Winning Michigan From the 502

Eric Hyers, who grew up in non-Boston-area Massachusetts (North Adams, in the western part of the state), worked on campaigns from Nevada to Rhode Island to Montana before moving to Louisville to be the campaign manager for Andy Beshear’s 2019 gubernatorial run. He stuck around here after Beshear’s surprising victory, advising Democrat Karen Berg in her successful state Senate campaign in a June special election in a district that includes parts of eastern Jefferson County and some areas in Oldham County. 

In late June, Hyers was named state director for Joe Biden’s campaign in Michigan. But while he took occasional trips to Michigan and was there physically for the final few weeks of the campaign, Hyers did not move to the state, instead playing a key role in an electorally-crucial state while remaining in Louisville. That’s because 2020 wasn’t a typical campaign year --- because of COVID-19, campaigns, particularly on the Democratic side, didn’t have staffers constantly meeting in-person or huge teams going door-to-door to talk to voters. “We took COVID very seriously,” he says. 

I talked to Hyers recently about his experience with Team Biden and his roles in two of the more important wins for Democrats over the last 14 months (defeating Matt Bevin in Kentucky and Trump in Michigan.) Here is a lightly-edited transcript of that conversation: 

How was running the Michigan operation for Biden in 2020 compared to your previous campaign experiences? I mean the COVID-19 question mostly. What was different? Was there anything like your previous campaign experiences?

In many ways the job is the same, managing people and budgets. But not physically being with your colleagues puts a greater emphasis on communication. I'm stealing this line from someone else, but I never realized how much work I used to get done walking to my car to go to lunch. I'd walk by three offices, probably put a few things on the radars of the multiple people in that office, get grabbed in the hallway by someone needing my approval for something, and probably need to answer something for a candidate. On a 20-second walk. All of that goes away when you're remote, so it means that if you still want to have everyone firing at a high level, you need to make sure you're forcing communications in a way you don't have to in normal times.

 We started every day with a senior staff video chat. Immediately following that I had a video check-in with Biden’s national headquarters. And throughout the day our team hopped on multiple video chats to discuss things. So yes, it meant a few more steps if you wanted to have direct visibility into something, but we did it. We were in constant contact on email, texting apps and calls/videos. It isn't that different from a normal year. In 2019, I wasn't walking around the office interjecting myself in everyone's work. I hire talented people and let them work. The vast majority of senior staffers were from Michigan. I make sure I get all the info I need about what is happening in each department, and we set up a communications/reporting structure to make sure that happens. 

You are not a Michigan person, right? You didn't grow up there and had not run a race there before. So what was that part like? 

We built our team with a great balance of Michiganders who have forgotten more about Michigan politics than most people will ever know and talented operatives who have worked all over the country. So for every major decision, I had a variety of valuable viewpoints at my disposal and that consistently led to good decisions. Our senior advisor Eddie McDonald was outstanding. so were my two deputies and my department heads, most of which were all Michiganders.

In many ways this was similar to all campaigns when you’re in a new place. I find the people who know the state and know the things that I don’t know and I listen to them.

There was some debate about whether the Biden campaign was doing enough door-to-door canvassing to win, even if there were some obvious potential health issues. What was your perception of that? 

I think the campaign did a great job in finding the right balance of effective voter contact while prioritizing public health. We knocked on a ton of doors in the final weeks of the campaign and we did it in a safe and responsible way. We spent ten months aggressively talking to voters on the phone, texting, online, and closer to Election Day, door knocking. The field team did an excellent job of building an enormous team of volunteers.

When it comes down to it, was the presidential race broadly similar to the one you ran in 2019 here in Kentucky? An incumbent who people feel is just too much (Bevin, Trump) versus a name brand-Dem (Beshear, Biden) who people think is calm and nice. 

Voters want to know their leaders care about them and are on their side. But as we said in 2019, it isn't enough to just not be the unpopular incumbent. We spent a ton of time and energy showing Kentuckians that Andy had a positive agenda that would make their lives better, that we would be a better choice. And the Biden campaign did the same thing.

The public polls suggested Biden was leading by around 8 points in Michigan. He won by 3.  I assume A. you worked as if it would be closer B. you kind of knew it would be closer than 8. 

I always operate with the mindset that the race will be extremely close and that everything you do could make the difference between winning and losing. I just ran a race that we won by 5,000 votes [Beshear-Bevin.) You always run like it is close. And the Biden campaign data team was very good and knew all along this was going to be closer than some public polls indicated.

What is your broad takeaway from the campaigns that you have worked on 2019 and 2020?  There are lots of debates about Dems going too far left or not motivating the base enough. 

It is clear that we live in a very polarized country. That said, If the last two years have taught me one thing, it is that Democrats can win hard races in hard states by having the guts to run on things and not shy away from their beliefs. Voters will give you credit for being genuine and being honest; we saw that in Kentucky  in 2019. And also that running great nuts-and-bolts campaigns is so important. 

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