Culp's campaign looks like a long con
Shadowy consultant rides off to Vegas with at least 10 percent of the $3M raised
Imagine that you’re a hustling conservative political consultant looking for his next gig. Now imagine that a small-town police chief suddenly becomes a hero of the gun-rights movement. Then imagine that chief decides to run for governor as a Republican, in a blue state where the GOP has the same chance in 2020 as an ice cube in a blast furnace.
Sounds like a loser, right? Who wants to spend a year beating his head against a structural disadvantage and walk away with a double-digit loss on his record?
Well, what if it wasn’t about the winning at all? What if it was all about the money?
When you look at the narrative and the numbers behind the campaign that Christopher Gergen, AKA Dark Horse Political, ran for Loren Culp, it starts to look like one big grift, with the small conservative political donors of Washington as the marks. The quasi-Trumpian play Gergen and Culp are executing right now — falsely alleging election fraud, pretending they didn’t get stomped by half a million votes — is just maximizing the take.
Neither Gergen nor anyone else at the Culp campaign would respond to the Observer, so let’s just go with what they’ve said elsewhere, and the money — raised and spent — that the campaign reported to the Public Disclosure Commission.
Gergen first appears in this narrative a year ago in the pages of the Statesman Examiner, Culp's hometown paper in Republic, in a story headlined “Republic Police Chief gets help from Trump campaign manager.” In that piece, we learn that it was Gergen who approached Culp, apparently via the bizarro intervention of rocker and gun-rights activist Ted Nugent.
“We’re going big time,” said Culp. … “This all came about because Ted was talking to him one day and Chris was trying to talk about someone he was working with and Ted just kept talking about me until Chris finally said, ‘Who is Loren Culp? Tell me about him…’”
After that conversation, Culp said Gergen contacted him and last week, committed his efforts to the campaign.
A year later, Culp’s campaign has raised more than $3 million, he lost by the largest margin of any Republican in two decades, and Gergen has pocketed at least $300,000 of that money, according to the campaign’s disclosures to the PDC. He split for Las Vegas while the votes were still being counted, according to his Facebook page.
“I spent over a year in Washington State--mostly being cold … and wet,” Gergen wrote on Facebook on Nov. 7. “Here I am, Las Vegas' newest resident. Yesterday, it was 86° and sun. Today, its 48° and rain. Well played, 2020. Well played.”
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Since Election Day, Gergen and Culp have been busily alienating Republicans who have been actually elected to office, as detailed in Jim Brunner’s much-Tweeted piece in The Seattle Times. Or for the source material, check out Gergen himself in an unhinged Facebook Live that has been viewed 90,000 times. The front page of the campaign’s web site trumpets nonexistent voter fraud and makes a naked appeal for money for some unspecified fight.
Let’s take a look at Gergen’s background for a bit. Like many political consultants, his web site is deliberately vague. His is thinner than most, listing no tangible victories and little experience overall. The lead testimonial is from the head of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in Oregon, which appears to be where Gergen got his start in politics.
“If you don’t mind losing, call someone else,” said Jacob Daniels* on Dark Horse Political’s testimonials page. “If you want to win, call Dark Horse Political.”
But here’s the thing, Donald Trump got the worst ass-kicking in Oregon presidential politics since Bob Dole in 1996, pulling in just 39.09 percent of the vote. At least Dole had Ross Perot as an excuse. Drop the Perot years, and only Jimmy Carter and Barry Goldwater did worse. Not exactly resume material.
Gergen’s online persona perhaps inadvertently evokes Billy Bob Thornton’s character in “Our Brand Is Crisis,” down to the dapper suit and the maybe-shady work in free-wheeling Latin American elections. In this YouTube video, he grandiosely describes a Dark Horse Political as “a consultancy working to bring political and economic freedom to the international community,” and promises to wield its might and influence with the Trump administration to bring down socialist allies of Bolivian President Eco Morales.** (Gergen’s wife is a conservative Bolivian activist.)
That didn’t work out well, either. Morales did ultimately resign late last year after his win in the 2019 election was disputed. But his Movement For Socialism party won decisively in last month’s election, and one of Morales’ former ministers is now president. So we can put Bolivia in the loss column as well.
Now let’s look at the money in Culp’s race, raised and spent. Spending disclosure for the final days of the campaign isn’t due until next month, but we’ve got a decent picture through late October.
As we’ve reported before, Culp got little help from the Republican Party or its usual major donors, and his fundraising among ordinary donors was quite robust. It really took off after he advanced from the primary. Of the $3.1 million raised, he got more than $250,000 from small donors, less than he got from roughly 100 wealthier donors who gave the $2,000 maximum. More than 28,000 people gave him money, many just a few dollars. If we assume that the money came from the places where he got the most votes, we’re talking about some of the poorest and most economically depressed parts of Washington.
All this speaks to a robust online fundraising effort. The campaign’s PDC disclosure doesn’t show much of that, but more than $410,000 went to a company called Salience Data for “data consulting,” the campaign’s second-biggest expense.
Salience Data’s web site has a deliberately secretive, black-hat hacker feel to it, with no actual people featured. (The Observer really hopes that “Spy vs. Spy” is a reference to the awesome Mad Magazine cartoons of our youth.) But a little stroll through the Secretary of State’s business database reveals that the principal of Salience Data is a Marysville Realtor named Anton Stetner. Stetner didn’t return a message, unless you count the bots that are now trying to sell me houses in Snohomish County.
Salience was paid $55,000 on Aug. 21, more than $25,000 a week from then until late October and $82,000 on Oct. 23. That looks like a fundraising retainer, with bonuses for performance. If so, it’s an extremely rich retainer. For comparison, Gov. Jay Inslee’s fundraiser is charging $13,000 a month, according to his campaign’s PDC report.*** It’s possible that Salience Data is running a hybrid digital effort that both pushes campaign messaging and rakes in cash from online donors.
The campaign’s largest expenditure was for television advertising, at $479,000, all of which went to eztvspots.com, based in Kent.
The third-largest line item for the campaign was Gergen himself, who was paid more than $260,000 in consulting fees and bonuses, along with at least $60,000 in reimbursed expenses, or more than 10 percent of the campaign. That’s just the stuff the campaign clearly disclosed.
It so happens that the Observer knows some political consultants, so we called them ask how a consultant in Gergen’s position might maximize his haul. Here’s the gist:
There are three basic types of campaigns. Competitive races, in which winning or losing might actually depend on the quality of the campaign. Structural winners, in which a heavy favorite — usually an incumbent — is all but certain to win, and structural losers, in which the candidate has virtually no chance to win.
In a competitive race, campaign operatives are incentivized to win, frequently by bonus structures and other accountability metrics. Lose, and you’ve got some ‘splaining to do. If you’re working with a structural winner, you have a different set of incentives because your client will actually hold the office she or he is running for, and happy officeholders lead to more work.
A structural loser, however, is mostly an opportunity to make money, and as much money as possible. It’s even better if you have an inexperienced candidate who hasn’t been fully embraced by the party. Gergen didn’t have much help from the state Republican Party, but he also likely didn't face much interference either. Another advantage: Most consultants wouldn’t have touched Culp with a 10-foot pole, which likely gave Gergen a chance to charge a premium.
A consultant in that position could demand an unusually large share of the television ad buy. The going rate is 2-3 percent, but 10 percent isn’t unheard of, which would have added nearly $50,000 to Gergen’s take. He could also have extracted kickbacks from vendors throughout the campaign, taking a bite on everything from yard signs to digital advertising. We’ll likely never know just how much money flowed from Culp’s donors into Gergen’s pocket.
On some levels, the Culp campaign could be viewed as a success. He got 1.7 million votes, which is far more than any Republican has ever received in a Washington governor’s race, and enough to win in every year except 2016 and 2020. Nearly 85,000 people follow the campaign’s Facebook page. More than 28,000 people liked him enough to reach for their wallets. It’s clear his live-free-or-die message resonated in large swaths of rural Washington.
In an alternate universe, Republican office-holders would be congratulating Culp on a race well run, perhaps thanking him for the fact that Inslee spent roughly $8 million on his own campaign instead of pouring the money into close races for the Legislature, and certainly reaching out to his followers to try to bring them more fully into the party.
Instead, Gergen and Culp are pouring gasoline on the Trump-lit fire of false voter fraud, actively working to undermine confidence among Republican base voters in an election system overseen by Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the state’s only GOP statewide officeholder, and picking fights with House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox. (Culp tweeted that Wilcox should “grow a pair;” Gergen threatened to run a primary challenger against him in 2022.)
The only plausible reason to do any of those things is to keep Culp’s supporters fired up and clicking “donate” on the web site. In a few weeks we’ll find out how much they gave, and how big a check the campaign sends to Dark Horse Political down in Vegas. One thing we may never know is how much of that money, if any, found its way to Culp himself. Is he grifter or mark?
*Apparently getting your ass kicked in Oregon gets you even less Trump patronage than getting your ass kicked in Washington. Daniels’ LinkedIn page tell us he’s deputy general counsel at the Selective Service System, the thankfully backwater agency run by former state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who chaired Trump’s campaign here in 2016. The existence of those jobs is a sobering reminder that the United States could theoretically draft any and all U.S.-residing dudes between 18 and 45, although they haven’t since 1973.
**Somebody should tell Gergen that Billy Bob works for the socialists in that movie. They lose, and Sandra Bullock’s winner reneges on a campaign promise and mortgages Bolivia’s future to the IMF.
***Conflict of Interest Disclaimer: In 2012, when I was a strategic communications consultant, I made two donations to Inslee’s first campaign for governor, one for $125 and one for $208. That eight bucks, still a mystery.
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