Politics

Political Foes Turned Podcasting Friends

Democrat Ali Lapp and Republican Liesl Hickey bring House race expertise to podcast

Democratic strategist Ali Lapp and and Republican strategist Liesl Hickey chat before recording an episode of their podcast “House Talk with Ali and Liesl” at the EMILY’s List office in Washington, D.C. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Ali Lapp spent several hundred thousand dollars trying to defeat Rep. Mark S. Kirk in 2006. The Illinois Republican, whose office was led by Chief of Staff Liesl Hickey, held on.

Fast forward 10 years, and the two women met for the first time at Tonic, a bar in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, for what they jokingly call their “blind date.”

The encounter was a success.

Lapp and Hickey still work against each other in politics. A veteran of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Lapp is the founder and president of House Majority PAC. Hickey, the onetime executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is a founding partner of Ascent Media.

But the two women come together several times a month to host their own podcast about House races, a topic of increasing national interest this year.

“House Talk” just came out with its 19th episode. Its subscribers on iTunes are increasing, but Lapp and Hickey aren’t after the mass appeal of cable news.

“You can’t have a political TV host get into the weeds the way they can,” said The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter, who set them up.

Like many women running for office this year, Lapp and Hickey’s appeal may lie in their authenticity: They talk about what they know and care about. And in a city known for polarization, their shared experiences — as strategists and moms — is a rare transcendence of partisanship.

Women in politics

On a recent Monday this spring, the two sat side by side, armed with printed notes and water bottles in a conference room at EMILY’s List’s downtown headquarters.  

A recent purchase of portable microphones allows them to go where their guests are. They were interviewing EMILY’s List executive director Emily Cain, a former House candidate herself, and VIEW PAC executive director Julie Conway about women running for Congress this year.

“They’re telling their own stories. They’re not trying to tell a male story,” Hickey said on the show, alluding to the authenticity female candidates are bringing to campaigns this year.

The podcast allows Lapp and Hickey to share their stories and knowledge, too. Having both experienced the 2006 cycle, they’ve been at the forefront of campaigns for longer than many of the operatives and pundits dipping their toes into this year’s midterms.

“They speak for a lot of us who have been working on the House side for a long time, often when other parts of politics were getting more attention,” said Democratic consultant Ian Russell, who was a guest on the 15th episode, which covered crowded Democratic primaries.

Both women are raising three kids in between demanding jobs. Lapp is married to another Democratic operative, ad maker John Lapp. Hickey is married to an oyster farmer. Working in the podcast format fit into their busy schedules — jeans welcome and no blowouts necessary.

Both Lapp and Hickey became interested in politics from an early age. Lapp’s earliest political memory is watching vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro’s plane land at Boeing Field outside of Seattle. Hickey played former Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran in Model Congress in high school.

They both got their starts working in similar moderate, suburban environments — Lapp worked for Rep. Adam Smith, who’s from her home state of Washington. Hickey grew up in Florida but cut her teeth in Illinois politics.

“The fact that they’re women who are involved at the highest level of House race politics, there aren’t a ton of those out there,” Walter said.

When it comes to campaigns, Lapp said she’s noticed female operatives are often less interested in “the politics-as-sport mentality” and more interested in voter psychology.

“I really like thinking about why are these voters voting for Obama and Donald Trump? Like what is going on in their heads?” Lapp said.

“That’s why swing districts are more fun,” Hickey added. “You actually have to go out and talk to a bunch of voters who don’t really want to vote for someone like your potential candidate, and how do you get them to want to?”

That level of inquisitiveness makes them well-suited to host a podcast. Before starting, they reached out to two pollsters, Republican Kristen Soltis Anderson and Democrat Margie Omero, hosts of “The Pollsters” podcast.  

“I had been doing my podcast for over two years, and had found that there really was this appetite for a podcast that has voices from different sides of the aisle but is not a debate show,” Soltis Anderson said.

Walter pointed out that women have often been the ones having civil, bipartisan conversations, going back to Dee Dee Myers and Mary Matalin co-hosting CNBC’s “Equal Time” talk show in 1995.

“We’ll disagree about whether Obamacare is good policy or whatever, but we’re not going to have a whole show about that,” Lapp said.

In the trenches

Most of the “House Talk” episodes feature at least one guest, except for the most recent, in which Lapp and Hickey shared their lists — with strong, but polite, disagreements — on the races they see as most competitive.

Walter was the first guest, appearing on the inaugural episode about last year’s special election in Georgia. Since then, they’ve had on one member of Congress (Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos), other political analysts such as Nathan L. Gonzales and Dave Wasserman, operatives and pollsters from both sides of the aisle, and reporters Abby Livingston and Alex Roarty.

“They’re not people who are on cable news,” Hickey said. “They’re people who are actually in the trenches working on campaigns.”

They’ve talked about wave elections, millennial voters, the state of the Republican Party, independent expenditures and specific states.

“There’s a real craft to our business that’s incredibly interesting,” Hickey said. “And if you take it seriously and you learn it, it’s a really fun career.”

That shows on air. Unlike some podcasts that give way to rambling, tangential conversations, theirs is focused but with plenty of lighter interludes.   

The hosts are getting better at social media, with the help of an intern who also helps with research. Another woman from Hickey’s office helps with recording. The primary audience is in D.C., but they’ve also heard from listeners outside the Beltway who Lapp said sounded like them in college — “into politics and kind of looking for something that’s more detailed and insidery.”

The future?

Lapp and Hickey are still on opposing sides in 2018.  

“Our goals are very different for the cycle and so [we’re] not talking a lot of shop,” Hickey said.

On the show and in real life, though, they often finish each other’s sentences.

“They’re a throwback to the way D.C. used to be 20 to 25 years ago where there would be more bipartisan friendships,” Walter said.

But how long will House races be cool? The hosts know presidential chatter will soon eclipse the scrutiny House contests are receiving this year. But with redistricting around the corner, they think the appetite for House knowledge will still be there.

“We haven’t even talked about what happens after November. We’re kinda just getting through this year,” Lapp said.

For now, they’re hoping to match the summer intensity of the campaigns by starting to record once a week in June.

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