John Walsh: The Operative Who Paved the Way for Obama’s 2008 Win

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The game of politics had been shifting for years. A new class of political types were increasingly abandoning old school grassroots campaign strategies in favor of a less personal style that relied on flashy ads, focus groups and marketing tag lines.

John Walsh, a longtime Democratic activist in Massachusetts and one of the state’s most unique political operatives, stubbornly resisted the trend. He knew in his bones it was wrong. Walsh had a deep knowledge of and unshakable faith in precinct-by-precinct organizing, a passion that he had applied for years to his work in the trenches of Massachusetts campaigns.

But what excited him most was his belief that this older mode of campaigning could be combined with new 21st century tools — the Internet, websites, laptop computers and mobile phones.

Wash, who died last week at 65 after a battle with stomach cancer, ended up changing American politics with this theory, first upending the Massachusetts political world — and then setting a template for Barack Obama’s presidential win two years later. At the same time, he engendered a new generation of Democratic operatives — including David Axelrod and David Plouffe — inspired by his focus on building high-tech field organizations.

“You would not think this of a murky Massachusetts political organizer, but John would have found a home in Silicon Valley,’’ Plouffe said. “A very unique thing.”

It was in 2006 that Walsh, mastering the power of the then-developing Internet, had the chance to take grassroots organizing to new levels. Deval Patrick — who had no political profile, few if any contacts in the party’s rank and file, and no experience in electoral state politics — had decided that year to launch an insurgent campaign for governor. Walsh signed on to manage Patrick’s underfunded, very long-shot bid.

Patrick also hired an upstart consulting team from Chicago — David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who had played important roles in Barack Obama’s rise from an Illinois state senator to the U.S. Senate — and a much talked about future Democratic presidential candidate. The two were drawn to the way Walsh was running the Patrick campaign, intrigued that it may be a major organizing tool in an Obama presidential race.

At that time, field organizing had been overshadowed by the latest norm in campaigns — raise a huge amount of money, use focus groups to find out what voters are thinking, develop clever media messages and flood the airways. The idea that to win races, you had to be active on the ground was secondary.

Walsh, though, dug deep into the wards and precincts across the state, engineering a campaign that took Patrick from a political unknown to the party’s front runner. Plouffe and Axelrod watched as Walsh would drive, time and time again and often out of cell-phone range, to remote communities in the Berkshire hill-towns or to the outer villages of Cape Cod and precincts in the old mill cities in the Merrimack Valley — many times just to meet with two or three potential party activists, slowly but eventually building a state-wide network of Patrick supporters.

But the key to his success was his grasp of emerging technology and its use in building a vast but tightly organized field organization. With very little cost, the campaign allowed those volunteers, using their own computers, from their homes in every corner of the state, to be linked to the campaign website as well as to their neighbors, friends and relatives.

It provided the Patrick staff in Boston the ability to create and manage a field organization that Massachusetts had never seen before.

“It sounds simple now,’’ said Doug Rubin, Patrick’s 2006 campaign consultant. “But back then the idea of using the internet and websites was revolutionary in campaign work. It built an army of volunteers connected to our Boston office but also to themselves.”

Walsh’s success in building a vast, well-connected, state-wide army of volunteers, along with Patrick’s rhetorical skills and charisma, carried Patrick to a landslide primary win by a two-to-one margin against the Democratic establishment’s favorite — Attorney General Tom Reilly — and a trouncing of the Republican nominee for governor in the general election, the incumbent lieutenant governor.

Walsh’s engineering of Patrick’s rise from political obscurity to the governor’s office was indeed historic. Patrick became Massachusetts’s first Black governor, only the second African American governor in America since Reconstruction. He also broke a Democratic losing streak; it was the first time a Democrat had won the governor’s race in the state since 1986.

But little did the political world understand at the time that Walsh’s strategies and expertise would be a model for Obama’s come-from-behind surge to win the 2008 Democratic nomination. In his book, the Audacity to Win, Plouffe credited Walsh with showing him and Axelrod a playbook for Obama’s 2008 presidential race.

Describing their experience in Massachusetts, Plouffe wrote, “We worked with a campaign that was doing some fascinating and new stuff using the internet to organize and communicate message (sic) — from scratch, like we would have to do.”

Nearly two decades later, Plouffe still marvels at Walsh’s ability to harness social media and the Internet to build a political organization from scratch.

“It was like the dawn of a new era,” he said, reflecting back on what he and Axelrod learned from Walsh. “It was revelatory to me.”

It’s especially intriguing, he said, that it all came from someone Plouffe initially considered just another rough-edged Massachusetts political operative. Instead, he discovered a brilliant political mind.

Walsh’s success in his first state-wide campaign prompted a beleaguered Senator Edward Markey, facing a daunting 2020 reelection challenge from U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, to hire him. The odds of defeating the heir to the state’s most famous political dynasty seemed low. But in the end, it wasn’t even that close. Walsh's grassroots organizing skills was a key reason for why the Kennedy family was dealt its first defeat in Massachusetts since Jack Kennedy’s 1946 election to Congress.

To be sure, there were some defeats as well. One came during his long tenure as the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party when the party failed to hold the late U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s senate seat in 2010. It was a national embarrassment.

Walsh’s profile was anything but flashy. He grew up the son of Irish immigrants in the small Massachusetts town of Abington, just south of Boston. He lived there most of his life, running a small insurance company.

His humility was legendary. Many of his friends and longtime acquaintances were shocked to learn he was a Princeton University graduate. He was a polar opposite to the swashbuckling political consultants that now populate political campaigns. Nor was he ever a good source for political reporters looking for gossip and opposition research on other candidates.

Until Patrick hired him for his 2006 campaign, Walsh had little name recognition, even among seasoned political reporters. He had worked mainly in local politics in the South Shore area of Massachusetts, one of the few regions where Republicans can win local elections.

But his combination of never-ending optimism, his profound love of politics and his gentle demeanor in the midst of the chaos of campaigns eventually made him a legend in Massachusetts Democratic politics.

“John was just someone who treated everyone the same, whether you were a U.S. senator or a volunteer,” said Rubin, Patrick’s political consultant. “He was always optimistic and had an unending belief in people.’’