Betsy Ankney
SUBMITTED PHOTO

Betsy Ankney is the woman who led Sen. Ron Johnson’s reelection campaign — one that was routinely down in the polls but ultimately prevailed as Wisconsin turned red earlier this month.

The 29-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, was responsible for building Johnson’s campaign from the ground up. She moved to Wisconsin in 2013 to build its infrastructure, hire a team and develop and implement a campaign strategy. She guided and ran the operation behind the scenes for more than three years.

Ankney got her start in politics during the Republican National Convention in 2008 and has worked on campaigns throughout the country, including Chris Christie’s bid for governor in New Jersey and Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts. She has also served as deputy political director for operations for the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C.

She talked with The Cap Times about how she led the campaign, its low and high points and what she’s learned.

What drew you to political campaign work?

It’s the fact you really do feel like your work is making a difference. You have the ability to influence elections and really elect good people who are going to get things done. That’s what drew me to this, and frankly, specifically what drew me to Ron. I took a chance and moved out to Wisconsin to do this. I didn’t have any home base here, any family in Wisconsin. I met Ron and could sense his sincerity and could tell he was doing this for the right reason. I saw that he was the real deal and he’s the kind of person who we want to be representing us.

It seems like the nomadic lifestyle of a political operative could be challenging. How has it been for you?

I was really able to make Wisconsin home for me. I met a lot of really great people. We built a really good team. I think frankly, for me, I was in Wisconsin for longer than a lot of people who are jumping from race to race to race every cycle. It can be difficult. You have to keep an open mind about everything and make sure you surround yourself with good people.

How does one build a political campaign from scratch?

Step one is make sure you have a plan in place. Think through everything ahead of time and really lay out a plan and a strategy for everything, from top level messaging to how many Lincoln Day dinners you’re going to in a season, to what your fundraising looks like. That’s really step one in laying that all out, (but) knowing that things will evolve and shift as the race and environment change.

The most important thing is having a plan, having a schedule and really sticking to it as much as you can, which is really what we did.

The second most important thing is making sure you do build a good team with good, talented people. I’m very proud of the team that we built. We had a very tight knit group. We had a lot of really great talent and everyone worked really well together. That’s crucial to success on a campaign. 

How much oversight is there from the RNC in D.C. for how you run the campaign?

There’s really very little oversight from D.C. as far as our overall plan. We can bounce ideas off them but as far as our top level messaging, Ron was very involved in that and we really ran our own race.

For us in particular, it’s very much a team effort. Ron was involved in that, I was involved in that. We very much had a collaborative effort in a lot of things that we did from our messaging strategy to what our paid media plan looked like.

What was the biggest hardship?

I would say that the one of our biggest challenges was making sure that (we got) through all of the noise and all of the people both in state and nationally saying that we couldn’t win and that we couldn’t do this. Our biggest challenges was making sure that we stayed focused on our plan and our message and running our race and sort of tuning out everyone else and keeping our heads down and staying focused on our mission.

That was certainly one of the biggest challenges and something that I don’t think you can fully appreciate until you’re in the thick of things.

What is the biggest thing you learned from that?

Just staying positive and trusting in yourself and your team and your candidate. There was never any doubt in our minds that Ron Johnson was the right man for the job and we knew that we had a plan in place to get us across the finish line.

What was the lowest point in the campaign?

The toughest part was in August when a number of groups had pulled out of the race. Some public polling showed us down in double digits and we were increasingly hearing the drumbeat from folks both in Wisconsin and elsewhere that we couldn’t win. At the same time, we were sticking to our plan of holding a lot of our resources until post Labor Day and we had to stick to our guns to keep executing everything we were doing on the ground and weather the storm.

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When did you see it turning around?

We saw a consistent and steady movement in our internal numbers from September through Election Day. The movement was clearly on our side. The trajectory of the race was in our favor.

Through Election Day, our internal modeling showed up. At the end of the day a lot of people got this race wrong. Our data team that we worked with the state party on got it right. We used the information that we got from them for everything that we did, from our targeting on digital and optimizing our TV buys. They gave us a road map on where Ron needed to spend his time. We relied heavily on our data operation and trusted in that at the end of the day.

Where did that data apparatus come from?

We used the data operation that we inherited from the Scott Walker 2014 team and it really was our road map for everything that we did. We are very fortunate here that we do have such a strong state party and such a strong data director in Brian Kind that a lot of other states and a lot of other campaigns don’t have.

The use of data in campaigns is constantly evolving and constantly changing, but I think more and more people are seeing the power of what you can do with a strong data-driven operation.

How do you think the Republican Party of Wisconsin compares to other state parties you’ve worked with?

I think Wisconsin is — if not the best state party in the country, one of the very best — and I’ve worked with a lot of state parties over the years in my role with the RNC and elsewhere. I can say hands down that we have a first-rate operation here.

It’s not just the operation but it’s the grassroots infrastructure and the ground game and the continuity. They make a point of making sure that we don’t just shut things down after every election, then wait a year, then build things from scratch. We keep the operation largely intact maintaining our volunteers and we keep people engaged.

I think the team aspect of Republicans in Wisconsin is often overlooked. You don’t just have a great state party, you have a governor who’s very engaged and involved and you have Paul Ryan who is incredibly helpful in everything we do.

The entire congressional delegation, each person serves, and it is truly a team effort.

Everyone works really well together. We did calls every week with our team, the governor’s team, the lieutenant governor’s team. Everyone knew what Ron’s schedule was, everyone knew what our message was going to be that week.

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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.