Jeff Roe on Biden’s “Sugar High” and How to Beat Trump

GOP consultant Jeff Roe with Glenn Youngkin
G.O.P. consultant Jeff Roe with Glenn Youngkin. Photo by Anna Moneymaker
Tara Palmeri
September 15, 2022

Jeff Roe, the Republican operative of our moment, reached a professional crescendo last year after his previously little-known, fleece-vested, private equity gubernatorial client, Glenn Youngkin, pulled out an upset against Virginia’s one-time governor and inveterate Clinton-buddy Terry McAuliffe in the blue-leaning state. With Roe’s coaching, Youngkin had mastered the dark arts of culture war-stoking with a nice-guy tone, using phrases like “parents’ rights” that appeal to women and wealthy suburbanites, while keeping a pole’s length distance from Donald Trump. Youngkin, who can only serve one term as governor, is already being talked about as a potential 2024 nominee.

Meanwhile, Roe’s firm Axiom has become a behemoth of a consulting shop, with 303 employees and 298 contractors, running more than 500 races this cycle. And with 21 acquisitions since 2015, they’re continuing to expand. Just this month, they acquired a Pennsylvania consulting company and a compliance firm.

But this midterm cycle has been a mixed bag for Roe in the hotly contested primaries, especially in the Senate. Republicans were previously optimistic about major gains in the upper chamber, but now seem to be moderating their expectations, with Mitch McConnell confessing that they might fall short due to the dreaded “candidate quality” conundrum. Roe declared his client David McCormick victorious in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, but after an expensive recount in which he came up less than a 1,000 votes short, he was forced to concede to celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, who had ultimately won the golden ticket of the Trump endorsement. He’s currently working on Adam Laxalt’s Senate campaign in Nevada, which is shaping up to be a tight race to unseat incumbent Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. His client Eric Schmitt pulled off a win in the Missouri Senate primary after being blessed with a double ‘Eric’ endorsement from Trump, and outside funding that pummeled his opponent Eric Greitens. But in Arizona, his client Jim Lamon came in second to Blake Masters in the Senate primary, as he lacked a Trump endorsement. 

In Ohio, Roe supported Josh Mandel’s campaign through the Club for Growth super PAC, but he, too, lost to J.D. Vance, who (wait for it) benefitted from Trump’s game-changing endorsement. Roe also ran the super PAC supporting Katie Britt’s campaign in Alabama, where she won her primary and will cruise to an easy election.  

This week, I called up Roe to discuss the G.O.P.’s evolving messaging this cycle, Biden’s own strategic anxieties, and his playbook for Democratic and Republican White House challengers, alike. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Tara Palmeri: What’s going on with Republicans right now? The midterms were supposed to be a sweep. 

Jeff Roe: Well, it still can be. If you take a look at where public polling is right now vis-a-vis where it was in 2020—when you had public polling that had Susan Collins down 10, when you had so many seats that were supposedly out of reach—we didn’t lose a single incumbent congressman in the House for the first time in a long time, and picked up double-digit seats. 

For one thing, on public polls, it’s very expensive to reach a moving base for Democrats, which was once blue collar workers. Moreover, they’re modeling off the last midterm elections, which was a very tough year for Republicans. You see polling being off because they are trying to match it based on the last historical precedent, in 2018, when there was high turnout among the core Democratic constituencies. But those constituencies have moved, and it’s very expensive to call non-white voters, particularly non-white voters in the absolute demographics that have come our way. 

That’s why polling is off in heavily minority, particularly Latino, states. Take a look at Arizona and Nevada and Georgia—these are very difficult groups to poll, and that makes a poll expensive. And media polls do not invest the resources that we invest in as a campaign. It just doesn’t match. We just had a poll today in Nevada that had [Axiom client] Adam Laxalt up one and we see polls that had Herschel Walker up. We’re starting to see rebound from a pretty tough summer.

In retrospect, why was the summer so tough? 

