It happened fast.
On Thursday morning, June 9, former House speaker Newt Gingrich was informed that more than a dozen of his senior political advisers had resigned. All of them, except for longtime spokesman Rick Tyler, were recent additions to his team, hired guns for his nascent presidential campaign.
Knowing that things could quickly spiral out of control, Gingrich called an emergency meeting at his personal office, a few floors above K Street in downtown Washington. Along with his wife, Callista, Gingrich assembled his remaining loyalists for an important, closed-door discussion about how he would handle the news, and whether he would stay in the race.
“They were calm,” recalls Joe DeSantis, a longtime Gingrich adviser, in an interview with National Review Online. “Newt said that he was not going to get pushed out of this race. He and Callista both said that they felt compelled as citizens to keep fighting, to keep running for president, regardless of the news.
“Immediately, we all felt boosted, we got a wave of energy,” DeSantis says. “For weeks, with the old staff, we all wondered why we weren’t busy, why things were moving so slow. Once we saw that Gingrich was reinvigorated, we felt the same way. Newt World felt like it was kicking back into gear, back into the way it has operated for years. We worked till 9 p.m. that evening, looking at how to reframe the campaign in the days ahead.”
But things turned sour within hours. The advisers not only quit, they criticized Gingrich in numerous stories about the exodus, and some blamed their departure on Callista. This sent Team Gingrich into a fury, and remains an open wound within the inner circle.
“One or two former campaign staffers are tarring the Gingrich family in the press,” DeSantis says with scorn. “It is absurd and sadly follows the consultant tradition of ‘blaming the wife’ when one jumps ship. We are all surprised by the conduct of a few that left the team. Disagreeing with the direction of the campaign and leaving quietly is one thing, but trashing the family and lifestyle of the candidate? With that kind of behavior, we wonder who would ever want to hire them.
“Callista is a tad distracted by this, annoyed, but she is handling it all with grace,” he notes. “She knows that it is not about her, but about the former advisers lashing out, trying to pin their decision on somebody. It’s a shame, but she rises above the mess.
“Those who left were more mechanical; they did not fit with the constant brainstorming culture within Gingrich’s inner circle,” explains DeSantis, who now serves as communications director for the presidential campaign. “It was more of an operational clash. There is an old saying in Newt World: Either you stay for two months, or you fit in and stay for five years or more. It is a different kind of pace here: Newt works 80 to 90 hours per week. You have to roll with it.”
Others have left Newt Gingrich’s camp before, DeSantis observes. It is not always an easy place to work, since the boss is an unconventional political figure, who operates more as a magnet for ideas than as the chief executive of a political machine.
Still, the way the advisers resigned has raised eyebrows from DeSantis and others close to Gingrich. “We do not know for sure how they coordinated their departure,” he says. “But we are curious about whether there were any inappropriate conversations or actions. There is a lot of talk that another potential candidate made it clear that he may join the race. If former staffers were being paid by the campaign — yet plotting to join another campaign — that would be a major conflict of interest.
“If they wanted to leave the campaign, that’s fine,” he says. “That’s politics. But our question to the few being petty is: Why are you trying to kill it?
“The complaint that Gingrich never set foot in the Georgia office is very strange,” he says, shaking his head as we chat. “We had press events scheduled at the office, but our former point man there (Scott Rials) nixed them. When we went down to the office this past week, we heard about how badly things were being run. Volunteers were not getting calls back, endorsements were not being lined up the way they could have. Totally inexcusable and unprofessional.”
DeSantis has the same frustration with the notion that Gingrich’s vacation to Greece earlier this month caused the campaign to stumble. “Gingrich had planned a vacation for months,” he says. “He knew that he wanted to take time off early in the campaign so he could go full speed ahead during the rest of the summer. The advisers knew this, but they for some reason assumed he wouldn’t go. Then, when he made it clear he was going, they kept complaining about it, which demoralized everyone the entire time the Gingriches were gone. Why they couldn’t have a more constructive attitude is beyond me.”
DeSantis is less critical when it comes to his former colleague Rick Tyler, who was part of Gingrich’s top team for many years. “I think it was more of a burnout thing with Rick,” he surmises. “We all still respect and like Rick. We have been in contact with him since. He was part of Newt World, whereas the others were outsider advisers who were only here for a bit. It’s a bit different with him.”
