Bulldog

02.21.12

Larry McCarthy: The Pro–Mitt Romney Super PAC’s Go-To Attack Guy

The man known for his infamous Willie Horton commercial and now a key strategist at Restore Our Future talks about negative ads, super PACs, and his battle to help Romney beat Santorum in the Michigan primary.

Republican media consultant Larry McCarthy bears little resemblance to Batman. At 59, with thinning hair, a whitening beard and a spreading belly, he hardly seems ready to leap into the fray and beat the living daylights out of bad guys.

Yet the Caped Crusader metaphor is the one McCarthy chooses to describe his role at Restore Our Future, the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC that may—or, equally possible, may not—save his favorite presidential candidate from disastrous defeat in the Feb. 28 Michigan primary.

“When Commissioner Gordon needed Batman, he’d flash the bat signal in the sky,” the publicity-averse McCarthy tells me in a rare interview. “So we look to the sky and if we see the bat signal, we go there.”

Like every other Washington insider, McCarthy knows that if Romney loses Michigan—where he was born, his father was governor, and he’s been trailing archrival Rick Santorum in the latest polls—his campaign will be “barely breathing,” as a top Romney operative put it to me recently.

For the record, in his deceptively soft-spoken manner, McCarthy quibbles with that prognosis. “No, I don’t believe that’s the case, but obviously Michigan is a very important state for him,” he says, noting that Santorum’s Feb. 7 trifecta in the Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri caucuses “vastly exceeded anyone’s expectations—certainly in the Romney campaign and probably in Santorum’s campaign. If Romney loses Michigan—which actually is one of his home states and does have real delegates at stake and has been hotly contested with advertising and campaigning—that’s not good, and may well give Santorum additional momentum going into Super Tuesday … I’m sure there will be no shortage of Wednesday-morning quarterbacking.”

Holy catastrophe, Batman!

As of Jan. 31, Restore Our Future had raised $36 million—much of it in million-dollar checks from the former Massachusetts governor/leverage buyout mogul’s wealthy friends—and spent more than half that amount on television and radio ads attacking Santorum as a big-government pork-barrel spender and Romney’s previous archrival, Newt Gingrich, as a candidate with “too much baggage.” The multimillion-dollar barrage in Iowa and Florida effectively scuttled Gingrich’s campaign—at least for the moment. In the next seven days, McCarthy hopes he and the Romney camp can inflict similar damage on Santorum.

“Don’t know yet,” he says when I ask if their anti-Santorum exertions are bearing fruit. “We’ll know pretty soon.”

During his PowerPoint presentations to potential donors, McCarthy regularly invokes “the bat signal” to explain the super PAC’s arm’s-length yet eerily telepathic connection to the Romney campaign proper.

“The rules are very clear on coordination: you can’t do it, we don’t do it, and we stay as far away as we can,” says McCarthy, who advised and made ads for Romney’s 2008 White House run. “But we don’t need to coordinate. We know the Romney team and they know us very well. And we’re in kind of a mind meld of what we think needs to be done. The super PAC typically doesn’t go places where the campaign itself is not making a significant effort … We don’t typically freelance.”

McCarthy, one of the GOP’s best-paid media strategists, doesn’t apologize for the eye-popping (many would say corrupting) piles of cash—corporate, union, and otherwise—that are passing through his and other super PACs, which were legalized by the January 2010 Supreme Court decision permitting unlimited political spending in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission.

“Obscene amounts of money? That’s just baloney—or, as Speaker Gingrich would say, pious baloney,” McCarthy scoffs. “I know people will say, ‘Well, of course! He makes more money off this.’ But the real reason super PACs exist is because of failed efforts on campaign finance that would limit free speech, limit political speech, and strangle money to campaigns in the interest of incumbent protection. The election laws, such as they are now, are bad efforts at campaign reform that the courts have serially dismembered as violations of free speech.”

Even President Obama, who publicly chastised the black-robed justices who voted for Citizens United and were unhappily sitting a few feet away at his 2010 State of the Union address, will be relying partly on Democratic super PACs for this year’s reelection effort. Indeed, members of Obama’s cabinet and Vice President Biden are expected to help raise money for them.

“At least Republicans aren’t hypocrites about it,” McCarthy says. “We saw what the law allowed and we went and did it. The Democrats whined and complained and abhorred it, and now they’re doing it, too—far more than we’re going to do it.”

