WASHINGTON — Two months ago, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote a list of the six top free agent political operatives who hadn’t yet signed on to a presidential campaign. 28-year-old Nick Ayers, the former head of the Republican Governors Association who raised $112 million in the 2010 election cycle, netted six additional Republican governorships and in the process turned the RGA into an almost alternate Republican National Committee when that group foundered, was at the top of that list.
The RGA under Ayers was a “financial juggernaut,” Cillizza wrote. “Whoever lands him will have scored a major coup.”
On April 25, after moving to Minneapolis, Ayers will become campaign manager for Tim Pawlenty. Campaign officials confirmed the news, which had first been reported by Fox News, this morning.
“Mary and I worked alongside Nick at the RGA. He is without question one of the best political talents in America,” Pawlenty said. “We are very excited Nick will lead our team. His leadership and record of winning tough races in every part of our country will provide even more momentum to our campaign to get America back on track.”
Ayers is known as a driven operative with a laser focus on fundraising, details and a disdain for in-office drama. “Nick has proven his incredible talent in the political arena many times over,” said Phil Musser, former executive director of the RGA who up until now has been helming Pawlenty’s PAC. “He has also long been our top choice for this job, and we are thrilled he has agreed to lead this campaign.” Musser will stay on the campaign as a senior adviser.
Pawlenty’s first real test comes between now and June 30, when the second quarter ends, to show that he can be a presidential fundraiser in league with the true top tier of the candidate field. Mitt Romney can self-finance, to a degree, but he’s also a prolific fundraiser. So is Haley Barbour. Newt Gingrich has a national network from his time as House speaker, and Mike Huckabee, if he runs, still has contacts from his 2008 bid. Michele Bachmann was the top fundraiser in the House in the 2010 cycle and will report $2.2 million between her PAC and congressional committee for the first quarter.
Anyone who wins will of course have to take on President Obama, who raised $750 million over the 2008 elections and has been working on potentially the first-ever $1 billion campaign.
Pawlenty has lined up a team of top staffers that could favorably compare with any other top-tier campaign, yet so far he lags in the polls, a consistent figure in the mid-to-upper single digits. As for fundraising, Pawlenty’s staff had been telling top donors to hold their fire for April, so the first quarter may not be a proper valuation of their fundraising abilities. As such, right now it’s the biggest question mark looming over his early campaign.
And that’s part of what makes Ayers such a get for Pawlenty — not only is he a quality operative in his own right, he seemingly of addresses Pawlenty’s biggest early vulnerability head on.
The Washington Post had a very good profile of Ayers about a year ago, and it’s very much worth a read to get a sense of how he operates. In that profile, the Post sought out comments from Pawlenty, then the vice chairman of the RGA:
“Over time, the personality of an organization reflects the personality of its leader, and our leader is Nick,” offers Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota and the vice chairman of the RGA. He adds that the association is attracting donors who “want to put their money in something that is well-run and impactful and ethical.”