By Kenneth P. Vogel and Ben Smith
In Kiev and Kharkiv and other cities in Ukraine, American political consultants who worked against one another in Iowa and New Hampshire and then in the general election are facing off again in a somewhat surreal Eastern European replay of the 2008 campaign.
The firm headed by Hillary Clinton’s former chief strategist, Mark Penn, is helping run incumbent President Victor Yushchenko’s campaign. Meanwhile Paul Manafort, whose firm worked on Republican John McCain’s losing effort, and Tad Devine, a top strategist on the Democratic presidential campaigns of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, are consulting for Victor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian frontrunner in the polls.
For Penn, Manafort and Devine, foreign elections have been a lucrative source of business for years. But for the Chicago-based media consulting firm AKPD, the contract to help guide Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s campaign is part of a new, growth area of business that presented itself after the firm helped Barack Obama win the White House last fall.
Also assisting Tymoshenko is John Anzalone, a pollster who worked on the Obama campaign. And Obama's lead pollster in the campaign, Joel Benenson, also worked briefly in Ukraine this year, helping supporters of a rival presidential candidate, former Parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who courted comparisons with Obama (and whose billboards bear a faint resemblance to the iconic posters of Obama by Shepard Fairey).
The Ukraine race is hardly the only international opportunity available for consultants who had a hand in the Obama campaign. Since Obama's historic election in November, AKPD and Benenson Strategy Group alone have advised candidates or parties in Argentina, Bulgaria, Romania, Israel and Britain and have turned down offers to work in many more countries around the globe.
The attraction is easy to understand. Foreign campaigns typically pay more than domestic ones do, and they are lower risks for consultants coming off the image-enhancing boost of a presidential campaign, according to James Carville, the former Clinton strategist and talking head, who has worked for candidates in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan (where he worked this year on Ashraf Ghani’s second-tier presidential campaign along with Devine’s firm).
“If you help elect a president and then you get involved in a governor’s race and you lose, it’s going to be a little bit damaging to your reputation,” he said. “But if you go to Peru and you run a presidential race and you lose, no one knows or cares. So why go to New Jersey and lose for 100 grand when you [can] go to Peru and lose for a million?”
American presidential campaign consultants have been earning huge fees from international campaigns since at least 1969, when Joe Napolitan — a Democratic consultant who worked on John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign and was credited with engineering Hubert Humphrey's surprisingly narrow 1968 loss to Richard Nixon — helped reelect Ferdinand Marcos as the Philippines’ president.
After helping elect Bill Clinton in 1992, consultants Carville, Stan Greenberg and Paul Begala went on to work for candidates in Israel, South Africa, Greece and the United Kingdom, just to name a few. And Penn's expansive international practice got a boost when he began polling for President Clinton, who recommended Penn to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who then became a longtime client.
It’s difficult to track foreign campaign payments to American consultants, since they don’t fall under U.S. campaign finance or lobbying reporting requirements and most countries lack rigorous disclosure rules, but Ukrainian politics are thought to be particularly lucrative. Manafort’s and Penn’s firms have been involved in campaigns there for years. In fact, during last year's U.S. presidential campaign, Obama's allies at the Democratic National Committee highlighted Manafort's business partnership with McCain campaign manager Rick Davis and suggested their firm’s work for Yanukovych conflicted with McCain’s criticism of Yanukovych’s ties to then-Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The upcoming presidential election in Ukraine is being watched closely given its geopolitical significance in U.S.-Russian relations.
AKPD client Tymoshenko was once seen as such a reliable American ally in a regional battle for pipelines and strategic influence that Russian prosecutors put out a warrant for her arrest on smuggling charges. But she’s since made her peace with the Kremlin and is seen as playing a more complex game with both sides — which may help explain her choice in American consultants.
"In the Ukraine and in other post-communist countries, they have this misconception about Washington politics: They think that somehow if you sign up AKPD or other former Obama people, you sign up the support of Obama," said Taras Kuzio, a senior fellow in Ukraine studies at the University of Toronto who has done political consulting in Ukraine.
"They don't understand the separation of business and politics, which doesn't exist in the Ukraine or in these other post-communist countries," said Kuzio.
Neither AKPD nor Benenson Strategy Group is registered to lobby the U.S. government on behalf of foreign governments, and representatives from both firms said they make clear to prospective foreign clients that their firms will not and cannot provide a foot in the door to the Obama White House.
The firms and other top consultants from the Obama campaign do maintain a close working relationship with the Obama administration, though, meeting regularly with White House political guru David Axelrod (who founded AKPD and is still owed buyout payments from the firm) and other Obama aides, and reaping huge payments from the Democratic National Committee to do political polling and messaging for Obama.
The desire to be seen as "the Ukrainian Obama" set off something of a competition for Obama consultants between Tymoshenko and Yatsenyuk in the early stages of the race, when the two were jockeying to be seen as the main alternative to Yanukovych.
When Tymoshenko, who is expected to force Yanukovych into a runoff after the first vote in January, signed AKPD in the spring, a senior adviser to Yatsenyuk reached out to a diplomatic contact in the U.S. government, concerned that the move meant Obama was throwing his support behind Tymoshenko.
"I sort of straightened him out on that," said the U.S. government contact, adding, "Even though they seem to know it's not related on one level, on another, they're not really convinced."
Yatsenyuk, who has subsequently adopted a less pro-Western platform, did not hire Benenson as his pollster and ultimately brought in a team of Russian consultants.
But AKPD’s relationship with Tymoshenko has not all been smooth. At one point in September, the firm pulled out all its operatives from the country because of problems in getting paid.
AKPD had not done much international work before it helped Obama win the White House, but in February, it hired Joe Goldberg, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee whose biography boasts that he "was involved in all facets of intelligence collection and analysis," to help vet prospective international clients and grow its international business.
"We get a lot of requests from people around the globe to meet with them and to talk to them, in part because we played a significant role in a historic campaign last year, and we have a wealth of experience in campaign strategy and message development that could help candidates in other countries," said John Del Cecato, a partner in the firm and the "D" in AKPD (Axelrod is the "A").
"And part of Joe's job is to make sure that they are clients that we want to work for.”
In May, Goldberg traveled with AKPD’s Larry Grisolano, a former Obama aide, to Port-of-Spain to meet with leaders of Trinidad and Tobago's opposition, including Jack Warner, a soccer executive reportedly fined $1 million by the world soccer organization FIFA for his role in a World Cup ticket-reselling scam. AKPD did not enter into a contract to work in Trinidad and Tobago, but this year it has advised dovish Israeli politician Tzipi Livni and Argentine congressional candidate Francisco de Narvaez.
Benenson this year has scored contracts to do survey research for Romanian presidential candidate Mircea Geoana and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose Labor Party previously paid Penn's firm for polling.
When the party trumpeted its deal with Benenson, London's Daily Telegraph called it "a major coup for the prime minister, who is keen to align himself with Mr. Obama." But Benenson said he discourages any impression among potential clients that hiring his firm is a way to court favor with the White House.
"I make very clear that there is no substantive or political connection as it relates to them in any way, shape or form — that if that was why they were hiring me, they should hire someone else," Benenson told POLITICO. "We're extremely careful about how much and what work we do, and we've turned down several opportunities overseas."
As for his firm's appeal to international clients, Benenson said, "They think a lot of things were done in very creative ways on the Obama campaign, and they want to see if they can replicate that."
He stressed, though, that his partner, Pete Brodnitz, a top international pollster with Penn's firm until 2005 who did not work on Obama's campaign, is the lead for most of the firm's foreign work, including in Romania and Bulgaria.