Friday, August 06, 2010

Jersey Native Looks to Shore up GOP Senate Majority

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Third in a series of profiles of committee independent expenditure directors.

“If it wasn’t for Mike DuHaime, I wouldn’t be a Senator today,” New Jersey state Sen. Anthony Bucco (R) recalled recently about a campaign that took place almost 13 years ago.

After this year’s elections, more than a dozen GOP Senate candidates might be saying the same thing.

Earlier this year, the National Republican Senatorial Committee announced DuHaime would direct the committee’s independent expenditure effort, which will fund the committee’s television ad blitzes and direct mail this fall.

“Mike DuHaime is a seasoned and well-respected strategist whose political skills and experience will greatly benefit Senate Republican candidates in the months ahead,” NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said. Because of campaign finance law, tens of millions of dollars will be spent through the IE unit without coordination with NRSC staff.

“We wanted someone with a broad array of experience — someone who’s worked on several campaigns and inside the committees, and Mike more than met that criteria,” NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer said.

When DuHaime was political director for the Republican National Committee during the 2006 election cycle, he hired Jesmer and Randy Bumps as two of his regional political directors. Bumps was the NRSC’s political director this cycle until earlier this year, when he moved to the IE side to advise DuHaime.

Politics Is a Family Sport

Republican strategists believe DuHaime’s diverse résumé will serve the party well in November. He has run campaigns when the political wind was at his back but also when it was in his face, and he has national experience from the RNC and running a presidential campaign.

But some of his most valuable experience comes from his native New Jersey, where politics was a daily sport for the DuHaime family.

DuHaime’s mother was mayor of Bloomingdale, a small town in the northern tip of the state where he grew up. His father was a Passaic County Freeholder who ran for Senate in 1996.

“I was sitting around the table listening to the so-called experts and the only person making any sense was Michael,” said GOP consultant Mark Campbell, who was working on the race. “I told him to give me a call after he graduated [from college] and I’d give him a job.”

His father lost the GOP primary to then-Rep. Dick Zimmer, but DuHaime finished his political science and journalism degrees at Rutgers University and landed a job with Campbell’s consulting firm.

In 1997, Bucco, then a New Jersey assemblyman, tapped DuHaime to manage his state Senate race.

“I was 23 years old and didn’t have $20 in my bank account but had $750,000 in the campaign account,” recalled DuHaime, now 37. “I basically lived in the headquarters. I had to learn everything.”

According to Bucco, DuHaime was relentless. After Bucco finished a long day of campaigning, he came back to headquarters to find DuHaime glued to his computer screen. Bucco left for the evening, but when he arrived early the next morning, he found DuHaime in the same position “and the couch in the back office wasn’t even rumpled.”

Bucco won a competitive primary and knocked off Democratic state Sen. Gordon MacInnes in the general election even though he was outspent in both races.

Going National

MacInnes wouldn’t be the last incumbent DuHaime would take down.

DuHaime went back to work as a consultant at Campbell & Pusateri, where he helped Pennsylvania businessman Don Sherwood hold a GOP open seat in 1998.

In 2000, DuHaime became deputy campaign manager for the Senate campaign of then-Rep. Bob Franks (R-N.J.), where he promptly “ran into Jon Corzine’s money.” Franks was severely outspent and narrowly lost by 3 points.

“It was a tough loss, but we had to be so creative and aggressive and disciplined,” DuHaime said.

After a stint as executive director for the New Jersey Republican State Committee, national Republicans started to take notice, and in 2004, DuHaime was hired to be the Northeast regional political director for the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign.

“Mike understood campaigns in a very tough region,” said former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, who hired DuHaime at the RNC after Bush won re-election. “He always had a strategic vision and was a good manager.”

After a tough 2006 election cycle, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) hired DuHaime to be his presidential campaign manager. The campaign chose to focus on Florida, instead of playing in the earlier primary and caucus states, and it planned to use Gov. Charlie Crist’s endorsement as a launching pad.

“We tried a different route because we felt like we had to,” DuHaime said. Based on the dynamics of the crowded field, ideology and primary calendar, Giuliani couldn’t just cruise into Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and hope to win.

But when Crist turned his back on Giuliani at the last second and switched his support to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the strategy crumbled.

The experience wasn’t a total loss.

“It’s like starting a multimillion-dollar business from nothing. You’ve got to get phones, office space, everything,” DuHaime said about running a presidential campaign.

Revenge Is Sweet

This year DuHaime is tasked with assembling teams of pollsters and media consultants in at least a dozen races — and he’s doing it all from his office at Mercury Public Affairs in New York, making him the only IE director not based in Washington, D.C.

Crist’s decision to help torpedo Giuliani’s campaign may come back to bite the former GOP governor, who is now running for Senate as an Independent. If Crist becomes the de facto Democratic nominee, DuHaime and the NRSC may choose to spend millions of dollars against him.

It wouldn’t be the first time DuHaime has had the opportunity to avenge an earlier loss.

Last year, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R) hired DuHaime to be his chief strategist in his race against Corzine, who was elected governor of New Jersey in 2005. “He knew what had gone wrong in past races and how we were going to be different,” Christie said recently.

Just like in 2000, DuHaime’s candidate faced Corzine’s checkbook.

“Mike had to resist the temptation to spend too much too early,” said Christie, who credited DuHaime with sticking to the campaign plan as Corzine flexed his financial muscle. “Mike was very disciplined and knew where and when to spend.”

Christie prevailed 49 percent to 45 percent, giving Republicans a boost in optimism heading into 2010.

Senate Republicans won’t be facing quite the same financial challenge as Christie, but Democratic incumbents in California, Wisconsin and Washington start the general election with a significant cash edge.

But to DuHaime, the fundamentals are the same and each election is about setting up a “clear choice between the incumbent and the challenger.”

“You just need enough money to get your message out,” DuHaime said. “You don’t necessarily need to match.”

The overall landscape won’t be easy. Republicans have to win virtually every competitive race in order to win back the majority. But Republicans believe DuHaime, former captain of the Rutgers ice hockey team, has the toughness for the job.

After a daylong trip to Washington last week, DuHaime hoped to make it back to Manhattan for an evening hockey game in a city league. His team recently defeated the team of New York Rep. Anthony Weiner (D). For DuHaime, battling Democrats is a 24-hour job.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on August, 3, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.