Republican Presidential Prospects Lay Groundwork for Invisible Primary

Reid Wilson
National Journal

They swear they're focused on more-immediate projects. They insist a White House campaign is the furthest thing from their minds. But with the 2016 invisible primary well under way, some Republican candidates are already lining up the campaign managers they will turn to if and when they decide to run for president.

While the race for the White House might seem like it's only in its Washington cocktail-party gossip phase, several potential and probable contenders are already making overt moves to court activists in key states and build organizations that can transition easily to a presidential campaign. Their maneuvers are less than subtle: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has already traveled to Iowa; he'll be back for a state-party fundraiser in July. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has already visited South Carolina; he'll attend the July fundraiser in Iowa with Paul. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida first went to Iowa way back in November 2012, ostensibly to celebrate Gov. Terry Branstad's birthday. All three, along with other potential contenders including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, have been invited to an August forum in Ames, Iowa, organized by a Christian conservative group that's aiming to play big in the 2016 caucuses.

Taking those trips, gathering the names of future volunteers, and building relationships with local elected officials who might one day become key supporters all require a team of operators. According to Republicans following the underground primary already in progress, just about every top contender has an aide or adviser who is likely to become their campaign manager. And, those Republicans say, some candidates are surprisingly far along in their decision-making process.

If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decides to run for president, insiders expect Bill Stepien would manage the campaign. Before managing Christie's two gubernatorial campaigns, the 35-year old Garden State native directed the Republican National Committee's 72-hour program, then served as field director for both former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential bids.

Stepien is known for his field work. Christie won his governorship in 2009 by a surprising margin, which allies attributed to Stepien's field campaign in key counties. He's likely to add another win to his resume this year: Polls show Christie cruising toward an easy re-election.

Cruz would likely turn to Jason Johnson, a veteran Texas operative who served as Cruz's senior strategist in his come-from-behind win in the 2012 Republican Senate primary. Johnson is a big-picture operator who has worked in the past for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, among a number of other Lone Star State clients. Cruz is known for the small inner circle he maintains, but Johnson has been "intimately engaged in what Ted's doing now," said one fellow Republican keeping tabs on the Cruz team.

Texas will have several competitive statewide races up for grabs next year. Another friend noted that Johnson isn't working with any clients other than Cruz at the moment, a potential sign that something bigger is on Cruz's horizon. (Some Cruz watchers think Johnson would serve as a senior strategist, rather than a manager.)

Rubio has been the most aggressive in assembling a top-notch team of operatives. He has hired veterans such as Todd Harris, Alex Conant, and Heath Thompson to manage his image and policy rollouts, all while aggressively raising funds through his political action committee.

If Rubio pulls the trigger on a presidential race, he's likely to turn to Terry Sullivan, a longtime South Carolina strategist who managed Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign in the first-in-the-South primary state. Sullivan managed then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's run for Texas governor in 2010, then joined Rubio's Senate office as deputy chief of staff before leaving to work for Rubio's PAC.

Like Cruz and Christie, Paul can turn to a manager who already has helped him win elected office. Jesse Benton, a 35-year-old Philadelphia native who held senior positions in then-Rep. Ron Paul's presidential campaign before managing Rand's winning 2010 Senate bid, is likely to reprise that role if a presidential campaign materializes.

Benton started his political career at the Republican National Committee in 2000. His work on Paul's 2010 campaign, which beat the establishment-backed candidate in the Republican primary, won him fans and believers—including his current boss, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hired Benton to manage his own reelection bid.

Consensus among Republicans is that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is becoming the early dark horse, the candidate activists will look to if and when they become disillusioned with other top contenders. And while Walker faces a potentially difficult reelection bid next year in his hyper-polarized state, observers say he's laying the groundwork for a White House bid should the opportunity arise—though much of his travel schedule, an ally said, is about thanking supporters of his recall-election win.

A Walker campaign would likely be headed by Keith Gilkes, a Wisconsin native and University of Wisconsin graduate who has been close to Walker for years. Gilkes has managed all three of Walker's races—his 2010 victory, his 2012 recall win, and his current race. In between, Gilkes took over former Gov. Tommy Thompson's Senate campaign in 2012, after national Republicans grew alarmed that the campaign was flagging. Gilkes couldn't save Thompson, who lost to then-Rep. Tammy Baldwin in November.

Jindal, who has been quietly preparing for a presidential bid longer than just about any other candidate, has a team backed by OnMessage, the consulting firm with close ties to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Curt Anderson, an OnMessage principal and Jindal's longtime strategist, served the same role for Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012.

In 2011, OnMessage hired Timmy Teepell, Jindal's former chief of staff, as a partner. If Jindal runs, Teepell is likely to manage his campaign, along with "a healthy dose of Curt Anderson," according to one Republican close to Jindal.

Several other potential campaign managers remain unattached to any particular candidate so far. They include Jason Miller, a former aide to Rudolph Giuliani who was in talks to manage Donald Trump's campaign if the New York real-estate magnate had decided to enter the race in 2012, and Mike Biundo, the New Hampshire operative who managed a poorly funded Santorum campaign to unexpected results that same year. Miller's firm, Jamestown Associates, is running the television campaign for Christie this year, while Biundo signed on to consult for Sam Clovis, a conservative radio host running for Sen. Tom Harkin's seat in Iowa.

With years to go before a White House race kicks off in earnest, and with some candidates facing competitive elections before they can begin seriously campaigning for president, the potential top aides are wary of speaking publicly and getting ahead of their bosses. None agreed to speak on the record about their future plans, and more than a few refused to participate in this story in the first place.

But with the invisible primary well under way, the candidates are lining up their teams, all in an effort to make sure that the next visit to Iowa lives up to its full potential.