Convincing Someone To Run For Senate – Jason Thielman (NRSC)

Eric Wilson
April 17, 2024
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Convincing Someone To Run For Senate – Jason Thielman (NRSC)
April 17, 2024

Convincing Someone To Run For Senate – Jason Thielman (NRSC)

"The next major focus is how do we direct more of these hard dollars to these candidates and campaigns?"

Our guest is Jason Thielman, Executive Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he is tasked with leading the GOP’s efforts to elect more senators in 2024. Jason served as Chief of Staff to Senator Steve Daines prior to his election as NRSC Chairman for the cycle. Jason has a background in both business and politics.

In our conversation today, Jason shares with us the strategy decisions driving the NRSC in 2024, what he thinks about the state of campaigning, and a behind the scenes look at recruiting someone to run for U.S. Senate.


  • The 2024 Senate campaigns present opportunities in red states where Democrat incumbents are up for election.
  • Candidate recruitment is crucial for success, and the early phase of a campaign is the most important.
  • Online fundraising has become more challenging, and there is a need for more creative and thoughtful content.
  • The NRSC focuses on building strong campaigns and directing hard dollars to candidates.
  • Delegating and focusing on strategic efforts can help balance work and personal life.

Episode Transcript

Eric Wilson (00:02.592)
I'm Eric Wilson, managing partner of Startup Caucus, the home of campaign tech innovation on the right. Welcome to the Business of Politics show. On this podcast, you're joining in on a conversation with entrepreneurs, operatives, and experts who make professional politics happen. Our guest today is Jason Teelman, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, we'll call it the NRSC for the rest of the show, where he is tasked with leading.

the GOP's efforts to elect more senators in 2024. Jason served as chief of staff to Senator Steve Daines of Montana prior to his election as NRSC chairman for the cycle. Jason has a background in both business and politics, so he's a great guest for today's show. We've done a deep dive on the NRSC in a previous episode with one of his predecessors, so I'd encourage you to go listen to that show, which I'll link in the notes. In our conversation today,

Jason shares with us the strategy decisions driving the NRC in 2024, what he thinks about the state of campaigning, and a behind the scenes look at recruiting someone to run for the US Senate. So Jason, to kick us off, give us the quick update on the lay of the land for Senate campaigns in 2024. What is an insider tracking that we might be missing?

Jason Thielman (01:22.03)
Well, I think the two most underappreciated opportunities that we have this cycle, you know, at this phase where people might not completely appreciate our Nevada and Michigan. I think people understand and appreciate Maryland now too is uniquely on the map. However, I think, you know, as we always frame the cycle, there are three numbers people need to think about and appreciate to understand the importance of 2024 as it relates to the Senate landscape and future opportunities. And that's, you know, three, zero, zero.

We have these three red state incumbent Democrat seats that are up for election in West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio. And of course, you know, if you were to look at the last 69 Senate races over the last three cycles, there's only one where the seat outcome for the Senate differed from the outcome in the presidential cycle. And of course, that was Susan Collins in Maine in 2020. So.

These are our most ripe opportunities for pickup. And when you look at 2026, there are zero red state incumbents up, Democrats incumbents up for election. And in 2020, there are zero again. So the lowest hanging fruit, the opportunity that is most clear is one that does not repeat itself again until 2030. Clearly we've kind of got West Virginia now put in place as an opportunity for success.

But West Montana and Ohio are going to be absolute dogfights before you then get into these other opportunities like Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Maryland.

Eric Wilson (02:58.4)
Yeah, that's a really good stat for people to keep in mind. And it shows the challenges of Senate campaigns. There are six year terms. And so these, they're sort of like comments. You don't get the opportunities as often as you would if you were running on the House side where it's every two years, even a four year term. We'll talk a little bit in a minute about how you are setting up for success in those states, which you alluded to.

But I'm curious to hear from you, what is Senator Dane's perspective on the role of the committee in helping those candidates win in 2024?

Jason Thielman (03:37.71)
Well, it's all about the setup, right? So as you look at the role of the committee, the most important portion of the phase is the early phase, your startup phase of both, you know, of the campaign. So first, of course, is part of that, the recruitment, but you know, that, like a newborn is when your candidate or your effort is most fragile. So where, you know, we've really focused a lot of our effort because we've been, I think, so much more involved on the recruitment.

phase and then the early levels of operations, even pre IPO, if you will, for these candidates is helping them build out their teams, their operations, be ready for their vulnerabilities, do all of the things that you need to do, even perhaps in many of these instances before they've made a complete commitment to running.

