Edward Rollins (born March 19, 1943) is a Republican campaign consultant and advisor who has worked on several high-profile political campaigns in the United States. In 1983-84, he was National Campaign Director for the Reagan-Bush '84 campaign, winning 49 of 50 states. In December 2007, he was named the national campaign chairman for the Mike Huckabee campaign for President. Rollins is currently the Co-Chairman of the pro–Donald Trump Great America PAC.
Rollins was born in Boston, Massachusetts, into an Irish Catholic blue-collar household. At the time, his father was stationed with the U.S. Army in the Aleutians. After the war, his parents returned with him to Vallejo, California, where his father (previously stationed there) found work as an electrician at the city's Mare Island Navy Yard, primarily building submarines.
School and sports
Rollins grew up in the Federal Terrace housing project, attending St. Vincent Ferrer Grammar and High School. For a year, at age 14, he attended St. Joseph's, a junior seminary in Mountain View, before returning to Vallejo.
He also fought as a boxer from ages 13 to 23, winning several West Coast amateur titles while an undergraduate. "My dreams of being an Olympic boxer were snuffed out in 1967, when I lost my last fight by a TKO," he wrote in his 1996 autobiography. Rollins recalls his record as 164 victories and just 2 defeats -- "the wins are all a blur . . . but I remember every detail -- every punch, every pain, every mistake -- of my two losses." His last bout was with '61 and '64 National AAU Champion (and 1964 Olympian) Bob Christopherson; Rollins recalled later that he was leading on points, when he threw out his back in the 3rd round, and the referee stopped the fight.
Rollins also played football as a fullback, but suffered a serious back injury his senior year (requiring six surgeries over the next 35 years). Graduating from high school in 1961, he tried to enlist in the Marines, but failed the physical. Shortly thereafter, Rollins spent most of a year in the hospital dealing with his back problems. Once healthy, in 1962, he began undergraduate studies at Vallejo Junior College, eventually earned his Associates' degree and transferred to San Jose State University in 1965. Unable to pass the physical exam required for a sports scholarship because of his continuing back problems, after one semester Rollins transferred to California State University, Chico, where he was hired as boxing coach. There he earned his BA in Political Science with a second major in Physical Education in 1968.
Rollins's college years were interrupted by health and money problems. For a year (1964–65), he worked in Oakland, running a program for disadvantaged kids under the new federal Office of Economic Opportunity, the first of the LBJ Great Society social welfare agencies. Student government provided his entry into politics, serving as Student Body President of his junior college, then again at Chico State (where he tried to attract an ROTC unit to the campus—unusual, during the Vietnam War). Rollins's activism led to his being selected to intern in Sacramento for California's legendary Democratic leader, Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh in 1967. Unruh introduced Rollins to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy; in early 1968 he worked for Kennedy as a campus coordinator, then later as a paid operative for his primary campaign in Northern California.
After graduating, Rollins served briefly as an assistant to the President at Chico State, then in Sacramento as a state budget analyst. After the 1968 election and the GOP takeover of the California Assembly, he was hired by Republican Assemblyman Ray E. Johnson as his Chief of Staff, despite his prior service under the Democrats. Later, he left California for Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. From 1969 to 1972, Rollins served assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, also teaching political science and public administration. There, he personally witnessed violent student protests, including the burning of an ROTC building.
In the summer of 1972, Rollins was hired by Robert T. Monagan, former speaker of the California Assembly, to work as a paid operative for the California campaign to re-elect President Richard Nixon. This gave Rollins his first close contact with Governor Ronald Reagan, who chaired Nixon's California campaign, and Lyn Nofziger, who ran the West Coast Nixon political operation. It was at this time that "blue-collar Democrat" Rollins made his permanent switch to the GOP.
After Nixon's sweep in California failed to result in a GOP-controlled legislature, Rollins moved to Washington in 1973, to serve as principal assistant to Monagan overseeing congressional relations at the Department of Transportation. Ultimately, he continued as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs through the end of the Ford administration.
From 1977 to 1979, he served as dean of the faculty and deputy superintendent at the National Fire Academy in Washington. During that time, he met and married Kitty Nellor Burnes. In early 1979, Rollins returned to Sacramento with his first wife Kitty Nellor and became chief of staff for the Assembly Republican Caucus. During this period, he was offered but ultimately declined the position of chief of staff to former President Nixon. Under Rollins, the Assembly Republicans netted a three-seat gain in the 1980 legislative elections.
