Republican U.S. senator, a Tea Party primary challenger and even Kinky Friedman.
Carney, the chief strategist and innovator on Team Perry, doesn’t lust for the spotlight. Unlike many consultants-turned-celebrities, Carney is camera-shy. He refused an interview request for this story, as well as a recent request from Texas Monthly. While he speaks frequently on Perry’s behalf, he rarely talks about himself.
But anyone who studies Carney will find an innovative and nimble tactician. He’s spent much of the past 15 years experimenting with different approaches to campaigning, testing myriad strategies in state and local races nationwide. Though a Republican, he’s not ideological. His candidates have ranged from moderate to hard-core conservative. If there is a hallmark of a Carney race, it’s his creative strategies. He’s also dabbled with unscrupulous tactics, having once run a corporate-funded nonprofit that spent untold amounts of money criticizing certain candidates in the name of “voter education.” What’s clear is that he’ll try almost anything that will give him good odds to win. “If he can beat you, he will, and he’ll think of an imaginative way to do it,” says Carney’s friend, former New Hampshire GOP Chair Steve Duprey.
Perry is by far his most visible and well-known client. The two have become so close that when Carney signed on with the Newt Gingrich 2012 presidential campaign, many insiders wrote Perry off as a potential presidential candidate. Without Carney, they assumed, Perry wouldn’t run. Much like the famous political partnerships of the last two decades—George W. Bush and Karl Rove, Bill Clinton and James Carville, George H.W. Bush and Lee Atwater—Perry and Carney are practically symbiotic. So when Carney resigned from his post with Gingrich in early June, national speculation about a Rick Perry candidacy re-ignited.
Now the duo that has dominated Texas politics for more than a decade appears likely to take the show national. They’re reportedly organizing in early primary states, and an official Perry campaign kickoff seems imminent. It would be Carney’s third run for the White House—this time with his hand-picked candidate. Fifteen years after he departed the national scene, Carney seems poised to unveil his masterpiece: a Rick Perry presidential campaign.
The two men couldn’t be more different in appearance and demeanor. Rick Perry hails from the West Texas town of Paint Creek—a long way from New Hampshire in every sense. He has charm, charisma and folksiness to spare. The governor is a well-known fitness buff with movie star looks and a friendly twang. In many ways he resembles a cowboy who wandered off the set of a John Wayne movie.
Carney, meanwhile, is bull-doggish and heavy-set. One 1996 article described him as “bear-sized.” His thick New England accent and cutting wit offer sharp contrasts to Perry. He has an “ability to understand someone’s weakness right away and make light of it,” said former U.S. Sen. John Sununu, before adding: “In a nice way.”
“I wouldn’t vote for me,” Carney once told The Boston Globe, “and I don’t know anybody else who would.” He made headlines in The Dallas Morning News in 2010 when he offended Sarah Palin, calling the logistics of a joint Perry-Palin event “the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard.” He’s not exactly polished.
“He can swear like a trooper,” one of his former clients told me. “I’ve never heard a man say ‘fuck’ so many times in a minute.”
But beyond the superficial differences, the two men are more alike than not. They’re both small-town boys with intense political ambition. Both have fashioned themselves as political outsiders. And both have an apparent aversion to Washington, D.C.—the place they may ask voters to send them.
Perry has built much of his current political brand around dislike for D.C. and its people; between challenging the Environmental Protection Agency and criticizing the Obama administration, the governor has turned the word ‘Washington’ into almost a slur. Carney, meanwhile, clearly avoids the city by choice. He still lives in Hancock, New Hampshire, the town of 1,600 residents near where he grew up. He serves as an alternate on the town’s Transportation Zoning Authority. When that isn’t isolated enough, Carney can retreat to the private island he and his wife co-own with Texas lobbyist and former Perry chief of staff Mike Toomey on nearby Lake Winnipesaukee.
The pair’s outsider identities contrast starkly with the last Texas president. George W. Bush, of course, was the scion of a political dynasty, and the Bush and Perry camps have had a famously testy relationship. Bush consigliere Karl Rove helped bring Carney to Texas in 1998 to aid Perry, but the two campaigns soon soured on one another. Rove and the Bush team refused to let Perry go negative in his tight race. The Bushies wanted to make sure nothing depressed voter turnout; they wanted to highlight their man’s broad appeal and national electability.
