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Swimming with Sharks

Tina Fineberg/AP Photo
Karl Rove introduced at a College Republican National Committee reception in New York in 2004.
Great pieces of political reporting pull back the curtain on an activity theretofore little known or described and give readers an entirely new insight into how a system works. Such was the case with Franklin Foer’s groundbreaking 2005 piece on the College Republican National Committee, the place where young Republicans compete with one another for national leadership positions and learn, to put it bluntly, how to knife-fight. “The Committee is the place where Republican strategists learn their craft and acquire their knack for making their Democratic opponents look like disorganized children,” Foer writes.

The race Foer follows in the piece for the presidency of the College Republicans is fascinating in and of itself. But it’s almost incidental to the deeper point, which is the seriousness with which Republicans groom their knife-fighters. A rare look into a world we don’t often see.

—Michael Tomasky, editor, The New Republic

Everyone who watched this summer’s race for College Republican National Committee (CRNC) chair with any detachment has a favorite moment of chutzpah they admire in spite of themselves. Leading the count are the following: speaking sotto voce of your opponent’s “homosexuality”; rigging the delegate count so that states that support your candidate have twice as many votes as those that don’t; and using a sitting congressman to threaten the careers of undecided voters. I can understand the perverse appeal of each of these incidents. But I cast my vote for the forged letter.

The letter arrived via fax to the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, on the eve of the CRNC convention in June. The three-day convention is attended by student delegates from across the country who, after enduring a four-month campaign filled with importuning, backstabbing, and horsetrading, vote for a chair. Most campaigns culminate with the handpicked establishment candidate inheriting the two-year, $75,000-a-year position without much of a fight. But, this year, the establishment candidate, Paul Gourley—the handpicked successor of the last chairman, who was the handpicked successor of the chairman before him—faced a vigorous challenge from an insurgent, Michael Davidson, a smooth-talking 25-year-old Berkeley grad.

Since the fax appeared unexpectedly in the final days of the race, it created an unmitigated frenzy among the conventioneers. The letter announced that the chairman of the Missouri delegation had completely replaced his state’s official slate of delegates (who all happened to support Davidson). I followed one Missouri delegate, Justin Smith, a slight, fair-skinned student in a gray suit, to a Davidson luncheon with an open-bar, swag-filled gift baskets, and a Tex-Mex spread. He seemed panicked. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

What was going on was that a new Missouri delegation, quietly flown to the convention, had arrived in Arlington and pledged its allegiance to Gourley. Stunned by this turn of events, the Davidson camp scrambled to reach the apparently turncoat chairman, Will Dreiling. But Dreiling had unaccountably vanished—a disappearance that Davidson supporters jokingly attributed to Gourley’s powerful backers in Missouri, including a state assemblyman and a gubernatorial aide, both of whom everyone knew had been pressuring the young Missouri chair to switch candidates. On the final decisive day of the convention, hours before the vote, Davidson’s people finally tracked down Dreiling. It turned out that he had been under so much pressure to support Gourley that he had resigned his post and taken a family vacation in Nebraska. What’s more, Dreiling protested he hadn’t written the letter. “It was forged,” Davidson’s campaign manager, Robb McFadden, told me. In an attempt to reinstall his supporters, Davidson took a cell phone, with Dreiling on the line, from delegate to delegate, exposing the letter as fake. “Eventually, the Gourley people didn’t have a defense,” said McFadden. “They backed off the letter.”

Such controversy is the stuff of the organization’s rich folklore. Typically, these confabs pull in a cast of characters that extends beyond a bunch of hormonally charged undergrads. Behind the scenes, in the campaign war rooms, small armies of veteran Republican operatives and congressional staffers toil. That’s because there’s much more at stake in the elections than a swish post-college gig. After campaign finance reform, the College Republicans reinvented themselves as a big-time 527—a group legally allowed to spend an infinite amount of its own money on campaigns—with a budget of over $17 million. They have a massive network of operatives to send into the field to bolster candidates, and they have patronage to spread among friends and through direct-mail firms. In other words, it’s well worth tearing a Shermanesque path to the sea to control College Republicans, no matter the carnage—and no matter the expense. Michael Davidson said he spent an estimated $200,000—raised off high-rollers who normally sign checks to senators and presidential wannabes—trying to claim the grand prize.

