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Young Nick Ayers has full-grown plans for a Republican return to the White House

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; C01

To call Nick Ayers the bright young future of the Republican Party is to ignore that the future has already arrived.

"We're the largest political committee in town," says Ayers, the 27-year-old executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Ensconced a block from the White House, Ayers is a leading player in the GOP's plan to use the momentum of statewide victories in 2010 to knock President Obama out of office in 2012. The Georgia native, who left college as a 19-year-old freshman to help elect Gov. Sonny Perdue,the first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, is now a veteran Washington hand, bantering with Obama during East Wing receptions and serving as a confidant and strategist to a spate of governors, including the committee's chairman, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Since taking the helm in January 2007, Ayers has transformed the creaky committee into a tight ship that has attracted Republican money bundlers disillusioned with Michael Steele's Republican National Committee and its spending sprees.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Ayers, wearing a blue pinstripe suit, chunky silver watch and the blond hair of a barbershop's model book, bounds around the second-floor office. He shows off camouflage-and-shotgun pictures of himself and Barbour standing over a dead quail, or of himself and Perdue crouching over dead turkeys.

He avoids his polished desk, saying he can't sit still for too long, and steps over to the overlapping whiteboards on the wall where he drafts policy and talking points for his candidates, keeps track of their finances and lists his core principles ("No Drama," "We Are All Fundraisers"). Outside his office, he eagerly talks up his communications team, his new-media geeks and the guy who just sold an iPhone app. Almost everyone looks young enough to be carded.

Boasting a runner's build, Ayers cuts across the office, past the mostly empty gray cubicles, over to the finance team's wall. The women have taped papers to their doors reading "I {heart}" over a picture of the actor Jay Mohr. ("They think he looks like me," Ayers says sheepishly.)

He knocks on a door at the end of the hallway and mouths, "Who you on the phone with?" to a woman on a conference call. She mouths a name back, and he quietly closes the door.

"That's a big-money guy, great!" he shouts. Then he walks over to the conference room and introduces his deputy and old college-era buddy Paul Bennecke. The two reminisce about the dives they dwelled in as young advisers for Perdue.

"Everywhere you looked out our balcony you'd see rats," says Bennecke, 31, who also wears a sharp business suit.

"It was 'affordable housing,' " Ayers says, making air quotes over the words. He clarifies. "The projects."

Behind him hangs a framed 28-star American flag quilt dated 1884. "Pre me, the RGA used to spend money on art," Ayers says, disparagingly. "That's really going to help us win the Wisconsin governor's race this year. A quilt."

A smooth talker

Ayers says some things that he probably shouldn't say. Ask him if he has children, and he volunteers that due to his busy schedule, he and his wife, Jamie, "didn't really have sex for the first three years of our marriage."

And he has done some things he probably shouldn't have done. "They dropped the DUI charge," he says of his 2006 arrest in Georgia. "That's really important."

He tweets some things he probably shouldn't tweet. "It's beautiful here," he wrote in a January post imagining a deal by which New York Gov. David Paterson, who is blind, might be sent to New Zealand. "Have you not seen it? Oh right, sorry."

And yet, it is hard to overstate just how charming Ayers is. His Southern gentry affect is backed up with self-made substance. He's got that round Georgia accent and the whole smooth-talking thing down pat. Visitors to his office receive a plastic cup of coffee that reads "Waffle House" on the side, and with it a story of how he asked the Georgia company's CEO for a "big favor" -- to send "the beans, the cups, the grinder, everything" -- and a "small favor" of a quarter-million-dollar contribution. He got both.

His charm oozes across the aisle: He counts Nathan Daschle, his counterpart on the Democratic Governors Association, as a friend and onetime hunting buddy ("He's a very good shot," says Daschle). In a February 2009 reception at the White House for governors, Ayers introduced himself to the president, and says Obama responded, "It's encouraging that you are running a committee at your age. That's what this town needs."

