In the early days of the Trump era, former Obama administration Pentagon official Elissa Slotkin returned to the sprawling family farm in the Michigan countryside that she shared as a child with 500 head of Black Angus cattle.
From a home office that now looks out to a leafy soybean field, Slotkin started a consulting business and, distressed at the inroads Republicans had made in Michigan, thought about helping out state Democratic candidates. Though her resume was impressive – three tours in Iraq as an Arabic-speaking CIA analyst and service in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations – the former acting assistant secretary of defense never considered elective office for herself.
“It was never on my bucket list of things I wanted to do with my life,” says Slotkin, 41, who managed such weighty matters as Russian aggression and terrorism during her time in Washington.
But from the start of the Trump administration, she says, the new President’s penchant for egging on US adversaries and alienating allies alarmed her from a strategic standpoint and “stuck in my craw, personally.” She started toying with the idea of elective office but couldn’t commit, turned off by the large amount of money she knew she’d have to raise.
Then came May and the House vote to repeal Obamacare. Slotkin thought about her late mother, who had struggled to get health insurance after a cancer diagnosis, and how proud Slotkin had been to have worked for a president for whom health care reform was a signature achievement. Though the triumph for the GOP turned out to be short lived since the repeal effort stalled in the Senate and frustrated lawmakers would move on to tax reform, it was heralded at the time with a victory lap at the White House. Slotkin watched on TV as beaming House Republicans, including her own two-term congressman, Rep. Mike Bishop, joined President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden for high fives.
“My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it,’” says Slotkin.
She would run for Congress.
As Trump has sought to dismantle the policies of the Obama years, many who had a hand in building that legacy are deciding to run for office themselves. Seeing one initiative after another threatened – from the Affordable Care Act to climate and environmental rules – despairing Obama alumni are joining the pile-up of first-time candidates diving into politics all over the country, hoping to flip the balance of power and serve as a check on Trump.
While presidential staff jobs are often springboards to elective office, the number of Obama refugees who have jumped into the fray since last year’s election is striking. Lists on Obama alumni websites reach the high double digits with former staffers, from interns to ambassadors, becoming candidates. They’re running at every level, from city councils and state legislatures to governorships and members of Congress.
Their success is far from guaranteed. Democrats have struggled in previous midterms. Some Obama candidates are competing in regions that are tough for Democrats while others are taking on popular incumbents, such as Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan
The flood of veterans from the Obama administration into the political pipeline is another sign of the fervor among Democrats heading into what promises to be a closely-fought midterm election.
The flood of veterans from the Obama administration into the political pipeline is another sign of the fervor among Democrats heading into what promises to be a closely-fought midterm election. The races will be seen as a referendum on Trump’s first two years in office and if Democrats retake the House, there’s already talk about whether impeachment proceedings might ensue. (Democrats tried to turn seveal special elections into referendums on Trump earlier this year and came up short each time.)
Obama isn’t making many endorsements for 2018 yet but his recent step back onto the campaign trail to stump for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey (who went on to win the Nov. 7 race) suggests he’ll be a likely cheerleader for staffers-turned-candidates who survive their primaries next year. He has encouraged former aides to run and has said that a priority of his post-presidency is to “amplify and lift up” a new generation of leaders.
“When President Obama ran for office in 2008, he said the campaign wasn’t about him, it was about all of us,” says Katie Hill, Obama’s communications director. “It doesn’t surprise him that the staff members who joined him on that journey ... are emerging as the next generation of leaders and elected officials.”
Like Slotkin, many of the Obama candidates say elective office was never part of the game plan– until Trump. “I had to ask myself, ‘What am I willing to do to get the country on the right track? Do I need to do my part by running for office?’ I can’t only wait to be appointed,” says Phil Weiser, 49, a former Obama Justice Department official and National Economic Council adviser who is running for attorney general in Colorado.
A former dean of the University of Colorado Law School, Weiser had hoped and assumed, like many of his Obama-world colleagues, that he’d be working in a Hillary Clinton administration today.
