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.
Elliott’s journey included stints as an organizer on former Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt’s presidential campaign in Iowa and for former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles’ unsuccessful 2004 Senate race, where he was assigned to the town of Wasilla.
“There were lessons that I learned that were fundamental in South Dakota, and a few of us went from there to Alaska and built off of those,” Elliott said. “Every state you have to take the lessons and adapt to the new technologies of the year, to the ground of the state, to what the laws are. And you have to keep improving on that model.”
In 2006, Elliott returned home to Montana to serve as a field director on the coordinated campaign for Tester, where he worked under Stephanie Schriock, a fellow Montanan who is now president of EMILY’s List. Elliott considers Schriock a mentor, along with Hall and former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, another Montana native.
Growing up as a Republican in Montana, Elliott didn’t become a Democrat until college. His father, who once worked for a Republican governor, did the same after Elliott’s parents eventually moved to Utah. Elliott’s two brothers aren’t in politics, but one is a talent agent in Los Angeles with a client list that has included actors Russell Brand and James Marsden.
Much of Elliott’s management style came from his father, who made a career in hotel management. Hiring the right people and getting the best work possible out of them is a “crucial aspect” of managing in both business and campaigns, Elliott said.
Now, he is laying the groundwork for Hagan’s first re-election campaign; the North Carolina Democrat is among five incumbents running in states President Barack Obama lost in 2012. The Reid and Tester campaigns were notable for their formidable ground operations, and Elliott plans to adapt those to fit North Carolina.
The campaign already has a consulting team in place, including finance directors who helped Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill last year. Beyond raising money and spreading the word about Hagan’s work, the focus for the rest of the year will be on getting an infrastructure in place for what will likely be a competitive race.
“There is only so much you can control in politics, so you have to get a little bit zen about it and realize what’s out of your control,” Elliott said. “But the things you can control, you’ve got to hone in on them and do them well.”