The hiring stage of the 2020 shadow primary is underway.
At least a dozen possible Democratic presidential candidates have begun bolstering their teams by adding aides with campaign experience to their Senate staffs, personal offices or 2018 reelection payrolls.
The hires are never explicitly advertised or designed to be about 2020. But the behind-the-scenes shuffle is a long-overdue stage in the traditional precampaign scramble. Potential candidates who have run before — like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden — largely have their core teams in place.
Yet in many other cases, chiefs of staff and senior strategists are now actively looking for new talent after receiving clear instructions from their bosses: I don’t know whether I’m going to run for president, but do everything you need to do to get me in position, just in case.
Recent moves have come in a variety of forms. Some consultants are working more than ever with potential candidates who are first up for reelection in 2018. Barack Obama’s former top digital strategist, Joe Rospars, for example, has been helping Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s team.
In other cases, aides who would likely be expected to play large roles in potential 2020 campaigns have moved on to top-tier midterm races for this election cycle, sometimes in a bid to gain even more experience. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s longtime aide Michael Halle is now running a gubernatorial campaign in Ohio.
And still other potential candidates have brought campaign veterans into their official offices: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker recently hired Tamia Booker (no relation) — Hillary Clinton’s national African-American outreach director in the 2016 general election and a veteran of the Obama administration and the 2016 Democratic convention — as his deputy chief of staff.
“Given the number of potential candidates running in 2020, it’s even more necessary to start early, because the political consultants tap out: There’s only so many of them. It’s a race to get the quality folks,” said Patti Solis-Doyle, the Democratic strategist who managed Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008. “It takes time to pull the team together: It takes time to really figure out whether you have the potential resources to run a national campaign, whether that’s national political support or the ability to raise money on a national level.”
By this point in 2016’s election cycle, Clinton’s core team had already been mapping out her political strategy for months, and Sanders’ top advisers were beginning to chart their own course.
“It’s time,” added Erik Smith, a former top aide to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, “to have a plan in place.”
Though they've mostly occurred behind closed doors, the moves paint a picture of a Democratic Party slowly but surely building up to a raucous primary contest. But desperate to avoid painting a Donald Trump-shaped target on their backs, the potential candidates have largely tried keeping almost all of their political maneuvers quiet — a significant break from the practice of recent election cycles, at least ahead of competitive multi-candidate primaries.
Eager to avoid the spotlight or appear to be looking beyond the midterms so early, few White House aspirants have ventured far into the early-voting state territory of Iowa or New Hampshire politics. Washington-based veterans of other national campaigns say that when the possible candidates call for advice, it’s seldom about primary state strategy, and more about top-line political guidance.
The relative circumspection is due largely to the massive list of Democrats considering a run: Dozens of pols have asked aides to look into what it would take to mount a real campaign, potentially stretching thin the staffing pool and leading political professionals to be extra-careful about signing on with any one possible candidate.
“Most cycles you’ve got maybe four or five people starting this early. What’s different isn’t what people are doing, it’s how many. I talked to another consultant yesterday who is keeping a tally, and he said 53 different people or their staff have already talked to them about how to make this work,” said veteran Democratic operative Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign manager. "But even if it’s really 15, that’s a big difference from other years.”
Meanwhile, Trump has also broken from precedent by publicly staffing up his reelection campaign team more than two years out, while his supportive super PAC also grows. This month he named 2016 digital strategist Brad Parscale his 2020 campaign manager, and assigned a handful of other former senior aides to new roles on his political team. Soon after, Parscale named former outside group spokeswoman Katrina Pierson and former Trump body man John McEntee senior advisers.
Almost all the activity has been concentrated in Washington and the possible candidates’ home states, as they seek to build their teams under the radar, often beginning at the campaign manager level and following with finance staff, communications strategists and ad staff. As a result, high level alums of previous campaigns report being inundated with requests to chat from potential candidates and their confidants, while Democratic staffer email listservs are frequently peppered with entries that could turn into presidential campaign postings.
“My biggest terror right now is that three or four of my clients might get into this thing,” said one Democratic strategist, echoing a sentiment shared by multiple others.
Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state who has hinted he might run, recently began advertising for a “Communications Director and Chief Speechwriter” to help guide strategy for both his voting rights group and Kander himself, according to a copy of the listing. Paying up to $120,000 per year, the job description notes, “We are looking for someone with at least five years of experience, and campaign experience is highly preferred."
