In addition to his job at the DSCC, Hansen was also a partner in the direct mail firm of Ambrosino, Muir & Hansen. His sales pitch must have been effective–Democrats in nine of the closest Senate contests in 2002 signed up with Hansen, including Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Max Cleland in Georgia, and Alex Sanders in South Carolina. The day after the election, only two (Tim Johnson in South Dakota and Mark Pryor in Arkansas) were still standing.

Despite widespread grumbling about his aggressive sales tactics, Hansen is still part of the DSCC (he stepped down as field director midway through 2002 as criticism mounted; officially, he is now a “consultant” for the committee). What’s most surprising, though, is that Democratic candidates continue to hire him despite his lousy record. After losing seven of nine close races in 2002, Hansen was again a man in demand during the last election cycle. His firm handled five of the most competitive Senate races in 2004, including the two–Tony Knowles in Alaska and Erskine Bowles in North Carolina–that prognosticators thought were most winnable. Only one of Hansen’s candidates, Ken Salazar in Colorado, pulled out a victory.

Hansen is part of a clique of Washington consultants who, through their insider ties, continue to get rewarded with business even after losing continually. Pollster Mark Mellman is popular among Democrats because he tells them what they so desperately want to hear: Their policies are sound, Americans really agree with them more than with Republicans, and if they just repeat their mantras loud enough, voters will eventually embrace the party. As Noam Scheiber pointed out in a New Republic article following the great Democratic debacle of ’02, Mellman was, perhaps more than anyone else, the architect of that defeat. As the DSCC’s recommended pollster, he advised congressional Democrats to ignore national security and Iraq in favor of an endless campaign about prescription drugs and education. After the party got its clock cleaned based on his advice, Mellman should have been exiled but was instead…promoted. He became the lead pollster for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, where he proffered eerily similar advice–stress domestic policy, stay away from attacking Bush–to much the same effect.

Hansen and Mellman are joined by the poster boy of Democratic social promotion, Bob Shrum. Over his 30-year career, Shrum has worked on the campaigns of seven losing presidential candidates–from George McGovern to Bob Kerrey–capping his record with a leading role in the disaster that was the Gore campaign. Yet, instead of abiding by the “seven strikes and you’re out” rule, Democrats have continued to pay top dollar for his services (sums that are supplemented by the percentage Shrum’s firm, Shrum, Devine & Donilon, gets for purchasing air time for commercials). Although Shrum has never put anyone in the White House, in the bizarro world of Democratic politics, he’s seen as a kingmaker–merely hiring the media strategist gives a candidate such instant credibility with big-ticket liberal funders that John Kerry and John Edwards fought a fierce battle heading into the 2004 primaries to lure Shrum to their camps. Ultimately, Shrum chose Kerry, and on Nov. 3, he extended his perfect losing record.

Since their devastating loss last fall, Democrats have cast about for reasons why their party has come up short three election cycles in a row and have debated what to do. Should they lure better candidates? Talk more about morality? Adopt a harder line on national security? But one of the most obvious and least discussed reasons Democrats continue to lose is their consultants. Every sports fan knows that if a team boasts a losing record several seasons in a row, the coach has to be replaced with someone who can win. Yet when it comes to political consultants, Democrats seem incapable of taking this basic managerial step.

A major reason for that reluctance is that Democrats simply won’t talk openly about the problem. Shrum did eventually take some heat publicly during the 2004 campaign when the contrast between his losing record and his high position in the troubled Kerry campaign became too stark to ignore. But in general, a Mafia-like code of omerta operates. Few insiders dare complain about the hammerlock loser consultants have on the process–certainly neither the professional campaign operatives whom the consultants hire nor the journalists to whom the consultants feed juicy inside-the-room detail. “Everybody in town talks [privately] about Hansen and how he’s held candidates hostage through the DSCC,” says Chuck Todd, editor of National Journal‘s Political Hotline. Todd, however, is one of the few brave insiders. I interviewed two dozen Democratic Party leaders, operatives, and others for this story. Virtually no one had a good thing to say about Hansen or the rest of the oligarchy. Yet few would talk on the record. The exceptions were those who have gotten out of the business of working for political candidates such as Dan Gerstein, a former advisor to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). “If a company like General Motors had the same image problem that the Democratic Party does, they would fire the guys responsible,” Gerstein told me. But not Democrats. “We don’t just hire those guys,” Gerstein said, “we give them bonuses.”

