RNC’s Katie Walsh: A behind-the-scenes leader

RNC’s Katie Walsh: A behind-the-scenes leader
© Greg Nash

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus’s right-hand man is a young woman working her first election cycle as the RNC’s chief of staff.

Priebus and communications director Sean Spicer are the public faces of the RNC’s efforts to win the White House and protect a delicate conservative majority in the Senate.

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But behind the scenes, 31-year-old Katie Walsh is the top GOP operative responsible for ensuring that the party’s candidates, from presumptive presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE down, have the money, data and ground forces they need to defeat Democrats in the general election.

“She’s a 31-year-old woman running the RNC in, frankly, an old man’s world,” Spicer said. “She’s impressive.”

Walsh has been a fast riser.

The St. Louis native’s first political experience was as a high school intern for then-Sen. John Ashcroft’s (R-Mo.) reelection campaign in 2000. 

She credits a counterintuitive piece of advice from Ashcroft, who later became attorney general, for putting her in a position to succeed. Ashcroft told her to begin her career working for a long-shot presidential campaign that was destined to lose.

“He said, ‘At your age, you’ll learn more on a smaller campaign than you will on a larger campaign,’ ” Walsh recalled in an interview with The Hill at the RNC’s headquarters on Capitol Hill. “He was exactly right.”

Walsh, who cut her teeth as a college student putting out yard signs for former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt’s (R) successful 2004 gubernatorial bid, was picked up as an assistant to the finance director for actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (R-Tenn.) short-lived 2008 presidential campaign after graduating from George Washington University with degrees in finance and marketing.

There, Walsh said she was exposed to areas of campaign finance that might have otherwise been shut off to her in a larger campaign. It provided the experience she would need in her next — and biggest — gig as regional finance director for the McCain-Palin presidential campaign in 2008.

A series of increasingly high-profile jobs in the finance shops at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and RNC followed, as did accolades. She’s been named to The Washington Post’s 40 Most Interesting Women in Politics and Fortune magazine’s 40 Under 40 Women to Watch.

Walsh was promoted to chief of staff in early 2015, just in time for the rise of Trump and the wildest presidential election in recent memory.

“There’s an energy out there that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Walsh said. “We’re still curious to find out what it will all mean in November.”

As chief of staff, Walsh has been at the center of several forgotten 2016 storylines.

She was in the middle of the RNC’s efforts to smooth over relations with the Republican presidential campaigns after a full-scale revolt over the universally panned CNBC debate, which also led to a small-scale restructuring at the RNC. And she quietly prepared Republican operatives for a contested convention at a time when it appeared to be a real possibility.

Now, she’s the point person between the RNC and Trump’s top lieutenants: campaign manager Corey Lewandowski,
convention manager Paul Manafort and national political director Rick Wiley.

Wiley, who ran Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign and who joined the Trump campaign in April, is often overlooked in that trio of Trump advisers. 

Manafort and Lewandowski have drawn most of the attention amid rumors of a power struggle between the two.

But Wiley’s hiring was evidence that Trump is eager to bring professionals on board who are capable of connecting him to the party’s power centers, Walsh said, noting that Wiley served as Priebus’s national political director in 2012 and is still deeply connected at the RNC.

“He understands the [RNC] building at a core level, and that’s really helpful,” Walsh said.

The RNC and the Trump campaign appear to have patched up the differences they had earlier in the cycle, when the likely nominee accused the RNC of rigging the system against him and routinely threatened to launch a third-party bid if he wasn’t treated fairly.

Now, the focus is on making sure Trump has the money he needs to compete with Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE’s fundraising juggernaut for the pair’s likely meeting in the general election. Having never run for office before, Trump will essentially be building a national fundraising network from scratch.

That has some Republicans worried that their nominee — and down-ballot Republicans reliant on national party fundraising — will be out-gunned by Democrats in the fall.

Walsh, leveraging her connections from her time as deputy finance director for the NRSC and finance director for the RNC, is at the center of those efforts.

The RNC and the campaign signed a joint fundraising agreement last week that will enable Trump to raise money for GOP candidates nationwide.

On Tuesday, the campaign and the RNC announced a financial leadership team helmed by names like New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a former Jeb Bush supporter and fundraiser.

Walsh said the challenge is that most donors don’t have an established relationship with Trump the way they’ve had with past nominees.

But she said donors are seeing the energy Trump has brought to the nominating process and are eager to get to know him and contribute.

“The level of energy these donors have in terms of wanting to get to know him provides a unique opportunity for us to motivate these folks to take part in the process,” Walsh said. “They see how well Trump is connecting with the electorate, and they’re telling us they want to get to know this guy.”

Walsh’s other focus is on protecting the GOP’s fragile Senate majority. 

Republicans are defending 24 seats this year to Democrats’ 10. Many of the GOP’s incumbents are up for reelection in states President Obama won in 2008 or 2012.

For Walsh, that means putting a button on the three-and-a-half-year-long data analytics and ground operation initiative that Priebus has made the centerpiece of his chairmanship since the party was routed by Obama’s get-out-the-vote efforts in the last two elections.

Walsh holds weekly conference calls in battleground states with senators’ senior campaign officials — and Trump’s state directors — to coordinate lines of attack and plot expenditures.

“We’re supporting their operations and doing everything we can to take the burdens off of them,” Walsh said. “If we can put additional field staff on the ground or provide additional data or analytics or whatever we can do to help register voters.”

The RNC is on pace to set a fundraising record this cycle, having already raised $137 million. It isn’t sitting on its money, though. Walsh says the RNC has been pushing financial resources back into ground operations, leaving only $16 million in the bank — less even than the NRSC.  

Walsh said the RNC has 49 paid staffers on the ground in Ohio alone. At this point in the 2012 cycle, she said they only had one.

Walsh said she believes the RNC has finally caught up to Democrats’ long-standing advantage in investing in data and ground support.

“Just from the financial perspective and the ability to pay for it, the RNC has run circles around the DNC,” Walsh said, noting that the RNC has outraised the Democratic National Committee for 14 of the last 16 months.

And she gleefully noted that unlike DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, her boss, Preibus, doesn’t face a competitive primary challenge.

“He’s not a current officeholder,” Walsh said with a laugh. “That’s helpful.”