Former White House staffer to speak at Sweet Briar

Posted on October 01, 2008 by Staff Writer

Scott Jennings, who helped President Bush carry the state of New Mexico en route to winning a second term in 2004, will present “The White House Experience and Presidential Politics” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7 at Sweet Briar College. The talk will be in the Wailes Lounge at the Elston Inn & Conference Center.

Following the 2004 race, Jennings was a special assistant to the president and deputy director of political affairs in the Bush White House, where he worked with then-deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. He will talk about his time in the White House, but will focus on his experience during Bush’s re-election bid and how grass-roots campaigning influenced the outcome.

Jennings, then a 26-year-old from Dawson Springs, Ky., was tapped to manage the New Mexico campaign in an effort to move the state from the blue column, where it landed in 2000, to the red column. His team and 15,000 volunteers achieved the goal.

He says without a new technology called “microtargeting” and grass-roots efforts such as the Republican Party’s “72-Hour Task Force” — a final weekend get-out-the-vote push before an election — New Mexico would have gone to Democrat John Kerry. Both tactics arose from lessons learned in 2000, when Bush won the election but lost the popular vote.

These days Jennings is on leave as director of strategic development for Peritus Public Relations to serve as a consultant to the re-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and the election campaign of Brett Guthrie, a candidate for Congress representing Kentucky’s 2nd District. He also consults for the Kentucky Republican Party.

Jennings graduated from the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center for Political Leadership and is a great admirer of Sen. McConnell, who founded the center. While in college, he began a career as a journalist but turned to politics in 2000 when McConnell asked him to join the Bush campaign in Kentucky.

“I remember vividly the call: ‘Do you want to stay on the sidelines your whole life or do you want to get in the game?’ ” Jennings wrote in an e-mail. “It was an irresistible question to a competitive guy like me who truly cares about the future of his state and nation.”

As a political operative he helped win Kentucky for Bush in 2000, re-elect McConnell in 2002 and elect Republican Ernie Fletcher governor in 2003. That registered Democrats still vastly outnumber Republicans in the Bluegrass State makes the wins sweeter, says Jennings.

“Turning out your own party is one thing; convincing and turning out people in the opposite party for your candidate is a rather satisfying thing to accomplish,” he said.

If you’ve got a good message and you’re running a strong, close race — like in 2004 — Jennings said, grass roots efforts can garner the few extra points that mean winning or losing. Such a tight contest also ratchets up the determination of people working 14- to 18-hour days.

“We knew we were in a race that would be decided by just a few hundred votes here and there, so the tension and the motivation were extreme,” he said, describing the atmosphere in the closing days of Bush’s race for re-election.

Jennings also found gratification as a White House staffer. “There’s a ‘wow factor’ that never goes away,” he said. “If you work there and you don’t feel it every day you come in, you should resign and go do something else.”

He’ll share why he thinks it’s important for young people from rural areas — such as his hometown — to get involved in public service. Jennings is known as a good communicator with student audiences. His own civic involvement includes serving on the boards of Alice Lloyd College, a private college in Appalachia, and Kids Voting Kentucky, which works to educate children on the importance of voting and civic life.

Jennings also suggested he’ll offer an outlook on what to expect in the final days of the 2008 races. For the moment, though, all he will project is “lots of weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Cosponsors of the lecture include Sweet Briar’s Center for Civic Renewal, the Leadership Certificate Program and the Office of Co-Curricular Life. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, contact