Steady Simms Guides House Republicans Through Tumultuous 2016
A framed collection of 10 Post-It notes hangs on the wall above Rob Simms’ desk. Each yellow square has a different emotion written in black Sharpie, but with the same stern looking face. It’s a monument to Simms’ steadiness from former co-workers, and that’s precisely what House Republicans need this cycle.
As Executive Director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Simms presides over the tension between Republicans’ holding their largest House majority in 80 years and the prospect of a polarizing presidential nominee who could wipe it all away in November.
“Rob’s style is calm and deep-thinking. He’s a good manager who doesn’t get flustered,” said NRCC Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon. “I’m not big into drama, and neither is he.”
The two men are in their second cycle together at the committee, which spent more than $150 million in the 2012 and 2014 cycles ensuring that the House majority remained in GOP hands. But this year could be the most challenging of all, with the prospect that volatile billionaire businessman Donald Trump’s presidential bid causes Republican candidates to suffer down the ballot.
But Simms isn’t a stranger to tough situations.
Simms is unique because he was born and raised in the capital region. The 44-year-old Beltway native was born at Columbia Hospital for Women (which is now condominiums) in Northwest D.C. and grew up in Alexandria, where he attended J.E.B. Stuart High School, delivered The Washington Post and was the self-described “world’s worst waiter” at Ruby Tuesday’s at the Springfield Mall.
His parents weren’t particularly political (
his father was an elevator mechanic for the Architect of the Capitol), but campaigns were in his blood.
A framed, silver and black matchbook from his grandmother’s unsuccessful campaign for Clerk-Treasurer of Valparaiso, Ind., sits on a shelf behind his desk with the words, “Your Vote and Influence Appreciated” on it. Selma Lindall Reibly passed away in 2003 at the age of 90.
Simms’ political career began in 1994, when he was attending George Mason University and worked as a finance assistant for Republican Kyle McSlarrow in one of his two runs for Virginia’s 8th District seat. McSlarrow lost that year, 59-39 percent, against Democrat Jim Moran.
“Unfortunately, the Republican tidal wave didn’t reach the Potomac,” Simms deadpanned.
After some work as a fundraiser, he headed to Georgia, where he faced one of his first big challenges.
During the 1998 gubernatorial campaign, former state Attorney General Mike Bowers’ decade-long extramarital affair came to light as House Republicans were in the process of impeaching President Bill Clinton.
Simms started as Bowers’ deputy finance director but morphed into the political director, and the campaign faced the affair head-on. The candidate did a series of 15 media interviews and the campaign aired a television ad with Bowers’ wife speaking directly to camera. Bowers fell about 3,000 votes short (out of 418,000 cast) of pushing the GOP race to a runoff.
Simms stayed in Georgia to work for former Atlanta Falcons star offensive lineman Mike Kenn’s bid for Fulton County Commission chairman. The area was still on edge after multiple bombings by Eric Rudolph (including the 1996 bombing in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park), and Kenn was running against the city’s former police chief, Eldrin Bell.
Kenn was recruited to run but wasn’t happy with his consultants.
“I wasn’t your typical politician,” Kenn told Roll Call. “I needed to get somebody else or I was dropping out.”
He immediately hit it off with Simms, who is an avid sports fan.
“He had a great understanding of the political process,” Kenn recalled, “At that time, I was a political novice.”
Kenn broadened the traditional Republican coalition by reaching out to gay and minority voters and won the race, 53-47 percent. Simms stayed on to work as communications director but eventually landed back in Virginia to tried to help Republicans get control of the Legislature
In May 2000, a
corruption scandal swirled around Kenn and he called Simms for help. In the end, the chairman’s chief of staff pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and went to prison, along with one of Kenn’s colleagues on the commission. At Kenn’s request, Simms moved back to Atlanta to be his new chief of staff, where he stayed through the 2002 re-election.
Simms later became a state and local lobbyist before he heard the call of the campaign trail once again, as senior adviser to Karen Handel, who was running for Georgia secretary of state in 2006. Handel was the former president of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce who Kenn and Simms originally recruited to run for county commission in 2002 in a race that she would go on to lose. She was elected to the commission the following year in a special election to fill Kenn’s seat when he resigned.
After Handel was elected secretary of state, she asked Simms to be a deputy secretary of state, running day-to-day operations. Her office oversaw the 2008 elections, including the implementation of the state’s photo identification law. That eventually put Simms on the hot seat as a witness in federal court and testifying on the Hill in front of the Senate Committee on Rules & Administration.
In 2010, Simms was a senior adviser for Handel’s campaign for governor. She finished first in the seven-candidate GOP primary with 34 percent, but lost the runoff to Nathan Deal, 50.2-49.8 percent, a margin of less than 3,000 out of more than a half-million votes.
Veteran GOP consultant Chris LaCivita subsequently connected Simms to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which promptly sent him 4,000 miles away to Alaska. After Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost the GOP primary, the committee sent Simms to The Last Frontier to assist nominee Joe Miller, for what Simms thought would be a quick trip.
“It wasn’t pitched to me that I would stay,” Simms recalled.
But it was a wild last few weeks with an undisciplined candidate (his personal security handcuffed a local reporter at a campaign event) and Simms stayed for the duration of the campaign. Miller lost the general election to Murkowski’s write-in campaign.
Simms returned to D.C. and worked as chief of staff for Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster until he got a call from his closest friend.
In late 2012,
Mike Shields left his position as the NRCC’s political director
to become chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. Shields then called his fraternity brother to see if he was interested in succeeding him.
“He’s the first person I consult when I take a new job or date a new girl,” Shields said. “It wasn’t lost on me that this is what we dreamed about.”
“Our friends joke that we have the same brain,” Shields admitted. “He’s more tactically sound, I’m more common sense.”
Years ago, they combined forces to join a fantasy baseball league together to get to know a crop of senior Republican consultants. Simms is still in the league with his team, Fistful of Dollars.
“Rob is a very orderly person,” explained Shields, who should know as a former roommate. Simms’ desk is spotless and features just a computer screen, keyboard, phone and inbox unencumbered by even a single piece of paper.
According to his co-workers, Simms is also unflappable (he greets most breaking news with a shrug of his shoulders), always responds to emails (even from Washington Nationals games) and is regarded as a consensus builder. And he’s engaged to Cindy Boyd, a senior aide for the House Committee on Homeland Security.
In his transition to executive director this cycle, Simms and his team dedicated time to deconstructing and reconstructing past races in order to prepare for the future.
“In some ways, coming close can validate what you did, but coming close can tear you apart because the margins are so small,” Simms said, also drawing on narrow losses from his past. “I’d rather lose by 10 points than 10 votes.”
If Trump’s candidacy torpedoes Republicans’ chances of holding the House with dozens of blowout races, Simms might be dreaming of those close contests from his past.