Can a Stealthy, Successful Political Strategy Be Franchised Like McDonald's?

There's a strong case to be made that one of the most surprising developments in America over the past five years has been the rapid acceptance--political and cultural--of gay marriage. There are many reasons for this. But in the political realm, a big one has been the efforts of Tim Gill, a Denver software mogul and philanthropist, who organized many wealthy like-minded folks and developed an intricate, stealth, and strikingly successful strategy to legalize gay marriage at the state level. I profiled Gill for The Atlantic four years ago ("They Won't Know What Hit Them," March 2007). Back then, he was working to lay the groundwork for gay marriage in Iowa and had just knocked off the acting House Speaker, an influential social conservatism. But here's the thing--the poor guy had no idea what had happened to him. He found out he'd been targeted by Gill only when I called to tell. His sputtering reaction became the lede to my piece.

More important is how the Gill strategy worked. His team would swoop into races at the last moment, make major donations to favored candidates and attacks against opponents that wouldn't show up in public disclosure statements until well after the election. In Iowa, this strategy helped tip the legislature to the Democrats (although Gill says he supports or opposes politicians in both parties based only on their position on gay rights). When the state supreme court voted to legalize gay marriage, conservative opponents had no avenue to override the decision.

As a political strategy, this ought to be replicable on other issues. And two of Gill's top strategists, Bill Smith and Patrick Guerriero, are planning to do just that. They're starting their own political strategy firm--name still to be determined--to apply this approach to other problems. Their belief is that most major issues--the environment, immigration, the deficit--are mired in partisanship. "You don't solve them in partisan trenches," Smith told me. They require public and private approaches, sticks as well as carrots, and ultimately must have support from both sides. (Smith and Guerriero both started out as Republicans--the former a Karl Rove protege, the latter a Massachusetts mayor and state representative--though they're now independents.)

On one level, that seems obvious. But then marriage equality is the only major political issue that's advanced appreciably over the last few years. The partisan opposition is dwindling, even in Iowa. "We think it's a bit of a road map for how you can take a crack at some of these other problems," Guerrierro told me. "What we're stuck with on these issues, from the environment to immigration, is that people come from partisan districts. From one standpoint, that's where [marriage] equality issues were five years ago. To get stuff done in that context, you need to be able to get past it."

That is undoubtedly true. But it's harder than most people realize, especially in Washington. It will be interesting to see if the Gill strategy can essentially be franchised like McDonalds and applied to other issues.

Presented by

Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In