McCarthy has been toiling in Republican politics since the 1970s, when, fresh out of Georgetown University, he worked for the late senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania. For six years in the 1980s, he honed his craft under the mentorship of Roger Ailes, the party’s premiere media consultant decades before he invented the Fox News Channel. In 1988, after McCarthy left Ailes’s firm, he became positively notorious as the author of the racially divisive Willie Horton commercial—also produced for an ostensibly independent PAC—that helped sink Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign against the first George Bush. He has thrived ever since, sharpening his aim for the jugular—with Politico dubbing him “the attack ads’ go-to guy.”

McCarthy, once again, is unapologetic.

“Voters have enormous experience with political advertising,” he says, “and despite all the hue and cry about negative ads, voters ultimately make a judgment whether they think the ad is true or the ad is false. And if they think the ad is false, they reject it, and it has no impact, and it will backfire on the candidate or group that is sponsoring it. If they think the ad is true, then it hurts the target of the ad. The stuff we make is immediately market tested, because it’s right on the air, and voters can look at it and make a decision. If the ads come off as mean or wrong, they don’t work.”

Last week the Santorum campaign unveiled an attack ad of its own, titled “Rombo,” featuring an actor portraying Romney brandishing an automatic weapon to fire mud balls at his rival. It received massive free airplay on the cable networks—an obvious effort to inoculate Santorum against the coming Romney onslaught.

Will it be effective?

“Despite all the hue and cry about negative ads, voters ultimately make a judgment whether they think the ad is true or the ad is false.”

“Not really,” McCarthy says. “I thought the Mitt lookalike was really good. It looked like Mitt plus 40 pounds. But you’ve got to give them credit for finding a pretty good Mitt lookalike.” Beyond that tepid review, “As a piece of crack, I thought it was OK,” McCarthy says. “I’m not sure how many primary voters actually saw it in Michigan. It was more a spot to exploit the easy targets in the media, and they succeeded. It was clever.”

Although so far the Romney campaign’s ads haven’t quite succeeded at humanizing their hero, McCarthy is at pains to dispel the image of an enormously wealthy “robo-candidate” awkwardly disconnected from ordinary people and their lives. Romney’s most recent gaffes—calling himself “severely conservative” at a gathering of skeptical right-wingers and telling CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien that he isn’t concerned about “the very poor”—are cases in point.

“I’m sure he would phrase that differently,” McCarthy says. “I have the advantage and the problem that I spent a fair amount of time with the governor in 2007 and 2008, so I view him very differently. I view him as a genuinely warm, nice guy who does connect very well, is very funny, and is in it for the right reasons. Does he make misstatements? Sure. Everybody does. Do I think he’s said anything that’s going to come back and be a major factor in how people vote? I don’t think so.”

McCarthy is also receiving his share of unwelcome scrutiny, especially from a recent New Yorker profile that treated him respectfully but accorded much space to the reviled Willie Horton spot from a quarter-century ago. McCarthy decided not to speak to the author, Jane Mayer, who tried repeatedly to secure an interview.

“The piece was exactly what I expected it to be,” says McCarthy, who is planning to publish a detailed response. “I’m in the advocacy business so, like Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. And the New Yorker piece was advocacy, not journalism, from a writer who’s doing a series of hit pieces on conservatives.”

Mayer, who on Monday won the prestigious George Polk Award for a piece highly critical of the Obama administration for its prosecution of a National Security Agency whistleblower who happens to be a registered Republican, defends her McCarthy profile: “If he doesn’t think it reflected his thinking, all I can say is I tried over and over again to get him to give me one minute of his time. He has only himself to blame.”

The good news, for McCarthy, is that Mayer’s piece resulted in a friendly dialogue with his old employer Ailes, with whom he’s had sometimes tense relations. Ailes was upset that Mayer credited the idea for a famous political commercial to McCarthy instead of him, and McCarthy was happy to support Ailes’s claim.

“Roger’s a genius,” McCarthy says, noting Ailes’s legendary career in politics, television, and even as a producer of off-Broadway plays.

And McCarthy isn’t?

“No,” he says. “And since I am not a genius, far from it, I just work hard and all those usual platitudes about your nose to the grindstone and trying to do the best you can. It’s what you’d find on some inspirational business poster on somebody’s wall, but in my case it happens to be true.”