Demand for Iowa's political talent is peaking. The 2016 Republican presidential primary field is as crowded as it is competitive, and candidates are scrambling to snap up the campaign aides they think will give them an advantage. But they're in for frustration, because as demand hits its peak, colliding factors have depleted the state's supply of available talent.
After a midterm election in which Republicans won races for governor, Senate, and three House seats, some of Iowa's top operatives are sticking with the politicians they helped to elect. Others who have worked on caucus campaigns in the past aren't rushing to leave lucrative day jobs at consulting firms, advocacy groups, and corporate boards—especially to jump into the daily grind of a presidential race. And then there are the plugged-in members of the Iowa GOP's state central committee, who in the past were prized campaign hires but this time are on the sidelines after pledging to remain neutral during the primary.
Now, between the abundance of candidates and the dearth of available operatives, some wonder if there's enough campaign talent to go around.
"I sense that there are probably currently more potential candidates for president than there is available talent in the state of Iowa," said Matt Whitaker, who held top roles on Tim Pawlenty's and Rick Perry's 2012 Iowa campaigns but plans to stay neutral in 2016.
The most highly sought-after operatives on the market in the state have largely been scooped up, so those who acted quickly were rewarded. Rand Paul, for instance, had two former Iowa GOP chairmen on his team by June of last year. Those who weren't able to snatch up top-tier talent have attempted to compensate by bringing on advisers who either have less caucus experience, have weaker ties to Iowa, or were thought by many to be out of the game but were persuaded to jump back in for another go-round.
Some have had better luck dealing with the talent shortage than others. Even an all-but-certain candidate such as Ted Cruz, who is popular among conservatives in the state, struggled to find someone to lead his Iowa campaign before landing Bryan English as a senior adviser earlier this month, according to several Republicans in the state. Those in Cruz's camp, however, maintain they got their top pick. "Every other potential presidential campaign got their second choice because we got Bryan English," Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said.
And Marco Rubio hasn't even hired anybody for his expected campaign in the state yet, but Iowa Republicans anticipate that he will be rolling out his team there soon.
A handful of Iowa's top political hands are working for the recently reelected Gov. Terry Branstad and aren't expected to give up their gigs to team up with a White House hopeful. Jake Ketzner, who ran Branstad's reelection effort and now serves as the governor's chief liaison to the state Legislature, is often referred to as someone who would be a "first-round draft pick" for a presidential campaign. Matt Hinch, Branstad's chief of staff and a former Rep. Tom Latham aide, and Jimmy Centers, Branstad's communications director, likely would be highly prized if not for their current positions. (Chris Christie picked up two of the most prominent former Branstad aides available for hire: Jeff Boeyink and Phil Valenziano.)
And on the finance side, Cameron Sutton, one of the top GOP donors in Iowa, has taken on the role of Sen. Joni Ernst's state director, so his services won't be available to any presidential candidates.
"One consequence of a very successful midterm is that it took a lot of operatives off the field for the presidential," said former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn.
Strawn, who now works at a public-affairs firm, is among the veteran operatives who have moved into the private or nonprofit sectors and don't want to pick sides in 2016. Another example is Craig Schoenfeld, who worked on Newt Gingrich's 2012 campaign and will likely stay on the sidelines because of his consulting work.
Whitaker, a former U.S attorney, also would be a valuable asset on any 2016 campaign. He chaired Pawlenty's 2012 Iowa campaign, and after the former Minnesota governor dropped out, he joined Perry's effort in the state as a cochairman. But Whitaker is now the executive director of a new watchdog group called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, meaning he's going to be "staying Switzerland" this time around, as he put it.
"There's plenty of talent in this state," said Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican and a former political director for the Iowa GOP. "It's just, can these candidates convince someone to stop what they're doing right now and help them out for eight months?"
Perry was able to do just that last week. Jamie Johnson stepped down from his positions at the Iowa GOP's state central committee and a Christian charity group to join the former Texas governor's PAC as a senior director. Johnson was one of the 16 members of the central committee who signed an unprecedented pledge last December to remain neutral in the 2016 caucuses. In the past, the committee's members, who are some of the state's most ardent activists, had taken paid positions on presidential candidates' staff, while others made endorsements.
Johnson said if it wasn't for the pledge, some of his fellow members "would have otherwise been scooped up in a heartbeat" by presidential campaigns.
"We've all just kind of been gritting our teeth and saying 'no' to campaigns who've called," Johnson said. "But Governor Perry gave me an offer I couldn't refuse."
In the case of David Kochel, one of the top Republican strategists in the state, he has his sights set beyond just Iowa in 2016. Kochel, who advised Romney during his two Iowa campaigns, is in line to serve as Jeb Bush's national campaign manager. Bush's team also brought on a top Iowa operative in Annie Kelly, who during the 2012 cycle worked on Pawlenty's Iowa campaign and managed Latham's reelection effort.
With much of the top campaign talent off the board, some burgeoning campaigns have opted to go with operatives who have deep ties to Iowa and don't have much experience on the presidential level. English, Cruz's new adviser, worked for what is now the Family Leader and as an aide to Rep. Steve King, but has never held a high-ranking role on a caucus campaign. Cruz also has a top adviser in Jeff Roe who is based in Kansas City but has some Iowa experience under his belt from Huckabee's 2008 campaign.
Meanwhile, Scott Walker imported a Texan with an Iowa background in David Polyansky to head his effort in the state. Polyansky worked on Huckabee's and Michelle Bachmann's caucus campaigns before serving as a top strategist to Joni Ernst's successful 2014 Senate campaign. Walker was also able to lure Huckabee's 2008 Iowa campaign manager, Eric Woolson, whom many Republicans in the state expected to stay out of the 2016 presidential race, as his Iowa communications director.
And as GOP state central committee member Bill Gustoff, a veteran of several caucus campaigns, stressed, "you don't have to go back to the same well every time" to build a strong team in the state.
"If some candidates are having to dig a little bit deeper to find local talent, they might discover the next rising star," Gustoff said.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Wollner is an analyst for National Journal Hotline. Previously, he covered politics as an intern for NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. A native Wisconsinite, Wollner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor degree in journalism and political science.