Liesl Hickey has been through the fire. And here is what she learned: Take nothing for granted, make a plan, stay on offense and win early.
The new executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee — the organization charged with keeping the GOP House majority — is taking the reins, having been molded by the vicissitudes of campaigns in blue territory.
She served as then-Rep. Mark S. Kirk’s chief of staff from 2003 to 2007, seeing the now-senator through to victories in a Democratic-leaning suburban Chicago district. During the 2012 cycle, Hickey ran the NRCC’s incumbent retention Patriot program and applied many of the lessons she learned helping Kirk.
“One thing that now-Sen. Kirk always did really well: He won his elections in the off year,” Hickey said. She explained that meant having a strong focus on constituent services, deep involvement in local issues and a robust fundraising operation even when the election was more than 365 days away.
And having a long-term metric-driven plan keeps everyone focused on their goals in the election year, even when external events look foreboding. Despite Democratic waves in 2006 and 2008, Kirk won re-election.
“Congressman Kirk never took his foot off the gas,” Hickey said. “And our members that are in those [marginal] districts, that’s how they function. That’s how they work, that’s how they run their offices, that’s how they keep the full campaign mode going all the time.”
Despite holding a 17-seat majority, House Republicans plan to continue staying on the offensive this cycle, Hickey said, and President Barack Obama’s recent oratory should give Republicans a boost in competitive districts.
“The president’s inaugural speech outlined his liberal agenda for the second term,” she said in an interview at NRCC headquarters near the Capitol. “In looking at the seats that are in play, I think that’s good for us.”
The NRCC recently released a list of its top seven Democratic targets, all of whom hold seats in states won by Mitt Romney in November. The list included long-surviving Democrats such as Reps. John Barrow of Georgia, Jim Matheson of Utah and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina. Those districts are all places where some of the themes highlighted in the president’s speech probably won’t play well.
Asked how difficult it was to recruit candidates to run for the House while Congress holds an abysmal approval rating, Hickey said Republicans in competitive Democratic-held districts needed little prodding.
“To be honest, we really aren’t having to pitch candidates,” she said. “The president’s inaugural helps us. People are out there, and they see where Washington is headed, and it’s actually a pretty easy sell.”
While the 2014 House landscape is more than a year from being fully formed, two wave elections and a redistricting process favorable to the GOP portends perhaps the smallest playing field in a decade. If indeed, there are fewer seats in play this cycle, that means there may not be that many opportunities for the NRCC to go on the offense, but there are also fewer places where they need to defend vulnerable members. And, net, a small field of competition is good news for Hickey and the NRCC.
House Democrats disagree and argue there are a wide variety of Republican seats to target.
D.C. resident Hickey, 39, has done stints at the NRCC, National Republican Senatorial Committee and ONE, a grass-roots campaign to eradicate poverty and preventable disease. While she’s had a long tenure inside the Beltway, she lacks that common D.C. taste for being the center of attention, preferring to work outside the glare of the media’s klieg lights.
Colleagues, friends and members who have worked with her say her press shyness cloaks an extraordinary savvy.
“She seems kind of quiet — until you get to know her,” former Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., said with a chuckle.
Joanna Burgos, who was in charge of the NRCC’s independent expenditure operation during the 2012 cycle and is friends with Hickey, said eschewing the media spotlight is part of her personality.
Hickey “may not be someone that speaks often, but when she speaks, you better listen,” Burgos said. “Because what she’s going to say is not only very strategic and very well thought out, but probably a solution that no one else has thought of.”
Schilling, who lost his re-election bid in November, lavished praise on her strategic vision and said he appreciated that she knew what it was like to run a tough race.
In talking to members and staffers who worked with Hickey during the 2012 cycle, whether they won or lost, that was the overriding theme: She understands how ultra-competitive campaigns work, not on some theoretical level, but on the ground, in the trenches.
Chris Hansen, who managed Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman’s difficult but ultimately successful re-election campaign last year, said he spoke with Hickey at least every other day during the final months of 2012. And, he added, it meant a lot that she had been through hard races herself.
“It’s not like you’re sitting there talking to someone in D.C. who hasn’t gotten their hands dirty on a real campaign,” Hansen said. “She doesn’t get rattled easily. She’s been through it all. She’s seen it all.”