‘Not enough staffers to go around’ – Democrats face talent shortage for 2020 campaigns

As more Democratic presidential hopefuls inch closer to entering the 2020 contest, many are running into an early roadblock: There aren’t enough staffers for everyone.

In the critical early voting states, there are a limited number of high-level operatives with presidential campaign experience available to the upwards of two dozen potential candidates. And with no clear frontrunner, plus several big names whose intentions remain unclear, some staffers are hesitant to sign on to a campaign right away.

“There are not enough staffers to go around,” said Jerry Crawford, a veteran of several Democratic presidential campaigns in Iowa. “It’s a reflection that a lot of candidates won’t have the resources to be competitive.”

In Iowa, Elizabeth Warren, who announced her presidential exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve, hired four well-regarded operatives in the state, including Hillary Clinton’s 2016 state director and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 caucus director.

That’s put even more pressure on the other Democratic contenders to scoop up the remaining experienced operatives. Cory Booker has been in contact with Michael Frosolone, who was the director of the Iowa House Democrats political operation in 2018, about a role in the campaign. Other potential candidates, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Eric Garcetti and Kamala Harris, have also been in touch with staffers in the state.

“Everybody is a free agent this time around, regardless if there was allegiance to Hillary or Bernie,” said Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “All the voters are free agents and all the staff are free agents.”

In South Carolina, much of the early action has centered on drafting O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who lost his 2018 Senate race against Ted Cruz, into the presidential race. Two veterans of Martin O’Malley’s 2016 South Carolina campaign, Boyd Brown and Tyler Jones, recently joined the “Draft Beto” group in hopes of laying the groundwork for O’Rourke should he decide to run. The group has also signed on operatives in Nevada and California, and is in contact with O’Rourke supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“We believe in this guy that much that we’re taking this risk,” said Brown, adding that he has not heard directly from O’Rourke’s camp.

As presidential contenders continue to reach out to potential staffers, South Carolina Democrats say that selecting individuals with ties to the black community, which accounted for 60 percent of the state’s primary electorate, will be key. That’s put someone like Clay Middleton, Clinton’s 2016 South Carolina director and a former aide to Rep. Jim Clyburn, in high demand.

Middleton, who is now a member of the Democratic National Committee, said he’s spoken with several potential candidates in recent weeks, but hasn’t decided if he’s going to join a campaign.

“South Carolina is one of those states where you can’t mail in staffers. That’s not going to work here,” said former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison, who is now an associate chairman of the DNC. “People want to know your connections and ties.”

In New Hampshire, several Democratic hopefuls, including Steve Bullock and Terry McAuliffe and Booker held meet-and-greet sessions with groups of local staffers during visits last year.

So far, many of the top operatives in New Hampshire have yet to officially sign on with a campaign. Warren is set to hire Liz Wester, who was Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire political director in 2016, according to two sources with knowledge of the move. (The Boston Globe first reported the hire.)

Jim Demers, who co-chaired Barack Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire campaign and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said he would serve as an adviser to Cory Booker on a volunteer basis if, as expected, the New Jersey senator launches a presidential bid. Demers said Booker is still searching for a state director in New Hampshire.

“A lot of campaigns are finding the talent pool in New Hampshire is very limited,” Demers said.

In other cases, respected operatives who have worked on presidential campaigns in the past aren’t expected to jump back into the fold for 2020. Brad Anderson, who worked on both of Obama’s Iowa campaigns, took a job last year with AARP. Mike Vlacich, who ran Clinton’s 2016 campaign in New Hampshire, is now the president and CEO of the New Hampshire College & University Council. And veteran New Hampshire strategist Kari Thurman joined freshman Rep. Chris Pappas’ staff.

“It’s tough to find people because a lot of people from last cycle have moved onto other things,” said Gene Martin, the chairman of the Manchester, New Hampshire Democratic Party. “They’re not going to leave a good job.”

Those who are in the limited pool of talent for 2020 will have to decide whether signing on with a candidate early, which could allow them to have a senior role and provide a possible path to the White House, is worth the risk of the campaign flaming out quickly. Some may be able to afford to wait to see whether Democrats like Joe Biden and O’Rourke enter the race and which candidates rise to the top of the field over the next few months before committing to the grueling schedule of a campaign staffer.

“The fact is, you don’t have to get married after the first date,” said South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson. “You may see some of the more experienced people holding back until seeing whether their number one choice is going to run.”

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Adam Wollner is a political editor for McClatchy’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where he covers the 2020 presidential campaign. Previously, he covered elections and Capitol Hill for National Journal. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.