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Meet Rex Elsass, Todd Akin’s Hatchet Man

Rep. Todd Akin may not be exiting the Missouri Senate race. But he has, apparently, exited the state: According to Politico, the Republican candidate behind the “legitimate rape” boo-boo is shacked up in the Ohio headquarters of his longtime political consultant, adman Rex Elsass.

And therein lies a story.

Elsass, the man Akin chose to helm his challenge to Sen. Claire McCaskill, represents the perfect place for the beleaguered right-winger to turn after having been abandoned by his party. A free agent with a preternatural knack for pissing off fellow Republicans, the Lee Atwater acolyte also possesses the necessary skills for the Akin campaign’s unique challenge: Enabling a guy who has marginalized rape victims to go negative on his female opponent.  

Even within the mean-spirited world of political attack dogs, Elsass is known as an unpleasant sort, a reputation he sealed in the early ’90s. His first major undertaking, a 1990 campaign to unseat the Democratic Ohio House speaker, was so venomous that it unnerved even many of his fellow Republicans. The effort, which Elsass dubbed “Operation Kill The King” painted the speaker as the “conductor of the pay-to-play orchestra” over the public objections of Republicans who had long and collegial relationships with him. After the election, rumors circulated that Elsass and his cohorts had left a dead cat on the victorious speaker’s front porch. A local Democratic consultant dubbed Elsass and his crew the “nasty boys”—and it stuck.

Even Elsass’s mentor, state GOP chair Bob Bennett, recommended him to a colleague with a warning: “You keep the string tight on Rex. In other words, keep an eye on him,” according to a 1993 interview Bennett gave to an Ohio paper. A call to Elsass’s office was not returned.

Still, Elsass was an up-and-comer. His rise only buckled when, as manager of Bernadine Healy’s 1994 U.S. Senate campaign in Ohio, a GOP investigation determined that Elsass or someone under his management had purloined a donor list of some 60,000 names and addresses from the Ohio Republican Party—where Elsass had worked for four-and-a-half years immediately before jumping to the Healy campaign. Though Elsass always disputed the accusations, Healy asked for his resignation; she went on to lose the GOP primary.

Elsass, meanwhile, exiled himself to Alabama to rebuild his reputation. At around the same time, he got religion. In a January interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Elsass recalled this period as one of pious reflection that led him to strive toward a higher ethical standard in his work. He became, he explained, “much more serious about my faith” and discovered “a relationship with Christ.” (Today, he practices as a born-again Christian.)

Two years later, he went to work with Akin–running a campaign that he later called his proudest professional moment. The God-fearing future Senatorial candidate won a House primary by just 57 votes.  

But having returned to Ohio politics, Elsass’s political reputation remained somewhat less than saintly. In 2000, Elsass produced what remains his most infamous spot. It starred a garish, 7-foot-tall plaster of Paris statue, painted gold, of “Lady Justice.” The prop, which would have looked at home in a low-rent attorney’s side-of-the-bus advertisement, cost Elsass $4,000, and Elsass used it in an advertisement that suggested an Ohio Supreme Court justice had been compromised by union bribery. Even as the Ohio Election Commission considered whether to order the spot off the air, Elsass displayed Lady Justice on the front lawn of his suburban Columbus home.

More vitriol followed. Elsass cast his young son in a 2006 attack ad that portrayed ominous figures wresting away the child’s toys and security blanket, a metaphor for the government spending cuts championed by a rival candidate for governor. In 2007, Steve Buehrer, a Congressional primary candidate who had retained Elsass just one year earlier for his state assembly campaign, found himself appearing in ads for his primary opponent—Elsass’s new client. Elsass has cobbled together unflattering outtakes from the ads Buehrer had paid him to produce and transformed them into humiliating attack spots.

None of this—the betrayals, the acrimoniousness—fazed the candidates who sought his help in more high-stakes, nationally prominent races. In recent years, Elsass has worked for Rand Paul’s Senatorial bid and Michele Bachmann’s presidential run. He is the media man on call for Gov. John Kasich’s office. His burgeoning client list is such that by day, Elsass is chauffeured around town in a Cadillac Escalade; after hours, he drives his Bentley.

Having rolled out the welcome mat for his old client, Elsass also spent some of this week rolling out a new, nice-guy vocabulary: He was the one who filmed Akin’s Tuesday apology ad. He’s even spotted a silver lining to Akin’s ongoing ordeal. “As a result of going through this valley and climbing to the peak,” he told a local reporter, “ the reality is he’s just going to be that much stronger.”

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden