This spring, former combat Marine, one-time Reagan Navy secretary, and first-time candidate James Webb surprised political experts by entering the Democratic Senate primary in Virginia at the last minute--and winning. Three days later, Webb shocked Washington again by pulling within five points of the heavy-spending incumbent, Republican George Allen, despite a cash crunch that had kept Webb off the air for weeks. Legendary Virginia pundit Larry Sabato gave an ominous reading of the situation: The state's voters didn't yet know much about Webb, so the close numbers reflected "a judgment on George Allen." Damaging headlines loomed.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the front page. The poll results had barely gone public before Allen's chief campaign strategist, Dick Wadhams, went on the offensive. Sabato was a "biased" source, Wadhams sniffed to reporters from the Newport News, Va.-based Daily Press, and The Wall Street Journal poll carried out by establishment pollster John Zogby was "a joke." Moreover, said Wadhams, Zogby had "long ago been discredited."
A livid Zogby took the bait. "Frankly, I have never heard of Dick Wadhams and I may never hear from him again since he obviously is delusional," the pollster sputtered in a letter to the Virginia paper. "The race is close, and... Wadhams is obviously not up to the task."
Actually, thanks to Zogby's angry reaction, Wadhams had just earned his paycheck. Bloggers and political observers zeroed in on the showdown--particularly the scorn aimed at Sabato, a Virginia institution with a reputation for nonpartisanship. ("CHARLOTTESVILLE BRAWL" screamed one headline.) Obscured by the theatrics were the implications of the poll itself: why was Allen, a one-time shoo-in for reelection and a purported leader in the 2008 presidential pack, polling miserably against an almost unknown opponent? What's more, Sabato and Zogby had now been cast, however unwillingly, into partisan roles. Forget politics as bloodsport; this was negative campaigning raised to a fine art.
To describe Wadhams, a 50-year-old Colorado native, as indispensable to Allen's political future is almost to understate his importance. Democrats discuss Wadhams in fatalistic tones, with a kind of grudging respect; Republicans wax downright reverent. Both sides view him as Karl Rove's heir-apparent. Still, the race in Virginia is as crucial for him as it is for George Allen. If Wadhams steers Allen to victory, he'll probably manage Allen's national campaign in 2008, effectively assuming the Turd Blossom's mantle. But if Jim Webb manages to defeat Allen, a Republican incumbent and top-tier presidential prospect, it would mean more than the death of the senator's presidential hopes. It would mean that Democrats may have finally found the political kryptonite they need to counter the winning strategy that GOP superhero consultants, like Wadhams, have used to carry their party to dominance.
The celebrity Republican campaign manager with a taste for the jugular has become an icon of modern politics. Most belonged to the same generation of cutthroat Watergate-era College Republicans. The first luminary, Lee Atwater, grabbed a foothold in campaign history during a successful 1980 congressional race during which he anonymously told reporters his candidate's Democratic opponent had been treated for mental illness by being "hooked up to jumper cables." He sealed his fame masterminding George H.W. Bush's 1988 victory over Michael Dukakis, aided by the infamous Willie Horton ads. After Atwater succumbed to brain cancer 15 years ago, Karl Rove became the leading avatar of the brutal style he'd pioneered.
Theirs has always been a simple formula: all it takes is a few socially divisive wedge issues and the ability to frame opponents' strengths as weaknesses. Rove added his own innovations: aggressive deployment of K Street cash and sophisticated demographic targeting--the latter skill gleaned from his days in the direct-mail business. Their trademark style, which has come to dominate GOP politics, is defined by the masterfully delivered below-the-belt hit.
Wadhams is generally acknowledged to have taken such low blows to new heights, combining blistering verbal assaults, nasty wedge issues, and general loud-mouthing in an astonishingly effective manner. Wadhams "represents the next stage," says Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli: "Rove understood direct mail, the strategic theory for that moment. Wadhams has those talents, but also he is the message master who understood what new technology means to that approach before almost anyone else." In 2004, when Wadhams was helping Republican John Thune to unseat South Dakota Democrat and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, every weapon in the arsenal was unfurled. There were damaging storylines: Daschle was a "pathological liar," a farm-boy turned effete Michael Moore groupie who had reliably "emboldened Saddam Hussein." There was base-riling: At many of the state's churches, packages arrived filled with bumper stickers carrying the slogan "Vote Daschle, Vote for Sodomy." (Wadhams was careful to distance himself personally from those deliveries--but happy to discuss them.) And there was Wadhams as one-man campaign wrecking ball: When Daschle communications director Dan Pfeiffer tried to squeeze in a media hit after an election-related courthouse faceoff, Wadhams stood just off-camera bellowing "Bullshit! Bullshit!" like an outraged baseball fan cat-calling a major-league ump.
