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.