Over the 13 years since, the resentment only worsened. Carney never endorsed Bush in the 2000 GOP primary. He is also often credited by political insiders for sculpting Perry’s public break with Bush. In 2007, Perry said Bush “has never ever been a fiscal conservative.” During Perry’s 2010 primary battle against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Perry-Bush split was clear in Rove’s widely observed influence on Hutchison’s campaign. In a New York Times story, Carney dismissed Hutchison and her ilk as “country club Republicans.”
The blue-blooded Bush camp disliked Perry’s brand of politics, its hard-ball flavor and backwoods feel. But liked or not, Perry and Carney have repeatedly proven how formidable their outsider brand can be.
The 2002 governor’s race gave Carney and Perry their first chance to prove themselves without Bush at the top of the ballot. Perry was finishing out the remainder of Bush’s term as governor and working to get elected in his own right. But it wasn’t going to be easy. Perry was up against Tony Sanchez, a Laredo businessman with very deep pockets. Sanchez would eventually outspend Perry by a 3-to-1 margin. In the world of politics, those numbers amount to daunting odds. But unleashed from the Rove-Bush dictates, Carney conducted a nasty, negative and stunningly effective campaign. Perry decimated Sanchez, winning more than 57 percent of the vote.
The Perry campaign famously aired ads linking Sanchez’s bank to money laundering by drug cartels. The racially charged ads infuriated Democrats. Carney didn’t seem to care. What mattered most was figuring out how to win the election. Mike Baselice, Perry’s longtime pollster, says Carney identified which messages would beat Sanchez early on, but waited until the end of the race to deliver them. Carney also wasn’t interested in guesswork. “My job was to figure out from the polling which messages worked the best,” Baselice said. “And there’s a reason, when we ran against Tony Sanchez, we talked about his failed savings and loans and drug kingpins laundering money through his bank. Because those were the best two messages in the poll we did.
“But we couldn’t put that on the air in June when Tony Sanchez was already attacking Perry. We had to wait until August when we finally had money to do it. Because once we went up, we wanted to stay up in a big way.” This, he says, is one of Carney’s greatest strengths—his willingness to hold off, to wait for the opportune moment and then go all in. He finds an opponent’s weakness and then exploits it with devastating effect.
Negative television ads are only part of Carney’s playbook. Those who have worked with him are in wide agreement that there’s no single mark to a Carney campaign. “When it comes to Carney’s campaign strategy, it’s ever-evolving,” says Reggie Bashur, a veteran Republican campaign consultant in Texas who’s known Carney for more than two decades. “No campaign is the same as the past. It always evolves.”
Tom Eaton might be the anti-Perry. He’s mild-mannered, averse to negative campaigning and, when he first met Carney in 1999, ran a successful funeral home in Keene, New Hampshire. Polite and well-liked, Eaton was a favorite among local Republicans, who recruited him to run for the New Hampshire state Senate in a special election. The stakes were high: Democrats held a two-seat majority over Republicans. A win in Keene would evenly divide the chamber. Eaton, Republicans decided, was the man to do it.
The problem was that Eaton had never even considered running for public office. Carney began calling Eaton’s office, trying to get an appointment. Eaton—who had no idea who Carney was or what he wanted—finally agreed to meet. “This vehicle pulls in and it has a two-digit license plate,” Eaton recalls. “This great big guy gets out and this other shorter guy get out. They kind of looked like Mutt and Jeff coming across the yard.”
This was Carney and his consulting firm partner James McKay. They tried to convince Eaton to run. Finally, Eaton, who needed to leave for a meeting, agreed to think about it. When he arrived back at his office he had three phone calls—one from the newspaper, one from a radio station, and one from Congressman Charlie Bass, congratulating Eaton on his decision to enter the race.
“Dave Carney ran the whole race and he made all the difference in the world,” Eaton says. “He was prepared for everything. He foresaw the future and was prepared for it. And prepared you for it.” Carney was prepared when Eaton’s opponent began airing a blisteringly negative ad, only a few days before the election, arguing the funeral director’s education plan would leave citizens bankrupt and homeless.
Carney hit back fast. He had to respond without employing an attack ad that would undermine Eaton’s mild-mannered image. “We basically were going to lose the race,” Eaton says. “Dave Carney put together an ad program in just two days time and played it, and we won.” The ad attacked Eaton’s opponent for going negative. “It was a woman’s voice and it was basically, ‘How do you build yourself up just to tear somebody else down?’”
