Forest Park Commissioner Tom Mannix is not chatty about his work as a political consultant through his companies, Dolfin Consulting and Elect Systems. He is tight-lipped, citing client confidentiality.
But Mannix has come into the spotlight as campaign manager for Jim Oberweis, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in the race against incumbent Dick Durbin. Mannix has worked on many local municipal campaigns, including mayoral, committeemen and even a governor’s primary race. But this is the first national campaign he’s been involved in, especially in such a high-profile role.
Mannix is identified as author of Oberweis’s campaign and fundraising emails.
“Simply put, a win is within reach if we all give it our best,” Mannix wrote in a recent email. But he warned, “If we can’t raise the funds to get every single conservative voter to the polls on the big day, this isn’t going to end well.”
Mannix directs press inquiries to Dan Curry, the Oberweis communications specialist.
“[Mannix is] well-respected as a professional campaign manager,” Curry said. “This is what he does to take care of his family.” Curry declined to elaborate about specific tasks Mannix performed for the campaign.
The only other statewide campaign Mannix was paid to help run was Kirk Dillard’s Republican primary run for governor in 2013. Mannix was paid around $15,000 to be a part of Dillard’s “consulting committee.” Dillard came in second behind Bruce Rauner.
According to records on the Federal Election Commission website, Mannix has been paid around $29,800 for campaign work for Oberweis in the past two years.
While Mannix doesn’t speak about the campaign itself, he did point out that the Oberweis campaign spent money in Forest Park. A search of the FEC website shows along with paying Mannix, the campaign spent $850 with 34 Publishing, Inc., publishers of the Forest Park Post.
But statewide, the Oberweis campaign hasn’t gained much traction. The race between Oberweis, ice cream company president and state senator from Sugar Grove, and incumbent Sen. Dick Durbin is lopsided, with the Chicago Tribune predicting Durbin will win with by 14 percent.
In fact, looking at Mannix’s past work on the Illinois Board of Elections website, he does not have a track record of wins. Many campaigns, Democratic and Republican use software developed by Elect, Inc., a consulting company affiliated with Mannix.
But since 2009, Mannix’s campaign consulting business has been paid more than $400,000 by 20 candidates, 17 of whom have lost or been thrown off the ballot.
The candidates who won were Merionette Park Incumbent Mayor Dennis Magee (a 19-year incumbent), Maine Township Republican Committeeman Charlene “Char” Foss-Eggemann and Chris Welch.
This election, Mannix is also serving in a significant campaign role for political neophyte Mel Thillens, who is attempting to unseat freshman Democratic 55th District State Rep. Marty Moylan. Mannix’s consulting businesses have been paid $30,400 so far by Thillens in 2014.
“Running a campaign is like starting a small business from scratch,” said Chicago campaign consultant Josh Kilroy.
“You have to get it up and running full speed within a month or two. You’ve got to run your offices, you’ve got volunteers to get out the door, you need to work with a management team of consultants, and the whole thing stops on a dime in one day.”
The reason the same consultant names recirculate in Illinois Republican campaign work is because of the party’s longtime super-minority status, Kilroy said.
“When the party doesn’t win, you are not creating a new class of managers,” he said. “The Republicans aren’t bringing people into government after they win and giving people other opportunities,” he said. “They haven’t had a new class of managers in 15 -20 years.”
Kilroy said Mannix’s pay for the Senate race was “on the low end” for a campaign manager. “He’s not getting rich, that’s for sure.”
There are more Democrats than Republicans who come to Chicago looking for consultant work, said Matt Fruth, campaign manager for State Senator Don Harmon.
“The bench is deeper for the Democrats,” said Fruth.
Bucking the losing trend, Mannix can be associated with success in a race with local ties. In the 2012 election for 7th District State Rep., Mannix’s professional endeavors pitted him against his fellow Forest Park Commissioner, Rory Hoskins, when his company Dolfin Consulting created two robocall townhalls for Hoskin’s opponent Chris Welch. Dolfin was paid $6,100. Welch ended up winning the four-way state representative election by fewer than 40 votes.
Larry Shapiro, Hoskins’ campaign manager, works as suburban representative for U.S. Congressman Danny Davis. Shapiro worked on the winning Senate campaign of U.S. Senator Carole Mosley Braun (a college classmate) in 1993.
In Shapiro’s view, the Oberweis campaign was a longshot to begin with.
“[Oberweis and Mannix] have a lot in common if they’ve lost that percentage of races,” said Shapiro. “Oberweis has lost every time he ran. He stepped into a state senate seat probably because nobody cared.”
Shapiro characterized the Republican candidate going up against Durbin as a “Kamikaze trip,” and said Oberweis has not built a base of other Republicans who will support him. “The establishment Republicans are scared to death of him. He has an erratic reputation and is independent to the point of making other Republicans uneasy.”
To see if a candidate is viable in a U.S. Senate race, a campaign manager must first evaluate the candidate’s base, to see, “if there is a natural constituency you can expand out from,” Shapiro said. Then, the candidate must hone a message and a platform that builds on “voter values broad-based enough to be in tune with the needs of the state and how the majority of constituents see those needs.”
Oberweis has a steep hill to climb, since Durbin is a local boy from Springfield,
and most Republican votes come from downstate.
Fruth thought some downstaters already see Durbin as their downstate senator and Mark Kirk as representing the Chicago area. Oberweis, of Sugar Grove, he said, might be seen as trying for a second Chicago senator.
Why work for a candidate destined to lose?
Kilroy said some campaigns — especially ideological campaigns on either the right or left — are really more of a long battle to change public opinion rather than to make policy in government.
“You think of yourself more of a community organizer than a political tactician,” he said. “You know you’re going to lose, but what you hope to do is create something in the community that might outlast the campaign.” A local volunteer might end up running for office, he said. “You’re spreading a message and hoping to hit a nerve.”
Fruth believes Oberweis is running an ideological campaign because he’s lost too many races to just be doing it for vanity.
“Eventually, your ego takes too many hits when you lose enough races,” he said. “There has to be a belief to keep you going when you have lost a couple times.”
Fruth said campaign managers must be willing to tell the candidate the hard truth and stand up to the candidate.
“If anyone is telling Oberweis he can win, they would be doing a disservice.”
Fruth said a common campaign strategy against an incumbent is to try to attack the reputation of the sitting politician until the very end, when many campaigns finally release a message showing what the candidate actually stands for.
But Shapiro characterizes Oberweis’s ads as, “all negative” and thinks voters are tuning them out.
“Most of the money has not been spent in an inspiring way to generate expanded street heat,” Shapiro said.
“People got tired of this race weeks ago,” he added.
This story has been updated to reflect the results of a recent Chicago Tribune poll predicting that Durbin will win by 14 percent, not more than 20 percent, as weas predictedin an earlier poll.