It’s tradition for the next campaign to begin as soon as the election is over. And so it will be this year, with one major difference for the Republican Party: It’s not clear who’s going to run all these campaigns, and yet staffing is key to securing primary and general election victories.
The floodgates will be opened as soon as this week for tons of GOP candidates, and consultants from outside of Trumpworld, to enter the arena ahead of the 2024 presidential contest. Some, such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, have already begun stealth campaigns, doing “Trump”- and “party”-boosting events on the 2020 campaign trail (not so coincidentally, in Iowa and New Hampshire). But who, in the end, will run — and whom will they hire?
After all, the GOP is at an unusual crossroads.
Typically, the outgoing campaign reveals a number of consultant and staffer “stars” who, if not actual celebrities, are so highly regarded for their skill set that they enter the next contest in extraordinarily high demand. But exiting the Trump era will be different. Unlike previous GOP campaigns, the 2016 and 2020 Trump campaigns have been dominated — micromanaged, even — by the president, his immediate family, and his trusted inner circle, many of whom come from outside the traditional political establishment (and a number of whom were unceremoniously fired, indicted, or otherwise discarded). This means there are few, if any, “must have” staffers or consultants from the Trump team heading into 2024.
Then there’s the old guard. President Trump’s hard break with the party establishment precipitated the exiting of the party by many veteran presidential campaign fixtures. Others have simply been out of the campaigns game for a full four or more years now, so hiring them carries a risk of staffing up with outmoded, out-of-touch figures. All of this means there are fewer real hotshot carryover staffers and consultants for the next crop of candidates to pick and choose from.
Campaign watchers in and around the party are less than enthusiastic about this situation, especially as it could affect early state primary and caucus fights.
In talking to top political reporters and operatives in early states (New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada) especially, one hears this message pretty consistently: “The GOP here has no up-and-coming, rising talent.” Emblematic of this is one New Hampshire GOP veteran who told me, “There are no good young operatives. There are no good young people. They’re all garbage.”
Harsh, to be sure. But turn to states where Republicans have delivered unexpected wins since 2016, and it gets easier to spot the next generation of consultants whose names may be on all our lips, and are already on the minds of likely 2024 contenders, because they are solid professionals who add real, demonstrable value in tough races.
Iowa this year delivered a number of surprises and is the one early state where there is genuine up-and-coming talent. Not coincidentally, that talent was involved in surprise 2020 congressional victories. Jimmy Peacock, who moved to Iowa as part of the Marco Rubio campaign in 2016 and stayed put, was campaign manager for Ashley Hinson — the winner in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, a race universally regarded as extremely tough. Elsewhere in the state, Matt Leopold has made a mark. Iowa’s 2nd-District fight remains too close to call, but the seat has been occupied by Democrat Dave Loebsack, who first won it in the 2006 election. If it goes to Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who is currently ahead by about 300 votes, Leopold will deserve credit. However, it’s his work in Iowa’s 4th, Rep. Steve King’s old district, where he’s really won admiration. Leopold was key in enabling Randy Feenstra to beat King in a primary, leveraging his Dutch heritage to run up numbers in Dutch areas of northwest Iowa and, according to Craig Robinson, author of the Iowa Republican blog, “essentially steal King’s [northwest] Iowa base.” If Rubio runs again in 2024, presumably he has the inside track on locking down Peacock, but both Peacock and Leopold will be heavily courted.
In 2018 in Georgia, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Stacey Abrams by 50.2% to 48.8% in what turned out to be a rare piece of good news for the GOP in a tough midterm cycle. Behind the victory was Joel McElhannon, whom one Georgia political reporter described as having “masterminded Kemp’s 2018 victory.”
McElhannon is not new to politics; Erick Erickson, the Georgia-based radio host and political commentator, described him in an email as having “been established in Georgia for some time.” But his chops there will now make him attractive to national campaigns. Of course, if Kemp should decide to run for president, presumably McElhannon, and his partner Ryan Mahoney — another major figure in Kempworld also considered to be among the very smartest operatives in Georgia — will be off-limits to other would-be contenders. That pairing on a Kemp presidential campaign, plus Kemp’s conservative bona fides but relative distance from Trump, could make the Georgia governor a strong contender in 2024 if he wins reelection in two years.
Another Georgia name who hasn’t quite made it to national politics yet is Brian Robinson, a former top aide to Gov. Nathan Deal. One Georgia political reporter said Robinson “understands messaging and Republican politics. And he’s poised to help the transition if Trump doesn’t win another term.” That quality will probably be in demand very shortly, and McElhannon, Mahoney, Robinson, and veteran Georgian GOP consultant Nick Ayers, who has worked for Vice President Mike Pence but maintains close relationships with a bunch of top-flight GOP names, both current and yesteryear, could make Georgia the hot recruiting ground for 2024 candidates.
Florida is another state that saw the GOP bank unexpected wins in 2020, and in 2018, between Gov. Ron DeSantis’s victory and Sen. Rick Scott’s decisive win over former Sen. Bill Nelson.
Views on DeSantis’s operation are divided. Some credit Trumpworld with taking over his campaign; others suggest the DeSantis operation was always stronger than polling made it look, just as Trump’s 2020 Florida operation was. Those polls also seem to have missed a bunch of voters who turned out for Scott. As of Election Day 2018, the RealClearPolitics polling average in that Senate race gave Nelson a 2.4-point advantage; Scott won by 0.2 points.
