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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rauner’s Top Campaign Guy Is Now Running the Pence VP Campaign

Will Rauner warm to Trump/Pence?

Gov. Bruce Rauner has refused to endorse Donald Trump for president. Meanwhile, Trump says he's never heard of Rauner.  Photo: (left) Michael Tercha, (right) Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

The Republican National Convention starts today in Cleveland, and, in a phenomenon I’ve not seen during my adult lifetime, many of the “big men on campus" are staying home. Gov. Bruce Rauner, for example, has said that he’s neither endorsing Trump nor going to the convention.

While I don’t expect to see Illinois’s popularity-challenged governor hightailing it to Ohio, he might soften his position on Trump as the summer turns to Labor Day and the race catches fire.

The reason, indirectly, is Trump’s pick of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate.  Pence’s vice presidential race is headed by the same operative, Nick Ayers, who ran Rauner’s 2014 race for governor. Ayers described himself to me in a telephone call last year as a key player in Rauner’s campaign—the guy who drafted the campaign plan, hired staff, and handled media buying. He said, “I was the one who on election night [November 4, 2014] called [Rauner] and Diana in their hotel suite and told them we had won. I gave them the news before the AP called it.”

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the Trump campaign is allowing Pence to select his own people and that Nick Ayers is heading Pence’s “own team of professional operatives.”

Until Pence finally got the flaccid nod from Trump on Saturday, Ayers had been working on the incumbent governor’s campaign for reelection in Indiana. (Pence had to withdraw from reelection because Indiana law does not allow a candidate to appear twice on the ballot.)

As Pence’s name bobbed around on Trump’s fluid VP list, Ayers was busy, the Post reports, forging “close ties with [Trump campaign chairman Paul] Manafort and earned his confidence.” 

In addition to guiding Rauner, who had never run for as much as student council president before taking the state’s top job in 2014 from incumbent governor Pat Quinn, Ayers also connects to Rauner through the Schrimpf twins, Mike and Chris. When Ayers, 33, became executive director of the Republican Governors Association in 2007, he hired both Schrimpfs (also 33), Chris first, as communication director.

Ayers claims credit for later talking Mike Schrimpf into working for Rauner as  communications chief, before the venture capitalist formally entered the race. Schrimpf stayed on during the campaign, and until well into Rauner’s first term. Chris Schrimpf worked for John Kasich in his failed race for the presidential nomination and is still working as the Ohio governor’s spokesman. (Kasich is another Midwest governor who has not endorsed Trump, although he will take meetings this week with delegates and others. He is, after all, governor of the state in which the event is being held—but the meetings will take place in various hotels and halls around Cleveland, not at the Quicken Loans Arena.)

Interestingly, while Ayers made plenty of money working for Rauner—Politico’s Natasha Korecki reported late last year that Ayers’ Target Enterprises, which creates campaign ads, “was one of [Rauner’s]…biggest payees”—the Post reports that Ayers, like Manafort, will be working for the Trump/Pence ticket for no pay.

But let’s not get carried away about potential affection between Rauner and Pence: When I interviewed Rauner as he was about to enter the gubernatorial fray, he described governors, all Republicans, past and present, whom he most admired. “Mitch Daniels in Indiana was the best governor in America for eight years. I’ve gone to Indianapolis to study with him. … Rick Scott in Florida is very strong. Jeb Bush is terrific; I’ve talked with him on education reform. Scott Walker in Wisconsin has done good things to improve the economy and tax burden.” He also liked Rick Snyder of Michigan, “a venture capitalist just like I’ve been.”

No mention of Mike Pence.

As recently as March, Trump claimed never to have heard of Rauner. Presumably the leading guy in the race for the nomination had not been briefed on who heads one of the country’s biggest industrial states. (Trump, who recently called the state’s incumbent GOP senator Mark Kirk, “a loser,” might have already written off Illinois as too blue to change color.)

An email to Ayers and to his assistant asking about Rauner’s eventual position on Trump/Pence ticket was not answered by post time.

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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