Olsen, who runs an Austin political direct-mail and fundraising firm, burns the midnight oil at the office, spending his days juggling phone calls from across the country and wading through elbow-deep stacks of campaign mailers.
Accountants have tax season. Sports teams have their playoffs, and retailers have the Christmas rush.
For political consultants, there is no more hectic time than campaign season, especially with a month left until the Nov. 7 election.
“You wake up in the morning talking to the candidates and you go to bed talking to the candidates,” said Olsen, whose firm works for Republicans. “It becomes really personal.”
Jeff Crosby, a direct-mail consultant for Democrats, says the pace begins to pick up in late summer. Crosby is helping Democrat Shane Sklar, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside.
“From about the end of July through Election Day, I’m at the office every day, Saturdays and Sundays,” Crosby said. “Now I work for a full eight hours on the weekend. I may get my first phone call at 7 o’clock in the morning.”
The business side of politics is thriving in Austin and not just because hot congressional races and state offices from governor on down are on the ballot next month. As the capital of the second-largest state, Austin is always a hotbed of political and legislative consulting activity.
And the ascension of George W. Bush to the presidency helped elevate a number of Republican consultants to national prominence.
The best-known is master strategist Karl Rove, who helped Bush get elected governor twice and was the architect of his successful presidential campaigns.
Olsen and two other partners bought Rove’s firm…in 1999.
They are consulting on 18 U.S. Senate, judicial, gubernatorial and congressional races all over the country…
Democratic consultants are a smaller force in Austin.
“The only place you can go from here as a Democrat is up,” said Jeff Hewitt, a consultant with Fero/Hewitt Global, which works for Democrats. “Quite frankly, I thought this was a great place to start a consulting business because of the opportunity that exists.”
His firm helped pull off two recent Democratic state House victories: Donna Howard’s election in a special election earlier this year and Hubert Vo’s upset over Talmadge Heflin in 2004. It has 25 clients across the country. Former clients include U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, and Austin Mayor Will Wynn.
Political consulting is a no-frills business. Firms with perhaps a handful of employees operate out of bare-bones offices. There are 11 people in Olsen’s firm and four at Fero/Hewitt Global. Crosby is a company of one.
In this business, it’s not revenue that matters, it’s your win/loss record.
Unlike lobbyists, consultants don’t have to register with the state or federal governments.
The amount of money they receive from candidates is often disclosed, but often they don’t pocket all of that money. Direct-mail firms, advertising consultants and pollsters put most of that money toward the cost of mailings, television ads and phone banks.
Olsen received $42 million from the Bush campaign for the 2004 election, according to the Center for Public Integrity, although much of that was spent on printing and mailing.
“It was a national campaign,” Olsen said. “We were helping to implement it in many states and working with a lot of people and a lot of different companies to get it done.”
Although campaigns are planned months in advance, politics always throws curveballs. An attack ad by a rival can mean that a response ad has to be created overnight. If the opposing candidate starts pouring on the direct mail, your client has to respond.
A scandal can turn an intense schedule into an insane one.
During the off-season, the work slows down, although many consultants note that there is always a special election, primary, local election or legislative session to keep them going. Some serve as consultants after candidates have been elected, while others live off the fat from campaign season and still others turn to corporate consulting.
Though usually thought of as very cyclical, consulting is increasingly becoming a year-round job, Hewitt said.
“There are no weekends, no vacations,” Democratic consultant Kelly Fero said. He said partner Hewitt “got married this year and still hasn’t had a honeymoon. My wife and I haven’t had a vacation in more than a decade, because it just keeps going.”