2020 Dems compete for top campaign operatives

2020 Dems compete for top campaign operatives
© Greg Nash

Democrats considering bids for the White House in 2020 are already busy wooing the few party operatives qualified to manage a national campaign.

Nearly two full years before the Iowa caucuses, several potential candidates have already begun lining up the aides and advisers who could guide them to the White House.

Others are in competition to secure top talent, and insiders describe it as the best parlor game in Democratic circles right now. 

“The first contest of the invisible primary is for political talent,” said David Wade, who served as a senior aide to then-Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryKerry: Trump attacks on Biden are 'unbecoming of a president' Congress has five ways to show American power against Russia Sunday shows preview: Questions linger over Trump-Putin summit MORE (D-Mass.) during the 2004 presidential race. “Everyone will be competing over the same universe of operatives.”

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Managing a modern presidential campaign and its thousands of employees in a dozen or more states is akin to serving as the CEO of a major corporation — but one that grows at the pace of a Google or Facebook.

“Campaigns are a start-up, and as a manager, you’re responsible for making sure it’s viable every day,” said Robby Mook, who managed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCarter Page warrant reflects attack on our civil liberties Former Obama aide to Comey: 'No one is asking for your advice' Comey to Dems: 'Don't lose your minds and rush to the socialist left' MORE’s campaign in 2016.

“These campaigns are going to start small and they’re going to grow big,” said Mook. “There’s a point where you go from being a primary candidate to the nominee, and there’s an enormous growth there that can be really, really challenging.”

Some party operatives with broad experience managing big organizations are seen as top targets for 2020 contenders.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee who served as deputy manager for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSpicer maintains Trump inauguration had biggest audience in history Montana governor raises profile ahead of potential 2020 bid Trump was right to ditch UN’s plan for handling migrants MORE’s reelection bid in 2012, is an oft-mentioned candidate to run a top-tier campaign. She was the runner-up to Mook for managing Clinton’s campaign in 2016. 

Also in the top tier are Elizabeth Pearson, who heads the Democratic Governors Association; Alixandria Lapp, who founded the House Majority PAC; Guy Cecil, a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) executive director who now heads Priorities USA Action, the Democratic super PAC; and Jessica Post, who runs the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

With dozens of potential candidates considering White House bids, a new generation of top operatives are likely to be called upon as well.

Many of the next generation of potential managers are spending the 2018 cycle bolstering their résumés to demonstrate that they have experience running large organizations on their own. Running a major campaign with a huge budget is seen as a necessary precursor to a presidential campaign bid.

Several Democrats pointed to Anne Caprara, who served as executive director of Priorities USA Action. Caprara is running billionaire investor J.B. Pritzker’s race for governor of Illinois; Pritzker won the Democratic nomination on Tuesday.

Two operatives managing gubernatorial races in California are also seen as potential future presidential-level managers: Addisu Demissie, who ran Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerKavanaugh returns questionnaire to Senate panel Booker calls on Kavanaugh to recuse himself on Trump-related cases Anti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House MORE’s (D-N.J.) campaign in 2013, now works for California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race to succeed term-limited Gov. Jerry Brown. And Preston Elliott, who managed races for former Sen Kay HaganKay Ruthven Hagan2020 Dems compete for top campaign operatives Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Politics is purple in North Carolina MORE (D-N.C.) and Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterTrump Jr. to hold fundraiser for Manchin challenger History argues for Democratic Senate gains Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria MORE (D-Mont.), is running state Treasurer John Chiang’s (D) gubernatorial bid, also in California.

Others pointed to Paul Tencher, chief of staff to Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocrats slam Trump for considering Putin’s ’absurd’ request to question Americans Hillicon Valley: Mueller indicts Russians for DNC hack | US officially lifts ZTE ban | AT&T CEO downplays merger challenge | Microsoft asks for rules on facial recognition technology | Dems want probe into smart TVs Dems push FTC to investigate smart TVs over privacy concerns MORE (D-Mass.), who ran campaigns for Sens. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Dem senator: Kavanaugh sides with 'wealthiest special interests' Judge on Trump shortlist boasts stint on Michigan's high court MORE (D-Mich.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains Polling analyst: Same Dems who voted for Gorsuch will vote for Kavanaugh Pollster: Kavanaugh will get Dem votes MORE (D-Ind.); or Patrick McHugh, who succeeded Caprara at Priorities USA Action. 

Several potential candidates are likely to tap long-serving aides who have experience running major organizations. 

Mindy Myers, who managed Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOn The Money: Trump 'ready' for tariffs on all 0B in Chinese goods | Trump digs in on Fed criticism | Lawmakers drop plans to challenge Trump ZTE deal On The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee Dems fume as Trump's consumer bureau pick refuses to discuss role in border policy MORE’s (D-Mass.) successful run in 2012, now heads the DSCC, where she can build relationships with donors and activists in key states ahead of Warren’s likely bid.

Sources said Jess Fassler, chief of staff to Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia Trump: ‘Dems have a death wish’ Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas MORE (D-N.Y.), would likely move over to Gillibrand’s political operation if and when the time comes. 

Simply plucking a top-tier operative to manage a race won’t be sufficient for success, several strategists said, especially if the manager and the candidate don’t mesh. Mook said the manager and the candidate have to build a deep relationship to be a success.

“They need to have a real bond with that person, because the campaign is so big and there’s so much going on that they genuinely have to delegate running the campaign to that person, and in some ways the manager needs to be an extension of the candidate, of their voice, of what kind of leader they want to be,” Mook said. “So that relationship is really important in that respect.”

Chris Lehane, who served as a senior aide to Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAl Gore warns of 'ominous' record-breaking heat Colbert to Kennedy on retirement: Don't tell me your mind's going because 'you never had one!' Budowsky: Obama remains AWOL for Dems MORE during his 2000 presidential run, equated finding the right campaign manager with finding a starting quarterback in the NFL.

“There are a lot of people who think they can play the position but not a lot who can play it well,” he said. “There are only a number of people who have run a presidential campaign and the people who have done it very rarely come back to do it again.”

“All that said, there’s nothing that really prepares someone for the job,” Lehane said. “It’s an exercise unlike anything else you’ve ever done. And the nature of the game changes every four years.”