Both DeSantis and Scott are expected to run for president in 2024, and if they do, it’s unlikely anyone else is getting a hold of their prized advisers who helped deliver these surprise wins.
In DeSantis’s case, fundraisers, lobbyists, and business partners Nick Iarossi and Scott Ross, known in Florida politics but not nationally, could be a boon, especially financially. The DeSantis-Gillum race saw $106 million raised between the two camps. But at the end of the day, DeSantis edged Andrew Gillum by a full million. Iarossi and Ross deserve at least some of the credit for that. Ross was also considered by DeSantis for the chief of staff position, a show of trust in Ross.
Brian Ballard, who threw his lot in with Trump early in the 2016 cycle, also will be a name to watch in terms of Florida fundraising. He chaired DeSantis’s inaugural committee, but before that, he also chaired the inaugural committees of both Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist (remember him?). Ballard is capable of being a political chameleon, and the GOP is going to need a few of these after this year.
Scott, meanwhile, took his senatorial campaign staff to Washington with him, and it’s likely they’ll stay on the team and off-limits to other candidates if he runs. Names to know include Craig Carbone and Chris Hartline, who respectively served as Scott’s political director and spokesman during the Senate campaign.
But perhaps the name to watch most out of Florida is Ryan Tyson. One top reporter with deep expertise in Florida politics said that Tyson “has produced the state’s best data work” and “has no comparison in this state.” The former vice president of Associated Industries of Florida, the state’s powerful business lobby, he is also extraordinarily well-connected and probably a little (or a lot) feared by the Left. Florida Democratic consultant Steve Vancore said of Ryan that “his intellect is matched only by his incredible capacity to question everything, to guess at nothing, and to demand excellence of himself and everyone around him.” Vancore added that “to call Ryan a rising star would be to underestimate his current impact as well as his future potential.” That political reporter agrees, saying that Tyson, the “son of working class parents from rural Florida,” is “intellectually curious, quite conservative but not doctrinaire and has a good sense of humor.” A bonus for whoever nabs him: While Tyson is a data guy, he’s also adept at fundraising, and tightly marrying data to message.
Farther west, conservative activists look to Gregg Keller. The former executive director of the American Conservative Union is not exactly new to national politics but has played a more behind-the-scenes role when working outside of his home state. Keller is well-regarded in part because of his willingness to pick fights with his own party: His firm’s website describes him as having “led the effort to impeach his home state Governor, a member of Gregg’s own political party, Eric Greitens, who was accused of sexual coercion, blackmail, stealing from a charity and a school, and various other offenses.” But that wasn’t the only high-profile effort keeping Keller busy in 2018: He also advised then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley on the Senate campaign that saw him trounce Sen. Claire McCaskill by almost 6 points, when tons of GOP observers worried that Hawley would not be able to displace the two-term incumbent. Some observers credit Keller, especially, for that result. Hawley could well run for president in 2024; he’s certainly a rising star in the GOP and the major figure driving the party’s war on Big Tech. If he gets and keeps Keller onside, it will help boost him even more with the base.
Finally, we come to Jason Johnson, whom the Texas Tribune’s Jay Root described in 2012 as a “scrappy East Texas native with a touch of mad genius.” Like these other strategists, Jason is not new to politics per se. Also like them, he has up until now really focused on his home state and not moved in a national direction. But that is probably about to change.
Johnson started his true political ascent heading up now-Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign for attorney general. Since 2011, he has advised Sen. Ted Cruz, who says Johnson “has a deep, analytical sense for politics and an instinctive sense about people.”
Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign presented Johnson’s main foray onto the national stage, as chief strategist, but Johnson has also advised Rep. Chip Roy, Cruz’s former chief of staff who successfully eked out a tight race for Congress in 2018 and another that was expected to be tough this year against liberal firebrand Wendy Davis (as of this writing, Roy is winning by about 7 points). If Cruz runs again in 2024, expect to hear a lot more about Johnson; if he doesn’t, expect Johnson to get a lot of offers from others entering the fray.
Because of the dearth of fresh talent in early states, barring Iowa, any presidential campaigns on which these figures land will necessarily be populated with or even dominated by Bush, McCain, Romney, and maybe a smattering of lower-level Trump aides, too. In Iowa, expect Robert Haus and David Kochel to be top gets still. In New Hampshire, expect to keep hearing names such as David Carney, Mike Dennehy, Patrick Hynes, and Amelia Chasse. In South Carolina, the usual, established firms will likely pick sides in a primary and fight.
But as the fresher faces who bring a firsthand understanding of states whose political profile is changing rapidly (Georgia, Texas, Iowa, and Missouri) and a state that is perennially swingy (Florida), these will be the key, lesser-known names who may send successful post-Trump GOP candidates surging in what could become a very different Republican Party. Watch them — and who hires them. It could be the key to figuring out the candidate the Republican Party will nominate in 2024.
Liz Mair is the founder, owner, and president of Mair Strategies LLC and a former adviser to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Rand Paul, Gov. Rick Perry, and Carly Fiorina. In 2008, she served as the Republican National Committee’s first and only online communications director, and a spokeswoman.
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