Alison Lundergan Grimes' ad maker likes to battle in 'red' states

Herald-Leader Political writerJune 30, 2014 

Other than President Barack Obama's obligatory approval of the message, the only voice in the ad was Mitt Romney's.

It was only 30 seconds. Just Romney, talking about the "47 percent" while images of elderly veterans and other Americans flashed on the screen.

It was simple, it was devastating and it was made by the man helping Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes try to unseat U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Though he's not a household name or even among the celebrity political consultant class, Mark Putnam might be the best Democratic ad maker in the business, and his reputation for producing visually striking, memorable, emotional and effective ads might be the biggest, if least-discussed, reason McConnell should be worried this fall.

In addition to the "47 percent" ad, Putnam led the effort to make Obama's 30-minute infomercial that ran just before the 2008 election and produced independent expenditure ads that the Democratic National Committee ran on behalf of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. He wrote speeches for Dick Gephardt, and made memorable ads for former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that stood out in the crowded Democratic primary of 2008.

In a March profile by The New York Times, longtime Obama ally David Axelrod praised the man known to his colleagues as a creative perfectionist. As Putnam's firm notes on its website, David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager, wrote in his book that Putnam was "one of the best producers in our party."

In other words, Putnam is a quadruple-platinum rock star when it comes to making television ads for winning Democrats.

But Putnam's successes have not just been with the Obamas of the Democratic Party. An Alaska native with offices just outside of Washington, D.C., in Arlington, Va., Putnam likes to play — and win — in "red" states.

Putnam's ads are credited in part with helping Democrat Heidi Heitkamp pull off a surprise win in the 2012 North Dakota Senate race.

In addition to working with the Grimes campaign, Putnam has drawn national attention this year for ads he has done for Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, two Democrats running for re-election in increasingly Republican states.

"We are particularly proud of our record in difficult-to-win states for Democrats," touts Putnam's website.

Difficult-to-win for Democrats might be a charitable description when it comes to federal races in Kentucky, but Putnam is back in the Bluegrass State. And while he's modest about his contribution to what he is convinced is a strong campaign with a chance to deny McConnell a sixth term, the ad man might be what Republicans should fear most about the challenge facing the senator this fall.

"I don't like to think of myself as a weapon in somebody's arsenal," Putnam told the Herald-Leader last week. "I want to help them tell their stories or help them figure out the best way to tell their story."

While he said he was never "going to claim to be the expert on Kentucky," Putnam has worked in the state before, beginning with Grimes' top campaign adviser, Jonathan Hurst, when the two worked on state Rep. Jody Richards' failed 2003 gubernatorial bid.

And it was Putnam who shot the ad that helped Grimes make a name for herself in her 2011 secretary of state campaign, featuring the candidate with her two grandmothers.

"Mark has a unique ability to cut through the clutter to connect with voters in a real way," Hurst said. "We were incredibly fortunate to have Mark on our team during the 2011 secretary of state campaign, and we are proud once again that he's on our side in this race."

That kind of pride comes with a heavy price tag. The New York Times reported in its profile of Putnam that a day of shooting can cost as much as $30,000, with an additional $10,000 for sound and editing. Grimes already has spent more than $150,000 with Putnam's firm this election cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Putnam is very high on Grimes' chances, demurring when asked about how much his involvement adds to the likelihood of an upset.

"What I think the world is discovering is that she doesn't need a secret weapon," he said.

When it comes to McConnell, Putnam sees a lot to work with, but he is not harshly critical of the state's senior senator.

"I think the senator has strengths, but they are not in connecting with people," Putnam said. "You could not have a bigger contrast. She's the beneficiary of that contrast."

He added: "In some ways he's a person who's very hard to read. But his record isn't. His record is very clear. There is a lot of material there to work with because of his 30 years in Washington and his voting on the sides of issues that frankly hurt (Kentuckians). Substantively, there's a lot there to work with."

Perhaps Grimes' biggest challenge in facing McConnell is convincing conservative Kentucky Democrats who vote Republican in federal elections that she is not cut from the same cloth as Obama and other national Democrats.

Putnam is trying to help Grimes put distance between her and the president, he said, by "first and foremost showing where she disagrees with him."

On coal and on guns, Putnam said, Grimes has been doing a good job of separating herself from Obama, but he acknowledged that there still was work to do to introduce Grimes to voters who don't know her or might be skeptical of her because of the "D" behind her name.

In her first ad of the general election produced by Putnam, Grimes, talking directly to the camera, sought to make clear to voters that "no matter who the president is, I won't answer to them. I'll only answer to you."

That's just the tip of the iceberg, Putnam said, as the campaign ramps up for the fall battle.

"We've really only just begun that process in the advertising," Putnam said. "We've started the process of introducing her, and that's going to continue. It's a process that unfolds over the length of the campaign."

Meanwhile, McConnell's campaign continues its effort to tie Grimes and Obama together, noting the national Democrats who have put Putnam on the payroll in the past.

"If you're a liberal candidate looking to put on a good show to hide inexperience and a left-wing agenda, then I imagine Barack Obama's ad guy would be your first call," said Josh Holmes, McConnell's senior adviser. "I'm sure he's a talented guy, but Steven Spielberg couldn't convince Kentuckians to abandon their influence and send another vote for the Obama agenda to Washington."

Barack Obama "My Job" from Putnam Partners on Vimeo.


Alison Lundergan Grimes "Elsie & Thelma" from Putnam Partners on Vimeo.


Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Email: syoungman@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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