It was perhaps a little odd coming from a consultant known for tearing opponents down, but Carney played to Eaton’s strengths and won the race. Within a few years, Eaton had risen to the presidency of the New Hampshire Senate—a position Carney helped him attain. “He was very good at molding me,” Eaton says. “He was tough, he was straightforward, he was thorough.”
Carney began experimenting with Internet campaigns early. In 2001, three years before Howard Dean’s website exploded, Carney started DraftSununu.com. The site was part of a larger effort to clear the way for then-Congressman John E. Sununu (the son of Carney’s mentor) to enter the U.S. Senate primary race in New Hampshire against controversial Republican incumbent Bob Smith. Carney bragged that the site received more than 1,000 views in its first two weeks—big numbers for 2001. Right-wing activists mobilized around Sununu, who went on to win the Senate seat in 2002. It was an example of Carney’ s willingness to try anything to win.
Occasionally Carney’s approach has landed him in legal trouble. He has long been affiliated with the group Americans for Job Security—a corporate-funded nonprofit whose attack ads strike fear in the hearts of Democrats and moderate Republicans alike. (The group reported Carney as its “chief executive” in 2002. More recently, he’s been identified as a “consultant.”) As a nonprofit, the group enjoys an enviable position—it can run incredibly negative ads against candidates without disclosing who’s paying for them. That’s because the group calls its ads “issue advocacy,” exploiting a legal loophole that allows corporate front groups to meddle in elections under the guise of education. Little is known about Americans for Job Security. The group began in 1997 with a million-dollar donation from the American Insurance Association. The group claims its goal is simply to inform voters, not to change electoral outcomes.
Voters get quite an education. In 2004, then-Texas state Rep. Tommy Merritt, a Longview Republican who occasionally voted with Democrats in the state House, found himself targeted by Americans for Job Security in his bid for state Senate. It was one of several Texas races that Carney’s nonprofit has waded into during Perry’s decade as governor. The group aired negative television ads that ended, “That’s Tommy Merritt. Stupid bills and higher taxes.” Merritt lost the race to a young Republican mayor of a nearby town. The ads skirted close to the legal line. Third-party groups and nonprofits can legally advocate for issues, but they can’t engage in electioneering for or against a candidate.
“I think [Carney] plays very close to the line and sometimes crosses the line without being penalized,” said Kathy Sullivan, the former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair and a longtime Carney foe. “To me it’s pretty obvious they are engaged in political advocacy. They seem to break the rules with impunity.” The group’s ads have only once led to legal consequences. In 2002, the Alaska Public Offices Commission fined Americans for Jobs Security, saying the group improperly tried to influence Alaska elections.
That wasn’t the only time Carney was accused of breaking the rules. In 2005 Carney narrowly avoided charges from the Federal Election Commission. He, his wife, and his partner James McKay had worked to get Ralph Nader on the 2004 New Hampshire ballot, hoping to rob votes from Democrat John Kerry. The question was whether Carney’s firm, Norway Hill, had paid for the signature drive to put Nader on the ballot, which would have violated campaign finance law. The federal agency’s general counsel report concluded that Carney had “knowingly and willfully” violated the law. Ultimately, however, prosecutors chose not to pursue the case, and by August 2005 the complaint had been dismissed.
Such run-ins have earned Carney a reputation for bare-knuckle politics. He’s willing to try whatever works and, perhaps more impressively, to scrap those things that don’t work. “We don’t do it enough after elections,” Baselice says. “We sit around the next day and say ‘I bet this worked’ or ‘that worked.’” Carney’s brilliance, the pollster says, comes from his willingness to discover what does work and let go of what doesn’t. Carney cares only about what will win votes. His colleagues already knew that. But it wasn’t until 2010 that they saw just how willing Carney was to throw out many of his assumptions about campaigning simply to win a race.
In 2010, Carney and Perry faced their toughest race yet. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, one of Texas’ most popular elected officials, challenged Perry in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Early polling showed Hutchison leading Perry by 20 points. She had not only popularity, but the ability to raise money in Washington and Texas. (She would end up raising more than $22 million for the primary, according to Texans for Public Justice.) The presence in the race of Tea Party candidate Debra Medina meant Perry faced challengers from both the left and right in the same primary. Consensus among politicos posited that the only way Perry could win would be an overtly negative campaign leading to a low-turnout primary. Even then, most experts expected a run-off.
But Carney had his own plan, and it meant turning the conventional wisdom on its head. He was confident it would work. He had the data to prove it.
