One of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s senior strategists also guides the campaign of an outspoken critic within the party, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown.
Eric Fehrnstrom crafts advertisements that show Brown and President Barack Obama in an amiable, bipartisan relationship. In commercials Fehrnstrom helped develop for Romney, Obama is portrayed as an uncooperative Democratic partisan.
Veteran ad-makers and Republican consultants say advising these two high-wattage clients at the same time is challenging to the point of becoming untenable.
“It certainly has the potential to become controversial,” said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist based in Boston who worked with Fehrnstrom on Romney’s successful Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign in 2002.
Fehrnstrom, Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty -- two more Romney aides -- manage the Shawmut Group, a public affairs and campaign consulting firm based in Boston. Brown has paid the Shawmut Group at least $260,000 this election cycle, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from Federal Election Commission records.
The Romney campaign also pays the three through its media contractor, American Rambler Productions LLC. American Rambler has received more than $85 million to develop ads and purchase airtime for them, FEC records show.
Fehrnstrom and the Brown campaign didn’t respond to e-mail and calls for comment. Andrea Saul, Romney’s spokeswoman, declined to comment.
To retain his seat in a state now led by a Democratic governor and legislature and where Romney’s approval ratings are upside down, Brown must win over Obama backers and independents. He is running against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor and architect of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“‘Romney’ is a four-letter word for Brown, politically speaking,” Gray said. Massachusetts has been the most Democratic state in the past three presidential elections, giving the party’s candidates an average of 61.2 percent of the vote.
Last week, Brown rejected Romney’s recently publicized comment that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent” upon the federal government and won’t vote for him.
“My mom got public assistance for a short period of time, so I don’t think anybody is on public assistance because they want to be,” Brown told reporters in Washington. “They want jobs.”
Pressed on whether he still supports Romney’s campaign, Brown said that while he didn’t agree with him on everything, “that’s what being an independent senator is about.”
It was the clearest example so far of the awkwardness for Fehrnstrom in advising both candidates, said Dan Payne, a Democratic media consultant in Boston not working for Obama or Warren.
“I’ve talked to Democrats and Republicans alike who said it’s going to be hard for Eric to thread the needle when Romney is so unpopular here that Brown either has to ignore him or insult him,” Payne said.
Brown hasn’t mentioned Romney in a single advertisement, based on a Bloomberg review of the spots that have aired. He does frequently refer to Obama by name and his own ability to work with Democrats, often in a genial speech delivered from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck.
During one radio ad, Brown says that “standing with President Obama” on the day he signed a veteran’s bill into law was a “one of those great experiences” that he’s had as a senator. At the end of the spot, it’s Fehrnstrom’s voice that tells listeners the message was paid for by the Brown campaign.
Fehrnstrom “has if not all the power, the majority of it” when it comes to Brown’s messaging, said Joe Malone, a Massachusetts Republican who hired Fehrnstrom as a communications director when he was state treasurer. Fehrnstrom’s role in the Romney campaign is less clear, Malone said. “It seems to me it’s more of a committee.”
Romney’s campaign has aired thousands of ads attacking Obama. “When the president doesn’t tell the truth, how can we trust him to lead?” a narrator asks in one ad that Romney has run frequently in the past three months.
Malone said that Brown’s strategy has been viewed as effective while Romney’s hasn’t.
“It’s no secret that Scott Brown on a daily basis has been trying to reinforce the theme that he’s an independent person who does not toe the line with the Republican Party,” Malone said. “In that respect, Eric has to keep separate what he does with Romney. It’s not easy, but it’s doable, especially for Eric, who eats, sleeps and breathes politics.”
Veteran Republican media strategist Fred Davis said Fehrnstrom’s situation is a reality for political operatives: “It’s not a crusade, it’s a business. We all have mortgages to pay.”
Still, Davis, who was Republican presidential contender John McCain’s chief ad-maker, called Fehrnstrom’s situation “exotic” and said he wouldn’t have been able to maintain a client like Brown while trying to get McCain elected.
“We had five Senate races at the same time as McCain, but no one was out there praising Obama,” Davis said. “That would have been seen as a problem for us.”
Fehrnstrom’s Boston roots helped create his strong ties to both Romney and Brown. The 51-year-old former journalist gives Romney “backbone” and is “both the wise man and the hothead” of his presidential campaign, GQ magazine said in a May 2012 article.
Fehrnstrom’s tenure with Romney dates to 2002, when he was a press aide during the Massachusetts governor’s race. After Romney won, Fehrnstrom served as the governor’s communications director, working alongside aides Myers, the governor’s chief of staff, and Flaherty, a deputy chief of staff.
Romney left office in January 2007, and the trio joined his 2008 presidential campaign, which ended with McCain defeating him in the primary election. In November 2008, Fehrnstrom, Flaherty and Myers formed the Shawmut Group, according to Massachusetts corporate records. The new firm was employed by Romney’s political action committee between his presidential campaigns.
In January 2010, Shawmut helped Brown score an upset win in a special election held after the death of Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy. A Bloomberg review of FEC data shows Brown is Shawmut’s only client this election cycle. American Rambler doesn’t appear to have clients other than Romney.
There are other Brown-Romney crossover operatives: Gail Gitcho, Romney’s communications director, was Brown’s former communications director, and Colin Reed, Brown’s spokesman, is a former Romney employee.
It was Romney who introduced Brown at his victory party after winning the Senate seat. Yet references to Romney today have mostly disappeared from Brown’s public speeches and ads.
“They’re both Republican, they’re both Massachusetts politicians, and they share the same top strategist, so it’s very surprising to see them deliver talking points that are exact opposites,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Boston who isn’t working with Obama or Warren. For Fehrnstrom, “you have to ask yourself, is it a contradiction, or is it hypocrisy?”