Among DC’s political-strategy community, GOP division, everyone can agree on a couple of things. First, no one has any idea which candidate will emerge as the nominee from the populist free-for-all. “It’s closer to Dancing With the Stars than the Nixon-Kennedy debates,” says Erick Mullen, managing director in the DC office of the consulting firm Mercury. “Everybody inside the Beltway is being cowed by it.”
The uncertainty has replaced earlier trepidation that the nomination would go to Donald Trump, who was considered an ungovernable client. “This is a phenomenon, not something you could coach—you wouldn’t want to,” says Mullen. “This is the Strom Thurmond model of campaigning.”
The billionaire’s nomination would also force the consultant class to choose between offending the anti-Trump GOP establishment—which doles out the bulk of the campaign contracts—and sitting the election out. “You have to understand,” says John Brabender, a founding partner at BrabenderCox, a Republican consulting firm, “consultants like to be paid to do what they do.”
The primary process, however, has made Trump less toxic. “If Trump became our nominee, I would work for him without hesitation,” Brabender says. “If he is the nominee, it won’t be some bizarre fluke. He will have earned it, and GOP consultants will understand they have no choice but to work for him.”
Brabender wouldn’t be alone. As Bruce Haynes, president of Purple Strategies, points out, Trump “has been in and around politics for a while. He gave a lot of money and bought a lot of access.” Trump is savvy enough to have lured sought-after campaign veteran Chuck Laudner, the operative credited with helping Rick Santorum win Iowa in 2012 and who has established Trump’s ground game in that state.
Which leaves the other consensus item for the consultant industry: its antipathy for Texas senator Ted Cruz. As ungovernable as Trump is, Cruz is also a Republican fixture who could less easily be cast as an interloper. If he were the nominee, operatives fear, he could drag down the entire ticket. Says Haynes: “The Republican establishment may fear Trump, but it doesn’t approach its fear of Cruz.”