Jake Ketzner asked if I’d be in the room with Governor Branstad. They needed three people to man three computers to check election results. Basically, they needed a third body to hit “refresh” over and over again until Governor Branstad was announced the winner.
At first, I declined.The last time I’d been in the room with a candidate had been in 2006 with Bill Dix. Before that, 1996 with Mike Mahaffey. Frankly, my record of being next to a candidate while they watched election returns was bad.
So on Election Night 2010, I sat in a room and hit refresh over and over and over again alongside Jake and Lynn McRoberts. And lo and behold, Terry Branstad was our Governor again.
After being told I was a terrible fundraiser, after working hard and coming up short for Jim Nussle in 2006, I was finally been the Finance Director for a winning gubernatorial campaign.
Shortly after, we were brought on to help with the fundraising and ticketing for the Inaugural celebration. And while working for Governor Branstad’s campaign was a great experience, the Inauguration was not.
Our call center was growing. Our national clients that year included Tea Party Patriots and Americans United for Life.
It was time to leave Iowa fundraising behind.
We moved our call center into the new building at 109 West Front St in July 2011. The rest of us moved into the basement we now call home in October 2013.
The last Iowa fundraising event I attended was Governor Branstad’s birthday in November 2014.
And as you read this, I am no longer the owner of #700EastPleasant.
If we met in the early years of this century, you may wonder how an establishment Republican major donor fundraiser became a Tea Party conservative.
I was tired of staying in my lane while our candidates put up loss after loss, despite record fundraising. I was tired of Republicans saying they wanted limited government, and then voting for a lot more government. I was tired of being told “we only hire our friends” or “we don’t play in primaries” when all that got us was a lot more cookie cutter and a lot less authentic emotion.
So when I heard JennyBeth Martin for the first time in 2009, shortly after Rick Santelli’s CNBC rant, I knew this was the moment I’d been waiting for. (Not just a conservative, not just a fire breather, but a woman. Someone who looked like me.)
It was time to play full court press. Play like every day is the last play of the game. Let’s push people on their principles, even in primary campaigns, especially in primary campaigns.
At that particular moment, few people wanted to play in that niche. It seemed like a passing trend, and maybe a little dangerous.
Well, I wanted it. So CampaignHQ would be the Best Conservative Call Center in America.
2010 was a transition year for CHQ. Several key players who would build the foundation for what was to come joined us that year. Marlys De Witt Popma, Trevor Dodds, and Staci Shepard.
Marlys had been the Campaign Manager for a candidate for Governor who left the race shortly after Terry Branstad announced he was in. A key person on our staff had just quit and we were looking to fill the gap. But the notion that THE Marlys Popma would fill that gap (and more) #CHQ seemed outlandish.
Chad Foster and I giggled like little girls when I told him my big idea and read him the script of what I’d say when I called. But lo and behold in January 2010, she showed up for work and a new chapter began. When we hired Marlys, we didn’t have a place for her desk. So I moved out of my office into the vending machine closet, and my office was split in two so she’d have a space.
Trevor and Staci started on the call floor with amazing talent. We didn’t have assigned seats for everyone, and the day Trevor got a desk of his own (actually a $29.99 coffee cart from Wal-Mart) was a milestone. It was … as we like to call it… “Toilet Adjacent.”
In the winter of 2007, Romney was barnstorming Iowa like no other candidate. We were taking RSVPs for dozens of “Ask Mitt Anything” events all over the state.
But he wasn’t the only one. We were still raising money for Congressman Latham and now Congressman Steve King. We were still setting appointments for State Legislators.
So how do you handle RSVP’s for many candidates coming into a single toll free number?
You change your name.
No matter which event or which candidate you were calling for … if you were greeted with a cheery “Campaign Headquarters” … you called the right place.
So that’s how the name Capitol Resources got chucked out the window and replaced with CampaignHQ.
When the Romney campaign ended in early 2008, it would have been easy to go back to the same old grind. House parties. Appointments. But once David Kochel makes you see something, you can’t unsee it. We kept on doing what we’d always done, but on the side we were building the new business.
2008 was a rough year. I stopped taking paychecks again. Barack Obama was elected President, and the Tea Party movement was about to begin.
A defining feature of Iowa campaigns in 2006 was the constant presence of 2008 Presidential hopefuls. While traveling the state in support of our ticket, they could actively recruiting activists, elected officials, and staff.
Mitt Romney was king amongst the “non-candidates” in 2006, attending more events for more candidates than anyone else.
