At the tail end of an hour-long press briefing at the National Republican Senatorial Committee less than three weeks before the elections, Executive Director Rob Collins threw out a prediction: The GOP would win the majority on election night.
Republicans were favored to pick up at least a handful of seats, but with a couple possible runoffs and some tight races, forecasting clear control of the chamber by the end of Election Day was a ballsy declaration. In his office a little while later, Collins laughed as he noticed his quote popping up in stories online. He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t think it was possible, but Collins went out on a limb mainly because he didn’t want his customary level-headed analysis of the Senate playing field misinterpreted as pessimism about his party’s chances.
“I think people like that I don’t bullshit them,” Collins said. But, he added, “I felt like, boy, I better end this on a note of confidence, or they’ll say, ‘Collins was a little iffy on that whole thing.’ So yeah, we’ll win on election night — it’s totally possible.” Collins gave CQ Roll Call exclusive access for the day, Oct. 16, as the NRSC closed in on helping the GOP finally win back control of the Senate after eight years in the minority — and it indeed secured the majority on election night. Republicans had picked up the House in 2010, but a handful of self-destructing candidates hurt the party’s chances in the Senate that cycle and the next. Collins was serving as deputy chief of staff to Eric Cantor when he left the minority whip's office in 2010 to serve as president of the GOP-aligned group American Action Network. He agreed to run the NRSC to help change the party’s fortunes. But it’s not just the perpetual quest of attaining the majority that drives Collins.
After a day behind closed doors with him — which included numerous phone calls, staff meetings, a campaign conference call, a presentation at a downtown lobbying firm and a pen-and-pad session with the press — it was clear Collins takes just as much pride in the construction and execution of the party operations, and, ultimately, the lasting impression he leaves on it.
“Hopefully we ran a good committee,” Collins said. “Even if we lose, people will say, ‘Well, the Republican Party is screwed up, it’s not the NRSC.’”
By 9 a.m., Collins was sitting behind a desk in his second-floor corner office poring over polling numbers on the Alaska Senate race, a top GOP pickup opportunity. Communications Director Brad Dayspring stepped in, took a seat at the small conference table in the middle of the expansive room and helped Collins prep for his meeting with reporters.
They wanted to highlight how Alaska, Colorado and Iowa were all moving in the GOP’s direction, while the party’s nominee in North Carolina was tied with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan for the first time. They laughed about an errant Deadspin report from the night before that falsely claimed Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., hadn’t actually played high school football; they wished a super PAC would drop $1 million on Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and the two discussed what to say about the latest hot race.
“That’s the question you’re going to have to answer,” Dayspring said. “What are we doing in South Dakota.”
Taking a page from his former boss Cantor, who would reach out to as many trusted advisers as possible about a single vote, Collins then called top Republican messaging strategist Alex Castellanos, his former colleague at Purple Strategies. “I’m doing a press briefing and wanted to pick your brain,” he said.
Another Collins confidante is former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, whose 2012 presidential campaign Collins was set to manage before Barbour’s surprising decision not to run.
Like them, Collins has now risen to the top of his field. On this day, the Syracuse, N.Y., native wore an oversized dollar-sign belt buckle, symbolic of his approach to treating both the committee and fundraising as a business. Two months after President Barack Obama won a second term and Democrats picked up two Senate seats, Collins had a mandate to re-energize a depressed donor base and rethink some of the NRSC’s inner workings for a data-driven political world and a fractured party.
Nearly two years later, beyond winning the majority under the leadership of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran, Collins’ stamp includes: incorporating the committee; shortening its official name to “NRSC” to save time in TV ad disclaimers; reorganizing the offices and call suites, and beefing up the digital team.
“Really, the one thing I was not ready for was the time it would take to recruit,” Collins said, noting it’s even harder in the age of super PACs and a dysfunctional government. “It was heavy duty, a lot of phone calls, a lot of checking and cross-checking.”
But it paid off, and that’s what Collins believes the NRSC needs to focus on.
“Everyone always looks at this committee as a place where money goes so it can buy TV,” he said. “That definition needs to change, and I think the next committee needs to continue its hyper-focus, that really the busy year is last year, it’s not this year.”
He would spend every free moment he had on this day on his iPhone, partly a result of his aversion to email. At times, he said, he’ll leave people voicemails saying, “Hey, it’s Rob Collins, just returning your email.”
By early October, Collins said his phone had recorded his total talking time at 68 days since taking over the NRSC in mid-January 2013 — or about 10 percent of his life in that 21-month span.
By 10 a.m., 30 minutes before he was due downstairs with reporters, Collins watched beyond his bright red accent wall as city workers were finally getting around to fixing a double-headed street lamp across 2nd Street Northeast that had been busted for much of the 2014 election cycle.
NRSC analytics expert Luke Thompson and Deputy Executive Director Matt Lira walked in to update Collins on online fundraising and go through the latest data on the map.
Thompson, who was most recently a political scientist at Yale, went through pages of polling and metrics, offering his take on each state. “Everything is improving,” he said, “except Georgia.”
Concern about the Peach State would come up numerous times this day. With David Perdue’s fumbled response to the revelation of his private-sector record of outsourcing jobs, Democrat Michelle Nunn was leveling him with ads repeating Perdue’s own words. The Republican ended up winning handily. Thompson announced the Michigan Senate race was “dead,” Minnesota was “functionally dead,” and he expressed doubts about former Sen. Scott P. Brown, R-Mass., in New Hampshire. That’s when Collins, who relies on as many sources of information as possible, pushed back. “He’ll win,” he said with a smile, without looking up from the packets of pages in his hands.
Collins wouldn’t relay to the press much of the little bit of negative news he heard in this meeting — "Keep an eye on Michigan," he said — and the veteran of Capitol Hill had no time to mingle with reporters once his briefing with them had concluded. NRSC PAC director Rachel Kelley was waiting in the passenger seat of a black SUV, as Collins was ushered out of the building by his assistant Lisa Kramer. Within seconds Collins was on the phone briefing a senator who was set to go on national television about the Senate landscape, the GOP’s “ground game,” and the Georgia race.
“It hasn’t been 2010 or 2006 wavey,” Collins told the senator. “It’s more of a small march, or as we’ve been calling it, a grind.”
Minutes later, they were led into the basement conference room of a downtown lobbying firm to brief a bipartisan group of 60 employees munching on catered sandwiches . Collins grabbed a cookie and a bottle of water, before taking his place behind the lectern.
After running through the map and answering a few questions, Collins and Kelley rushed back out the door, as a representative from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee waited outside before delivering her own spiel.
Collins would head back to Capitol Hill for lunch at La Loma with a couple Senate chiefs of staff, then to his office for a national polling update call with all of the campaigns. He hopped on another phone call and learned that the Republican Governors Association was pulling out of Colorado — but going into New Hampshire.
By mid-afternoon, as Collins had lost his head again in the map tacked to the wall, he already had ideas about how the next executive director of the committee could bring in more revenue. And as the married father of four looks to his own future, he couldn’t help but consider what was in store for the class of senators he was about to help elect, including four younger than 47 years old.
“I guess the million dollar question is, will they all stay in the Senate, will they run for governor or something else,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of life to live.”
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