But the significance of the CRNC goes beyond that. The Committee is the place where Republican strategists learn their craft and acquire their knack for making their Democratic opponents look like disorganized children. Many of the biggest-brand Republican operatives—from Karl Rove and Lee Atwater, to Charlie Black and Roger Stone, to Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist—got their starts this way. Walking through the halls of the convention, it is easy to see the genesis of tactics deployed in the Florida recount and by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Republicans learn how to fight hard against Democrats by practicing on one another first. “There are no rules in a knife fight,” Norquist instructed the young conventioneers in a speech. And, while Norquist described a knife fight, the Gourley-Davidson rumble transpired around him.

“They call this race ‘hick versus slick,’” Paul Gourley intoned, making the case for himself in a candidate debate at the end of the convention’s long first day. Gourley, whose tuxedo fit snugly over his 23-year-old corn-fed frame, had just arrived from the College Republicans’ Lee Atwater Gala dinner. He grasped the podium, smiled broadly, and bellowed in his flat South Dakota voice, “I’m proud to be the hick.”

Modern-day Republicans of all ages have perfected the art of wrapping themselves in populist just-folks garb, even if they actually have a black tie around their neck. And, despite Gourley’s yokel protestations, he represented the old money in the race. After serving a stint as treasurer of College Republicans and traveling the country to recruit field organizers, Gourley received the blessing of the outgoing chairman, Eric Hoplin. But, in reality, he had won the blessing of a force more powerful than a single politician. He had won the blessing of an entity that College Republicans speak of in hushed tones and that they compare to the Empire in Star Wars—the Establishment.

When College Republicans invoke the Establishment, they mean a clique of former College Republicans—now grown-ups playing politics at the highest level—who will trample anyone to maintain their clique’s control of the organization. Like all good cabals, it is hard to know exactly who belongs to the Establishment and how Machiavellian their meddling is. Before his tumble from grace, the lobbyist Jack Abramoff would lend College Republicans his skybox at the MCI center, donate money, and lead training sessions. (In 2002, the CRNC paid Jack Abramoff for “accounting & legal services.”) Rove reportedly keeps tabs, and Norquist invites the group’s chair to attend his celebrated Wednesday gathering of conservative big shots. But the convention offered some more suggestive examples of the Establishment’s methodology. Just past 2 a.m. on Saturday, wavering delegates from Louisiana received calls from Morton Blackwell, the legendary veteran of the Goldwater and Reagan campaigns, urging them to vote for Gourley. It was a perfectly calibrated tactic. “A 19-year-old Republican will generally do whatever a demigod of the conservative movement like Morton tells them,” one Davidson supporter griped.

And they are even more likely to respond to entreaties from a congressman. Patrick McHenry, a dough-faced 29-year-old freshman representative from North Carolina and former CRNC treasurer, went to war on Gourley’s behalf. “I got a call. They said, ‘The congressman is on the line,’” University of North Carolina junior Jordan Selleck told me. “He basically said that we’d be screwed if we didn’t switch to Gourley. Our careers in politics would be over.” As Jennifer Holder, who served as a state chair in the ‘90s, lamented, “There are a lot of sharks infesting the kiddie pool.”

With sharks like McHenry menacing the delegates, Gourley largely kept to the shadows, leaving the gladhanding and button-holing to others. But all the Establishment’s lobbying and cajoling didn’t make the race any less tight. While Gourley risked losing a plum job and a network any budding politician would envy, the Establishment had far more at stake. In part, these veterans are like pathetic frat brothers returning to their old house for a few more keg stands, a biannual chance to hang with 19-year-olds and relive their youth. But involvement in College Republicans offers tangible perks for them, too. It provides a vehicle for recruiting protégés. Rove, for instance, has stocked his White House office with CRs. And, by helping the youngsters win CRNC elections, the adults earn a chit they can cash in during election season. As McHenry’s story illustrates, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the College Republicans can tip races. The group flooded McHenry’s district with manpower last year, as he competed in a tight primary race. In the end, he prevailed by 85 votes.

While Gourley worked the back rooms, Davidson could hardly be avoided. From the beginning, he worked the halls of the hotel, shaking hands and huddling with potential supporters. Silver-tongued and surfer-boy handsome, with mussy brown hair, Davidson was indeed slick.

But Davidson wasn’t just a charismatic interloper. He had raised cash for his campaign with Phil Gramm-like acumen. According to his aides, high rollers in California invested in him because his sparkling fund-raising pitches convinced them of his limitless future in politics. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a breathless profile, “[O]ne question demands to be asked: Does he ever fantasize about running for president?”

