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Tuesday, 17 May 2016 06:32

Meet the Man Who Created a PR Cult for Right-Wingers

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2016.17.5 bf berkowitz(Pjptp: Darron Birgenheier)BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

While he professes to love the Lord, and he and his staff attend Monday morning Bible study, he also loves living large; Cuban cigars, high fashion suits, blue alligator shoes, a gold Rolex watch for starters. He's loud, outgoing, and charismatic. Based in Ohio, he's also got a Washington, D.C. multi-million dollar row-home office called Eastgate, named after the East Gate of Jerusalem. As bonuses, successful employees -- described in one report as a "small army of raucous, elbow throwing … mischief makers" -- receive Tag Heuer watches, keys to luxury sedans, lavish business trips, and more. He has a history of creating negative political advertisements that might make the late Lee Atwater blush. Meet Rex Elsass, who in an excellent profile by Jason Zengerle in the March issue of GQ, is described as "the most powerful Republican operative you've never heard of."

And in my case, someone who has been monitoring and reporting on conservative movements for quite some time, Zengerle was right on the money; I never had heard of Rex Elsass until reading the GQ piece.

Elsass is the founder and CEO of the Strategy Group for Media which, according to Zengerle, is a "consulting firm [that has] a knack for launching a certain kind of politician -- and a record of recent success that has turned [him] into one of the richest, not to mention most controversial, operatives in Republican politics."

Some fellow political consultants seem to be well aware of Elsass, and some of them have a low opinion of his dirty-tricks approach to political consulting, characterizing him as "unscrupulous," "two-faced," and "Elmer Gantry-ish." "We are not all like Rex," said one GOP strategist. "He gives every other political consultant a bad name."

While some may recoil at his methodology, by picking -- and holding onto -- blank-slate rookie candidates that win elections, Elsass' influence can literally last for decades.

Elsass recently told foxbusiness.com that "The goal is to focus people's attention on those things that they agree with our client on and those things that they disagree with our competitor. And, so ultimately, the more creative and the more you can take the edge off of an ad, the more effective it's going to be. So, it's what I call a deadly killer."

As Brad Newman pointed out in a late-March piece for FOXbusiness, "He is the man behind some of the most memorable political ads that have hit the air, including Congressman Sean Duffy's 'Bringing the Axe to Washington.' Of his company, The Strategy Group, Elsass says, 'We are responsible for introducing people to the electorate. I think there's not anything more important than an introduction.'"

"According to Elsass, The Strategy Group [which grossed $150 million in 2014] represented over 300 candidates across the country in the last election cycle, which resulted in a 90% win record," Newman reported.

Elsass may have gained a reputation as a winner, but his performance this year with Ohio Governor John Kasich -- admittedly he entered the flagging campaign pretty late -- and before that, the presidential campaign of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul -- which crashed and burned -- were not some of his finest hours. And, in 2012, Elsass worked for the failed presidential campaigns of Michele Bachmann and then Newt Gingrich.

In a June 2013 piece titled "Inside The Meltdown At America's Most Conservative, Most Christian Political Consulting Firm" BuzzFeed News Reporter McKay Coppins, wrote that Elsass' Strategy Group for Media was "the largest, most combative, and perhaps most controversial band of messaging warriors in Republican politics. … [that] has spent more than a decade developing a slashing formula for turning the party's right-wing rejects into members of Congress."  

After a series of false starts and abject failures, Elsass returned home to Ohio, as a man of God, becoming a born again Christian during his exile, and established the Strategy Group for Media. He "positioned himself as the antidote to a corrupt and broken Republican consulting class — a brilliant branding decision that he still sticks to."

Coppins also reported on the crisis surrounding the company when Elsass filed a lawsuit against his "12-year protégé and the firm's president Nick Everhart, … that accuse[d] Everhart of conspiring to stage a coup at the firm, and when it failed, stealing company property with plans to leave for a competitor."

According to Coppins, "The Strategy Group's lawsuit tells the tale of an honest company taken advantage of by a young renegade looking to become a breakout political star. But interviews with nearly two dozen sources familiar with the situation and its key players, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly — including current and former Strategy Group employees, politicians, journalists, and outside operatives — paint a significantly more complicated picture. People close to Everhart say he wasn't trying to take over the company, but trying to save it — and to save his boss's soul."

The suit was finally resolved in July of last year, when, as BuzzFeed News reported, Everhart "was convicted of one count of unauthorized use of cable or telecommunications property for enlisting a colleague to illegally retrieve materials from a company computer after being fired." Although he faced prison time, Everhart apologized to Elsass, and Delaware County Common Pleas Judge David Gormley fined him $2,800, ordered him to perform 50 hours of community service, and he was placed on probation for two years. He now oversees a relatively newly formed group called Americans United for Values, whose mission was to take down the candidacy of Senator Ted Cruz, labeling him in a series of radio ads as a "phony" Christian.

BuzzFeed's Coppins spoke to one GOP operative who called Elsass' operation "a cult." "You take young people who get enamored by driving around in a Bentley, or getting to fly around in a private plane, and stay in sick rooms, and see massive dollars spent on them, but not given to them — and there's a huge difference there — and you're the master in controlling that dynamic. You control the experience and then you get them hooked in, then you get them to do all sorts of things. They start to lose their soul."

Meanwhile, as Jason Zengerle reported, Elsass is "locating angry new souls to gum up the works in Washington," because, as Elsass told Zengerle, "Our whole business is new business."