He’d run the experiments four years earlier. Heading into Perry’s 2006 reelection campaign, Carney picked up a book to read on a plane—Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout. When he finished reading he promptly ordered copies for everyone he worked with. Then he called one of the authors, Yale political scientist Donald Green. Like many others who read the book, Carney was shocked by its findings: That old-fashioned, door-to-door campaigning is the most efficient way to turn out voters. Volunteer phone calls are pretty good too. But television ads, mailers and robocalls—the mainstays of modern campaigns and moneymakers for political consultants—have virtually no impact on voter turnout.
Carney wanted to test the book’s conclusions. He invited Green and his co-author Alan Gerber, as well as the University of Texas at Austin’s Daron Shaw and the University of Maryland’s James Gimpel to come experiment on Perry’s campaign. First they ran some minor fundraising experiments. “At the end of 2005,” Green says, “our ambitions grew larger.” The professors were invited to test the impact of the Perry campaign’s strategies.
Up close, Green saw the inner workings of the campaign, and just how central Carney was. “It is a very interesting leadership style,” the academic noted. “He can be very acerbic. Very funny. He has a long memory for all of the missteps of the people around him. He doesn’t mind reminding them of things they’ve done in the past that didn’t work so well. He’s able to get quite a lot of work out of them by continually reminding them that they could do better.”
By 2010, Carney’s team had completely transformed its approach. The professors’ experiments had convinced Carney that grassroots organizing was well worth the money. Television ads, the professors found, had short-lived impact. Robocalls had no impact at all. Carney suspected that campaigns used television ads, mailers and robocalls simply out of habit, not because they were particularly effective. So Carney and his team began to craft an enormous grassroots network of Perry supporters.
Green called it a “a bold new model” that “essentially reinvented the precinct captain model of the 1890s.” The Perry campaign invited supporters to become “home headquarters,” which basically meant volunteering to get 12 pro-Perry voters to the polls. The campaign website offered tips on how to attract these 12 voters. There was no direct mail. The campaign didn’t even seek editorial endorsements. “We actually found out that newspaper endorsements—particularly in the Republican primary—would make people less likely to vote for a candidate than more likely to vote for a candidate,” Baselice explained.
Some were skeptical; the Perry campaign was altering much of the political playbook. But on primary day an unprecedented 1.5 million people turned out. and Perry won with more than 50 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff and reversing much of what political consultants thought they knew about running a successful campaign. The general election wasn’t much closer—Perry walloped Democrat Bill White by more than 12 percentage points.
The 2010 race demonstrates just how much trust Perry has in Carney. The plan was risky. “Putting quite a lot of money into grassroots organizing, especially early grassroots organizing, is something that was not done in years past,” Green said. But Baselice says that at this point Perry has total faith in his team. He doesn’t second-guess. He doesn’t interfere. Perry “relies on the campaign team and he trusts us. That’s a relationship that’s built up over the years with Dave.”
If he runs for president, Perry will have to rely on Carney like never before. Time is running short for Perry’s 2012 presidential ambitions. An August announcement is late in the game, leaving scant time for fundraising and organizing. Perry has never run a national campaign, faced a national press corps or suffered broad scrutiny. But Carney has. And anyone familiar with Carney’s work can guess that the strategic decisions have already been made, a plan is in place, and Perry has only to give the word.
Some Texas political insiders believe that Carney has been plotting a Perry presidential run since 2006. He’s certainly steered his candidate into an enviable political position. Perry can credibly run as an anti-Washington outsider. He literally wrote a book— Fed Up!—about his distaste for the federal government. And Perry holds wide appeal within the Republican Party. He is deeply religious and will hold a “day of prayer and fasting” in Houston on Aug. 6, and he also has longstanding ties with the Texas business community. He might bridge the divide between Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney—the leading GOP contenders of the moment.
The next stages of Carney’s plan are already becoming clear. Perry’s team has reportedly begun recruiting organizers in Iowa, and Americans for Job Security has started running ads in New Hampshire—a state Carney knows well—lauding the governor’s Texas record.
The rest of Carney’s game plan may not be evident just yet, and it may not even be successful. But Carney undoubtedly has it mapped out six moves ahead. As one Texas political operative told me, most good consultants play a good game of checkers. They have a general strategy and react to each move one by one. But that’s not Carney. “Dave Carney,” the consultant said, “plays a superior game of chess.”