While the local media trumpets the return of native son Dick Wadhams to Colorado politics, a review of his brutal slash-and-burn tactics against political journalists may have the state press corps clutching their fire-retardant underwear.
Eminently quotable, the Republican operative dubbed “Rove 2.0”, may give good copy for news stories but Wadhams has racked up a nasty reputation for impugning the ethics of reporters who fall out of favor for simply doing their jobs-reporting the foibles of his frequently dull-witted candidates packaged as common guys. By all accounts, John Thune fits that description to a T.
Wadhams was hired by the South Dakota politician to manage his 2004 campaign against then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Early in the election cycle, Wadhams hired political operatives to act as independent bloggers-two of whom earned a combined $35,000 for their services without publicly disclosing their ties to the campaign. In blogger parlance, Daschle v Thune, South Dakota Politics and others were “astroturfing”, or creating a fake grassroots movement, for Wadham’s candidate.
Their task: to relentlessly attack the state’s largest newspaper, the Argus Leader, and question the integrity of its chief political reporter David Kranz, state editor Patrick Lalley, and executive editor Randell Beck. The bloggers were to engage in a psy-ops mind game to force the trio to overcompensate for the fake criticisms of editorial bias thus publishing more harsh coverage of Daschle.
The blog attacks were coordinated with a cadre of national conservative pundits and journalists to amplify the dirty tricks. One of the bloggers’ primary sources was Jeff Gannon, who worked for Talon News Service, a media front organization for GOPUSA. Gannon was later exposed by AmericaBlog as a gay prostitute with a thriving escort website containing nude photographs of himself while ostensibly working as a journalist who was credentialed with a White House press pass.
A post-election account of Wadham’s manipulative tactics were outlined in a March 2005 New Republic article:
A “siege mentality” developed at the paper, as one staffer explained to National Journal last year. And, when it came time to assign a reporter to the Daschle-Thune race, Daschle aides were shocked to learn that Kranz-who had routinely covered the state’s biggest political stories for decades–would not be on the beat. Instead the race was primarily covered by a reporter named Jon Walker.
Daschle aides felt the Thune campaign exploited Walker’s political inexperience and that the reporter gave Daschle undeservedly rough treatment. (One Daschle operative says Walker was a religious conservative who, to his amazement, appeared on Democratic Party voter-identification lists as having declared himself a pro-Thune voter in 2002 and 2004.) They also felt that Argus Leader editors, on the defensive, were more susceptible to negative stories about their candidate. Gannon and the bloggers hammered away, flogging negative stories about Daschle and demanding to know why the local media wasn’t picking them up.
Daschle ultimately lost his re-election bid by 4,500 votes.
In this last election cycle, Wadhams landed the top spot on Virginia Sen. George Allen’s re-election campaign, a gaffe-prone politician with a penchant for Confederate flags and racially insensitive remarks.
A story published in the Septmber 2006 issue of Washington Monthly profiles Wadhams’ strategy for winning over the media:
That Wadhams would think to co-opt a pair of bloggers is testament to his understanding of the news business, a savvy that sets him apart from nearly all his peers. Wadhams spends half his time flooding the zone with slash-and-burn press releases–dozens a week–and most of the rest chatting up reporters eager to discuss politics, not policy. The press releases create a sense of urgency, and, through sheer volume, manufacture the feeling of a rapidly developing story. The phone calls–at the height of campaign season, local journalists describe getting up to half a dozen a day–both flatter and intimidate. (The mercurial Wadhams can shift from amiable to antagonistic in an instant.)
Allen, who had presidential ambitions, was considered a shoo-in for another term until he was caught on a now famous videotape referring to a dark-skinned Indian-American staffer of his opponent as a “macaca”.
Yet, when Allen was rightly criticized for the remark, Wadhams went into attack mode by portraying his candidate as a victim of the “liberal media elite” and once again turned to astroturf blogs to fight back. Media strategist Chris LaCivita, who was neck-deep in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign, was enlisted to mobilize conservative blogs, according to an email obtained by National Journal.
This time, however, Wadham’s cynical, take-no-prisoners strategy failed. Allen lost to first time candidate James Webb, a newly-minted “Fighting Dem” who had served as a Marine in Vietnam and Navy secretary in the Reagan Administration.
Fortunately, one long-respected member of the Denver media caught on to Wadhams’ antics:
During one particularly nasty race, Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin decided he’d had enough. “This is politics by invective–loser, fraud, dirty,” he sputtered. “I asked [Dick] Wadhams where was the line you didn’t cross. He said it was up to the voters to determine.” In other words, democracy means never having to say you’re sorry.