The Magazine

When Bubba Meets Obama

If you want to fish for votes in Appalachia, here's how.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By MATT LABASH
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To get the truth out of a political gun-for-hire, it is always best to catch him when he's unemployed. When not obliged to peddle the platitudes and fictions of the poll-tested mediocrities to whom such a one is often yoked, he may revert to speaking English straight. Not that Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, most recently of John Edwards's abortive presidential run, has ever let employability get in the way of blasting the truth, or his peculiar version of it, from a sawed-off double barrel.

In addition to his first and highest calling--as a lethal hunter whose ideal day involves sitting still as a sniper up a tree in a deer stand in the Blue Ridge mountains--Mudcat is a Democratic rural strategist, in a year when the Democratic nominee badly needs a rural strategy. The rumbling, foul-mouthed Jeremiah Johnson of the campaign trail, Bard of the Bubbasphere, Mudcat has worked his voodoo, with varying results, for everyone from former governor Mark Warner of Virginia (win), to failed presidential candidates Edwards and Bob Graham, to Virginia senator and vice-presidential prospect Jim Webb (who won, with the help of liberal turnout in Northern Virginia and George Allen's "Macaca" implosion).

Mudcat is no technocrat, describing himself as "more Bagger Vance than Karl Rove," occasionally telling his candidate to go to a five-iron, while mostly providing "spiritual uplift." He'll do anything for his guy, from slapping his face on a stock car, to choreographing back-country barnstorming tours that sop up bubba attention with the likes of his pal Ben "Cooter" Jones (formerly of Congress and The Dukes of Hazzard), to providing security by bringing his own gun to campaign events. But no matter who's filing his W-2s, he tends to go his own way.

Working for Edwards last year, Mudcat took it upon himself, when dealing with a skeptical Boston Globe reporter, to rename Edwards's "Economic Fairness for the North Country" tour the "Let's Help John Edwards Screw Those Who Screwed Us" tour (the screwers, in this case, being the NAFTA-loving Clintons). Two years ago, in a panel discussion at the Daily Kos convention, Mudcat nearly set the drapes on fire in front of a roomful of netroots nerds when debating Thomas Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie. Schaller holds that Democrats should write off the South as unwinnable because of the forces of race and religion. His thesis prompted Mudcat to extend a standing social invitation: "Kiss my Rebel ass!"

A few years back, he joined forces with the Commonwealth Coalition, a group trying to torpedo an anti-gay marriage amendment in his native Virginia. Mudcat, who loves the ladies almost as much as he loves killing big bucks, agreed to take the gig only if he could persuade the bubbas in language they could relate to. He thundered to the Roanoke Times: "I'm pretty sure I ain't a queer. And I've never had queer thoughts, but I do have several queer buddies who called me and asked me to help. I think it's blasphemy to put this on the ballot and try to divide God's children for political gain. God loves them queers every bit that he loves the Republicans."

It's not a shtick that travels well, to be sure. And Mudcat has plenty of detractors, sometimes on his own side, calling him "Mudflap" and worse. But the brainy, bewitching actress Madeleine Stowe (Last of the Mohicans, We Were Soldiers) isn't one of them. Having spent plenty of time campaigning for Edwards, she became fast friends with Mudcat on the trail.

While her circle in Los Angeles, for whom she occasionally plays his voicemails, has told her he sounds "you know .  .  . not smart," Stowe shakes her head "over the predictability of it all," which she regards as "the problem Obama has in a nutshell. It's not elitism being practiced in L.A. It's just plain old ignorance--fear of what's different. And these same people talk bitterly of racism."

When she first saw Mudcat on MSNBC, Stowe was suspicious. "I remember thinking he must be some deep southern friend of the family. .  .  . He reeked of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He's an archetype. .  .  . He's left-handed in his thinking, which is always interesting. .  .  . He's psychologically cunning. Rather than trying to make so many problems pretty by putting a nice spin on things, he's able to hit you on a visceral level which also feels really, really truthful."