The battle for the House majority will rage across the country next year. And few groups will wield more influence on those races than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Here are five staffers from each who will play a critical role in those campaigns.
Kelly Ward, executive director, DCCC
Working in politics is never easy. But few times in recent history has a job been more taxing than running the Democrats’ incumbent-protection program during the 2010 conservative sweep, when Republicans retook the House majority. But that’s the position Ward held. It taught her plenty about politics and how to run House races.
“We went to school on incumbent protection that year,” Ward said.
And the biggest lesson learned? “Don’t take it for granted that you’re going to be safe. Your race could come into play at any moment,” she said.
Ward got her start in Arizona politics—serving in Gov. Janet Napolitano’s administration—before jumping to Massachusetts during the 2008 campaign to work with nonprofit groups and later on the special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Last cycle, she served as the DCCC’s political director before earning a promotion late last year to mastermind the group’s 2014 efforts.
Her focus now is preparing the committee for next year’s midterm races. “Can I tell you we’re going to take the House? No. But are we going to have all fundamentals in place ... in case the opportunity presents itself? Yes.”
Jessica Furst Johnson, general counsel and deputy executive director, NRCC
Most lawyers tell political operatives what they can’t, legally speaking, do. Furst Johnson, however, views her job a little differently: She serves as the NRCC’s general counsel—advising the committee on everything from campaign finance to election law—to tell the committee’s political staff what they can do.
“I think one reason that attorneys in general get such a bad rap is they say ‘no’ a lot,” says Furst Johnson, who joined the NRCC in early 2009. “The fun part of my job is how to get to ‘yes,’ legally. That allows the political and communications people to do what they need to do to win races.”
That difference in perspective is no accident, she says. Furst Johnson started her career working in Florida politics—interning with Gov. Jeb Bush and working under former Rep. Katherine Harris—before attending law school at the University of Florida. She understands the difficult nature of working those kinds of jobs, whether because of the “long hours” or “terrible food.” Even if she no longer works in that field, her goal is still the same: Elect Republicans.
“Even if I’m in the general counsel, my job is still the same as everyone else’s job,” she said. “I just do it a little differently.”
Daniel Scarpinato, national press secretary, NRCC
Scarpinato is that rarest of thing among Republicans: a former reporter. The Tucson, Ariz., native worked at the Arizona Daily Star (he covered Democratic former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s campaign for state Senate) before joining the staff of some local Republicans. In 2011, he became a regional press secretary for the NRCC before being promoted to national press secretary in January.
That background gives him a unique perspective among many Republican communication operatives. And his peers like to take advantage: House Republican members and GOP congressional challengers will often ask him how to handle reporters. “One thing I’ve always done is stepping back into the reporter role and asking the tough question they’re going to get,” he said. “That really helps people prepare for dealing with it.”
The key, he added, is treating the media with respect. “I remember being a reporter, and getting people who were overreacting to stories,” he said. “A lot of the times it was Democrats, yelling about a story or being upset about being a story. I try to bring to it that experience and understand that when you create an adversarial relationship with a reporter, it’s not going to help you, it’s not going to help them.
“The relationship is really critical, and you have to have credibility with them. Otherwise, you’re not going to be effective at what you do.”
Jesse Ferguson, communications director and deputy executive director, DCCC
It’s not often that political committees feature veteran staffers. But that’s the case with Ferguson, who started with the DCCC late in the 2010 cycle and served as the national press secretary during the past two years.
His experience gives Ferguson, who got his start in Virginia politics, a different perspective this time around—particularly when it comes to the hard work necessary to be successful winning House races across the country. As he put it, it’s a great job “if you’re OK with waking up at 2 a.m. to check your e-mail.”
“Nothing is more valuable than sweat equity,” he said. “You have to be committed to what you’re doing, because the time and energy you put in is going to take everything else out of you.”
Working at the DCCC wasn’t a lifelong dream of Ferguson’s—in fact, he entered college at William & Mary a Republican. Now, however, he’s helping craft a message that Democrats can use to retake the House majority. The key, he’s learned, is staying aggressive.
“I think that one of the truths I’ve come to learn over the course of being there is that if you’re not on offense, you’re losing. Call it my experience in the 2010 cycle.”
Chris Georgia, deputy digital director, NRCC
How did a finance major from the University of Minnesota who worked as a business consultant to medical organizations like the Mayo Clinic end up as a deputy digital director at the NRCC? According to Georgia, who joined the Republican political committee in January, the two fields have two important things in common: data and critical thinking. Determining how to better incentivize worker pay relies on the same skill set as building models that show what certain voters think.
Those are valuable skills for a GOP that is desperately trying to close the perceived “tech gap” it faces against Democrats. For Georgia, who worked at the American Action Network last cycle, it’s both a challenge and a great opportunity to help the Republican Party catch up.
“You have to constantly learn and stay on your toes,” he said. “And there was a lot of critical thinking involved in all of that. How are we going to use those tools and win races? That’s not something that was thought a lot about two or four years ago.”
The NRCC is already showing some results. Its redesigned website is built to export viral-marketing material, in the vein of popular sites such as BuzzFeed, and just last week it released a new six-second online ad, known as a “vine,” that drew notice across the political spectrum. “We have serious challenges that we’re facing,” he said, “but I look at all of those as opportunities for us.”
Hot Seats is a weekly series highlighting significant staff positions in the 113th Congress. To suggest a position or staffer for the list, please tweet to @NJLeadership or e-mail Managing Editor Kristin Roberts at email@example.com.
This article appears in the April 15, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as 5 Staffers to Watch in the DCCC and NRCC.