Wadhams's most effective innovations involved media manipulation. Under his leadership, the campaign secretly paid two conservative South Dakota bloggers who spent election season blasting the state's major paper, the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, for supposed pro-Daschle bias. The paper's dazed editors later admitted the mau-mauing influenced their campaign coverage. Thune beat Daschle by fewer than 4,000 votes.
That Wadhams would think to co-opt a pair of bloggers is testament to his understanding of the news business, a savvy that sets him apart from nearly all his peers. Wadhams spends half his time flooding the zone with slash-and-burn press releases--dozens a week--and most of the rest chatting up reporters eager to discuss politics, not policy. The press releases create a sense of urgency, and, through sheer volume, manufacture the feeling of a rapidly developing story. The phone calls--at the height of campaign season, local journalists describe getting up to half a dozen a day--both flatter and intimidate. (The mercurial Wadhams can shift from amiable to antagonistic in an instant.)
Where Atwater and Rove often preferred to cloak their animus in off-the-record chats and third-party actors, Wadhams seeks out the spotlight. His public pronouncements are ubiquitous and brutal, and he seems to revel in the bloodletting. When Montana Republican Conrad Burns was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate and tanked in a debate with Democratic challenger Brian Schweitzer, Wadhams told an AP scribe that Schweitzer had performed like a "smart-ass thug." Media coverage of the debate was dominated by the comment, not Burns's lackluster showing. (Schweitzer, who lost narrowly, was later elected governor.) When Republican senator Wayne Allard of Colorado faced a challenge from Democrat Tom Strickland, Wadhams described Strickland as an untrustworthy "lawyer-lobbyist," and "the dirtiest candidate in America." (One columnist marveled, "[W]ho else [but Wadhams] can say 'lawyer-lobbyist' 50 times an hour and, each time, make it sound exactly like 'murderer-rapist'?") When Strickland arranged a climb to the top of Grays Peak at sunrise to showcase his environmental credentials, Wadhams made sure a team of catcalling Allard staffers was waiting for him at the summit. Twice, Strickland faced off against Allard and Wadhams; both times, he lost.
So far, such tactics have earned Wadhams an impressive record: he's suffered only one loss in nearly three decades of campaign management. (The defeat came in 1992 when Colorado Republican Terry Considine lost his Senate race to then-Democrat Ben Nighthorse Campbell.) "Going negative gets a bad rap," Wadhams told me. "Voters have to make a choice. You need to show how the candidates differ from each other. That's how democracy works, so that's how I work." (He's not alone on the Allen campaign: longtime Republican media operative Chris LaCivita, a former Marine who's known Webb for years, spent 2004 advising Swiftboat Veterans for Truth. Now, he's landed a spot working under Wadhams.)
During one particularly nasty race, Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin decided he'd had enough. "This is politics by invective--loser, fraud, dirty," he sputtered. "I asked [Dick] Wadhams where was the line you didn't cross. He said it was up to the voters to determine." In other words, democracy means never having to say you're sorry.
A real challenge
As midterms approach, and Democrats become increasingly optimistic, it's easy to forget just how unified and unstoppable the Bush-led Republican juggernaut seemed as little as a year ago. Nobody embodied that aura of inevitability quite like George Allen. In 2005, top Republican officials and funders considered Allen to be the most likely presidential frontrunner for 2008. Not only was Allen riding high in his home state, he was fresh off a highly successful stint as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Under his leadership, the party had picked up several seats, including Tom Daschle's. He lacked the liabilities of other candidates: John McCain's reformism, Mitt Romney's Mormonism, Rudy Giuliani's social liberalism. Allen was a W redux--folksy, fratty, base-pleasing, and blessed (or cursed) with the name of a famous father (the football legend who coached the Los Angeles Rams and Virginia's beloved Washington Redskins). When Wadhams signed on to Allen's team, it was viewed as yet another sign of the senator's 2008 credibility. The senator, it was said, had won the "Wadhams primary."
