Democrats compete for top talent as 2020 kicks into high gear
Posted January 17, 2019 1:24 p.m. EST
Updated January 21, 2019 3:43 p.m. EST
CNN — The Democratic presidential primary is just beginning, but an important preliminary contest is already underway and heating up in the key early states: the staff primary.
In New Hampshire, South Carolina and particularly Iowa, campaigns and campaigns-in-waiting are competing for top talent to lead their efforts on the ground -- a courting process that quietly began for some last year, but has kicked into high gear within the past two weeks.
"Folks are in different stages of it, but it's definitely picked up here since the first of the year," said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price. "That conversation has accelerated."
This phase of a campaign is crucially important, but mostly hidden from view. Like a duck on water, little appears to be happening at surface level; meanwhile, the would-be candidates are paddling furiously just out of sight.
"Just because we're not seeing trips, or speeches, or high-profile interviews, doesn't mean they're not working hard to build a campaign," said Matt Paul, an Iowa Democratic operative who led Hillary Clinton's Iowa caucus operation in 2016.
When Warren announced her exploratory committee, she hadn't visited Iowa for more than four years. But her campaign almost immediately announced hiring Emily Parcell, Kane Miller, Janice Rottenberg and Brendan Summers - four operatives with deep experience in Iowa politics, who are widely considered among the top Democratic talent available in the state this cycle.
Warren's likely rivals aren't far behind. In preparation for his expected 2020 decision, Sen. Cory Booker's team has been in talks with Michael Frosolone, who oversaw Iowa Democrats' statehouse campaign operations in 2018, and Joe O'Hern, formerly Martin O'Malley's state director in 2016. Both Frosolone and O'Hern are expected to take on senior roles on Booker's Iowa team, sources familiar with their discussions told CNN.
Both Warren and Booker have been cultivating relationships with Iowa operatives for months now, outpacing outreach by other likely presidential campaigns, according to multiple Iowa sources. On Election Night, Booker was dialing up Iowa Democratic staffers and thanking them for their work, according to one person familiar with the conversations.
But others are now in the market for Iowa help. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who took the first step toward running for president Tuesday by launching an exploratory committee, plans to visit Iowa this weekend and has been in touch with prospective hires there.
Sen. Kamala Harris had been in talks with Kane Miller before he signed on with Warren, multiple sources told CNN; however, Harris already boasts two seasoned Iowa hands on her Senate staff in Lily Adams and Kate Waters, who both worked on Clinton's Iowa team in 2016.
While staffing discussions are furthest along in Iowa, a similar dynamic is unfolding in New Hampshire. One operative mentioned as a likely top recruit is Erin Turmelle, who ran the state Democratic Party coordinated campaign in 2018.
New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley told CNN that he expects the state's most in-demand Democratic staffers "will be scooped up in the next six weeks or so" - a tight timeline that could act as a catalyst, perhaps, for any would-be candidates hoping to deliberate longer before jumping in to the presidential race.
"If you've got Warren and (Bernie) Sanders, Booker and Kamala Harris and so many others actively hiring, it makes it really hard to wait until May or June," said Buckley.
In South Carolina, Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said possible presidential campaign hires are "taking a judicious approach" to their discussions and are "now just having initial conversations and waiting to see what transpires."
By mid- to late February, however, "you'll see some solid staffing arrangements made," Robertson predicted, "and then we'll be off to the races."
The hiring process in New Hampshire and South Carolina is not as urgent as in Iowa, where the complicated and labor-intensive caucus process requires a deep understanding of the state and a robust organization to navigate it.
One veteran Iowa Democratic operative predicted the staff primary would be wrapped up within the next 30 to 40 days, with most of the state's top political talent spoken for by then - especially those who have previously navigated a caucus.
"That's one of the reasons we wanted to staff up early," said Monica Biddix, state director for John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman who kicked off his bid for president in 2017. "Pretty soon, it's going to be difficult to find staffers who have actual caucus experience."
More than one year out from the caucus night, Delaney has already grown his team to include 24 full-time staff in Iowa, Biddix said. It's an organization of a magnitude that would be unthinkable for most candidates at this stage; however, Delaney, a wealthy former businessman, has loaned his campaign more than $3.5 million.
On the other end of the spectrum, a candidate like former Vice President Joe Biden might be able to wait longer to launch a campaign without concerns about hiring, given his unique networks in the key primary states.
Biden "could staff up and have on the ground support overnight" in Iowa, said one state Democratic operative.
Likewise, Sen. Bernie Sanders would likely be able to tap into his 2016 organization, although not all of it. Summers, who signed on with Warren, previously led Sanders' caucus effort.
That pickup for Warren showed how the staff primary can also serve an important purpose beyond building a strong organization - acting as an early barometer of a candidate's appeal and a campaign's sophistication relative to the competition.
"Many of these experienced staffers calibrate these decisions on, one, who they believe in, and two, who's going to win," said Paul. "They desperately want to win."