It’s a rare occurrence when I feel completely blindsided by a political development in Iowa, but I have to admit that my jaw dropped on Monday morning when Steve Grubbs called me to let me know that he and his political firm, Victory Enterprises, had signed on to work for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s political action committee. Politico was the first to report on Monday that Rand PAC has hired Steve Grubbs, a longtime Iowa-based political operative. Grubbs will be a top strategist in Iowa, but will also serve as an advisor to Paul nationally.
The 2014 general election is still five months away, but Paul clearly appears to be focused on the 2016 presidential contest instead of running for re-election. Back in March, Rand PAC hired A.J. Spiker, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, who played a major role in Paul’s father’s 2012 campaign in Iowa. The hiring of Spiker, while earlier than many people expected, didn’t surprise anyone. The hiring of Grubbs, however, turned some heads.
Grubbs, a former state legislator and past chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, has been involved in Iowa politics for years. As is the case with anyone in the political field, Grubbs has his fans and detractors. Yet his experience working on caucus campaigns stretches back to 1988 with Bob Dole. Eight years later, Grubbs was the state co-chair for Dole’s 1996 campaign.
I first met Grubbs in 1999 when I joined Steve Forbes’ presidential campaign right out of college. Grubbs and a handful of others played an integral role in how the campaign approached Iowa. Forbes canvassed the state with extensive tours, which isn’t new to caucus campaigns, but attendees at Forbes events were often provided an opportunity to get a photo with the candidate. That seems silly with today’s technology, but back in 1999, being able to pick up a photo of yourself and Steve Forbes at the conclusion of the event was something of a technological breakthrough.
The Forbes campaign also offered incentives for people to sign up to go to the Ames Straw Poll or the caucuses. In many instances, Grubbs was Forbes’ Iowa pitchman at campaign events, and it worked incredibly well. Grubbs understood that it wasn’t good enough to just turn out people to campaign events. The key is finding ways to get them to take the next step in helping the campaign organize. Looking back, it’s amazing how a t-shirt, hat, or gold or silver lapel pen could motivate people to get involved in a campaign, but it was all genius. It’s also something that hasn’t really ever been replicated since.
Grubbs is an idea man who forces the presidential campaigns that he works on to think outside of the box. Not all of his ideas are good ones. After Forbes’ impressive second place finish in Ames, Grubbs thought it would be a good idea for the field staff to organize huge potluck dinners. “Who doesn’t love a good potluck?” I remember hearing.
As a field staffer I thought it was hard enough to get people to turn out to campaign events, let alone bring a covered dish to share. And then what if someone got food poisoning at the event? The potluck concept was quickly scratched, but that fall, the Forbes bus tours featured free soup and chili suppers, which were a huge hit.
If Grubbs understands one thing really well about caucus campaigns, it’s the mechanics of getting people to attend events and then getting people to volunteer to get involved in a campaign. This is why Paul’s hiring of Steve Grubbs is a brilliant move. Should Rand Paul decide to run for president in 2016, he can’t simply run the same style of campaign his father ran in Iowa in 2008 and 2012.
Most of Ron Paul’s campaign events were held in large metropolitan areas or college campuses, which made sense because of the type of people who were attracted to his candidacy. Ron Paul never campaigned town-to-town like most presidential campaigns because, frankly, it might not have been a good use of his time. Rand Paul however can and should campaign like a traditional candidate all across Iowa because he’s viewed as a more mainstream candidate and will likely be one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination.
Rand Paul will also benefit by being able to have Grubbs talk to the national and local media about the campaign. Grubbs handles himself extremely well with the media, and if Rand Paul wants to branch out and appeal to more mainstream Republicans, he needs someone like Grubbs to communicate to them.
When it comes to presidential caucus politics in Iowa, there are plenty of people running around who profess to be experts in the field, but few have actually ever helped shepherd a candidate through the gauntlet that is an Iowa caucus campaign. Having a guy like Grubbs involved with a potential Rand Paul presidential campaign will only help him navigate Iowa’s political waters.
I also think the combination of Grubbs and Spiker could work really well. Spiker has plenty of detractors, but like Grubbs, he’s no slouch when it comes to caucus campaigns. Many times, the difference between a presidential candidate winning or losing Iowa’s Frist-in-the-Nation caucuses can come down to simply hiring the right people. Sometimes it’s getting the right mix of people. I think adding Grubbs’ skillset to the pre-existing Paul/Liberty apparatus in Iowa could be very successful.
Below are some quick thoughts on what the Grubbs’ hiring by Rand PAC means.
1. Rand’s Running
Governors and U.S. Senators make for good presidential candidates because many times they are not up for re-election in presidential years. That’s not the case for Rand Paul, whose Kentucky senate seat comes up for election in 2016. This would give most politicians pause, but not Paul. Paul’s recent Iowa hires, along with the fact that Doug Stafford, Paul’s former Chief of Staff who is now heading Rand PAC, recently spent time in Iowa meeting with Iowans about a potential presidential run, makes a Paul presidential campaign seem inevitable.
2. Rand’s Serious
It’s one thing to rattle cages by making a trip to Iowa, it’s something completely different when you start hiring high-profile Iowans. Rand Paul is serious. He was already going to be a formidable candidate because of the pre-existing infrastructure that is left over from his father’s campaigns, but being the first campaign to get up and running in a state like Iowa is wise.
3. Grubbs’ Hire Indicates That Things Will be Different for Rand
By hiring Grubbs, the Paul political operation is acknowledging that they understand that they have to approach Iowa differently than Ron Paul did. There was nothing wrong with Ron Paul’s campaign, but Rand Paul has more opportunities to expand his father’s existing network.
4. Iowa Talent Is Starting to Come off the Board
Most presidential campaigns like to wait until the mid-term elections are finished before they begin to staff up in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Paul taking Grubbs off the board means there are now fewer experienced consultants available for other campaigns. In 2012, candidates took their time staffing up, but 2016 looks like it’s going to resemble 2008 when candidates like Mitt Romney had paid staff in Iowa in 2006.
5. Smart to get Grubbs Early
While I think getting Grubbs is a brilliant move for Rand Paul, I think it’s equally important that he got him onboard early. Grubbs can help Paul shape his approach to Iowa, which is incredibly important. Grubbs was on-board for Forbes early for the 2000 race, and he was able to make a big impact. Grubbs was brought on board late for Herman Cain in 2012, and thus his impact wasn’t as great. I’ll tell you this, had Grubbs been onboard with Cain early on and if Cain had followed his advice, I think Cain could have really done something in Iowa.
6. The 2016 Presidential Race Has Officially Started