But the party's luck changed, and Allen's fortunes shifted with it. As Iraq degenerated, New Orleans flooded, and the Medicare prescription-drug plan spread disarray among seniors, declarations of unqualified support for President Bush stopped looking so appealing. Allen's overwhelmingly pro-administration voting record (he voted in favor of presidential policies 97 percent of the time) morphed from a selling point to a vulnerability. In Virginia, the senator's approval ratings hovered around the 50-percent mark, the traditional danger zone for any incumbent trying to hold on to his seat.
To make matters worse, the senator drew an unexpectedly strong Democratic challenger in Webb, a one-time Allen supporter turned anti-Iraq war Democrat. As a social moderate, a decorated Vietnam veteran, and one-time member of the Reagan White House, Webb threatened Allen on a host of fronts. Suddenly, what looked like a cakewalk to re-election was shaping up to be the most hotly-covered Senate race since Hillary Clinton's inaugural run in New York.
I met Wadhams a few days before Webb wrapped up the nomination, just after a damaging New Republic profile of Allen hit the stands. Ryan Lizza's cover story focused on a number of unsettling Allen quirks, including his semi-abusive adolescent relationship with his siblings, and his unlikely embrace, as a born-and-bred Californian, of Confederate icons and culture--including a noose he once hung from a ficus tree in his office (his explanation--that the offending item was merely part of a Western memorabilia collection--didn't reduce the cringe factor). The Allen bandwagon had hit a roadblock on the way to the White House; suddenly, his team was feeling a lot less secure, and it showed. Wadhams veered between soft-spoken affability, and a prickly, defensive denial. Obvious questions--like whether the president's anemic approval ratings could prove a drag on Allen's own--turned him steely, and visibly tense.
We settled down in one of the half-furnished rooms in Allen's new campaign headquarters, a suite in a gleaming building just off an I-395 exit ramp in Arlington. Leaning forward in his chair, a grinning Wadhams dismissed the negative press and insisted things were right where he wanted them to be. "This is the kind of race I like, a real challenge," he said. "You get to point out the... the contrast between the candidates." His unapologetic campaign credo, he added, is "always get on the offensive, always stay on the offensive."
The battle began early for Dick Wadhams. As a Colorado teenager from a politically uninvolved family, he fell hard for Richard Nixon--but it was a solitary crush; he was, he insists, the only Nixon fan in his high school. Starting off as a 19-year-old GOP county chairman in the wasteland of post-Watergate Republican politics, Wadhams subsidized his university studies and political career with money from part-time work at a mortuary. After climbing on board Colorado Republican Bill Armstrong's successful Senate bid in 1978, Wadhams spent the next decade working for Armstrong and his successor, and fighting his way to the top of the political food chain.
Over the years, Wadhams's obsession with trail life has only deepened. His wife Susan, a former campaign staffer, died of cancer five years ago. Since then, Wadhams has been lured ever farther afield from his home state, living life from race to race. He's spent the past year in Washington but doesn't have his own apartment yet; instead, he stays with friends not far from Allen campaign headquarters. "I don't really go for hobbies," he says, impatiently. "I just like doing my job."
"George Allen is at the most vulnerable moment of his career," says Larry Sabato. "[T]his just isn't the same state it used to be." As its ever-expanding northern Virginia suburbs fill up with transplants from Chicago, Boston, California, and New Delhi, the state's politics are edging away from their Old South roots. "Virginia is evolving into the next big swing state," says Sabato.
Perhaps nowhere in the state is this kind of change more dramatic than in Fredericksburg, located midway between Washington, D.C. and Richmond. Once rural and overwhelmingly Republican, the Fredericksburg area now forms the de-facto southern extreme of the D.C. suburbs. The region is the state's fastest-growing--over the past decade-and-a-half, the area's population has surged by an astounding 70 percent. Fredericksburg is the sort of Republican stronghold that Allen doesn't just need to win; he needs to win overwhelmingly.