“Behind the scenes, if you’re actually serious about this, you ought to be putting together a plan, you ought to have a sense of how you’re going to finance this, you’re recruiting money people, and you ought to put together — at least in your own head, even if you don’t hire everybody instantly — a coherent strategic team,” said Robert Shrum, who played senior roles on presidential campaigns, including Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s, for years.
Some senators in the 2020 conversation have added aides with national campaign experience in recent months, leading lawmaker colleagues to speculate about their ambitions. Others have seen their own senior aides jump onto other high-profile state-level midterm campaigns — a frequent tactic for staffers aiming to get more high-level experience before a presidential race. And some have hired a wide range of staffers for roles on 2018 reelection campaigns that could turn into 2020 jobs.
Warren, for example, still relies on much of her core political team that’s been in place since she was first elected in 2012, including media strategist Mandy Grunwald, a high-level aide to Clinton in 2008 and 2016. But she has also in recent months hired researchers tasked with digging into her own background and that of her 2018 opponents. Warren's been bolstering her digital campaign team, too, in addition to stepping up her work with Rospars, Obama’s top digital strategist in 2008 and 2012. And Warren’s longtime press aide Lacey Rose is now moving to Ohio, where she will lead communications for gubernatorial front-runner Richard Cordray.
Meanwhile, many former Clinton staffers have found work with potential candidates. California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose political team has long been led by California-based strategists Sean Clegg and Juan Rodriguez, stocked her official press staff with campaign alums when she first got to the Senate last year. That shop is headed by Lily Adams, who ran Clinton’s communications in Iowa before taking a senior role in her headquarters, while her press secretary is Tyrone Gayle, another communications aide for Clinton in Brooklyn. Kate Waters, a Clinton press staffer in Iowa under Adams, is also now working for Harris.
Booker’s hirin of his new deputy chief of staff came after he also brought on Kristin Lynch, Clinton’s communications director in battleground Colorado, as his press secretary after 2016. And Booker’s 2013 campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, who was Clinton’s national voter outreach and mobilization director, is now managing the campaign of California gubernatorial front-runner Gavin Newsom.
That move was comparable to the one made by Halle, a longtime top aide to McAuliffe who held senior roles for Clinton in Iowa, and for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Halle is now running Cordray‘s campaign.
In addition to Halle, McAuliffe‘s inner circle includes Josh Schwerin, another former senior Clinton communications official who previously worked for McAuliffe and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. McAuliffe left office this year.
Not every potential contender is stacking the payroll with new hires. Biden recently launched a new political group to fund his travel and political work for other candidates, but it is helmed by longtime aide Greg Schultz, while his political brain trust includes Democrats who have been at his side for years, like his former chief of staff, Steve Richetti, and strategist Mike Donilon.
Still others have used the launch of new political groups to build their teams.
Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro built a new PAC, and in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti is also amplifying his national political presence by starting a PAC and two related political nonprofits to supplement his increased travel to early-voting states.
After registering a new political group of his own in 2017, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock brought Tom Lopach — a Washington veteran and former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chief with close ties to donors nationwide — to Helena to serve as his chief of staff. And much of his political work has increasingly been run through Matt McKenna, a former Bill Clinton aide, and Nick Baldick, a veteran strategist with significant experience atop presidential campaigns, particularly in New Hampshire. Bullock’s ad makers, Clare Gannon and Mattis Goldman, remain in the fold, as well.
While Sanders’ political inner circle hasn’t changed much since the end of his 2016 run — it includes campaign manager Jeff Weaver, strategists Mark Longabaugh and Julian Mulvey, pollster Ben Tulchin, digital fundraiser Tim Tagaris and adviser Chuck Rocha. But Sanders has also watched as Our Revolution, the group built out of his campaign, has grown its political operations in key states across the country. And Sanders last year brought a pair of new senior advisers to his Senate office to help him work on his political ties in Washington, former Harry Reid aide Ari Rabin-Havt and, on foreign policy, Matt Duss.
Not all the potential candidates are being so hesitant to step into early-state politics with their staffing moves.
Kander, whose Let America Vote group has funded his unparalleled travel around the country in recent months, sent his two-time campaign manager, Abe Rakov, and his press secretary, Austin Laufersweiler, to work in Iowa in 2017, building up his presence in the first state in Democrats’ primary process. Now Brendan Summers, a top organizing official for the group and a senior alum of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, is in the process of moving to New Hampshire, the No. 2 state.
That just adds to the tally: Kander's national field director, Beth Tyson, and digital director, Suzy Smith, are settling into their new home — Nevada, the third.