Seth Moulton is Focused on 2018, But What’s Next?

The Democrat has hired a leadership PAC director with presidential organizing experience.

Rep. Seth Moulton speaks during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines on Sept. 30.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Oct. 16, 2017, 8 p.m.

Seth Moulton’s mind is on the midterms. But if he wants to explore beyond that, he’s got the right Rolodex.

The second-term congressman from Massachusetts’s North Shore regularly dials Democratic strategists and calls on generals—usually David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal—for advice. In 2014, when he needed a mood check for his first House bid against Republican Richard Tisei, he enlisted longtime party pollster Mark Mellman to run the numbers.

Moulton, a Harvard graduate who served four tours in Iraq, has academics, veterans, and some political pros all around him. And amid early speculation about numerous potential presidential candidates, he has the national media’s attention and a profile growing well beyond the Bay State borders.

“He’s not surrounded by a bunch of typical people that are disconnected from the country,” said Emily Cherniack, the founder and executive director of New Politics, an outfit that recruits service veterans. “He really listens to real people like voters.”

Moulton’s allies all say he seeks out “service-minded” people and currently has a group around him with significant public-service experience. They have also organized and staffed national presidential campaigns for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, and John Kerry, among others. At least one has White House experience.

For a House member decidedly focused on 2018, his inner circle could also be helpful for other future pursuits.

“He’s gotten some people who’ve been involved in major campaigns who’ve been talking to him,” said an informal adviser to Moulton.

National Journal has learned that Moulton recently hired Michelle Kleppe to serve as the executive director of Serve America PAC, the congressman’s effort to recruit veterans to run for elected office.

Kleppe’s hire to run the leadership PAC checks several boxes in national politics: She served as national organizing director for Clinton’s presidential campaign and was her field director in Iowa before that. She also helped organize Obama’s election effort in battleground Wisconsin. “I love the Midwest,” Kleppe’s Twitter bio reads.

Multiple Moulton advisers point out that an event in September raising money for the PAC’s 12 endorsed candidates brought in $600,000, with each candidate receiving roughly $45,000. That is tangible evidence that Moulton is on the front lines of the party’s effort to win back the House.

But Kleppe was also instrumental in coordinating Moulton’s visit to Iowa last month, when he headlined the Polk County Steak Fry—a revival of former Sen. Tom Harkin’s Democratic fundraiser—along with Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Cheri Bustos of Illinois.

Moulton, who turns 39 next week, reported $1.5 million in his campaign account as of the end of September. He has shied away from claims that his movement resembles presidential prep work, but not everyone is convinced.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of campaigns,” said a party official in Iowa who was at the event. “You can just tell who’s preparing.”

Andrew Brau, a Democratic activist in Iowa who helped plan the event’s media coverage, recalled the muscle behind Moulton’s team. “They were very organized as far as making sure they knew exactly what they were walking into,” he said, noting he worked with them for about two months.

Moulton’s informal adviser recalls jumping on multiple phone calls in which a handful of observers discussed his political strategy. He said the conversations focused primarily, but not exclusively, on 2018.

One Boston-based Democratic consultant with decades of campaign experience, who is not aligned with Moulton, said a perception of the congressman is that his aspirations reach well beyond Congress.

But Jake Cusack, a friend who knows Moulton through the Marines and graduate school at Harvard, says Moulton’s moves aren’t necessarily politically motivated.

“I’ve seen him go against the majority of his friends and advisers when he feels it’s the right thing to do,” Cusack said. “Even if there’s a political cost.”

Still, if national ambitions were in the cards down the line, Moulton could consult one of a number of nationally focused operatives currently within his orbit.

In addition to Kleppe, Joe Trippi—who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and worked for other national candidates ranging from Edward Kennedy to John Edwards—is a phone call away.

“I was one of the early people who wanted to help him run for Congress,” Trippi said, recalling a core group of about six people advising Moulton at that time. Trippi says they still talk regularly.

On staff, Carrie James Rankin, Moulton’s communications director, who worked with him before his congressional bid, was part of John Kerry’s traveling press team in 2004. His press secretary, Matt Corridoni, was on the road with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley—traveling through Iowa—during last year’s presidential election. And Jeremy Joseph, his chief of staff, was Joe Biden’s deputy counsel in the White House.

As Moulton’s name continues to draw attention, his confidants with both tactical-campaign and public-service credentials could help him navigate a wide range of scenarios and issues across the political spectrum.

The day before traveling to socially conservative Iowa, for example, he weighed in on the issue of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem at sports events to protest police brutality, saying, “It doesn’t make me feel good to see people disrespecting the flag,” while adding, “I also swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.”

And in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting, the Marine Corps veteran has made guns a top priority, introducing legislation with Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida last week to ban “bump stocks,” devices that help semiautomatic weapons fire at accelerated speeds.

Issues involving constitutional rights, patriotism, and protest are in the sweet spot of Moulton’s service-centric agenda, where allies largely say he should stay.

And while “many people around Seth think he might be a better executive,” Moulton’s informal adviser said there’s something else he needs to do first.

“The best thing to do right now is to help earn some races for the Democrats.”

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