Without question, the Democrats had the best 90 days from Memorial Day to Labor Day, between the shooting in Uvalde to Republicans assisting Democrats in passing some legislation that they can trumpet, to the January 6 committee, the Roe v. Wade decision on Dobbs, and Joe Biden being silenced by Covid twice. All of those things were really good for Democrats. I don’t think there’s been a better 90 days for a party in power in a midterm election cycle that we’ve ever seen.

But I think that ended for the Democrats with Biden’s now-famous “fascism” speech. And any gains that he was given, we’ve already seen him give back. The worm turned for them that Thursday before Labor day. 

Every pollster I speak to, Republican and Democrat, says that the Dobbs decision has had an enormous impact on this election cycle. Why do Republicans seem so flat-footed? 

We have two issues going on. First, you have a resource issue on every campaign, where we were getting out-spent routinely. Democrats believe in early investment, Republicans believe in late momentum. As a campaign strategy, Republicans are simply comfortable being outspent over the summer because we believe we will make it up and get momentum in the fall. And Democrats believe that you lock in voters early, build your coalition, and then you just maintain it in the fall. And so because of that, you have to really pick what issues you’re going to invest in to drive a message on. And in the summer, first of all, you’re not advertising much. 

Second, because people believed it was going to be a great, great year, we had a lot of well-funded, highly competitive primaries. The result was that, in both gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns, there were very few uncontested races. Even most incumbents faced challenges. Meanwhile, the Democrats had very few primary challengers, or open seat candidates where they didn’t have to spend resources at all. 

They also did a better job of narrowing the field, getting the party behind one candidate. Take Wisconsin, where they had candidates dropping out three weeks before the election. Those candidates coming out of the primaries had the resources to immediately start pivoting to the general election, while Republicans limped out of highly competitive primary elections, having unity breakfasts, being broke the next day. One, we didn’t have any money, but if we did have money, now you have to pick from a bevy of issues that are huge advantages for us: crime, inflation—you have so many issues—gas prices that were surging, the markets, supply chain issues, Biden’s popularity, culture issues, wokism, immigration and the border…

Do you think the Lindsey Graham bill on a 15-week national abortion ban hurts or helps Republicans? 

I’m not sure, exactly, about Lindsey’s approach. That would have been a good bill on the 1st of July. I’m not sure about the middle of September and the lack of building a coalition and a consensus. I do know that Republicans in each individual campaign have to have their own voice on their position on abortion. You have to be for something or you’re against everything. And that’s the position a lot of campaigns have found themselves in. Now they all have to be effectively for a national ban after 15 weeks, and many of them have taken a position against the national ban legislation that was floated. 

Now, the way the Democrats would characterize it is that this is a national ban, and they conveniently leave out the 15 weeks aspect, which represents a majority position with all voters. And 95 percent of all abortions are within 15 weeks—that’s left out of the discussion as well. But most candidates and most policymakers have already taken a position against a national ban because they just spent the last 40 years arguing it should be a states’ rights issue. 

Speaking of the Senate, who is going to be blamed if Republicans don’t take back the chamber? Mitch McConnell, Rick Scott, or Donald Trump? 

It depends on who wins and loses. Every campaign bears their own responsibility. The path to the majority is very clear. If Herschel Walker loses, then I don’t know who you would blame besides Herschel Walker. If Dr. Oz loses, well, McConnell has put $28 million into his campaign, and probably more on the way, and Trump dragged him across the line—I don’t know who you blame there. 

Do you blame Trump for endorsing him? 

You could. I did Dave McCormick’s campaign: we came up 951 votes short. I think we’d be up five points [against John Fetterman] right now, but I hope Dr. Oz wins because I think we need to save the country. 

What was your immediate reaction on the night of the Mar-a-Lago search? 

I had probably never been more pro-Trump. I still don’t know what to believe with this thing. But every single thing that has been said about the F.B.I.— we’ve had people admit under oath, doing unethical things at the leadership of the F.B.I., it’s very overtly partisan activity to conduct a search warrant into a former President of the United States’s personal property—[made me think], boy they better find something of real consequence, which I can’t fathom. It was an overt act that changed the discourse around the F.B.I. unlike almost anything else. 

