The second of four profiles of Congressional campaign committee executive directors.
It’s a wonder how a man as loud as Rob Jesmer has been so successful by keeping quiet.
Jesmer, the smooth and fast-talking executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, apparently knows when to shut his mouth.
What started out as a horrific election cycle for Senate Republicans has now turned very promising. Last year, Senate Republicans thought they would be lucky if they lost only two seats in 2010. Now there’s murmuring among some GOP operatives, contrary to the NRSC’s cautious warning, that they could even take back the majority.
“For the first six months of last year, nobody gave us any chance,” Jesmer said in an interview last week in his spacious corner office with views of Senate office buildings. “I just think that we plugged along, we were recruiting good candidates, we were raising money — all of that stuff that was very hard to do back then, back when the conventional wisdom was that we were going to lose seats.”
Fueling Republicans’ enthusiasm is the fact that they just won a seat in Massachusetts — and took away the Democrats’ supermajority. But even before the political upset of the decade, colleagues and associates of Jesmer praised his political acumen, candor and pragmatic approach to his work.
[IMGCAP(1)]A slightly crumpled paper sign mockingly hangs on the left of the doorway of Jesmer’s office. The sign, which was once posted at Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, directs guests upstairs for a Martha Coakley (D) for Senate fundraiser — an event that she was criticized for holding in Washington, D.C., one week before she lost the Massachusetts special election to now-Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).
When the NRSC received polling in mid-December from the Bay State that showed Brown had an outside chance of winning, Jesmer and the rest of the staff kept mum.
“It was part of our strategy, frankly,” NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said. “If we telegraphed what we were doing, we would be less likely to win. And of course that is our goal, to win. It wasn’t as if we were being humble or modest. We wanted to win.”
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), a former Jesmer boss, said the ability to keep quiet is part of his effectiveness.
“Rob lives by the motto, Keep expectations lower so you can always achieve them,'” Rogers said. “He does not raise expectations until he knows he can achieve them.”
Two weeks later, Cornyn carefully called former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) in a long-shot recruitment pitch that was mostly intended to pick his brain about who might be willing to challenge Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and his $13 million campaign account. With the filing deadline fast approaching in Indiana, Coats said he was interested — much to the surprise of Jesmer, Cornyn and the NRSC political staff. In all, the wooing of Coats lasted less than 48 hours.
Jesmer always defers to Cornyn when it comes to taking credit, but there’s no doubt that his discretion — despite his affinity for chatting up the press — has contributed to the committee’s success in recruiting candidates such as Coats. Though typically as slick as his hair, Jesmer, 36, is uncharacteristically anxious answering questions about himself.
“One of the things you have to balance when you work in this business is to kind of beat your chest and try and be like the most outspoken guy — sometimes people view this as the path to success,” Jesmer said. “And I just think for me, you know, first of all, I’m very cognizant that I work for Sen. Cornyn. … Secondly, I just feel like if you do a good job, this business is a meritocracy, people recognize that, and you can work your way up the ladder.”
It’s a been a long trip up the ladder for Jesmer, who grew up the middle child in St. Paul, Minn., and graduated with a 2.2 grade point average from the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
His first campaign was working against then-Sen. Rod Grams (Minn.) in the 1994 Republican primary. He then managed races for now-Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.) during an unsuccessful Congressional bid and for former Rep. Van Hilleary (Tenn.). He wound up on the 2002 political staff at the National Republican Congressional Committee, where he became famous for his antics.
Jesmer would anonymously prank-call colleagues in meetings down the hall to ominously warn them, “I am watching you,” according to a former co-worker. He used to hide empty tuna cans in the desk of a colleague who had an aversion to the smell. Terry Nelson, that cycle’s political director, once had to send Jesmer home to change his shoes when he wore flip-flops to the office.
“The mood around him is somewhat reminiscent of being in a fraternity,” one former colleague said.
And these days at the NRSC, aides will still find messages mysteriously sent from their e-mail accounts after they’ve left the office.
But much has changed for Jesmer since his goofball days at the NRCC. He has been married for seven years and has two children, and he wears cowboy boots instead of flip-flops. The self-depreciating Jesmer now has thin silver streaks through his long, black hair.
When he worked as chief of staff for Rogers after the NRCC, aides teasingly called him “metrosexual.”
“The staff always had fun with him about his glasses,” Rogers recalled. “They always used to tease him and say his glasses were metrosexual. He really didn’t agree with that and didn’t care for it.”
Now aides call him a “metrosexual cowboy.” He owns several pairs of cowboy boots — including the black alligator set he was wearing Thursday afternoon in his office.
Cornyn calls it “part of his Texanization process,” which began when he married his Texan bride, Kendall, and continued when he signed on to run Cornyn’s 2008 re-election campaign. The operative and the Senator are quite a pair, standing shoulder to shoulder at 6-foot-3.
“In Texas, since Karl Rove left, there’s been sort of a deficit in experienced, political folks who are capable of running a re-election campaign for Senator in the state of Texas,” Cornyn said, comparing his aide to the legendary GOP strategist.
Not that Jesmer has been able to completely escape controversy. When Jesmer was managing Cornyn’s re-election campaign, he chatted up Holly Shulman, the spokeswoman for their Democratic opponent. Shulman is the daughter of the Democrat who challenged Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) last cycle.
“Scott Garrett’s a nut. That’s who your dad is running against, right?” Jesmer, unknowingly caught on a nearby tape recorder, said to Shulman.
Those who know him well described the incident as “classic Jesmer.” And now, for a man whose presence is almost theatrical at times, it’s a wonder that both Cornyn, Jesmer and several aides describe the NRSC as a “no-drama, no-B.S.” environment under his management.
“One of the things about Rob is that he’s very direct, and I appreciate that,” Cornyn said. “Life’s complicated enough without people not telling you what they think and you have to guess at it. I think that’s one of his key assets: his ability to cut right through the garbage and get right to the point. And sometimes that takes people by surprise who aren’t used to it.”