A 1988 C&E interview with the one-time master of political media.
Erik Telford, 27, Republican
Director of Membership and Online Strategy, Americans for Prosperity
In his brief career, Erik Telford has helped the right catch up with the left in terms of online activism, helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of the Tea Party, and helped establish Americans for Prosperity (AFP) as one of the country’s premier conservative activist organizations.
A few numbers sketch out the story: When Telford joined AFP in 2007, the group had around 200,000 members; today, that total has ballooned to 1.7 million, in no small part due to his efforts. He has tirelessly traversed the country, attended conferences, done interviews, and met with individual activists. Setting up sites like NoStimulus.com, which drew massive amounts of traffic and helped double AFP’s membership in a single month, hasn’t hurt either.
Among his roles is heading up AFP’s RightOnline, an annual conference that aims to advance online advocacy efforts by conservative-leaning bloggers and organizations. RightOnline was designed as the Republican equivalent of NetRoots and now rivals the progressive blogger convention in attendance. “We took on NetRoots as a rallying point and also to generate some earned media coverage on this left-versus-right media confrontation,” says Telford.
Telford’s family owned a restaurant and hotel business when he was growing up in Connecticut, and he says that their focus on developing relationships with customers heavily influences how he interacts with activists. As for how he got interested in politics, that is a mystery. “I was a political junkie from the second grade,” he recalls. “My family couldn’t figure out where it came from.”
Brick Nick, 33, Republican
The decision to defer law school for a year turned out to be the best of Brian Nick’s young career. His interest in politics was virtually non-existent when he was offered a spot as travel aide to Marilyn Quayle while her husband geared up for a 2000 presidential run. “It was actually during the time I was working for Marilyn that I had the realization that I was just planning on going to law school for the degree,” says Nick. “It wasn’t really what I wanted to do.” Quayle later recommended Nick to then-Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole, and soon Nick was thrown into the thick of one of the country’s most contested Senate races when Dole named Nick her deputy campaign manager. “I saw right away that Brian was a person with exceptional talent,” says Dole. “He’s a strategic thinker, but he’s also good at tactics.” After the 2002 election, Nick came to the Hill and quickly moved up the ranks of Dole’s Senate staff. He started as press secretary, was later named communications director and then chief of staff. At the end of the ’08 cycle, veteran Republican media man Fred Davis tapped Nick to open and head the Washington office for his firm, Strategic Perception, where Nick already has a jump-start on some of the top federal and statewide races of the coming cycle.
John Yob, 33, Republican
CEO, Strategic National
John Yob sums up his work on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign quite succinctly: “I was one of the survivors.”
Yob survived the near complete gutting of the campaign team that occurred early in the primary season and, along with campaign manager Rick Davis, went on to become the longest serving members of McCain’s inner circle. Yob, who led the campaign’s political department, recalls what a rollercoaster it was, particularly when McCain went from being pronounced dead to winning the New Hampshire primary in four months. It was a process that taught him important lessons about politics.
“That was my first professional experience on a presidential campaign,” Yob says. “In politics things are never as good or as bad as they seem. You just need to keep an even keel. If you have the right message, the right candidate and the right team, things will work out well.”
McCain isn’t the only candidate for Yob. He has found other politicians to work for who are willing to stray from the party line. He is currently working for Tim Cahill’s independent bid for governor of Massachusetts, as well as Democrat-turned-Republican Steve Levy’s New York gubernatorial campaign.
“Certainly I think that voters are fed up with the party system, and there is an energy for politicians to come in from outside that system,” Yob says.
At Strategic National, Yob has become the go-to consultant for Republican candidates in Michigan. He has also been at work developing new technologies, including BlackBerry and iPhone canvassing applications.
John Weaver, who worked with Yob on the McCain campaign, says Yob has the rare ability to look at a situation from both the meta and micro perspectives. “He’s a top strategist and a great day to day warrior,” Weaver says. “You usually don’t find both.”
Melissa Sellers, 25, Republican
Melissa Sellers' political education came at an early age. A journalism major, Sellers interned on George Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and a little more than a year later found herself running a campaign for the Texas state House at age 19. "That was when I realized, ‘Hey, this is really fun,'" she says. In her first seven years in professional politics, Sellers has worked on six campaigns, winning five. In 2004 she served as the northeast regional media coordinator for President Bush's re-election campaign and ran the communications shop for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's campaign in 2007. Now, as Jindal's press secretary, Sellers has a coveted office directly across from the governor-a space usually reserved for top legislative staffers, but that Jindal insisted on giving her.
Nicholas Thompson, 32, Republican
Vice President, The Tarrance Group
A Mississippi native, Nicholas Thompson cut his teeth as a field staffer on Haley Barbour’s 2003 gubernatorial campaign and found that he had an affinity for data and metrics. Thus, a successful career as a pollster was born.
Thompson credits Barbour’s nephew and campaign manager, Henry Barbour, for piquing his interest in the application of polling data to messaging and its potential for changing a campaign’s dynamics. “I was amazed at how much research, metrics, and data went into campaigning,” Thompson recalls. “What I like about it is the study of human behavior. Polling is more than just numbers; it is seeing how people are behaving.”