I won’t forget what Kochel said. “You could do a lot more than this.” He called it a Campaign in a Box. We would use our calling crew to drive turnout for events which I would plan and execute. This would give the campaign we signed up for a huge advantage by holding events from which they could build their organization of county chairs and precinct captains. This would culminate in the largest event of all, the Iowa Straw Poll. Putting the people on the bus would be just like putting the butts in seats at a State Party dinner.
This was shortly after Bill Dix’s primary loss. And it was the first time ANYONE had painted a bigger picture for me, had pulled back the curtain to say there’s a bigger world out there and you are good enough to be in it.
It was the first time my head peaked up over the wall of Iowa politics, to see a tiny little glimpse of what CampaignHQ could eventually become.
So while it’s a little embarrassing in retrospect to say I was too head down, too buried in house party after house party, every night giving out nametags in a different town, to see this was not the mountaintop. I’m glad David Kochel did.
On Election Night in 2006, Jim Nussle lost the race for Governor to Chet Culver. Jim Leach lost to Dave Loebsack. And Republicans lost control of the Iowa House.
And I signed up with Mitt Romney right before Thanksgiving. Campaign Headquarters was born.
If you haven’t been following along, in honor of our recent sale of the original headquarters, I’ve been throwing it back with old stories about where this company has been.
Two stories about the 2006 election cycle – the last cycle where we focused 100 percent on raising money for Iowa candidates.
So let’s recap the political state of play.
Iowa had five Congressmen, four Republicans – Nussle, King, Leach, and Latham and one Democrat – Boswell.
Jim Nussle’s would-be run for Governor was the world’s worst-kept secret. He did not immediately clear the GOP primary field. Rumors persisted through early 2005 that Doug Gross would run again, although he ultimately did not. Bob Vander Plaats was in.
Bill Dix, Brian Kennedy, and Mike Whalen were all in for the open Nussle seat. Leach and Latham ran for re-election. Jeff Lamberti ran against Leonard Boswell. Christopher Rants was Speaker of the House.
Nussle, Dix, Leach, Latham, and Rants were all our clients.
Two things happened in 2006 that would foretell what was to come for Capitol Resources and eventually for the business you’d come to know as Campaign Headquarters today.
Of all the candidates we worked for in 2006, we had the most direct connection with the Dix family. I cannot count the number of afternoons at his dining room table, drinking Gerri Dix‘s lemonade dialing and dialing and dialing for dollars.
Bill Dix was the last candidate for whom I wrote speeches. I helped write his announcement speech and the stump speech he gave at Republican dinners the first few months. While his platform was pretty typical for a Republican at that time – lower taxes, less government, pro-life – Bill had a unique voice and a special way of delivering that message that was his alone.
For those of you who worked in the 2006 election cycle, you probably remember it was the last mid-term cycle of the Bush 43 Presidency. The Iraq War was immensely unpopular, and Republicans had voted for the largest increase in government entitlements in a generation. It was the year Republicans lost the House and made Nancy Pelosi speaker. If Republicans weren’t going to be Republicans … well, you might as well vote for Democrats.
So when you convince a candidate like that to deliver a Washington, DC-style speech over and over again … well, it’s not going to work. Bill stopped saying “change the status quo.” His yard signs lost his trademark slogan, “Let’s Make it Happen.”
When I expressed concern, I was told in no uncertain times to stay in my own lane. And to this day, I regret that I did indeed stay in my own lane.
On primary night, I watched as Bill told his parents, “Mom, Dad, I don’t think we’re going to make it,” before making his concession speech.
Bill may have lost that primary no matter what. He was running against a self-funder. He wasn’t from the right part of the district. He had a statehouse record that an outsider could attack. But the fact is, I didn’t fight as hard as I could.
As I told you before, a fundraiser may get their paycheck from the candidates … but you work for the donors.
Nearly every donor I knew had maxed out to Bill Dix. And I had to answer for that.
These days, we make phone calls and text messages for hundreds of campaigns. It’s easy to forget as they fly across your desk one after another that running for office is the culmination of a life’s dream for someone, whether it’s Congress or Town Council.
When we jam them all in the same bucket, with the same tired old talking points, we are failing them mightily. When I start to forget that, I think of Bill Dix, and I know we can do better.
Our last event of the 2004 cycle was a Republican Jewish Coalition event featuring Ed Koch. Marvin Pomerantz wanted to turn out a huge crowd to fill Hoyt Sherman Auditorium and after all the strife of 2003, it was the first (but not last) time Gentry Collins would recommend me.
While the event was free, it was ticketed. And filling an entire auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa, to hear a Jewish New York Democrat talk about his support for George W. Bush was a tall order. After the event, Craig Robinson and I were packing up our event totes getting ready to go home when my phone rang.
It was Marvin.
“We’re at 801 Grand, where are you?”
