The Magazine

Hunting Bubba

From the June 20, 2005 issue: Can political consultants Dave "Mudcat" Saunders and Steve Jarding win rural voters back to the Democratic party?

Jun 20, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 38 • By MATT LABASH
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Roanoke, Virginia

"YOU'RE SLOWER than cream rising on s--. Haul ass down here so we can get this piece knocked out, Brotha!" As I barrel down I-81 in Virginia's Blue Ridge country, Dave "Mudcat" Saunders is growling on the other end of the line. He first entered my consciousness in the summer of 2003, like some force of nature sent my way by the Color Gods of Feature Writing.

Back then, I was one of a group of short-straw reporters assigned to cover Bob Graham's "family vacation," a Winnebago caravan across Iowa that, in a lucky break for the Graham grandchildren, coincided with presidential campaign season. Stuck on a chaser pontoon on the Mississippi River for a fishing photo-op, we watched Graham, on the lead boat, do what he did best throughout the campaign: aimlessly drift.

Mudcat (a childhood nickname earned by tireless bottom-fishing of the Roanoke River) was serving as Graham's "Bubba Coordinator." A couple of years earlier, Mudcat and his mentor, Steve Jarding, had become a hot ticket: They'd masterminded Mark Warner's ride to the governor's mansion in Virginia by figuring out how he could pick off the rural vote, a feat Democrats hadn't accomplished in the state in nearly a generation. Subsequently, the two formalized their partnership and hung out a shingle, calling the firm "Rural Renaissance." After a brief stint with John Edwards, whose campaign they fled over philosophical differences with other staffers, the pair signed on with Graham, who himself had entered the race so late that his poll numbers never stopped resembling those of Dennis Kucinich.

That morning on the Mississippi, Graham hands had imported Mudcat to give good quote, attempting to distract us from the candidate's inadequacies. But Mudcat too had to suffer the indignities of a tanking campaign. His hotel room had mistakenly been given away the night before, so he'd been forced to sleep at a truck stop, where he'd taken a $3 shower. He showed up on our pontoon boat Ivory-fresh and full of vinegar. He explained away Graham's lack of success as a fisherman by highlighting the candidate's unique catch-and-release system: "He releases them before he catches them." He told us that he suspected the Potomac River was the holiest in the world, since "you can take the dumbest sonofabitch and put him on the other side of that river and all of a sudden it becomes Good Will Hunting." When querulous reporters tried to kick his man's slats in, he didn't get nervous or defensive. Instead, he threatened to "Bobby Knight y'all's ass."

All told, it was a bravura performance. After a few captive hours under Mudcat's spell, listening to him spin how Graham could take the South, how he was knowledgeable enough to discuss "the gestation period of the Antarctic kiwi," how he could make the blind see and the lame walk, even the most hard-bitten among us thought Graham would last longer than another month and a half, which is actually all he had left. I also remember imagining that Mudcat would be even livelier without the encumbrance of a dead-weight candidate. I imagined right.

I decided to renew the acquaintance upon reading that he and Jarding had just signed with Simon & Schuster to do a book for mid-six-figures, not bad for two campaign strategists whose candidate had finished way out of the money. Just try to conceive of anyone reading the political musings of John Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, let alone paying for the privilege.

Foxes in the Henhouse is due to be released next spring. It is probably the first pox-on-both-parties manifesto to come with a companion CD. Mudcat, 56, is a bluegrass fiend who hopes to get many of his friends in the music world to contribute to the disc. Bluegrass royalty like the Del McCoury clan and Ralph Stanley Jr. (who he simply calls "Two") are his compadres. He's already working out the title song for the CD with bluegrass virtuoso Ronnie Bowman, who's cowritten, along with Music Row Democrats cofounder Don Cook, Brooks & Dunn's current chart-topping single. Mudcat guards the Foxes lyrics as if they were his daughter's chastity (though he's pretty generous in sharing his other verse via email, including a favorite break-up poem he sent a girl, elegantly titled "F--you": I'm glad that you treated me rotten / I'm glad that you made me cry / Cause it's much, much easier to say 'F--you' / Than it is to say 'Good-bye').