Joe Hansen’s national career began like that of most other big-name consultants–with a breakthrough success. The slightly chubby, sandy-haired operative had been involved with political races for a number of years by the time he managed Tim Johnson’s upset of incumbent senator Larry Pressler in South Dakota in 1996. The race made his reputation as a premier field organizer and attracted the attention of Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, who hired Hansen to run his own reelection campaign two years later. Daschle was never in danger of losing (he eventually won by 26 percentage points), so Hansen had time to step in as campaign doctor for other races, saving the seats of both Sen. Patty Murray in Washington and Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada. With a gruff, take-no-guff manner–even those who consider him a friend say he can be explosive and overbearing–Hansen can whip a campaign into shape with his instinctive knack for field operations, and talent for moving around money, material, and manpower.

It’s a skill that is sorely needed at the party campaign committees, where Democrats consistently grapple with the considerable spending advantage their Republican counterparts enjoy. After the 1998 cycle, Hansen assumed the role of DSCC executive director, a position he held for all of five months before clashes with the equally aggressive committee chair Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) led him to step down and become DSCC field director instead. In truth, the apparent demotion was a good move for Hansen, who is at his best in the field, not managing staff in a Washington suite.

And all might have been well if Hansen hadn’t answered the siren call of the consulting world. It’s not hard to understand why many political operatives become consultants–when you work for a campaign, you do a lot of work for one candidate and draw one salary; when you work as a consultant, you do similar work for several different candidates and collect several different paychecks. But you also dilute your focus and divide your loyalties. Moreover, individuals who excel in a specialized area like polling or fieldwork typically try to migrate to higher-paying, higher-prestige work as strategists and message maestros. Shrum is, by all accounts, an excellent wordsmith, but he has no genius for strategy and very little feel for what makes Middle America tick–he is, after all, best known for writing a concession speech for Ted Kennedy’s failed presidential bid in 1980. Similarly, Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani are two of the most effective opposition researchers and spinmeisters in the business. But they were out of their depth when they took charge of retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s run for the presidency as his lead consultants.

Hansen is no exception–he is brilliant at executing campaign tactics in the field but as a consultant he is not playing to those strengths. Candidates who used Hansen as their direct mail consultant in 2002 found that he was less than adept at turning his field magic into effective campaign products. “He didn’t do a heck of a lot of work,” said a senior staffer from one losing campaign who described rewriting most of the direct mail products that Hansen submitted. “We did the creative, and he collected the cash.” Staffers from several other campaigns that had worked with Hansen expressed the same frustration.

How does Hansen defend his performance and the seeming conflict between his roles as DSCC representative and private consultant? Not very aggressively. After I made numerous attempts over two weeks to get an interview with Hansen, he replied with a one-paragraph email, in which he listed the three victorious senatorial and three winning gubernatorial races that his company had worked on this fall, and concluded, redundantly, “Our firm has an unmatched record of success that no other firm can match.” The email came from Hansen’s DSCC account.

It’s important to understand that even for experienced politicians–mayors, governors, representatives–a Senate run can be an intimidating challenge. It involves courting an entirely new world of donors by proving to Washington fundraisers and party leaders that you are a serious contender. Jeremy Wright, who served as the political director for Oregon Senate candidate Bill Bradbury’s race in the spring and early summer of 2002, says that candidates are almost required to run two parallel campaigns, “one to get voters to vote for you and the other to get D.C. money by putting together the right consultants to show you’re for real.” For Democratic candidates in the few targeted races every cycle that are actually competitive, winning without the financial support of the DSCC (or its sister organization, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) is nearly impossible. While the candidates are grateful for the infusion of cash in the form of committee-sponsored polling, fliers, and commercials, the money comes with strings.

Officially, no favoritism exists. “We don’t push one consultant over another,” a DSCC spokeswoman told me. “It’s more of an informational thing, telling candidates about good people who do a lot of Senate races.” But Democrats who have worked on targeted races describe a reality in which they are strongly encouraged–often with the reminder that precious funds hang in the balance–to select recommended consultants. “The campaign was pretty paranoid about making sure the DSCC was backing us,” explains one veteran of an unsuccessful 2002 Senate race. “We needed the cash. So of course, we were going to go with the consultants they recommended.”

