If you were to map the geographic center of the conservative uprising against the national GOP establishment, you might settle on a point somewhere in Alexandria, Va. - just within the ring of the Capital Beltway - where a pair of decades-old public relations firms work overtime to stoke and channel the fires of activist outrage.
One peek at any Washington reporter's email in-box would confirm the omnipresence of the two companies: CRC Public Relations and Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. During almost any given controversy, there's a barrage of indignant subject lines from both firms cementing the backbone of what the national press calls the "anti-establishment" message of the day. Call them the anti-establishment establishment.
Last week's uproar over the Conservative Victory Project, the American Crossroads-and Karl Rove-backed initiative to pick favorites in 2014 Senate primaries, was a vivid case in point. Unveiled in a Sunday New York Times story, the new Crossroads group triggered an immediate outcry on the right, led by a parade of CRC and S&B clients.
The rhetorical conflagration that followed neatly illustrates how quickly any given dispute can turn into a full-blown political firestorm - and how an authentic clash between the Washington establishment and the conservative grassroots plays out in practice through day-to-day duels between different groups of D.C.-area operatives.
The anti-Crossroads backlash kicked off in earnest on Monday, Feb. 4, the day after the Times story ran. Media-bashing conservative activist Brent Bozell took aim at the group in a statement fuming that "the days of conservatives listening to the moderate GOP establishment are over" (Subject line: "Bozell: Moderates With Their Disastrous Record Must Be Rejected by GOP.") When Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio dismissed Bozell as a "hater," a roster of movement conservatives signed a letter demanding that the group's president fire him. (Subject line: "Conservatives call on Steven Law to fire Jonathan Collegio over Bozell attack.")
Colin Hanna, leader of the group Let Freedom Ring, issued a message blasting "the establishment 'consultariat' in Washington D.C." seeking to control the will of primary voters. Former Pat Buchanan campaign manager Terry Jeffrey declared at the website CNSNews.com: "Karl Rove is Not a Conservative." By Friday, the activist group Tea Party Patriots had accused Rove's groups of wasting $300 million on the last campaign and formed their own super PAC, the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund - "aimed at holding big spending politicians accountable for their actions."
Every one of those activists and groups is a client of either CRC or Shirley & Banister. Virtually every shot they fired at Rove and Crossroads last week moved through the conduit of the PR firms' email servers, landing on the BlackBerrys and iPhones of reporters across Washington.
The promotion strategy appears to have worked. A Nexis search for news stories last week turns up 57 results for the name of American Crossroads head Steven Law - the man who announced the creation of the Conservative Victory Project, and who commanded a nine-figure budget during the 2012 campaign. Bozell, best known as the caustic founder of the Media Research Center and a more modestly-funded nonprofit dubbed ForAmerica, got 55 hits over the same period.
If there's any tension between slamming the Washington "consultariat" and hiring some highly experienced Beltway PR advisers to magnify their message, it's not necessarily obvious to those on the right who were leading the anti-Rove charge last week.
"They are the two preeminent firms, as you know from your own traffic," Hanna told this POLITICO reporter, calling the backlash against Crossroads "instantaneous and organic."
"It was a virtually unanimous shock and recoil when the Conservative Victory [Project] was announced. The movement does not need another Washington-based consultant engaged in the process of candidate identification, recruitment and training," Hanna affirmed.
That those groups get help from communications experts does not, of course, make their outrage any less sincere. In interviews with POLITICO, top strategists at both CRC and S&B emphasized that they're focused on doing the best job they can for their clients' agenda. (In fact, consultants on both sides spoke only reluctantly, arguing that their clients are the real story, not them.)
And there's no suggestion that either group are hired guns, promoting causes they don't believe in. The founders of both firms are conservative true believers, whose biographies are intertwined with the rise of the modern activist right and with each other's careers.
In fact, the current leadership of CRC and S&B looks a bit like the Pat Buchanan alumni association: CRC founder Greg Mueller worked with Banister on Buchanan's insurgent 1996 campaign. Craig Shirley, the S&B partner, worked for the Reagan-era Republican National Committee and for the National Conservative Political Action Committee in 1984, and has more recently become a kind of court historian for the Age of Reagan.
While they are officially commercial competitors, the executives on both sides say they consider themselves friends and allies in a larger cause.
