David O’Connell ’02 is no stranger to the challenges of running a political campaign; he spent the first five years of his career on the losing side of elections. Back in 2008, he was managing small congressional races and consistently losing. But, things changed in 2013 when O’Connell managed a competitive special congressional election in Charleston, South Carolina.
“There were 16 candidates, and we had to get into the top two spots of the run-off election. We were outspent by two million dollars, but we were able to advance despite the discrepancy. That changed my career, really.” People started to take notice of O’Connell more than ever, as he was able to hold his own even without the large budget that others had at their disposal. “After that, my career took off. I went to work for the chairman of the National Republican Congressional committee,” he said.
“I wasn’t expecting the job offer that I got three years ago.” O’Connell explained that after the South Carolina race, he got a call to come to the Party headquarters in Washington, D.C. “I met the chairman, who wanted to know how I designed the campaign because it was so unusual. I mobilized a large portion of the community that normally didn’t vote and got them involved.”
O’Connell didn’t know this was an interview. “I was just shooting the breeze, very casual and relaxed in my conversations. I didn’t realize that he wanted me to manage his race, and I wasn’t prepared for that to be an interview. I just spoke to him as someone I wanted to get to know.” Fortunately, O’Connell is someone who can easily speak about his field without any preparation. He was still surprised he was offered a job on the spot.
As a political campaign manager, mostly in the west, O’Connell has been in charge of running 10 different congressional campaigns. His name is on a short list of people that Republican candidates who run for congress can call. They can review his resume, interview him, and decide if they want to work with him.
One of his secrets to success? Maintaining consistent relationships with vendors across the country. “I try to make sure that the landscape and the candidates are the only things that change.” He stays with the same firms to conduct survey research and polling, television advertising production, and digital media, including Facebook and websites. These ongoing relationships help O’Connell keep costs low, maintain consistency of work, and increase the potential for faster turnaround on projects.
O’Connell’s accomplishments as a campaign manager helped him launch a new chapter in his career at the time of the interview. Working for the National Republican Senatorial Committee as a project manager, he is in charge of running the ground operation in Pennsylvania on behalf of the senatorial committee, campaigning for one of the five seats that will decide which party controls the Senate Chamber next year. “I like the action and the challenge of it, it’s sport to me.”
“This is something so different from what I normally do,” he commented. One of the biggest challenges for O’Connell today is managing people, something that wasn’t as prevalent in his previous roles. “I have a staff of 200 under me, and I even had to hire local people to go out and do door-to-door research. I’ve never been given a task that wasn’t possible, but many of them are daunting. Knocking on doors in an unfamiliar and heavily democratic community to survey them was one of those challenges.” O’Connell’s solution? Find local people passionate about the cause who could connect with voters on both sides of the aisle.
“I have to put together a budget that fits with the amount of financial resources that the candidate has … the budget is the biggest challenge in most campaigns.” O’Connell is no stranger to another obstacle when it comes to running campaigns, finances, as he proved with his achievements in 2013. He laughed, “I don’t have an accounting degree or background in human resources, but in this role, I’m both an accountant and an HR manager.” From balancing budgets to hiring new personnel, a project manager’s job on any campaign is to make sure everything gets done.
O’Connell has a vast network, and it has been influencing him for years, even as a student at Cheshire Academy. “David was a student with a seriousness of purpose few of his peers could match. He knew far more about American political culture than most adults,” said History Teacher James “Butch” Rogers, who had O’Connell as a student.
O’Connell pointed out that he didn’t come from a political family, but his father encouraged him to pursue his passion. “I was in Mr. Rogers’ government class at the time, and he had this poster for a high school lecture series down in DC. My dad went up and took one of those tear offs for more information and brought it to me. I threw it away.” Not one to give up, his father, Gregory O’Connell ’66, went back and got another one and forced him to go. “I ended up loving it. I was very into history and the government at the time,” he said.
“Perhaps it was in AP Government class where he really learned to articulate his political beliefs,” Rogers said. That particular class was made up of students who were very liberal, and O’Connell was the only true conservative in the room. But it didn’t bother him one bit. “I really enjoyed that competition. My experiences at Cheshire Academy shaped me more for my general direction than even my college did. I loved where I went to college, but I knew I wanted to get a political science degree and work in political campaign management before I went to college,” he said.
Since graduating, O’Connell has even come back to campus to share his experiences and insight of running a campaign with students, both as a speaker on the Cheshire Conversations career panel and in Rogers’ government class. His passion and leadership have lead him down a challenging but rewarding career path. “I was reading an article about how a lot of Americans have anxiety over the election. I’ve always been competitive and enjoy that aspect of this work.”
Now that this current race is over, O’Connell isn’t sure what the future will hold for him. He explained, “The new president will appoint a new cabinet, and inevitably will choose new congress members, which can spur special elections ... There’s a chance that I could be grabbed to manage one of those. Another option is that I could go after a position to become a recruiter to get people to run for congress themselves. I’d be responsible for 30-40 seats. I also have some connections to the senate committee too, and that could affect my direction. My network will greatly influence the career path I take after this.” Whatever happens, O’Connell is confident that, “only good things will happen for me in the future.”