It’s Iowa Caucus season, which means all of the top political staffers in the country have begun their migration from D.C. and battleground campaigns out to the Hawkeye state. Presidential candidates have aggressively courted campaign operatives with Iowa ties for months, and most of the top talent has already been snatched up.
Which Democratic contenders are putting together the largest operations? What networks are they pulling from? Who has the most people with key Iowa relationships?
Starting Line has been tracking the staffing scene for a while now, and we have finally put together a comprehensive look at how it’s all developing on the ground. We are also launching today our new 2020 Staffer Tracker, which lists every major staff hire for every candidate’s Iowa team. It’ll be updated periodically.
Let’s first set the scene for how this year’s caucus hiring is playing out, then go through each campaign.
Big Field, Different Considerations For Potential Staff
There’s no clear front-runner this time, so everyone applying for a caucus position realizes there’s a very good chance their candidate will lose. That’s actually freed up potential staff to be more choosy in where they go to work. Will I get to run my program the way I want with this candidate? Can I work with other people I like and build my own team? Is this a candidate I get along with personally? Will I get paid what I think I’m worth?
Still, even with that added freedom, a significant portion of the Iowa staffing talent is gravitating toward just a handful of campaigns.
John Delaney, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren start out with the largest, most impressive-looking teams. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand have both landed top Iowa talent and secured their leadership teams, but appear to be building out their operation in a slower, more measured way.
Given Bernie Sanders’ fundraising ability, he’s almost certain to join those candidates with a major field effort here, he just hasn’t gotten to that point yet.
Notably, Booker, Harris, and Warren all have multiple people on staff experienced enough to serve as a state director (some of whom are taking on dual national roles). That’s problematic for other Democratic candidates who have yet to get in the race. By Starting Line’s personal count, there’s only about three or four remaining operatives with deep Iowa experience that would be qualified to run a major caucus campaign. You can always bring in someone from out of state, of course, but the Iowa Caucus is all about relationships.
One other thing to remember is who isn’t running. It’s hard to overemphasize the impact of Tom Steyer’s decision to not run had on the staffing world. Steyer had by far the largest, long-running political ground game in Iowa thanks to his efforts with NextGen and Need To Impeach/Need To Vote. And Jason Kander built up a big field team here with his Let America Vote group. Staff loyal to those Democrats have since dispersed among the 2020 field.
Finally, no one really knows how the fundraising game will shake out with this many candidates. And no one wants to be this year’s Scott Walker – an early front-runner who hires a huge staff, then sees their money dry up, and has to drop out due to massive overhead costs. That may cause many of these other candidates to take a more cautious approach with the size of their Iowa teams.
Let’s now take a look at each individual campaign.
The Already Established
To give you a sense of how far ahead of the rest of the field John Delaney’s Iowa operation is, they’re opening their third Western Iowa field office in two weeks, out in Fort Dodge. Almost every other campaign doesn’t have an official headquarters yet.
Delaney has 25 staffers on the ground in Iowa, led by Monica Biddix, who’s worked at the IDP and ran a gubernatorial campaign in last year’s primary. Several Iowa hands are on board, including in their in-house digital department. John Davis, a longtime political consultant with deep Iowa ties, now runs the national campaign.
Field staff for Delaney were already placed around the state during the midterms, where they both built events for Delaney and helped out local Democrats, building relationships and good will there.
The fact that Delaney is self-financing part of his campaign ($4.5 million so far) certainly hasn’t hurt his recruitment efforts. Again, given the uncertainty of fundraising in this large field, no potential employee wants to be looking for a new job halfway through the caucus. Delaney is absolutely certain to stay in through the caucus no matter what happens.
Building Machines To Win
Senator Booker has put together quite the roster of top Iowa staffing talent. His extensive behind-the-scenes outreach during the midterms impressed a lot of party staff. Booker was also very helpful in directing money and staff to Democrats’ down-ballot candidates in 2018. Rishi Bharwani, who worked for Booker in past cycles, found his way to managing Amber Gustafson state senate race in Ankeny. He’s now one of Booker’s Iowa political directors.
