Wheel of Fortune

July 7, 2008 11:45 p.m.
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We finally got an interview with someone from BMW Direct, the GOP direct mail firm whose business model includes fleecing GOP donors on behalf of obscure, often minority, candidates and then skimming off most of the contributions for itself and its affiliates. Good work if you can get it.

Our calls to the firm last week went unreturned, but we got lucky when we called again late today and Jordan Gehrke, BMW Direct’s director of development, answered the phone. We called to ask specifically about complaints we’d received from another BMW client whose campaign had seen precious little of the contributions it was paying BMW to solicit.

Over the weekend, TPMmuckraker’s Andrew Tilghman interviewed Ada Fisher, who’s running for Congress in North Carolina. She used BMW Direct during her unsuccessful 2006 congressional run, but after that experience decided she’d be better off without them this time. “They sort of — what shall I say? — screwed me,” Fisher told us.

By our count, BMW raised $400,000 for Fisher during the last election cycle, but only about $30,000 actually wound up being available for her campaign to use. The rest was plowed back into paying BMW and its affiliates for raising the money in the first place. “They make it seem like each of these people is a private entity. But as you listen more and more and you get smarter, you realize they all work together,” Fisher said in the interview with us.

BMW’s Gehrke acknowledged that Fisher’s was a unique case. She came to BMW Direct late in the cycle, with less than a year left before the election. That’s usually not enough time for the sort of direct-mail campaign BMW runs to yield results, Gehrke said, but they thought Fisher was a strong enough candidate to make up for the lost time. Alas, things didn’t work out. As Gehrke explained: “[W]e think we would have been very successful if we had had another six months. For all kinds of reasons, fortune had its say, and things did not work out as we hoped.”

Seems not. The donors who gave the $400,000 to Fisher’s campaign saw less than 10 cents of every dollar actually go to the campaign they were aiming to help. Fisher herself complained that what little money BMW Direct did raise was so unpredictable and arrived so late in the campaign that it didn’t really help. The only party to this arrangement who came out ahead was BMW Direct.

According to Gehrke, we’re not taking into account certain intangibles, like building name recognition and improving the GOP brand:

“Is it worth it? Yes. If she doesn’t win this year, maybe she ends up turning it into a state senate seat a few years later and then runs for Congress again. Going into a district where Republicans have not traditionally competed and having a black doctor on the ballot is a way of saying this is not your father’s Republican Party. This is what building a party is about. This is what expanding your coalition is about. The point is, it has value.”

That may be one way of explaining why it’s good for the GOP, which is already struggling to raise money and hold on to House seats this year, to lose millions of its donors’ dollars to the churn of direct mail costs. It doesn’t explain why donors and candidates alike are being played for dupes.

Maybe we just don’t understand.

Some right-wing blogs have taken up a concerted defense of BMW Direct in the past few days, claiming that the BMW Direct business model makes perfect sense, unless you’re ignorant of the way direct mail works.

Mark Hemingway at NRO’s The Corner, proclaims that “whether the candidate gets 5 percent or 75 percent — it’s basically free money to them.” The reason for the scrutiny, according to Hemingway, is that the left is trying to undermine the GOP’s advantage in direct mail by painting direct mail firms as “the used car salesmen of politics.”

Michael Krempasky at RedState (husband of former DOJ darling Monica Goodling) gives a nod to left-wing conspiracy theories, but ultimately dismisses us as oblivious:

“Every year, we see it again: shrieking, hand-wringing, gloating (?) lefties pointing fingers at Republican direct mail fundraisers. Trouble is, they don’t seem to have much idea what they’re talking about.”

We’re not alone apparently. It took Ada Fisher an entire campaign to figure out how the game is played.

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