AUGUSTA, Maine — While Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep.-elect Bruce Poliquin were the ones giving victory speeches after Election Day, it’s arguable that another Republican was an equal winner: political strategist Brent Littlefield.
A consultant who crafted the successful campaigns of both LePage and Poliquin, Littlefield proved beyond a doubt in 2014 that he’s got a winning strategy for electing conservative Republicans in Maine. But he’s not telling anybody what that strategy is.
“I don’t want to give away the secret sauce just yet,” Littlefield, a Maine native who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, said in a recent interview. “I’m 44 years old. I’m not going away anytime soon, and I do expect future victories.”
After Littlefield helped secure what many political observers deemed an improbable victory for LePage in 2010, the governor’s then-campaign chief of staff called Littlefield an “important cog” in the campaign’s machine. This year, LePage and Poliquin both defied the expectations of many political observers, earning the consultant even higher praise from party officials.
Littlefield “is one of the most successful and effective political minds we have in Maine,” said Maine GOP chairman Rick Bennett. “The results speak for themselves.”
The governor won by nearly 5 points after pundits and polls predicted a neck-and-neck result between LePage and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. National publications had repeatedly named LePage one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, but he received about 10 percent more of the vote in 2014 than he did in 2010, when Littlefield first joined the governor’s team.
Poliquin — who had run unsuccessfully for governor and the U.S. Senate in the two previous cycles — put a cap this year on the meteoric rise of state Sen. Emily Cain, his Democratic opponent, and he became the first Republican to win the 2nd Congressional District seat since 1992. He won thanks in part to a compelling personal story of business success and personal tragedy.
While many campaign hands were involved, Littlefield was integral in both success stories.
A political beginning in Maine
Littlefield spent much of his childhood in Winn, a town in northern Penobscot County. His father worked in the nearby paper mills, and his mother was a secretary at a local school.
He studied political science at the University of Maine. It was there in Orono where he got involved in politics. Littlefield was elected student body president and led the College Republicans for a time. He also participated in several campaigns in Maine, including for Gov. John McKernan, U.S. Rep. Jim Longley and President George H.W. Bush.
In 1994, Littlefield approached Bennett, a state senator who was making a run for Congress. Bennett said he was familiar with Littlefield at the time but did not know him well.
“I was in Norway, and he comes up and said, ‘Nobody knows you in Bangor. You have no presence there,’” Bennett recalled. He hired Littlefield and said it wasn’t long before the young organizer showed his value.
“Three days later, I went to Bangor, and it looked like I owned the city. Signs everywhere, he was even planning events,” said Bennett, who won the Republican primary but lost in the general election. “He was just this meticulous planner and organizer, and I think he still is.”
The aggressive pitchman
The blossoming politico took his talents to Washington, where he worked as political director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses before co-founding a political consulting firm in 2000. In 2008, he broke off on his own to start Littlefield Consulting, and he made several appearances on the cable news circuit.
Unlike many of the highly specialized consultants in the Beltway, Littlefield said he is involved in nearly every aspect of his clients’ campaigns. He serves as a media contact, takes the lead in crafting all advertising and messaging, and works with data, pollsters and other campaign staff. He said he’s worked with some clients who gave him a more limited role, but he didn’t like it.
Reporters know Littlefield as an aggressive pitchman for his clients, unafraid to call reporters or editors with complaints about headlines or sentences he feels are unfair, and for whom limiting media access to candidates sometimes seems like a strategic decision for Littlefield
This year, LePage — who’s known for occasional off-the-cuff comments that do him few favors — rarely released a campaign schedule, and Littlefield and his team often refused reporters’ attempts to interview the candidate. The same was sometimes true for Poliquin, though Littlefield said he didn’t feel that he shielded his candidates from the media.
“On any given day, nobody is going to be perfectly happy — the campaign or the press,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any case where I really aggressively limited the ability of the press to know the position of a candidate on a given issue.”
While Littlefield carefully guards details of his strategy, he said each campaign is different and there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for winning elections. It’s about knowing what the voters want, and need.
He said that despite having worked with Republican candidates and elected officials across the country (although he said he wouldn’t give a client list), he retains a special insight into the electorate in Maine, thanks to his roots in the state. While he lives in Maryland with his wife and young daughter, Littlefield said his family and many of his friends still reside in Maine.
“It helps to understand the concerns people have. You can look at polling data all day long, but really understanding what people are worried about is different,” he said.
What people in Maine are worried about, he said, is fiscal responsibility and job creation. Those messages formed the pillar of LePage’s and Poliquin’s campaigns.
“It’s a very old Maine belief, a tried and true Yankee belief, that we should live within our means,” he said. “You’ve got to ‘make do.’ I think people realize you can’t just keep spending and hope that someday somebody pays the bill. With the economic downturn, that becomes even easier to see.”
Connecting on a personal level
But campaign success didn’t rely solely on the fiscal conservative, pro-jobs message. In all of Littlefield’s successful campaigns in Maine, he’s focused on the personal stories offered by each candidate.
For LePage, it meant sharing the sometimes horrific details of a hardscrabble upbringing in Lewiston, where the future governor was the victim of domestic violence and ran away from home as a preteen. Presenting voters with Poliquin’s personal story meant focusing on the candidate’s successful Wall Street career and fortitude as a single father after his wife died while their son was very young.
Littlefield said that when he joined Poliquin’s campaign in summer 2013, he knew that telling the candidate’s story was priority No. 1. Poliquin’s background as a trust fund manager could be turned into a negative, so setting the message early was key.
The campaign’s first ad was a 60-second TV spot that framed Poliquin’s Wall Street success in a positive light.
“They say if you can make it [on Wall Street], you can make it anywhere. Many from small towns don’t, but he did by working hard,” the narrator said.
“I think Bruce had been turned into a caricature, a plastic person, and that’s not who he is,” Littlefield said. “His story had never really been told correctly. … People need to be comfortable with who they’re voting for.”
Poliquin said he was all too happy to have Littlefield on his team. He knew about how successful Littlefield could be: He ran against LePage in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.
“Brent is clearly an individual you want in your foxhole, not shooting at you from the other side,” the soon-to-be congressman said in a recent interview. “When I competed against Brent, it became clear how talented he is. I wanted him on my team the next opportunity that presented itself.”
LePage — who since 2010 has retained Littlefield as his chief political strategist, a role the consultant also will assume for Poliquin — said Littlefield thinks about politics so that he doesn’t have to. The two speak on the phone regularly and Littlefield, alongside Chief of Staff John McGough, is one of the governor’s closest advisers.
“When I first ran for governor, I had no idea what to do, and he helped me get elected twice,” LePage said in a recent interview. “I try to be myself and let him worry about the politics, because that’s the worst part about being a politician.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.