The Booker team’s biggest strength in Iowa is their staff’s relationships with key activists and elected officials. Mike Frosolone, the recent Iowa House Democrats director, is Booker’s state director. He’s brought along most of his team, one that saw many wins in 2018. It wasn’t a surprise that the first Iowa legislative endorsement – Representative Amy Nielsen – went to Booker.
Joe O’Hern, who was Martin O’Malley’s caucus director and served as the Ohio coordinated director last cycle, also hired up a lot of his old team. Starting Line counts four Booker staff, including their organizing director Sarah Sterner, with recent Ohio experience.
Finally, Booker secured important parts of Steyer’s youth vote team. Haley Hager, the state director for NextGen in 2018, brought with her some former staff that were helpful in driving a record youth vote turnout in Iowa.
Starting Line can also the report the addition of a new round of Booker Iowa staffers:
Zach Bernstein, Deputy Organizing Director
Matthew Lee, Iowa Data Director
Rishi Bharwani, Iowa Political Director – East
Francesca Lucia, Iowa Political Director – West
Caroline Closson, Regional Organizing Director
Jacob Hamblin, Regional Organizing Director
Warren’s sprawling operation draws from a wide array of backgrounds. She has Brendan Summers, a longtime Iowa operative who was a top Bernie Sanders adviser, helping her national team. Also on board are Janice Rottenberg and Kane Miller, both veterans of Clinton’s campaign and Iowa races. There’s Jason Noble, the former Des Moines Register reporter and Jason Kander adviser. Emily Parcell is a top Iowa political consultant. And Dan Wasta, their political director, comes out of Iowa state senate campaigns and the State Treasurer’s office.
The senator herself aggressively courted top-tier staff early on, and her early launch helped lock down a number of talented Iowa operatives.
Rottenberg, the IDP’s coordinated director in recent cycles, has brought in some of her former proteges – Juliana Amin and Rachel Cowell – from the Clinton and Iowa Democratic Party campaigns to fill out what’s looking to be a very serious field operation.
Starting Line can also the report the addition of a new round of Warren Iowa staffers:
Emma Welsh-Huggins, Digital Director
Alex Barbieri, Data Director
Rachel Cowell, Iowa Deputy Organizing Director
Chelsea Carrier, Iowa Deputy Organizing Director
Off To A Strong Start
Gillibrand’s campaign operation pulls from the Fred Hubbell finance team (Lara Henderson and her former deputy Haley Barbour) and DCCC world (former Midwest communications director Rachel Irwin). Given Hubbell raised over $21 million for his campaign last year, that’s probably a good department to hire from. Some of Gillibrand’s national staff are also recent top DCCC operatives; the DCCC efforts and campaign styles were very noticeably improved in Iowa’s races in 2018, so that’s a good group for Gillibrand.
They’re now starting to put together their organizing effort, landing former Clinton caucus organizer and past IDP GOTV director Casey Clemmons as their caucus director. He should have a long rolodex of field staffers from around the country to interview.
The California senator landed one of the biggest and most important Iowa endorsements right off the bat with Deidre DeJear, the former secretary of state candidate who now serves as Harris’ Iowa campaign chair. She should be a very effective campaign surrogate out on the trail.
The rest of Harris’ team is largely comprised of people from Clinton world, both at the state and national level. Will Dubbs, their state director, served as Clinton’s Sioux City regional field director for the caucus in 2016. Part of the national communications team, including Lily Adams and Kate Waters, were Clinton’s Iowa press team. Their Iowa political director, Nora Walsh-DeVries, who brings a wealth of Iowa activist connections, started out with the Clinton caucus team. And the state communications lead, Miryam Lipper, worked for Tim Kaine and the Clinton campaign.