With grandparents and a mother who survived Nazi concentration camps and eventually came to America, he says he’s felt especially aggrieved by Trump’s immigration positions.
“My mom is an immigrant,” says Weiser. “Obama honored that tradition, and now it’s being disrespected and undermined. That does get to my core and does get to what Obama stood for. There’s a huge sense of loyalty among Obama people about how important Obama’s legacy and approach to governance is, and the only way that will be preserved is getting people who share those values and mindset into office.”
Many of these candidates took to heart the advice of their former boss who, in his farewell address in January, told the crowd at Chicago’s McCormick Place: “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”
“It was not nuanced,” says former Obama technology adviser Alec Ross, who was watching the speech from his home in Baltimore. “He was very clear about the actions that he thought needed to be taken, and it resonated with me. I felt like it was a call to a new generation of people to step up. I really felt called to act.”
Ross, 45, decided to run for governor in Maryland, part of a jam-packed field of eight Democrats hoping to oust Hogan.
Author of the 2016 book, The Industries of the Future, Ross worked at the intersection of diplomacy and technology in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, which developed programs such as those related to startup visas for immigrant entrepreneurs that Trump has blocked. “I take it very personally,” says Ross. “Trump is unraveling things that have proven to be wonderfully effective. It would be one thing if it was rooted in a different theory of the case for how America prospers. But it’s rooted in nativism and a desire to tear down the institutions of government and governing. So yeah, I hold it in absolute contempt.”
In the crowd for Obama’s farewell speech was Ronnie Cho, 34, who had joined team Obama a decade ago as an Iowa field organizer for the then-Illinois senator where he earned the nickname “Chobama.” The former aide, who eventually became the President’s millennial outreach director (when he became known as “CHOTUS”), says Obama’s call to action that day struck him like a lightning bolt: “It ultimately may be one of the most important things I’ve ever heard anyone say.”
After years of working on campaigns and in government, Cho had been earning a heftier salary and loving his job as a vice president at MTV. But, devastated by what he saw as the election of “someone who in many ways is the antithesis of the person Barack Obama is,” he heeded the former president’s advice, quit his job and entered the city council race back home in New York.
“It really was a life-changing kind of moment,” says Cho, the son of Korean immigrants.
Ammar Campa-Najjar, 28, a San Diego field director for the upstart presidential candidate in 2008, also credits his former boss with providing the inspiration for a run and Trump with providing the urgency. A self-described “Obama baby,” the former White House intern and Labor Department staffer has patterned his campaign to unseat Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter in southern California on Obama’s successful runs. Posters and T-shirts feature a highly-stylized portrait of Campa-Najjar, created by a volunteer, that’s reminiscent of the iconic Obama “HOPE” portrait by Shepard Fairey. He says it’s no coincidence his campaign slogan, “Together We Can,” echoes Obama’s “Yes We Can” battle cry of 2008.
The son of a Mexican mother and a Palestinian father who left when he was a child, Campa-Najjar says he identifies with Obama’s early life with a single mother. “I don’t walk around like I’m Obama Jr., but I try to carry the spirit of his activism,” says the young candidate. “We have a race where a skinny brown kid with a funny name is running. It’s a progressive platform that pays respect and homage to President Obama. He showed me the blueprint.”
Ed Meier is a former Obama State Department official who led preparations for a Clinton-Kaine transition. Heartsick and shell-shocked after a sleepless election night, he attended Clinton’s concession speech in New York with his wife and, thinking of their daughter, cried when the woman who almost became president delivered a message of hope to young girls. During a long, somber car ride home to Washington, the 8-year-old asked if Trump was going to do “all the mean things he said on the campaign.”
“It didn’t take long to see that indeed he was,” says Meier. “We knew it was time to come back home and take on Pete Sessions.”
In a reliably red Dallas-area district that Clinton managed to win by 3 points in November, Meier, 41, is one of two Obama administration veterans hoping to seize on that faint glimmer of Democratic hope and topple Sessions, the longtime Republican lawmaker who had no Democratic challenger in 2016.
