Midterm elections are supposed to be trouble for the president’s party, but House Republicans are confident that if they have a problem, John Rogers can solve it.
Rogers was born in Amsterdam, New York, a small-town about a half-hour west of Albany, but Republican friends know him best for once identifying an unlikely takeover opportunity three hours south in New York City.
He grew up as the son of an auto mechanic who wasn’t registered to vote and a seamstress who was a registered independent. When her friend Agnes Rodd ran for city comptroller, his mother took her 4-year old son door-knocking, and so began a life of campaign politics.
Rogers, who recently turned 40, is starting his fourth cycle at the National Republican Congressional Committee, but his first as executive director. He was part of the NRCC team that raised and spent over $150 million last cycle and exceeded expectations by limiting losses to a net of six seats. But going by history, defending the House majority in 2018 will be more difficult.
The president’s party has lost House seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections, with an average loss of 33 seats. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to retake control.
Throughout high school and while attending Siena College in Albany, Rogers stayed busy, volunteering on local campaigns and interning for New York’s Republican Gov. George Pataki.
He also balanced bagging groceries at the local Stop & Shop and working his way up from cashier to the cash room at Hannaford, a regional supermarket chain.
Rogers helped break up a small crime ring when he noticed that the amount on a fraudulent check repeated the jersey number of New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. He stalled the ringleader until police arrived.
At Siena, Rogers led the College Republicans, although he said he got frustrated as a political science major because “it was all theory.” He graduated in 1999 with a business degree. He knew the best campaign experience for him was on the trail.
In 2002, Rogers worked on Dora Irizarry’s unsuccessful race against Democrat Eliot Spitzer for attorney general. As deputy campaign manager for the cash-strapped campaign, Rogers staffed the candidate on the road while handling the schedule (which he memorized, in the pre-smart phone era) and communications.
In 2004, Rogers ventured south to work for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania as a director of field operations. There, he helped boost the party phone bank in suburban Montgomery County into one of the largest in the country focused on re-electing President George W. Bush. Local volunteers were so energized that they requested call sheets for New Mexico, so they could continue making calls after 9 p.m. Eastern time.
In 2006, Rogers moved to New Jersey to be victory director for the state GOP, which was focused on getting Tom Kean Jr. elected to the U.S. Senate. Once again, he ramped up the phone bank, but it consequently created a backlog of data.
“John locked himself in a room one night and wrote software to make it easier to input the data,” said GOP consultant Brian O. Walsh, a Garden State native and NRCC veteran who was working for Kean.
“He always had a smile, great wit, and worked hard,” Kean recalled. “And a lot of times, he slept in the campaign office.” Kean lost the race 53 percent to 44 percent to Democrat Robert Menendez in what ended up being a terrible year for GOP candidates nationwide.
Rogers went back to New York, where he managed Republican Andrew Saul’s race against Democratic Rep. John Hall in the 19th Congressional District until Saul dropped out. Then Rogers shifted gears.
On the move
By that time, Rogers estimates he had moved 14 times over about 9 years in the campaign trenches, so he tried to take his marketing management degree from theory to reality on Wall Street.
His résumé didn’t add up, but the folks at AMR Capital Trading told him he could have a job if he passed the Series 7 exam (a requirement for licensed stockbrokers), which was coming up in two weeks. Rogers studied while raising money for Republican Rob Astorino in the Westchester County executive race and passed the rigorous test.
That wasn’t an easy time for Rogers, personally and professionally, as the stock market crashed and he was still juggling his political habit. “I was trading and campaign managing at the same time,” he said. “Two things I don’t recommend doing at once.”
But Rogers political prospects continued to climb.
After he turned down Walsh’s entreaties to join the NRCC, Rogers managed Astorino’s upset victory over incumbent Andy Spano in 2009 and Republican Bob Cohen’s unsuccessful bid for the New York state Senate in 2010, all while still trading. Cohen lost to Democratic incumbent Suzi Oppenheimer by 728 votes (less than 1 percentage point), even though the district contained about twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.
After the historic election when Republicans gained 63 House seats, Rogers joked to Walsh that he made a mistake by not coming on board earlier, but Rogers said joining the NRCC wasn’t the right fit for him until he applied the next cycle.
“Hiring Northeast Republican operatives is tricky because you usually can’t judge them by their number of wins,” said then-outgoing Northeast regional political director Brock McCleary who was part of the team looking at Rogers to fill his NRCC position. “He wasn’t a terribly known commodity,” remembered McCleary, now a Pennsylvania-based pollster. “But he was a guy who got the job in the interview.”
Rogers wasn’t sure what to make of the seven-minute interview with McCleary and then-political director Mike Shields that cost him $400 in travel expenses. He was eventually offered the job and it wasn’t long before he made his mark.
For most of 2011, Rogers might have been the only Republican in Washington who believed businessman Bob Turner could turn a 20-point loss to Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner in 2010 into a special election victory in the open seat less than a year later after the congressman resigned.
But Rogers recognized that New York’s 9th District was more conservative than its prior partisan performance and the ethnic makeup of the seat gave Republicans an opportunity.
“It was his chance to get into the cockpit and fly the thing by himself,” McCleary said. “[Rogers] sold it internally.”
“He could have gone through the motions,” recalled E. O’Brien Murray, a New York-based campaign consultant who managed the Turner campaign, but Rogers always found ways to make the money stretch. In the final days, he suggested the cash-poor campaign spend money on a last-second poll to generate national interest.
“It’s unorthodox to spend your last dollars on a poll,” Murray said. “But the poll showed that was a dead heat and the world woke up.”
At the time, Rogers was on a pre-planned vacation to Sea Isle City, New Jersey, with his now-wife Sarah (it was August in the off-year, after all) so he digested the poll results, draped in a towel on the beach (his closest friends have the photo). But Rogers couldn’t stay away completely.
“He came up to New York for the final portion of the last week and organized a good deal of our volunteers. He was professional and very proficient,” Turner said. “I saw John’s versatility and knowledge. And I rarely saw him without a phone in his ear.”
Turner won that 2011 special election 52 percent to 47 percent in a district a Republican hadn’t held in more than 80 years and one Barack Obama carried by 11 points in the previous presidential election.
“John has a record of success,” said incoming NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers, on a break from National Guard duty in Columbus, Ohio, before Christmas. “He’s done a good job of beating Democratic incumbents and he’s won tough races people didn’t think we could win.”
For the 2014 midterms, Rogers was promoted to deputy political director, but most importantly, he built an internal polling and analytics department after what he calls “The great GOP data crisis of 2012.”
“We thought we were winning races we weren’t even competitive in,” he said. So Rogers built the new division and helped lead the party to two successful cycles (the most recent as political director).
“I feel really good about what he’s done to make our campaigns about data and analytics,” Stivers said. “We’ll know what coalition of voters are in each district and how to communicate with them.”
It’s going to be a busy cycle for Rogers, who just welcomed a second daughter with his wife, a Wal-Mart lobbyist. But GOP insiders believe his ideas, even-keeled demeanor and the coffee he brews in his office make for the steady hand the party needs.
“For someone who is passionate about the business, he can be surprisingly unemotional when making decisions,” Turner said. That’s an important character trait when the going gets tough.