No one was in a better position to take advantage of this power relationship than Hansen. As the first man-on-the-ground, his contact with budding campaigns was early and often. “That person has a very large advantage in being able to shape the team,” one of Hansen’s consulting competitors told me. “You bond with the candidate from the get-go at a pretty stressful time when they’re deciding whether to run and how to do it.” Another Democrat who has worked with Hansen complains, “Joe is a pretty egregious example of a guy who is sent out as the official representative to help candidates plot their campaign plan, and then when he gets to direct mail, says, ‘Oh, by the way, let me switch hats for a second–I happen to do direct mail.’”

The situation puts candidates–who are loath to alienate the campaign committee whose financial assistance they desperately need–in a tricky spot. Even when working with experienced consultants, candidates need to retain some ability to disagree with a proposed idea or strategy. That’s hard enough when the consultant is recommended by the party committee. But when the consultant actually is the party committee, the candidate’s discretion stays sealed in a tight box. “It was an interesting dynamic, I’ll say that,” Wright says. “When Joe signed us up, he was on staff for the DSCC. We’d work on DS[CC] stuff during the day, and then he’d take us out to dinner and put on his consultant hat.”

This Peters Principle effect of Democratic operatives rising–or muscling their way–up to the level of their incompetence, happens for a simple reason: The consultants are filling a vacuum. After all, someone has to formulate the message that a candidate can use to win the voters’ support. Conservatives have spent 30 years and billions of dollars on think tanks and other organizations to develop a set of interlinked policies and language that individual Republican candidates and campaigns can adopt in plug-and-play fashion. Liberals are far behind in this message development game. Indeed, most Democratic elected officials have been running recently on warmed-up leftovers from the Clinton brain trust, ideas which were once innovative but are now far from fresh. With little else to go on, consultants–many of whom came to prominence during the Clinton years–have clung to old ideas and strategies like security blankets. “Democratic consultants are being asked to fill a role they’re not suited to,” says Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network, “to come up with ideas and electoral strategy in addition to media strategy.”

Rosenberg hints at a second Democratic deficit: The party has no truly brilliant strategists in positions of power. Such talent is always rare in both parties and tends to come out of the political hinterlands, often as part of a winning presidential campaign team. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign was waged by a crew of Georgia political operatives with the help of unconventional pollster Pat Caddell. Four years later, Reagan defeated Carter by relying on a California-based gang of professionals. James Carville and Paul Begala were largely unknown before they took Bill Clinton to the White House. And outside the South, the team of Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, and Mark McKinnon weren’t much less obscure when they put together the strategy for George W. Bush’s winning 2000 campaign.

Republicans have proven much more adept than Democrats at giving their best talent a national stage. While Democrats have permitted a Washington consultancy class to become comfortably entrenched, Republicans have effectively begun to pension off their own establishment. “The D.C. consultants for the GOP have their list of clients, but they’re definitely on the outside looking in,” Chuck Todd told me. “The Bush people have been very careful to give them workbut they’re not in the inner circle.” In 2004, seasoned Washington media strategist Alex Castellanos paid the bills with a handful of safe congressional races and a few unsuccessful primary challengers. Meanwhile, nearly every tight Senate race (North Carolina, Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Florida) was handled by a Tampa-based firm, The Victory Group.

Republicans, of course, don’t have any natural monopoly on strategic talent–they just give their best young strategists chances to run the biggest national races. In all likelihood, there is another Karl Rove or James Carville out in the Democratic hinterlands, who ought to be playing essential roles in the most important races. It might be David Axelrod in Chicago, who developed the media strategy for the then-unknown Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) primary campaign; West Coast strategists Paul Goodwin and Amy Simon, who helped Democrats regain the legislature in Washington state; or even unconventional D.C.-based consultants like Anna Bennett, the pollster who engineered Melissa Bean’s upset of veteran Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) in November. But any new talent will likely remain on the national margins–running races for Congress and judgeships–until someone breaks up the consultant oligarchy.

The electoral system takes care of dead weight when it comes to politicians. The proof is in the political wreckage evident after yet another year of Democratic defeats at the polls. Dick Gephardt–after 10 years at the helm of the Democratic minority in the House–has decided to go back home to Missouri. John Kerry is returning to the Senate instead of stretching out his legs in the Oval Office. The consultants, however, live on. After pocketing a $5-million paycheck following the election, Shrum is back from a vacation in Tuscany and now advising Sen. Jon Corzine’s (D-N.J.) gubernatorial race. Mellman, whose advice helped sink Democrats for two consecutive campaign cycles, continues to line up clients. As for Hansen, his connection to Daschle may not help him now that the South Dakotan has vacated the Democratic leader’s office. But don’t cry for Joe Hansen–he’s the consultant for incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.