Eric Wilson (04:12.768)

Eric Wilson (04:25.696)
And, and so that, that comes from a place of understanding that the problems get more difficult to solve the later on you are in a campaign, right? Um, and, and so that's the, the, the wisdom of, of candidate recruitment. So it's easier to make sure a good candidate wins in the primary than, than salvaging a bad candidate in the general election.

Jason Thielman (04:38.13)

Jason Thielman (04:50.414)
It is right. And it's, it's that first interview you do out of that gate, that second interview you do out of the gate where you weren't expecting some question either on your background or on a particular issue. And then, you know, you can't unring a bell. You can't on say what you've said. So putting in that, putting in that work in the gym on the front end with folks to make sure that they're ready and don't make those unforced errors early on, you know, is so critical and investing that time from a committee's perspective, putting in resources and energy.

for training and equipping these people. So as they are on that startup phase, they don't have a failure to launch.

Eric Wilson (05:26.336)
to quote one of Nancy Pelosi's favorite sayings, proper preparation prevents poor performance. Probably the only time I'll ever quote her on this show. Jason, I know an area where we've had a number of conversations is with regards to online fundraising and you've been a student of that discipline for many years now. What's your read on the digital fundraising landscape at the moment?

Jason Thielman (05:32.364)

Jason Thielman (05:51.022)
Well, you know, it's been more difficult, much more difficult than in past cycles. You know, committees and candidates now really need to think out of the box. What started off as sort of magic, magic money and an easy bread machine to, you know, duplicate and pump out product. Going back to especially Trump's first run in 2016 has become a much more complicated environment. And I don't think we've adapted to the point that we need to. And people are still far too reliant on these old gimmicks and tricks.

And they need to develop a lot more serious, thoughtful content and be a much more creative, if we're going to be able to really continue to make that the critical element of campaign fundraising that we need it to be. And Democrats were seeing some of this atrophy as well, but they had started from, they had such a larger base that the impact of that is less dramatic than it is for us on the Republican side.

But we are in a difficult phase. The early, fast hockey stick of growth is past us, and now people really need to work for it. And I don't think our entire ecosystem has quite adapted to that. We have not adapted and overcome yet.

Eric Wilson (07:06.688)
Yeah, and I know you come from a direct mail background, right? A long time ago. But I sort of liken this a lot to we digitize the tactics of direct mail without understanding the economics of how that works of, you know, there's a barrier to entry to sending out that mail piece. There's very little barrier to entry to sending out emails and texts. So the cost to get into the market is zero. Do you have?

a pet theory or the cause that you think we have of what's driving this? The downturn in online fundraising, I mean.

Jason Thielman (07:51.982)
There's certainly a number of theories that are out there. I think one of the most basic problems we have is just, you know, we've over fished the same waters, right? We have an online donor base that is smaller than the Democrats. We've created an incentive system that has driven people to continue to fish those same waters and not to expand out and find new fishing grounds.

So, you know, it's certainly one thing we try to do differently at the committee. The cycle is creating incentives, bringing in new donors. And we, you know, that's certainly met with success. You know, the S, you know, we have out raised online our counterpart, I think pretty much every month since the second month that the chairman took over. And importantly, we've done that with a high, with a high net. But nonetheless, but nonetheless, you know, we still face a sort of an almost an existential crisis with our ability to catch up.

catch up with the Democrats. And I think much of that is we need to expand the online donor base, which requires us to invest more in prospecting and other creative means of bringing people in, not just how do we get more money from the same people.

Eric Wilson (09:02.912)
Yeah. Uh, yeah, I, I'm, I'm, you're getting all kinds of P to P texts.

Jason Thielman (09:04.462)
I mean, hopefully you can't hear the dinging, right? But I've got, um, I, I'm figuring out a turnoff. I haven't, yeah, I haven't figured out how to turn off the P2P text on my, on my computer that's coming through. And, you know, there, you know, it's just one, one donor solicitation after another as we approach the end of the quarter, right?

Eric Wilson (09:22.176)
There you have it folks, the NRC executive director, just like us, is inundated with fundraising texts. So I do think it is kind of a tragedy of the commons situation where we've got to figure out new ways to doing it. Digitizing the old tactics from direct mail just isn't going to work anymore. We've got to figure out how to transform it. So aside from the fundraising challenges,

What keeps you up at night as executive director of the NRSC these days?

