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Insider Interview: Scott Howell -- GOP Imagemaker

Scott Howell is the man Democrats love to hate.

A Republican media consultant, Howell has been involved in some of the most high-profile (and nasty) Senate races in recent memory, including Sen. Saxby Chambliss's (R) 2002 defeat of Max Cleland (D) in Georgia and Sen. John Thune's (R) 2004 victory over Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota.


Scott Howell is the man who helped elect Sens. Chambliss, Coleman and Thune. No wonder the Democrats can't stand him. (Courtesy Scott Howell & Company)

Liberal blogs refer to Howell as a "media hit man" (not to mention a number of other derogatory terms not repeatable in the family-friendly Fix).

Why?

Howell, himself, chalks it up to "woulda, coulda, shoulda" behavior on the part of his Democratic adversaries. "They don't like anyone who beats them," he said.

A look at Howell's record over the past two election cycles does show a remarkable record of success. In 2002, Howell was the media consultant for Chambliss as well as Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Jim Talent (Mo.). Two years later, Howell helped elect Thune as well as Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) and appeared to have elected Dino Rossi as governor of Washington -- though a lengthy recount had Rossi coming up a few hundred votes short and Republicans vowing revenge in 2008.

Howell has a roster stacked with top-tier contests again in 2006. He will handle the television strategy for Talent's tough reelection bid against State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D), and he will serve as the media consultant for Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard's (R) challenge to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). In Minnesota, Howell will handle Rep. Mark Kennedy's (R) bid for the open Minnesota Senate seat, and down in Florida he is working for state CFO Tom Gallagher (R) gubernatorial campaign.

When asked to describe his recipe for success, Howell demurred, perhaps not wanting to give away too much information to rival consultants or the Democrats. But as the interview wore on, he let slip a few of his tactics.

"We are telling a story over a series of ads that allows the voters to draw the proper conclusions," said Howell. "We're successful in taking that whole compassion playbook and shoving it back in [Democrats'] faces. We are successful in getting people to like and believe our candidates."

A typical Howell media campaign begins with the candidate surrounded by his (or her) family -- the tone is light, and often the politician offers up a bit of self-deprecating humor.

Take Thune's first ad of the 2004 campaign. It featured his two daughters talking (and joking) about him and why he would be a good senator. Thune's only line in the ad was the disclaimer at the end ("I'm John Thune and I approved this message.") The next ad featured Thune speaking to the camera about his values and how they would guide his work for South Dakota in the Senate. His mother and father (as well as his two daughters and his wife) appear in the commercial.

Letting the candidate carry the message is a trademark of Howell campaigns. Looking back at his recent successes, each of the candidates -- Thune, Coleman, Chambliss and DeMint -- had a personable quality about them that Howell highlighted in the media effort.

In fact, in Howell's most high-profile loss -- the 2005 Virginia governor's race -- the lack of a charismatic candidate at the center of the campaign was widely cited as a prime reason for the defeat. State Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) had a thick southern accent and never appeared terribly comfortable in front of the camera. Kilgore rarely spoke in the ads -- a stark contrast to Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine's (D) engaging on-screen presence.

Howell refused to criticize Kilgore or the tactics of the campaign, however, saying only: "We didn't win. It is what it is." Howell added that he always learns more from losses than wins. "Losing makes you humbler and make you hungry," he said.

Early in his political life, Howell learned about losing -- not as a consultant but as a candidate. Fresh out of college, he ran for a state House seat in his native South Carolina in 1984. He went door to door in the Columbia-based district, wearing through three pairs of wingtips. "Nobody gave me a snowball's chance in hell of winning," recounts Howell. He nearly did; he was ahead on election night but lost by just over 100 votes after all the absentee ballots were counted. Howell signed up for a rematch in 1986 but didn't come as close - losing with just 46 percent of the vote.

Howell's career as a candidate ended there, but his political life was just beginning. After doing field work for Sen. Bob Dole's (R) 1988 presidential bid, Howell was recruited by Lee Atwater -- a fellow South Carolinian and the leading GOP strategist at the time -- to come to Washington and work at the Republican National Committee.

During his four years at the committee, Howell learned the game from the ground up as one of a handful of young people the RNC was training to be campaign operatives. He worked for the committee all over the country, including a special election in Texas where he met Karl Rove, who was then running a direct-mail firm out of Austin.

In 1992, Howell moved to Texas to work for Rove. "Karl forced you to think better on your feet," Howell said. "He showed me how a political consulting business would run."

By the fall of 1993, Howell had decided to strike out on his own. Scott Howell & Company was formed in Sept. 1993 and based in Alabama. Two years later Howell moved the company to Dallas where it remains. Although Howell said he once contemplated moving the business inside the Beltway, he decided to stay in Texas. "I don't get caught up in the bubble and it helps me," he said.

Howell's first big break came in the spring of 1994 when he was tasked with helping rancher Frank Lucas (R) win a special election for a western Oklahoma seat long held by a Democratic Rep. Glenn English. After trailing a sitting state senator in the primary, Lucas came back to win the runoff -- with Howell's help. "A lot of people were trying to throw me overboard," after the runoff win, Howell said, who credits Tom Cole and Clinton Key with standing by him. (Cole is now a congressman from Oklahoma's 4th district; Key is a GOP operative who has held a number of important staff posts in his home state and in Washington).

Lucas's general election opponent was Dan Webber, a former staffer to Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.). Howell proudly recounts ads that showed a limousine carrying "D.C. Dan Webber" traveling back and forth between Oklahoma and Washington, D.C. Lucas won 54 percent to 46 percent, and has been reelected easily since.

Many observers look back on the Lucas victory in the summer of 1994 as an early sign of the coming wave that would sweep Republicans to congressional majorities for the first time in 40 years. As is evident from that campaign, Howell is not afraid to throw a punch -- a willingness that has led to considerable criticism in Democratic circles.

During the 2002 Georgia Senate race, the Chambliss campaign ran an ad featuring photos of Cleland's face along with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Democrats to this day remain angry about the spot, which they say questioned the patriotism of Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam. Howell insisted repeatedly at the time that he did not produce the ad in question.

In 2004, Howell handled the party's advertising in the Oklahoma race between Coburn and then Rep. Brad Carson (D). One ad that sought to question Carson's position on immigration showed a pair of dark-colored hands receiving food stamps. Democrats accused Howell of race baiting, comparing the ad to the infamous "white hands" spot run by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in his 1990 Senate race against Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt (D), who is African American. Howell said the image of the hands was stock footage; "They could have been the hands of any color," he told the Associated Press at the time. "It's a reach."

Asked last week about his reputation among Democrats, Howell said his accusers are the ones who "perpetuate" the mythology that he wins by fighting dirty.

"We've beaten them in some very close races and we've consistently done it," he said. "We connect better with average people."

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 13, 2006; 11:48 AM ET
Categories:  Insider Interview , Republican Party  
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