Two years ago, Republican Scott Brown’s surprising election to the Senate made stars out of Mitt Romney confidant Eric Fehrnstrom and his partners at The Shawmut Group, the consulting firm credited with guiding an obscure GOP state senator to a statewide victory in left-leaning Massachusetts.
For the 2012 political cycle, the group worked exclusively on two high-profile races: Brown’s attempted reelection to the Senate seat once held by liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy, and Romney’s Republican presidential campaign.
In the aftermath of stinging losses in both contests, Republican insiders have raised questions about whether the group spread itself too thin with two of the biggest races in the country.
“I think for any consulting firm, either race is a full-time job,” said a local Republican political consultant, who declined to be named, in an interview. “So I don’t know how you have two full-time jobs and do them both well . . . I don’t know that they’re necessarily to blame, but clearly there wasn’t the effort made on the Brown side to develop a ground game.” Brown lost his race by 8 percentage points to Democrat Elizabeth Warren.
Some Republicans also questioned how the firm could effectively serve clients who had such different messages. Throughout most of 2012, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, ran as a hard conservative, while Brown positioned himself as a bipartisan moderate.
Fehrnstrom said the firm is proud of what it accomplished over the last several years. “It’s been an honor for us to have helped Mitt Romney go from the governor’s office to the Republican presidential nomination, and to have played a part in Scott Brown’s historic 2010 victory,” Fehrnstrom said in an e-mail. “Those experiences have meant a lot to us personally and professionally.” He referred questions about the GOP criticism of his company to the Brown and Romney campaigns.
Several Democratic political strategists defended Shawmut Group, crediting the firm for getting Brown elected two years ago against all odds and for helping Romney win his party’s nomination.
“When you help lead someone to the nomination of a major political party, this is not an insignificant achievement,” said Democratic political strategist Tad Devine, a Providence native who worked on Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 and the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign. “If I were a Republican looking for people to hire, I’d talk to them.”
But Stonehill College political scientist Peter Ubertaccio said the high-profile defeats could tarnish the consulting firm’s golden reputation. “When you lose two marquee races in the same cycle, that can’t help but take some of the luster off,” he said.
Massachusetts, which has had a knack for producing home-grown presidential contenders, has also produced many national political strategists, many of whom were connected to Kennedy. Shawmut, which Fehrnstrom formed with fellow Romney administration veterans Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty, became known nationally in January 2010, after managing Brown’s near-flawless campaign to defeat Democrat Martha Coakley in a special US Senate election after Kennedy died in office.
Republican candidates were eager to hire Shawmut to duplicate Brown’s success, but the consulting group has not won a race since. Shawmut lost six other races in 2010, and fell short again this year with Brown and Romney.
Despite the losing record, Shawmut Group “will have a second life here,” said Charles Baker III, a former campaign adviser to Kennedy and the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry and John Edwards. “You have a firm that’s battle-tested. Maybe 15 Republican operatives in the country have that kind of perspective and skill set.”
Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, defended Fehrnstrom and his partners. They played, at times, pivotal roles on the campaign. Myers ran Romney’s vice presidential search, which finally landed on US Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Flaherty served as the campaign’s liaison to the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party. Fehrnstrom, a former Boston Herald reporter, was the communications specialist who often spoke for the campaign in media interviews and on TV news programs.
“Our campaign was highly satisfied with the work of the Shawmut Group,” said Rhoades. “They were always available to me and Governor Romney when we needed them.” The consultants “were integral and trusted members of the strategy team and were involved in everything from message development and debate prep to the vice presidential vetting process.
“They are longtime, loyal supporters of Governor Romney and I admire all three of them as real political pros,” said Rhoades.
Brown campaign manager Jim Barnett praised Shawmut’s “professionalism, work ethic, and political savvy.”
“If I did not know better, I would have thought we were their only client, based on the commitment they demonstrated every single day and the thoughtfulness of their advice,” said Barnett. “From my perspective as a client, any criticism directed at Shawmut does not have the benefit of being informed by reality.”
In the small world of political consulting, losing is not always an indictment of the campaign consultant, said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a Harvard Law graduate who worked in the Bill Clinton White House and was an adviser to Gore.
“At the end of the day it’s the candidates who make the decisions,” said Lehane. “When I worked for Bill Clinton, I was a genius. When I worked for Al Gore, people thought I wasn’t quite so smart.”
He said Brown’s 2010 win remains a credit to the firm, due to the high degree of difficulty. “To me the true test of a consultant is, ‘Do you win races in states you shouldn’t win races?’ ”