Thompson first joined the Tarrance Group in 2004 as a research analyst, but left the next year to serve as director of research and direct mail for the NRCC’s independent expenditure program in the 2006 cycle. He went on to direct the Bush White House’s polling and to manage a twelve-state region in its Office of Political Affairs.
In 2009, Thompson returned to the Tarrance Group, where he works with campaign consultants nationwide to refine messaging and fine-tune targeting on domestic issues such as government spending, immigration, and national security. In 2010, his achievements included helping to defeat Democrat Blanche Lincoln and Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist in U.S. Senate races, but Thompson was most proud of helping to orchestrate a win over eleven-term Congressman Gene Taylor back in his home state of Mississippi.
Trebor Worthen, 31, Republican
Managing Partner, Majority Designs
Trebor Worthen is one of the few political operatives who can rightly boast that they have been helping win campaigns since the age of six. As a first grader when his father ran for a seat in the Oklahoma state House, young Trebor dutifully wore a “Vote for My
Dad” T-shirt while campaigning door-to-door. His father won the election.
After finishing college in 2001, Worthen got his first paid political job with an Oklahoma state Senate campaign. Impressed by his work, the state Republican Party took him on as a field representative and rapidly promoted him to state political director.
In 2004, Worthen ran for the state House seat formerly held by his father—and won. While serving in the House, he launched Majority Designs, a direct mail consulting firm, with two other campaign operatives. At the end of his second term in 2008, Worthen retired from his promising career as an elected official to become a full-time consultant.
“I just had to make a decision,” he says. “I couldn’t continue to split my time between things that deserve all my time and attention.”
Today, Worthen says that his most cherished campaign memory comes not from his own victories, but from the 2007 special election win he engineered for U.S. Rep. Bob Latta in northwest Ohio.
“That was the first campaign I had a significant role in, outside of Oklahoma, and it was a great experience,” he says. “Those few months that we spent literally working our tails off and sleeping on air mattresses in Bob’s old house are among my fondest campaign memories right there.”
Brian Walsh, 33, Republican
Political Director, National Republican Congressional Committee
When it comes to battle-tested Congressional campaign operatives, there are few more experienced than the NRCC’s Brian Walsh. After serving as press secretary on the campaign of Republican challenger Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) in 2002, Walsh headed to the Hill as her chief of staff at the age of 25. During the 2004 cycle, Walsh was on the move again, serving as a “mercenary” for a slew of NRCC campaign efforts across the country. He was a field representative for Larry Diedrich in South Dakota’s special election to fill its at-large House seat in 2004. Democrat Stephanie Herseth ended up besting Diedrich by the narrowest of margins—less than one percentage point, but it was a race that in many ways foreshadowed Sen. Tom Daschle’s loss that November. Walsh then headed to the Northeast, where he successfully managed the reelection race of Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and for the 2008 he was back at the NRCC serving as deputy political director and national field director. Now, in a year where Republicans appear poised to make big Congressional gains, Walsh is serving as the committee’s political director where he’s won praise from party operatives for the strength of the committee’s recruiting class.
Ryan Waite, 31, Republican
Just a few years ago, Ryan Waite was feeling his way through the online advertising world. “I specifically got interested in the ads because it was a new area and started teaching myself all about it,” Waite says. “Some of the first banner ads we ever ran, I did on my own, teaching myself how to do them.” By 2008, Connell Donatelli, where Waite is a vice president, was handling online ads for the McCain campaign and winning awards for their work.
“The great thing about online advertising in the political realm is that it’s just evolving so rapidly and there’s so much going on,” Waite says. “I’ve been surprised at developments that have happened even since the last campaign.”
The next step, Waite says, is take the lessons of the 2008 presidential contest and give the same online presence to local campaigns with a service called NextDoor Politics of which he is the president.
“We saw that search engine marketing was so effective at doing the things that campaigns want to do,” Waite says. “We wanted to be able to take that and apply it to lower-level campaigns. This is something that fits really well with somebody who’s running for the city council or the state legislature.”
Dee Steward, 35, Republican
Watching Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address in 1981, Dee Stewart decided he was a Republican-at the ripe old age of 7. Ever since, Dee says, he's been drawn to the political process, and orchestrated his first campaign victories in middle school. "I've basically been running elections since I was in sixth grade," he says. By age 24, Dee was the finance director of the North Carolina Republican Party. At 25, he became one of the youngest executive directors of a state party in the country. Among his proudest professional achievements: getting some 40,000 people out to the 1999 Iowa Straw Poll, which set an attendance record for a political fundraiser and helped cement the straw poll's status as the kick-off to the GOP presidential primary season. At 27, Dee took a big risk by leaving Iowa to start his own firm in North Carolina. "I literally went from executive director of the Iowa GOP to the absolute bottom of the ladder," he says. But it wasn't long before Dee's firm boasted one of the best winning percentages in the state, and helped lead North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry to an improbable victory in a four-person GOP primary. "Dee was the only person, other than me, who actually believed we could win," says McHenry.