Alarmed by Trump, Obama Alums Launch Campaigns of their own

Elena Schneider | POLITICO

Sam Jammal wasn’t planning to run for Congress yet — the 35-year-old former staffer in Barack Obama’s Commerce Department is still paying off his student loans. But after watching Donald Trump win the presidency and thinking about what it could mean for Obama’s legacy, Jammal reconsidered.

“It sunk in during those days and weeks after the election — this isn’t good,” said Jammal, who last month announced a bid for GOP Rep. Ed Royce’s seat in Southern California. Jammal accused Trump of using “divisive tactics that break apart the foundation our country is built on.”

“So I had to ask: What am I going to do about it?” he added.

Jammal isn’t alone. Shaken by Trump’s victory and motivated by the potential undoing of what they worked to help Obama accomplish, roughly a dozen former White House and agency staffers have moved home to run for Congress. They’re leaning on advice and seeking endorsements and donations from a roster of ex-Obama White House and campaign hands.

Some House races have even drawn multiple former Obama hands into the arena. In Texas, former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough and ex-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have lined up behind Ed Meier, a former State Department official, while ex-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is backing his former employee, Colin Allred, who was also an Obama White House intern and professional football player. Meier and Allred are competing in a crowded primary to take on Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who didn’t attract a single Democratic opponent last year.

Alums of Obama’s State and Veterans Affairs departments are also among nine candidates facing off for the Democratic nomination in a Northern Virginia battleground district. And outside Detroit, the former chief of staff for the Obama administration’s auto bailout raked in donations from a host of former White House officials to get her campaign off the ground.

“What drew them to the Obama world are the same qualities that make them want to run for office,” said Erik Smith, a former Obama presidential campaign consultant. “But their participation is accelerated as the Obama diaspora moved home — more so since some would’ve stayed under a Democratic administration — and with Obama’s call to action in their heads, it drove people to run earlier than they would’ve otherwise.”

Fundraising disclosures for these candidates are littered with familiar Obama-era names: Antony Blinken, Obama’s deputy secretary of state; Tara McGuinness, a senior White House communications adviser; Cheryl Mills, former State Department counselor to Secretary Hillary Clinton; and Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, all gave to various congressional candidates who worked in the Obama administration. Donors hail from all parts of the administration, from agencies to inside the White House.

They’re giving to candidates like Andy Kim, who served on Obama’s NSC and is challenging New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur. In Michigan, Elissa Slotkin, a former Defense Department official, is running against Rep. Mike Bishop, and Haley Stevens, who helped administer the bailout of the automotive industry, is taking on GOP Rep. Dave Trott.

Lindsey Davis Stover, who served in the Department of Veterans Affairs under Obama, is in a nine-way primary to take on Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, which also features former State Department official Alison Kiehl Friedman. This week, another administration official — former Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ambassador Dan Baer — started a campaign for an open seat outside Denver.

“Being on people’s radar — who either know me or are one degree away from me and who know this campaign world and know that money makes a difference and that you need resources to put up the fight — is a really wonderful resource,” said Kim, whose opponent MacArthur is one of the wealthiest members of Congress. “The reality is that money is important as a first-time candidate.”

It’s not limited to congressional candidates. Further down the ballot, Buffy Wicks, who helped craft Obama’s grass-roots-centric presidential campaigns and served in the White House, is running for a Berkeley-based state Assembly seat in California.

Her early donors include both of Obama’s presidential campaign managers, David Plouffe and Jim Messina, as well as a host of other colleagues from 2008 and 2012.

Informal listservs started by various Obama officials spread campaign announcements and donation requests. The Obama Alumni Association, which doesn’t endorse candidates, regularly sends emails to “update you on Obama alumni who are running for office,” adding that it’s “thrilling to see so many alums willing to run, just as Barack Obama did more than 20 years ago.” In its July email, it flagged 23 new candidates.

“There’s no doubt we’ll see Obama alums run at a much higher rate in 2018 and 2020,” said Brent Colburn, a former Obama campaign and administration official who has hosted candidate meet-and-greets in the San Francisco Bay area.

“Even those of us who aren’t running are looking for ways we can give back and support the legacy of the president, so you’re not only seeing more people likely to run, but there’s also more of us who are more likely to hold fundraisers, host events for candidates and connect people to contacts in our network,” Colburn said.

That network helps candidates find early answers to the tough questions they face when running for office for the first time.

“You have to prove you can raise resources to take on an established incumbent,” said Meier, the former State Department official running against Sessions. Meier has been endorsed by McDonough and Lew, and his campaign finance disclosures include dozens of Obama administration and Clinton State Department alumni.

Colin Allred, an Obama White House intern and professional football player, is running in the primary to take on Republican Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas. Allred has the backing of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

Running on Obama administration credentials won’t be enough for these candidates, warned Will Jawando, a self-described “OG Obama-ite” who lost a primary for an open Maryland congressional seat in 2016.

“It’s something from your résumé that’s important and shows your commitment to public service and you’re a progressive, but all politics is local, and anyone who’s running has to be able to demonstrate what they’ve done nationally and how they can translate it locally,” said Jawando, who’s now running for Montgomery County Council in suburban Washington.

It also opens a line of attack to tag Obama-era candidates as carpetbaggers, returning to their hometowns after long stints in Washington, D.C.

Still, for many, the early support outweighs any costs. “I do think that’s a hurdle and a challenge, but it’s not something you can’t overcome, and they have to be ready to respond to that,” Jawando added.

The first conversation Allred had about running for Congress was with Castro, his former boss at HUD, as they worked on the transition from Obama to Trump in January.

“I told him, ‘I’m thinking about doing this crazy thing,’” said Allred, who faces Meier in the Texas primary to take on Sessions. “He said, ‘You should absolutely do it, we need a new generation of folks.’

“That conversation pushed me on my way to running,” Allred added. Castro, a key figure in Texas Democratic politics, soon endorsed his former employee, who has also raised money from former White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and a host of former colleagues at Perkins Coie, the powerhouse Democratic law firm.

Jammal got nods from Cecilia Muñoz, Obama’s director of domestic policy, and former Organizing for America Executive Director Jon Carson.

“The Obama network — or family, really — is just helping me with advice to help me get the campaign off the ground,” Jammal said.

Jammal and others will need that networking help in primaries growing more crowded by the day. Businessman Andy Thorburn just pledged to spend $2 million of his own money in the race, and a former lottery winner, Gil Cisneros, has also entered along with several other Democrats.

“They’re not going to vote on where you worked previously, but whether or not they connect with you,” Allred said. “People are not talking about the past right now. Everyone is so consumed with the present and worried about the future, and that’s where the focus is.”