Matt Lewis

Why Nick Ayers is the most hated campaign operative in America

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

As Tim Pawlenty’s campaign desperately tries to gain steam, the long knives appear to be out for his wunderkind campaign manager Nick Ayers. This past Friday, The HuffPost’s Jon Ward reported,

“Two Republican sources contacted The Huffington Post on Friday, independent of each other, to share rumors that Pawlenty’s campaign manager, Nick Ayers, could be on his way out…

If Mitt Romney was the most hated candidate among his 2008 GOP peers, Nick Ayers is probably the most hated among the political operative set — and for many of the same reasons: His self-promotion is utterly transparent — and his early successes have made him a target of jealous contemporaries.

Until now, Ayers’ career has been nothing short of meteoric. In late 2006, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue picked his young campaign manager (who is also married to Perdue’s second cousin) to work for the Republican Governors Association (RGA). At the age of 24, Ayers became the RGA’s youngest executive director ever.

But if Ayers was lucky to work for a talented Georgia governor, he was truly blessed to be at the helm of the RGA when Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour chaired the organization. Barbour, of course, is known as one of the most successful fundraisers in America, and also as one of the most brilliant strategists in the Republican Party. Moreover, in the wake of Obama’s 2008 election (and Obamacare), 2010 was destined to be a good year for Republicans.

Ayers found himself on third base and assumed he had hit a triple.

Just as major league baseball managers probably get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go badly, top political operatives are sometimes anointed “the next Karl Rove” when they are lucky enough to work for a talented candidate during a great year. This phenomenon is aided by the fact that political writers are always looking for the next “it” operative. For example, fresh off of Sen. John Thune’s win over former Majority Leader Tom Daschle, operative Dick Wadhams was seen as the next rising star. This designation abruptly ended when his candidate, Sen. George Allen uttered the word “Macaca.”

The point is, working for Barbour in 2010 made Ayers look good — maybe too good for his own good. The problem is, Barbour is no longer around to make fundraising calls for Ayers (in fact, Ayers chose to work for Pawlenty over Barbour, a move some observers saw as disloyal.)

If Pawlenty assumed tapping Ayers as his manager meant he could automatically raise money from Barbour’s network of donors, he was mistaken. “… if you’re a Haley Barbour RGA contributor,” GOP strategist Alex Castellanos told TheDC’s Alexis Levinson in April, “that relationship is probably more important to you than your relationship with staff … it is Haley Barbour’s lifelong network that we’re talking about — not Nick Ayers’…”

Still, 2010 made Ayers look like a rock star, and it was during this time in that Ayers’ contemporaries began to notice a change in him. “He’s a very ambitious kid. He’s a smart guy. He’s not evil. But his ego grew along the lines of the federal deficit,” said one strategist who worked with Ayers in the past.

“It’s all about him,” said another operative. “He’s David Hasselhoff.”

From the time he signed with Pawlenty, other top operatives have had it out for him. Even the email he sent out in April, announcing he was joining Pawlenty’s staff, drew immediate ridicule. As Politico’s Ben Smith noted at the time, “Ayers, in his own email, writes a bit as though he’s the one who will be running for president.”

It has gotten so bad that other presidential campaigns have begun taking jabs. Ayers recently participated in profiles of himself for The New York Times, presumably prompting Jon Huntsman’s campaign manager, Matt David, to issue the following edict to his staff:

Working on campaigns should be a very selfless act and we want to make sure that we remain disciplined in communicating the message, rather than the process or personalities behind the candidate.

Here’s an example of the type of profile piece that we won’t participate in:

Time will tell whether Ayers becomes the next Rove or the next Wadhams.

Just as it was probably wrong to attribute too much of the RGA’s success in 2010 to Ayers, it would be wrong to attribute all of Pawlenty’s problems in 2011 to him. There’s nothing wrong with Ayers that can’t be fixed by a first-place finish next month in the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll — a possibility which is not absurd.

There is reason to believe that expectations surrounding Michele Bachmann’s performance have been raised too high and that Pawlenty is coming on strong. But if this fails to materialize, Ayers could very well be out of a job.

  • Karen

    I know Nick Ayres to work tirelessly for his candidate.  I’m of the belief that the assumption of his “self-promotion” is Ayers utilizing all the resources available to him to work the campaign.  I also know he would be the first to say he was blessed for the opportunity with the RGA but he worked hard to get there.

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  • michaelrcaputo

    Jealous long knives are out for Nick Ayers. This is just envious crap from competing political operatives. I met Ayers with Haley Barbour during 2010 cycle – he’s a very sharp young guy. And if he leaked Bachmann’s migraine story, kudos to him. It was real news, bad for an opponent – that’s his job.

  • Greaseman

    Didn’t Mehlman start the 72 hour program or did Hazelwood start it? I thought the 72 hour program was successful and I participated in many of them. Mehlman certainly had a plan and communicated it to the GOP masses prior to ever being Chair of the RNC. Also interesting that he told WH staffers in 2004 to get out and campaign or don’t re-apply.

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  • Adam D

    Well said about campaign managers. The only one I have ever seen who deserves all the praises they have received is Ken Mehlman for his role in micro targeting in 2004. He changed campaigns forever and helped Bush win a campaign which saw the liberals/Democrats throw everything they could muster at him. Most campaign managers with good reputations ran campaigns they should have won during good years against weak candidates.