Right from the start, Meier received advice and high-level endorsements from Obama-era colleagues like former treasury secretary and chief of staff Jack Lew, former interior secretary Ken Salazar and ex-chief of staff Denis McDonough. Primary rival Colin Allred, a former housing and urban development staffer, lawyer and one-time professional football player, has received the endorsement of his former boss, ex-HUD secretary Julián Castro.
Like Meier and Allred, many of the Obama-class candidates have the advantage of a vast, ready-made network of former colleagues who are helping them with everything from fundraising to field organizing. For many of these first-time candidates, the massive contacts list makes up for a lack of name recognition or personal wealth. “Having that wind at my back is a nice boost,” says Meier, who managed to raise $345,000 in less than two months after entering the race. He estimates that about half of that haul was from donors outside his district.
As former White House technology adviser Brian Forde started exploring a challenge to California Republican Rep. Mimi Walters, his one-time colleagues made it clear they were with him. Todd Park, Obama’s chief technology officer from 2012 to 2014, told him: “Brian, you may not know it, but you’ve got a personal board of advisers, and I’m the president of your board of advisers.”
That board has delivered in all sorts of ways. Working on his stump speech, he had the kind of help few rivals could match, including wordsmithing from Michelle Obama’s much-lauded speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz. When he needed help integrating Bitcoin on his website, he emailed his administration tech contacts – a list of upwards of 400 people, he says – and had the website collecting money in a matter of hours. “I’ve been in the trenches with these people,” says Forde, 37, “and we’ve all supported each other.”
Slotkin, who was recently joined on the campaign trail in Michigan by Obama’s former Army secretary Eric Fanning, says she receives so many offers of help from her former colleagues – a new piece of microtargeting software one day, a new organization providing campaign support the next – that “I’m having trouble managing all the help I’m being offered from the Obama crew.”
With 14 years of Washington contacts in the national security field, both from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, Slotkin raised $100,000 in the first 72 hours after announcing her campaign to take on Bishop last July. By the end of September, she had raised more than $460,000, a substantial portion from her national security community, she says.
The take was so impressive – exceeding Bishop’s receipts for that quarter by nearly $100,000 – that a fellow Democrat who’d been in the race for six months dropped out in September citing finance challenges, and the newsletter Inside Elections shifted the district, which voted for Obama in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012, and Trump in 2016, from “Likely Republican” to “Lean Republican.”
Money and high-profile endorsements also gave early momentum to two Obama veterans in the fiercely competitive and crowded race against Republican Barbara Comstock in Northern Virginia. In a district that Clinton carried by 10 points – making it a prime target for flipping for Democrats – Alison Kiehl Friedman, a former State Department official, and Lindsey Davis Stover, a former senior adviser in the Veterans Affairs department, had a running start in a field of eight Democratic hopefuls. They have continued to hold their own against Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, the only elected official in the group and the favorite of much of the local party establishment.
“That doesn’t mean they have the political infrastructure in the district that’s ready to knock on doors and win votes.”
“That doesn’t mean they have the political infrastructure in the district that’s ready to knock on doors and win votes,” says David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. “I don’t see money as the best indicator of who will win this primary.”
In fact, such a national base, however generous, can leave candidates open to “Washington insider” or “elitist” attacks and make it harder for them to come across to voters as one of them. Already, Slotkin has been slapped with the “carpetbagger” label by the Republican incumbent.
Stu Sandler, a spokesman for Bishop, says candidates like Slotkin who “parachute” into a district are likely to suffer the same fate as Jon Ossoff, a former Capitol Hill aide who lost a special congressional election in Georgia last spring despite millions funneled to him by Democrats nationwide. In the high-profile contest, seen as an early test of the Trump effect, Ossoff was attacked for living outside the district in which he was running.
“I think there’s something to be said for people who actually live in a district and have ties to it versus parachute in, which is a concerted plan by some of the Obama staffers because their candidate lost the presidential race,” says Sandler.
