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Hands-On McConnell Helps Round Out NRSC

Senate minority leader’s approval was important in hiring process for group’s executive director slot

Rob Collins was initially asked to help new National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran find an executive director for the 2014 cycle. But ultimately Collins was hired for the job, at least partly because of his back-channel connection to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Moran made the final call on Collins, who emerged as a candidate for the NRSC’s most senior staff position late in the hiring process after the Kansan’s chief of staff, Todd Novascone, met with him to ask for recommendations about whom the senator should hire. Novascone was impressed with Collins’ ideas for steering the NRSC, and within a week of their Dec. 13 meeting, Moran had signed him on to run the committee.

But Republican operatives say McConnell’s approval also was important and they point to Collins’ relationship with a key confidant of the Kentuckian as a factor that elevated him above others in the running for executive director. McConnell, who had already arranged for Moran to share power with two NRSC vice chairmen in an unprecedented accommodation, had sign-off authority over the position and was quietly involved in the hiring process.

Republicans who monitor the NRSC and are focused on GOP efforts to win back the Senate in 2014 believe Collins’ advantage over other candidates stemmed from his super PAC background and relationship with former McConnell aide Steven Law, who runs the heavyweight GOP super PAC American Crossroads. This connection satisfied the desire of McConnell and other GOP leaders to have more influence over NRSC activities in the 2014 cycle, sources say.

“The relationship with Law was key,” one Republican operative said, echoing several GOP sources interviewed for this story.

“It’s easy to connect the dots,” another GOP insider added.

A party’s Senate leader typically exercises some oversight over the campaign committee, beginning with recruiting a chairman. But the chairman usually installs his or her chief of staff, or a political operative with whom he has an existing relationship, to serve as executive director and sometimes fills out other senior positions with strategists who have advised him on personal campaigns. This is how recent NRSC chairmen staffed the committee.

But Novascone did not move over to the NRSC, nor did Moran have an existing political team prepared to fill the committee’s top posts. As part of McConnell’s subtle but deeper involvement in the NRSC that led him to install Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rob Portman of Ohio as vice chairmen, he consulted with Moran on the executive director hire, communication that was handled mainly by Chief of Staff Josh Holmes.

Other executive director candidates had constituencies, including Louisiana Sen. David Vitter’s chief of staff, Kyle Ruckert, and Mike Shields, the political director at the National Republican Congressional Committee last cycle. As a senior Senate aide with campaign experience, Ruckert’s backers in the GOP conference were numerous. Shields, meanwhile, had fans among many Republican operatives who believed his record of winning elections at the NRCC was exactly the kind of experience needed at the NRSC.

Once it was clear that Collins was a candidate for executive director, many GOP consultants expressed excitement at the prospect of him running the NRSC. He previously advised Sen. John Thune of South Dakota during his 2002 campaign, was a top aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and led American Action Network, a GOP super PAC. Some Republicans downplayed McConnell’s influence in Collins’ hiring; many others said the connection was obvious.

According to one former GOP congressional aide, this dynamic made particular sense given that McConnell, a former two-term NRSC chairman himself, was instrumental in getting Moran to embrace the new committee leadership structure with the two powerful vice chairmen. McConnell is up for re-election in 2014, and following a disappointing 2012 cycle that saw the GOP lose two Senate seats, Republicans say the minority leader was concerned about the leadership at the NRSC.

“If Portman and Cruz were named as vice chairs to keep an eye on Moran, having an [executive director] that the Republican leadership approved of would also be vital,” this former aide said.

A Republican familiar with Moran’s thinking emphasized that it was the NRSC chairman who had sole discretion to hire the committee executive director, although this individual acknowledged that every finalist for the position was discussed and given the green light by McConnell.

Moran also consulted Thune because of his experience with Collins in 2002, when he unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who is up for re-election this cycle. Moran, this individual explained, came away impressed with Collins’ plans for the broad strategic direction of the NRSC, and that is what influenced the chairman’s decision above all else.

“The No. 1 thing that sold him were his ideas,” this individual said.

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