In 1998, when Alex Conant was in high school at St. Paul Academy, he began working for Norm Coleman in the race for governor of Minnesota. He liked Coleman, then the mayor of St. Paul, and he liked Coleman’s chances. In fact, after graduating that summer, he deferred his enrollment in the University of Wisconsin–Madison to stick with the campaign through the fall.
Then, Conant says, “Obviously things got kinda weird.” Jesse Ventura, running on the Reform Party ticket, began getting traction.
Ventura, known mostly as a flamboyant wrestler, disparaged his fellow candidates as “career politicians.” His shocking statements, including his musings on legalized prostitution, only increased his visibility. He rarely bought advertising, and when he did it was to make populist appeals: “I believe Minnesota should return the entire $4 billion tax surplus to the hard-working people who paid it in. I believe Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones are two of the greatest rock bands ever.”
“It was very similar to what happened with Donald Trump this year,” says Conant. “The mood of the electorate was very anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-business-as-usual. Couple that with an outsider candidate with a lot of name ID but none of the mainstream qualities that you typically see in a candidate, and they get a free pass in terms of how the media and other candidates treat him — until it’s too late.”
Conant, in his mid-thirties, is now one of the GOP’s best-connected operatives in Washington and a familiar face on talk shows. He served as the communications director for Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, until Trump knocked out Rubio in the spring. When Trump ultimately won the Republican nomination, in July, Conant was disappointed but not surprised.
“There’s only one Donald Trump,” he says. “I think it’s highly unlikely that a celebrity will be able to shock the political system the way Trump has. When Kanye West runs in four years, people will take him seriously.”
When Ventura “shocked the world,” however, becoming governor of Minnesota, Conant was less experienced, less unflappable. He was disillusioned. “In January 1999,” he says, “I got out of Minnesota as quick as I could.”
Sunfish Lake to Madison to DC
Conant was born in New York but grew up in Sunfish Lake, near West St. Paul, from age 5. His father was in finance, as the chief investment officer for the St. Paul Companies and later as a wealth-management advisor. His mother manages a couple of farms in northern Iowa, purchased as an investment was Alex was young.
“There’s a little house on one of the farms that my mom made into a nice summer place,” Conant says. “When other families were going up north in the summer, my friends and I would go to the farm.”
The Conants were the kind of family who received three newspapers on their doorstep every day. “We watched the evening news together most nights and certainly talked about politics and currents events around the dinner table,” Conant says. His father, who earned a PhD in economics and finance from Columbia University, served on the Sunfish Lake City Council from 2008 to 2012.
Conant’s first taste of political work, in high school, was volunteering for Rudy Boschwitz’s failed 1996 Senate campaign, and then for Norm Coleman’s successful mayoral re-election in 1997. He was already something of a veteran by the time he finally left for Madison.
“After the Ventura experience, I was ready to be done with politics,” he says. He majored in economics, worked as a reporter for the student-run Badger Herald and eventually became its editor-in-chief. Then politics came calling again, in 2002, in the form of Norm Coleman.
When Coleman beat out Walter Mondale for the late Paul Wellstone’s Senate seat, Conant suddenly had high-level connections. In 2005, he went to Washington as press secretary for Senator John Thune, of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. Less than a year later, he was the deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush.
Conant is among a broad group of Washington power players from Minnesota, with friends like Josh Holmes, of Minnetonka, the former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The Minnesota mafia is a real thing in DC,” Conant tweeted this summer when the Star Tribune ran an article on the players, including him.
He returned to Minnesota for a while in 2011, when he served as communications director for Tim Pawlenty’s presidential run, and he began dating a campaign worker from Maryland (now head of communications for CBS News in D.C.). Two years later, back in Washington, he proposed to her. They were running a marathon, and he popped the question at mile 25 — which was on Minnesota Avenue.
When they married in 2014, Conant received a note from Denis McDonough, President Obama’s chief of staff, who is from Stillwater. “I don’t know him,” Conant says, “but he sent me a very thoughtful note saying he was happy to see a fellow Minnesotan doing well. There’s something to be said for a Minnesota temperament in a city where there’s sometimes so much grandstanding.”
Campaigns are serious business
This summer, Conant joined two fellow veterans of Rubio’s presidential campaign in forming Firehouse Strategies, a political advisory shop. They were burned, in a sense, by Trump, and they aren’t afraid to admit it. They feel their wounds have yielded valuable insights. Rubio, who pivoted to keeping his Senate seat, became one of their first clients.
“More people receive news on Facebook than in the daily newspapers,” Conant says, “and how campaigns communicate needs to reflect that acceleration and the increasing demand for content. Trump was better than anyone at producing content in a variety of ways.”
Conant is not, however, advising Republicans to replicate the content of Trump’s content, the politics of resentment and fear. “Everything I know about politics I learned working on campaigns in Minnesota,” Conant says. “Campaigns are serious business there. Voters are highly engaged. The Minnesota press corps is one of the best in the country. It’s very experienced, it covers policy more than most, it takes its role very seriously. It forces campaigns to operate at a very high level.”
From Thune to Pawlenty to Rubio, Conant’s bosses have generally reflected an upbeat variation of Minnesota nice — no matter where they’re based. “I tried very hard to make a Minnesotan president in 2012,” he says. “And I was never more proud during the Rubio campaign than when Minnesota gave us our first statewide win.”
“Look, maybe I was spoiled growing up working on politics in Minnesota,” he says. “Life is too short to work with jerks.”
Minnesota at Large is an occasional series featuring Minnesotans making an impact outside the state.