Davidson’s fund-raising, in turn, allowed him to dazzle delegates, just like the Establishment had done for so many years. To combat the Establishment’s hardball tactics, and to press his own aggressive ones, he brought to the convention a cadre of adult advisers, including the p.r. consultant who helped prepare Paula Jones’s testimony and two certified experts on parliamentary procedure. All were paid their standard fees. (They were in good company: To resolve disagreements between the campaigns over the credentialing of delegates, the CRNC hired a professional arbitrator, an auditing firm, and their own parliamentary consultant, who also co-edits Roberts Rules of Order.)

I first understood the sophistication of Davidson’s operation when I visited his war room. Although the campaign had banned press from its inner sanctum, a scrawny bouncer stationed at the threshold couldn’t contain his pride and allowed me a quick look around. Most congressional candidates, and even a few serious presidential ones, might be jealous of what I saw. The center of the room contained a bank of ten laptops arrayed around a large table. Another table held dozens of walkie-talkies with Secret Service-style earpieces. Copy machines and printers surrounded the perimeter. Students in jeans and shorts whirled about, barking into their Blackberry phones and pulling paper off the printers. As I took in the room, the bouncer asked, “Did you get what you need?”

You could see Davidson’s largesse all over the convention. Delegates would wander into his hospitality room, which was wallpapered with plasma televisions. Lunch included an open bar and a vast spread. His workers handed out gift bags like the kind doled out at fancy Hamptons benefits or at the Sundance Film Festival, filled with cans of Red Bull and Starbucks gift cards. At night, they gathered in the same room for a 1980s Reagan Dance Party, replete with another open bar, DJ, and disco lights. I watched a lucky guy on the dance floor, sandwiched between blondes, waving a straw cowboy hat as he boogied to Duran Duran.

But, even with all his resources, Davidson had taken a major gamble. Challenging the Establishment guarantees that you will be subject to the politics of personal destruction. As McFadden told me, a whispering campaign alleged that Davidson was gay (not true) and moderate (quite possibly true) and from Red Berkeley (demonstrably true). Smears appeared on a blog called CR Veterans for Truth, a bow in the direction of the swift-boat veterans who attempted to shred John Kerry’s military reputation. But the real destruction doesn’t occur during the campaign—it comes afterward. A long trail of defeated insurgents have found their political careers ruined by the Establishment.

Back in 1981, Abramoff and his campaign manager, Norquist, promised their leading competitor, Amy Moritz, the job of CRNC executive director if she dropped out of the race. Moritz took the bait, but it turned out that Abramoff had made the promise with his fingers crossed. Norquist took the executive director job and named Moritz his deputy. That demotion didn’t last long, either. After discovering the talented Ralph Reed, Norquist handed the Christian Coalition godfather Moritz’s responsibilities and her office space. They placed all of Moritz’s belongings in a box labeled amy’s desk. Even 25 years later, she hasn’t shed her role as College Republican doormat. Abramoff used her think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research, to funnel nearly $1 million into a phony direct-mail firm with an address identical to his own.

While College Republicans have a vague understanding of Abramoff’s ascent, they all can recite the ballad of Rove and Atwater—the ultimate object lesson in how the Establishment strikes back. In 1973, Rove was the Establishment candidate, and Atwater, the original Sun Tsu-quoting College Republican, was his prime campaign operative. They spent the spring of 1973 crisscrossing the country in a Ford Pinto, lining up the support of state chairs—basically the right-wing version of Thelma and Louise. But, in point of fact, Rove was hardly the right-winger in the race. His two opponents, Terry Dolan and Robert Edgeworth, were. And, when Dolan threw his support to Edgeworth, Rove had no other alternative. He had to cheat.

When the College Republicans gathered for their convention at the Lake of the Ozarks resort in Missouri, Rove and Atwater relentlessly challenged the legitimacy of Edgeworth’s delegates, even if the evidence did not justify their attacks. Because of Rove’s allegations, the convention ended in deadlock. In revenge, Dolan went to The Washington Post with recordings that captured training seminars where Rove boasted of his campaign techniques, including rooting through opponents’ garbage cans and other forms of campaign espionage. The Post broke the story under the headline “GOP Probes Official as Teacher of Tricks.” The Republican National Committee chairman, one George H.W. Bush, however, didn’t punish Rove for his less-than-high-minded behavior. Instead, he gave Rove the chairmanship and sent Edgeworth a scathing letter accusing him of disloyalty. “He wrote me out of the party,” Edgeworth told James Moore and Wayne Slater, the authors of the biography Bush’s Brain.

In the years following the Rove victory, Edgeworth recreated himself as a Virgil scholar and took a post at Louisiana State University. He passed away last year. The story is retold as a cautionary tale: Mess with the Establishment, and you, too, will lead an obscure life, immersed in the study of a man who guided field trips to hell.

