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2010: The Year of the Obama Effect?

By Chris Cillizza And Perry Bacon Jr.
Monday, January 19, 2009

The rapid rise of Barack Obama -- from the Illinois state Senate to the White House in four years -- appears to be inspiring 2010 campaigns by politicians who might have been more cautious if the president-elect hadn't set the pace.

Take Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), who announced his candidacy last week for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Mel Martinez.

At 42, Meek holds a coveted seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and is widely seen as a rising star in House politics. His Senate run will force him to leave a Miami area seat that he potentially could have held without any real effort for the rest of his life. (Cynics point out that Meek's mother, Carrie, whom he replaced in 2002, could run and serve as a place-holder in case her son comes up short in 2010.)

In his announcement, Meek echoed the rhetoric that Obama used to claim the presidency. "This race is not about me -- it is about Floridians," Meek said. "I am running for Florida, and I am asking Floridians to run with us in this race."

Something similar is happening in Alabama, where Rep. Artur Davis (D) is nearly certain to run in the open-seat governor's election in 2010. Like Meek, Davis is a young (41) African American who represents a comfortably Democratic congressional district in which he was unlikely to face a serious reelection challenge.

Davis said he expects his race to be a factor in the gubernatorial contest, and he has studied the campaigns of Virginia's L. Douglas Wilder and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, two minorities who won governorships in the South. Davis said the lesson from those campaigns is to have a distinct message that allows voters to define you in terms other than race, and he plans to focus on education and economic issues while framing himself as a change candidate -- the theme that worked for Republican Jindal and Democrat Obama.

Call it the "Obama Effect" -- an increased willingness among candidates (particularly Democrats and African Americans) to take a chance on campaigns that are far from sure things.

"Barack Obama's victory does open doors for young and African American candidates to seek higher office -- the question will be whether those candidates have enough of President-elect Obama's unique talents and abilities to actually win," said a senior Democrat who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the matter.

To be sure, it's a little early for a full analysis of the impact of Obama's candidacy on future elections. Both Meek and Davis had been rumored as statewide candidates in recent years and may well have run whether or not the former Illinois and U.S. senator had won the White House in November.

But more young politicians do appear to be looking to make statewide bids in 2010. The list includes Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway (D), who is considering a run against Sen. Jim Bunning (R); former congressman Harold Ford Jr. (D), a potential candidate in the open-seat Tennessee governor's race; Rep. Tim Ryan (D), who is weighing a candidacy for the Senate seat being vacated in Ohio; and state Rep. Marco Rubio (R), former speaker of the Florida House, who is likely to run for another Senate seat that is opening up.

For the parties' candidate recruiters, the willingness of ambitious pols to take an electoral chance provides potential and peril.

On the plus side, younger candidates are more energetic on the stump and in fundraising and also have a familiarity with using new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like) to communicate with voters.

But a glut of candidates in a primary field can also complicate national party efforts to unite behind one candidate early on -- hindering the consolidation of critical dollars and keeping the nominee from focusing his or her fire on the general-election opponent.

As the Consultants Turn

The world of political consulting has been compared to a soap opera -- drama galore and a lot of sudden breakups and overdue reconciliations. The early days of 2009 are proving to be no exception, as a number of high-profile consultants are opening new shops, joining forces and otherwise re-orienting the professional political class.

Among the most noteworthy changes:

· David Axelrod, the lead strategist for Obama, has sold his ownership stake in the firm AKPD Message and Media. The new firm will comprise three of its current partners -- John Kupper, David Plouffe and John Del Cecato -- as well as Larry Grisolano, who coordinated the ad strategy and polling operations for Obama. Grisolano will be the managing partner of AKPD and will retain an "of counsel" role to the Strategy Group, a direct-mail firm in which he served as a partner. Axelrod's decision to go into the White House necessitated a clean break with his consultant past. "It's really difficult for me to leave a company that's been such a huge part of my life, but I enter my new post with enormous pride and confidence in the team that's taking over," Axelrod said of the move.

· Jason Ralston, one of Obama's lead admakers, is leaving the media consulting powerhouse GMMB to start a new company with John Lapp, the man who directed House Democrats' 30-seat pickup as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 cycle. Lapp and Ralston got to know each other during that election as Ralston was the lead media consultant for the multimillion-dollar independent expenditure effort. Lapp, who spent the 2008 election cycle at the media firm McMahon Squier Lapp and Associates, said that he and Ralston "look forward to working together -- to grow a progressive majority all across the country." The new firm will be known as Ralston Lapp Media.

· Steve McMahon and Alex Castellanos -- two of the most frequent TV guests among the world of political consultants -- are teaming up to form Purple Strategies, a "strategic public affairs communications firm," according to a news release trumpeting the new company. McMahon is best known as a senior adviser to the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and Castellanos was the lead media consultant for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's unsuccessful 2008 Republican presidential bid. Bruce Haynes, who served as chief of staff to Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), will be the new firm's managing partner, while John Donovan, a longtime Democratic media adviser, will lead the company's creative team. The goal of the company is to offer "the complete perspective" on issues to corporations and nonprofit organizations, according to McMahon. Neither McMahon nor Castellanos will leave their political firms.

Players

Looking for a new political power couple in Obama's Washington? Look no further than Jen O'Malley Dillon and Patrick Dillon. She is the new executive director of the Democratic National Committee after winning praise for her oversight of Obama's battleground-state operation during the general-election campaign. He will be the deputy political director in the White House, having served in Iowa as campaign manager and chief of staff to Gov. Chet Culver (D). Want another option? Try Dan Pfeiffer, deputy communications director in the White House, and Sarah Feinberg, a senior aide to incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

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