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Inside the NRSC's Comeback Strategy

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
From left: Dayspring, Collins and McLaughlin said the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s new communication operation will “redefine” what a conventional press shop does.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee plans to expand its press operation to train campaigns earlier in the cycle on how to better handle the kind of candidate missteps that have plagued its party’s nominees.

The goal? To avoid what’s become known in GOP circles as “Todd Akin moments.”

“The campaigns that jumped off message not only infected themselves, they infected all the rest of the campaigns,” said Rob Collins, the new NRSC executive director, in his first extensive interview on the job. “So in this age of fractured but continuous, three-dimensional communication, we have to constantly plan for that and train for that and build for that.”

During the past two cycles, flawed candidates such as Akin, the former Missouri congressman who lost a targeted Senate race, helped derail the GOP’s hopes of winning a Senate majority. Costly primaries produced ineffective general-election nominees, costing the NRSC five otherwise-winnable races since 2010.

While candidate control is often beyond the NRSC’s abilities, the committee will ultimately be judged on whether the party can avoid such troubles and pick up the six seats needed for a majority in 2014.

So for the past two months, incoming NRSC leadership surveyed senators, candidates and operatives from 16 winning and losing campaigns from 2010 and 2012. As a result, the NRSC’s new leadership discovered its party lacked talented communications professionals in the field able to capably run a campaign press operation that could handle such situations.

The fruit of that research is a bifurcated leadership of the NRSC press office that senior operatives hope will continue its success inside the Beltway and expand its influence outside it. The new duties will include working to build trusting relationships with campaigns and state parties early in the cycle, ensuring campaigns are equipped for the rigors of a statewide campaign and — conceding the party has fallen behind on this — fostering talent.

Bring In the ‘Alpha Dogs’

Collins was already two months behind the Democratic competition when he stepped foot inside the Ronald Reagan Republican Center on the second day of the new year. There was little time for the soul-searching that Republicans as a whole underwent after the 2012 elections.

Collins, 35, who is on leave from Purple Strategies, moved to hire communications, digital, finance and political teams. Their first project? Decipher what went wrong last cycle and what the committee could do, if anything, to fix it.

A major part of that solution is an expanded communications operation that Collins, Communications Director Brad Dayspring and Senior Adviser Kevin McLaughlin said will “redefine” what a conventional press shop does.

Collins will base the NRSC’s new communications shop on the model he established for his former boss, then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., in 2009.

Just after President Barack Obama was elected, Collins expanded Cantor’s press shop by hiring what he described as three aggressive “alpha dogs” who brought campaign-style rapid response and proactive, multitiered messaging under the Capitol Dome.

With two press aides already on staff, Collins added John Murray, who now runs the Young Guns Action Fund super PAC; Joe Pounder, now the RNC research director; and Dayspring, who built a combative reputation with the press.

“Even the tone of how attacks are waged” were changed then, Dayspring recalled.

With their help, Cantor accomplished his first major goal as whip — ensuring that every House Republican voted against the popular young president’s stimulus.

Split Responsibilities

Dayspring conceded his committee’s new split-control communications effort would invite skeptics.

A New Jersey native who turns 36 this month, Dayspring will focus on Washington, D.C., and New York media — where the NRSC’s largest fundraising bases reside. Beyond his core duties, Dayspring also wants the NRSC to cultivate talent that can help run GOP campaigns in the years ahead.

“The goal is to really invest some time and some capital into getting some press people trained up,” Dayspring said.

McLaughlin, 38, will take the lead on most of the media outside the Beltway, including building relationships with local press and training the operatives on the ground. Collins said he will essentially have two people capable of running press shops on their own, but with McLaughlin spending three to four days a week on the road.

Traditionally, the NRSC sends top staff to competitive races in the final months — in North Dakota last cycle, for example. But this cycle, the committee hopes having an extra man in the field this early will construct a stronger bond with nascent campaigns.

McLaughlin, a Minnesotan who was in Minneapolis last week meeting with the state GOP, said he will offer the same assistance and advice to every campaign before the primary.

His role emerged from his consulting work last cycle, including for the NRSC. He launched a boutique communications firm well into 2012 that proved successful in part because so many campaigns lacked competent operatives, he said.

“We can have the best data in the world, we can have the best digital,” McLaughlin said by phone. “But if we don’t have good people who can interpret and implement it, there’s no point.”

To contrast, the NRSC’s counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, prides itself on working closely to recruit and advise campaigns from the get-go. It helped Senate Democrats pick up seats last cycle in states the president lost by double digits.

Committee at a Crossroads

Two cycles removed from the Citizens United decision, Collins, the former president of the American Action Network super PAC, is well aware of the influence of outside groups and their effect on the role of campaign committees. There was no lack of attack ads, phone calls or mail last year when the party fell further into the Senate minority, and it’s made controlling the message more difficult for the committees.

Despite that, Collins said he believes the experience of the past four years in this new world will help.

“We don’t have to be the center of the basketball team anymore,” Collins said. “We can be the point guard. That’s why we’re making a massive investment in human beings.”

The emphasis on human capital this cycle will also include beefing up the digital department. In other words, don’t expect financial records to show a leaner, meaner NRSC.

“We lacked for technologically advanced campaigns that were being run by people who knew what they were doing ... and candidates who were on message and had the best tools at their disposal to win their campaigns,” Collins said. “So we’re doing that now. We’re getting on the road now.”

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