DCCC Turns to Mook’s Ground Game for Fall

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 2, 2010 · 2:54 PM EDT

Second in a series of profiles of committee independent expenditure directors.

Democratic operative Robby Mook’s entry into politics was a little dirty.

“I remember standing in front of the dump for hours,” Mook recalled. “Everyone takes their trash to the dump in Vermont, so that’s where you campaign.”

From a dump in Vermont to high-stakes presidential primaries to a top-tier Senate race, Mook has built his career by being in the middle of some of the biggest political battles in the country.

This cycle he’s in a critical position to help Democrats as they try to keep control of the House of Representatives.

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reserved $28 million in TV ad time to defend 40 districts. Because of campaign finance law, that money will be spent in independent expenditures, an effort Mook will direct.

You wouldn’t expect a party to put a 30-year-old in charge of tens of millions of dollars — the DCCC spent $75 million in IE money last cycle, according to the Campaign Finance Institute — but Democratic strategists believe Mook has the experience and the temperament for the job.

The son of a physics professor and a hospital administrator, Mook grew up in Sharon, Vt. Technically, he was born in New Hampshire (because that’s where the nearest hospital was located), and ties to both states have come in handy.

It seems like politics has always been a part of Mook’s life, whether attending a rally for Bill Clinton in Burlington as a middle-school student or organizing a phone bank for the president four years later.

In ninth grade, Mook auditioned for the school play, and the head of the theater department also happened to be a state legislator running for re-election.

“It was one of the funniest auditions I had ever seen,” former state Rep. Matt Dunne said in a recent phone interview from Vermont, where he is running for governor as a Democrat.

Mook secured a role in “The Imaginary Invalid,” a French comedy by Moliére, and volunteered for Dunne in his spare time.

“Robby was clearly more interested in my campaign than in the play,” Dunne said. “We had a little sense there was a political gene in him.”

After high school, Mook went off to Columbia University, where he studied the classics because he always wanted to read Greek. He didn’t take a single political science course in college, but he continued learning politics during the summers.

As Dunne climbed the political ladder, he hired Mook as the first paid staffer for Vermont House Democrats before Mook had even finished his undergraduate degree. But it wasn’t an easy time as Democrats lost their majority.

After college, Mook worked as field director for Vermont Democrats’ coordinated campaign in 2002, another tough year in which Republicans took over the governorship after five terms of Howard Dean (D). But Mook followed the former governor onto the national political scene when Dean launched his presidential bid.

Mook started as Dean’s deputy field director in New Hampshire, where he finished second to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and then shifted to Wisconsin, where the former governor finished third.

After staying with the Dean campaign “until the bitter end,” as Mook put it, he signed on with the Democratic National Committee and was get-out-the-vote director for the Wisconsin coordinated campaign. Kerry narrowly won the state but lost the election.

Mook’s résumé is dotted with wins and losses, but he’s unfazed by it. “I think you learn more when you lose,” Mook said. “I’m glad I’ve had both.”

In 2005, Mook managed Democrat Dave Marsden’s win for state delegate in Virginia, taking over a Republican open seat, and in 2006 he ran the Democrats’ coordinated campaign in Maryland when Martin O’Malley (D) knocked off Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) and Benjamin Cardin (D) defeated Michael Steele (R) for the open Senate seat.

In 2007, Mook returned to presidential politics, this time for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

He started as Clinton’s state director in Nevada, which rose in prominence after the Senator’s loss in Iowa and re-emergence in New Hampshire. Clinton won Nevada’s popular vote, though Barack Obama won more delegates.

Mook shifted to Ohio for Clinton, then to Indiana. After the pressure cooker of the Clinton campaign, Mook landed in New Hampshire, in the middle of one of the most competitive Senate races in the country.

Mook first volunteered for Jeanne Shaheen in 1996 when she first ran for governor and he was still in high school, but in 2008 he managed her race and led her to victory over incumbent Sen. John Sununu (R).

“I know from the outstanding job he did running my campaign that his energy and positive attitude are limitless. He is undaunted by challenges, and his political skills are unparalleled,” Shaheen said.

She isn’t the only one impressed by Mook.

“I’ve seen Robby in action in a lot of races. Clearly he’s the right man for the job,” DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen said. “He shares my view that we have to draw a sharp contrast on the issues that matter to voters.”

The Maryland Congressman hired Mook last year to be the DCCC’s political director, but after he “proved himself superbly in the specials,” Van Hollen entrusted him with the IE for the rest of the cycle. Mook directed the independent expenditures for special election victories in Pennsylvania’s 12th and New York’s 23rd, where a strong third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, emerged to complicate the race.

Mook’s “ability to quickly change and go after Hoffman, to quickly retool, showed strong political instincts,” said Jon Vogel, the DCCC’s executive director who also ran the committee’s IE in 2008.

Vogel compared Mook’s job to running a factory, moving lots of product very quickly through a system. In this case, the product is polls, television ads and direct-mail pieces. “It’s a nerve-racking job,” Vogel said from experience. “Every strategic decision has a risk.”

“I try to stay out of the Beltway process bubble because what actually matters is the direction of the country, and that’s determined by who is in the majority,” Mook explained.

After working side-by-side with Vogel at the DCCC for more than a year, Mook is sequestered across South Capitol Street to the Fairchild Building and prohibited from strategizing with committee staff on dozens of campaigns.

But he won’t be alone. Van Hollen teamed him up with John Lapp, the former DCCC executive director who ran the IE in 2006 and advised as a consultant last cycle.

“It’s a tough climate and tough races, but he’s just the guy to do it,” Lapp said of Mook, whom he described as a “happy warrior” for his keen sense of humor and energy.

He’ll need both in an election cycle that seems to favor Republicans, in part because Democrats no longer have the common enemy of President George W. Bush.

“We’re running against a lot of very different candidates,” Mook said.