It was Halloween 2001, and Kennesaw State freshman Nick Ayers was sitting anxiously in an Atlanta airplane hangar. A friend had recommended him for a campaign position with Republican state senator Sonny Perdue, who was mounting a long-shot gubernatorial run against Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes. The portly, middle-aged politician disembarked his Bellanca Super Viking and, as Ayers recounts the story, walked down the stairs holding a lid-less cup of coffee. Eager to make a good first impression, the nervous blonde teenager extended his hand for a firm shake. "Hi, I'm Nick Ayers," he said, and as they shook, the coffee spilled all over the politician's pants. In Ayers' mind, the interview was already over.
He was wrong. What was supposed to be a 30-minute meet-and-greet turned in to a three-hour discussion of principle, faith, and motivation. That moment began Ayers' breakneck ascent in the world of Republican politics, culminating eight years later in his current gig as the executive director of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). He was the one to huddle with Sarah Palin in Alaska not long before her July resignation, and to give obligatory comments to the press after Mark Sanford admitted his affair in a June press conference.
Until recently, Ayers had largely remained out of the national spotlight. But with two governors' races this week and 37 governors' slots up for grabs next year--and with nearly every 2012 Republican presidential contender currently a governor or former governor--his role is anything but marginal. Just consider the RGA's domain name: www.theGOPcomeback.com.
Ayers is an unlikely leader of the charge. Most kids with his dossier are sleeping in their parent's basements: 27 years old and no college degree (he's still taking classes remotely). But behind his deep dimples and Southern accent is a true movement conservative, brimming with confidence. His plans for a Republican comeback are aggressive: By 2010, the GOP will hold a majority of the governors' mansions; that, in turn, will lead to winning back the House, the Senate, and the White House. And it all starts … tomorrow, when voters in Virginia and New Jersey could put his plan in motion. "I think the only thing Nick lacks is that he hasn't lost anything yet," one former colleague told me. "Nick wins."
Ayers grew up in Newt Gingrich's former district in Georgia, the child of parents who voted for Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Known as "Eddie Haskell" in high school, he was never particularly interested in the classroom but always in politics. In high school, he started working at a local bank owned by Barnes, the Democratic governor, where he harbored the dream of someday becoming a bank president. Ayers, who had always considered himself a conservative but not necessarily for one party, become known as "The Republican" among Barnes' liberal employees. Still, he was, as he puts it, "high on" Bill Clinton and his state's longtime Democratic governor, Zell Miller.
It was at Kennesaw State that Ayers became heavily involved with the College Republicans. The state's Republican Party, out of executive power for over 100 years, was disorganized and ineffective; College Republicans filled that vacuum, drawing crowds of as many as 3,000 for their rallies--an achievement that caught the attention of politicians like Perdue. After Ayers became president of the Kennesaw State chapter, a friend in the group recommended him to Perdue in the candidate's search for young talent.
From the first three-hour conversation on the tarmac, Ayers and Perdue hit it off. "By the time we left," Ayers recently told me in his Washington, DC, office, "… we realized that while we were in very different places in life--I was 19-years-old and a college freshman, and working for the incumbent governor at his local bank--we shared a similar strong faith in God." To his parents' dismay, Ayers quit his job, left school, and became the dark horse candidate's right hand. Within a week, Ayers was with Perdue on the Super Viking flying out to Bonaire, Georgia--the first of many signs that Perdue was taking Ayers seriously and bringing him into the fold.
After coming from behind to win that November--Ayers has a framed copy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution front-page victory story hanging in his office--Ayers ran a campaign for a Republican running for county commission chairman, in which his candidate won nearly 60 percent of the vote, scooping up cross-party votes in Democratic communities.By 2004, at age 22, Ayers was running Perdue's reelection race against Democrat Mark Taylor, which quickly turned personal and nasty. From the start, Ayers ran a campaign that was largely centered on the candidate's goals and accomplishments, and also kept Perdue from responding to Taylor's attacks. And if the team thought the attacks needed a response, it was Ayers or another staffer to give a comment--further putting the wunderkind in the spotlight.
Ayers soon became as much a celebrity as his boss, with critics tarring him as an inexperienced kid riding Perdue's coattails. One post on the Georgia political blog Peach Pundit griped that so many people were "so focused on hoping Nick Ayers screws up the Governor's race and gets egg on his face that they've forgotten they should be focused on getting the Governor re-elected and worry about Nick later." (Not surprisingly, Ayers made a rule that the campaign staff ignore blogs.) Then in October of 2006, just weeks before the election, Ayers was arrested for driving under the influence. While mainstream media handled the issue gently, the vitriol on the blogs grew. Commenters called him a "drunken fool" and "a drunk little brat," with one blogger mockingly referring to him as a "Colossus among mere mortals." Some bloggers called for him to be fired. Ayers just ignored them--and Perdue won by nearly 20 points.