Later in the evening, he claims, Obama came back over to say goodbye, at which point Ayers introduced the president to Daschle. "Did you just introduce me to the [bleeping] president?" he recounts Daschle saying.

Daschle calls that version about "60 percent right." The son of former Obama mentor Tom Daschle says he had already met the president several times.

Running a tight ship

"I'm going to take my coat off," Ayers says in his office.

Leaning forward over a round coffee table, elbows on thighs, fingertips steepled in a politician's prayer, Ayers, a onetime Little League pitcher, explains why donors would be better served putting their money with him than, say, Steele and the RNC.

"I think our finances speak for themselves," Ayers says. "I don't have the details of theirs."

Actually, the details are readily available and widely lamented in Republican circles. There's the $2,000 of expenses for "meals" at a West Hollywood club that happened to feature some lesbian-themed bondage; the more than $340,000 spent at a meeting in Honolulu in January, which doesn't include airfare for staffers; the financial hemorrhaging on private jets, limos, luxury hotels; the memo from the committee's own treasurer urging the severing of bad contracts; and then there's the Steele interviews, the Steele photos, the Steele $20,000 speeches.

Some Republican power brokers, including Karl Rove and former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, are forming new groups to help Republican candidates raise money to capitalize on what they are confident is a promising cycle. Perhaps no committee, though, has benefited more than the RGA under Ayers.

"Over time, the personality of an organization reflects the personality of its leader, and our leader is Nick," offers Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota and the vice chairman of the RGA. He adds that the association is attracting donors who "want to put their money in something that is well-run and impactful and ethical."

Lawrence Bathgate, a past RNC finance chairman, has withheld his big-dollar donations from the RNC and contributed to the governors group and individual campaigns.

"Most larger donors are interested in making sure that their money is managed well as a general proposition," he says. "You want to know that somebody is treating the donation in an appropriate way and using it for the intended purposes and trying to minimize costs."

Ayers himself is careful when asked whether he is benefiting from the RNC's travails.

"I haven't done exit polling on our donors," he says. "There is no question that there is a degree of anxiety, and probably all of the ulterior committees have benefited to some degree, and that's unfortunate because it's in our interest for the RNC to be strong."

"Donors," he adds, "they hear a lot of slick pitches." His group, he says slickly, has the luxury of simply demonstrating a balance sheet.

Since arriving, Ayers has submitted the RGA to an annual independent audit, dramatically reduced its overhead, streamlined the staff and made a habit of squirreling away millions for future cycles. Ayers says the RGA now has $33 million on hand and does a much better job thanking donors and getting them access to governors.

Rep. Mary Fallin, who is running for governor in Oklahoma, says Ayers does a good job of staying in touch with her and "making sure that I am aware of the resources available" to candidates. Ayers requires updates regarding the candidates' strategy, tracks their fundraising and keeps an eye on the media campaigns, she says. "He is very energetic."

The Ayers strategy boils down to this: Federal change starts at the state level. The election of Republican chief executives will put the GOP in charge of vital swing states such as Ohio, bring in more donors, attract better candidates for local office and allow Republicans to redraw congressional districts in a way that boosts their chances of retaking the House of Representatives. All of that translates into momentum.

"There is a huge correlation there," says Ayers, now in full forward tilt. "We can go from 22 to 30 governors, and it totally changes the math that [David] Plouffe and [David] Axelrod have to plan around," he says, referring to the president's top campaign strategists. "If we have 30 Republican governors I see it very difficult for this president to get reelected."

'The natural'

Ayers grew up in south Cobb County, Ga. At age 13, as his father left a corporate job to start a landscaping company and his mother worked for a commercial laundry equipment company, Ayers's parents divorced. With his house for sale, his father between jobs and his mother on her own, he and his older sister saw tight financial times ahead.

"I decided I never wanted to be in a position of anxiety," he says. "I have dealt with anxiety issues my whole life. I have always been a worrier and planned way ahead."

