DCCC Turns to Mook’s Ground Game for Fall

Posted July 26, 2010 at 12:00am

Democratic operative Robby Mook’s entry into politics was a
little dirty.

“I remember standing in front of the dump for hours,” Mook
recalled. “Everyone takes their trash to the dump in Vermont, so
that’s where you campaign.”

From a dump in Vermont to high-stakes presidential primaries to
a top-tier Senate race, Mook has built his career by being in the
middle of some of the biggest political battles in the country.

This cycle he’s in a critical position to help Democrats as they
try to keep control of the House of Representatives.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
reserved $28 million in TV ad time to defend 40 districts. Because
of campaign finance law, that money will be spent in independent
expenditures, an effort Mook will direct.

You wouldn’t expect a party to put a 30-year-old in charge of
tens of millions of dollars — the DCCC spent $75 million in IE
money last cycle, according to the Campaign Finance Institute —
but Democratic strategists believe Mook has the experience and the
temperament for the job.

The son of a physics professor and a hospital administrator,
Mook grew up in Sharon, Vt. Technically, he was born in New
Hampshire (because that’s where the nearest hospital was located),
and ties to both states have come in handy.

It seems like politics has always been a part of Mook’s life,
whether attending a rally for Bill Clinton in Burlington as a
middle-school student or organizing a phone bank for the president
four years later.

In ninth grade, Mook auditioned for the school play, and the
head of the theater department also happened to be a state
legislator running for re-election.

“It was one of the funniest auditions I had ever seen,” former
state Rep. Matt Dunne said in a recent phone interview from
Vermont, where he is running for governor as a Democrat.

Mook secured a role in “The Imaginary Invalid,” a French comedy
by Moliere, and volunteered for Dunne in his spare time.

“Robby was clearly more interested in my campaign than in the
play,” Dunne said. “We had a little sense there was a political
gene in him.”

After high school, Mook went off to Columbia University, where
he studied the classics because he always wanted to read Greek. He
didn’t take a single political science course in college, but he
continued learning politics during the summers.

As Dunne climbed the political ladder, he hired Mook as the
first paid staffer for Vermont House Democrats before Mook had even
finished his undergraduate degree. But it wasn’t an easy time as
Democrats lost their majority.

After college, Mook worked as field director for Vermont
Democrats’ coordinated campaign in 2002, another tough year in
which Republicans took over the governorship after five terms of
Howard Dean (D). But Mook followed the former governor onto the
national political scene when Dean launched his presidential
bid.

Mook started as Dean’s deputy field director in New Hampshire,
where he finished second to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and then
shifted to Wisconsin, where the former governor finished third.

After staying with the Dean campaign “until the bitter end,” as
Mook put it, he signed on with the Democratic National Committee
and was get-out-the-vote director for the Wisconsin coordinated
campaign. Kerry narrowly won the state but lost the election.

Mook’s resume is dotted with wins and losses, but he’s unfazed
by it. “I think you learn more when you lose,” Mook said. “I’m glad
I’ve had both.”

In 2005, Mook managed Democrat Dave Marsden’s win for state
delegate in Virginia, taking over a Republican open seat, and in
2006 he ran the Democrats’ coordinated campaign in Maryland when
Martin O’Malley (D) knocked off Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) and Benjamin
L. Cardin (D) defeated Michael Steele (R) for the open Senate
seat.

In 2007, Mook returned to presidential politics, this time for
Hillary Rodham Clinton.

He started as Clinton’s state director in Nevada, which rose in
prominence after the Senator’s loss in Iowa and re-emergence in New
Hampshire. Clinton won Nevada’s popular vote, though Barack Obama
won more delegates.

Mook shifted to Ohio for Clinton, then to Indiana. After the
pressure cooker of the Clinton campaign, Mook landed in New
Hampshire, in the middle of one of the most competitive Senate
races in the country.

Mook first volunteered for Jeanne Shaheen in 1996 when she first
ran for governor and he was still in high school, but in 2008 he
managed her race and led her to victory over incumbent Sen. John
Sununu (R).

“I know from the outstanding job he did running my campaign that
his energy and positive attitude are limitless. He is undaunted by
challenges, and his political skills are unparalleled,” Shaheen
said.

She isn’t the only one impressed by Mook.

“I’ve seen Robby in action in a lot of races. Clearly he’s the
right man for the job,” DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen said. “He
shares my view that we have to draw a sharp contrast on the issues
that matter to voters.”

The Maryland Congressman hired Mook last year to be the DCCC’s
political director, but after he “proved himself superbly in the
specials,” Van Hollen entrusted him with the IE for the rest of the
cycle. Mook directed the independent expenditures for special
election victories in Pennsylvania’s 12th and New York’s 23rd,
where a strong third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, emerged to
complicate the race.

Mook’s “ability to quickly change and go after Hoffman, to
quickly retool, showed strong political instincts,” said Jon Vogel,
the DCCC’s executive director who also ran the committee’s IE in
2008.

Vogel compared Mook’s job to running a factory, moving lots of
product very quickly through a system. In this case, the product is
polls, television ads and direct-mail pieces. “It’s a nerve-racking
job,” Vogel said from experience. “Every strategic decision has a
risk.”

“I try to stay out of the Beltway process bubble because what
actually matters is the direction of the country, and that’s
determined by who is in the majority,” Mook explained.

After working side by side with Vogel at the DCCC for more than
a year, Mook is sequestered across South Capitol Street to the
Fairchild Building and prohibited from strategizing with committee
staff on dozens of campaigns.

But he won’t be alone. Van Hollen teamed him up with John Lapp,
the former DCCC executive director who ran the IE in 2006 and
advised as a consultant last cycle.

“It’s a tough climate and tough races, but he’s just the guy to
do it,” Lapp said of Mook, whom he described as a “happy warrior”
for his keen sense of humor and energy.

He’ll need both in an election cycle that seems to favor
Republicans, in part because Democrats no longer have the common
enemy of President George W. Bush.

“We’re running against a lot of very different candidates,” Mook
said.

The second in a series of profiles of
committee independent expenditure directors.