Many observers attribute the victory to Ayers's campaign style. Shortly after the election, The Augusta Chronicle ran a piece questioning the effectiveness of negative ads and used Perdue's campaign to show that people were tired of the negative politics. "Any kid that is 25 can read campaign and election magazines and figure out the standard way to do things," a strategist who worked on the campaign told me. "When you stand apart and you make a decision because of your instincts … that's the measure that puts you apart. I did question whether or not it was right not to punch him back. I'm glad the Governor and Nick were right and I'm glad I was wrong."
After his reelection, Perdue was also elected chairman of the RGA.He told Ayers that he could not move on to this new venture without Ayers at his side. Ayers, who had been considering various lucrative offers in the aftermath of a big victory, stuck with Perdue.
While he commuted weekly from Atlanta to RGA's offices just a few blocks from the White House, Ayers never thought of it as more than a year-long gig. (Neither did his new bride, a second cousin of Perdue's.) But the RGA was essentially in shambles. The staff was bloated and the bank was essentially empty. With each governor and executive director serving just one year's time, there was little institutional knowledge about the races.
The solution, he and Perdue agreed, was a four-year plan. While the governors would continue to serve year-long terms as chairman, the executive director would stay. The focus shifted to long-term planning for 2009 and for the large volume of races in 2010. About six months after Ayers presented the plan to all the Republican governors, Texas Governor Rick Perry (who was slated to be the next chairman) pulled Ayers aside and told him he'd like him to stay as executive director in order to win back the majority of governorships. The RGA also launched a new emphasis on long-term recruitment, widespread involvement from all governors, large-scale fundraising, and smart and targeted spending.
By all measures, Ayers' effort to revamp the RGA has been a success. In a mid-year report, the RGA had $20.4 million cash on hand and no debt. (Among national political committees, this was only second to the RNC.) And last year, there was active participation from all of the Republican governors, which is no small feat. "The RGA used to be essentially a group that would get together a few times a year and give away money," former Speaker of the House and Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich told me. But Ayers has put the RGA on the national political map. (Gingrich was particularly impressed by Ayers' around-the-clock efforts at last summer's Republican National Convention.)
Part of his success may also be attributed to his effort to stay above the Washington political fray. He seems genuinely well liked, on both sides of the aisle. "[One] thing that struck me was his willingness to just form a friendship and understand that there is a place for partisanship in politics and there is also a place for treating people like human beings and finding friendships despite the rest," Democratic Governor Association executive director Nathan Daschle told me. "The thing that Ayers and I realized pretty early on is that we actually have a lot more in common than we do different." (Last year, Ayers took Daschle to his Georgia hometown for a hunting trip.)
Tomorrow will be Ayers' first national judgment day as voters in Virginia and New Jersey head to the polls. While New Jersey remains a toss-up, it looks like Virginia will almost definitely go to McDonnell, the Republican, who is polling, on average, about fourteen points ahead of Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds. Despite the seemingly endless ad hominem attacks on McDonnell from Deeds, McDonnell has not stooped to Deeds's level of nastiness. To be sure, Deeds has not been a formidable opponent. But a huge win in Virginia (a state that President Obama carried by sixpoints) could validate McDonnell's high-road campaign tactics.
It's not surprising that one of the first high-profile campaigns under Ayers' watch bears his signature style. While Ayers won't discuss how involved he is in current campaigns during our conversations (he wants to maintain trust between the RGA and the candidates), he heavily emphasizes the power of staying on message. If McDonnell does win, his campaign may also serve as a good template for the 37 GOP races next year--each of which Ayers says has been on his radar since he landed in Washington.
Even if New Jersey and Virginia stay blue, Dems should consider the advice given to Daschle before he met the young politico who shrugs off comparisons to Karl Rove: "One of the first things people told me about him was not to underestimate him," Daschle recounts. "I'd tell it to anyone again."
Amanda Silverman is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.
Correction: This article originally asserted that Ayers was charged with a DUI. Though he was originally charged with a DUI, he was later cleared on all accounts except reckless driving. The article has been changed to reflect this. We regret this error.