By 7 a.m. on a recent Monday morning, Charlie Kelly was well into the weeds of America’s congressional districts and halfway through a cup of coffee.
Seated in a cramped conference room in downtown Washington, the executive director of House Majority PAC was meeting with each of his regional political desks. He rattled off candidates’ names — their strong suits, as well as their flaws — and dropped encyclopedic knowledge of each district.
If Democrats can take the House majority this fall — including winning back some of the rural, working-class districts that swung to President Donald Trump in 2016, they’ll have Kelly to thank.
The 38-year-old operative controls tens of millions of dollars in television advertising that will flood competitive media markets this fall.
In a town easily given over to bluster and groupthink, Kelly’s known as a steady hand who insists on always running as the underdog. But even he is optimistic about 2018.
Still, calling the shots for the increasing constellation of outside groups on the left means it’s his job to make sure the party doesn’t once again bungle its chances against the Trump-led Republicans.
Watch: Which House Races Are the Parties Targeting? Look to the Money, the TV Ad Money
A champion for rural districts
House Democrats need two kinds of districts to win the majority: GOP-held suburban seats that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and rural ancestrally Democratic districts that Trump carried.
Kelly believes firmly in the latter. Two of those seats are in his native Minnesota — the 1st and 8th districts are both open seats that backed Trump, but that Democrats need to hold to maximize their House gains.
Kelly’s father was a lawyer in the Twin Cities but worked on the family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin on the weekends. As a kid, Kelly developed an appreciation for manual labor.
“Hard work has many different iterations,” Kelly said in an interview in HMP’s offices earlier this spring. “Seeing that, yes, the legal work to him was interesting and engaging, but he was also milking cows and working the fields.”
The dignity of work — in all its forms — is key to Kelly’s political philosophy, and it’s one reason he was an early skeptic of Democrats’ reliance on Trump as a message in 2016, when he was deputy executive director at HMP.
“Charlie and I did not see eye to eye on the national stuff in 2016 — on Donald Trump and his utility in terms of congressional elections last cycle,” pollster Jefrey Pollock of the Global Strategy Group said. “At the end of the day, he was probably right and I was probably wrong.”
In the off year, HMP launched a major research effort into the motivations of white, working-class voters.
Growing up, Kelly’s family was deeply involved in the Twin Cities community, through which he was exposed to many different flavors of life. It’s why he believes in getting to know communities and why he often spends just as much of his rush-hour phone calls with consultants across the country talking about music and pop culture.
“I think you need to embrace Americana, I think you need to understand the motivations of individuals and appreciate their circumstances,” Kelly said.
He sees the Democratic Party and its operatives getting back on track, but it’s taken time. “For a while I feel like people were just micro-targeting themselves into nothingness,” Kelly said.
Kelly wanted out of the Midwest for college and sought out schools in the South. He landed at Rhodes College in Tennessee, where he studied political science.
“Being the kid from Minnesota in Memphis, they looked at me like I was a foreign exchange kid,” he recalled.
As a student, he was involved in social justice work. He later landed an internship on the Hill but was told he needed to go to Iowa to get the full political experience. A stint as a field organizer in Davenport for Dick Gephardt’s presidential bid had him hooked on campaigns. He then cut his teeth in Virginia politics, starting as the Richmond regional field director for Tim Kaine’s 2005 gubernatorial campaign.
That St. Patrick’s Day in Herndon, he met his future wife, Elisabeth Pearson, who was also working in Virginia politics and is now the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.
Kelly managed Phil Kellam’s losing congressional race in Virginia’s 2nd District in 2006, and then returned to Kaine world in 2007 to manage the governor’s PAC during the state legislative elections.
“When the campaign was over, I was like, ‘I’ve got to keep this guy close to me because he’s just so good,’” Kaine said in a recent phone interview.
Kelly won that year — both by helping Democrats win the state Senate for the first time in a decade and by getting to spend time on the road with Kaine, who was always ready for a roadside game of catch or a jam session.
“We even listened to the Grey Album. … I remember one time he said, ‘You heard of the Black Album, Charlie?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ because I’m a big Jay-Z fan.” Then Kaine asked, “You heard of the White Album?” Kelly said of course. “Well, he’s like, ‘My son just gave me this, what do you think?’”
Working for Kaine, first at his PAC and later at the Democratic National Committee, also meant learning from his management style. In meetings with his staff at HMP, Kelly demanded the same creative effort of his team that he praised Kaine for, with the same aggressive goal-setting.
Kelly is mild-mannered but has boundless energy. Kaine described him as “just like a big golden retriever,” who bounces when he walks.
The same disposition that made him an effective field organizer in Iowa made him well-suited to travel the South as a regional political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012.
“A lot of times candidates come into DCCC and they recognize there’s a certain level of bullshit coming their way. Charlie played it straight,” said former DCCC Independent Expenditure Director Travis Lowe, who first hired Kelly on the Gephardt campaign in Iowa. “They understood they were dealing with someone they could trust.”
Kelly briefly moved to the official side, as chief of staff to former New York Rep. Dan Maffei, before joining the super PAC world.
Founded in 2011, HMP exists to corral outside Democratic groups to make sure they’re all having the biggest impact and not spending redundantly.
“He quarterbacks for the House,” said Melissa Williams, who talks to Kelly every week as vice president of independent expenditures at EMILY’s List. Outside groups making independent expenditures can coordinate with each other, but not with the DCCC or campaigns.
“What I found from Charlie from a young age was he was sophisticated about knowing what to do and what not to do,” said Pollock, who first worked with him closely when Kelly was at the DCCC. “The biggest thing in this job: Should you play or not?”
HMP was the first of the House campaign committees or super PACs to lay down its initial fall ad reservations this year — $43 million across 33 media markets. And it did so more than two months before the DCCC.
Paid media is the biggest part of HMP’s playbook, Kelly said, but he also sees the super PAC preparing the party for what he thinks will be a “resurgence in grass-roots politics.” That energy is one reason he’s excited about 2018, in addition to the quality of candidates, their fundraising and Trump’s unpopularity.
Kelly’s typically known for being less bullish about Democrats’ chances — some of his peers called that realistic, others called it cynical, but all agreed it was a positive quality.
“That’s one of the things that helps him see through the BS of D.C.,” Pollock said.
“When you’re having a conversation with him, you’re having a real conversation about what’s on the table and what the odds are,” Williams added.
When Kelly needs space, he runs — often late and in the dark along the GW Parkway.
“It’s not a treadmill thing — I’m gone, I’m outside. No matter the circumstances, no matter the weather. It’s me just kinda getting away,” Kelly said.
Raising two kids in Old Town Alexandria, Kelly said he and Pearson talk more about Lego sets at home than they do politics. One of the perks of being a parent, he said, is it diversifies his friend set, which he thinks makes him a better strategist.
“The thing about Charlie is his ability to turn off work,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who met Kelly when they were both working on Virginia campaigns in 2005. “This is a guy who loves life in general, loves politics but loves people too.”
Kelly’s friends and colleagues could see him getting out of politics, but would he ever take the next step and run for office himself (Kaine would like to know)?
“Ah, no. I don’t think so,” Kelly said, before turning to lead another meeting with his team.