The small-town feel hasn't disappeared just yet; Fredericksburg on the Fourth of July looked like it had been airlifted straight out of 1962. The same Impalas and mile-wide Buicks lined the streets; Ray Charles and Patsy Cline provided the soundtrack. Just after the Rotary Club announced the winner of the annual chili cook-off, I headed over to the small corner of Caroline Street, on the edge of the Rappahannock River, where Allen and Webb supporters were angling for voter attention just a few feet from each other.
Allen retains an edge among longtime residents, a staunchly conservative crowd; it's the newcomers who pose the biggest challenge. Bert De Vore, a retired textbook salesman who moved to Fredericksburg six years ago, admitted that the Iraq war had probably cost George Allen his support. "We did our part," he said. "Poor guys, it's time to bring them home now. We need a senator who understands that." Lt. Col. Susan Schaffer, a career Air Force lawyer and Reagan voter, stood halfway between the two groups as she described how her political views had shifted since she joined the military legal team assigned to defend Guantanamo prisoners. "It's been a real eye-opener--you know, seeing how the law is swayed by politics," she said softly, in a voice that still carried traces of her Midwestern roots. "Now I know how things really work. It changes how you look at everything in our system." When she finally headed back towards the rest of the fair, the Spotsylvania County resident was sporting a newly-acquired Webb for Senate sticker.
Just like his boss, Dick Wadhams is facing a make-or-break race. He's almost exactly where Karl Rove was six years ago: a middle-aged operative who's spent years toiling in state races. Like Rove, Wadhams has joined up with a well-funded figure with regular-guy appeal and more than a touch of bravado. Like Rove, his ascent is threatened by a highly-decorated veteran and media darling who dazzles moderates and independents (for Rove, McCain; for Wadhams, longtime McCain pal Webb). But unlike 2000, his opponents have spent the past few years figuring out just how to fight back.
Webb's campaign strategy is largely handled by two Dixie-born consultants, Steve Jarding and Dave "Mudcat" Saunders. The combative Southerners--who literally wrote the book (Foxes in the Henhouse) on how Democrats can win south of the Mason-Dixon--have developed their own strategy for dealing with the Rovian brand of attack politics. Like that other Southern Democratic duo, James Carville and Paul Begala, Jarding and Saunders believe in hitting back hard and fast.
A few days after the Zogby scrap, Wadhams's team seized on Webb's lack of support for the flag-burning amendment then before the Senate, depicting the challenger as an acolyte of "Kerry, Kennedy and Schumer." For Jarding and Saunders, it was just the opening they'd been waiting for. Within minutes, a searing 695-word response hit the inbox of every reporter in the state. "While Jim Webb and others of George Felix Allen Jr.'s generation were fighting for our freedoms and for our symbols of freedom in Vietnam, George Felix Allen Jr. was playing cowboy at a dude ranch in Nevada," read the release. "People who live in glass dude ranches should not question the patriotism of real soldiers who fought and bled for this country on a real battlefield." The war-room response managed to be speedy, over-the-top, and highly quotable. Journalists swooned. "[I]f there was any doubt about how Webb was going to run his campaign, they were destroyed in one thermonuclear e-mail," noted the Daily Press in an approving editorial. Better still for the Webb team, a press release from the Allen campaign showing a significant lead for Allen in a SurveyUSA poll was largely buried by coverage of the patriotism showdown.
"Wadhams thinks he's doing us damage," a gleeful Jarding boasted to me the next day, "but it's like he's poking holes in his own boat." The Webb campaign accused the Allen team of a Swiftboat vets-style assault, which Jarding says prompted a healthy cash infusion from donors eager to avenge John Kerry and Max Cleland. It's a risky game, admit Democrats; the nasty back-and-forth could depress turnout, which generally translates into a Republican electoral advantage. But in their view, Jim Webb is helping to chart the party's course across traditionally deadly campaign terrain. In this brave new world, the GOP's killer campaign team itself becomes the target.
Webb still has an uphill battle. As of mid-July, Allen, who hasn't lose a race in nearly a quarter-century, still retained a double-digit lead in some polls, and millions more than his cash-poor opponent. To keep his Oval Office dreams alive, he doesn't have to win in November by much. He just has to win. Whether he does or not may determine more than the likely frontrunner in the '08 GOP primaries. An Allen victory means that the slash-and-burn style mastered by Atwater, dominated by Rove, and advanced by Wadhams is still an unstoppable force. A loss may mean that Democrats, finally, may have figured out a way to beat it.