I run campaigns for a living, so you can judge my I.Q. from there, I don’t pretend to be an expert. But to see the public reaction, and to see the [D.O.J.] stonewalling of having no answer for several days about why [they issued the search warrant] and to have the leaks about the documents, nuclear codes… I’ve got a pretty high B.S. meter, and it seemed like a bunch of B.S. I can’t recall a day that I was more pro-Trump.

Is Trump the nominee in 2024? Can anyone else challenge him after this? 

Sure, that’s why you have campaigns. He’s the former president, just like Barack Obama was the former president before Joe Biden and he helped solidify and pick the nominee. He certainly did so in a more subtle way than President Trump. 

But George Bush didn’t pick Mitt Romney.

He didn’t. George Bush had a different philosophy of political power. We’re in a new era. Just as Barack Obama had a heavy influence in his party’s politics, Donald Trump does. He raises the most money, he has the most influence, and if he wants to run again, he’s damn sure the leader in the clubhouse and it would take a hell of a campaign and a hell of a candidate to beat him. 

You ran Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia and Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016. What’s their lane to run against Trump? 

A path against Donald Trump is a very difficult path and you’ve got to do a four-state strategy that, frankly, depends on when Trump announces. He has $99 million in the bank right now. I know that’s not presidential money, but that would be pretty easily replaced by presidential money. So you have to find a path to $100 million. That doesn’t have to be all campaign money, but that has to be a combination of super PAC and campaign money. 

The second path is to see a victory in either Iowa or New Hampshire, if you are plotting a course. I don’t see anyone beating him in South Carolina, and Nevada is a tough state in how it falls; it’s a caucus state, it’s different. You would have to make it a real retail campaign, heavily financed in those two states, and live in those two states and have the ability to draw attention, narrow the field to either one-on-one or damn close to it, and build an operation, and have the fundraising to it. Even then, if you play Donald Trump’s game, good luck, because he plays it better than anyone else. I think it would be a fool’s errand. 

If you can play a different game—if you talk about the future not the past, if you talk about adding a chapter to the Republican book, the same book read a slightly different way—then I think you can make the same case and see if the voters react. If you make the case that you can win, electability becomes a very crucial component to this. Electability used to be fool’s gold in Republican politics and it’s no longer fool’s gold. Republicans want to win. And it used to be that 30 percent of voters cared about winning, and 70 percent cared about ideological alignment with the candidate. That’s why you saw people who had no chance of winning a general election win caucuses. Now it’s almost flipped: 70 percent care about electability, 30 percent care about ideological alignment. 

Trump doesn’t need ideological alignment because he’s a firebrand, who is taking on the powerful institutions and creating a culture of fighting for those who don’t have a voice. And now he has the benefit of fighting against 87,000 I.R.S. agents, the Justice department, the F.B.I., the media, the entire liberal industrial complex going after him every single day and he’s not even in the White House. That’s a pretty powerful argument to Republican primary voters: If I’m not fighting them, who is? They can’t cancel me because I’m Donald Trump, and if I’m not fighting them, they’re going to cancel you! 

Okay, but you can only pick one candidate—Youngkin or Cruz? 

Well I don’t pick candidates. I work hard to get hired. These guys have to make a decision if they’re going to run and, you know, they’re going to make that decision. I’d be honored to work on their campaigns. It’s a goal of mine to try to get someone elected to the White House. I’ve been trying for a couple decades now. Both are supernatural candidates with immense talents, different in different respects. One of them is really good in a room of a thousand, actually both of them are good in a room of a thousand.

What does a Youngkin coalition look like? 

He’s a conservative governor in a blue state, who governs with a velvet hammer and does it with a smile. By the same token, you have Ted Cruz who puts on the iron plate everyday and goes to the well of the Senate and fights and leads on almost every issue in the Senate from a conservative standpoint and does so relentlessly. I called him and asked, “Do you like this kind of beating you’re taking?” He prosecutes every cabinet secretary and Biden appointment. 

