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Most voters don’t know Lis Smith. But thanks to her behind-the-scenes work, ‘Mayor Pete’ Buttigieg became a household name during the 2020 presidential campaign. He became a strong contender to become the Democratic nominee, instead of Joe Biden. That’s largely thanks to Smith using all her experience and skills working on numerous democratic political campaigns, to execute innovative ways to introduce Buttigieg to America’s voters.
She broke Democratic candidate taboos including putting Buttigieg on Fox News to do interviews, and had him do interviews with sports sites, local news outlets, student news sites, entertainment sites, and more, instead of just with the standard serious news organizations. “It’s really important today for candidates to meet voters where they are, and not turn their noses up at non-traditional news outlets, because if we aren’t talking to those audiences, then there’s a good chance that readers or listeners won’t ever hear from us,” Smith explained on the HollywoodLife podcast.
“The way to reach young voters is by talking to people on sites like HollywoodLife or Barstool Sports. My advice to Democrats, Republicans, anyone — is to reach out to every audience of voters that you can and never to think that you’re too good for anyone. Because if you are too good for someone, then why would they turn out and vote for you?”
Smith’s efforts helped Buttigieg jettison into national prominence and so impress fellow Democratic candidate Joe Biden, that when he became president, he named Buttigieg as US Secretary of Transportation.
Smith takes the readers of her new best-selling book, Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story, through her decision to work with Buttigieg and then through the whirlwind of long days and nights on the presidential campaign trail.
“It was the best decision I ever made in my life,” she says. “After the 2016 election I was one of those people that was disillusioned by politics. It was horrifying to see someone like Donald Trump elected. Someone who was an open misogynist and held all these abhorrent views. I thought, maybe it’s time to get out of this business. And Pete really did help redeem my faith in politics. Why it mattered and why it’s so important.”
Smith had had that faith in politics, and fell in love with working on campaigns when she was just a college student and volunteered on Senator John Edwards’ presidential campaign in 2004. After college, when her classmates went off to work in New York City, Smith began her career as a worker on various campaigns that took her from one very unglamorous place to another unglamorous place around the country.
She moved to Missouri to work on Claire McCaskill‘s Senate campaign, to Virginia to be press secretary on Terry McAuliffe‘s race for Governor in 2009, worked in Ohio and in Kentucky. “My friends were living in New York, they were investment bankers or lawyers and going to all the hot clubs. And meanwhile, it’s just sort of me sitting alone on the floor of an empty apartment, drinking cheap wine out of a plastic cup,” she recalls. “Why I did it was obviously not for the glamour but because I understood it’s really important, and politics touches every part of our lives, whether we like it or not.”
Today, Smith says she has zero regrets about all those years of sleeping on mattresses in empty apartments. “It’s not like I could just wake up one morning and walk into an office and be Pete Buttigieg’s Senior Advisor. To get to where I ended up as a rare woman in the upper echelons of American politics, I had to be willing to make those sacrifices. I had to be willing to go everywhere. It was all worth it. But it does take a toll on your personal life. It does mean you’re going to miss a lot of fun parties…but if you are passionate about it, it’s all worth it. And it will pay off in the long run.”
It’s because Lis feels it is worth it for other women to follow in her footsteps and work their way up the ladder, that she decided to write her new book, which made it to the New York Times best seller list. “I think back to when I was an 18-year-old girl and I started to get interested in politics and wanted to volunteer on a campaign. There is no real guidebook or handbook for how to get involved. The closest I had was the famous political documentary, The War Room, (a 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton‘s campaign for president featuring his campaign leader James Carville and George Stephanopoulos) but there are really no women in The War Room. So I thought it would be interesting and needed for a woman to write what it’s really like behind the scenes of politics.”
It’s Smith’s description of the long, frenzied days and nights of showcasing her candidates to their best while undercutting opponents in ways that are as cutthroat as anything you’ve ever imagined, that make her book impossible to put down. She almost always worked for candidates she admired, whose policies she believed in. And while historically, political campaigns have been run by men, Smith is part of a growing group of women who have persevered and made it to the very top of their fields.
Jen O’Malley Dillon was Joe Biden’s campaign manager on his winning campaign for president. Kellyanne Conway led Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the White House in 2016. But Smith believes it is imperative that more women both run for political office and work behind the scenes — “especially when women’s issues are on the ballot. We understand these issues on a much more visceral level.”
It’s because women’s reproductive health care is on the ballot, along with the actual survival of democracy (now that the Republicans are running election deniers for office) that Smith believes Democrats will get out and vote in the upcoming midterms. “Now if you’re a Democrat, it’s sort of hard to sit on your hands and say, ‘oh, there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans and this election doesn’t really matter. My vote is not going to count.’ Yeah, your vote will really count. And no matter whether you’re in a blue state or red state, especially if you’re in a red or purple state, your vote really, really, really, matters,” she points out.
Smith thinks that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe V. Wade will motivate Democrats to vote in a major way in the midterms. “It will persuade a lot of those suburban voters that we saw go for Joe Biden in 2020, just because they couldn’t stomach voting for Donald Trump. They might have been sort of disaffected Republicans, Independents, moderates, people who might otherwise have swung back to Republicans in the midterm election. I think we’re going to see a lot of them stick with Democrats in 2022 because a majority of Republican voters do not support abortion bans with no exceptions. But the majority of Republican candidates that we see, for both the US Senate and for governor do support bans with absolutely no exceptions.”
Smith’s research on how voters feel about losing the right to abortion tells her that “American voters don’t want politicians making private healthcare decisions for women.” Now that Lis’s book is published and flying into readers hands, she will be advising some up and coming stars in the democratic party, like Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow.
And she’s still as in love with the political world as ever, and is hoping Any Given Tuesday inspires other women to jump into the field. She reassures any women who would like to dive into the world of political strategy but fear that it’s a career that makes having a family very difficult. ” I’m not going to lie . I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say it’s the easiest thing in the world. It’s tough because the majority of candidates are male. It’s very tough for boyfriends, even as secure as they are , to pay second fiddle to another man,” she frankly explains. ” You have to find someone who is willing to sometimes play second fiddle to the candidate that you’re working for- someone who is very secure in themselves and who understands that you might not be there at the dinner table every night.”
Smith has no regrets about about the decisions she has made, many of them, risky. “Taking risks matters. I know that women do tend to be more risk averse but hopefully I’m proof positive that yeah, they might not all work out. But when they do pay off, man it’s really, really worth it.”
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