Much of the movie “Fargo” takes place in Minnesota, the home state of the aide in charge of the campaign that propelled Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell to the role of Senate majority leader in the next Congress.
It’s fitting that Josh Holmes, the senior adviser whom McConnell commended on stage at his election night gathering in Louisville, would hail from Minnesota, given that another former chief of staff, Billy Piper, once said McConnell was the wood chipper in the movie’s gruesome final scene.
Personality-wise, Holmes does not fit the billing for a Coen Brothers film. The hard-nosed operative behind one of the cycle’s best campaigns is classic “Minnesota nice,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman. Holmes was regional coordinator for the Minnesota Republican’s 2002 Senate campaign and then joined his office on Capitol Hill.
“I brought him to Washington. It was one of the smartest moves I ever made,” Coleman told CQ Roll Call. “He’s the guy you’d want your daughter to marry.”
“In a business in which there are a lot of folks with sharp elbows and short tempers and tough personas, but Josh is … fundamentally one of the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet,” Coleman said. “It’s a pleasure to work with him, and you know it’s a pleasure probably then to work for him.”
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore, a Kentucky native who worked with Holmes in the Senate as far back as 2008, concurred.
“Nobody who works for Josh feels like they work for Josh because he so respects everyone on his team,” Moore said. “But the truth is that everyone who works for Josh is honored to work for him because he is so good at what he does.”
Holmes, a Roll Call Fabulous 50 alumnus, has shown he cares about his team, even at unexpected times. Late into election night, Holmes was checking in on a young field operative planning a move to Louisville to make sure the staffer had the right contacts and connections for his next career move.
In conversations with people close to Holmes and the campaign, the most frequent refrain wasn’t about the blood — though there was no shortage of attacks on the opposition — it was about the discipline.
Scott Jennings, another longtime McConnell adviser with key roles in his 2002 and 2008 campaigns, was behind roughly $20 million in outside ad spending this year supporting McConnell and opposing Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. He pointed to Holmes’ ability to avoid “bullshit.”
“I greatly admired the way the McConnell campaign relentlessly stayed on message, in comparison to the way the Grimes campaign was easily distracted and knocked off message any given day. The Grimes campaign was constantly throwing crap against the wall in this campaign, and it would have been easy to go off chasing your tail trying to deal with it,” Jennings said. “But Josh had the judgment and instincts to know to ignore most of the garbage, allowing the McConnell campaign to focus on their message and to really spend time rebutting the attacks that actually needed rebuttal.”
If there was a singular moment when this particular campaign needed that kind of focus, it might have been in the aftermath of a flub that must have been particularly embarrassing to a sports fan such as McConnell from a commonwealth that loves college basketball. In the midst of March Madness, a Team Mitch ad featured the uniforms of the Duke Blue Devils instead of the Kentucky Wildcats.
From that point forward, Holmes would spend every week in Louisville, only returning to the District of Columbia on the weekends, sources familiar with the situation told CQ Roll Call. Jesse Benton, an adviser and confidante of the Paul family, held the title of campaign manager at that point, but it was Holmes who ran weekly Friday strategy calls with members in the McConnell orbit past and present.
The previous August, audio had leaked of Benton saying he was ”sorta holdin’ my nose for two years” in what sounded like an effort to benefit the long-term political prospects of junior Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul. Sources familiar with the Friday calls said Holmes told other participants not to dwell on the issue or be distracted by it, after Benton offered an explanation and apology when the audio leaked.
Benton stayed with the campaign until resigning on Aug. 29, citing potential distractions thanks to an ethical dustup. (A former Iowa state lawmaker admitted he took concealed payments from the 2012 Ron Paul presidential campaign for an endorsement.)
Regardless of titles, Holmes had long been calling the shots.
Running the McConnell effort wasn’t his only endeavor of the cycle. He left his role as McConnell’s personal office chief of staff in August 2013 to devote his full attention to advising the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Team Mitch operation.
Holmes was in the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, and received an autographed baseball from McConnell in recognition of what his longtime boss has called the “perfect game” pitched on Election Day.
NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring told CQ Roll Call that Holmes’ skill set is rather unusual for political operatives, comparing him to a five-tool player in Major League Baseball, highlighting his importance particularly before spending most of his time on the ground in the Bluegrass State later in the game.
“It’s important to recall that in the previous year we were building up a lot of these campaigns that ended up being successful on election night, and his role in those efforts as we were ramping up in these states and making decisions. … He was invaluable in the process,” Dayspring said.
Dayspring stressed the importance of having someone with McConnell’s ear available to express the views of the leader, calling him a “perfect conduit” between the two operations. McConnell himself swore off assistance from the NRSC because, as Holmes said over the summer, “Essentially, [McConnell’s] take is that he carries his own weight so that the committee can maximize its resources in pursuit of the majority.”
It’s a strategy that succeeded all-around, with McConnell besting challenger Matt Bevin in a hotly contested primary and ultimately trouncing Grimes by about 15 points in the general.
McConnell adviser John Ashbrook, who stepped away from his day job on the GOP leadership staff ahead of the election, summed it up in an email: “Holmes is an incredible manager, brilliant strategist and all around good guy. Candidates will study what he accomplished in Kentucky for years to come but I doubt anyone will be able to replicate it.”