The Democrats' Secret Staffing Advantage in 2016

With Hillary Clinton facing minimal opposition, some of the party's top operatives are focusing on winning back a Senate majority instead.

The biggest beneficiaries of a noncompetitive 2016 primary for Hillary Clinton are the Democratic Senate candidates looking to reclaim their majority.

Democrats head into 2016 with a deep roster of campaign talent that earned valuable experience on President Obama's successful campaigns. But since there aren't expected to be many credible candidates running against Clinton—in sharp contrast to the GOP's deep field—skilled Democratic operatives have far fewer options when thinking about campaign employment. Many are expected to make their mark on a Senate race rather than fight for a prized job with Clinton's campaign.

"Offices of consultants like myself ... are filled with 23-year-old kids who are trying to figure out what the hell they're going to do," said Jef Pollock, president of the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group, adding that just that day he'd been on four calls with political staffers trying to figure out their 2016 job prospects. "What'll happen is ... the smaller races may very well be able to get higher-level talent than they might have [otherwise] been able to get because that person knows that they want to take something now."

The Senate map favors Democrats this cycle, as Republicans who rode into office on the tea-party wave of 2010—Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania—are facing reelection in a presidential-year electorate. In 2016, Republicans must defend 24 Senate seats—including five states that President Obama won twice—compared with just 10 seats for Democrats.

At the moment, Clinton's campaign-in-waiting has largely frozen the Democratic hiring market: Anyone who wants to work for her is holding on until the campaign is ready to start staffing up. Clinton, who's expected to announce a campaign this spring, is undoubtedly the top 2016 choice of many of the party's operatives, aides, and staffers—and she can't possibly hire everyone who wants to work for her. One veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns said: "People are going to be crawling all over each other at the beginning to get jobs as executive assistants" for Clinton, let alone high-level positions.

It's looking less likely Clinton will be facing serious competition for the nomination. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia have said they're considering the race. Even if other candidates announce, they'd likely have far smaller operations than Clinton's.

Since many of Democrats' highest-targeted Senate races are against GOP incumbents, there's still time before many of those campaigns will begin staffing up; Dan McNally, who will serve as campaign manager to Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, is one of the few 2016 Senate hires who's already been announced. But as Democratic Senate candidates begin to announce their campaigns against GOP incumbents in many of the top-tier states later this year, they'll begin building teams of their own—and for people who'd be mid- to low-level staffers on a Clinton campaign, or perhaps know by then that they won't get a presidential job, a bigger role on a Senate race may be a way to make more of an impact on 2016.

Senate Republicans have the opposite problem: As the field of GOP presidential candidates is scrambling to snap up top campaign talent before it's gone, that hunt for staff could leave the GOP's vulnerable Senate incumbents without nearly as many options as they'd get in an off year or even a less busy presidential cycle. Some incumbents, like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, have publicly announced their senior staff, while others are working behind the scenes to bring a team on board early this year.

Aides to Senate Republicans' campaign arm acknowledge that this is a problem—and say the campaign "boot camps" run through the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee in recent months have been a response to concerns about a lack of talented staff.

"It's absolutely a concern," said Kevin McLaughlin, NRSC deputy executive director. "The presidentials take a lot of oxygen out of the air on this, and it's something that has to be addressed early."

A total of 100 staffers had gone through the NRSC's three press and communications training sessions, and 43 people participated in the committee's 10-week "Digital Training Academy" last cycle. The RNC runs its own political workshops to give staffers the chops they need to work on statewide and congressional races.

Caitlin Legacki, who was a 2008 staffer for John Edwards, decided in 2012 that she'd rather take a lead role on a Senate race than try for a job with Obama's reelection campaign. She ended up serving as campaign communications director for Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, one of Republicans' top targets that year—and she took the spotlight even more when GOP candidate Todd Akin made his comments about "legitimate rape."

"Going out to a Senate race that was going to garner a significant amount of national attention, being able to have a seat at the table and actually have a role, was a lot more appealing to me than figuring out what my role was going to be on the Obama campaign," said Legacki, who now works for the Democratic consulting firm Precision Strategies along with Obama alums Stephanie Cutter, Teddy Goff, and Jen O'Malley Dillon. "Those are very real, very serious races where you have an opportunity to make a big impact."

Justin Barasky, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's communications director—who himself took the Senate-race route and opted to work for Sen. Sherrod Brown's 2012 reelection campaign in Ohio—said the idea of more responsibility and the chance to have a higher-profile role will be a big draw for Senate races over the presidential.

"You can distinguish yourself on a presidential in many ways, obviously, but for those that aren't necessarily senior staff, you can sometimes distinguish yourself a little more easily by working on a Senate race," Barasky said.

That's especially true in the key presidential early states: There are U.S. Senate races and a handful of competitive House races in Iowa and New Hampshire, and New Hampshire's governor will also be up for another two-year term. Staffers who want to get early-state experience but don't end up on the presidential campaign could ultimately realize a Senate race will be a good fit for them too.

"With a U.S. Senate race and a gubernatorial campaign in New Hampshire in 2016, I think there will be opportunities for a lot of people, even if there are not a lot of Democratic presidential candidates," said Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic National Committeewoman from the state and a former state Democratic Party chairwoman.

The NRSC's McLaughlin said Senate races can be just as cutting-edge as presidential campaigns these days, and that they give campaign operatives a chance to practice even more political skills.

"The days of [Senate races] being somewhat less sophisticated or not having as many resources as a presidential campaign per capita, if you will, are gone," McLaughlin said.