By Dan Casey, The Roanoke Times
June 17, 2012
My old friend Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, the renowned hunter, reformed drunk, Downtown Roanoke real estate developer and nationally known political strategist, lives in a humble cabin alongside Back Creek in Roanoke County.
Sometimes he’s a humble guy — this past year, he’s been quietly spending time in Haiti working on earthquake relief. Other times he’s not so humble. Lately, it’s tending toward the latter.
Saunders is up to his old political tricks again, and he’s just getting wound up. His target’s a big one: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from suburban Richmond and one of the most powerful politicians in Congress.
Two weeks ago, Saunders signed on as senior political strategist with Cantor’s long shot Democratic challenger. That’s Wayne Powell, an ex-Army colonel and Richmond lawyer who’s never run for office before.
Though six previous Cantor challengers have failed miserably, Saunders vows this campaign will be different. With him at the helm, that’s almost guaranteed. He’s a combustible mix of political brilliance, media savvy and attention deficit disorder. And he’s as colorful as a Day-Glo paint factory.
“We’re going to go national,” Saunders vowed Thursday. “We’re going to tell our story to the nation. That’s the only way we can raise the money to get this bought-and-paid-for bastard.”
Powell, 61, was raised in the blue-collar Richmond neighborhood of Church Hill. He told me he hired Saunders because of the “immediate connection” they forged over their common working-class roots.
Powell’s campaign hurdles are many, however. Cantor has never had a close race. His campaign has raised $5.7 million; Saunders estimated Powell’s current treasury at $100,000.
Saunders already has helped brainstorm one method of attack. Soon, thousands of dime-store “FOR SALE” signs with Cantor’s name scrawled across the bottom will dot the 7th Congressional District. That stretches from the Richmond suburbs of Henrico and Chesterfield counties north and northwest up through Spotsylvania, Louisa, Orange and Culpeper counties.
But it’s via media and political connections that Saunders probably brings the greatest value. Those are extensive. And both were born right here in Roanoke.
Saunders’ first career foray was in journalism. He was a sports stringer for both the Roanoke World News and The Roanoke Times back in the early 1970s.
To land that gig he told a preposterous lie — that he could type 135 words a minute. Actually, he was about as familiar with a typewriter as the average nun is with a bazooka. So he wrote his first stories longhand and begged then-World News columnist Mike Ives, his close friend, to type them on the sly.
He parlayed that experience into a job covering the Baltimore Colts for the Newport News Daily Press. One season, quarterback Johnny Unitas furiously banned Saunders from the Colts locker room. His offense? After a game, Saunders asked the fresh-out-of-the-shower Unitas why he dried his privates with his towel before he dried his head.
Then Saunders got into real estate. With Roanoker magazine publisher Richard Wells, he’s the co-owner of a significant chunk of the city market area. Years before anyone else, they pioneered using historic tax credits to rehabilitate old buildings.
He got into politics almost by accident, through his close friend and attorney, former Del. Dick Cranwell.
“Dickie used to come and get me out of jail when I was drunk,” Saunders told me. “The only way I could pay him back was to work on his campaigns.” At some point back then, more than 25 years ago, Saunders quit drinking.
His first big campaign was the successful gubernatorial bid of Mark Warner in 2001. He’s also worked on former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008 and his pal Jim Webb’s successful 2006 U.S. Senate challenge to George Allen.
Those efforts led to close relationships with national reporters and commentators across the political spectrum, and to regular appearances on cable news shows such as “Tucker Carlson,” “Hardball,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
In politics, some of Saunders’ stunts are the stuff of legend. In 2001, he came up with the idea to plaster Mark Warner’s name on a car in some NASCAR races. He also penned the campaign’s bluegrass theme song “Warner.” (The lyrics for that came to him one day in the shower.)
Nobody had ever done either before, and the tactics were credited with getting rural votes that helped Warner win the governor’s office.
Saunders is also a prankster. Perhaps the best one he ever pulled came at the expense of Matt Labash, a writer from the conservative Weekly Standard. Labash, who lives in Washington, D.C., had never been hunting, so on a visit here in 2005, Saunders took him to scout turkey on Poor Mountain.
They were deep in the woods when Saunders motioned to a pile of deer scat, picked up a few droppings and popped them into his mouth. He declared they came from a buck and dared the writer to note the sour taste.
Disgusted and repulsed, Labash refused. The “scat” was actually a pile of Raisinettes Saunders had planted there earlier. He didn’t let Labash in on the joke until days later.
With Harvard professor Steve Jarding, Saunders co-authored the 2006 Simon & Schuster book “Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’em Out.”
A few years ago, he started work on another book that may one day be an even bigger seller. It’s about religion, and he doesn’t yet have a publisher.
The working title is “A Half-Assed Christian’s Guide to Living.” Saunders, who’s quite vocal about his own brand of Christianity, once confided his reasons for writing it.
“All the religious books out there now are for full-assed Christians,” he told me. “But there are a lot more half-assed Christians than full-assed Christians. This is a book for them.”
Whether he can sell 7th District voters on Wayne Powell is another question. There’s no shortage of doubters on that.
One is University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, the noted political scientist.
“Clearly, Powell’s a long shot,” Sabato told me. “It’s a heavily Republican district that’s even more Republican since redistricting.”
But “Mudcat attracts free media,” Sabato added. “He’s nationally known. Because of that, you’ll probably have more national press.
“The one thing you can be certain of is, the Powell campaign is going to have lots of colorful quotes.”