Jason Thielman (09:54.862)
Well, you know, we fortunately have been knocking off one cause of insomnia after, you know, after another here over the course of the past few months. When you asked, if you asked this question three months ago, you know, my answer would have been, you know, the prospect of difficult and brutal primaries. And fortunately we've made significant success in putting most of those to rest and in a position to have candidates, you know, focus on being successful in a general election and.

Eric Wilson (10:12.512)
Mm -hmm.

Jason Thielman (10:23.726)
directing resources to that regard. However, you know, I would say not to beat a dead horse here, but the fundraising aspect of this, you know, we is exasperated by the fact this is a, a target rich in opportunity for the NRC. That's the good news, right? But that means that we are, you know, since we're on offense, that means we're going primarily after incumbents, all of, all of whom have much greater fundraising infrastructure in place and that cash on hand disparity, that fundraising disparity.

Eric Wilson (10:44.448)

Jason Thielman (10:52.622)
between our challenger candidates and the incumbent candidates while improving over what it was in 2022 is still a serious, you know, serious concern as we work to make certain that these people can put together messaging and branding before the Democrats manage to get to them first.

Eric Wilson (11:10.272)
Right. You're right. I was looking at some of the data recently and those incumbent senators who are on defense right now just have a huge head start, not only in terms of money, but of time. So they've been able to invest in their list building and their digital tactics. And it really is stark. But we are reminded, of course, that you can't outrun a bad record.

and the wrong policies.

Jason Thielman (11:39.502)
Right. And you don't need to have more, you need to have sufficient. And in 2022, a lot of our candidates couldn't get to sufficient. Even though we're going to be outraised, I feel like we're on a trajectory where we're going to be too sufficient for a lot of these candidates. But nonetheless, it's definitely insomnia inducing at times when you look at these disparities.

Eric Wilson (12:02.112)
You're listening to the Business of Politics show. I'm speaking with Jason Teelman, executive director of the NRSC. Jason, this cycle, you have focused, you and your team and the chairman have focused on candidate recruitment and working to ensure that in those competitive Senate races, we have the best candidate possible for Republicans. Explain for our listeners the pros and cons of that approach.

Jason Thielman (12:33.294)
Well, the pro, the pro, the most important pro of it is it's, it's the most critical thing you can do if your entire objective is winning at all costs, which it is for us. You know, we certainly started our time here in our role at the NRSC with one very simple philosophy that filing deadline is the most important deadline, even more so than election day. It's the most defining moment of a campaign.

Eric Wilson (12:59.636)

Jason Thielman (13:02.094)
not just recruitment, but also at times, uh, disrecruitment of candidates as well. And that, um, you know, that really needs to be where you work backwards from not election day backwards, it's filing day backwards to make sure you define, you know, the contours, you know, the contours, the battlefield, you know, the negative of that, you know, that's sort of the political cost of that, that, you know, that ruffles feathers that pisses people off. That makes, you know, that can make enemies. It's all difficult, unpleasant things.

you know, that are involved in much, you know, in much of that, if you're going to take that sort of aggressive and muscular role on the front end of this. But, you know, I would say, I think if you were to have the same conversation with the, with the chairman as well, the process of identifying what some of the greatest talent we could find that you would want to have serving and representing the future of the Republican party in the United States Senate, being the talent scout of all of this.

Eric Wilson (14:00.446)
Mm -hmm.

Jason Thielman (14:00.686)
is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of this, figuring out the influence strategy of understanding what is going to motivate good people to step up and want to serve and go through the process of a campaign. It's a fun, kind of challenging puzzle. The chairman comes from a background of marketing and sales and business development. I come from in the business world, a background of marketing, sales and business development. And that business development

Aspect of this and taking that same approach you would to land a big customer You know is something that I think has served us well and overall, you know Definitely as a definitely as a pro more than a more than a con and it makes your life so much easier You got a great candidate You so many of the difficulties and obstacles that you would have along the way. It's just like hiring Well, right you get a good team. You have people who could adapt and overcome

solve the difficult problems and don't make unnecessary, unforced error or mistakes that you find yourself trying to patch up as you work your way through the finish line.

Eric Wilson (15:05.6)
Yeah, I mean, I think that that really speaks to your approach of understanding the systems of how things work, right? We alluded to it earlier. It's much easier to fix a bad candidate problem earlier on than when you're stuck with the candidate and there's nothing much you can do except try and drag them across the finish line. And so it is...

