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 KerryMellman: Do debates matter? President Trump faces Herculean task in first debate Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose 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 ClintonTrump crowd chants 'lock her up' about Omar as president warns of refugees in Minnesota Democrats say Biden survived brutal debate — and that's enough Comey defends FBI Russia probe from GOP criticism 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 ObamaUnseemly brawl unlikely to change a thing It's now up to health systems to solve our food problems Testing the Electoral College process against judicial overreach 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 BookerPreventing next pandemic requires new bill's global solutions Meeting Trump Supreme Court pick a bridge too far for some Democrats Warren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' 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 HaganThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's job approval erodes among groups that powered his 2016 victory MORE (D-N.C.) and Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court removes Pendley from role as public lands chief | Pendley court ruling could unravel Trump's public lands decisions | 1 in 4 adults cite climate change in decision not to have children Pendley court ruling could unravel Trump's public lands decisions 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 MarkeySen. Markey hopes new documentary will shed light on Alzheimer's Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 MORE (D-Mass.), who ran campaigns for Sens. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Postmaster general says postal service can't return mail-sorting machines The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power MORE (D-Mich.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Trump taps Amy Coney Barrett for Supreme Court, setting up confirmation sprint 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 WarrenWarren slams Trump over Proud Boys comments Ocasio-Cortez, Warren pull out of New Yorker Festival amid labor dispute The Hill's Morning Report - Fight night: Trump, Biden hurl insults in nasty debate 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 GillibrandMeeting Trump Supreme Court pick a bridge too far for some Democrats Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election 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 GoreUnseemly brawl unlikely to change a thing Mellman: Do debates matter? Compromise, yes — but how? A pre-debate suggestion 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.”