One of the times Jeff Larson offered to help the Republican Party, he ended up with a $130,000 credit card bill for Sarah Palin’s wardrobe.
This year, Larson will be writing the checks for the Republican effort to retake the majority in the Senate.
Larson, who has been chosen to be the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Independent Expenditure operation this cycle, has nearly three decades of experience helping Republicans get elected to office, from volunteering for his hometown mayor in Grand Forks, N.D., to being part of the largest telemarketing firm on the Republican side.
But Larson certainly isn’t a creature of the Beltway.
He was born and raised in Grand Forks, attended Red River High School and stayed in town to earn his business degree from the University of North Dakota.
Larson got his political feet wet volunteering for newly-elected Mayor H.C. “Bud” Wessman, who lost his bid for Senate in 1982 at the state GOP convention to Gene Knorr. But a couple weeks later, Larson was hired onto the Knorr campaign.
“I was the driver and within two weeks I was finance director,” Larson said about the job, which paid him $800 per month. “That tells you something about the campaign,” he said with a smile. Knorr fell short of knocking off Democratic incumbent Quentin Burdick, 63 percent to 34 percent, but the cycle wasn’t a total loss.
Larson met his future wife, who was working for congressional candidate Kent Jones, on the job. And after Jones lost to Democrat Byron Dorgan, he hired Larson as marketing director at the state’s Department of Agriculture.
It didn’t take long before Larson got back onto the campaign trail. In 1984, he worked on Republican Gov. Allen Olson’s unsuccessful re-election campaign. The next cycle, Larson was the Bismarck-based western field coordinator for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“He’s probably a pretty boring guy to write a story about,” quipped Republican media consultant Curt Anderson of OnMessage Inc. The two men met in 1986, when Anderson was working with Republican Dale Bell in an open seat race for South Dakota’s at-large House seat.
“So many people have an act or a schtick,” Anderson added. “He’s an even-keeled, regular guy.”
That’s a common refrain from the people who have worked with Larson.
In 1988, Larson moved 1,500 miles east to become executive director of the Delaware Republican Party. It was much more exciting back then, when the First State was still competitive and wealthy Pete du Pont’s presidential campaign was housed next door, leading to a well-equipped party headquarters.
Two years later, Larson moved to Minneapolis to become regional political director for the West for the Republican National Committee, before transitioning to President George Bush’s re-election campaign.
Eventually Larson found himself traveling to Wyoming three weeks before the 1992 election. “You know things aren’t going well,” he joked. “You learn more when you lose than when you win.”
From that race, Larson learned about the importance of locking up your base vote as independent Ross Perot gained some late traction in western states.
The Wednesday after the election, Larson woke up with a wife, two kids and no job. He eventually got a job with Strategic Telecommunications. And in 1999, Tom Synhorst brought him together with Tony Feather to form FLS, which grew into the largest telemarketing firm on the Republican side, assisting campaigns with calls for microtargeting and fundraising.
Larson eventually moved to Hudson, Wis., just about 20 minutes from St. Paul across the St. Croix River. The area is closely tied to the Twin Cities and he continued to be heavily involved in Minnesota politics.
Larson first met Democrat Norm Coleman (before his switch to the GOP) when he was running for re-election as mayor of St. Paul. But later, Larson’s wife went to work for the then-Republican senator and Larson eventually became a fundraiser and close adviser.
“Jeff was the smartest and best connected person in Minnesota politics that nobody knew,” Coleman said. FLS worked on his 2002 Senate race and, the following year, Larson founded Coleman’s NorthStar Leadership PAC. Now, Larson is on the board of American Action Network, where Coleman is chairman.
“Jeff will be there in the trenches and pull pieces together,” Coleman said.
In 2008, when the Minneapolis-St. Paul Host Committee was struggling to raise money before the national convention, Larson stepped in as chief executive officer and is credited for getting it back to financial stability. The committee ended up with a multimillion dollar surplus (it donated to three area nonprofits), but Larson ended up in the red.
Shortly before the Republican convention began, someone thought the presumptive GOP nominee for vice president needed new clothes and had the idea that the host committee should pay for them. Larson said no, but scratched his credit card number and expiration date on a scrap of paper to help the cause. He had almost forgotten about it until he received a bill with more than $130,000 in charges (for which the RNC infamously reimbursed him).
Larson became part of Coleman’s 2008 re-election campaign that cycle, when the senator lived in the basement of Larson’s D.C. townhouse. Their rental agreement became part of the campaign narrative. Coleman lost to Al Franken, but Larson has an opportunity to avenge that loss this year when the senator is up for re-election.
After the 2010 elections, Larson sold his stake in FLS Connect in order to play a different role in the party. When Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus became chairman of the Republican National Committee, Larson followed him to Washington to become chief of staff. The party was coming off major gains in the 2010 elections but was also more than $20 million in debt. When Larson left a couple years later, the committee had more than $5 million in cash on hand.
“What I like about Jeff is that he is unassuming,” said Priebus. “He’s not a show pony.”
Larson may not be a show pony, but he does have an ongoing horse racing hobby that goes back at least 15 years. Owning horses, such as Tubby Time, has taught Larson a bit of patience over the years.
“Everything is not a crisis today,” reflected Larson on horse racing and politics. “Sometimes it takes a while for a horse to come along, just like campaigns aren’t decided in the first few months.”
Larson leaves the jockey hiring to his trainers, but as executive director of IE, Larson will be in charge of managing the consulting teams and spending for the dozen or so most competitive Senate races. During each of the past two cycles, the IE arm has spent more than $32 million.
Not surprisingly, those spending decisions can lead to some criticism. But Larson has faced heat before, particularly for the tens of millions of dollars FLS has raised for the George W. Bush campaign, Mitt Romney campaign and RNC over the years.
This year, Larson is laser focused on the majority.
“This is about winning, not about whose feelings I’m going to hurt,” he said.