Republicans need to net six seats to take back the Senate in 2014 — and they’re banking on Ward Baker’s strategic acumen and organizational skills to make it happen.
“This is about winning, and failure is not an option,” says Baker, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) newly minted political director.
The bad memories from the last cycle — notably of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock blowing red-state races in Missouri and Indiana with ill-considered remarks on rape and abortion — are still fresh in the minds of many GOP activists.
But they are already in Baker’s rearview mirror.
“I ask myself at the end of each day: Did we win today? Did we win this week? Did we win this month?” said the 36-year-old former Marine. “It’s a day at a time, a race at a time.”
The Tennessee native comes to the NRSC fresh from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, where he managed the relationship between the GOP nominee and the Republican National Committee (RNC), acting as a liaison between operatives working on the campaign’s victory program in 11 battleground states and the national party apparatus.
Coming off a difficult GOP nominating contest, with little time to launch a solid and effective national operation to take on President Obama’s campaign, Rich Beeson, Mitt Romney’s political director, said Ward was “a natural pick.”
“We knew that it was going to be an uphill battle. We knew we would never match the quantity, so we had to go with quality,” he said of Baker.
“He doesn’t get frustrated. He just continues to move forward. It’s a trait that, in a situation like a campaign, is incredibly helpful to have,” Beeson said.
The Romney campaign job required Ward to have daily communications with staff on the ground nationwide.
He tackled the massive projects with equally massive white boards in his office that he’d check daily to make sure the campaign was on track.
In his new role, Baker will allocate the NRSC’s budget, shifting resources as the map develops. He’ll also do much of the hiring for the committee’s independent expenditure arm and help shape the messaging and strategy needed to achieve the GOP’s 2014 goal of regaining the Senate majority.
Baker readily admits that, coming out of 2012, there are things the party needs to do differently, particularly in terms of expanding the GOP’s appeal.
“We’ve got to do a better job of reaching new voters. I agree with a lot of what [Louisiana Gov.] Bobby Jindal said. … We should not run away from our party,” he said.
Jindal charged during his keynote address at the RNC’s winter meeting that while the Republican Party shouldn’t change its values, it “might need to change just about everything else we are doing.”
Baker indicated that one of the biggest changes coming to the NRSC will be in recruitment.
“There are a lot of senators that have offered to help us recruit” besides the NRSC’s two vice chairmen, Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Ted Cruz (Texas), Baker said.
Baker is bringing a winning track record — and wealth of experience in hard-fought races — to the NRSC. But his career began in the military.
After graduating high school in Tennessee, Baker eschewed college in favor of joining the Marines. He was stationed at the 8th and I location on Capitol Hill as a member of the ceremonial drill team.
He credits his military training with giving him the self-discipline and team ethic that has guided him in his career in politics.
“It really shows you how much you can do in a day,” he said.
After leaving the Marines, Baker returned to Nashville and volunteered for state and local campaigns. He was given his first paid opportunity on a campaign by a close family friend, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), in 2002.
During that campaign, Blackburn said Baker was out on the trail with her every day. She says Baker came out understanding the importance of a good communications strategy and the “importance of an efficient ground game.”
“I taught him some tempering and some patience, and probably a little bit about perspective,” Blackburn told The Hill.
Following Blackburn’s campaign, Baker worked as an adviser for Mississippi Republican Haley Barbour’s 2003 gubernatorial campaign and for George W. Bush’s presidential reelection effort in 2004.
He joined the Republican State Leadership Committee in 2005, tackling state legislative, congressional, lieutenant governor and attorney general races.
In 2010, Baker helped Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), another family friend, pull out a primary win by less than 300 votes. From there, Baker served as senior adviser to Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign, overseeing its victory and voter contact program.
In his long career, however, Baker says no campaign stands out as his toughest.
“It seems like I’ve never been on an easy race,” he said, Romney’s presidential campaign included.
Rick Wiley, political director at the RNC and a close colleague of Baker’s during the Romney campaign, said Baker brings a much-needed dose of reality to a profession that so often relies on spin.
“He’s very no-nonsense. There’s no gray area. In my opinion, that is a unique quality in politics,” he said. “Candidates are going to appreciate that candor.”
Baker said that Democrats up for reelection “aren’t going to get free passes” in 2014, which is why the recruitment efforts will be pivotal.
But the NRSC faces challenges from within the GOP. Tea Party and grassroots Republican groups have accused the party establishment of attempting to overrule grassroots activists to anoint its preferred candidates.
Baker made it clear the committee will be careful not to overstep its bounds.
“In the primary, the state’s gotta choose the candidate. We’re not gonna be saying, ‘This is the guy we put our hand on,’ ” he insisted.
To ensure the success of the party, Baker is happy to spend long hours at the office — even sleeping at campaign headquarters when circumstances call for it.
Whenever possible, though, he tries to get home to have dinner with his wife, Jennifer, and give his 2-year-old daughter, Lillian, a bath.
“She’s why I work as hard as I do,” he says of his daughter. “I worry about the debt that I have, the way the country’s going. She’s part of my motivation.”