Hill Staffers Hit the Trail Early to Aid Campaigns

Anti-Incumbent Mood Alters Usual Timetable

Posted June 11, 2010 at 5:14pm

The biennial exodus of Capitol Hill staffers to campaigns has started early this cycle as Democrats work to stem losses and Republicans gear up to maximize gains.

With the stakes high in this year’s midterms — particularly in the House, where Republicans are gunning to regain the majority they lost four years ago — the spotlight is already beginning to shift from Capitol Hill to the campaign trail, which is luring away Hill aides eager to help shore up their sides’ efforts.

A telltale sign that movement to campaigns, which usually does not begin in earnest until the August recess or later, has been accelerated this year is the fact that leadership offices already are losing staffers. Jennifer Morris, for example, left Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) press shop late last month to join Washington Republican Dino Rossi’s campaign to oust Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic Conference secretary.

In a year in which polls have shown anti-incumbent sentiment at an all-time high, the potential exists for a sizable shift in the balance of power in Congress, and aides say they want to trade their day job on the Hill, where legislative activity is slowing, for a post on the front lines of the action. A Washington Post–ABC News poll released last week indicated that just 29 percent of Americans were inclined to support their House Member in November, fewer than in the prelude to the 1994 midterms, when a GOP surge ended Democrats’ four-decade House majority.

“It’s a great environment to be a Republican running for any office,” said a former Hill staffer who recently left to work for a campaign. “Campaigns are exciting, and it’s an opportunity to help change the direction that our country is going.”

Signs of danger on the horizon were prevalent enough that a Democratic aide who asked not to be named decided to take an unpaid leave of absence from a press post at a House leadership office through November to work for a political communications and consulting firm in Washington, D.C. The aide, whose new job began this month, will focus primarily on helping vulnerable Democratic incumbents across the country.

“No one here is an easy, breezy safe seat,” said the aide, who has worked on past campaigns. “In any election year, but especially in sort of a difficult one and one we know is going to be challenging, it just seems important to make sure that people who have experience working on campaigns go out and do that. It’s putting your resources where they are most needed and can be best applied.”

On the opposing team, the prospect that the GOP could enjoy sizable electoral gains in November is luring Republican staffers away from Washington.

Dan Conston, formerly the communications director for Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), decided about two months ago to move to Kansas to run the campaign press shop for Rep. Jerry Moran, one of two GOP House Members vying to replace retiring Sen. Sam Brownback.

“I couldn’t justify to myself sitting out this campaign cycle with the amount of Republicans who are competitive and likely to win this year,” Conston said.

Like others who have left the Hill already this cycle, Conston has an extensive background in campaign work, most recently as a press aide for GOP presidential hopefuls Fred Thompson and John McCain.

Another trend that has gotten off the ground earlier than usual is staffers leaving rank-and-file Members’ legislative offices to work for their bosses’ campaigns. While that practice is fairly common, serious primary challenges to a number of vulnerable Democrats appear, at least anecdotally, to have accelerated it.

In January, for example, embattled Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s spokeswoman, Katie Laning Niebaum, moved over to the campaign, which on June 8 narrowly beat back a Democratic primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Sen. Michael Bennet’s press aide, Adrianne Marsh, relocated to Denver in April to serve as deputy campaign manager for the Colorado lawmaker, who faces a serious primary challenge from former state Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

“It wouldn’t be surprising to see efforts starting earlier than in years past, given the number of races in play and the eagerness of Hill staffers to help protect the majority,” a House Democratic leadership aide said.

To avoid a conflict, staffers who leave to work full time on campaigns are urged to make a clean break, shutting down their Hill BlackBerrys and e-mail accounts, for instance, and going totally off the federal payroll. However, some staffers use comp time to take shorter breaks from their Hill offices to volunteer for a few days on a campaign, particularly during the crunch immediately before voters go to the polls.

House leadership offices also tend to dispatch staffers to competitive districts to provide volunteer assistance to a final pre-election push to build goodwill within the caucus. Prior to the May 18 special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), for example, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) sent three staff members to Murtha’s former district for four days to help make a last-minute push for Democrat Mark Critz.

One Democratic leadership aide estimated that as much as three-fourths of that office’s staff would be out on the campaign trail in the final week or two prior to the midterms.

“We are very clear in our message to people that they have to make sure that it is absolutely clear that they are doing this on their own time and under all the rules,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said.

A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said the organization typically helps recruit current and former Hill staffers eager to work on campaigns and makes sure they are funneled to the appropriate races. Because of the perceived opportunities to pick off vulnerable Democrats this cycle, those efforts and an array of others are getting off the ground earlier than usual, the aide said.

“In terms of everything, we’re telling them to speed up the timeline as opposed to past cycles,” the aide said.