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Insider Interview: EMILY's List's Chris Esposito

Behind every great man, there's a great woman, according to the tired cliché. But when it comes to the single largest political organization in the country dedicated to electing pro-abortion rights Democratic women, the old saying's reverse is true too.

Chris Esposito
EMILY's List political operative Chris Esposito hopes to reelect Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm this fall. (Courtesy Chris Esposito)

Witness Chris Esposito, a political tracker for EMILY's List -- the 21-year-old organization that bundles campaign funds from its 100,000 members to support pro-choice women candidates for local, state and federal office.

Since joining the organization in March 2001, Esposito has helped guide a number of female candidates to victories (Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius are two of the best known) by immersing himself in the statistics and personalities of each race like few operatives on either side of the political divide.

Esposito's trademark doggedness was on display just last week when former state Rep. Betty Sutton won a crowded Democratic primary fight in Ohio's 13th District.

EMILY's List was involved in recruiting Sutton to run for the seat, according to Esposito, and in constructing her campaign plan. "We sat down her and the local people and the consulting team and figured out a path to victory county by county," Esposito said.

That plan? Quickly coalesce organized labor -- a key voting bloc in the district -- behind Sutton and use the national network afforded by an EMILY's List endorsement to raise several hundred thousand dollars. From there, Sutton needed to roll up large vote margins in Cuyahoga and Medina counties while staying in the top two in Summit and Lorain counties.

Sutton followed the blueprint perfectly. She received the endorsements of the key elements within the labor coalition, including the Firefighters and the Steelworkers, and she raised more than $400,000. On primary day, Sutton carried Cuyahoga, Lorain, and Medina counties and came in second -- to former Rep. Tom Sawyer -- in Summit. She won the race with 31 percent of the vote, besting the 24.5 percent won by 2004 14th District nominee Capri Cafaro, who spent more than $1 million of her own money on the race. Sawyer placed third with 22 percent and Gary Kucinich, the brother of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D), took fourth with 14 percent.

"Her victory validates why an organization like EMILY's List exists," said Esposito. "Without EMILY's List no one probably encourages Betty Sutton to run, Betty Sutton probably doesn't enter the race and without EMILY's List and the Firefighters leveling the playing field financially she struggles to compete."

Esposito seemed destined to work for EMILY's List. He spent his formative years in Durham, New Hampshire, and decided to get involved in politics as a volunteer on the 1992 gubernatorial campaign of state Rep. Deborah "Arnie" Arnesen. "I always had an interest in anything that was like competitive sports," recalled Esposito. "Politics was an extension of sport in a way for me."

Arnesen lost that race, and four years later -- with Esposito serving as deputy campaign manager -- she narrowly lost a bid for Congress against then freshman Rep. Charlie Bass (R).

In 1998 Esposito left his native New Hampshire to manage the campaign of Democrat Dennis Moore, who was challenging freshman Rep. Vince Snowbarger (R) in Kansas's 3rd District. The seat has a decided Republican tilt -- President George W. Bush carried it by 11 points in 2000 and 2004 -- but Snowbarger failed to run a competent campaign. With Esposito at the helm, Moore capitalized on his position as Johnson County District Attorney to beat Snowbarger 52 percent to 48 percent. (Moore has been reelected by widening margins in his races since.) Following that success, Esposito spent the 2000 cycle heading up the Northeast/Midwest political desk at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Since joining EMILY's List, Esposito has helped elect Sebelius and Granholm in 2002; in 2004, serving as campaign services director at the organization, Esposito oversaw the election of five Democratic women to the House, including Rep. Stephanie Herseth in South Dakota and Rep. Allyson Schwartz in Pennsylvania.

This deep campaign experience has taught Esposito a few lessons about why campaigns succeed and fail. "It matters if you have a base and a record," he said, pointing to the successes of Sutton and Moore as evidence. Moore's base in Johnson County -- the most Republican and most populous county in the district -- gave him a foundation on which to build a winning campaign, according to Esposito. "The fact that [Moore] had won elections as district attorney mattered at the end of the day in the congressional race," said Esposito.

Moore's record as district attorney also weighed heavily in the victory. "He had very strong credentials on prosecuting criminals," said Esposito. "That mattered in a very conservative district when his opponent was trying to paint him as a liberal."

Two other important elements? Message and money. "Candidates that win all have a compelling message that is rooted in the district and their record," Esposito said. Without money to move that message, however, the campaign is dead in the water, he said.

Esposito brings that campaign philosophy to a handful of races in which he is heavily involved this cycle. Chief among them is the reelection race of Granholm, who has struggled to turn around Michigan's struggling economy and has drawn a difficult challenge in the form of wealthy businessman Dick Devos (R). Polling shows the two running nearly even.

He is also playing a major strategic role in the Senate bid of Missouri state Auditor Claire McCaskill and the House campaigns of Dianne Farrell in Connecticut's 4th District and Nancy Nusbaum in Wisconsin's 8th District.

Once the midterm election concludes, expect Esposito to be a hot commodity in the behind-the-scenes battle for staff among the 2008 presidential contenders -- the result of his New Hampshire roots and hands-on campaign experience. For now, though, he is EMILY's List's political guru.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 8, 2006; 8:45 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic PACs , Governors , House , Insider Interview , Senate  
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