The Washington Post had a story today about Tom DeLay's attempt to regain the confidence of his constituents in the face of the numerous corruption and abuse of power allegations, not to mention that unfortunate little trial going on right now. Much has been written in blogtopia about it, mostly on the real chance Dems have to make him nervous in '06. Read Off the Kuff, the Daily DeLay, DeLayWatch, and Bull Moose.
While that is the main thrust of the story, there is another angle worth exploring as well. As part of his effort to shore up support in his home district:
In January, DeLay shook up his team of political consultants. He signed on Sam Dawson, who was a top political aide to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and helped devise the Republican strategy for taking over the House in 1994. Dawson will serve as his general consultant and media strategist.
Who is this Dawson fellow? Thought you'd never ask. The short answer is that he is a longtime GOP operative, a South Carolinian and former associate of Lee Atwater. He has about 30 years of campaign experience, including Bush-Quayle in '92, Buddy Roemer in Louisiana, Coverdell in Georgia, and an extended stint with the NRCC in the '80s under Ed Rollins and again in the late '90s. Lately he's had a media consulting firm, among other things doing ads for Republican House candidates.
The long answer is a bit more sordid. See, this Dawson fellow has a history of playing as down and dirty as necessary to win a race, as an associate of Atwater and Rollins would. In fact, the Atlanta Constitution back in the day called him "Atwater's leanest and meanest disciple." To be called the meanest is surely saying something. Some Republicans disagree -- after all, Dawson has worked for moderates as well as conservatives. Still, in one failed Ohio race, he was brought in to pull a moderate candidate to the right in order to win the GOP primary.
The campaign he ran that everyone still talks about, however, was a 1978 race for a South Carolina House seat. (If you'd like to consult the sources, the stories I drew most of this from are in Vanity Fair, Nov. 2004, and the NYT, Sept. 24, 1986.) Carroll Campbell (the R) was going up against Max Heller, the mayor of Greenville and a Jewish refugee from Nazi-era Austria. The Campbell campaign ran a push poll asking voters which of six characteristics best described the two candidates:
- A Christian man
- Concern for the people
- A hard worker
- Experienced in government
Another question asked whether fifteen "personal qualities" would best describe the two candidates, including "native of South Carolina" and "Jewish immigrant."
The push poll, quite possibly the first of its kind, had its intended effect as a whisper campaign began to spread about Heller. That, of course, was by design. Dem Alan Baron wrote in a newsletter a few years afterward that, based on conversations with Campbell's pollster, the intent was to "determine the impact on voters of information that Heller was (1) a Jew; (2) a foreign-born Jew; and (3) a foreign-born Jew who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the savior." Apparently #1 and #2 were OK with South Carolina voters, but #3 was not. And so the Campbell campaign went after Heller.
Apparently the push poll was not enough, however, and notably Campbell never mentioned his opponent's religion directly. A week before the election, Heller was up by 14 points. Then, a third fringe candidate named Don Sprouse entered the race who did put Judaism front and center. Heller, Sprouse said, wasn't qualified to be in Congress because "he doesn't believe in Jesus Christ."
Why would Sprouse enter the race then, and choose that particular line of attack? After all, the push poll's results were not public knowledge at that point. While Campbell and Atwater denied any role, using a third candidate as a stalking horse to make the dirtiest accusations was a strategy Atwater used that very same year to reelect Strom Thurmond. The most direct evidence of a link between Sprouse and the Campbell campaign comes from a parking lot meeting between Dawson and the Campbell campaign's new best friend, a meeting Atwater disclosed to several people after the fact.
The anti-Semitic attacks and innuendo were effective, and Heller lost to Campbell by six points. Sprouse's vote was negligible, but he raised the issue of religion so that Campbell himself wouldn't have to.
Dawson may have cleaned up his act some since then -- I won't claim that every race he's managed has been so utterly soiled by bigotry and manipulation -- but it did set a template by which later dirty campaigns were run, including Bush's campaign of innuendo against McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary.
As I said, Tom DeLay sure knows how to pick his friends. As though he needed any help playing dirty.