California Firm Is Party’s Go-To Team

SAN FRANCISCO—When U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California announced last month that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term in 2016, SCN Strategies was at the epicenter of the frenzied jockeying to succeed her.

SCN has emerged in recent years as the go-to consulting firm for Democrats in deeply blue California. The firm, led by strategists Averell “Ace” Smith, Sean Clegg and Dan Newman, is one of a number of high-profile, for-profit companies that play an outsize role in the political life of the nation’s largest states.

Last month, in the early stages of the race to succeed Ms. Boxer, SCN quietly helped establish Kamala D. Harris, the state’s attorney general, as a leading contender. Two of SCN’s younger clients, Ms. Harris and Gavin Newsom , California’s lieutenant governor, had long been viewed as the mostly likely candidates to run for Ms. Boxer’s seat.

But within days of Ms. Boxer’s announcement, Mr. Newsom said he would take a pass. One day later, Ms. Harris became the first to declare her candidacy, and she quickly picked up some big endorsements.

The moves swiftly established Ms. Harris as the front-runner in the 2016 race, and neatly prevented a potential clash with Mr. Newsom, who has hinted at a future gubernatorial race. SCN strategists, playing a bit of shuttle diplomacy, advised the two candidates that they would have split the votes and donors in a primary battle.

Any candidate who takes on Ms. Harris—former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former SCN client, is among those who have expressed interest—will be taking on SCN, a team known for dogged opposition research and a successful record on statewide campaigns.

“They’re as good as it gets, as far as a Democratic political consultant goes,” said Aaron McLear, a Republican consultant who faced off against the firm last year while advising unsuccessful California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari.

Last year, the firm won every statewide race it ran: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and three statewide ballot initiatives—the only initiatives Californians passed in November. Those campaigns alone paid the firm nearly $500,000 in consulting fees, according to the most recent filings published on the California Secretary of State’s website.

The firm has suffered some high-profile losses, too. Mr. Smith ran opposition research for then-Gov. Gray Davis during the state’s particularly nasty 2003 recall vote that saw Mr. Davis ousted and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger elected. Facing off against Mr. Schwarzenegger in 2006, Mr. Newman worked for Phil Angelides , the Democratic state treasurer who went on to lose against Mr. Schwarzenegger by a wide margin.

More recently, in 2012, SCN’s campaign for a transportation measure in Los Angeles was unsuccessful. And a 2014 Democratic congressional candidate, Wendy Greuel, an SCN client, lost a primary bid to replace longtime U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of Southern California.

Other firms nationwide play similar roles as SCN does in California. In Texas, Blakemore & Associates oversaw Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s victory last year; in Florida, Front Line Strategies in Tallahassee spearheaded Republican Mitt Romney ’s presidential campaign in the state in 2012.

In California, though, SCN is “basically the go-to firm if you are running a national campaign here,” said Sean J. Miller, editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. “It seems they have become a kingmaker for California’s Democratic politicians.”

SCN’s partners said they follow two key strategies: make campaigns fit candidates’ passions and recognize that California is too large a state to do everything you would do in a smaller venue.

Mr. Smith, the group’s main strategist, helped orchestrate Hillary Clinton ’s California primary victory over then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race, and he led her efforts that year in Texas and North Carolina. Mr. Smith recently attended a “Ready for Hillary” political-action committee meeting, but he declined to comment on any role he might play in Mrs. Clinton’s expected 2016 White House bid.

“Our job is not to just stick our finger in the wind and figure out what the issues are, but to figure out how to help our candidates communicate the things that they are passionate about,” Mr. Smith said. “It is something that has been missing in politics for a long time.”