The War Room

Veteran political consultant Carol Butler plays to win.

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It’s not hard to picture Carol Butler as a character in Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, the hit television drama about a fictional Democratic president and his smart, articulate staff who are wholly obsessed with the game of politics. “It was a big come-from-behind victory,” says Butler, a Portland political consultant who on a late Tuesday afternoon, is reminiscing about her stint in the year 2000 as campaign manager for U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a race Butler describes as the “best and toughest” she’s ever done.

“We were up against a well-funded incumbent and our polling numbers were way down, and the onslaught of criticism was just mind boggling. The Oakland [county] paper ran an editorial saying: ‘We shouldn’t elect this woman because what if she hires the same morons in the senate that she hired to run her campaign?’” Ultimately, the team kept their “heads down and won,” Butler says. “Turns out the difference between being a moron and a genius is a couple thousand votes.”

The principal of Carol Butler and Associates, Butler, 55, is one of the country’s top campaign consultants and a fixture in Oregon politics. Her strategizing helped reelect Sen. Ron Wyden in 1998, put Rep. Suzanne Bonamici in office in 2012 and trounce an effort to privatize the city of Portland’s water bureau in 2014. Now Butler is deploying her skills as a campaign consultant for Gov. Kate Brown — with her eye on the special gubernatorial election in 2016. A window on the bare-knuckled world of Oregon political consultants, she is one of a small, elite group of people that shapes public opinion around ballot measures and political candidates; a behind-the-scenes power player who influences the outcome of elections around the state and country.

“You always hear political consultants rank below used-car salesmen in people’s views,” laughs Butler, a lifelong Democrat who has worked in politics for more than 30 years. “But I believe it’s a legitimate way to do some good in the world, to get people elected who share your philosophy and values.” The adrenaline rush doesn’t hurt, she adds. “I would have made a real vocational error if I were not competitive. You get the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and you get to have them publicly.”

The daughter of a Department of Defense employee, Butler spent most of her childhood and college years in Texas. She is known for her shrewd insights, passion for female candidates and breadth of elections experience — local, state and federal. Colleagues also remark on Butler’s sense of humor, Southern drawl and obsessive love for Rascal, her omnipresent basset hound. “Carol knows how to use that Texas twang to convey the sense to people they are being stupid or very smoothly relieve people of their money in service of a larger cause,” jokes Kevin Looper, president and owner of Fulcrum Political and a colleague who has worked with Butler on several campaigns.

A more serious Looper cites an example from Butler’s playbook. During the No on Water District campaign, Butler had to work around the city’s mismanagement of the water bureau. Says Looper, “Carol understood the essential strategic dilemma: How do you position a campaign to defend the status quo when you know the status quo isn’t working?” Her solution was running a commercial featuring a lone glass of water turning to sludge. “That ad single-handedly won the race,” Looper says. “The insight — to connect privatization to risk — was Carol’s.”

A political junkie since high school, Butler in college interned for former Texas Rep. Martin Frost — “he got pretty high up on the leadership chain and was finally redistricted out of office not so long ago” — then moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for Frost as a receptionist. “That’s a little humbling: when you think you’re the smartest person on the block and then realize everyone around you is smart and political.” Butler was eventually promoted to legislative assistant, a position she held for four years before realizing she was more interested in politics than governing.

So Butler headed back to Texas, where she worked as the executive director of the Dallas County Democratic Party, just as the state was turning from blue to red. “It was an interesting time,” she says. Karl Rove was just coming on the scene. Karen Hughes, future advisor to President George W. Bush, was Butler’s Republican county counterpart.

In 1988 Butler made her first foray into presidential politics, working as a “surrogate scheduler” for Dick Gephardt’s national campaign headquarters in Iowa. Her moment came while squiring Rep. Claude Pepper, an elderly congressmen from Florida, from senior center to senior center, a tour that culminated in Pepper’s participation in a senior aerobics class. “It ended up on the front page over the fold in the newspaper the next day,” Butler recalls. “It was the first time Dick Gephardt paid attention to lowly staffers like me. He said: ‘Why couldn’t I get him in the paper that way?’”

