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Sen. Jon Tester’s victory in Montana last year solidified Preston Elliott’s standing as one of Democrats’ most talented Senate race operatives — and it put him at the top of the party’s list of staff for its toughest contests this cycle.
Elliott will manage a top GOP target, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, in 2014, continuing his trend of working for the most vulnerable Senate Democrats over the past two cycles. He directed the coordinated campaign for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada in 2010 and worked on some of the most competitive races as a deputy political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2008.
“You can kind of see I love working on a good, challenging Senate race,” Elliott said in a phone interview.
Elliott doesn’t always take his job so seriously. He used to hide head shots of Tester’s GOP opponent, former Rep. Denny Rehberg, around campaign headquarters in desks, offices —even in the refrigerator. Elliott also hung up a banner he found in the Army/Navy surplus store next door. It read, “Don’t Give Up The Ship,” and colleagues took it as a sign of his loyalty and dedication to the campaign.
Interviews with former colleagues revealed someone who thinks deeply about management style, has a pleasant demeanor, is extremely organized and has the ability to keep things cool even in the heated world of campaigns.
Martha McKenna, a former DSCC political director, said Elliott will “run through a brick wall to get something accomplished, but he’ll do it with a smile on his face.” Brandon Hall, who managed Reid’s 2010 campaign, passed along a couple of Elliott’s “classic” sayings, including: “If it’s not in a spreadsheet, it doesn’t exist” and “Incompetence doesn’t start at the level below you.”
Former Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said Elliott “is successful because he knows how to adapt a campaign to best suit a candidate and the state he or she serves.” Elliott may have picked up that skill working in 16 states over a dozen years, beginning with an Illinois legislative race in 2000, after he graduated from Lake Forest College.
Like so many other top Democratic strategists, one of Elliott’s first jobs in politics was on South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson’s 2002 race against then-Rep. John Thune, which finished with the closest margin in the country that year. The list of operatives on that race includes at least a half-dozen top Obama campaign and White House advisers.