Jesse Ferguson Lives to Fight Another Day

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 4, 2014 · 8:30 AM EST

The lede almost writes itself: One year ago, Jesse Ferguson never would have thought beating cancer would be easier than defeating Republicans in the House. But that’s just not how the Democratic operative does business.

As director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm, Ferguson is responsible for the more than $60 million in television ads attacking Republicans this cycle, but he doesn’t want to it to be personal.

“I disagree with Republicans a lot — on a lot of things — and I don’t think I’ve been shy about saying that,” Ferguson told CQ Roll Call. “That said, I’d really be hesitant to compare them to cancer.”

“He’s a throwback,” said Jennifer Crider, the former deputy executive director of the DCCC who hired Ferguson during the 2010 cycle. “He probably has as many Republicans friends as Democratic friends.”

The Republican Party hits close to home for Ferguson. The 33-year-old Richmond, Va., native adopted his father’s Rockefeller Republican ideology for the first part of his life, even though his mother was a liberal Democrat.

In those formative teenage years at Collegiate School (which boasts other alumni including former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson) and into his freshman year in college, Ferguson was a Republican.

He was active on the College of William & Mary campus for Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2000 presidential election. (That’s “Maverick John McCain,” not “Get-off-my-lawn John McCain,” Ferguson was quick to clarify.) But after the senator lost the primary and the so-called agents of intolerance began to take over the Republican Party of Virginia, Ferguson’s journey to the Democratic Party was complete.

Soon Ferguson was volunteering for Democratic businessman Mark Warner’s gubernatorial campaign as he became more active in politics on and off campus. For nearly three years, he led a student-run political action committee called Virginia21 to support higher education causes while developing his fundraising and communications skills.

“Virginia21 existed because Jesse gave them credibility with the press corps,” said Democratic strategist Mark Bergman, who has known Ferguson since they were teenagers. They attended the same synagogue (Bergman’s father was Ferguson’s Hebrew school teacher) and later went to college together. “He has a great understanding of what would get reporters to pay attention to an issue.”

From delivering stacks of 12,521 petitions or barrels of pennies to support a 1-cent sales tax increase to the Virginia General Assembly, the young operative understood the power of visuals. And he learned to cultivate relationships with a press corps that included Michael Shear, now of The New York Times, and current Roll Call Editor-in-Chief Christina Bellantoni, who was then covering Virginia politics for The Washington Times.

In 2007, Ferguson went to work for House Democratic Caucus Chairman Brian J. Moran and worked with Bergman and Matt Mansell to propel Virginia Democrats to the closest they’ve come to winning a majority in the House of Delegates in the decade and a half since they had lost control of the chamber.

“He’s still the same guy,” said Bergman, now a senior advisor for Democratic Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “Always looking three steps ahead and playing three-dimensional chess.”

“When I met him, his strength was press,” said veteran direct mail consultant Ed Peavy of Mission Control. “But the truth is that ’07 was one of the best overall efforts I’ve ever worked on.”

Peavy described that effort as “very structured and aggressive,” adding, “It’s similar to what I’ve seen from the DCCC this year.”

Back then, Ferguson and friends began to understand the difficulty of winning rural districts as Democrats in the modern era after pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into losing races. The experience would come in handy not too much later when, after working on Moran’s unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2009, Ferguson found himself as the DCCC’s regional press secretary for the South, and trying to defend some extremely difficult territory in a brutal year for Democrats.

For the 2012 cycle, Ferguson was promoted to communications director and deputy executive director at the DCCC as Democrats battled Republicans to a gain of eight seats. Then he faced a personal battle of his own.

On May 21, 2013, Ferguson received news that the lump on the left side of his throat was a cancerous tumor. At this point last year, he was undergoing radiation treatments in preparation for surgery, but he was never more than an email or phone call away.

“The entire press corps played therapist for six months without knowing it,” he said.

Now Ferguson is cancer-free, returned to full-time work in January and had his successful battle chronicled in The Washington Post’s Style section. But the partisan battle is a different story.

President Barack Obama’s mediocre job approval rating has shifted Democratic expectations in the House all the way from potentially regaining the majority after the government shutdown to holding back double-digit Republican gains and risk falling deeper into the minority.

Ferguson is doing what he can to stave off larger losses by overseeing a slate of creative commercials designed to cut through the clutter — ads shot on luxury yachts and with ranting actors impersonating Republican candidates. It’s no surprise that the approach has received plenty of positive press.

“I’m not a huge stop and smell the roses kind of guy,” Ferguson said. “Just notice the flower bed and move on.”

Even after a difficult cycle, that’s exactly what he’ll do.