Reagan Administration, 1981-83
Rollins had been reunited briefly with Reagan when Nofziger asked him to help with communications at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. After the landslide GOP victory in November 1980, Rollins was hired to serve as Deputy Assistant to the President for Political Affairs under Nofziger. When Nofziger resigned in November 1981, Rollins was appointed as Assistant to the President for Political Affairs and Director of the Office of Political Affairs.
After Rollins's promotion, Lee Atwater was promoted to Deputy Assistant. In the 2008 documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, Rollins said, "Strom Thurmond was trying to get Lee a job in the White House. And you know, here's this young kid without a real resume. He came into my office. He was fidgety — hands, legs, everything moving — but there was something about his eyes. He had these piercing eyes that - you know, and as I've always thought, those— those are the eyes of a killer. This was someone who was going to get what he wanted.” For the next eight years, their on-again, off-again partnership would help shape national Republican politics.
Rising unemployment rates and other economic indicators dominated the 1982 midterm elections, as the Republicans argued for voters to "Stay the course" by continuing Reagan's economic policies of lower taxes and holding down the growth of spending. Rollins was responsible for coordinating the White House's political operations and President Reagan's schedule with party committees, campaigns and candidates. In the November 1982 balloting, the GOP had a 26-seat loss in the House, but gained one seat in the Senate, averting a Democratic landslide.
A week before the election, on October 25, Rollins suffered two strokes, the result of a deteriorating neck artery that had been injured during his final boxing match in 1967. He recovered and returned to his White House job in December 1982, holding the position until resigning in October 1983 to lead Reagan's re-election campaign. In the second term, he rejoined the Reagan Administration for several months in 1985 as Assistant to the President for Political and Governmental Affairs.
1984 presidential campaign
Rollins is best known for his work as National Campaign Director to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. Rollins was personally selected for the job by White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, who had served as Gerald Ford's manager in 1976. Rollins's deputy and Political Director was Lee Atwater, continuing their teaming from the White House Office of Political Affairs.
Reagan-Bush '84 was the first GOP re-election campaign since Richard Nixon's notorious Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) in 1972, and from the outset Rollins sought a sharp contrast from the past. He paid particular attention to the tone and attitude of his operation, staffing the Capitol Hill headquarters with idealistic young Reaganites while unifying his command with top operatives of all Reagan's 1980 primary foes. Unlike Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984 ran completely unopposed for renomination, leaving Rollins and his team free to focus all funds and attention on getting out the vote for Reagan and holding off the Democrats.
Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro ran a liberal campaign, supporting a nuclear freeze and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), speaking out against Reagan's economic policies and in support of reducing federal budget deficits. As a result, Southern whites and northern blue-collar workers who usually voted Democratic switched their support to Reagan because they credited him with the economic boom and saw him as strong on national security issues. Ferraro, the first female for national office, also faced heavy scrutiny over her husband's shady business dealings. The Reagan-Bush ticket was never behind in opinion surveys after August 1, and ultimately won 49 of the 50 states. However, Reagan's re-election campaign was not without its potential for disaster. In Rollins's memoir, he states that he later learned "that a well-known lobbyist who was involved in the 1984 Reagan campaign - a campaign I'd managed - had pocketed an illegal $10-million campaign contribution from a foreign government."
After the election, Rollins agreed in January 1985 to return to the White House Office of Political Affairs, under new Chief of Staff Donald Regan. (Atwater departed, joining the Black Manafort Stone consulting firm and became head of Vice-President Bush's PAC.) However, Rollins grew disenchanted after Regan passed him over for the post of Secretary of Labor following the resignation of Raymond Donovan, and with the abrasive chief's staff and style. On October 1, 1985, Rollins joined the Sacramento-based political consulting firm of Russo & Watts.
1988 presidential campaign
Because of his success as Reagan's 1984 manager, Rollins's support and involvement was in demand for the 1988 election. Rollins wrote later that his first loyalty was to Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, Reagan's longtime close friend. In an early 1986 meeting with Vice President George H.W. Bush, Rollins had stated this, to Bush's displeasure, but had indicated he would likely support him if Laxalt declined to run. However, by early 1987, he had decided to manage the campaign of former New York Congressman Jack Kemp, convinced that Bush was not the true conservative heir to Reagan. This earned Bush's enmity.
