Staffing up on the trail: Meet the top comms staffers on 2020 Democratic campaigns

New this election cycle: An emphasis on communications for small-dollar donations.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

The Democrats with their eyes on the White House have stocked their campaign teams with political operatives, digital strategists, former journalists and even a few corporate social media experts in the hope of winning their party’s nomination and ousting President Donald Trump next year. 

While most campaigns had their senior communications staff in-place by the spring, some are still making high-profile hires. One recent hire is PRWeek 40 Under 40 2017 honoree Alencia Johnson, who left Planned Parenthood after six years to join Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) team as director of public engagement, which was also one of her roles at the women’s healthcare organization. 

Hari Sevugan, former national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee and one-time spokesperson for President Barack Obama, tweeted on Thursday that he has joined the campaign of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Sevugan is serving as deputy campaign manager for brand and media for the Navy veteran and first major openly gay presidential candidate. 

Johnson and Sevugan will probably be among the last major campaign comms hires -- at least until some candidates drop out of the crowded race, says Mark Penn, managing partner of Stagwell Group and CEO of MDC Partners. "The teams should be pretty much in place, with the exception that as candidates drop out, people will move over to another candidate," he says. 

Penn, a former key adviser to President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, notes that in this election cycle, some campaigns are looking to the corporate world to find social media expertise. "With something like social media, where there isn’t the depth of experience built up as is the case with political advertising, you will see campaigns with people from the corporate side, and they could end up being very successful in the role," he says. 

Penn adds that Democratic campaigns could also see the emergence of an agency or expert in small-dollar fundraising communications, like Republican Zac Moffatt, the former digital director for 2012 Republican standard-bearer Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and CEO of agency Targeted Victory. 

"The biggest change I’ve seen related to online outreach is low-dollar fundraising. It has been a development over the last four to eight years, but we’re really starting to see it mushroom," says Penn. "It has become an integral part of a political campaign." 

The titles used by some campaign staffers are beginning to reflect that shift. Jarad Geldner, director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Washington, DC, notes the direct low-dollar appeals from Warren, who has posted videos on Twitter of surprising campaign-trail phone calls to grassroots donors. 

However, Geldner contends the focus on low-dollar campaign contributions is coming at the expense of the ground game in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

"The debate structure seems to have been set up around how many individual donors campaigns made, and so that the metric is they are judging against themselves and it has changed the way they communicate," he says.

"They’ve staffed up in seemingly conventional ways, but with less time, energy and even staff in the early vote states and more a focus on left-leaning talk TV and social media because of those individual donations," says Geldner, a former senior adviser with the Democratic Coalition Against Trump. "All the candidates are on Instagram and Facebook doing stories and posts all day where they are asking for a $1 contribution." 

Compiled from the campaigns themselves as well as outside sources, here is how the top-ranking Democratic campaign teams are shaping up. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden
Leading the Biden for President team is campaign manager Greg Schultz, who from 2013 to 2017 was a senior White House adviser to then-Vice President Biden and special assistant to Obama. Two key roles in Biden’s campaign have been filled by veterans of the Motion Picture Association of America:  deputy campaign manager and comms director Kate Bedingfield and national press secretary T.J. Ducklo. SKDKnickerbocker MD Anita Dunn, a former communications director for Obama, is an adviser. Deputy comms director Meghan Hays was recruited from MGM Resorts, where she oversaw corporate and crisis comms for executive leadership. Rapid response director Andrew Bates was spokesperson for the progressive super PAC American Bridge and worked on Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. Strategist Symone Sanders, a 2016 spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), defected to Biden’s camp to serve as an adviser. 

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Many of the comms and digital strategists on Hillary for America 2016 have joined the New Jersey senator and former mayor of Newark’s campaign. They include deputy digital director Alex Witt from Bully Pulpit Interactive, who was a senior social media strategist for Clinton; Addisu Demissie as campaign manager; and deputy campaign manager Jenna Lowenstein, who was digital director for Clinton. National comms director Jeff Giertz has led communications for Booker as senator since 2015. 

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Sevugan is one of his highest-profile hires to date. Campaign manager Mike Schmuhl ran Buttigieg’s mayoral campaigns. National press secretary Chris Meagher was communications manager for Montanans for Sen. John Tester and a General Motors comms manager. New York-based political operative Lis Smith is also playing a key communications role for Buttigieg. 

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) 
Lily Adams, the former prosecutor’s communications director since 2016, is leading campaign comms. Adams’ mother is Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood, and her grandmother was feisty Texas governor Ann Richards. Deputy comms director Rebecca Chalif worked at the Sheryl Sandberg & David Goldberg Family Foundation and was on Clinton’s 2016 campaign as director of women’s media. Ian Sams, fellow Clinton alum and former communications director for 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, is national press secretary. Social media director Jeremy Thompson worked at Under Armor, where he managed social media. Deputy social media director Alicia Oken has worked with Harris since 2016 and is with Authentic Campaigns, a digital strategy firm for progressives. 

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)
Precision Strategies cofounder Jen O’Malley Dillon is at the helm of the former congressman and one-time El Paso, Texas, mayor’s campaign. Rob Friedlander is filling the deputy communications director role after working on O’Rourke’s near-upset 2018 Senate bid. Also re-joining O’Rourke’s campaign team is Chris Evans as communications director. Former communications director for NextGen America Aleigha Cavalier is O’Rourke’s national press secretary. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
The Vermont senator has tapped many of the same communications staffers from his 2016 campaign. They include spokesperson and comms director Arianna Jones; deputy comms director Sarah Ford, who served as communications director for Cynthia Nixon's 2018 gubernatorial bid in New York; and digital fundraising director Robin Curran, the former email director at the Democratic National Committee and digital strategist at Revolution Messaging. Before joining Sanders in March, national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray was a columnist and senior politics editor at The Intercept. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
The senator brought on Obama’s former top digital strategist in both 2008 and 2012 and Blue State Digital founder, Joe Rospars. He is the former law professor’s chief campaign strategist and is reportedly overseeing national operations and grassroots mobilization. Field director Richard McDaniel has been credited with engineering the underdog victory of Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) in 2017. Hires from the agency world include director of paid media and former Weber Shandwick digital strategist Eric Reif from Bully Pulpit Interactive. He was also email director of the DNC and on the Obama for America team. Johnson left Planned Parenthood in late July to join Warren’s team. 

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