Meet Dave Carney, Rick Perry's Karl Rove-like political guru

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 29, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Dave Carney, the architect behind Texas Gov. Rick Perry's spectacular political rise, first in Texas and then in entering the presidential race, is facing scrutiny for the recent loss of momentum in Perry's campaign.

But Carney, a tough-as-nails political operative who's been Perry's top consultant since helping him win a close 1998 statewide race, isn't dwelling on the governor's sub-par performance in debates. Instead, he's sticking to his against-the-grain playbook.

"This campaign is built to win delegates for the RNC convention in Tampa in 2012," Carney said in response to McClatchy questions via email. The Republican National Convention will be the week of Aug. 27. "We have been in the race for, like, six whole weeks, while some have been in the race for, like, six years. That is our focus.

"As the governor has said, we will get better every day. Our message for getting America working again and our record of job creation will be the foundation of our campaign's success."

Political analysts of all stripes cited Perry's wandering answers and unfocused jabs — especially at his closest rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — during the presidential debate Sept. 22 in Orlando, Fla., and some questioned Carney's strategy, honed in Texas, of keeping the governor away from the news media and reporters' questions.

Noting that the young campaign is beset by continent-scale challenges it's never faced before, political consultant Mark McKinnon observed: "Team Perry is drinking from a fire hose."

McKinnon, an Austin, Texas-based analyst who worked for former President George W. Bush, said "the trick is to focus on what matters most and prioritize. At the very least, that means making sure their candidate is rested, ready and prepared at the next debate to demonstrate he has the skills to be president."

Carney's strategy is centered on keeping Perry tied to the tea party movement, positioned to the right of other candidates. Texans who've watched the two men for years say they're close and that Perry trusts Carney's instincts.

"They have a plan," said Pat Oxford, the chairman of Bracewell Giuliani, the Houston-based law firm. Oxford was part of Texas Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's team in her 2010 gubernatorial primary challenge against Perry, who won. "He's running a race for the primary, and let the general (election) take care of itself."

For now, Perry is trying to sandpaper some of his campaign's rough spots. On Wednesday he apologized for calling critics of his stand allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates "heartless." In the same interview, he tried to better explain to non-Texans why a fence the length of the Mexican border was unworkable. Instead, he said, the border needs constant monitoring.

In every Perry campaign Carney has masterminded — from the 1998 lieutenant governor's race to gubernatorial elections in 2002, 2006 and 2010 — he's pushed an aggressive attack and won.

Recalling how Carney directed the fight against Hutchison, Oxford said: "He called every shot right. He beat us like a tied-up dog."

Perry accused the popular Hutchison of being part of the Washington problem and being out of touch with voters. He beat her easily in a three-way primary.

"It was Carney who spotted the anti-Washington theme and rode on that," said Dave Beckwith, another veteran of the Hutchison campaign. "He picked up on the theme of the tea party — anti-big government — before anyone else in the country."

Carney is a heavyset veteran Republican operative in his early 50s. He ran political operations in the George H.W. Bush White House. He briefly served as Newt Gingrich's chief political adviser for his 2012 presidential campaign, but resigned in June. He has a reputation as unconventional; he prefers, for example, to live in remote New Hampshire, near the town where he grew up, rather than in Austin, where his primary client governs. He's the president and CEO of the New Hampshire-based private consulting firm Norway Hill Associates Inc.

Unconventional? Consider this: In 2006, Carney hired four Yale University researchers, known as "the eggheads," to rigorously study traditional campaign techniques. The result was a dramatic change in how the Perry campaign operated, said Sasha Issenberg, a journalist who in August released an e-chapter, "Rick Perry and His Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America," that's part of his upcoming book, "The Victory Lab."

"They ran these large-scale political versions of drug trials," Issenberg said, that measured the impact of radio and TV ads and personal appearances. "They found that when Perry traveled somewhere there was a bump in the polls, in volunteer sign-ups and contributions." TV ads, in contrast, had only a "short-lived" impact. The findings led Carney to send Perry to small markets such as Lubbock in settings with more glad-handing opportunities.

Carney also limited Perry's debates: He had only four debates in the last 10 years and refused to debate the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Bill White.

Carney also made sure that Perry didn't meet with any newspaper editorial boards. The result: Perry didn't get any endorsements from any major Texas newspapers, but he still easily defeated White.

"Carney's proven himself to be one of the best in the business," said Ed Espinoza, an Austin-based Democratic consultant. "He's very organized and very creative in his approach. He's not linear, not afraid to try new things. It's tough to count the campaign out when they've got leadership like that."

Harold Cook, a longtime Democratic operative in Texas, has known Perry since the governor was a Democrat in the 1980s, and he's known Carney since Carney parachuted into the Lone Star State to get Perry elected lieutenant governor in 1998. Cook credits Carney with changing Perry's fortunes:

"He's taken this guy from being, frankly, a backbencher, to getting the keys to the building, of a political empire. There's no doubt Carney is the architect of Perry's success."

A Republican consultant who's worked with Carney and asked for anonymity in order to speak freely said, "He's an old-school, tough guy. He's hardworking and very skilled and myopic. He drives people hard. He expects results.

"If he could win going negative or positive, he'd just go negative. He'd rather cut your throat out and leave blood on the sidewalk."

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