Cal Chandler’s candidacy is either a political consultant’s greatest challenge or his worst nightmare. Chandler is coasting by on his family name but is clueless about governing. He lies and cheats and breaks the law. But top political consultant Russ Schriefer, who has worked on the campaigns of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and, currently, Chris Christie, decided to take him on anyway, crafting his media campaign, complete with patriotic ads and yard signs.
Why haven’t Chandler’s antics vaulted him past Donald Trump as the political spectacle of the month? Because Chandler is the main character in “The Fix,” a musical by John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe opening Tuesday at Signature Theatre. It’s a comedy about the dark side of political ambition — think “Veep” President Selina Meyer meets flawed but well-meaning “House of Cards” Rep. Peter Russo.
When the theater’s creative team needed help making Chandler’s campaign look real, they didn’t have to look very far: Schriefer, a longtime theater fan, serves on the Signature board.
When he first read the script, the Republican strategist noted that his experience could only go so far. “A lot of the things that happen onstage, I’ve never seen happen in a real campaign during my 30 years in politics,” says Schriefer, who calls Chandler “the combination of all the bad, shallow candidates we’ve seen over the last 30 years.” He wouldn’t compare Chandler to any actual politicians, living or dead: “I think it would be unfair to compare them to Cal at this point. Or maybe it would be unfair to Cal to compare him to them.”
Chandler, played by Mark Evans, has a few things in common with past presidents, though. He’s the heir apparent to a political dynasty, and he went to Yale, like Bush. (“Idiots go to Yale all the time,” says Chandler’s uncle, trying to dissuade Chandler’s mother from bringing her lazy son into the family business.) He smokes pot as a young man, like President Obama, and unlike Bill Clinton, he does inhale. He’s a straight-talker, like John McCain. And in the tradition of Clinton and John F. Kennedy, he can’t keep it in his pants.
Schriefer, the man behind Bush’s famous “Windsurfing” ad attacking John F. Kerry, is a partner with Strategic Partners & Media, a political consulting firm. In the last election cycle, he was a top media strategist for Romney, and he now holds that role with Christie’s campaign. Schriefer helped the theater’s creative team craft a media strategy, which led to realistic-looking yard signs (slogan: “Whatever it takes to win”), television commercials and a troupe of theater interns tasked with posting Chandler signs on Capitol Hill.
When he saw the fake TV ads, “I was like, ‘This is dead-on; this is exactly the way we would do it out of our shop,’ ” Schriefer says. He has even been tweeting out Chandler’s videos from his personal account, in between serious tweets about Christie and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, another client. It has admittedly confused a few friends.
“I’ve gotten a couple of messages like, ‘Who’s Cal?’ ” he says.
Schriefer, 57, realized his interest in theater before he learned about politics. When he was 5 years old, growing up in Bayport, N.Y., his parents bought him the cast album of “Peter Pan,” and he memorized every song. He acted in high school, landing minor roles in school musicals. (“I can’t sing at all,” he says.)
He even did some political theater, acting in a school production of “Fiorello!,” the 1959 musical about the rise of former New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Schriefer played a card player. “Politics and poker, shuffle up the cards and find the joker,” he quotes the lyrics to one of the songs. Whenever he’s in New York for work, he tries to find time to catch a Broadway show, most recently seeing “Fun Home” and “Hamilton.”
He thinks his two interests are aligning particularly well these days. “The level of theater in politics has certainly increased,” he says, discreetly not naming names. “We’ve seen that certainly in the campaign today, on both sides.”
But what about his, er, political affiliation and how it fits into a world that generally inclines more leftward than not? After all, he’s a guy with some clients who may even discourage government support for the arts.
That’s not a problem, Schriefer says. “If you find the theater junkie in the world of politics, whether they be a Republican or a Democrat, it sort of rises above the partisan politics, and you wind up talking about theater.”
Exactly so, agrees fellow board member Keith Eby. “If you’re a Republican, there are probably not many of you,” he says, “so you just don’t get into those discussions.”
Eby is impressed with Schriefer’s work on “The Fix,” saying the commercials are “very clever, tongue-in-cheek” and have “a sense of reality to them.”
After all, the businesses of politics and theater aren’t so different, Schriefer points out. Both are about motivating people to come to a place (theater, polling station) during a specific period of time (a show’s limited run, Election Day) to take a particular action (watch a performance, vote for a candidate). “A lot of it’s about turnout,” he says.
It’s too early to say whether 2016 will be a tragedy or a comedy, he says, but “it’s always a tragedy for the campaigns that lose.”
Luckily, that’s not something he has to worry about with Chandler — although, if the character were a real person, Schriefer would probably hand him a letter of resignation.
“Once you get to sort of the level of mischief and trouble that Cal finds himself in, I think if you value your reputation in this business, you’re going to take a walk. The question is whether or not you would have even taken him on to begin with,” he says. “I’ll put it this way: You can only take on a candidate like Cal in fiction.”
Still, Schriefer acknowledges that there’s one major benefit to working for a fake candidate: The Chandler ads are “not going to get fact-checked by The Washington Post.”