John Thune’s 2004 challenge to former Sen. Tom Daschle looked a little like a kamikaze mission. Two years previously, Thune had lost to Sen. Tim Johnson, another South Dakota Democrat who is a far less impressive campaigner than the former minority leader, in a year when Republicans racked up victories nationwide. But for his race against Daschle, Thune heeded the advice of the Bush White House, dumped his first campaign team, and hired Dick Wadhams. The 49-year-old operative comes across as an aging country boy, but he is renowned for running nasty and effective campaigns. In South Dakota he honed his slash-and-burn reputation, relentlessly attacking Daschle about his Washington, D.C., home, luxury car, and lobbyist wife. At one point, Wadhams accused the former minority leader of having “emboldened Saddam Hussein.” Thune won, by a slim margin, and gratefully dubbed his campaign manager “the best pit bull out there.”
Rove may have figured that recommending Wadhams for the South Dakota race would be the next best thing to taking Daschle down himself. The two operatives, who have known each other since their days in College Republicans, run similar campaigns. Both shield their candidates from the press. Both like to work with clients who may not be powerhouse political talents, but who sell well as regular guys and thrive on being underestimated. And both win, a lot. In addition to engineering President Bush’s election and re-election, Rove masterminded the GOP’s 1998 sweep of every elected statewide office in Texas. Wadhams has lost only one of the nine statewide campaigns he has worked on. Now that Rove’s tenure as pre-eminent consigliere is drawing to a close—at a press breakfast shortly after the November 2004 election, he said he wouldn’t run another presidential campaign—Wadhams is emerging as his most obvious successor.
Like Rove, Wadhams grew up out west, in an apolitical family. He volunteered for local races as a high-school student and became a Republican county chairman in Colorado at the age of 19. The year was 1974, and Wadhams credits his early rise to the aftershocks of Watergate. “The party was on its haunches,” he explains. “I was the only idiot who would take the job.” Financial constraints meant Wadhams couldn’t do politics full time: He paid his way through Colorado State University at Pueblo with a part-time gig at a mortuary, but apparently found time to study. “He got an A out of me,” recalls Wally Stealey, a former political scientist at the university and a Democrat. “I told him it was too bad he was a Republican.” By 1990, Wadhams had emerged as the state’s top GOP operative, helping to orchestrate the rise of Sen. Wayne Allard and Gov. Bill Owens.
In those races, Wadhams didn’t hesitate to run attack ads and regularly belittle his opponents. His approach mirrors not only Rove’s but also that of the late Lee Atwater, creator of the Willie Horton ads that helped sink Michael Dukakis. While most campaign managers are defensive about going negative, however—Atwater, for example, claimed he got the idea for the Horton ads from Al Gore’s primary campaign—Wadhams is entirely unapologetic. “There’s nothing wrong with going negative,” he once argued. “Staying positive is a disservice to the voters because differences between the candidates are never revealed.” When Wadhams worked for Allard in 1996 and 2002, his two-time opponent Democrat Tom Strickland was widely regarded as the smarter candidate. But Wadhams successfully cast Strickland as an untrustworthy “lawyer-lobbyist” and Allard as a likable, low-key country vet. When it turned out Strickland had made a tidy profit from the IPO of Global Crossing—a company that figured prominently in the corporate scandals of 2002—Wadhams was well-positioned to pounce. Strickland was “up to his mustache in corporate scandal,” he proclaimed, and “probably the dirtiest candidate in America.”
Firing off rhetorical bombs is, of course, a campaign mainstay. What’s unusual about Wadhams is that he hurls the accusations himself. Campaigns often use surrogates to levy their nastier charges. But Wadhams is quoted so often that he could be taken for the candidate. Playing the heavy allows him to maintain control while keeping clients like Thune and Allard above the fray. In the South Dakota race, it was Wadhams who relentlessly portrayed Daschle as a former prairie boy who had morphed into an East Coast yuppie. He “is deathly afraid someone will expose his record of saying one thing from his $3 million mansion in Washington, D.C. and saying another thing when he visits South Dakota,” Wadhams told the New York Times Magazine. Asked if he’d feel comfortable levying that line, Thune acknowledged he wouldn’t. “But that’s why I hired Dick,” he said.
Not every candidate would allow his or her campaign manager to act as a mouthpiece. But Wadhams’ approach limits a client’s chance to screw up. Given the weaknesses of some of the candidates he works with, that’s probably vital. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, for example, nearly blew his re-election chances in 2000 when he called Arabs “ragheads.”* Instead of featuring candidate speeches or press conferences, Wadhams understands that controlling the message starts with making sure you don’t hand ammunition to the opposition, so he deluges reporters with written press releases and phones them himself, sometimes as many as five times a day.
Another way to control a campaign is to shape its news coverage, and Wadhams found a new way to do that for the Thune campaign. South Dakota Republicans had long accused the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the state’s most influential paper, of being pro-Daschle. When two bloggers, Jason Van Beek and Jon Lauck, began cataloguing alleged acts of bias like lack of criticism of Linda Daschle’s lobbying practice, Wadhams hired them as campaign researchers. Wadhams insists he wasn’t underwriting the bloggers’ online enterprises. But Van Beek and Lauck didn’t disclose that the Thune campaign was cutting them checks. And they succeeded in aiding Thune: The assistant managing editor of the Argus Leader admitted that the paper’s coverage had been affected by the online criticism, implicitly acknowledging that it was tougher on Daschle in the Thune race than it had been in the past.
The South Dakota race established Wadhams as a giant-slayer, giving him his pick of future clients. In January, he signed on with Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican whose staunch conservatism is leavened by his good ol’ boy manners. Outside his home state, Allen is a relative unknown, but he’s generating plenty of interest among party apparatchiks. In an April poll in the National Journal, pollsters, consultants, and media pundits picked Allen as the No. 1 choice to head the 2008 GOP ticket.
Can Wadhams take Allen from a little-known senator to a spot on the national ticket? It’s a gamble, for sure: Even some Republicans snicker at Allen’s tendency to turn every thought into a football metaphor (primaries are “intersquad scrimmages”; Senate recess is “halftime”). Questions about whether Allen is smart enough to be president are sure to dog a potential bid. And Wadhams has never run a national campaign before—or for that matter, a campaign outside a red state. The Republican presidential primary will be crowded, which means that his reflexive go-negative strategy could be risky: Voters who are turned off by the mudslinger as well as the mud will have other options to choose among.
Still, Allen’s amiable charm fits the mold that Wadhams has succeeded with before. The Virginian may not be a policy wonk, but his lack of pretension will likely resonate with the conservative voters who matter in primaries. Last month, Allen earned kudos from the right when he lambasted the Senate filibuster deal on judicial nominations, saying that two scuttled nominees, William Myers III and Henry Saad, had “been accorded a nice wake having been thrown overboard at sea.” And he won chits when he oversaw the Republicans’ pick up of four U.S. Senate seats last year, as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Let’s not forget what happened the last time a GOP consultant who’d rolled up state-level victories signed up with an underestimated candidate. On the long road to 2008, Wadhams is positioned to jump in where Karl Rove gets off.