Looking ahead, DeSantis emphasizes that Gingrich is in the race to win it, that he never considered dropping out. “Newt is reasonable about things going forward,” he says. “He sees a path to the nomination, but he knows that it will not be easy. He will fight for it. But he is not a masochist. He will not stay in if he sees that there is no way for him to win.”
To help out Gingrich, DeSantis says that the entire campaign team has been reshuffled, with longtime aides playing new roles: Kathy Lubbers, Gingrich’s daughter, is a senior adviser; Michael Krull is the campaign’s political director; R. C. Hammond is the press secretary; Jody Thomas runs fundraising; Karen Olson advises Callista; Brady Cassis is the lead researcher; Bess Kelly is the scheduler.
Perhaps the most important shift, DeSantis says, is Gingrich’s decision to make Vince Haley, his coauthor on books and policy proposals, the campaign’s policy director.
“Making Vince Haley the policy director is important,” he says. “The previous advisers did not organize the team with a policy director, so we had all of these communications and ideas floating out there without organization. Now we are going to keep the campaign ideas- and solutions-oriented, with policy organization and presentation our number-one goal.”
Look for Gingrich to shake up the field with an eclectic approach to policy, DeSantis says. “The space question at the recent New Hampshire debate is a good example of how we think we can be different,” he says. “Newt is ready and willing to go into areas others will not. We want to micro-target conservatives who are interested in things beyond the broad-brush issues and platitudes that the other campaigns will stick to. We can be more like an insurgency in our ideas and our outreach.
“Mitt Romney, for instance, will always talk about being the ‘jobs candidate.’ Newt can compete there, of course, but he will also talk about themes and related issues in a way that Romney cannot, from the ‘Obama depression’ to ‘the food-stamp president.’
“Newt is best at big ideas,” DeSantis says. “On Medicare, however, and on many other issues, he is also practical at how big ideas should be proposed. His entire philosophy is based around empowering individuals to lead America, not to enact this package or that package. Could he have had a better answer about the Ryan budget on Meet the Press? Yes. But what he said at the debate, about building popular opinion behind something before pushing it, is very much what he believes.”
Politically, “Iowa is where we are focused,” he says. “Other early states are important, but this is where we need to build a powerful movement. We think we can still be competitive there. It is where face-to-face communication can really help you win. Newt has drawn huge crowds there already. He’ll be back in July, if not sooner, building on that early buzz.
“Losing some of our team in Iowa was a setback,” he admits. “There is no way around that. But again, it is still early. There is still plenty of time.”
Turning to New Hampshire, DeSantis calls it unpredictable. “They could care less about the advisers and all of that stuff up there,” he says. “They want to hear about ideas, about policy positions. We are going to compete. Eventually people will get tired of hearing about inside-the-campaign matters.”
Indeed, “this will be a different kind of campaign moving forward, the kind of campaign that Gingrich envisioned from the beginning,” DeSantis tells me. “It will be based around ideas and solutions, individual outreach, and built around Newt’s strengths, from policy speeches to engagement with voters. It will delve into policy areas that other campaigns won’t touch. It will be an open, grassroots-fueled effort — lots of media, trips to early states, speeches, and talk with supporters on Facebook and Twitter.
“Newt’s books and movies are an asset to this campaign,” he adds. “This is how he communicates — online, on television, on film, and on the page. He is at best when he has all kinds of communications tools to use. The former advisers never recognized this; they found the books and movies to be a distraction. For Newt, that was an odd way of looking at a strength he has built up over the past decade.
“Newt is also going to look for more long-form venues, whether it is on television with a reporter or during a policy speech at a college or GOP club, to make his ideas known. Later this month [at the Atlanta Press Club on June 22] he will speak on housing in Georgia, for example, to talk about repealing Dodd-Frank and about his ideas on the Federal Reserve.
“He wants to find a way to get beyond the sound-bite and the news snippet,” DeSantis says. “That is where he sees a potential to rise. He also wants to get rid of the imperial-style campaign. He will directly talk with thousands of primary voters, not interact with them via press releases and stiff appearances. There will be no central office, so to speak.” (But do look for the campaign to open an Arlington outpost soon.)
“It will take a little time to recover,” DeSantis acknowledges. “But I think that we have time. Other candidates have not even announced; others are weeks or months away from entering the race. We can rebuild. Newt World is reasserting itself. The people who have been with Newt for years, almost all of them are still here. We are committed to making this work.”