Arnold Schwarzenegger saved a lot of people in his movies, but in 2003 he
needed a savior himself. His recall campaign was floundering, with an
inconsistent public message and poorly-planned events.
In stepped Mike Murphy.
Murphy is widely crediting with bringing organizational and logistical
skills that were vital to the slow-starting Schwarzenegger campaign.
Immediately afterwards, Murphy’s firm, DC Navigators, set up shop in
Sacramento and started signing up clients, both corporate and political.
Two and a half years later, in the wake of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s equally
resounding special election loss, rumors of defeat and departure have been
swirling around the national Republican consulting firm and its high-flying
founder. Murphy has been criticized for dividing his attention in too many
directions, including television and potential presidential campaigns.
“Mike Murphy is smart enough and energetic enough to be successful at
whatever he wants to do,” said Republican political consultant Dan Schnur,
who worked with Murphy on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “If he
wants to oversee campaigns in California, they will probably be successful.
If he wants to leave it to others, they probably won’t be.”
But Murphy is leaving all the candidate work behind. Last election cycle, he
was a consultant to the Chamber’s JobsPAC, and was chief strategist for the
governor. Now, Navigators’ business in California is focused exclusively on
corporate clients, though there is a strong political component to much of
After Arnold’s winning campaign, Murphy came in and set up shop with “a lot
of bluster,” said Gale Kaufman, the political consultant who ran the winning
side of the special election for the Alliance for a Better California.
“He was summarily defeated in everything he did for JobsPAC and everything
he did for the governor,” Kaufman said. “I can’t imagine that helped his
client base in California.”
Murphy and Todd Harris, who handles much of the Sacramento business for
Navigators say the special election has not had an impact on the firm’s
business. “We haven’t gained a single client due to the special election, we
haven’t lost a single client due to the special election,” Harris said.
“If I wanted to, I could get five new clients in Sacramento in the next ten
days,” Murphy said.
Murphy says he stayed on longer with the governor than he ever intended,
through the recall campaign to last year’s special election. “I know what
the re-elect will take time-wise,” Murphy said. “I didn’t want to do that.”
Rob Stutzman, the governor’s former communications director, agreed. “Mike’s
been struggling with that for most of the last year,” Stutzman said.
Murphy said he has wanted to spend more time on several entertainment
industry projects. They include a show in development for Comedy Central
with two partners, Jason Hsaio, a producer for the network, and Eddie
Feldman, former producer on The Dennis Miller Show. Murphy declined to give
any further specifics about the projects.
“I didn’t spend much time on showbiz last year, and I was frustrated by
that,” said Murphy, who lives in Los Angeles.
But even as Murphy is scaling back, Navigators is expanding their base of
The firm is opening in an office in the Florida state capital of Tallahassee
within the next month or so. Harris said this plan has been in the works for
at least two years, and was put off due to the firm’s heavy involvement in
the special election.
But Harris insists the new Florida office will not come at the expense of
its California business. “I have no plans to move back to Florida,” Harris
said. “I will help run the Florida office from Sacramento.”
Navigators’ involvement in Florida politics dates back several years. Murphy
served as a strategist for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Harris lived in Florida
before coming back to California in 2003, and served as communications
director during Bush’s 2002 reelection campaign.
There has also been talk of Murphy working a presidential campaign in 2008.
Murphy has provided political advice to two possible GOP presidential
candidates, Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, and Massachusetts Governor Mitt
But with Murphy spending more time in Hollywood, will the firm’s Sacramento
offices be as viable? Opinions are split.
“In California, if you hire Navigators, you’re hiring Mike Murphy,” Schnur
said. “Ultimately, the question of whether DC Navigators stays in California
is up to Murphy.”
Another GOP political consultant, Coronado Communications partner Duane
Dichaira, disagreed. “I think if Todd Harris is involved, they will always
be a force in California politics,” said Dichaira.
Both Murphy and Harris say that while Murphy will be spending more time in
Hollywood, and Navigators sets up shop in Florida, the firm’s Sacramento
business will continue uninterrupted. Murphy said the firm had signed one
“small deal” in-state recently and was closing in on two larger one. He did
not go into specifics, citing client confidentiality.
But most of the chatter has focused on the clients Murphy no longer serves,
both in the political and corporate world. Navigator’s contract with one of
its highest profile in-state clients–Californians for Clean, Affordable,
Safe Energy (Cal-CASE)–expired last fall and was not renewed. The contract
was for about $1 million but only around a quarter of that was Navigator’s
fee, Murphy said.
Cal-CASE is trying to get clearance to bring controversial liquefied natural
gas (LNG) terminals to the California coast. Part of this work was an August
2004 presentation detailing ways Cal-CASE could counteract negative media
coverage about LNG terminals. The presentation recommended using “campaign
style tactics,” “grassroots” communications and providing “political air
cover” to sympathetic politicians.
The presentation gave a minor political black eye to Cal-CASE when it was
leaked to the press. Murphy said the presentation was distributed to around
50 members of the consortium and was likely leaked to critics by a “rogue
“I have nothing negative to say about Navigators,” said Dorothy Rothrock, a
Cal-CASE spokeswoman who is also vice president of government relations at
the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. “They came up with
a plan, the plan went for a year and came to its natural end.”