I think it is a smart strategy, especially in the way campaigns are run today. You alluded to this earlier about how it's not exactly an easy sell. So how does candidate recruitment actually work? So what are you doing and the chairman to convince these men and women to step into the breach? They're asking friends and colleagues for millions of dollars, subjecting their family to

withering scrutiny. It seems like a hard sell to me.

Jason Thielman (16:04.312)
I think it is a hard sell. Fortunately, the chairman's an exceptional salesman and a fantastic closer. But one of the themes you'll find in the candidates we have this cycle is we have a large number of veterans. Many of them have later very successful careers in business as well, but we have an exceptional number of people who have...

really impressive records of service in our military and in defense of our nation before going on to do other things in business. So with people who have that DNA and makeup, an appeal to service, an appeal of country over self is something that works for them. That is a part of their makeup that led them to serve our nation earlier on in their careers before they went on and did something else. And I think also it's the sort of makeup of

type of and the caliber of character and commitment and discipline that you want for people that are going to serve in public office as well.

Eric Wilson (17:12.832)
Well, what are some of the questions that you get asked by a candidate? We do have a lot of first time candidates running for office. What are their questions? What do they want to know about before getting in?

Jason Thielman (17:28.942)
Well, you know, a lot of it goes around just the vitriol of the process and understanding how to navigate that, how to understand how to navigate that with their families. They appreciate how expensive and the fundraising and the finance aspect of all of that. That's an important thing that you need to walk and work people work people through. And then, you know, the third aspect of what is it like? What is it like to serve? Can I make a difference? You know, there's a lot of perception from

you know, the outside, especially people in the business community is what kind of effective difference? You know, I want to, I want to give back to my community. I believe in service. Uh, I w I want to make our nation a better place. Is this really my highest and best use? Is this a way I can do it? So, uh, helping them answer, especially that last question, I think of will I make a meaningful difference? You know, is this my highest and best use?

Will I be able to leave this nation better if this is how I dedicate my time? Most of them are willing to make all the sacrifices necessary if they believe that it really will, they really have an opportunity to make the country better.

Eric Wilson (18:34.847)
payoff is worth it.

Eric Wilson (18:39.584)
So what are some of the other priorities that have been shaping the operations of the NRSC this cycle?

Jason Thielman (18:46.062)
Right, so it bears repeating. It certainly starts with the recruitment of the great candidates, right? That is kind of strategy job number one. Then we move to...

Eric Wilson (18:55.04)
Do you just ask anyone you see, like, would you like to run for Senate? Because you're just so laser focused on recruitment. I'm a little offended you haven't asked me yet, but.

Jason Thielman (19:02.894)
Well, keep them in. Maybe you should. I don't know. I don't It suggests you shouldn't read anything into that. I'm sure it's a matter of geography. That's the only thing. It's not a, not a commentary on quality of character, Eric. I promise. Um, you know, next is how do we make these campaigns successful? So what's the next most important thing we need to do a better job of is, uh, we can raise as much money, um, as possible in the committee. You can have all these fantastic and lots of fundraising on the super PAC side and.

Eric Wilson (19:07.776)
We're not in cycle. Yeah.

Jason Thielman (19:31.47)
know, if you're to look at the last couple cycles, Republicans had a little bit more on the soft money, pretty equal, but a little bit more on the soft money side than Democrats did. But there's no replacement for the hard money of the campaigns, right? Those dollars spend so much further. They spend so much more efficiently. If you're look at the 2022 Senate race in Nevada, right, there was a nearly a, nearly a, I think a six or seven X difference between what Cortez Masto had in her campaign versus Laxalt.

And the dramatic impact of that is that it costs 10 times as much for the NRC or for an SLF or another outside group to buy a television ad in the Las Vegas media market as it does the candidate. So, so recall the nominal dollar difference between those campaigns, what they had to spend on media was $30 million. So you put a 10 X on that, that's $300 million. The entire budget of a Senate leadership fund was $300 million. So you can't make that up on the soft money side.

We really, you know, we've tried to prioritize this. We've what you call conduiting, which you'd be familiar with right off, um, Eric, you know, we've counted records amounts of money to our candidates. You know, it's necessary to do. It's not sufficient, but that would be the next major focus is how do we direct more of these hard dollars to these candidates and campaigns? How do we help them build operations? They will be able to do more fundraising and be better financed, you know, on their own. The third, you know, the third key focus here.

is just overall, how do you make sure you build strong campaigns? I think some of the candidate quality observations that have been made about 2022, I think probably a more fair way to characterize some of that is did we help those candidates build as strong and successful campaigns as they could have? It's not so much that the, in some instances might've been, but it's less that the quality of the candidate was what it needed to be. It was that.

