Republicans are reeling after major 2019 losses in Virginia, Kentucky and Louisiana — as Democrats are organizing and fundraising at a record-breaking clip. Led by former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder, they are working to prioritize state-level races after getting clobbered in the post-2010 redistricting.
Now, some elected GOP officials, donors and party strategists are questioning the RSLC’s leadership. Complaints grew loud enough that committee officials convened a conference call the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in which Chambers and Bill McCollum, the chairman of the RSLC board, took questions from state lawmakers perturbed by Chambers’ outside work, which many were unaware of until after the Louisiana elections.
“Viewed in the most favorable light, these actions create terrible optics at a crucial point in the redistricting cycle,” said a Republican operative close to the committee. “Not only do RSLC employees not have time for moonlighting — moonlighting undermines the confidence of the legislators involved in the organization and potentially some of its donors, too.”
Chambers, a 24-year-old rising star in GOP circles, insists his work for Rispone did not distract from his RSLC duties. And in a further sign of internal drama, he suggested critiques of his leadership come from those who preferred candidates he beat out for the position when he was hired in April, as well as the candidates themselves.
“Peddling lies and insider gossip doesn’t help advance RSLC’s objective,” he said in a statement. “I’m going to stay focused on the main thing: winning elections. The RSLC had one of its best years it’s ever had, and we look forward to building on that in 2020.”
The conference call was billed as an opportunity for Chambers to address several posts written by a conservative blogger in Louisiana that skewered his work for Rispone, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO. At least three major RSLC donors have expressed concern about Chambers after reading the blog posts, which cast him as an inexperienced, out-of-town hired gun, according to three people who have spoken with them.
This account is based off interviews with over a dozen operatives and elected officials close to the committee, nearly all of whom were granted anonymity to speak candidly and avoid repercussions.
State lawmakers advocated for a clear policy that prohibits top staffers from taking on outside work, according to sources familiar with the call. RSLC’s outside counsel, Mark Braden, is conducting a review of the matter, with recommendations expected to be presented in time for the RSLC meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyo., this month.
In an interview, McCollum declined to elaborate on the full scope of the review. He offered Chambers a vote of confidence but — when asked directly — refused to rule out the possibility that the review could result in a change in RSLC leadership.
“From what I see right now, I doubt seriously that the board members are going to think about removing Austin,” he said. “He’s been doing a really good job.”
The policy on outside contracting will likely be changed in the future, McCollum said, but he noted that Chambers had not violated the current RSLC rules. McCollum also said he knew in advance about Chambers’ work with the Rispone campaign.
RSLC sources described the call as an attempt to clarify expectations before 2020 and dispel rumors created by the blog posts. And they insist there are few tangible signs that the committee isn’t prepared for the cycle. The RSLC helped win a supermajority in the Louisiana state Senate. In Kentucky, they swept down-ballot races, including a highly contested secretary of state race. In New Jersey, Republicans flipped several state legislative seats, though they are still in the minority.
Outgoing Virginia state House Speaker Kirk Cox, who is leaving party leadership following the GOP’s defeat last month, still praised Chambers and his efforts in the state on the call, describing an unprecedented commitment.
“We could not have asked for more,” Cox told POLITICO in a statement for this article. “All of that stems from Austin’s leadership, and I can easily say he worked harder than anyone in the country to help us.”
Still, the presence of so many high-level RSLC stakeholders on the call underscores the extent to which his conduct spooked party power players at a tenuous moment.
The GOP suffered a string of defeats in November that will certainly cost them legislative and congressional seats in redistricting. Despite over $3 million in RSLC spending, the party lost control of both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly and will be boxed out of the map-making process there entirely. Meanwhile, Rispone’s defeat keeps Democrats in control of the governorship in Louisiana, while Republicans fell short of a supermajority in the state House.
Far more legislatures are up for grabs next year — including in places such as Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida — which will determine which party draws the maps that will shape state and federal politics for a decade to come.
Chambers was hired in April to replace the outgoing RSLC president after beating out several other candidates, including a state legislator, for the position. Part of his appeal, according to sources close to the RSLC, was his connections to the current administration and a vast fundraising network. Chambers has close ties to Nick Ayers, the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.
But his hire triggered some skepticism among RSLC staff. They raised questions about Chambers’ prominent role in the campaign of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who was embroiled in legal and ethical scandals and resigned in 2018.
As board president, McCollum, the former congressman and Florida state attorney general , told staff in a meeting around the time of Chambers’ hiring that there would be no major personnel changes, according to people in the room. But the RSLC still saw significant staff turnover in the following months, including some who were pressured to leave and some who had recently been promoted.
Among the notable departures: Melanie Pfeiffenberger, the executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, which falls under the RSLC umbrella; David Kanevsky, a vice president for political affairs; Neri Martinez, who led efforts to recruit women and minority candidates; Devon Gallagher, the events director; and David James, the communications director.
McCollum said he did not recall making any statement ruling out staffing changes, noting that it’s Chambers’ prerogative as president to choose his team.
It was Republicans’ organizational dominance in the 2010 cycle that brought them great success in the last redistricting, when they racked up a slew of legislative wins and crafted maps that ushered them into sometimes impenetrable majorities.
The RSLC outspent its Democratic counterpart nearly 3-to-1 that cycle, but that advantage has disappeared this cycle. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee raised $8.5 million in the first half of 2019, beating the RSLC by $370,000.
Chambers brought in Ron Weiser, a former ambassador and major GOP fundraiser, to serve as the RSLC finance chairman. Weiser said the committee is on track to surpass the $16.7 million it raised in the last off year, in 2017.
Still, Chambers and others in the party have been sounding the alarm on Democrats’ organization for months, warning that they are more focused than ever on state-level races and that the GOP needs to increase its efforts.