Five local consultants are responsible for most of the political junk mail you've received in the past week. They're responsible for candidate talking points, misleading television and radio advertisements, ballot and voter guide statements. They transform money into political power. And The Stranger has decided to find out how good they are at their jobs, by counting how many races they've won in the past four elections (2007-2010).
Our metrics: Rather than simply take these consultants’ word for which candidates they worked for, we scoured state public disclosure records for any campaign that listed one of the companies as a vendor, spending at least $500 with “consulting” or “retainer” in the description. After creating a master list, we consulted the consultants, considered their revisions (in some cases, a consultant would manage a campaign's mailers or treasury without running the whole shebang), and made adjustments accordingly.
The long and short of it: If you want to win an elected position in Washington State and you've got money to burn, Northwest Passage Consulting is your best bet. Here's a profile of each company's wins and losses.
NORTHWEST PASSAGE CONSULTING (run by Christian Sinderman): 42 wins; 21 losses. 67% win rate. Known for high-profile, big money, sometimes conservative candidates, and is the House Dems' go-to consultant.*
THE CONNECTIONS GROUP (run by Cathy Allen): 13 wins; 8 losses. 62% win rate. The state's most successful female strategist, specializing in representing female politicians, including Senator Lisa Murkowski's impressive 2010 write-in victory in Alaska. Incidentally, also one of the rudest people I have spoken to as an intern.
ARGO STRATEGIES (run by Jason Bennett): 11 wins; 9 losses. 55% win rate. Bennett consults for both of Washington's US Senators, and Argo Strategies is responsible for much of the treasury work for progressive politicians in the state.
WINPOWER STRATEGIES (run by John Wyble): 13 wins; 14 losses. 50% win rate. Winpower Strategies has only been around for the past two elections, which makes Wyble's total number of gigs impressive. In 2010, a bad year for progressives in the legislature, he won an impressive 65% of his legislative races.
BLAIR BUTTERWORTH & ASSOCIATES (run by Blair Butterworth): 3 wins; 7 losses. 30% win rate. Butterworth did not provide edits to my list, as he is currently in Portland running a mayoral campaign. When asked if there were additional search terms worth trying to look for his work, Butterworth joked "maybe 'That fantastic strategist' or 'The real Christian Sinderman' or 'Better than most, worse than some.'"
Not profiled: Cindi Laws, because she is batshit.**
What plays into the success of any given race besides the consultants? Incumbency. People running for re-election have name recognition, money, and (hopefully) fluency of the issues relevant to the office. A majority of Allen's, Bennett's and Wyble's wins were from incumbents. All three of Butterworth's victories were incumbents. Only Sinderman had more wins coming from contested open seat races, challengers, and judicial retention campaigns, with just 15 of his 42 wins provided by incumbents. (On the other hand, many of these incumbents owe their first victories to consultants they're still working with, who deserve credit for their political success.)
Brace yourselves: Money is also a factor in politics. It's very plausible that one reason for the disparity between Sinderman and the rest is that he draws candidates with strong fundraising, who are seeking the best campaign money can buy. And once you're the consultant with the best win record, you can also afford to be picky with your clients, choosing to represent candidates or initiatives you believe to be more viable.
The contested, open seat King County Executive race in 2009 is particularly telling in how these consultants operate. There, three similarly qualified and cash-flush Democrats, all represented by consultants listed, faced off. In the primary, Dow Constantine (Sinderman) received more votes than Larry Phillips (Allen) and Ross Hunter (Wyble) combined, and eventually delivered a decisive victory against Manchurian news anchor Susan Hutchison (the Holy Ghost). I believe this race speaks more to Sinderman's consulting prowess than City Council member Tom Rasmussen's coming victory against Dale "Totally Out of Touch" Pusey or Sally Clark against Dian "Totally Unqualified" Ferguson.
We didn't include initiatives in our averages—they require very different skills from managing a candidate, and Sinderman was the only consultant with more than one initiative campaign in the past four years. Of his 18 initiative campaigns from 2007 to 2010, he won 11 of them. Initiative campaigns also have varying levels of winnability: it was probably easier for Sinderman to win Death with Dignity in 2008 than it would have been to pull out a victory for his Seattle Green Bag Campaign, given the $1,441,046.59-funded Chemistry Council-led opposition. The other consultants had one initiative campaign apiece, and all of them prevailed except Cathy Allen's Yes on I-1100 liquor privatization campaign.
A few more notes on methodology: A consultant's win or loss was recorded only if they served as a strategist in a significant capacity—and it was very tricky to determine a universal threshold, given discrepancies in how candidates report their expenditures and different demands for different races and localities. Work on behalf of candidates paid for by interest groups was not included—for instance, if Stephen Colbert's Super PAC paid Cathy Allen to write a mailer portraying Dino Rossi as an unrepentant puppy killer—because these jobs legally have no involvement with the official campaign. Those races are also much more likely to be successful, given that candidates who receive independent expenditures on their behalf are more likely to win.
Please, Slog, parse my data. They're all right here in a Google spreadsheet. The initiative data are here. I've made both documents read-only, but feel free to copy and paste into another spreadsheet to sort by incumbency, locality, win/loss, or position type. Share your conclusions. If you find factual errors, please note them in the comments or send me an email.
*Disclosure: Northwest Passage Consulting ran a campaign for my dad.
**Even more disclosure: Laws worked on my dad's campaign for approximately one month.