Heard on the Hill

With less Lululemon and less partisan sniping, campaign staffers adjust to the Hill

Some 2018 campaign staffers are working on the official side for the first time

Joshua Kelley, right, managed the winning Senate campaign of Indiana Republican Mike Braun, center. Kelley is now Braun’s chief of staff.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While some Hill aides flock to New Hampshire and Iowa to staff Democratic presidential teams, plenty of others have been making the opposite transition.

These staffers worked on 2018 House and Senate campaigns and now find themselves immersed in the official side in Congress. Cycling on and off the Hill every two years is common. But for those who have never held official-side jobs before, the first 100 days of the 116th Congress have been an interesting transition period.

Working with the enemy 

Drew Godinich is used to being in attack mode.

As the California-based spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last cycle, he helped Democrats flip seven seats in the state. Before the DCCC, he worked for Colorado Democrat Morgan Carroll’s losing campaign in the 6th District in 2016. 

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For two cycles, it’s been his job to beat up on Republicans. But now he’s on the Hill for the first time as communications director for California freshman TJ Cox, who won a Central Valley seat last fall. 

“When you run a campaign, you’re working for a candidate and a party,” Godinich said. It’s different on the official side. “All of a sudden, your boss is everyone in the district, not the party,” he added.

Collaborating with Republicans on joint priorities has led to different — and often more positive — conversations than he’s used to. “That’s been a nice surprise,” Godinich said.

 

Jake Wilkins, the communications director for North Dakota GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer, has observed a similar shift. When he was communications director for the state party during the 2018 campaign, most of his communicating was about “personalities and people.”

“When you’re working on the official side, it’s about issues,” he said, noting that his boss has introduced several bills with 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, for example.

Wilkins interned on the Hill for former Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, but this is his first full-time job in Congress. He worked at the Department of Agriculture in D.C. before shipping off to North Dakota — sight unseen — 100 days before the Senate election. His job there was a sprint to the finish line.

But the Senate isn’t like that.

“We’re thinking longer term — what can get done in six years rather than in the next two days,” Wilkins said. 

That collaborative dynamic can mean a slower pace. “It is a lot more of a 9-to-5 routine,” Wilkins said.  Working for the state party, he’d often have work to keep him busy all night. “There’s only so much work I can do after 6:30,” he said now. 

Following your boss

Sometimes taking a Hill job is about just that — finding a paycheck after the campaign is over. But for many campaign staffers who are making their first foray on to the Hill, they’re doing it because they have a strong relationship with a lawmaker they worked with on the trail. 

Joshua Kelley, the chief of staff for Indiana Sen. Mike Braun, wouldn’t be here if he didn’t trust the freshman lawmaker and respect his approach to politics. Kelley had spent his entire career in Republican politics in Indiana, helping build the political consulting firm Mark It Red. 

It was hard for Kelley to give up his role in that business, but he also saw coming to Washington with Braun as the culmination of much of his work in campaign politics. Braun ran as a businessman outsider, defeating two GOP congressmen in the primary and eventually knocking off Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly.

“We’d been on the journey together the whole time,” said Kelley, who managed Braun’s campaign. It would have felt like “unfinished business,” he said, to part ways with Braun after helping get him elected to the Senate. 

Lifestyle changes

Kelley still commutes home to Indiana every weekend. The fast-paced life of the campaign is rivaled by a nonstop schedule on the Hill. He described his weeks in D.C. as one long day with naps in between. 

When he’s in Washington, Kelley sometimes misses being out and about in the state at events like the Kosciusko County fish fry, for example, a campaign trail staple. But going home to Indiana affords him the chance to still make the rounds with the senator and the state staff. Listening to Hoosiers was part of his job last year, and it is now too. The difference is that he’s no longer pushing a message (like “vote for Braun”) at the end of those conversations.

For campaign staffers who take an official-side job, the move to Washington can mean the end of a nomadic lifestyle. Multiple congressional staffers who came off the trail have said they bought furniture for the first time this year. 

But D.C. also has it challenges. 

“In many ways it feels smaller than Bismarck, North Dakota, because everyone here knows everyone,” Wilkins said. And everyone’s following politics all the time. Whereas a political conversation might fly under the radar in Bismarck for most of the year, staffers have to be more careful what they say out in the open at Bullfeathers or Union Pub. 

And then there’s the formality of dressing for work in a congressional office, which is typically more buttoned up than life on the trail in, say, California. 

“You can’t wear Lululemon to the Capitol,” Godinich said. 

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