The digital shop behind John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign’s online ads and countless Republican and conservative campaigns has its own new commander-in-chief. Online political vet Chuck DeFeo has joined Connell Donatelli as president and CEO. DeFeo, who made a name for himself through his work with the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign, returns to the world of political strategy consulting just as candidates and advocacy groups are finally getting serious about the Web. He’s also up against more competition in the online political consulting sector than ever before.
DeFeo aims to expand the firm’s capabilities beyond its e-mail, search, and display ad strengths to specialize more in social media strategy. “I want to grow and broaden our offering,” said DeFeo, suggesting Connell Donatelli could be better leveraging the social Web in conjunction with the paid efforts it’s known for. The company has called the Republican National Committee a client, and most recently won several awards for the online ad campaign it devised in support of California’s Proposition 8.
Following his stint as e-campaign manager for Bush/Cheney ’04, he sat out the most recent election cycle, serving as general manager of Townhall.com, a Salem Communications-owned online hub for conservative news, opinion, and community. He also served briefly this year as GM for interactive and social media at The Washington Times, and was e-campaign manager at the Republican National Committee during the 2002 election season.
DeFeo started his new role Tuesday. He replaces Connell Donatelli partner Mike Connell, who died in a plane crash in December 2008.
While on the media side at Salem, DeFeo focused more on fostering debate and ideas among the grassroots. Now, he said he aims to help determine how Republicans and conservative campaigns can “channel that energy into winning elections again.” Added DeFeo, “There’s a difference between covering the Super Bowl and playing in the Super Bowl.”
In the next month or so, he plans to assess the firm’s existing clients, and determine “as the next 18 months play out leading up to election day…where we can do the most good.”
In the current political game, Republicans are certainly the underdogs, and like any losing team, party insiders have been trying to figure out what went wrong this time around. The same goes for the party’s digital insiders, some of whom were critics of Connell Donatelli’s approach to the McCain campaign, and have since argued via social media such as Twitter about how the GOP should approach social media and other online tactics.
“In general, this is what happens when a party loses elections; you do some soul searching,” DeFeo told ClickZ News.
Although many of the party’s digital elite have worked together in the past, there is a perceived rift between younger right-leaning consultants and the somewhat more entrenched insiders aligned with Connell Donatelli and its decade-old sister firm Campaign Solutions. DeFeo straddles both worlds. “I am for winning elections rather than rhetorical debates about online strategy and tactics,” he said. “I believe in the growth of Web 2.0 and what’s empowering people to be part of a participatory culture.”
Strategic arguments aside, DeFeo embraces the competition that has sprouted up in recent years. If Connell Donatelli represents the older guard, firms such as Engage and David All Group are the newer guard serving Republican and conservative candidate and advocacy campaigns.
“The fact that there are other firms coming up, I think that’s a healthy thing,” said DeFeo. “We’re on the right track.”
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