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March 22nd, 2011

Iowa’s Political Mercenaries

By Craig Robinson

A mercenary is defined as someone who serves or works merely for monetary gain, or a professional soldier hired for service in a foreign army.  Both definitions show why the word mercenary is appropriate when describing the class a professional political operatives in the state who are hired by various presidential campaigns.

The following is the list of political operatives and their companies that will be sought after by presidential candidates.  It is these people who candidates will lean upon to help them hire staff, advance events, and develop an Iowa strategy.  They all offer different things to the candidate that they support.  The better the match, the more likely they will find success on caucus day.

Nick Ryan
Jill Latham
Concordia Group

Client: Rick Santorum

Nick Ryan is the President of Concordia Group, an Iowa based public affairs group that also includes Jill Latham.  Even though Ryan is only in his early thirties, he already boasts an impressive political resume.  From 1999 to 2006 he ran three successful congressional campaigns for Jim Nussle and also ran Nussle’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

Following Nussle’s loss in 2006, Ryan founded the American Future Fund (AFF), a national conservative issue advocacy group.  The group had a major impact on the 2010 elections.  The New York Times noted that the AFF won in 76 percent of races in which it participated, giving it the highest winning percentage among the biggest-spending Republican-leaning groups.  That’s high praise considering that AFF was being compared to groups like American Crossroads, which is led by Karl Rove.

Ryan has extensive knowledge of Iowa, but especially eastern Iowa where he is from and where he ran numerous successful campaigns.  Ryan wasn’t involved with a 2008 presidential campaign, but one of Concordia’s principals was.  Jill Latham was Mitt Romney’s Iowa Organizational Director, and while his campaign wasn’t successful, it was well organized, and that is a credit to Latham.  Latham’s knowledge of the Romney network could be vital as his supporters are ripe for the taking since Romney has not put much effort in to Iowa in 2011.

Latham’s 2008 Iowa experience combined with Ryan’s vast connections in Iowa and across the nation makes Concordia Group unique in what they can offer the candidate they work for.  One of the best areas of the state for Romney was eastern Iowa, which is also Ryan’s home turf.  That is also one of the most predominantly Catholic areas of the state, and it will be pivotal for Santorum to do well there.

Concordia provides exactly what a candidate like Santorum needs in Iowa, but what makes them different is that Ryan has become a national figure with political connections all across the county.  Unlike the others on this list, Ryan can help his candidate nationally as well in Iowa.

Chuck Larson, Jr.
Karen Slifka
Larson Shannahan Slifka Group

Client: Tim Pawlenty

The group leading Pawlenty’s efforts in Iowa also backed John McCain in 2008.  As we all know, McCain’s Iowa campaign crashed and burned in June of 2007 because the campaign’s expenditures were out of line with the amount of money the campaign was able to raise.  Chuck Larson Jr., a former state legislator and Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, is well connected, but it’s his partner, Karen Slifka, who is the skilled campaign operative.

Slifka, was the Midwest Regional Political Director for the Republican National Committee in 2006 and served in a similar role for the Bush campaign in 2004.   Prior to that, Slifka was the State Director for John Kasich’s 2000 presidential campaign before eventually joining the Forbes campaign prior to the Ames Straw Poll.

With the help of Larson and Slifka, Pawlenty has done a good job of introducing himself to Iowa Republicans over the past few years.  Their involvement with various campaigns in the state has also provided them with an up-close look at potential hires for Pawlenty’s presidential campaign.  With so many political operatives taking jobs in the Branstad Administration, those existing relationships with available staffers might help Pawlenty as his campaign begins to staff up.

Steve Grubbs
Victory Enterprises

Client: None

If any local political consultant understands the value of retail politics in the Iowa Caucuses, it’s Steve Grubbs.  Grubbs, a former state legislator and Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, has become a constant figure in Republican politics over the past two decades.  In 1996, he was Bob Dole’s Iowa Caucus Chairman, in 2000, he played a major role on Steve Forbes’ campaign in Iowa, and in 2007, he was a Senior Advisor to Tommy Thompson’s campaign.

The common bond between the Forbes and Thompson campaigns is that both candidates where everywhere in the state when they were running for president.  While Forbes was able to take off at the Iowa Straw Poll and separate himself from Elizabeth Dole and Gary Bauer, Tommy Thompson fizzled, and thus the campaign came to a premature end.

