Register Guard - Nov 17, 2016
He calls his ‘Apprentice’-like ascension ‘humbling’
Most Oregonians can safely say they played no role in Donald Trump’s shock victory in last week’s presidential contest.
Not Jacob Daniels.
The 31-year-old Creswell attorney, who served as Trump’s only paid campaign staffer in solidly blue Oregon for months, parachuted into the key battleground state of Michigan for the final six weeks of the campaign.
There, he served as the Trump campaign’s second-in-command, leading a small and inexperienced staff to what appears to be a narrow upset victory in a state that, like Oregon, hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since the 1980s. Trump leads Hillary Clinton by a slender 11,600 votes in Michigan, out of 4.8 million cast, a lead that’s likely to hold up with few votes left uncounted.
It’s a remarkable rise for Daniels, who spent the past few years working in Creswell and Lane County politics and in background roles on several statewide Republican political campaigns, and it could lead to a coveted job in Trump’s still-being-built administration.
It also provides a glimpse at the unusual opportunities open to the people who threw in early with Trump’s upstart campaign, when it still was widely being written off, even by mainstream Republicans.
In an interview in Eugene this week, Daniels acknowledged he’s still surprised by how the past few months played out. Simply attending the Republican convention in July as a supporter of the GOP nominee had felt like a personal pinnacle, he said.
Everything since? Just gravy.
“For a guy from Creswell, to be at that level ...” he said, his voice trailing off. “It was so humbling.”
Leads Oregon operation
Daniels said he saw Trump’s potential as soon as he watched the first Republican primary debate. “I looked at the stage, and there were 17 good candidates,” he said. “But I saw the candidate who was going to win. It was a gut feeling.”
Through his friend Robert Stryk, a Washington, D.C., political operative who owns a Southern Oregon winery, Daniels offered his services to the Trump campaign. He quickly was given the paid position of Oregon state director.
“I was really surprised,” he said. “I expected a much lesser role ... But it was a real motivator.”
Based solely on experience until then, Daniels was hardly a top-level Republican operative in Oregon. A former Creswell city councilor, he had worked primarily as a lawyer and opposition researcher for unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidates Chris Dudley and Dennis Richardson. After working on Jason Conger’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2014, Daniels turned around and worked for the woman who beat Conger in the GOP primary, Monica Wehby.
In 2015, Wehby, after losing to incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, launched an independent political action committee, with Daniels as the paid treasurer. Despite raising almost $300,000, the PAC fizzled without making a significant impact on Oregon politics.
Still, Lindsay Berschauer, a Clackamas County political consultant, said Daniels had a reputation as a hard worker and a good grass-roots and social media organizer.
The Trump campaign “knew how talented he was, and I’m not surprised at all that he was put into a swing state,” she said. “The Trump movement was in some ways a silent, grass-roots movement. (Daniels) understood that.”
Jake Pelroy, a Lane County political consultant who has worked with Daniels, said Trump’s campaign didn’t start out with a “huge infrastructure.” That left opportunities for less-experienced operatives to achieve elevated positions.
“If this was the Mitt Romney campaign and (a campaign staffer) went from not running any statewide races to a key position in a battleground state, that would be a huge leap,” he said. “The Trump campaign was different.”
Polarizing figure in Creswell
Like Trump, Daniels has a taste for flashiness and is known as an aggressive campaigner. He also doesn’t always play well with others.
Daniels abruptly quit the Creswell City Council in 2014 after the council majority approved a budget he didn’t like. Last year, Daniels was the driving force behind a populist ballot measure that would have required voter approval for any large increases in Creswell water rates. City leaders felt forced to run a competing measure that guaranteed more public scrutiny of the big water rate increases that they said were needed to catch up after years of inadequate hikes.
Voters ultimately sided with their elected leaders, rejecting Daniels’ measure. But some Creswell leaders and residents are still bitter about that fight, during which they felt Daniels ran an inflammatory and deceptive campaign.
Martha McReynolds Jr., a longtime observer of Creswell city politics and a Democrat, said Daniels arrived on the City Council with obvious energy and talent, after an unsuccessful run for the state Legislature.
“He came off as the Great White Hope,” she said. “He did a lot of good in the first half of his era with us.”
But Daniels “just took his toys and stormed off” after failing to get his way on the budget, McReynolds Jr. said. Then he “tried to beat (city leaders) over the head with the ballot measure.”
“He was playing hardball in the wrong arena,” she said. “Our little City Council, it wasn’t the place for him to be trying these skills out.”
Daniels is skeptical when asked about traits he may share with President-elect Trump. He said he admires Trump’s work ethic and his ability to read the American political climate, without polls and focus groups. But Daniels said he disagrees with Trump on some issues, although he declined to identify which ones.
“You’re never going to find a candidate that you agree on everything with,” he said.
Pelroy said he felt Daniels excelled at replicating and projecting the same bravado as Trump does.
