Smoke billowed out of Ted Kennedy’s living room fireplace as donors gathered in his D.C. home for a fundraiser, though the legendary senator was still on the Hill for votes.
But that wasn’t too much for Tom Lopach.
“I don’t know anyone, my house is on fire and my husband is gone,” Vicki Kennedy, the senator’s wife, recalled recently. “But Tom was totally unflappable. He just had the caterers serving hors d'oeuvres out front.” The house was evacuated, the fire department came and went and by the time the senator called to check in, she jokingly told her husband, “We don’t need you anymore.”
Lopach had everything under control.
The industrious political aide worked his way up in Kennedy’s campaign office beginning in the 1990s, from filing finance reports to being in charge of the Massachusetts Democrat’s fundraising. Now the party has entrusted him with an even bigger job.
As executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Lopach is at the helm of a $150 million-plus organization responsible for leading Democrats back to the majority.
“He has a very steady demeanor, very even tempered,” DSCC Chairman Jon Tester said. “I don’t like a lot of drama myself.”
“Plus," he added, "he’s smart as hell.”
The senator and Lopach both hail from Montana, but they didn’t connect until Tester’s then-chief of staff, Stephanie Schriock, took the helm at EMILY’s List and offered Lopach as a potential replacement.
“When Stephanie left, it was apparent to me that I needed a solid Montana link in my office,” Tester said.
Lopach served as the senator’s chief of staff from 2010 through his competitive 2012 re-election race, until Tester chose to bring him along to the DSCC.
A map of Helena, Mont., from 1875 covers the wall across from Lopach’s new desk, a daily reminder of where the 41-year-old was born and raised. His father was a CPA and his mother stayed home when the kids were young, but she planted the civic seed by taking Lopach to city council meetings.
After high school, Lopach moved about 300 miles west to attend Gonzaga University because he thought Spokane, Wash., offered more diversity as a “big city.” Gonzaga has become a family institution. His brother-in-law, Thayne McCulloh, was an adjunct faculty member during part of Lopach's time there and is now president of the university. And Lopach’s sister Julie is dean of admissions.
Tom started to get a taste of the Beltway and politics as a summer intern in the Clinton White House for now-Rep. Doris Matsui of California in the Office of Public Liaison. After graduating in 1996, Lopach moved back to Helena and lived with his mother while working for Democratic Rep. Pat Williams, who did not seek re-election that year.
“I found Tom to be quick, intelligent, and always on his toes,” Williams told CQ Roll Call.
“I came to realize what a difference folks can make in people’s lives with casework,” Lopach remembered about his work in the final months of Williams’ congressional career. Williams retired, but Lopach didn’t cut ties to the family. When he moved to D.C. in 1997, Lopach lived with the congressman’s daughter, daughter-in-law and grandson. Lopach worked briefly for a couple of consulting firms, at times on LGBT issues, but, “I knew I missed politics,” he said.
Lopach trekked back to Washington state to help retired Army Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer take on GOP Rep. Jack Metcalf in the 2nd District in 1998. Cammermeyer became a hero to the LGBT community when she was discharged in 1992 for disclosing she is gay, according to the Los Angeles Times .
“I came to the race not knowing much and I was guided by a kid who probably didn’t know much more,” Cammermeyer recalled fondly. “He helped me become a better candidate.”
Lopach, who is gay, helped the first-time candidate raise more than $1 million and sacrificed his fashion sense in the process. When Al Swift forgot his shoes prior to a fundraiser, Lopach loaned the former Washington congressman his own pair and wore Birkenstocks with his suit to the event. Cammermeyer lost the race by 10 points, but Lopach landed on his feet with Kennedy.
“As a young Democrat, to have a chance to work for Ted Kennedy was an amazing experience,” said Lopach, who worked in the senator’s campaign operation for about eight years before his first tour of duty at the DSCC.
Lopach was finance director under Chairman Charles E. Schumer of New York in the 2008 cycle, when the committee expanded Democrats’ majority by eight seats.
This cycle, the party starts in a very different position. Democrats need a gain of five seats for a majority and four seats to control the Senate if the party holds the White House. They may have to defeat a handful of strong GOP senators to pull it off.
But the methodical and deliberate Lopach is unfazed by the challenge and draws on the same advice he picked up from Kennedy, Schumer and Tester: “Leave it all on the field.”
Related: Profile: Jesse Ferguson Profile: Robby Mook Profile: Jeff Larson Profile: Martha McKenna Profile: Travis Lowe Profile: Mike Shields Profile: Mike DuHaime Profile: Brian Smoot Profile: Guy Cecil Profile: Phil Cox Profile: Colm O'Comartun Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Be the first to know about Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call race rating changes with our new Roll Call politics app!