If former Gov. Tommy Thompson defeats U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin in this year's U.S. Senate race, it will mark not only an impressive coda to his long political career, it will represent yet another victory for the political mind behind his campaign.
Darrin Schmitz, 46, is practically anonymous to anyone outside politics — and many inside. He is just the short, well-dressed man with a round face and shaved head, standing in the background at a rally, staring at his phone.
But since founding his political consulting firm Persuasion Partners, Inc., in 2005, Schmitz has overseen an impressive string of Republican victories in the state and is now viewed as something of a Wisconsin Karl Rove — sometimes controversial, usually successful.
Schmitz and his company led or helped the statewide election efforts of everyone from Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to Supreme Court Justices Michael Gableman and Annette Ziegler to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson — all relatively unknown politically. He even ran Reince Priebus' successful bid for Republican National Committee chairman.
"He has had a big impact on politics here," said Mark Graul, a Republican political consultant who has worked on several campaigns and worked with Schmitz on Mark Green's campaign for governor. "He has had his fingers in the mix for nearly every significant race of the past 15 years."
But with two months left in the Senate contest, some wonder whether Schmitz will help Thompson continue to chart a middle path, eschewing name-calling in favor of nostalgia, or turn to some of the more controversial tactics in his arsenal.
The 'political bug'
Schmitz was born in Wascott, a town of fewer than 1,000 people in the northwest corner of the state. The Schmitz's were Kennedy Democrats who later became fervent Reagan Democrats. His father, Gene, was a grain operator who broke his back on the job. The family received government disability payments thereafter.
At the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Schmitz found himself attracted to President Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign. Like his father, he liked the former Republican leader's message of independence and limited government. He started volunteering in 1984, and as he puts it, "Once you get bitten by the political bug, it stays with you."
Schmitz assisted on some Wisconsin State Assembly races in the early 1990s. He worked as a Capitol page and volunteered with campaigns.
That grunt work paid off when Schmitz landed a paying job in the office of state Rep. Eugene Hahn, R-Cambria. In 1997, Schmitz was offered a job as Gov. Thompson's speech writer.
Schmitz went from working for Thompson to working for President George W. Bush and then the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Growing a business
In 2005, he started PPI, which offers politicians everything from voter mail and online services to messaging and general consulting. The business has grown fast. PPI now works in more than a dozen states.
"You can't argue with his results," said Bill McCoshen, Thompson's former chief of staff and Commerce secretary. "He just helped Tommy win his toughest campaign, probably ever. He simply knows the mechanics of a successful campaign and how to put his candidate in the best light."
There have been good times; getting Van Hollen elected in a big Democratic year is one; replacing outgoing Democratic U.S. Rep. David Obey, a 40-year veteran, with Republican neophyte and MTV star Sean Duffy was another.
And there have been controversies. He steered Gableman's race to replace Louis Butler, the state's first black state Supreme Court Justice. It was a bitter campaign that angered many by airing a commercial critics said contained racial overtones. The ad showed Butler's face next to that of a black rapist and falsely suggested Butler helped free the man, allowing him to rape again.
It led 52 Wisconsin judges to band together to issue a statement, decrying it as "falsely misleading." Democrats in the state still seethe when asked about it.
"Those who remember Mike Gableman's campaign that included a roundly-criticized, race-baiting television ad will have to see about the tone the Thompson campaign may take in the final months," said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a Madison-based liberal organization.
The controversy didn't bother only Democrats. Some Republican operatives contacted by the State Journal criticized Schmitz, specifically regarding the Gableman incident, but none of them would go on the record.
Of the controversy, Schmitz would only say that rape is a serious crime and the issue raised by the commercial was valid.
And an incident earlier this month has not allayed concerns about his tactics. A Thompson campaign aide last week used his campaign email account to draw attention to a 2010 YouTube video of Baldwin, openly lesbian, dancing at a gay pride event. The aide, Brian Nemoir, suggested Baldwin was displaying "heartland values."
Schmitz told the State Journal last week that Nemoir "acted on his own" and "was not representing the Thompson campaign in this matter."