Staff Decamp Vulnerable Democrat’s Office Over Fundraising Concerns (Updated)
Updated 12:26 p.m. | One of the House’s most vulnerable members is shedding staff at a rapid clip, just months after he arrived in Congress.
Three top-level staffers in Rep. Brad Ashford’s office have left since his swearing-in on Jan. 6. The exits include Ashford’s chief of staff and two communications directors, who departed over the past few weeks. All are frustrated with what was described as the Nebraska Democrat’s unwillingness to fundraise for an ultra-competitive re-election campaign.
The staff exodus puts Ashford’s office in a state of upheaval, and those who left had experience working for Democrats representing tough districts that Republicans carried at the presidential level. That institutional know-how could have helped the Nebraskan, whose 2nd District favored GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney by a 7-point margin in 2012.
Tiffany Muller, Ashford’s outgoing chief of staff, came to the office after working in the same role for Rep. Patrick Murphy. The Florida Democrat held on to a district Romney carried by a 4-point margin. A source told CQ Roll Call Muller planned to rejoin Murphy’s office. After this article was published, Muller denied that claim.
And Richard Carbo, who worked as Ashford’s communications director for roughly two weeks, is headed to Murphy’s office to take the same role. Carbo has worked for a number of Blue Dog Democrats who won re-election against all odds, including former Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga.
Another communications director, Beth Schoenbach, left the office in January. She was communications director on Ashford’s campaign.
Ashford brushed off the exits, telling CQ Roll Call in an interview he’s going to make his office more “Nebraska-centric.”
But he refused to cede that fundraising is an important part of his job as a member — especially as a top GOP target with a long list of Republicans lining up to take him on next fall.
“Sure I have to fundraise, I call people when I can, but it really is secondary, almost tertiary,” Ashford told CQ Roll Call after votes Tuesday afternoon. “I’m going to do what I think is in the best interest of the district, and right now fundraising is not a high priority for my constituents.”
Ashford’s hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, reported Wednesday that the congressman doesn’t seem concerned about how the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee views his race. “If I don’t get re-elected because I don’t toe the party line, or I don’t raise enough money by the first quarter, then I don’t,” Ashford told that newspaper. “But I don’t think that’s going to make a difference. I think I’ll be graded on how I do.”
He also told the World-Herald he estimates having raised at least $150,000 this year, even though he’s been told he should bring in $250,000. (Other people in the DCCC’s Frontline program for vulnerable members raise in the neighborhood of $400,000 per quarter.)
It’s this mentality that not only gave Ashford’s staffers heartburn, but is a concern for national Democrats who need to retain his seat if they have any hope of netting the 30 seats necessary to win House control.
Ashford ousted GOP Rep. Lee Terry in 2014, making him one of two Democratic challengers to defeat an incumbent Republican in an otherwise miserable year for Democrats.
His success was due in large part to Terry’s unpopularity, after the eight-term Republican made ill-advised comments on the government shutdown that dogged his re-election prospects.
This cycle, Ashford is almost certain to face a Republican opponent with less baggage. And he is in the precarious position of holding one of the few offensive opportunities Republicans have on the map.
“He’s going to have one of the toughest races in the country, if not the toughest race in the country,” Rep. Steve Israel, former chairman of the DCCC, told CQ Roll Call. “And so his focus will need to be on his mechanics and on representing his district effectively. He’s going to have to do both, not one or the other.”
This isn’t Ashford’s first plague of staff retention problems: He burned through three campaign managers during the race for the seat.
And fundraising was always an issue. The vast majority of Ashford’s haul last cycle came from email solicitations. And he brought in millions less than other top-tier Democratic candidates such as Gwen Graham of Florida, the other Democrat to defeat a GOP incumbent in the midterms.
The DCCC declined to comment. But national Democratic operatives said Ashford has time to turn his office around.
If he doesn’t, he might suffer the same fate as former Rep. Nancy Boyda, the Kansas Democrat who ousted a Republican in a heavily GOP-leaning district in the 2006 Democratic wave. Boyda refused to participate in the DCCC’s Frontline program in her 2008 re-election and then lost to now-Rep. Lynn Jenkins.
“This sounds like the type of activity that occurs in a one-term member of Congress’ office, not someone who is going to be re-elected,” said a national Democratic operative who works on House races. “And so he has a lot of time to fix that. And I’ve certainly seen a lot of members who are freshmen who have gotten off to rocky starts and have righted the ship.”
Ed. note: This story was updated to clarify sourcing on Muller’s Hill opportunities.