Why get a new job, when you can open a new firm?
For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a 26-to-31-year-old political junkie who has worked almost your entire adult life for the party. Perhaps you are a Republican who started out as a campaign hand and contributed to taking back both chambers of Congress in the ‘90s and, in 2000, the White House. For most of the last decade, jobs in Washington were easy to come by, and you found it easy to bounce from congressional of%uFB01ce to a campaign committee and then the Republican National Committee. Then 2008 came and everything changed.
Republicans control the fewest number of seats in Congress in decades, and there are no longer the thousands of obscure positions in the administration on which to fall back. While those sound like bad shoes to be in, many of the young Republican operatives who %uFB01t that bill have turned it to their advantage and have taken part in a time-honored D.C. tradition for the party out of power. They’ve launched their own consulting %uFB01rms.
“It’s an unmistakable trend that experienced %uFB02acks and staffers are putting up their own operations—90 percent of them are Republicans,” says Matt Mackowiak, 30, a veteran Capitol Hill staffer who recently launched the Potomac Strategy Group. “There’s a lot more movement on the Democratic side [in terms of jobs]. On the Republican side, it’s very stagnant. There are not a lot of places to go.”
In addition to Mackowiak, Republican National Convention Communications Director Matt Burns, 31, launched Compelem Strategies. Former Bush Pentagon aide James Davis, 28, launched Surge Strategies and Alex Conant, 29, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee and the Bush White House, started Conant Communications and is working most notably for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s presidential exploratory committee. Others have been out on their own for a while longer, including former RNC Communications Director Danny Diaz. John Feehery, a veteran Republican consultant who launched the Feehery Group in 2007, says that there are a couple reasons for the uptick in new shops. The %uFB01rst is that it makes more business sense.
“Necessity is the mother of all invention,” he says. “For a lot of these guys it would be a lot easier to go off on their own than work for a big %uFB01rm and not make as much money.” Second, at bigger %uFB01 rms, having the last president’s name listed on a resume is still perceived as toxic. “If you worked for the Bush administration, a lot of people just didn’t want to hire you,” Feehery says.
While new GOP shops are popping up fairly frequently, Richard Schlackman, the veteran Democratic mail guru at MSHC Partners, notes that the formation of new shops after a wave election is nothing new. “It’s pretty normal for both parties,” he says. “People left their position in government and they made a lot of contacts so they are trying to cash in.”
These entrepreneurial Republican consultants say the best part of launching a new shop is the independence to pick who you work for and controlling your own schedule. “The freedom is awesome,” Conant says, and the client lists for their shops prove the point. Mackowiak, for example, has launched both corporate and political branches, while Davis has focused on think tanks and universities. Most have also worked for issue advocacy groups, a burgeoning market in the consulting world. All of these small shops focus on providing more personalized service at a lower cost than the larger, more established %uFB01rms.
“I think the larger %uFB01rms have a tendency to come in and sell you on a certain set of expertise. Then they turn the client to someone less experienced,” says Burns, who worked on Republican Dede Scozzafava’s campaign in the special election in New York’s 23rd District. “One of the staples of every pitch I make is my experience comes with me, and I am intimately involved in every project.” Because of the size of their %uFB01rms, these new consultants can charge a lot less and some have been able to steal clients away from the bigger %uFB01rms.
“There is a market for leaner, meaner shops,” says Mackowiak, who most recently worked for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). “People may not have the budget for a $15,000 retainer with one of the big %uFB01rms, but they may be in the market for a $5,000 monthly retainer where they know they are getting the service from the people who pitched it.”
The end games for the young people behind these new %uFB01rms are as varied as their clientele. Some are just trying to make it through the next year or two in hopes that the GOP brand rebounds and more opportunities develop. Others may be looking to eventually move in-house at a bigger %uFB01rm. Davis, for example, shuttered Surge Strategies a few months after founding it and joined Gibraltar and Associates. Others say they might join forces with other
young %uFB01rms in the future to add some more manpower.
Feehery warns that running your own %uFB01rm is “fun for a while” but can become “exhausting.” Bigger %uFB01rms, he says, have more resources. “You
can get a lot of personalized attention, but you are necessarily limited by the lack of arms and legs,” he says.Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer for Politics magazine.
Why get a new job, when you can open a new firm?