Priebus ally Katie Walsh takes key role in shaking up GOP data staff

Jon Ward and Hunter Walker
Jon Ward and Hunter Walker
Katie Walsh (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Cliff Owen/AP, Wilfredo Lee/AP)

WASHINGTON — Katie Walsh is ascendant at the Republican National Committee once again after leaving her job as deputy White House chief of staff under Reince Priebus at the end of March.

Walsh, who was chief of staff at the RNC when Priebus was chairman, rejoined the committee in April, soon after leaving the White House.

Under the direction of current RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, and in coordination with the White House, the RNC has revamped its data operation, with Walsh playing a key role.

“We’re bringing in new ideas and innovating, whereas after 2004 we stopped innovating and got beaten on the data and ground-game efforts in 2008,” Walsh said.

Control of detailed data about individual voters can be influential in close elections. But it’s also one of the few assets that national committees possess to exercise influence over state party organizations, candidates and campaigns.

Walsh comes from a fundraising background. As chief of staff of the RNC under Priebus, she made the control of voter data a priority, sometimes putting her at odds with outside groups, such as the Koch Brothers’ data operation, i360.

Several recent departures from the RNC’s data shop have increased Walsh’s stature and reduced the influence of a previous generation of RNC data operatives.

The RNC recently replaced its chief data officer, Jesse Kamzol. And when the RNC brought in someone from outside the building, three other top officials decided to leave.

Multiple sources have told Yahoo News that Kamzol’s deputy, Liam O’Rourke, is quitting after Kamzol’s job went to Ellen Bredenkoetter, formerly of the Data Trust, a firm that works closely with the RNC to house their data and make it available to outside groups.

Bredenkoetter had previously worked at the National Republican Congressional Committee and on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign.

Walsh told Yahoo News that the installation of Bredenkoetter was part of an effort to infuse the RNC’s data operation with people who have had campaign experience, and to avoid complacency after the victories of 2016.

“We needed to continue to grow. That really is the methodology behind it,” Walsh said.

Bredenkoetter’s hire was recommended by an independent audit of the data department that was commissioned by RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel. Walsh agreed with the assessment, as did senior leadership at the White House, she said.

O’Rourke did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ronna Romney McDaniel listens to President-elect Trump at an event Grand Rapids, Dec. 9, 2016. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Two other RNC officials — Ashley Burns and Patrick Stewart — are also leaving the committee. Burns was director of political data support at the RNC, and she and O’Rourke became engaged this past March. Stewart was director of business intelligence and is leaving the RNC to work for a private sector data firm, Red Oak Strategies.

With Walsh ascendant, an older regime that has controlled GOP data for many years has less influence. One of the firms that has traditionally been tight with the RNC has been FLS Connect. Jeff Larson, a longtime principal at FLS, held a variety of senior roles at the RNC in recent years but is now at the American Action Network.

Stewart worked a few years ago for FLS. Kamzol was also a Larson ally.

Walsh is engaged to be married to Mike Shields, the RNC’s chief of staff before Walsh took over the job. Shields is an adviser at the Data Trust and runs his own firm, Convergence, a campaign consultancy. (Convergence was hired by Rep. Karen Handel’s campaign in the recent special election in Georgia.)

A former official from President Trump’s White House bid noted that Walsh’s prior positions at the RNC, which included finance director, always had an “emphasis on fundraising.” The official said it made sense that Walsh would want to “parachute into the data operation” since “data is clearly where the future of the Republican Party and politics is.”

In recent years, there has been something of a data arms race between the two major parties, as political operatives have realized that targeted information leads to far more effective fundraising and messaging. Data operations also can be monetized: campaigns and party organizations can sell voter information to others who want to solicit donations and votes from similar audiences. The former Trump campaign official speculated that Walsh’s fundraising background could help her maximize the income potential of the RNC data operation.

“She understands the monetization of the information that’s coming in,” the former official said of Walsh. “She’s probably more adept from the political space on how to monetize this information and she’s more connected in the political space.”

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