Little Rock Political Firm Making An Impact

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 310 views 

How connected is the Impact Management Group in Arkansas politics? As a political consulting firm, it’s helped two-thirds of the state’s current Republican lawmakers get elected and yet still has good relations with many Democrats. Two of its principals and two of its staff members have served as executive directors of the Republican Party of Arkansas (RPA). As a lobbying firm, it scored a 92% success rate on the issues it tried to influence in the 2015 General Assembly.

That’s not bad for a firm that started with two young Republicans being “patted on the head” by the state’s political establishment.

Impact Management was founded in December 1999 by Richard Bearden, who had been the RPA’s executive director, and Terry Benham, a former RPA field director and political director. The two had grown up in an era of Democratic dominance but became Republicans nonetheless. Most of Benham’s family members were Democrats; his uncle, in fact, was a “hauler” in Lee County, which Benham said meant he was “the guy that gets the pickup truck on Election Day and goes and fills it up” with voters.

But Benham’s grandfather was a Republican, which piqued his curiosity, and he came of age when Ronald Reagan was president. As for Bearden, “I was 16 years old in 1980,” he said. “I put up yard signs for Ronald Reagan and Frank White, and Ronald Reagan and Frank White won not only the Smackover box but Union County, and I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt it was all those durn yard signs I put up, so I was hooked.”

The two became political pros during the 1990s while working together for the RPA. At the time, the party controlled what barely can be described as a “minority” in the Legislature – 19 out of 135 members in 1996, the year Mike Huckabee became governor. Bearden left the RPA and formed his own consulting company, Capital Resource Management. Behham moved to Louisiana to become the Republican Party’s executive director in that state. When he returned to Arkansas to start his own company, the two didn’t want to compete, so they merged.

During the early years, Impact’s work was split in two directions: political campaigns in election years, and public affairs and lobbying work otherwise. Microsoft was their first big client. Republicans weren’t winning many races in Arkansas, and at the Capitol the two were “kind of the young puppies on the porch getting the scraps,” Bearden said. They were treated OK because no one saw them as a threat. According to Clint Reed, now a principal and previously, like Bearden, an RPA executive director, “They were patted on the head.”

In 2003, the firm had one of its first big lobbying wins. The Legislature was debating what eventually would become the Civil Justice Reform Act, a broad-based tort reform. Bearden and Benham wanted to work on the tort reform side, but no one would hire them and in fact, one business lobbyist pointedly told them they weren’t needed. Wilkes & McHugh, a law firm representing abused seniors, instead hired them to either kill the entire effort or remove the nursing home tort bill from the batch and kill it by itself. Impact succeeded in killing the nursing home bill.

“We were lined up against pretty much everybody in the lobbying community, and we won, and of course when we won, I think that kind of put us on the map a little bit. People started at least taking us seriously,” Benham said.

The firm expanded its political and public affairs activities throughout the South and at times beyond. It managed 38 media markets in six states for Ford Motor Company. In 2005, it hired Robert Coon, now a principal. In 2009, Reed joined the firm after serving as RPA executive director and then regional political director for the Republican National Committee during the 2008 cycle. The firm now has grown to 10: eight in Arkansas, and two in its Baton Rouge office, which opened in 2005. Two staff members, Chase Dugger and Megan Tollett, also served as RPA executive directors. Today, the business is divided into one-third lobbying, one-third public affairs and one-third elections.

“That’s ultimately the skill set that we all have is communication, because whether it’s political campaigns, public affairs, lobbying, all of it, it’s the ability to communicate, the ability to take a client’s priority and figure out how to message it the right way to a constituency group,” Coon said.

Balancing the campaigning and the public affairs/lobbying sides of the business can be a challenge. Bearden was lobbying one Democratic legislator at the Capitol who, as he turned to walk away, realized that Bearden had managed his opponent’s campaign and let Bearden know he had realized it. He voted against everything Impact supported, Bearden said.

That’s still a difficult balance, but it’s easier now. The firm’s lobbying business has grown significantly now that the political establishment has realized the Republican majority probably will be the norm in Arkansas for a while. Impact has worked at some level, either directly or indirectly though the state party, to elect almost two of every three Republicans in the Legislature. In 2014, it did not lose a single Republican Party primary. It managed the Republican Governors Association campaign for the Arkansas governor’s race and managed the RPA’s coordinated legislative campaign. It also handled Congressman French Hill’s direct-mail efforts in the 2014 election.

All that work helping Republicans win their majority comes in handy during legislative sessions when Impact is working for its lobbying clients, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AT&T and Southwestern Energy. The firm says it had a 92% success rate in achieving its client goals in the past session, an impressive ratio considering lobbying firms often are hired to support things that are hard to pass.

“You hold these guys’ hands through political campaigns,” Reed said. “To me, that’s a distinct advantage I think we have among the lobbying community … we’re dealing with these guys 8, 9, 10 o’clock at night. They trust you. They value your opinion. They rely on you to give them good advice, and so when they’re at the Legislature, a lot of times you have an advantage in being able to communicate with those people.”

Meanwhile, the firm has developed productive relationships with Democratic lawmakers as well. State Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, said he “consider(s) Richard a friend.”

“From an issue standpoint, I don’t view them as Democrat or Republican,” he said. “They represent issues that I don’t think strike a partisan tone.”

Impact often has worked in a bipartisan fashion. In 2009, it helped Gov. Mike Beebe and a client pass a tobacco tax to pay for a statewide trauma center. It helped pass the private option, the program supported by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats that uses Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for lower-income Arkansans.

Impact was criticized when the private option was hanging by a thread in the Legislature, and it worked to elect state Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, a private-option opponent, who was running against state Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, a private- option supporter. Important people were calling saying there would be repercussions. But Rice and the firm had a longtime relationship, and besides, he was the client.

“We’re a communication firm,” Benham said. “We have run campaigns in this last campaign cycle where we had one candidate that was for the private option and one candidate that was against the private option, and we were dropping mail pieces almost within the same weeks advocating both sides of that issue. And why? Because we’re a communication firm. Our clients don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, where do I need to be on this position?’ … They say, ‘Here is my position on this issue. How do I best communicate that to the people I want to represent?’ And that’s what we do is we help them communicate.”

How the firm communicates is changing. Political campaigns are less about persuading people to support a candidate and more about defining voters and crafting the right message that will motivate them to go to the polls. The firm conducts extensive polling – more and more of it online. (It’s a polling partner of TB&P.) Meanwhile, enormous amounts of information on voters are available through digital analytics. The things voters buy and their online activities tell political firms like Impact Management much about how they will behave politically.

At the same time, Impact is devoting more advertising to digital media for both its political campaigns and public-affairs efforts. Last year, it hired 20-something guru Skot Covert as its director of digital media. Unlike traditional media, digital media can be shared and take on a life of its own, and it can be measured. Benham said Impact had a client that wanted to do an issue campaign on the East Coast, so $30,000 was spent on a 60-second pre-roll ad – the kind that appears on YouTube before the video. It had more than half a million hits in three days, with an average view of 37 seconds when browsers could have clicked off the ad in 15.

That’s a big change, but some things will remain the same. Former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s declaration that “all politics is local” may no longer be true, but making an impact politically is still about communication, and that’s what Impact has been doing since 1999.