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Top Biden campaign aide sees lessons for Dems in Georgia

ATLANTA (AP) — When Quentin Fulks went back home to Ellaville, Georgia, last year, people kept telling him how proud they were to watch a native son lead Sen. Raphael Warnock’s reelection bid. Then came the caveat: They still weren’t going to vote for his boss.

“I didn’t take it personally,” Fulks recalled with a laugh.

If anything, growing up Black in a majority white county where Republican Donald Trump won 79% of the vote helped Fulks understand what Democrats had to do to win in a historically conservative state.

As a campaign manager, that meant framing Warnock as the deal-making, results-driven incumbent and building an operation that went beyond the Democratic strongholds of Atlanta and other cities to connect with Republican-leaning voters throughout the state — even before Republicans nominated Herschel Walker and gambled on his complicated personal history.

“In a tough environment, we chose to communicate with those voters,” Fulks told The Associated Press. “And it set us apart, quite frankly, from the Democratic slate and even from President Biden.”

The approach worked — Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, won reelection by nearly 3 percentage points in a state that Biden carried by a quarter percentage point about two years earlier. The victory helped Democrats win an outright majority in the Senate and established the 33-year-old Fulks as a rising star in the party. He was named on Tuesday as the principal deputy campaign manager for Biden’s reelection bid and will work alongside campaign chair Julie Chavez Rodriguez.

Allies of Fulks, who also has worked for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, tout him as more than ready for a national campaign.

Anne Caprara, Pritzker’s chief of staff and former campaign manager, who hired Fulks as her 2018 deputy, described him as a “soft-spoken” but skilled operative who understands Democrats’ uneasy coalitions, which span from progressive activists and labor unions to establishment billionaires like Pritzker.

“He’s a Black man from rural Georgia who’s also helped run J.B.’s politics in a place like Chicago,” she said. “At this point, there are no uncomfortable spaces for Quentin.”

In an interview earlier this year before Biden formally announced his 2024 campaign, Fulks said he learned to be unapologetic and thick-skinned about forging narrow majorities.

“You don’t compromise what it means to be a Democrat, but there’s a way you do it,” he said.

He pointed to Warnock’s support for abortion rights without emphasizing the issue himself, except to call attention to Walker’s statements of support for an outright national ban. Warnock, in turn, avoided questions about any restrictions Democrats might consider.

“When you have an opponent like Walker, there are plenty of people who’d look at all his liabilities and go as far left as possible,” Fulks said. “We never did that.”

Warnock, who doubles as senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, didn’t know Fulks before interviewing and hiring him. But, Warnock told the AP, his campaign manager proved to be a “serious” and “brilliant” person who had no problem challenging those around him, including the senator.

“There’s no point in having people around you who are afraid to tell you the truth,” Warnock said.

Fulks decided in high school he wanted to work in politics. He had no obvious path but saw a model from nearby Plains: former President Jimmy Carter. Encouragement from a high school teacher who is Carter’s niece helped, too.

“I have always told students that Uncle Jimmy was just like them at one point,” Kim Fuller said.

After graduating from Georgia Southwestern State University, Fulks looked beyond Georgia, which was then dominated by Republicans at all levels. “I didn’t necessarily see what Georgia would become,” Fulks confessed, adding that campaign aides often must leave their home states anyway to prove their mettle.

He landed an internship in Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer’s Capitol Hill leadership office and earned a master’s degree focused on campaigns. He met Caprara at Emily’s List, which backs Democratic female candidates. They continued together at Priorities USA, a leading Democratic super PAC.

Fulks points to those early years in Washington as inspiration for his recent decision to join the Institute for Ethical Campaigning, a fledgling nonprofit whose efforts include a paid internship program that places high school and college students with campaign and advocacy organizations.

The goal, Fulks said, is to give aspiring campaign leaders — Democrats or Republicans — the opportunities he got from people like Hoyer and Caprara.

After Pritzker’s 2018 win, Fulks took over the new governor’s outside political operation. Fulks led the campaign in favor of a state tax referendum to allow graduated rates on income — meaning increases on wealthier individuals and households. The measure flopped on the November 2020 ballot.

Economic uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic didn’t help, Fulks said. More important, he recalled, was opponents spending aggressively early to convince middle-income voters their taxes would rise despite the aim at wealthier individuals.

“I own all my losses,” Fulks said.

That lesson in framing a campaign from the outset remained top of mind as Warnock’s team built a sprawling digital, fundraising and field operation early in the 2022 cycle.

Brad Kennedy, Warnock’s national finance director, said Fulks understood a modern campaign’s required parts — fundraising, digital, media relations, field organizing, policy research — and had the confidence to empower his lieutenants.

“He set the priorities and let us do our jobs,” Kennedy said, while “making sure we operated as a team.”

Fulks required that senior staff move to Georgia and work in person. He also held weekly meetings with the full headquarters staff, standing before 60 or so employees explaining strategy and taking questions.

“I’ve never seen that level of openness and accountability” from a manager, Kennedy said, adding that it yielded a group that trusted Fulks, Warnock and each other.

Teamwork across divisions may sound routine, Kennedy said, but it can be elusive in the high-pressure, large-ego world of major campaigns. “We set fundraising records because of it, and we won a competitive race because of it,” Kennedy said, noting that Warnock’s nearly $185 million haul was more than any other U.S. Senate campaign in history.

Fulks filled another key role: candidate whisperer.

That meant corralling Warnock into “call time” with larger donors, explaining the schedule and keeping the senator focused on balancing his left flank with the middle. It also meant tough conversations with the “pastor in the Senate,” who was sometimes wary about how directly to attack Walker, another Black man and a first-time candidate with a history of mental health struggles and accusations of violent threats against women.

“He would tell me, ‘I need you to run this campaign in a way that I can go back into my pulpit every Sunday and look my congregation in the eyes,’” Fulks recalled. “Ultimately, I think he showed he’s very competitive and understands the nature of politics.”

Fulks rounded out the role by playing Walker’s stand-in during fall debate preparations, a job that involved confronting Warnock on his own liabilities.

Certainly, Fulks said, Walker’s weaknesses ultimately helped Warnock. But Fulks cautioned against discounting Warnock’s victory and, by extension, his own work that he believes offers Democrats a road map for how to widen their reach in upcoming elections.

“Some of these moderates are going to be looking for a place to go,” Fulks said. “These aren’t extreme individuals. We can’t just look at someone and say, ‘Oh, you’re a Republican, so we can’t talk to you.’ We have a record we can sell them.”