At 40, John “Chip” Saltsman is the youngster among the men competing to be the next chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Early starts appear to be a Saltsman pattern. His family was in construction, and he says he drove dump trucks starting at age 14. He became the nation’s youngest state party chair at age 30 in 1998, and had trouble getting into the initial chairman’s meeting, as the guard didn’t believe he was old enough to be the new chairman.
Saltsman’s tenure at the helm of the Tennessee GOP began with him being thrown to the wolves early. One month into the job, his longtime friend, former boss and mentor, Governor Don Sundquist, announced plans to create a state income tax. Conservatives and Republicans across the state revolted almost immediately. Saltsman found himself leading the charge against his friend and former boss – “fighting him tooth and nail” and ultimately the tax plan was defeated. Saltsman says he and Sunquist have barely talked since.
Then Saltsman faced another steep challenge, as then-Vice President Al Gore was setting up his 2000 campaign.
“In fundraising, we raised almost $5.5 million, more than double any previous record in Tennessee, and we did that in a very tough environment, with Al Gore on the ticket. Nobody gave us a shot of beating Al Gore in his home state. We set up a specialized web site, which was pretty unusual back in 2000, called Gore-Free Tennessee. And we beat him – and as we all remember, if Al Gore wins his home state, Florida wouldn’t have mattered.”
He says that in an early meeting, Karl Rove joked that then-Governor Bush would simply wave at the state from an airplane window in between stops in more competitive states. But steady work and progress in the polls convinced the Bush campaign and national party that Tennessee was in play, and Bush campaigned there several times in the final six weeks.
Saltsman is convinced that winning methods at the state level can be applied at the national level.
“In Tennessee, we ran against the Democratic leadership. We ran against a Democratic Lieutenant Governor (in this state, the position is elected by state senate) and we made him spent more than a million dollars on that bid. We did that across the board on leadership, draining their coffers… and [the GOP] now controls the State Senate and the State House for the first time since 1896.”
In 2001, Saltsman went to work for Tennessee Senator Bill Frist’s VOLPAC, and added his effort to the GOP’s successful effort to win back control of the Senate after Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords switched parties. He returned to Tennessee after two years in Washington – “I had spent enough time [inside the Beltway] to be inoculated, but not infected” – and began work on what he thought would be a 2008 presidential bid for Frist.
“I put together his plan to run for president, and you can tell I did a great job on that, because he didn’t run,” Saltsman jokes. He said he “got feelers” from other presidential campaigns, but wasn’t that interested; he put his time into founding a small venture capital company.
But a little-known Arkansas Governor named Mike Huckabee sought Saltsman’s help in his presidential bid, and Saltsman soon found himself managing a presidential campaign. “I went down there, met him, and said, ‘this is a guy who has to be part of the conversation.’ … But he had done, at that point, almost nothing to prepare to run for president. For a political strategist, rarely do you get to build up from the ground floor. We started out nowhere, put together a plan, and were able to do a lot of things that were innovative — we knew we didn’t have money to do things traditionally, and you saw last cycle, the campaigns that were successful were the ones that did things differently. Using Chuck Norris in an ad gave us a boost nationally, it got us some looks on YouTube, and we did well in this Iowa caucus – so I’m proud of that.”
Besides a resume that features one of the more successful tenures in leadership of a state party, Saltsman says his youth is an advantage. “I understand the technology because I’ve grown up with it. I’ve invested in an IT consulting company in Tennessee, that started out with next to nothing and now has more than 100 employees. I’ve lived the technology changes we see, not just in the political world, but in real-world business experiences, that I can apply to political solutions… So many people in our party think technology is an e-mail list, but that’s a ‘one-way street’ use of technology – we need to build online, living breathing communities. We can do that online if we give them the tools an access. You can’t talk at them, you have to talk with them. Most people who are over 40, when they come home, turn on a TV or open a newspaper to get their news. Most people who are under 40 go home and open up their laptop – almost all of our communication is done online.”
On what ails the party, Saltsman says, “Our actions have spoken louder than our words. Our words are conservative, but our actions are at federal level are quite different. It leaves people asking, ‘what is a Republican?’ You saw that in the exit polls — people didn’t really know what Republicans stood for. We have to make sure the actions reflect what we stand for.”
Saltsman is not perpetually attached to computers, however; his cellular phone ring is a duck quacking, and notes a measure of his dedication to the race to be RNC chairman is that he missed the first week of duck hunting season. (He notes that he was able to go duck hunting in Canada earlier this year and “got some of it out of my system.”)
You can see several short videos Saltsman did for the Huckabee campaign here.