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Travis Lowe was on the verge of selling life insurance 11 years ago. Now he’s a key part of helping House Democrats win back a majority.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee independent expenditure director “stumbled into politics,” as he says. At the University of Iowa, he was more focused on leading the rugby team than on the presidential caucuses. After graduation, Lowe considered more traditional career paths until it became clear that his “passion for politics was more than casual.”
Fast-forward through a decade of experience on the campaign trail and the almost 33-year-old operative will direct an IE arm that has spent at least $65 million each of the past three cycles.
Lowe’s political career started in 2001 as a paid canvasser for the Iowa Democratic Party. But he didn’t stay in one place too long.
The young aspiring operative moved to Virginia for the coordinated campaign that helped elect Democrat Mark Warner governor and then to Houston to help incumbent Mayor Lee Brown win a December runoff, all in the same year.
“I didn’t want to do just one [race] per cycle,” Lowe explained. “I wanted to amass experience fast.”
Getting a paycheck was an added bonus, particularly when it was more than the $10 he earned for loading live turkeys into a truck, a high school job that Lowe also has on his résumé.
Lowe’s growing addiction to campaigns led him back to his home state of Iowa in 2002. It wasn’t enough to work in a state Senate special election and the coordinated campaign that helped then-Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) get re-elected. Lowe went down to Louisiana to help Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) get through her December runoff to round out the year.
But it was Lowe’s work in Iowa that got him noticed.
“At a young age, he showed good instincts and was able to manage people in a large operation,” said John Lapp, Vilsack’s campaign manager who would eventually become the DCCC’s executive director and IE director. But back in 2003, Lapp helped Lowe get connected.
Lapp was Iowa state director and Lowe was Iowa field director for Dick Gephardt’s 2004 presidential campaign, which featured a who’s who of influential Democratic operatives today. The team included Campaign Manager Steve Murphy, Senior Political Adviser David Plouffe, Midwest Finance Director Jon Vogel and Iowa Press Secretary Bill Burton.
“Iowa is a terrific learning ground. You learn, in Iowa, how to execute the fundamentals in politics,” said Steve Elmendorf, former Gephardt chief of staff and senior adviser. “Travis learned from the best.”
The team looked great on paper, but the result was less than stellar. “It’s not very often that you finish fourth in the primary and still believe you ran the best campaign,” Lowe remembers with a smile. It probably helped that there was some fun involved.
Lapp recalls a “sweaty mess of corduroy” as he and Lowe would face off in marathon air hockey matches at the Family Fun Center in Des Moines. Burton, who lived with Lowe, confirmed the perspiration and plenty of time spent at Wellmans Pub and Rooftop, down Ingersoll Avenue from their temporary quarters.
“He comes from solid Iowa stock,” Burton said about the Iowa City native, who invited him to spend Christmas with his family because the caucuses fell so close to the holidays.
After Gephardt dropped out of the race, Lowe went to work in Virginia for Gen. Wesley Clark’s short-lived campaign. “I loved my family, but I was having a good time,” Lowe said about his frenetic pace.
As the 2004 general election drew closer, Lowe worked in Michigan briefly for America Coming Together, the liberal 527, before parachuting into Connecticut with the given task of bolstering Democrat Jim Sullivan’s challenge to then-Rep. Rob Simmons (R) in the 2nd district. Without a buy-in from the candidate, it didn’t go well, and much of the consulting team (including Lowe) left before the race was over. Sullivan lost by 8 points.
“He knew what the problems were and knew how to fix them,” according to veteran direct-mail consultant Ed Peavy, who hired Lowe after the pair left the Connecticut race. At Mission Control, Peavy’s firm, Lowe got a crash course in direct mail in races from city council to the U.S. Senate and got his first taste of an IE operation from the vendor side.
“He was far better than I even thought he was [at first],” recalled Peavy, who exploited Lowe’s love for Iowa football by choosing a superior team when they played the “NCAA Football” video game for PlayStation. The two men also shared other moments that revolved around Iowa sports, such as the time they were on the road together listening to the radio when the No. 3 seed Iowa team was upset by No. 14 seed Northwestern State University in the 2006 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Lowe’s brain is wired for details. He recalls the three-pointer in the corner that defeated the Hawkeyes that day and the yardage of the last-second touchdown pass that vaulted Iowa over Louisiana State University in the 2005 Capitol One Bowl. It might help that Lowe was present for that one.
Democrats hope to utilize that attention to detail.
“He has a granular understanding of every district, from the recruits to the Democratic performance to where the persuadable voters are,” DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said.
But before Lowe joined the DCCC in 2009, he moved to Indiana to manage former Rep. Jill Long Thompson’s gubernatorial race. He guided the former Congresswoman to a 2-point victory in a very competitive primary and then lost by 18 points to incumbent GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). Lowe got married 11 days after that primary, and his wife fared better in the general election as Barack Obama’s Indiana state director.
The couple subsequently landed in Washington, D.C., and Lowe was Midwest regional political director at the DCCC for the 2010 cycle. This cycle, he’s been campaign services director, but Lowe will cross the street to the Fairchild Building to run the IE.
“With Travis, it’s not just what he knows, but who he knows,” Thompson told Roll Call in a phone interview.
With a background in field, mail and management, Lowe has earned the trust of Israel and Democratic strategists.
“He steadily gains the respect of the political people in D.C. because he knows his stuff and he’s easy to work with,” Burton explained.
Lowe won’t be cutting television ads or designing direct-mail pieces, but instead will be organizing teams of consultants in dozens of races across the country.
“He’s got the leadership to direct a team and not be led by a team,” said Vogel, who ran the IE in 2008.
Democrats also believe that Lowe has the right mentality for the job. Thompson described him as “intense.” Israel called him a “political pit bull.” And even those closer to Lowe say he can be gruff.
“Despite his no-nonsense nature, people are very loyal to him and respect him,” explained Luke Quandt, who first met Lowe more than a decade ago in Iowa, was in his wedding and is now campaign manager for Pam Gulleson’s (D) House bid in North Dakota. The two friends still carve out time to go to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan concerts.
But at a time when Democrats must net 25 seats to win the majority, some incumbents and candidates might need to be abandoned in favor of better opportunities. Lowe doesn’t mind the challenge.
“We’re clear-eyed and cold-blooded,” he said. “There is too much at stake.”