Hitting the trail: Crowded field of Democratic campaigns staffs up

The campaigns looking to unseat President Trump are hiring staffers with media relations, digital, and even Instagramming skills.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Positioning for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2020 is well underway, and candidates are looking for communications staffers as they hit the ground in key states.

Kevin Lewis, a partner at Blue Engine + JDA, notes that most primetime Democratic candidates have hired senior communications staff for either exploratory committees or formal campaigns. Now they’re taking the next steps.

"They are actually staffing beyond their staff at the headquarters and staffing early vote states like Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire," says the former spokesperson for President Barack Obama and an early staffer for the one-time upstart candidate from Illinois. "Having the right staff in early states is almost as pertinent as staffing at the headquarters."

Doug Thornell, MD in Washington, DC, for SKDKnickerbocker, notes that staffers looking to join a campaign should be ready for the cold of Iowa or New Hampshire or the sunshine of South Carolina or Nevada.

"Some of the campaigns are adding staff to teams in the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire," said Thornell, who was a traveling press secretary for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. "How quickly they add to those teams depends in part on how fundraising is going and their early state strategy. In the coming months, most of the top-tier campaigns will have regional press teams, as well, and will continue to add staff to their teams in states like New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada."

What skills are in demand as the 2020 cycle gets fully in-swing? Good ‘gramming skills, for one, according to a spokesperson for one of the campaigns.

"Digital directors have been around multiple cycles, and they overlay with comms generally," the spokesperson said. "This cycle, I would say people need a one-man band, so to speak, who can do serious digital plays from the road. If 2008 was the Facebook election, 2012 expanded on that, 2016 was the Twitter election, then 2020 might just be the Instagram election. [It’s the] best platform yet to show exactly who you are."

Other experts mention experience, strong media-relations chops, people skills, the endurance to make it through a long presidential race, and, most importantly, the ear of the candidate.

"For the comms director, the person needs to be unflappable, organized, a strong leader, and flexible," says Thornell. "They also need to be able to work well with all of the other departments and have the trust of the candidate. That’s crucial."

Who have the candidates -- or those who might yet become candidates -- entrusted to run their campaigns? Scroll down for a list compiled from outside sources and the campaigns themselves.

Former Vice President Joe Biden
Obama’s VP is taking his time to decide if he’ll participate in this election cycle, according to The Washington Post. Politico suggested last year that Biden will start with communicators he’s worked with in the past, including strategist Mike Donilon.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg
While keeping his options open, Bloomberg is building an organization for a run. On the team is Jason Schechter, chief communications officer at Bloomberg LP, according to The Washington PostBloomberg has also brought on two communications staffers to handle political media requests until he decides if he is running. Paige Hill, who worked on Nashville Mayor Karl Dean's failed bid for Tennessee governor, and Molly Corbett, deputy communications director for Everytown for Gun Safety.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
The former Newark mayor has yet to announce many comms hires for his campaign, though he has brought on former Iowa Democratic Party comms director Tess Seger, according to Politico.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
Brown is another potential candidate who has caught the attention of the national press. Though he hasn’t announced, Politico reported that he has been staffing up for a 2020 run. According to LinkedIn, at least two staffers who worked on his successful 2018 Senate race are with him: deputy communications director Rachel Petri and press secretary Isabella Levy.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
The Navy veteran and the first openly gay candidate for president is just starting to add comms people to his campaign, says Lis Smith, senior comms adviser. "We’re adding a press secretary and others soon," she says.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Julian Castro
The member of Obama’s cabinet and former San Antonio mayor is an official candidate. His comms staff is comprised of Jennifer Fiore, senior adviser for communications and digital, and Sawyer Hackett, deputy national press secretary, according to a campaign spokesperson.

Rep. John Delaney (D-MD)
The member of Congress since 2012 is another officially declared candidate. His comms staff includes Rachel Potucek, deputy Iowa communications director; Michael Starr Hopkins, national press secretary; Ahmed Elsayed, press secretary; and Will McDonald, communications director, according to Iowa state director Monica Biddix.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)
Gabbard’s campaign had a rough start with staffers and advisers stepping down shortly after she said she is running, according to both CNN and Politico. Erika Tsuji was listed as a press contact on a release issued on January 27.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
According to Twitter, Gillibrand’s comms staff includes Meredith Kelly, communications director; Alexandria Phillips, traveling press secretary; and Evan Lukaske, national press secretary.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)
Harris’ campaign communications are being run by Lily Adams, who also ran comms for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign, according to Texas Monthly. Kate Waters, who was a Clinton press staffer in Iowa under Adams, is also on the campaign, according to Politico. The Kamala Harris for the People LinkedIn page lists other comms staffers including Ian Sams as national press secretary; Kirsten Allen as deputy national press secretary and African-American media director; and Ammar Moussa as press aide.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
Carlie Waibel is handling comms for declared presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, according to Twitter. The Minnesota senator has faced criticism for the way she treats staff.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX)
O'Rourke is an undecided who garnered national attention during his losing 2018 Senate race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). In January, Democratic strategist Becky Bond, who advised O’Rourke in his losing Senate bid, was talking to potential campaign hires, according to Politico. Chris Evans, comms director for Beto for Texas, still lists his job as communications director for O'Rourke on LinkedIn.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Sanders is tapping many of the resources he used in 2016, including strategists Mark Longabaugh and Julian Mulvey, according to Politico.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz
The businessman, who said he could run for president as an independent, has a staff in place. Schultz is being advised by Steve Schmidt, who worked on John McCain’s 2008 bid and at Edelman. His staff includes spokesperson Erin McPike, former Obama deputy press secretary Bill Burton, and Obama aide Tucker Warren, according to McPike.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
Warren has brought on Obama’s former top digital strategist, Joe Rospars, in addition to hiring campaign staffers for her national and Iowa campaigns, according to Politico and CNN.

Andrew Yang
The wealthy entrepreneur has set himself apart from other candidates with a call for basic universal income. The campaign is looking for a press secretary but has a spokesperson in Zach Graumann, who is also campaign manager.

And…
President Donald Trump
Trump 2020 campaign manager, and digital media director from 2016, Brad Parscale is planning to announce comms hires soon, according to CNBC. At least one Trump campaign veteran, Katrina Pierson, is already on board, according to Twitter.

Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, will serve as a senior adviser for the re-election campaign after coordinating strategic planning and digital communications for the campaign committee since early 2017, according to a campaign press release.

This story was updated on February 19 with additional information. 

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