First in a series of profiles of committee independent expenditure directors.
Republican strategist Mike Shields survived back-to-back Democratic waves in 2006 and 2008 and lived to tell about it. This year, he's on the front lines of the Republican effort to take back the House majority.
The National Republican Congressional Committee will spend tens of millions of dollars on dozens of races this fall, but because of campaign finance law, the bulk of that money will be spent in independent expenditures and without coordination with the NRCC staff.
As director of the independent expenditure effort, Shields will have the final say in deciding where to spend those critical, independent dollars.
"It's nice when you have someone that has your back," Shields said. "In this job, you make a decision and you live or die on your own."
This is a new role for Shields after four years as chief of staff to Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), but he comes in with a depth of confidence and trust within the GOP caucus for having guided the Congressman through two extremely tough re-election bids.
"He knows the skills needed to survive," NRCC Executive Director Guy Harrison said about Shields. "He knows about being outspent and running in a challenging environment."
Reichert is consistently a top target of Democrats because he represents a district that favored presidential candidates Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama.
After defeating Microsoft manager Darcy Burner by 3 points in 2006, Reichert increased his margin of victory to 6 points in a 2008 rematch in a district that Obama won with 56 percent. With Shields at the helm of his campaign, Reichert localized his race by focusing on Burner's résumé and as a result survived a national trend that swept away many of his colleagues.
Shields, 40, has seen both sides of a political wave.
His first full-time job in politics was at the Republican National Committee on the first day of the 104th Congress after Republicans won the majority in the 1994 elections.
Shields put his studies at George Mason University on hold to take the $17,000-a-year job clipping newspapers (by hand back then). He arrived at the RNC at 4 a.m. each day to compile the packets before the second employee, Chairman Haley Barbour, got to the office.
"It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me," Shields said.
The job wasn't glamorous, but it let him out early in the afternoon, and instead of going home Shields hung around the press office and learned how to write releases.
Shields' interest in politics actually started much earlier in his life and 3,000 miles away.
He was born on Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and grew up in England, which sounds like the recipe for an intriguing accent, but Shields sounds like he could come from just about anywhere in America.
After Shields' father retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years, his contract work for the National Security Agency took the whole family to England. The move was a homecoming for Shields' English mother.
As part of a military family, the concept of being "on mission" was a way of life for Shields. "I learned about being a part of something bigger than myself," Shields said.
As a self-described "political nerd," Shields considers Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan to be his surrogate political parents. In school while his classmates were protesting NATO's nuclear missiles based in the U.K., Shields wore a "Peace Through Strength" button on his uniform.
Shields returned to the U.S. for college and was scheduled to graduate in 1992, but little by little his part-time political work became full time, and he still hasn't finished his degree at GMU. George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove has a similar line on his résumé.
In July 1996, Shields moved to Georgia to become communications director for Friends of Newt Gingrich, the then-Speaker's campaign operation. Six months later, Shields returned to D.C. to become his national political spokesman and ended up working with Gingrich for five years.
After a very brief foray in the federal work force following the election of Bush, Shields returned to elections work. ("I figured out I'm a campaign person, a political person," Shields said.)
He moved to Alabama and managed the gubernatorial campaign for Tim James, son of the former governor. James was thumped by Rep. Bob Riley in the June 2002 primary, finishing third with 9 percent.
Then Shields moved north to Pennsylvania to handle press for Rep. George Gekas (R), who was locked in a battle with Democratic Rep. Tim Holden after redistricting threw the two incumbents into the same newly drawn district.
Gekas lost by 2 points but recently called Shields "the best-versed operative that I had run into, that was D.C.-based."
Eight years later, Holden is on the extended list of GOP targets that Shields might choose to invest in this fall.
Shields spent two years at the NRCC as research director before applying to be chief of staff for Reichert.
"We had all the same values: wanting to serve the country and having the heart of a servant," Reichert said. "I offered him the job right there."
Just three months into Reichert's first term, GOP leadership in the House moved to intervene in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die controversy. "It was one of [my] first and most important decisions," Reichert said.
According to the Congressman, Shields fostered a healthy debate among the staff and, ultimately, Reichert voted against intervening, putting him at odds with the majority of his party members, who sought to prevent removal of Schiavo's feeding tube.
In early 2009, Shields was hired again by the NRCC to be director of special projects. At the time, Democrats were riding high and it looked like Republicans might be headed for a third straight difficult election cycle. Shields' résumé made him an excellent candidate for the NRCC. Now, the environment has shifted but the Republicans' confidence in Shields remains strong.
"He's a House Republican guy. This is what he knows and this is what he's done," said NRCC Deputy Executive Director Johnny DeStefano, who is also political director for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
"Mike has seen the operation on all sides. He has a good cross-section of experience to come back and lead this thing," said Carl Forti, the former NRCC veteran who led the committee's IE effort in 2006. "He knows the product is only as good as your research."
Reichert is vulnerable once again (this time he faces wealthy former Microsoft executive Suzan DelBene) and could benefit from Shields' assistance, but any help will be from afar.
Now that he's on the IE side, Shields sits in his Alexandria office and the Potomac River serves as a moat that prevents him from coordinating with the NRCC, incumbents and candidates.
To handle the load, Shields is working closely with media consultant Brad Todd and his firm, OnMessage Inc. Todd is a top adviser to NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas).
There is a level of freedom in the IE world because Shields can't get calls from worried incumbents, needy challengers or overbearing spouses. But with that freedom there is an increased level of responsibility.
"There is no hiding. You have to do a good job," Shields said. "In the end, it's all about winning."