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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 KerryOvernight Energy: Treasury creates hub to fight climate change through finance | Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez introduce 'Green New Deal for Public Housing' | Blinken says US falling behind China as global leader on climate change The shipping industry needs to move in line with the Paris Agreement 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 ClintonPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Cuba readies for life without Castro Chelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' 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 ObamaObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Polls suggest House Democrats will buck midterm curse and add to their ranks Boehner: Mass shootings 'embarrassing our country' 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 BookerBass 'hopeful' on passing police reform: 'Republicans that I am working with are operating in good faith' Progressive lawmakers press DHS chief on immigration detention Democrats battle over best path for Puerto Rico 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 HaganBiden's gun control push poses danger for midterms The two women who could 'cancel' Trump 10 under-the-radar races to watch in November MORE (D-N.C.) and Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThis week: Democrats move on DC statehood Lobbying world The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate 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 MarkeyEd MarkeyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults can get vaccine; decision Friday on J&J vax Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones calls on Breyer to retire Democratic senators call on Biden to support waiving vaccine patents MORE (D-Mass.), who ran campaigns for Sens. Gary PetersGary PetersHillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Bipartisan lawmakers signal support for Biden cybersecurity picks The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Let's make a deal on infrastructure, taxes MORE (D-Mich.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyRepublicans fret over divisive candidates Everybody wants Joe Manchin Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives 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 WarrenWorld passes 3 million coronavirus deaths Poll: 56 percent say wealth tax is part of solution to inequality Democratic senators call on Biden to support waiving vaccine patents 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 GillibrandIntelligence leaders warn of threats from China, domestic terrorism Jon Stewart accuses VA of being 'an obstacle' to burn pits medical care Family policy that could appeal to the right and the left 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 GoreHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 The information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all American Rescue Plan: Ending child poverty — let's make it permanent 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.”