When Lynn Yeakel, then a founder of Women's Way funding coalition, challenged two-term Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter for the Senate in 1992, she predicted that the backlash to Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings would be “the turning point” for women in politics.
It was “the Year of the Woman.” Yeakel, now director of the Drexel University College of Medicine’s Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership, didn’t win. But in Lancaster, Pa., a high school student had taken notice of her campaign.
“I started to see women were stepping up and taking roles — leadership roles in politics,” said Mindy Myers, former chief of staff to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and now the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure campaign .
“What motivates me are a lot of the women’s issues, and I think that at a young age I started to pay attention to that,” Myers, normally reluctant to talk to the press, said in an interview at DSCC headquarters.
A three-time Senate campaign manager, Myers, 39, has never lost a race, and this year, she’s in charge of Democrats’ effort to win the upper chamber. The party must net five seats for a majority (and four if Democrats win the White House). Fresh out of American University, Myers worked in President Bill Clinton’s legislative affairs office before becoming deputy director for constituency outreach for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
But the Senate is home. At age 25, she landed in Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office working closely with then-chief of staff Peter Rouse, and ever since, she has cycled repeatedly through the Capitol doors, always landing back on the campaign trail.
“Mindy does not want to miss a race,” Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said.
He would know. His 2006 election was the first Senate race Myers managed, and after Whitehouse joined the Senate, Myers came with him as his chief of staff. But the Ocean State’s junior senator got used to loaning out Myers to help elect other Democrats in New England.
In 2008, Myers deployed to New Hampshire to run then Sen. Barack Obama’s general election campaign in the state. Two years later, she again left Whitehouse’s office, this time to run Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s Senate race against wealthy wrestling tycoon Linda McMahon . And in 2012, Myers took yet another leave from Whitehouse’s office to help Warren get her campaign against Massachusetts GOP Sen. Scott Brown off the ground.
Whitehouse hadn't guessed that his chief would be so sought after. In fact, when Myers first walked across his lawn to meet him and his wife, Whitehouse wasn't sure if she had the maturity or experience he was looking for.
“My wife and I looked at each other and exchanged, you know, the glance, like ‘Greaaat.’ But we spoke to her for a while, and our confidence in her got to the point where we thought, ‘She’ll be OK; we’ve got a lot of other good people around her if things start to go haywire,’” Whitehouse said. “During the course of the race, it became apparent that she was something special.”
Whitehouse was running to unseat then-GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a New England moderate and the only Republican senator to vote against the war in Iraq. With few policy differences between the candidates, tarnishing Chafee was a delicate task.
“The Chafee name was gold in Rhode Island,” Whitehouse said. “So the customary off-the-shelf, canned, 'let’s-raise-a-lot-of-money and attack-the-opponent and drive-the-numbers-down' strategy was never going to work.”
Myers understood that even when D.C. didn’t. As a candidate, Whitehouse met with Minority Leader Harry Reid, and “Before he had even said hello, his first words to me in our entire relationship were, ‘Why are you running such a terrible campaign?’” Whitehouse recalled.
The Democrat’s strategy was to remind voters that Chafee was still a Republican — the party of President George W. Bush — and he went on to win by 7 points.
“I remember when I had to transfer the first money for a media buy,” Myers said. “I was stressed out about it. You know, I’d never spent a million dollars before!”
By 2010, Myers had a Senate and presidential state campaign under her belt. But then came along a new challenge: electing Blumenthal to the Senate while he was being outspent six to one in Connecticut.
Glancing at her Amazon suggested purchases queue that year, you'd have sworn Myers was a WWE super fan. Actually, she was just running against Linda McMahon .
Even when the campaign staff would go out to dinner, Myers wouldn’t stop working. “It got to be a joke. We were sitting at the same table, but that’s it,” said Marla Romash, a veteran Democratic consultant who met Myers on the Blumenthal campaign. Romash is known for baking her closest friends elaborate, personalized cakes . What would top Myers’ confection? A cell phone, Romash said.
Romash pushed Myers to have more of a public face in the campaign, but Myers is most comfortable behind the scenes. In a town known for self-promotion, Myers doesn’t tweet and her answers to this reporter's questions were at times frustratingly vague. “I’m amazed you’re going to get this story because Mindy shies away from the spotlight,” Warren said.
“She knows how to build confidence and anticipate what candidates need before they know they need it,” Romash said. Warren is one of those candidates who considered herself lucky to land her, and even though she encouraged her to take the job at the DSCC, she hasn’t quite let her go, either. Myers continues to advise Warren’s PAC.
When Myers first volunteered to help start Warren’s campaign in Massachusetts, Warren wasn’t sure she’d agree to stick around. To her delight, Myers accepted the invitation to sign on as campaign manager . “Oh man, we have these moments in the campaign when you think, ‘Yes!’” Warren said emphatically, “This means we can can do it!”
It seems unremarkable now that Warren, a progressive icon whom many liberals urged to run for president, would win the seat once held by the Senate’s liberal lion, the late Edward M. Kennedy. At the time, though, unseating Scott Brown, who’d defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley in the 2010 special election, was seen as a stretch.
“I was always worried that if we lost that race, it would continue the narrative that a woman couldn’t win in Massachusetts,” Myers said.
Known for her calm demeanor, the most common criticism her colleagues offer of Myers is that she’s too nice. She’s a listener and, according to friends, never yells.
“It takes a while to realize how really tough she is,” said Mandy Grunwald, a longtime Democratic consultant and senior Hillary Clinton adviser who first worked with Myers on the Blumenthal race. “That makes her particularly lethal [and] easy to underestimate — but only once."
She also tells it like it is, though not in the Donald Trump sense. “You never wonder what she’s saying behind your back because she’ll say it to your face,” said Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, who’s known Myers since she started in Daschle’s Senate office.
Myers is her generation’s Dunn or David Axelrod, said Peter Rouse, who’s known Myers since she got out of college. Or perhaps the next Denis McDonough, Daschle added.
In her current role, Myers will be directing teams of consultants and pollsters working on different Senate races. While she said she likes to play tennis and swim, "I don’t do that nearly as often as I should. My boyfriend and I are a little bit of foodies, so we like to go out." But, she said, "we don’t anticipate having a lot of time."
Come this summer or fall, she’ll no longer be working out of the DSCC’s Capitol Hill townhouse; she won’t even be allowed to talk to anyone in the building. The so-called wall that comes down between the DSCC’s official side and its independent expenditure campaign ensures Myers won’t have direct knowledge about what the campaigns are doing; for that, she’ll have to rely on the media.
Myers will decide where to spend money, when to echo the individual campaigns and when to adapt. “The people who are good at this pick up the paper every day to see if the opponent made a mistake, and see if you want to jump on it right away,” said Grunwald, who’s worked for the DSCC over the years.
Only in New England
Up until now, though, every Senate campaign Myers has managed has been in New England — a coincidence, she says. But aside from New Hampshire, most of the party’s offensive opportunities this year are in the South and Midwest.
“The people who say, ‘Oh Mindy just ran races in New England where it was easy for Democrats’ — actually look at the races, none of that was easy,” Whitehouse said. Not to mention, Daschle added, that Myers’s political roots are in his home state of South Dakota.
For Myers, who grew up surrounded by Keystone Republicans, winning the Senate comes down to setting up contrasts. “I really believe that the American people, and even independent voters in these red states agree with the Democratic principles on economic issues,” she said.
If Democrats succeed, and win even in red states, such as Arizona, and purple states, such as North Carolina, Myers will have helped elect at least seven new female senators — three more than elected in the Year of the Woman.