Slotkin, a third-generation Michigander whose grandfather created the “ballpark frank” for Tigers Stadium, says she welcomes her opponent’s attack. “Every time he calls me a carpetbagger I get to talk about my three tours in a combat zone, my 14 years in government working on national security protecting the homeland while he’s been a career politician,” she says.
Both Democrats and Republicans are eager to see how sturdy the Obama scaffold will be for these candidates – and whether the Obama class will achieve a mere smattering of victories in 2018 or contribute to a political realignment.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt says the 2016 results suggest the Obama mantle will be of little help.
“Ultimately, the reason Republicans are in control right now is the mistakes the Obama administration made. People were tired of the status quo and wanted a change.”
“Ultimately, the reason Republicans are in control right now is the mistakes the Obama administration made,” says Hunt. “People were tired of the status quo and wanted a change.”
He points to candidates like Slotkin and Andy Kim, a former National Security Council official who advised Obama on Iraq and ISIS and is challenging Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur in New Jersey.
“These candidates will have to answer for the mistakes of the Obama administration,” says Hunt. “It’s part of their record. Those are things that will be discussed and debated during the course of the campaign.”
He is dubious, too, that many Obama candidates will clear their primaries, suggesting the more left-leaning Bernie Sanders-wing of the party will drive these contests. But analysts say the Obama brand is still powerful for a broad swath of Democratic primary voters.
“The Sanders/Clinton divide in the party is still a relevant divide in 2018 primaries, but I don’t think there’s much divided opinion about Obama in the Democratic party,” says Wasserman. “Obama was able to unite the Democratic party in a way that it could not be united in the 2016 election.”
Especially in Obama-friendly states and districts, photos with the 44th president are prominent on campaign websites. “I do think for me it’s a big selling point,” says Colorado attorney general candidate Weiser of his administration experience. “It gives me credibility and the sense that I know how to govern.”
But he and others recognize the importance of their local bona fides and generally lead with their community ties when talking with voters. At meet-and-greets at Panera Bread or the state fair, Haley Stevens, 34, former chief of staff to Obama’s auto task force who is running for an open congressional seat in Michigan, ties all of her experience in manufacturing policy back to “the community that raised me” in metro Detroit. Though she’s worked most recently in Washington and Chicago, she says her network of local manufacturing and economic development contacts has been her chief sounding board.
“I got on the phone with them in November and I haven’t stopped being on the phone since,” says Stevens, who has a primary rival in another Obama alum, former Homeland Security official Fayrouz Saad.
The Obama crew received a stark lesson in the limitations of its network in the face of a strong local establishment when Cho was defeated in the New York city council primary in September.
Cho had every piece of the support system in place: endorsements and fundraisers by high-level Obamaites like chief strategist David Axelrod (who is also CNN’s senior political commentator) and education secretary Arne Duncan, as well as the backing of several new organizations started by former Obama staffers to prop up young progressive candidates. Cho said about $150,000 of the $200,000-plus he raised came from those in or around the Obama network.
For all that firepower, he was trounced in the primary by Carlina Rivera, an aide and hand-picked successor to the term-limited incumbent, who earned 61% to Cho’s 9%.
Cho says he has no regrets about running, and one way or another, will continue to answer Obama’s call to action.
Obama’s “grab a clipboard” message that inspired Cho and so many others was in some ways the bookend to a refrain that stirred them nearly a decade ago when the young presidential candidate told a cheering crowd: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
That original message has taken on more meaning with every passing day and every presidential tweet and executive order, say Obama alumni. It has fueled among them, not only dozens of new candidates, but a start-up boom of organizations to support these and other first-time candidates, another way in which the Obama class has resolved to take matters into its own hands to salvage the legacy of the 44th president.
“Obama has been understandably quiet since the election,” says former Obama staffer Ravi Gupta, who launched The Arena, one of the new groups trying to cultivate the next generation of leaders. “People are looking to us now. We’re older and we’re adults. We’ll be the members of Congress. We’ll be the people managing the next campaigns for president. We can’t look to other people to solve our problems anymore. Obama had a certain vision for America. It’s on all of us to defend that vision now.”
Illustration by Daniel Zender