On Friday night, just before the big debate, something happened that made the Davidson camp believe that their man could finally reverse the tide of this history. A blonde from Virginia named Amber VerValin unexpectedly entered the war room and announced that the she could provide decisive evidence that the Gourley operation was cheating. Such evidence would not be difficult to supply, because she herself had committed the misdeed. As she confessed her sins, you could only hear the sheaf of collated flyers dropping off the copiers. One operative reached for the war room’s video camera. They would tape her confession and then play it the next morning, just before the voting—a bombshell so powerful and deftly timed that perhaps not even Rove could defuse it.

A few hours later, as the two candidates prepared to debate, crowds formed outside the ballroom. Each candidate’s contingent carried printed signs. every college republican counts!, screamed the Davidson signs, a slogan with echoes of the Democratic pleas from the Florida recount of 2000. I watched as women in gowns stood in each other’s faces, pumping their fists in the air, chanting their candidate’s name. When the doors to the debate venue opened and the throngs flocked in, floor managers quickly directed their contingents into seats and began to quiet their crowds, so that they didn’t create an impression of unruliness that might sway the few remaining swayable voters.

The Davidson camp managed the affair with the efficiency and attention to detail that had brought an upset victory within reach. Floor managers distributed press releases, both before and after the showdown, like rapid response at a presidential debate. The Davidson war room had acquired the cell phone numbers of every delegate to the convention. As the debate transpired, the war room sent continual text messages to each of the phones. But, for all the orchestration, they couldn’t choreograph the reaction of their supporters. I sat at a table of Davidson supporters in the middle of the ballroom. This table had empty seats, I suspected, because it contained the most patently nerdy characters in the room, with the requisite oversized glasses and unwashed hair. They were an emotional bunch. When their candidate alluded to running an ethical administration, they began chanting an acronym, unintelligible to outsiders, but piquant to everyone in the room: “RDI, RDI, RDI!”

RDI, or Response Dynamics Inc., is the biggest scandal in the history of the College Republicans. More precisely, it is a direct-mail firm that brought the College Republicans approximately $9 million last year. Most of that money went straight back to RDI, which claimed $8.2 million to cover expenses and their fees, according to the Los Angeles Times.

How does one raise $9 million in a year for a group like College Republicans? For starters, it is important to obscure the ultimate destination of the funds. The College Republicans sent out their solicitations on the letterhead of such nonexistent groups as “Republican Headquarters 2004” and “Republican Elections Committee.” Next, it helps to fill the missives with as much emotion as a Wagnerian opera. “Apparently the Democrats don’t have any concern about hurting you, your family or America,” one letter read. “Their sole concern is revenge—vengeance—retribution.” The most infamous of these missives included an American flag lapel pin. It urged recipients to pray over the pin and return it, along with $1,000. According to the letter, the pin would be worn by the president as he accepted the Republican nomination: “I could have sent you your own lapel pin, but I knew that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to you as being able to give a special gift to President Bush during this challenging time.” This letter, incidentally, bore the signature of Paul Gourley.

Finally, it helps to send these letters to senior citizens, who are lonely and sometimes suffering from dementia. “I don’t have any more money,” Cecilia Barbier, a 90-year-old retired church council worker and College Republicans contributor, told the Seattle Times. “I’m stopping giving to everybody. That was all my savings that they got.” In a single year, Barbier made 300 donations for the organization, adding up to $100,000.

College Republicans had understood this game for years. They had heard many such stories from the children of elderly men and women who receive boxes full of these letters. And many chairmen of the organization sought to break the relationship with RDI. “Everyone called it heroin,” says Holder. The CRs sincerely tried to kick their addiction, but they simply couldn’t.

It took simultaneous stories in the Seattle Times and the Durham Herald-Sun last winter to finally break the contract’s back. In the immediate aftermath of these stories, CRNC Chair Eric Hoplin e-mailed top state officials of the organization, telling them not to speak to the news media. “We need the story to go away, which it will,” he wrote. “But only if we all withhold our comments.” He added that the story was “full of lies and distortions written by a well-known liberal who is out to get us.” But Hoplin’s position wouldn’t hold long. RDI represented a potent campaign issue and a growing embarrassment for the GOP. By March of this year, the CRNC had cut its relationship with the direct-mailers. The damage, however, had been done. By attempting to exploit the power of prayer with the lapel pin, Gourley had generated resentment among evangelical students who might have been otherwise wary of a candidate from Red Berkeley like Davidson. A delegate from Idaho told me, “As a Christian, I couldn’t stomach that.”

