House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is kicking off the new year by tapping Will Dunham, executive director of the Republican Study Committee, as his new policy director, in another sign that relations between the conference’s establishment and conservative wings are thawing.
Dunham’s hire, finalized last week, is the latest in McCarthy’s string of efforts to round out his policy staff with seasoned voices from the conference’s right flank. For the past two years, Dunham, 30, has coordinated legislative efforts for the RSC — a bedrock of conservative strategy in the House — helping draft a comprehensive alternative to Obamacare and working closely with Barrett Karr, McCarthy’s deputy chief of staff for policy.
Karr’s rapport with Dunham was a key factor behind the hire, says McCarthy’s communications director, Mike Long. “[Karr] was looking for a manager who could be both innovative but also a good nuts-and-bolts policy person. She felt like he was the type of person Kevin would want to bring in.”
Dunham takes on a post that has sat vacant in McCarthy’s office since March of last year. His hire could help combat a perception that McCarthy’s office has long been devoid of policy wonks, which was in some ways compounded by the fallout of his decision to drop out of the speaker’s race. Dunham’s presence will also lighten the burden on Karr, who Long notes has had to take on additional responsibilities since the departure of top McCarthy aide John Stipicevic for K Street in December.
Dunham’s leadership in the RSC, and his past time as a staffer at the Heritage Foundation, could build more goodwill among the conference’s most conservative members, whose tensions with leadership have gradually ebbed since Paul Ryan became speaker in October.
“Bringing on Will is a further indication that at his core, Kevin McCarthy is very much a conservative. They come from the same ideological gene pool,” says Mike Franc, who served as McCarthy’s policy director until leaving to run the Hoover Institution’s DC operations last March.
Much of Dunham’s value, Franc adds, is in offering leadership a “fresh perspective” on their most conservative members. “When you’ve worked closely with dozens and dozens of members like Will has, you know them on a personal level, you know their backgrounds, and you know what policy drives them. . . . Will could have a PhD in navigating the crossroads of these ideological battles in the party.”
#share#McCarthy echoed that sentiment in his own statement to National Review, noting Dunham’s experience as a consensus builder within the RSC.
“I have always encouraged an entrepreneurial approach to the challenges facing American families and individuals throughout the country,” McCarthy said. “While at the Republican Study Committee, Will demonstrated his ability to work with over one hundred and fifty Members of Congress and members of the conservative movement to build consensus around impactful conservative solutions. I am excited to welcome Will aboard and to continue working with our conference to build a freer and more prosperous America.”
Dunham will immediately be tasked with crafting implementation strategies for the agenda generated at the conference’s policy retreat in Baltimore next week. He’ll work closely with committees on devising a long-term legislative plan for the conference.
“It’s a presidential election year, so we’ll be focusing on issues that paint a contrast with Democrats,” Long says. “A lot of that has to do with developing policies for the economy and embracing a new culture of data-driven analytics, which is something Will will be looking into.”
Dunham is no stranger to quelling unrest and building legislative consensus among the party’s base. His tenure as executive director of the RSC started almost unwittingly, and on shaky ground, after his predecessor, Paul Teller, was ousted for leaking closed-door conversations among the caucus to outside conservative groups.
“There was a question whether the RSC could remain conservative because of all the turbulence at the time,” says Tim Chapman, COO of Heritage action. “It was great for conservatives to see that they had made a commitment to hire someone from the movement like Will. He did a good job of steadying the ship there.”
#related#Chapman adds that Dunham’s hire demonstrates McCarthy’s commitment to “implementing the kind of bold, conservative agenda that Paul Ryan is calling for. . . . Will is perfect for that, because he knows that in order for that to happen, it has to happen in tandem with the base.”
Dunham, whose time on Capitol Hill has also included a stint working on budget issues in California representative Tom McClintock’s office, leaves the RSC to praise from its chairman, Bill Flores.
“During his time at the Republican Study Committee (RSC), Will Dunham has been a trusted advisor to three RSC chairmen working to turn conservative principles into legislative reality,” Flores said in a statement to NR. “I am grateful for his aid as we crafted bold and positive solutions to the problems facing the hardworking American taxpayers, who sent us here to rebuild our nation’s security, restore economic opportunity, and limit an overreaching federal government. I am confident he will bring the same approach to his new role and I wish him the best.”
RSC spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll confirms that the group has not yet tapped a new executive director.
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.