They also landed two top lieutenants from Steyer world. The aforementioned Walsh-DeVries worked on Need To Vote last cycle after running John Norris’ gubernatorial campaign, while Zack Davis has long been a key Iowa adviser to Steyer. Davis also oversaw a large Iowa field operation with Jason Kander’s Let America Vote in 2018, giving him lots of potential resumes to collect for Harris’ caucus effort.
Just Getting Started
Castro landed an important Iowa operative in Derek Eadon early on, selecting the former consultant and IDP chair as his national deputy campaign manager. They just announced Deide DeJear’s former campaign manager, Cynthia Sebian-Lander, as their state director. Marika Bresler, a talented operative who ran NextGen Iowa’s field operations and worked for Jason Kander’s senate campaign, joined up as Castro’s organizing director.
Iowa’s neighbor-state senator should have a lot of staff experienced in Midwestern campaigns to eventually fill out her Iowa team. For right now, Klobuchar starts off with Lauren Dillion, an Iowa native and veteran of both Iowa and national campaigns/committees.
Klobuchar also just announced former IDP Chair Andy McGuire as her state chair. Though McGuire came up short in the gubernatorial primary, something that went less-noticed was how well she courted and won over key constituency leaders within the party during her run. Those connections should help Klobuchar stay engaged with activists while she builds out her Iowa staff.
The best-selling author is running a decidedly different kind of campaign, and for that she’s got Brent Roske to come up with a creative plan for the Iowa Caucus. Roske, a film producer who’s lived in Des Moines since 2015, has accumulated a wealth of local contacts during his time in the state, including during a stint producing a political TV show about the last caucus. Roske also ran in the same 2014 California congressional race for Henry Waxman’s old seat that Williamson did.
Williamson’s team is already organizing a “virtual captain” strategy for all 99 counties to take advantage of the new virtual caucus option.
The businessman pushing the Universal Basic Income plan has an Iowa state director who saw just that program up close and personal. Jonathan Herzog, a second-year Harvard Law student who took a hiatus to work on Yang’s campaign, spent some years in Alaska where the state pays out dividends from the oil business to residents.
Waiting In The Wings
Two important members of Bernie Sanders’ Iowa Caucus team are already helping out the Ohio senator. Margaret Jarosz, who ran Pete D’Alessandro’s congressional campaign, and Zach Fang, who developed innovative text-messaging programs and worked for Kander’s Let America Vote, are Sanders alums keeping the Iowa fires burning while Brown makes his decision. If Brown does run, he’ll have Iowa native Sarah Benzing as his national campaign manager.
The former Colorado governor is essentially running already, he just hasn’t made it official yet. Guiding his Iowa efforts is Sam Roecker, a key Democratic consultant and former campaign manager for Patty Judge. Hickenlooper also has Ferguson Yacyshyn, the recent field director for the IDP’s coordinated campaign and a Clinton alum, tapped to eventually serve as his Iowa Caucus director.
Starting Line hears that Swalwell has hired at least six people for an Iowa Caucus team. Eddie Alvarez, a longtime labor organizer, has been out in Iowa for a couple months helping lay the groundwork here.
Swalwell has picked up several other staffers who worked in Iowa in 2018 thanks in large part to his frequent visits to Iowa during the midterms. He stopped by Western Iowa often (his family lived for a time in Algona) and built up connections with campaign workers out there.
The Montana governor’s PAC brought on Megan Simpson recently as their organizing director to lay the groundwork in Iowa. Simpson was the Montana Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign director and is a native of Dubuque.
Bullock’s early visits to Iowa impressed a lot of key operatives, so he’s one of the few long-shot candidates who could put together a serious team. The problem is timing. Bullock appears to be waiting for his state’s legislative session to end (May 1st), which could be too long for some top talent to wait. Fortunately, Bullock has the strong behind-the-scenes support of Attorney General Tom Miller and his political operation. That should help make up for a later start.
*As far as Starting Line knows, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Tulsi Gabbard do not have any Iowa-specific staffers in place yet.
Again, you can see every staffer placed in a more condensed version in our Staffer Tracker.
by Pat Rynard
Photo by Julie Fleming