The McCain Campaign: A Leadership Shift

(Note: I wrote this originally for my personal blog, but I think RedState readers will find it interesting too, so I am posting my thoughts here as well.)

After leaving Sedona on June 30th with a clearer picture of the campaign’s financial plight, Terry and John Weaver returned to campaign headquarters with the resolve to lighten the campaign’s monthly burn rate.  They ordered each department to terminate members of their staff.  This day, which became known as Black Monday, ended with a much smaller campaign staff.  This of course impacted the Finance Department too; shrinking the organization to just seven members.   These reductions were needed, and in my view came very late considering our financial situation.

Meanwhile, while in Iraq, John realized the campaign needed more stringent control on spending and a fresh leadership perspective.  He decided to turn to Rick Davis, his 2000 campaign manager, long-time friend and confidant.  Up to this point, Rick had been serving as the campaign’s CEO, a position that was more relationship building than operational.

When John returned to Washington, DC he met with Terry and John Weaver and explained his decision to bring Rick Davis back into the leadership structure. Terry and John Weaver then resigned from the campaign, and the remaining staff at headquarters was abuzz with resignations.  The Finance Department went from its six members to three. Mary Kate Johnson, Jim McCray, her deputy, and two other members of the finance staff resigned that day.  At the close of business, a meeting was held with Rick Davis and the remaining staff.  People were looking around the room and wondering just how many days were left.

My sense of what went wrong up to this point was that the people running the campaign had earned their spurs in the Bush campaign where he was the presidential nominee in 2000 and the certain nominee in 2004. They seemed to feel in 2007 that John McCain was the presumptive nominee this time and that they could mount a large and costly campaign from the start, replicating their successful efforts in the Bush campaigns. They also seemed not to realize how weak John’s support was among the Conservative base, and how vital that base was to a successful fund raising effort.

Despite the fact the campaign was declared dead by the pundits, that the entire staff could fit into a single conference room, and that we were several million dollars in debt, not a single member of the Finance Committee abandoned their support for John McCain.

Without a Finance Director, Tom Loeffler turned to Susan Nelson, a former fundraiser who was working at his firm to take over the day-to-day operations. Tom also asked Brian Haley, a third year law student at UT Austin, who had taken the year off to work at Tom’s firm and assist him at the campaign to assume the responsibilities of the deputy finance director.

Rick, Tom, and Susan requested an emergency conference call with the National Finance Co-chairman that next day.  Rick explained the campaign’s situation. He shared that John had instituted a new Budget Oversight Committee with fiduciary responsibility over all major financial decisions at the Campaign and promised to reign in the out of control spending and begin to pay down the debt. The news was dire but the participants each recommitted their support.

Tom, Susan and Brian devised a new strategy to raise money for the campaign. They recommended we focus our major fundraising swings in four states: California, New York, Texas, and Florida. In addition, as an effort to save travel costs, they outlined a strategy to visit states in the periphery of the early Primary States where John was spending much of his time.  This was a tough period for all of us associated with the McCain campaign. John had sunk down to single digits in some polls, he trailed Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Fred Thompson by wide margins, Romney was on his way to a big win in the Iowa straw poll, and many press articles were no longer even mentioning John when discussing the field. Some friends were laughing at me for my continual support, and all but a very few told me his campaign was dead. I didn’t believe it and continued to believe his proven leadership, his determination, his character, and his view of the future (including Iraq and immigration) would eventually prevail. So we marched on.

For me the turning point came on John and Cindy’s trip to Aspen on August 15. I am a part time resident of Aspen, especially in the summer, and have the pleasure to serve on the Board and Executive Committee of the Aspen Institute. Each year in August, we have an awards dinner where we honor people of distinction, and in 2005 we honored John McCain and Joe Lieberman together for their bipartisan leadership. The Institute also invites distinguished speakers for late afternoon forums, and the Institute’s President, Walter Isaacson and I discussed inviting John to speak the summer of 2007.   I was impressed by the positive response from Democrats and Republicans alike to John’s speech at the Aspen Institute.  People approached me asking what they could do to help.

Later we hosted a small dinner at our home for John and Cindy with ten of our friends, some McCain supporters and some Democrats. Included were Bill and Cathy Mayer (then Chairman of the Aspen Institute), Bob and Jillian Steel (current Chairman and former Under Secretary of Treasury), Stewart and Lynda Resnick, Rick and Erica Horvitz, and Walter and Cathy Isaacson. It was a lively discussion and I became even more convinced John would become our nominee.  He was on fire throughout the dinner, and won over all 14 people present.

On the broader political front, Rick, Charlie Black, and John decided to focus the campaign on John’s commitment to win the war in Iraq and his successful call for the surge strategy.  At the time, the country was still very much focused on the outcome of the war and the surge had just begun to take effect.  John hopped on the re-branded Straight Talk Express for his No Surrender Tour, visiting halls, diners and the like mainly in New Hampshire. There was John flying alone on commercial airlines, carrying his own bags, and engaging the constant barter with reporters and others on the bus. This was the real John McCain again – the Mac was back. A strategy partially borne of frugality was working. People relished the straight talk, the refusal to pander, the direct and honest responses to issues they would raise. John was winning voters one and two at a time. Retail politics at its best.

Life was slowly, but surely being breathed back into the campaign. The new fundraising strategy was paying off, and the political tide was changing.  We even met August’s budget projections.

Next post, I’ll share a first-person view and what that was like of the real “turn-around” for the campaign.

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