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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Meet the Twins Behind the Bruce Rauner and John Kasich Campaigns

Chris and Mike Schrimpf are the brothers working with some of today’s highest-profile Republicans.

Illinois governor Bruce Rauner and Ohio governor John Kasich  Photo: (Rauner) Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune; (Kasich) Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Every once in a while a political story pops up that’s deliciously quirky—all partisanship aside. The tale of two Schrimpfs—Mike and Chris of Cincinnati—is one of those.

The twins aren’t the types to take their show on the road—think lefty James Carville and righty Mary Matalin. Instead, they are behind-the-scenes guys who share not only the same looks but the same conservative beliefs.

Mike first: Ever since Bruce Rauner launched his unlikely campaign for governor by saturating the brains of Illinois voters with his annoying slogans, “Shake up Springfield” and “Bring Back Illinois,” Mike Schrimpf has been at Rauner’s side as the campaign’s communications director. My first on-the-record interviews with the unknown Rauner, just at the time he jumped in the race in June 2013, were arranged with Mike’s help. But our relationship soon soured. He turned thumbs down on an interview I had requested directly from the boss’s wife, Diana Rauner, who wrote me in an email in April, “I think Mike is arranging a time for us to get together. I look forward to it!”

Mike did nothing of the kind and he let me know that all interview requests must go through him: a dead end. A couple of weeks later, he was furious over a piece I wrote for Chicago, “Meet Mitt Rauner: Why the Illinois gubernatorial race is looking increasingly like Obama-Romney revisited.” Mike described it as a “caricature.” When the—I think—meticulously fair profile I wrote of the candidate —“Will The Real Bruce Rauner Please Stand Up?“—appeared shortly before the November, 2014 election, Mike Shrimpf put me on the equivalent of the enemy’s list and none of my requests or queries get answered.

Nick Ayers, Chris Schrimpf, and Mike Schrimpf on election night in 2010 Photo: Courtesy of Nick Ayers

Until Monday. That’s when I received a short response to an email I wrote Mike seeking to learn more about his twin brother. Chris’s name was all over the news because he works as the spokesman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the late entry into the GOP contest for the presidential nomination. Having excelled at beating expectations in last week’s Fox News debate, Kasich grabbed the mantle of the reasonable republican/compassionate conservative and lots of media attention.

Chris and Mike had to be brothers—or at least cousins, I thought, as I devoted part of last Sunday afternoon to learning all I could about the 32-year-old brothers Schrimpf.

On Monday I contacted Nick Ayers, also 32, who had become executive director of the Republican Governors Association in 2007 when he was only 24. ln that position, he had hired both Chris and Mike for the same job as RGA communications director.

Chris came first, in 2007. By the next year he had gotten married, his wife was pregnant, and they didn’t want to stay in DC. “He knew I was pained by his departure,” Ayers told me. “Chris told me that the next best thing about me is having a twin.” Mike, then working in a municipal government job in Ohio, had dinner with Ayers, who offered him the RGA spokesman job on the spot. Chris stayed long enough to show Mike the ropes, and, says Ayers, Mike “immediately recreated the synergy and chemistry.”

Ayers describes the Schrimpf twins as “identical—they look the same.” (Chris, however, emails me that “The doctors actually weren’t able to determine if we are identical or fraternal.”) More important, Ayers adds, their “approach to work is identical—selfless, hugely productive, fact and data driven, no drama with the Schrimpfs, total workhorses, beasts of productivity, extremely disciplined.”

Ayers reached for an automobile analogy: “If they were cars they wouldn’t be a Ferrari or a Maserati, they’d be a Ford F150, America’s bestselling [pickup] truck, proven to get the job done. That’s what the Schrimpfs are—dogged and determined….Nothing hugely sexy about the F150; that’s the way the Schrimpfs are.”

Ayers pays tribute to the twins for having played a leading role in the campaigns of three consequential governors: Kasich, Rauner, and Scott Walker. While at the RGA, Mike helped funnel money to Walker to boost his election chances and help him survive a recall. Chris worked as Walker’s communication director from his swearing-in through the recall.

Ayers, who lives in Atlanta, also worked for Rauner. He was, he emphasizes, a key player in the campaign—the key player, the chief outside consultant. “I wrote the campaign plan and built the team. I handled all of the media buying. I was the one who on election night called him and Diana in their hotel suite and told them we had won. I gave them the news before the AP called it.”

According to Ayers, Rauner had seriously considered running for governor in 2010. “I was heading the RGA in 2009 when Rauner called me. He was close to running in 2010 but had decided to wait. His kids were too young, he needed more time to unwind his responsibilities. Shortly after the 2010 election, his interest had blossomed.” Rauner called Ayers back and told him he wanted to run in 2014.

Ayers tells me that it was he who “talked Mike Schrimpf into going to work for candidate Rauner as communications chief. [His current title is deputy chief of staff for communications.] He took a real risk in doing that. I felt if we could assemble the right team, I knew we had the right candidate.”

I asked Ayers if we should believe Rauner when he pledges that he just wants to “fix” Illinois and has no ambitions to go to Washington and “fix” it or “shake” it. “He loves three things,” Ayers replies, “his family, the state of Illinois, and the taxpayers. I could offer Bruce the rosiest national scenarios and he’d turn them all down. The taxpayers are the winners because he doesn’t need anything; he doesn’t want anything else. He won’t be leaving Illinois for a federal job. There is no next stop. He’s doing the job he fought hard to win.”

Neither Schrimpf agreed to the five-minute telephone interview I had requested. But both emailed me to praise his twin, saying nothing about himself.

Chris on Mike: “Mike is enormously talented and the best in the business. One of my fondest professional memories was sharing an office with him in 2010 at the Republican Governors Association as we gained control of over 30 states. I was most proud to watch him shake up Springfield and guide Bruce Rauner to his election as governor. Now he’s helping to bring back Illinois by restoring good government and fiscal discipline to the state.”

Mike on Chris: “I’m not big on talking about myself, but I am happy to tell you that, in my opinion, Chris is the best Republican communicator in the country. He has an unparalleled record of success and always offers wise communications counsel to the governors and campaigns he advises.”

Both Schrimpfs were conservative in college—Chris at Cornell University; Mike at Tufts. In 2005 Mike wrote a column for the Tufts Daily titled “Embracing Social Security reform” (i.e. private, personalized accounts, “promoting an ownership society”). He predicted that “Social Security reform will bring compassionate conservatism to the masses.”

That same year , Chris Schrimpf, then a senior at Cornell and interning that summer at a think tank in DC , took part in a protest staged by “Students for Saving Social Security.” The protest involved a “snow storm” in the summer heat, dropping “3,000 pounds of snow and ice sculptures.” Chris told a reporter from Ohio that the drop was meant “to symbolize the Senate giving us a cold shoulder on Social Security.”

In another fun local twist, Chris Schrimpf’s boss, John Kasich, will be competing against the candidate of Chip Englander, Mike’s former colleague on the Rauner campaign. Englander is now managing Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s struggling campaign for the republican nomination. My money’s on Chris Schrimpf and Kasich, and my hunch is that Paul will soon drop out to remind Kentucky voters why they should reelect him as Kentucky’s junior senator.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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