Back in November of 1996, at the ripe old age of 23, I thought I was ready for the big time.
I was just a year out of Temple University, and at the end of my very first cycle, working at a political consulting firm in New Jersey. So I decided to trek down to Alexandria, Virginia with my friend and office mate to sit down with one of the country’s top Republican pollsters to talk about our future in the business.
The pollster, who is still at the top of his game and a friend, was kind enough to meet with us after we had gotten to know him a bit over the course of the prior election cycle. We figured it was the first step on our meteoric rise to surefire consulting stardom in Washington, D.C.
We were wrong, and it was a good thing we realized it. After a 20-minute, fairly one-sided conversation (him talking, us listening), the advice was clear: Go home, work hard, earn your stripes and grow into a bigger fish in your relatively smaller Jersey pond, rather than relocating to D.C. and getting lost in the shuffle with thousands of other 23-year-olds with outsized egos and no real experience.
While there are certainly people who parachute into Washington and succeed at “going national” before the ink is even dry on their diplomas (even without a shred of legitimate on-the-ground campaign experience), the professional advice I received to take a different path remains some of the best to ever come my way. In many ways, it set the course for my life up to this point.
Over the next decade, I managed races on the local, county, state legislative and congressional level, worked as the top political staffer for a county political organization that raised and spent more money than some state parties at the time, and I learned about campaigns from virtually every angle. I was a sponge, soaking up tricks of the trade from smart people in a state that’s full of shrewd political operators.
In 2009, more than a dozen years after that fateful meeting in Alexandria, I decided to take the plunge and start my own firm. If I hadn’t waited, I’m not sure I would have succeeded.
Make New Friends
While the backbone of my business was (and still is) New Jersey-based campaigns, I knew that to be successful long-term, I would need to make new friends beyond the confines of the great Garden State.
I attended training conferences, relentlessly pursued meetings with decision makers and political pros in Washington, D.C. and surrounding states, spent money and time to promote myself and my work, and I made it a point to stay in contact with fellow politicos whose paths I crossed along the way.
While I met some good people and made some promising contacts, I would be lying if I told you that my efforts paid off in that first year of networking. I still needed a big win on the national level to get people to take notice. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long.
The Big Break
No, I’m not talking about the wildly underrated reality show on The Golf Channel that sometimes helps with insomnia. I’m talking about the big win that helps open some eyes. Mine was former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan’s victory over a well-funded incumbent Democratic congressman in 2010.
It was the first win by any congressional challenger over an incumbent in New Jersey since 1998, and the water that helped the seeds I planted the year before begin to grow. While we live in a world where people love to take more credit than they are due, anyone who has been in politics long enough knows that nobody wins a big race on their own. You need a solid candidate, a smart, hardworking team and a little bit of luck on your side.
The lesson for the purpose of growing your firm or raising your profile, though, is to not fall into the trap of believing your own B.S. Just because you won a big race, people aren’t all of a sudden going to start throwing bouquets of roses at your feet and beating down doors to hire you. To the contrary, now is the time to strike while the iron is hot.
Don’t Get Caught Watching the Paint Dry
As Dennis Hopper’s character, Shooter, stressed to his team after calling the Picket Fence play in the cinematic classic “Hoosiers”: Don’t get caught watching the paint dry.
First and foremost, never forget where you came from. Make sure you pay attention to your longstanding and existing clients who helped you get where you are. You wouldn’t be in the position to succeed and grow your firm if it weren’t for them. More to the point, if it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t have a firm in the first place. Don’t forget that.
At the same time, don’t be content with just one big win. Put yourself out there and seek opportunities on other high profile races. Identify a handful of competitive districts or compelling candidates and reach out to the group of friends and contacts that you have cultivated in the prior years to see if any of them have a connection for you.
You should also be spending some of that newly-acquired capital helping others. Keep an eye out for opportunities to help smart, talented people you trust in Washington or across the country. Creating your own family tree of fellow consultants, operatives, employees, and interns can only help you and your firm continue to grow in the future. Not to mention that it’s a great opportunity to make some real friends who will be there to pick you up when things don’t go as planned, and when you might not be flying as high.
Never Give Up
Political campaigns are a tough business. Nobody wins every race. Anyone who says they do is probably busy dunking on six-foot rims and only taking on races that tilt heavily their way at the start.
Many factors can land you on the losing side of a toss-up race. Sometimes you are a victim of an unfavorable political environment or even just bad timing. Other times the candidate melts down despite your best efforts. Still other times, you and your team might make a decision that doesn’t turn out right, and it costs you the win.
No matter what, the golden rule of growing your own firm, and going national, is to never give up. If you’re smart, work hard and are passionate about what you do, you have a great chance to succeed. Hope to see you out on the campaign trail.
Chris Russell is president of CR Consulting, a New Jersey-based Republican direct mail firm.