Blowing Smoke
With a politically incorrect puff, Mark Block lights up the presidential race.


Robert Costa

He’s also getting a kick out of the attention. A year ago, when he and Cain began to discuss a presidential bid, almost nobody in national politics knew him. And if they knew him, they thought he was finished as a political operative.

Over a decade ago, Block was banned from Badger State politics for three years after a brutal legal fight over his work on a judicial race. The state election board accused him of conspiring with an outside group on a slush fund. Block firmly denied the charge.

But he settled, he tells me, after running out of money to pay his lawyers.

Banished from politics, Block’s decade-plus rise as a Republican consultant was over, even though he was only in his late forties. His competing consultants, without pause, boxed him out of the Wisconsin GOP apparatus.

So Block looked elsewhere. Reaching out to old allies, he quietly began to work with outside conservative groups. Eventually, he was hired by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a leading advocacy organization with close ties to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarians.

It was there, during Pres. George W. Bush’s second term, when Block’s views on political strategy began to evolve. He figured the old model, of working within the party, was obsolete.

Direct mail, retail politics, campaign ads — all of these retained roles in the process, he thought, as he directed AFP’s Wisconsin chapter. But they were quickly being outpaced by the Internet, which enabled citizens to self-organize and campaigns to reach thousands with the push of a button.

Being unconventional, Block recalls, was the better way to score points, to change minds, to win elections. Be it a quirky video or an itinerary focused on small towns instead of large media markets, political ripples, not big splashes, had lasting impact.

Over the next couple of years, Block shared these thoughts with Herman Cain, an AFP spokesman — who, like Block, appeared to be in the dusk of his political life, as well.

In 2004, Cain, former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, lost a Senate primary in Georgia. He was charismatic, a fine speaker, but as with Block, most assumed he was yesterday’s news, especially after Cain was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in 2006.

As they kept meeting on the activist trail, the pair — both frustrated with their stalled careers and increasingly enthusiastic about alternative campaigns — clicked.

Block wanted back in the political game. Cain wanted another shot at the national spotlight.

By late 2009, Cain — cancer-free and a popular talk-radio host in Atlanta — saw an opening. But he hadn’t settled on how to make his next move. He confided with Block, who was busy boosting the Tea Party movement. They talked history, looking at how other political figures, often from outside of the establishment, won public office.

The Gipper featured in their talks. Ronald Reagan, both noted, spent years doing radio commentaries in the late 1970s, connecting with conservative voters. And when he ran for president in 1980, that experience elevated him among the GOP base, which respected his work in the trenches.