Grubbs is at his best when paired with a candidate who excels at retail politics.  Thompson was good on the stump, but he didn’t have any excitement surrounding his candidacy, which made it a hard sell for his staff and supporters.  It would be interesting to see what Grubbs could do with a candidate like Haley Barbour, who referred to Grubbs by name in Davenport last week, or another Forbes disciple, Herman Cain.

David Kochel
Redwave Communications

Client: Mitt Romney

David Kochel, the founder of Redwave, has an extensive background in Iowa Caucus politics.  In 1996, he oversaw the Straw Poll and Caucuses when he served as the Executive Director of the Republican Party of Iowa.  In 1999, he managed Lamar Alexander’s Iowa campaign, and in 2008, he was a Senior Advisor to Mitt Romney.

It is likely that Kochel either is, or will be, Romney’s point person in Iowa once again.  Like many of the others on this list, Kochel provides his candidate with the ability to staff and organize in Iowa before the campaign actually takes shape.  This ability is even more important this year than it was in 2008 because Romney has to figure out how he wants to engage Iowa.

If he wants to limit expectations by not having much of a presence in Iowa early on, Romney will have to depend on someone like Kochel and his company to quietly cultivate support for Romney’s campaign.

Nicole Schlinger
Campaign Headquarters

Client: Strong America Now

The only experience Nicole Schlinger had with the Iowa Caucuses before going to work for Mitt Romney in 2007 was lining up people to sing with Crystal Gayle at Lamar Alexander’s event at the Ames Straw Poll in 1999.  Before the 2006 elections were in the books, potential 2008 candidates were already inquiring about her services, and by December 2006 she had signed on with Mitt Romney’s campaign.

While others on this list provide guidance to their candidates when it comes to who to hire, where to go, and what to do, Schlinger provides a service that can actually bolster a campaign’s voter contact program.  Her firm is also experienced in planning and turning out people to events.  As Romney’s campaign was just getting underway in 2007, Schlinger’s firm made up for the lack of a campaign apparatus early on.  Her firm allowed Romney to hit the ground running in Iowa.

Schlinger has yet to sign on with a presidential candidate, but her firm is doing work with Strong America Now, a group that is focused on cutting federal spending.  Schlinger’s firm, which is now more focused on telemarketing than fundraising, will give whoever she works for the ability to make a large number of phone calls that actually originate in Iowa.

Ed Failor, Jr.
President, Iowans for Tax Relief

Iowans for Tax Relief had never backed a gubernatorial candidate in a contested primary until it endorsed Terry Branstad last May.  While ITR had stayed away from gubernatorial politics, its President, Ed Failor, Jr. is no stranger to Iowa Caucus politics.
In early 2006, Failor threw his support behind former New York Governor George Pataki, who many thought would ultimately run for president. With the support of Failor, Pataki was able to assemble a formable group of Iowans.  It included Noreen Bush-Otto, Loras Schulte, and Erik Helland.   After the 2006 elections, Failor pulled his support from Pataki.  When Failor left, most of the team disbanded.  Falior and a number of people that he brought to Pataki’s group found a home with John McCain’s campaign.

What Failor was able to do for Pataki is exactly what people on this list need to be able to do for the candidate of their choosing.  Failor is a connector.  He knows the players in state through his involvement in Iowans for Tax Relief, which means he can help hire staff, line up political endorsements, and guide a candidate through Iowa’s political waters. is told that Failor is busy behind the scenes making things happen for Tim Pawlenty.  That means he would once again be on the same team as his good friends, Karen Slifka and Chuck Larson Jr.

Doug Gross
Client: None

Doug Gross has been a mover and shaker in Iowa Politics for years.  Having run for statewide office before and being involved in Branstad’s comeback campaign, Gross does have a firm grasp on which way the political winds are blowing in the state.  Gross is well connected, but he’s not going to help his candidate find staff or line up endorsements.  Instead, Gross is best used behind the scenes or as a surrogate who talks to the media on behalf of a campaign.

Gross was Mitt Romney’s Iowa Chairman in 2008, but has since indicated that he isn’t enamored with the idea of another Romney run.  It will be interesting to see where he ultimately lands.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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