"It's all about our clients and what they're trying to accomplish with their issues," said Diana Banister, the S&B vice president. "We, as conservatives, feel passionately about conservative principles and want to do our best to help further those principles in whatever way."
CRC executive Keith Appell echoed that theme and pointed to the role the company played in rebutting criticism of Bozell, one of its longest-standing clients.
"When things like this happen and our clients want to respond quickly and forcefully, it is our job to make sure that happens, and to make sure that our clients are as successful as possible in delivering the message they want to get out," he said. "We will always do that for our clients. In this particular case, that's what was called for and that's what we did."
Yet these aren't just any old pair of PR firms, nor are their clients a standard consulting-firm roster of drug companies and defense contractors and investment banks (though both have their share of lucrative corporate clients.) Over the last decade and a half, they've dived in - together or separately - to countless conservatives-versus-Washington fights and political campaigns.
Steve Forbes for President, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Pat Toomey for Senate (the close-but-no-cigar 2004 version), Rick Scott for Governor - CRC worked for them all. (Before Scott was a candidate for governor, he was the head of a health care advocacy group, Conservatives for Patients' Rights - another CRC client.)
Newt Gingrich hired S&B during his bomb-throwing 2012 campaign, as did North Carolina Rep. Renee Elmers in her surprise 2010 win. Before Christine O'Donnell was an infamous political name, she was an S&B client running a seemingly hopeless primary campaign against beloved moderate Mike Castle.
The firms have worked together - on Forbes 2000 - and against each other, as when S&B tried to defend Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum against Scott's slashing 2010 primary campaign.
But day to day and week to week, it's not campaigns but advocacy that makes up the core of both firms' political workload - cause-driven groups like the 2013 March for Life (an S&B client), the Federalist Society (CRC), the Media Research Center (CRC) and the Susan B. Anthony List (S&B).
Ed Klein's Obama-bashing book "The Amateur" was a CRC promotional project, as was Stephen Bannon's pro-Sarah Palin documentary "Undefeated." S&B is currently promoting Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's new book, "The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty," as the strongly conservative Republican campaigns for governor.
Indeed, choose at random a conservative activist, author or organization thundering against Washington, and there's a decent chance you'll come up with a client of one firm or both.
The firms' advice doesn't come free - or at least, not usually. Many of their clients don't have to disclose their expenditures, but tax documents for Bozell's Media Research Center show the group paid CRC $556,200 between 2009 and 2011. S&B has collected tens of thousands of dollars since 2010 from both Christine O'Donnell's campaign and PAC, as well as from John McCain's 2008 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Yet strategists who have worked with both companies say the profit motive is only part of the equation. Brian Burgess, a former CRC consultant who became Scott's communications director when he won the governor's office in Tallahassee, recalled first making contact with the firm as an aide to lightning-rod Kansas prosecutor Phill Kline.
When Kline came under fire as Kansas attorney general for zealously pursuing late-term abortion providers, Burgess said CRC reached out to help.
"Basically, Greg and Keith and members of the team made themselves available to help advise us in that battle," Burgess said. "There are not that many well-known conservative outfits and CRC is one of them. That's how Rick Scott found us. They're a go-to organization with a strong reputation for conservative advocacy, and they're not afraid to take on some tough projects."
Amid the anti-Crossroads campaign last week, the genuine fervor of the two groups was on full display: not only did CRC and S&B blast out statements from interested clients, but they also circulated sympathetic columns and news clips from non-clients. Craig Shirley and Diana Banister were the first two signatories to the letter denouncing Collegio for his remark about Bozell. On Friday, Shirley went so far as to assemble a memo questioning Rove's past allegiance to Reagan, the GOP icon who was president when many of the Rove-assailing activists were in their political prime.
But Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said the firms had remained at the front of conservative PR because they hadn't allowed their tactics to grow dusty since the 1980s - for firms founded long before the advent of the you've-got-mail icon, they maintain a robust presence on Twitter and other social media.
"These folks have been at it for decades. They didn't let the advent of technology beat them," she said. "The rapid-response abilities of the conservative right are in large part thanks to their deftness."
"When a conservative releases a book or finds themselves in a crisis, wants to push a message on offense or on defense, they turn to one of those firms or both," said Conway, who penned a USA Today column last week criticizing Crossroads - which CRC then sent out to every reporter within reach of email.
Asked about the unconventional, deeply ideological orientation of both firms, Banister reacted with a shrug.
"It's very simple," she said. "We're not selling soap."
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