When I saw Marvin, Rose Lee, Bud Hockenberg, and Mayor Koch out to their cars earlier, it never crossed my mind that I was invited to join them.
First to arrive, last to leave. That’s the life of an event planner and fundraiser. (Tim Albrecht once said that’s why I missed all the juicy gossip and drama that often happened after events.)
For the rest of his life, Marvin was one of my biggest advocates. But it didn’t start that way.
It was a fitting end to the cycle that almost brought an end to CampaignHQ.
As we prepared to say goodbye to 700 East Pleasant Street, the CHQ team cleared the first round of boxes out of the building, including boxes in my handwriting that said random things, such as, “2005 receipts, some contracts.” Not a filing system David Allen would be proud of. Looking at these boxes, it occurred to me that some years are full of pivotal moments, and others are not.
2003 was a momentous year. A year defined by one Hail Mary after another, where every play felt like fourth and long.
At this point, I had two employees, a few State Rep clients, and a piddly state party contract. Yes, it was piddly even after Mark Havlicek renegotiated for me.
At 700 East Pleasant, we kept most of the offices closed and the heating vents shut. I wore the same sweatshirt most days that winter. Around this time, I drafted the talking points for what I would say to those two remaining employees on our final day of operation.
Back in 2003, Iowa had five Congressmen, not four. King and Latham quickly signed up with the other firm.
The fifth seat was held by Democrat Leonard Boswell. The 2002 nominee, Stan Thompson, had been a Capitol Resources client in 2002, and raised just over $900K. I would remind you that Pre-McCain Feingold, the limit was $1,000 per person, per election. I assumed Thompson for Congress 2004 would sign up with Capitol Resources again.
It was clear I would need to land at least one, if not both, of the two remaining Congressmen to survive. So the battle was on.
As a fundraiser, I believe the donor is your boss, not the candidate. Campaigns, campaign managers, and even candidates come and go. And let’s face it, sometimes they do stupid things. But the donor and the fundraiser endure together.
And when my back was up against a wall, it was a donor who came through for me.
Jim Nepola called Congressman Jim Leach and told him that he needed a fundraiser, and not only that, he needed ME. The Nipper negotiated the entire deal, and called me back. He said the start date would be April 1. I just needed to hang on until then.
In March, rumors started that Jim Nussle was going to run for Governor in 2006. So he wanted to run a super aggressive statewide fundraising campaign in 2004 to be ready. That meant he was looking for a fundraiser now.
Unlike some of the backroom deals that seemed to hit me out of nowhere, Jim wanted to meet with both my competitors and me before making a decision.
Friends – the way I saw it – this meeting was the last play of the game. If Nussle picked me, I would survive. If he didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this now.
I wrote a 20+ page finance plan detailing every aspect of every letter, phone call, meeting, and event it would take to reach his fundraising goals. I worked on nothing else for two days, and then drove four copies of the finished product to Des Moines to be spiral bound at Kinko’s.
Jim, his wife Karen , his campaign manager, and I sat around a table. I passed out the copies, and summarily went through and read every detail on every page, head down the entire time. I was not then, and am not now, a good extemporaneous speaker. I believe in the script.
Jim thanked me for the “extremely detailed” presentation and asked if he could keep his copy of the finance plan.
Well – THAT question wasn’t in my script! And I said, “YES.”
I know what you’re thinking. How dumb can you be? Why would you give someone a copy of your entire plan when they are about to get in their car and drive to a meeting with your competitor?
It turns out, Jim thought anyone who would leave a copy of their finance plan must so confident in their ability to deliver, that it wouldn’t matter if you gave it to a competitor.
The message he heard was “I’m sure you won’t be able to achieve this plan without me.” A few weeks later, we were planning a house party in Monticello, Iowa.
The verdict was in. Capitol Resources would not die in 2003.
You might think that was the most important thing that happened in 2003.But it was not. The most meaningful decision of 2003 was yet to come.
At the same time my new competitors were systematically picking off my clients, I’d come to the conclusion that part of my problem was too many one-off clients distracting focus from the ones that mattered.
So I made a list of clients who were “not enough juice for the squeeze” … too much work for not enough pay. One of those clients was Bill Dix. On the opening day of the 2003 legislative session, he asked to meet with me in his office. My intention was to cut him loose at that meeting.
Instead, Bill told me he had met with my competitors, heard their pitch, and decided to stay with me. He then told me all of the things I needed to do better to keep HIM as a client. That meeting changed the course of #CHQ history. It was a tiny little win after a string of painful, crushing losses. But it was enough to keep going.
Bill went on to become a record-setting fundraiser and an anchor client. Like Bill would say, Let’s Make it Happen.