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BOSTON — At an office space in Boston, a candidate for Congress recently held a strategy meeting in the conference room. In a nearby glass-walled room covered in posters from bygone Democratic campaigns, a candidate for lieutenant governor consulted an intern and his smartphone. Meanwhile, a third politician, state Senate candidate Dylan Hayre, stopped by the corner office to check in with his campaign consultants.
“You go from room to room — it’s like seeing a whole campaign,” he said. “It’s weird.”
Hayre and his fellow politicos are clients of the Blue Lab, a self-described “political incubator” that offers politicians a bundle of basic campaign services at a discount price. By running campaigns less wastefully and lowering the cost of basic services, its founders hope to bring more fresh blood into the political process, injecting it with some much-needed competition.
At the same time, the Blue Lab model is seen by some as a sign that as U.S. politics is increasingly awash in money, it begins to look more like any other business, in which politicians and policy debates are replaced by services anyone can buy.
“More money’s being raised than ever, the campaigns are lasting longer, and it’s becoming more businesslike,” said David Rehr, a professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. As a result, “you start looking at [campaigning] like an accountant.”
More money’s being raised than ever, the campaigns are lasting longer, and it’s becoming more businesslike.
professor, George Washington University
The Blue Lab is the brainchild of Sean Sinclair, who managed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2004 re-election campaign, and Scott Ferson, a Democratic political operative who long worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Ferson said he has long seen the practice of building and then shuttering political campaigns for each new election cycle as wasteful. After the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling unleashed greater fundraising pressure on officeholders to campaign and raise money for even longer periods, Ferson said he started seeing campaigns closing after Election Day only to reopen just two months later.
Seeing a business opportunity, Ferson and Sinclair opened the Blue Lab last summer in Boston’s Liberty Square. For a monthly retainer, the Blue Lab provides candidates with their own communications point person, access to Ferson as a communications consultant and access to Sinclair as a general political consultant. The basic fee also allows candidates to draw on the services of a dozen college-age interns, use equipment for making videos and campaign materials and get high-end design work for direct mail. And it includes access to the office space, which can help candidates put off renting their own spaces until their campaigns reach critical mass. They can purchase additional services like polling and fundraising through the Blue Lab.
Because it’s always running, the Blue Lab will charge its clients a maintenance fee in off years to keep their political operations running on standby. It is the emergence of a permanent campaign for hire.
The creation of the Blue Lab — which ran its first campaigns last fall — is yet another instance of political campaigning that increasingly resembles other industries. But the more businesslike campaigns become, the greater the potential for a clash between civic ideals of how politics should work and the reality of the process.
Ferson said the Blue Lab works by getting rid of the “extreme waste” endemic to most campaigns. “If you’ve got more control, you can actually squeeze efficiencies out of a particular client, which just saves a lot of time,” he said.
That approach is not without potential downsides. According to Rehr, one of them is the risk that the Blue Lab model could lead to an assembly-line system for crafting generic candidacies. “You always want to be careful … that you don’t feel like you’re getting kind of a cookie-cutter approach to things,” he said.
Ferson has anticipated that risk, and he said he believes the Blue Lab strikes the proper balance between efficiency and flexibility. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel for every local race,” he said, “but you shouldn’t cookie-cutter every race to be exactly the same.”
At the moment, the risk appears to be well managed. After the withdrawal of one client from the state attorney general’s race, the Blue Lab is running three campaigns. Ferson and Sinclair are looking to add others, up to a capacity of four statewide or congressional races and several down-ticket races in Massachusetts.
Hayre said he doesn’t mind sharing resources with larger campaigns. A mixed martial arts fan, he compared the office environment — with candidates and their staffers coming and going — to an MMA gym, with multiple fighters training. “It motivates you to work harder,” he said of watching the other politicians in action.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel for every local race, but you shouldn’t cookie-cutter every race to be exactly the same.
Blue Lab communications consultant
Ferson argues that the Blue Lab will be a positive force for change in the current reality of American politics. He said that in an ideal world, the Democratic Party would provide to first-time and outsider candidates the services he offers. But because the party doesn’t wade into primaries and generally doesn’t like to see incumbents waste resources to fend off primary challenges, it doesn’t.
“There’s a basic flaw in elections in our democracy, which is that there’s more incentive to keep people out of running than to get people into running,” he said. “But I believe competition is healthy.”
He likened the Blue Lab’s approach to the services offered by “agenda groups” like the National Rifle Association and EMILY’s List, which swoop in and provide professional services to campaigns of favored candidates who fit their interests.
The Blue Lab has an agenda of its own, though it’s broader than those of single-issue interest groups. The business caters only to Democrats, especially to first-time candidates and those making their first runs for higher office, as part of its effort to make intraparty politics more competitive. It seeks to work with candidates who have a background in service, be it military or other kinds. And of course, “it’s a business,” said Ferson. “We want to make money.”
To those ends, Ferson and Sinclair are looking to grow outside Massachusetts. The Blue Lab has already done work in New Jersey, where an associate is looking into renting space in a brownstone across from the statehouse in Trenton. From there, they said they’d like to grow to other populous Democratic-leaning states.
They’re not the only ones with big ambitions for a campaign business. Republican strategist Matt Rhoades — who plied his trade for Mitt Romney in 2012 less than a mile from the Blue Lab — recently set up an outfit in Virginia called America Rising, which The Boston Globe called “the first high-profile political combat organization to rely heavily on a for-profit company rather than operating as a nonprofit group.” It includes both a super PAC and a for-profit arm under a single umbrella, and it aims to take advantage of economies of scale by becoming a national clearinghouse for opposition research on Democrats.
Whether or not these new models succeed, they won’t be the last innovations in the business of politics. “With a $6.3 billion sector, there will be more consolidation,” said Rehr. “Every industry you see go through patterns of consolidation.”