They have to make a decision. But if all of that worked out, and they both ran, and they both wanted to hire me, that’d be a pretty shitty position and I bet all of those factors don’t line up. 

You were courting Trump to run his campaign, what happened? 

I met with the former president and we talk occasionally. I think it’s a good business practice to speak to people who are powerful and influential. I’m not sure about courting. I think that was miscommunicated. I think there’s a little bit of respect there. I think it’s good to stay in touch with people who have a strong influence on the party.

Do you want to run his campaign? 

If he runs, I suspect that he’ll have a number of campaign managers, and it would be unwise to be the first. 

Trump lost to Biden in 2020. Do you think he can beat him this time around? 

I do. I think that Biden is on a sugar high right now and he’s at a 44 percent approval rating. The resting heart rate for a Democrat is 51 to 52 percent, and for a Republican, it’s 47 and 48 percent. After inauguration it’s kind of where they settle, they dip down during the midterms and then they settle. If you’re on the sugar high at 44, that’s historically bad. 

Trump was that low. 

I’m talking about for Democrats. He’s lost every independent and he’s cutting into the bone with Democrats, the base of the Democratic Party, the young voters. I don’t think he can ever get back. And there’s flipping that we’ve seen with his own base: they’ve given up, and this cycle, while paying some 90-day dividends, is hollowing out some core constituencies that I think will be very hard for them to rebuild as a party, but almost impossible for Biden to rebuild as a candidate. And they’ve become a two issue party: They are essentially an abortion and anti-Trump party. And when you do that, you’re giving up a core, which is Hispanic votes. Those are not issues that you’re able to reclaim with Hispanic voters. And that’s why you see that erosion. 

Who is the strongest candidate for Democrats?

The reason that [Pete] Buttigieg does so well is that if you’re a wealthy suburban voter, liberal voter, Buttigieg is your jam. It’s not a secret why he did well. 

But could he beat Trump? 

No, because he can’t fix their demographic issues. He’s not going to do well with working- and middle-class Hispanics, Blacks who are increasingly in the middle class. How is he going to win the Rio Grande back? 

But if Biden doesn’t run, I’ve got to think [Pete] is their favorite. He can go into any district. He’s their favorite surrogate, he’s the one who’s out there the most. I’m sure he’s more on-demand than Kamala Harris

What about Gavin Newsom or Gretchen Whitmer or Mitch Landrieu? 

It would be a candyland for Republican operatives to run against Gavin Newsom. I think he’s taken his success in the recall as some sort of mandate. That would be a dream candidate for us. I hope and pray that he’s the nominee. There would be nothing better than to add the word “coastal” to the liberal elite party that they’re constructing.

Do you think the election was stolen and how do you advise your clients to talk about 2020? 

I think there were a lot of shenanigans. I think there were a lot of questions about Zuckerbucks. I don’t think the election was stolen, myself. I think they used every legal tool and they used Covid as an excuse, and some of those tools have since been found unconstitutional and we didn’t probably fight back on enough of them. 

But you think those shenanigans amounted to 8 million votes?

I do not. 

But how do you advise clients? 

Well, I ask them what they think, and they have an opinion and if they have theories that are beyond the realms of rational thinking then they probably aren’t my clients. 

[When I later noted that Laxalt and Schmitt, among some of his other clients, are election deniers, Roe texted: “It’s not like a litmus test that I ask during a pitch. Denier vs. rigged vs. tainted is probably in the eye of the beholder.”]

Do you work with election denier candidates? 

I run like five or six races a year, and we have a couple thousand clients. This is what I advise my guys to say: the election was tainted. This election will be written about for a long time. We just found that Mark Zuckerberg admitted to Joe Rogan that the F.B.I. told him not to talk about the Hunter Biden laptop. If you’re looking for a ghost you can find a lot of them.