Marlin Stutzman's Campaign Shakeup Worries Allies

Indiana GOP Senate candidate is changing staff less than five months before the primary.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington on Sept. 26, 2014.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Indiana Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman’s Senate campaign replaced its media and digital strategists this week, capping off a widespread staff shakeup since he launched his bid in May. The moves come on the heels of another major staff departure in October, raising concerns about the state of his campaign.

Stutzman, who has been endorsed by the conservative Club for Growth and Senate Conservative Fund, initially rolled out a team of veteran campaign operatives with close ties to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. His initial approach assured Republicans that if he won the nomination, he would have an experienced team in place and avoid repeating mistakes that past conservative grassroots candidates have made.

Since then, however, Stutzman overhauled his staff, replacing Washington veterans with outside-the-Beltway consultants who have more experience running insurgent campaigns. The late-stage shakeup is worrying even some of his allies about the state of his campaign.

“I can tell you there have been email exchanges about what the hell’s going on with Marlin Stutzman and his campaign,” said one conservative strategist supporting Stutzman, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “There is a cause for concern.”

Stutzman’s electability has always been a concern for party leaders, given his reputation as an unwavering conservative in the House. He sits well to the right of the field in a three-way primary contest that includes his fellow House colleague, Rep. Todd Young. His early campaign approach, however, assured campaign officials they wouldn’t be seeing a repeat of another Indiana Senate nominee, Richard Mourdock, whose inexperience cost the party a winnable Senate seat in 2012.

Stutzman’s first hires included former NRSC executive director Rob Jesmer and former NRSC deputy political director Terry Nelson, both partners at FP1 Strategies, which has close ties to the campaign committee. Brooks Kochvar, who worked on New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s 2010 race, was Stutzman’s general consultant, and Brendon DelToro, previously the chief of staff to fellow Indiana GOP Rep. Jackie Walorski, was named campaign manager.

But over the past two months, that entire team has been replaced.

Back in October, DelToro, Kochvar, and political director Joe Knepper left the Stutzman campaign, citing a difference in vision for the campaign’s strategy. In their place, Stutzman brought on the Indiana-based firm Mark It Red, who had worked on his 2010 Senate race against Coats.

Stutzman told Howey Politics at the time: “I thought it was good to have a team that has their fin­ger on the plus of In­di­ana polit­ics … With the en­vir­on­ment the way it is now, I needed to go with some I’ve had ex­per­i­ence with.”

Though the transition raised some alarms among political watchers, Jesmer told National Journal at the time that it was "much to-do about nothing,” and FP1 would continue working on the campaign.

“We’re still part of the team, we were out there a couple weeks ago, had a great meeting. It’s a good campaign,” Jesmer said in early November. “The guys he brought in have a lot of Indiana experience, and they have a lot of experience with Marlin, and they’re going to be a great addition to the team.”

Their re­la­tion­ship wouldn’t last much longer. On Thursday night, Stutz­man an­nounced in a Face­book post: “Ex­cit­ing news for our cam­paign! We hired The Strategy Group Com­pany to join our cre­at­ive ad­vert­ising team.” His cam­paign con­firmed Fri­day that FP1 was no longer work­ing on the race, and that they were bring­ing on Strategy Group Company, as well as Texas-based Har­ris Me­dia for di­git­al strategy.

The Strategy Group Company, run by Ohio-based con­sult­ant Rex Elsass, touts a cli­ent list that has in­cluded former Rep. Michele Bach­mann, former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich and Ken­tucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

"[Elsass] is one of the best in the business when it comes to telling the stories of conservative candidates," said Stutzman campaign manager Joshua Kelley. "We're very confident that he’s going to be a strong addition to the campaign to help us win."

A source close to the campaign downplayed the idea that changes would affect the relationship with the campaign committee.

“If vendors are needed to appease a group like the NRSC, I think [Stutzman’s] still in a place where they should be comfortable with the team," the source said. “Vincent Harris was [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s digital director in his last reelection campaign and Rex does business with NRSC candidates’ independent expenditures all the time."

Jesmer did not responded to a request for comment Friday.