He asked his mother to start dropping him off at a nearby car detailing shop, where he buffed, waxed and touched up cars all summer long.

Studying wasn't his thing. Talking was. The kids started calling him Eddie Haskell, and teachers divined politics in his future, but he swears he had other plans. A teacher suggested that Ayers compete in a statewide young entrepreneurs competition in which students present business models to private-sector judges. He ended up winning the state championship (he doesn't recall his business plan), and a teacher suggested he interview with the Georgia State Bank, owned by the family of the newly elected Democratic governor, Roy Barnes.

At 15, he started working part time during the week and full time on the weekends. His ambition was to rise to bank president. By senior year he had worked his magic so that, with his teachers' approval, he could leave school at 11 a.m. to work as a teller and customer service agent.

"I talked them into it," he says.

Ayers is clearly proud of his silver tongue, but also of his ability to straddle worlds. In school, he says, he was the responsible member of a crowd that ran on the "edge of the line."

"I would organize huge drinking parties, but I would be the designated driver," he says. "I would say, 'Look, we have to be careful here. We can't let people find out.' "

Ayers enrolled in the 2000 class of Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, and approached professor Kerwin Swint about joining his senior-level campaigns and elections class.

"He doesn't necessarily have to crack a book," says Swint, who went on to author "Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time." "I refer to him as the natural."

Ayers focused most of his energies into expanding the school's chapter of College Republicans, and in September 2001, helped his buddy Bennecke, then the state chairman of the College Republicans, organize a large rally in Athens, Ga. Sonny Perdue attended and liked what he saw.

A mentor and a wife

Perdue asked Bennecke to join the campaign, but the senior wanted to finish his degree. Instead, Bennecke recommended Ayers. The candidate met with Ayers, who professed a principled commitment to preventing the Democrats from using their control of the governorship to redraw congressional districts to their advantage. With Ayers's help, Perdue won the 2002 election.

Under Perdue's wing, Ayers became a force in Georgia politics. Perdue also exerted an influence on his personal life.

Ayers says he had been dating a woman from New York, but Perdue told him, "You're crazy, you've got to date a Southern girl." Perdue introduced Ayers to his second cousin, Jamie Floyd.

Ayers says he was reluctant at first but, happily, "she was kind of persistent." The couple wed in May 2005, as Ayers ran Perdue's successful reelection campaign.

A few weeks before Election Day, though, police pulled Ayers over on his way back from the local Capital Grille to campaign headquarters. According to Ayers, the officer asked him if he had been drinking, and he copped to a single Jack and Coke. They asked him to stand on one leg, then the other. He complied, but he refused to take a Breathalyzer test, arguing that he had sufficiently demonstrated his sobriety. In Georgia, such a refusal prompts a mandatory arrest. Six months later, a judge threw out the DUI charge.

"That's one of the reasons I don't drink now," he says. "That was like a really maturing moment. I realized that stakes are very high."

These days, virtually no one who comes in contact with Ayers has doubts about his maturity.

"He's got more wisdom and discernment and insight than most people two or three times his age," Pawlenty says.

Ayers, who earned his college degree in 2009 through weekend and night classes at Kennesaw, has a bearing much older than his years. He has certainly learned a lot, and lost a little something, too. Back in 2001, when he first met with Perdue, he declared himself disgusted by a political party's attempt to redraw congressional districts. Now it's part of his core mission.

Asked to explain his evolution, Ayers talks and talks some more. Finally, he says, "My whole ambition for winning the '02 race was doing it the right way. I knew we would never draw the lines the way they did. I trust our guys more often than not. I would rather us be in charge of that process than them."

If Barbour, the ultimate Washington insider, or any of the other Republican governors runs for president, Ayers is expected to be a top campaign recruit. Washington's youngest important operative is himself reluctant to talk about his post-2010 plans. As to whether he will ever step out on his own, he leaves it to a higher power.

"If that's what it leads to," he says. "Great."

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