Seventy years after his father proposed there to his mother, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper found himself in the penthouse restaurant of Philadelphia’s Bellevue Hotel on Nov. 30, looking to make a very different kind of match.
Like dozens of other Democrats preparing a campaign for president, Hickenlooper is scrambling to launch a multimillion-dollar start-up from scratch in a matter of weeks. So he turned an unrelated speaking engagement in the hotel ballroom into an opportunity to meet job candidates, offering to pay the travel fares of several potential hires.
“We ended up talking for about 45 minutes,” said one operative, who like many rising political stars has been approached by multiple presidential aspirants in recent months. The approaches all had a similar feel. “As soon as you get on the phone,” the person said, “everyone drops the ‘should we decide to run’ disclaimer pretty quickly.”
The Hickenlooper effort, in particular, has been so aggressive — his team has interviewed 80 potential hires, with the governor speaking to 30 himself, in Denver and elsewhere — that it soon became the talk of a tight group of Democratic operatives who are facing down unemployment after devoting themselves to congressional races for the last two years.
Another Democratic strategist, who like more than a dozen interviewed for this article asked for anonymity so as not to upset potential employers, said it was clear something was up from the social media activity of friends.
“I saw every digital person in the world Instagramming from Denver,” this person said.
But the Colorado governor is not alone. With no front-runner and a primary contest that could cost billions, the race to build a presidential campaign team is already well underway, even though most candidates have not yet created legal vehicles for hiring staff. Potential candidates have been crisscrossing the country to gut-check operatives, setting hours aside in their schedules to work the phones and meeting to draft plans for 20 or more different campaign strategies to win the Democratic nomination.
At least a dozen potential candidates, including sitting senators, governors and former officials, have said publicly that they plan to spend the holidays talking over a run with their families, and two or more are still expected to hint at their intentions before the holidays. A third group may not get in until the spring, once they get a chance to observe the strengths and weaknesses of the initial field.
“Every presidential candidate apparently is only going to be strategizing with their families over the Christmas holiday,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who has spoken with representatives of multiple potential presidential efforts, including advisers to former vice president Joe Biden. “Apparently, there is going to be a conference table instead of a dinner table, and they are going to be showing PowerPoints.”
All of the potential candidates are looking for the same thing: top-flight political wizards who will work long hours, leave their loved ones for another city and devote themselves fully for little money to working for relative strangers on the outside chance of capturing the Democratic Party’s zeitgeist and earning a chance to battle President Trump. Just which candidate to pick — a young newcomer, a Western statesman, a liberal lion of the Senate, a billionaire self-funder or someone else — is right now anybody’s guess.
Even some of the candidates themselves remain unsure as they work the phones. Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, who has told people recently that Biden’s decision will factor in his own choice, called more than 200 donors, potential hires and allies in early December. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently started a federal PAC to pay his political advisers and has begun speaking with potential hires. Aides to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have also been reaching out to potential staff, an effort led by chief of staff Sarah Benzing, who has worked in several Iowa presidential efforts.
“It’s a little bit like the offseason just before free agency, where teams are figuring out their draft board,” one strategist for a potential 2020 candidate said. “Some teams already have a wide receiver, and they don’t need to sign one. Some teams need a pass rusher.”
One of the biggest questions, which will affect the planning of other potential candidates, is whether Biden will decide to pull the trigger. His core team of five advisers has decided not to start recruiting potential hires this month, as Biden weighs his decision to run and continues to boast publicly about his qualifications for the top job.
“A ton of potential staff are reaching out,” said someone familiar with Biden’s planning process. “We are listening to people who express interest.”
Many younger staff are also holding out to see whether the biggest young star of the 2018 cycle, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), decides to get in the race. O’Rourke recently met with former president Barack Obama to discuss the possibility.
“You talk to any junior or mid-level person, and all of them want to work for Beto,” said the Democratic operative who had been monitoring Instagram. “One hundred percent of them.”
Several more senior operatives say they find themselves torn, without any particular affinity for a single candidate and concerns about the long odds of any campaign surviving the initial months in such a crowded field. Others are also weighing the personal impact of signing on to a particular campaign, particularly if their spouse or partner chooses a different candidate. Three potential top-level hires said they are likely to sit out the first round of campaign creation until the Democratic field sorts itself out.
“It’s like a fifth-grade swimming party with all the kids in the pool,” said John Weaver, a Republican presidential strategist who has been working with Ohio Gov. John Kasich to hire more staff for a possible challenge to Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020. “There are no lanes. It’s just chaos. They have all eaten a bag of candy.”
Another point of stress for several campaigns is finding or locking down outside firms that can handle polling, television advertising and digital spending, as most big firms have worked with multiple candidates considering runs. Internally, candidates are weighing whether they are willing to share firms with other campaigns, under the promise that a firewall would be constructed between the two operations.
“There is no question that the premier firms are limited in number,” said another strategist preparing an unannounced presidential run. “I don’t think there are enough people you can be sure can do this at the highest level for all 20 folks who will run.”
Mandy Grunwald, who created ads for Hillary Clinton’s last presidential campaign, has relationships with at least two potential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Another polling and consulting firm, the Global Strategy Group, has worked for both Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Bully Pulpit Interactive, a digital ad-buying and strategy firm, has worked with multiple potential candidates as well.
“It’s less about who is actually making your TV ads, and it’s more about who is going to be your top strategists,” said Jesse Ferguson, who served as a spokesman for Clinton’s 2016 presidential efforts. “None of these folks are going to be on TV tomorrow anyway.”
The campaigns that have the least to worry about are those that have just come out of election cycles or have been building operations for years in preparation for a presidential run. Warren hired dozens of people to her Senate reelection effort, which was never in doubt, and many young staffers fully expect to transition to a presidential campaign in the new year.
Others, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), helped place staffers on the ground in early primary states to work on midterm races with the expectation that they could transfer over to a presidential effort. His team has been feeling out additional staffers for months, though Booker has not yet decided to run.
As for Hickenlooper, the former geologist and microbrewer who became Denver’s mayor before Colorado’s governor, the needs are extensive. His prospective presidential effort, led by Bradley Komar, who recently managed Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2017 campaign, has a list of open positions that includes media and polling firms, leaders for the digital team, communications staff, and leaders for the political and field efforts.
During an October visit to a New Hampshire diner, Hickenlooper let slip, “I’m running for president,” before backtracking and saying he had not made a final decision. His team has nonetheless decided there is little need to hide the governor’s early outreach.
“We’re being aggressive, and we know it’s going to get out,” Komar said. “There’s no benefit to being scared of your own shadow.”