Eric Wilson (21:16.064)

Jason Thielman (21:26.766)
We didn't build out the quality of the campaign of a candidate needed. So that process again, starts early. It helps a lot. If you're recruiting them into the race, you're on the front end of helping build out that organization and team. Yeah. Instead of being vendor consultant driven of someone who wants to have a client whom, you know, will help buy them a second beach house. And that is to whom you are relying upon your candidate recruitment process. You have perverse incentives built into having efficient and effective campaign operations.

Eric Wilson (21:37.344)
You've built that relationship. Yeah.

Jason Thielman (21:55.906)
as opposed to having an entity like us, which I think that is again, job number one for us is that recruitment process. And then the fourth, right, as you look at the post -mortem on what we need to do better from 2022 and past cycles is we need to move off of an election day to an election month or longer mentality as it relates to collecting the hay that we need to get through the winter and not just trying to do that on election day. Once upon a time, campaigns were a one -day sale.

Everything you did was to open up your business and close it right on one day. Now it's not. Now it's now, now we have a season, right? It's a 30 day or a 45 day sale that we need to be building and gearing and gearing towards. So those are the four basic strategies of what we've been driving our execution towards.

Eric Wilson (22:45.632)
Yeah, you've given me an idea for like Black Friday sale for early voting. You know, it's like the Christmas season where you started out early. Doorbusters or something. Well, Jason, you know, like me, you're a husband and father and it can be really difficult in our industry to balance those roles, especially with a big job like the one you have. I'm curious what advice or practices you might recommend to our listeners who also trying to find that balance in their lives.

Jason Thielman (22:49.614)
Yes, there we go. Might be a few laws against that, but yeah.

Jason Thielman (23:16.622)
Well, I think that's something we're all constantly striving, striving to be better at. I know I am, but you know, I think the first most important thing you can do if you want to have that comes with the type of organization you build around you. So if you hire well, if you build a good team around you, that puts less on you. You have people you can trust to execute and do their job well. You know, there's not honestly, hardly probably a job in this building. I wouldn't love to almost do.

myself rather, you know, I'd love, you know, Mike, I'd never do as good a job as him, but, you know, I'd love to do Mike Alms job is as, uh, you know, digital indirect mail director. I'd love, you know, I love Tim's Edson's job as political, um, director and Mike Berg's as comms director and Matt Wallace, but they all are, they all do things that I would love to immerse myself in every day, but all of them do it better than I ever would. So I need to let them do their job. And I think, uh, you know, when you're in these sorts of.

positions that's important for both making life more fulfilling for the other people on your team, but it also gives you more time to have a better balanced life if you've surrounded yourself with talent that is better than yourself, which I think that we've done here. And then make the definition of strategy is what you don't do. It's not what you do do. And I think that applies to an organization as it does to an individual.

Eric Wilson (24:38.91)

Jason Thielman (24:44.43)
And in the instance of the latter, it's deciding, you know, what, what can I uniquely do? Like most people on this team can do things, um, can get things done probably better, more effectively, um, more thoughtfully than I could do it, even if I would like to do it. Uh, but what are the things that I need to do that they can't do? And that's where you should spend your time. And if you do that, you release yourself from the tyranny of the urgent and allow yourself to be strategic in your effort, both for your, your.

outcomes professionally as well as well as it is for your family.

Eric Wilson (25:18.656)
Well, Jason, that was really good advice, delegating often the most difficult challenge of leadership. But when you hire good people, like those you've mentioned, who I had the pleasure of working with in the past as well, it makes it easier to do. I want to thank Jason for a great conversation. If you want to learn more about his work, if you're thinking about running for Senate, you're a little bit late. But visit nrsc .org.

to learn more about their work and the candidates that they are promoting this cycle. If this episode made you a little bit smarter or gave you something to think about, all we ask is that you share it with a friend or colleague. You look smarter in the process. More people learn about the show. It's a win -win. You're tired of me saying this by now, but it really does work. Remember to subscribe to the Business of Politics show wherever you listen to your podcasts so you never miss an episode.

You can also sign up for email updates on our website at business of politics podcast .com. With that, I'll say thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

Jason Thielman (26:26.894)
Thanks so much, Eric. Big fan of the show, big fan of your newsletter. It makes me smarter.

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