Wesley Donehue is coming off one hell of an election season. His Columbia-based political firm, Push Digital, helped two Republican U.S. senators win their races, and that’s not even counting the scores of GOP Congressmen he guided to Election Day victory. In addition, there’s the digital firm’s Super PAC work and partnership with the Wisconsin Republican Party that helped Gov. Scott Walker win re-election.
Donehue’s influence also popped up in one particularly surprising place, at the head of the pack to get the so-called Stone Bill passed; his group Push Advocacy was behind that successful measure. Prost!
With election season finally over, Donehue is looking after his six-month-old son while his wife and mother-in-law paint their new Summerville home. They just closed on the house Nov. 20. Yes, Donehue’s moving from Columbia back to the Charleston area, where he grew up — and moving most of the company’s 21 employees with him. The move is a sign of just how far Push Digital has come in Palmetto State politics, and perhaps of just how unimportant it is for political operatives to be on the ground in the famously hot Capital City these days.
“Because we’re doing so much more national work, being in Columbia doesn’t really matter to us anymore,” he says. “Quite frankly, being in Charleston helps us because the Columbia airport is shit. You can quote me on that. It makes doing national work really hard when you can’t get any direct flights anywhere and flying is so expensive.”
If you’ve heard of Donehue before, it’s probably because of his tendency to go for that big quote, whether it’s in the service of a client or what he really believes. And it’s a tendency that’s somehow served him well.
The 35-year-old Donehue has packed a long history in South Carolina politics into a short timespan. Over the past decade he’s worked on in-state and out-of-state campaigns, as technology director for the SCGOP and for the Senate Republican Caucus — a job to which he’ll return next session, even though he’ll be based in Charleston. He’s also allied himself with everyone from nutty presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, who hired him in 2011 for her South Carolina campaign, to former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, for whom Donehue did some fundraising in 2012 after the Missouri Congressman drew fire by saying that “legitimate rape” seldom causes pregnancy.
The infamy doesn’t stop there. Together with Senate Democratic Caucus director Phil Bailey, Donehue once ran the Columbia-based online show Pub Politics, which featured South Carolina politicos and reporters drinking and talking candidly about state politics — former state Sen. Jake E. Knotts made his famous “raghead” comment on the show. Donehue also has the distinction of being named “the worst person in the world” by former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann after the political operative posted a now-notorious tweet in response to an Associated Press report on the South Carolina Voter ID law’s negative impact on black precincts: “Nice! @jimdavenport_ap proves EXACTLY why we need Voter ID in SC.”
While Donehue still gets some jabs in, most of his internet chatter these days is about F3 — a.k.a. Fitness, Fellowship, and Faith, a national men’s fitness craze that’s a sort of mash-up of Crossfit and Promise Keepers. (He’s trying to start up a Summerville group, if you’re interested.)
Personality aside, what makes Donehue a big deal in political circles is that he’s figured out how to use technology to win elections for Republicans. In 2010, he founded Donehue Direct, which in January 2013 became Push Digital. This election season, the firm ran digital services for successful U.S. Senate candidates Tom Cotton in Arkansas and David Perdue in Georgia.
“With the U.S. Senate races, we were doing all their daily social media, all their online fundraising — which is the largest part — all their online advertising, website development, website design,” Donehue says. “If it’s anything internet or tech related, we’re handling it for them.”
Joel Sawyer, Push Digital’s senior vice president, puts it another way: “We’re the soup-to-nuts digital firm.”
In Cotton’s race, where the GOP upstart knocked off incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor 57 to 40 percent, Push Digital proved its fundraising mettle. “We were able to raise nearly $3 million on the internet from people across the country that wanted to win that seat to take back the U.S. Senate,” Donehue says. “We put together a really strong online and fundraising campaign that allowed us to raise a ton of cash for him — not just Arkansas, but low-dollar donors, people who’ve given $3, from across the country.”
If this strategy sounds like nothing new, you’re right: Democrats have been successfully raising money online from low-dollar donors for several years now. But in GOP political circles, this type of online strategizing took some time to catch on. “It wasn’t that from a technology point Democrats were ahead,” Donehue says. “It’s more of a cultural standpoint of, like, believing in it and investing in it. Across the country, in all the races we played in, not only did they make a financial investment, but digital had a proverbial seat at the table that they didn’t typically have.”
As Push Digital moved beyond South Carolina — only about 5 percent of its current business is in-state, Donehue estimates — the company has changed in other ways. Last year, Donehue changed the name of the firm from Donehue Direct to Push Digital to take the focus off himself. He hired former SCGOP director and Mark Sanford spokesman Sawyer to be Push Digital’s senior vice president. He also hired lobbyist Michael Rentiers to head up Push Advocacy, which works to promote not only feel-good campaigns like the Stone Bill (an issue the company took on for free), but projects like trying to push through a potato farm that environmentalists fear will pollute the scenic Edisto River.
With its growth, the company’s also become more selective, Donehue says. Before, he says, “I was just trying to make a living for myself and earn a paycheck, so I would work for just about any Republican. That has changed. Our company is much more boutique. We only take a certain amount of clients each cycle, and we are able to tell some people we don’t want to work with them. A lot of it is ideological; a lot of it is also finding and working for good people. There are plenty of politicians out there that align with me 100 percent ideologically that I just think are bad people that are running for the wrong reasons.”
Take hardline state Sen. Lee Bright, whom Donehue says he turned down as a U.S. Senate client. “I liked Lee ideologically. I think he’s said a lot of the right things, but I don’t like the way he does business,” Donehue says. “I just mean the way he is uncompromising and the way he belittles and demeans a lot of people, and if you’re not with him 100 percent, then somehow you are a baby-killing RINO.”
But despite all his success online, Donehue’s not actually a fan of the internet’s influence on politics. “People see what’s happening across the world, say Egypt — they see the impact of social media on democracy. I think when you’re talking about elections and creating democratic government, I think the internet is definitely more positive than negative,” he says. “But when you look at the actual running of government … a lot of it’s actually hurting democracy. It’s creating much more fringe factions.”
Today, Donehue says, politicians feel like there’s always someone watching, so they won’t sit down in private and compromise: “Now, behind the scenes they’ve got that camera on them so none of that shit’s getting really done.” The political operative feels so strongly about this position he’s planning to give a Columbia TEDx presentation in January on this very topic.
“I am here to say that some of the work I’m doing is part of the problem,” he says. “I am definitely fueling a lot of this angst and divisiveness, and it’s a problem.” And now, for better or for worse, Donehue is bringing that approach to the Holy City. He’s looking for office space — probably downtown, but possibly in North Charleston. “I just decided I’ve got saltwater in my veins,” he says. “I’ve traveled the world, and I think Charleston’s the best city in America. If you’re only an hour and a half from it, why not be there?”