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 KerryA lesson of the Trump, Tlaib, Omar, Netanyahu affair Trump's winning weapon: Time The Memo: O'Rourke looks to hit reset button 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 ClintonPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Hickenlooper announces Senate bid 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 ObamaTrump has 62 percent disapproval rating in new AP poll Rising Warren faces uphill climb with black voters Obama explains decision to get into movie business: 'We all have a sacred story' 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 BookerOvernight Defense: Two US service members killed in Afghanistan | Trump calls on other nations to take up fight against ISIS | Pentagon scraps billion-dollar missile defense program ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate Sanders targets gig economy as part of new labor plan 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 HaganTillis trails Democratic challenger by 7 points in North Carolina poll North Carolina businessman will challenge Tillis in GOP primary Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 MORE (D-N.C.) and Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterNative American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment House Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 Budget deal sparks scramble to prevent shutdown 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 MarkeyJoseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies MORE (D-Mass.), who ran campaigns for Sens. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersFBI Agents Association calls on Congress to make 'domestic terrorism' a federal crime Senators renew request for domestic threats documents from FBI, DOJ after shootings Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (D-Mich.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyLobbying world Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries 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 WarrenKrystal Ball: Elites have chosen Warren as The One; Lauren Claffey: Is AOC wrong about the Electoral College? Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster 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 GillibrandOvernight Defense: Two US service members killed in Afghanistan | Trump calls on other nations to take up fight against ISIS | Pentagon scraps billion-dollar missile defense program Sanders targets gig economy as part of new labor plan Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill 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 GoreOcasio-Cortez blasts Electoral College as a 'scam' 2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally Deregulated energy markets made Texas a clean energy giant 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.”