On Saturday morning, the Davidson camp prepared to unveil the explosive Virginia scandal. It had the damning videotape of VerValin ready to play to the convention, a last minute surprise. In the tape, VerValin claimed that she had forged constitutions for 15 Virginia CR chapters to create the impression of a larger Virginia CR contingent. This had triggered a rule that automatically granted the state, which resided in the Gourley camp, additional delegates. To prove her bona fides, VerValin held the phony documents and then her own driver’s license before the cameras. She had committed this act of deceit, she claimed, under pressure from her state chair.

But the Davidson operatives never got a chance to show the damning video. Parliamentary rules forbid showing a tape—a fact that Davidson’s war room hadn’t considered. Davidson had to describe the scandal, in all its confusing detail, on the convention floor. He demanded that the additional delegates, accrued on the basis of forgery, be denied. But it didn’t help Davidson’s case that the Gourley campaign’s rebuttal accused him of engaging in “Jesse Jackson-like” tactics. When it came time to vote on the Virginia scandal, the Davidson camp anticipated a squeaker. And they knew that the vote would determine their candidate’s fate. “If we lost this test vote, then all our soft support would disappear,” McFadden told me. “They would realize that we were going to lose. It would be in their self-interest to align themselves with the winning side.”

In the end, Davidson’s motion to exclude the Virginians failed by a mere three votes. The difference, in the eyes of the Davidson camp, came down to a Judas by the name of Steve Damion, chairman of the New Jersey CRs. All along, even that morning, Damion had promised that his state would sit squarely behind the insurgent. But, when he swore his allegiance to Davidson, he didn’t look his staffers in the eyes. That’s because he had already purged Cassandra Cavanaugh, the Garden State’s most enthusiastic Davidson supporter, from his slate of delegates.

The insurgents haven’t let Damion’s treachery rest. On their blogs, especially the cheeky, Davidson supporters have skewered him as a liar and a crook. They had splashy material at the ready. Damion’s betrayal coincided with a scandalous e-mail that he sent to an aide to New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester. After Forrester wrote asking for help from New Jersey College Republicans, Damion replied, “I would be more than happy to give that information to you and the Forrester Campaign, but I am looking at you to help us out as well. I mean the 100 dollars he [Forrester] gave to us is really drops in the bucket. I have local candidates for [state Assembly] that are cutting us checks for 250. See where I am coming from? If there is a 3,000 dollar check waiting for me, I am coming running and the campaign will have total access to our resources at all times, no problem.” After the publication of his e-mail, Damion resigned his post.

There are many competing theories explaining why Damion joined Gourley at the eleventh hour. But, without him—and with the defeat on the Virginia question—the Davidson camp understood its fate. In fact, despite moments of optimism, Davidson supporters had long ago prepared themselves for it. “Beginning in May, we began to consider the option of walking out of the convention and starting our own organization,” one Davidson aide says. They had even received promises of funding for an alternative organization that would compete with the Establishment.

Yet, faced with certain defeat, Davidson lost his nerve. “It was a human decision,” says the aide. So many rosy predictions had been made about Davidson’s future. He didn’t want to gamble his career by crossing the Establishment and embarrassing the Republican Party. Unlike Robert Edgeworth, the classicist vanquished by Rove, he was only willing to take the fight so far. “There’s something inside of me that still believes things need to be changed,” Davidson told me last week. “But I’m inclined to be gracious and move on.”

A few weeks after the convention, I got in touch with the newly reelected president of College Democrats, Grant Woodard of Grinnell College. For his uncontested race, he said he raised $2,000—$198,000 less than Michael Davidson’s estimated take. Unlike the College Republicans, Democratic students are not organized as an independent 527. They reside within the Democratic National Committee and exist largely to supply campaign volunteers. Woodard makes all his calls after 9 p.m., “when I get free cell phone minutes,” he told me. His salary is $75,000 lower than the one Chairman Paul Gourley receives—that is to say, nonexistent. The contrast between the two organizations is remarkably vivid. When the liberal Center for American Progress sent a blogger to the CRNC convention, she returned horrified by what she’d witnessed and sentimental about the Democratic operation: “I much prefer our movement with blue jeans, diversity, goofy kids, birkenstocks and good beer (none of that busch light crap). We’ve definitely gotta step up the field based organizing, but let’s make sure we’re enjoying it. And each other.” Considering their current losing streak, Democrats might want to spend more time contemplating the contrast between the two styles of political education. How often do Birkenstocks trod the road to victory? Can you really count on goofy kids in a knife fight?