“Jacob has wanted to win a statewide campaign for the Republicans in Oregon for as long I’ve known him,” he said. “That whole Donald Trump ‘winning’ thing, that really spoke to him.”
McReynolds Jr. agreed. “I was surprised when it happened only because it was so perfect,” she said, of Daniels going to work for Trump. “It was like, ‘For gosh sake, he found his people.’ ”
No chance in Oregon
Daniels scored a first major success when he brought Trump to Eugene in May for what ended up being the candidate’s only rally in Oregon.
At the event at the Lane Events Center, Trump said he believed he could carry the state, despite the fact that Oregon last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1984. Throughout the summer, Daniels continued to sign up volunteers in Oregon and campaign for Trump. In August, he laid out Trump’s immigration plan at a meeting of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, the activist group that has virulently fought legislation in Oregon that has helped illegal immigrants or the children of illegal immigrants.
“There’s a problem here” with illegal immigration, Daniels said at the meeting. “You folks understand it. The vast, silent majority of Americans understand it. ... We think you’re a terrific organization.”
But, by September, the “writing was on the wall” that Trump wouldn’t win Oregon, Daniels said, and he asked for a new assignment. Michigan, with its history of voting for Democrats in presidential races, wasn’t his first choice. “It was kind of a kick in the teeth. I thought I might be headed to Florida or Ohio, a traditional battleground state,” he said.
But Daniels said he quickly realized Trump’s messages, particularly his criticism of international free trade deals, were “so tailor-made” for Michigan and its blue collar workers.
Still, Trump’s campaign field staff was badly outnumbered by Clinton’s in Michigan. In July, Clinton had 200 field staff members deployed in Michigan, compared with 40 Republican National Committee staffers and only one Trump campaign employee, according to The Detroit News newspaper.
Long odds in Michigan
Many of the staffers Trump’s campaign brought on later were younger, and some were working on their first ever political campaign, Daniels said. That was partly because of how the Republican primary played out, he said, as many veteran Michigan GOP operatives had backed other candidates.
The Trump campaign “also liked having a bunch of staffers who hadn’t been through other presidential races in Michigan,” Daniels added. “Being in uncharted territory makes it easier to run an unconventional campaign.”
Remarkably, every single independent pre-election poll in Michigan showed Clinton leading Trump, by as much as 14 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics. Although the polls showed the race tightening in November, Clinton still was up by 5 percentage points in most polls.
But Daniels said his team just focused on hitting its targets for calls to voters. In the campaign’s final weeks, the roughly 1,000 Trump volunteers he had assembled in Oregon were making about 25,000 calls a week to Michigan voters, he said.
Daniels also worked to shore up support for Trump in conservative western Michigan, where many religious voters had favored Texas Sen. Ted Cruz during the GOP primary. Daniels appeared on an evangelical television show, stressing the issue that mattered the most to those voters: the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court that the next president would fill.
“We just emphasized that over and over again,” he said.
When news broke late in early October about Trump’s recorded comments about groping women, Daniels said there “was at least a small period where we just thought we weren’t going to get it.”
“Our staff showed up, and you could tell they were in shock. They were wondering where their next jobs would be,” he said.
The news of the FBI re-opening its investigation into Clinton’s emails was a major shot in the arm for the campaign, Daniels said, creating “a true cocktail of an October surprise.”
“That was a turning point for us,” he said. “It just reminded people that these investigations had happened and were still going on.”
Meanwhile, Clinton primarily sent surrogates to Michigan, only holding three rallies there herself in the five months before the election. Trump held 10 rallies throughout the state during the same period, including an 11 p.m. rally on the night before Election Day.
The Clinton campaign “created this air of inevitability” about winning Michigan, Daniels said. “They took their foot off the gas. We could feel it.”
On Election Day, Daniels said he got a call at 10 a.m. from Trump’s campaign headquarters. They were predicting that Clinton would win Pennsylvania. That meant “we needed Michigan,” Daniels said.
Later, Daniels said he was told that based on turnout demographics, Trump’s campaign was projecting that it was only 8,000 votes ahead in Michigan. Higher-ups wanted him to send updates from Michigan every hour.
“That was a lot of pressure,” he said. “It became very real.”
Ultimately, Trump would win Florida and overcome Clinton’s lead in Pennsylvania, rendering the close Michigan vote academic. Daniels said he broke down in tears when he realized Trump had won.
“After six years of losing elections, it just felt amazing to finally win one,” he said. “When everyone tells you you can’t do something, it gives you that extra fire.”
Moving to Washington, D.C.
Daniels is cagey about what’s next for him, though he acknowledges that he is moving to Washington, D.C., full time and would be interested in a position in Trump’s administration.
“There’s lots of names (for positions). Lots of talented people,” he said.
It’s not unusual for key staffers in battleground states to be rewarded with administration jobs after presidential races.
Asked if he thinks Trump can fulfill his many campaign promises, Daniels is unequivocal.
“Mr. Trump understands how to get things done,” he said. “He wants a federal government that quits whining and gets to work. I’m fully confident that he can do it.”