For many years, Butler lived a peripatetic life, moving from state to state to manage U.S. Senate races. “When I first met Carol, she had storage units in six states because she had done high-level work in each one,” says Maura Roche, a consultant who worked with Butler in 2006 when the latter managed the successful campaign defeating Measure 43, Oregon’s parental notification initiative. “I guess she had furniture in each one.”

In 2006 Butler decided to settle down and build a broader consulting business in Oregon, a state she had fallen in love with when she managed Ron Wyden’s reelection campaign in 1998.

“Working with Ron, I learned a lot about using the power of the incumbency and how important that is in an election, and how to use it effectively. It set me up beautifully to go and beat an incumbent in Michigan.”

While working on the Wyden detail, Butler met Kate Brown. In 2012 Butler worked as a consultant on the governor’s secretary of state re-election campaign; she was also part of a small team helping Gov. Brown transition during the brief, intense period after Kitzhaber resigned. “Then it kind of naturally evolved.” The fact that there are only three Democratic women governors makes Brown an especially interesting candidate to work for, says Butler, whose three-person staff is now “all Kate Brown all the time.” So far, the campaign seems smooth sailing. “With all due respect to [Republican challenger] Dr. Bud Pierce, the governor hasn’t drawn an opponent at this point.”

That said, Butler isn’t taking anything for granted. Gov. Brown will be up for reelection twice: first in 2016 and again in 2018. Observes Butler: “2018 won’t be a presidential election year. There won’t be any U.S. senators up above us on the ballot. So we’re looking at being prepared for both.”

In 1996 Butler managed her first U.S. Senate race — representing Glen Browder of Alabama. Back then her staff faxed press releases on Fridays because they had free long distance. Today technology and money have dramatically changed the nature of political campaigns. Concerns about landing “above the fold” have given way to “constantly following Facebook and Twitter feeds.” Google has made research a breeze, but the 24-hour news cycle is relentless. “There is no deadline,” Butler says. “It’s all day every day.”

Nobody is happy about how expensive campaigns have become, says Butler, who is known for hosting high-profile political events with her partner, longtime Democratic party donor and publisher (and Oregon Business part owner) Win McCormack, in their riverfront home, including an August fundraiser for Hillary Clinton that raised $360,000. “She was very charming, warm, and we reminisced about President Clinton’s mango ice cream he used to like from this place in San Antonio,” says Butler, who worked for the president’s campaign in Texas in 1992. Butler and McCormack also hosted President Clinton in their home during a fundraising event for Hillary in 2008.

Butler calls Citizens United (the 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowing virtually unlimited corporate campaign spending) a disastrous decision. “But I’m keenly aware how important money is. You can have the best strategy, the best teams, but if you were badly outspent, it’s hard for anybody to hear about any of that.”

Gridlock is also drowning out serious policy discussion, although Oregon has “less of that” than other states, Butler says. “There is an Oregon niceness that translates into Oregon politics.” But therein lies the contradiction political consultants navigate every day. In Oregon, there are about 10 to 15 top-level consultants (on the Democratic side) who show up every political cycle. It’s a close-knit group of people — albeit close-knit “in only the way scorpions can be,” Looper observes wryly.

Clocking in at about 8 to 10 people, Oregon’s Republican political consultant field is narrower than the Democratic side, says Rebecca Tweed, political director for Lake Oswego-based State Street Solutions and the former political director for the House Republican Caucus.  Like most consultants, Tweed never fails to check out the strategist behind the candidate — or ballot measure.  “If Carol Butler is on board, we know to take it seriously,” she says. 

Indeed, it’s a no-holds-barred kind of job. “You hear voters don’t like negative ads,” Butler says, “but it turns out they actually do work.” She recalls an attack ad Rep. Bonamici’s Republican opponent Rob Cornilles ran during the 2012 special election. “By responding quickly and changing the subject in a counter attack, we were able to end [his] campaign,” Butler says.

Do such tactics help foster a more collaborative work environment? “No, they don’t,” Butler says. “I’m not going to wrap it up in puppies and unicorns. At the end of the day, when you are a political consultant, your job is to win.”