Among politicos, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is frequently referenced as “Boston.” Romney’s headquarters is housed there, and for much of the campaign season, the phrase has been used to describe the former governor’s tight-knit group of senior advisers, such as Stuart Stevens and Matt Rhoades, who have long helmed the ship.
These days, that cadre of Romney loyalists and strategists continues to run the operation, but the campaign recently bulked up its management team for the general election. Ed Gillespie, a former GOP chairman, was tapped to serve as a senior adviser; Mike Biundo, Rick Santorum’s former campaign manager, was asked to be a coalitions director.
“At the top, Gillespie is the critical addition,” says one Republican operative who works with Romney’s team. “He brings a fresh voice to those inner-circle discussions, which, for any campaign, is needed after a rough primary.”
Sources say there is a sense that Gillespie will be asked to offer candid advice to Stevens, Rhoades, and the candidate — giving them an outsider’s perspective, and a trusted one. Biundo, for his part, will focus on enlisting Santorum’s conservative base — building an army of volunteers.
“They are doing a reasonably good job,” says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and the host of an influential weekly meeting of conservative activists. “In terms of bringing the party together, the polling shows that happening. In terms of outreach to the movement, they’re sending people to our Wednesday meeting, such as policy director Lanhee Chen, and hosting lunches with key people.”
Beyond Boston, the Romney campaign has reinforced its lower-level ranks, staffing up its research, communications, fundraising, and grassroots departments. To assist, Washington-based operatives, such as Sarah Pompei and Alex Wong, have signed on. Pompei, a former aide to House Whip Kevin McCarthy, will lead regional press, and Wong, an attorney at the State Department, will assist on policy.
Other hires, which were first reported by the New York Times, include speechwriter Lindsay Hayes, who worked on the McCain-Palin campaign, and Kristy Campbell, a former spokeswoman for the American Conservative Union.
This slew of new staffers, Romney aides say, signals a strong desire within the campaign to energize the full Republican spectrum, from the big-dollar donors and Beltway insiders to Evangelicals and tea-party activists.
It’s also a realization, Romney observers add, that the discipline and control of the primary campaign cannot be sustained in coming months — that there needs to be a sprawling national effort with many faces and responsibilities. Boston may still be the nucleus, but the campaign is now bigger than a Beantown clique.
“The campaign knows that it needs to expand aggressively,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a longtime Romney adviser. “They recognize that most of the country still doesn’t know Mitt Romney, so it’s important to put a process in place that gets him out there, that tells his story. To do that, they’re building a broader network through various outreach posts, so to speak, around the country, as well as bringing in old hands with presidential experience.”
There has also been a push by Romney advisers to better connect the campaign with the Republican National Committee and its vast apparatus, now that the primary has ended. Romney liaisons are now working within the RNC, coordinating messaging and general-election themes with the full blessing of Reince Priebus, the national chairman.
“The two teams have pretty much synchronized,” says Sean Spicer, an RNC spokesman. “Everybody is focused on the same goal. There has been a full integration of the staff, via face-to-face meetings and conference calls. Our digital team is up in Boston this week, working on social-media strategy.”
“I’m encouraged,” says Henry Barbour, the Republican national committeeman for Mississippi and a Romney supporter. “The RNC and the Romney campaign appear to be working well together.” But in coming months, he says, he would like to see more hires on the organizing level in non-battleground states, in order to keep conservatives active.
In a background conversation, a Romney aide acknowledges the need to catch up, both on the staffing level and on fundraising, with President Obama’s political machine. New state directors, as well as national field organizers, should be announced within weeks, with countless aides from the primary campaign shifting to related general-election roles.
The goal, the aide says, is to hit the 400-staffer marker by the end of the spring, which would bring them closer to Obama’s 700-plus employees and thousands of unpaid volunteers. Still, the aide argues, staff numbers aren’t everything, and in the digital realm, Romney is quickly picking up speed.
The move of many voters to websites such as Facebook and Twitter for political information has led the Romney campaign to put a major internal emphasis on “touching” voters online, the aide says. Romney’s campaign constantly promotes policy graphics, snapshots from the trail, and a near-constant stream of videos on its various websites.
Television ads remain crucial aspects of the campaign, but with the recent Hilary Rosen flap, for example, the Twitter wars can mean as much or more than a TV buy, an outside adviser to the Romney campaign says. During the Rosen episode, a coordinated Twitter response from the Romney team colored much of the coverage of the Democratic consultant’s comments about Ann Romney. The campaign and its tech consultants hope to repeat that rapid-response model during future firestorms.
Of course, the transition to the general election hasn’t been without its bumps. The resignation of Richard Grenell, an openly gay foreign-policy spokesman who was brought onto the campaign in April, was a tumultuous media distraction and forced the Romney campaign to respond to questions about its handling of his short tenure and hasty departure.
And if the primary is any indicator, the infusion of new blood into the Boston high command could lead to trouble. In early February, Politico reported, soon after debate adviser Bret O’Donnell joined the campaign as a part-time aide, he was promptly pushed out, because of internal disagreements about whether he or other aides were taking too much credit for Romney’s improved performance.
Both the Grenell controversy and the O’Donnell story are examples of how “Boston,” which has developed a reputation as ruthlessly efficient and careful, can struggle while integrating hires new to Romney World. The HQ’s culture of quiet, low-key competence instilled by Stevens and Rhoades, and their patience, will likely be challenged as the hundreds of new hires begin to speak out, working with party officials and reporters across the country, far from the Charles River.
“This is a long campaign,” Sununu says, and he isn’t worried about any perceived stumbles. The recent hires are only the opening salvo of the general-election campaign, he says.
To Sununu, a former adviser to President George H.W. Bush, the hires themselves aren’t surprising. Every presidential campaign grows once it effectively wins the nomination. But the fact that Romney is bringing in the RNC, working with former foes, and reaching out to conservative groups, he says, shows a focus that should worry Team Obama.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.