Rollins favored a "guerilla campaign" for the nomination, "conserving our money and picking our shots carefully while Bush and [Senator Robert J.] Dole beat the hell out of each other early on," then prevailing in the delegate-rich, winner-take-all primary in California. "I lost the argument . . . Kemp, the third choice of party faithful in all the polls, would wage a front-runner, incumbent-style campaign." Kemp ultimately won no primaries.
The upshot for Rollins was that Laxalt did run, briefly, for the GOP nomination in May–August 1987. "I should have gone over the cliff with him in 1988 because he would have gone over the cliff with me anytime . . . I was too anxious to play the game, and I forgot what friendship was all about."
1990 congressional campaign
In 1989, Rollins became the only non-Member of Congress to head the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans' campaign wing. Rollins's goal was to attract top political talent to turn around a committee that had suffered four disappointing elections. He firmly believed the GOP could achieve the rare feat of gaining House seats while controlling the White House.
The NRCC was housed in the same building as the Republican National Committee, whose new chairman in 1989 was Lee Atwater, who had guided Bush to the presidency as campaign manager. They worked together through the turbulent Washington climate of 1989, which saw the resignation of House Speaker Jim Wright and Democratic Whip Tony Coelho, as well as an unusually large number of contentious, highly expensive special elections for House seats.
When Atwater was felled by a series of brain tumors beginning in March 1990, Rollins was thrust in the unfamiliar position of party spokesman, especially on the burgeoning savings and loan crisis. In a July 1990 speech in Chicago, Rollins placed the blame firmly on the longstanding Democratic leaders in Congress.
That October, Rollins got into a highly visible feud with the President over the 1990 budget deal, in which Bush broke his 1988 campaign promise not to raise taxes. Rollins wrote a memo to GOP candidates, telling them unequivocally, "Do not hesitate to distance yourself from the President." Bush demanded Rollins's firing at a congressional leadership meeting; the leaders demurred, as they had originally asked Rollins to write the memo.
He later wrote, "My job was electing Republicans to the House. George Bush and his tax deal made that impossible. Now my job was to see how many we could save . . . Guys who didn't think they had a race were all of a sudden fighting for their lives, including Newt Gingrich." In the 1990 election, the GOP lost 9 seats in the House. "I'm convinced that my memo and the heroic salvage operation of my staff saved 15 incumbent seats that otherwise would have gone down the drain. (Gingrich survived by 974 votes.)"
In 1989, Rollins had negotiated a four-year, $1-million contract, but he resigned in April 1991. He later wrote that Gingrich and Vin Weber had told him in January 1991 that President Bush was withholding all help for GOP House candidates, even form letters, unless Rollins left the NRCC. Bush was quoted as saying, "I'll never do anything for you guys as long as Rollins is up there."
After resigning from the NRCC -- "the biggest service I could do for my party"—Rollins began working as Washington managing partner for the Sawyer/Miller Group consulting firm.
1992 presidential campaign
The consequences of Rollins's estrangement from President Bush did not end with his resignation from the NRCC. In June 1992, Rollins agreed to serve as co-manager (with Carter Democrat Hamilton Jordan) of Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign. He resigned in July and initially suggested that disagreements with other campaign officials about the nature and timing of an advertising campaign led him to quit. Later, he suggested that Perot was not emotionally suited to be President. Perot initially ended his campaign the day after Rollins resigned, only to resume his campaign after the Democratic National Convention.
1993 gubernatorial campaign
Rollins worked as the campaign manager for Christine Todd Whitman in her 1993 New Jersey gubernatorial race. After organizing a campaign that led to Whitman's come-from-behind victory, Rollins claimed to TIME magazine that he secretly paid black ministers and Democratic campaign workers in order to suppress voter turnout.
"We went into black churches and we basically said to ministers who had endorsed Florio, 'Do you have a special project?' And they said, 'We've already endorsed Florio.' We said, 'That's fine, don't get up on the Sunday pulpit and preach. We know you've endorsed him, but don't get up there and say it's your moral obligation that you go on Tuesday to vote for Jim Florio.'" After public outcry and calls for an investigation, Rollins partially retracted some of these claims telling People magazine (March 31, 1997, Vol. 47, No. 12) that his comments were "an exaggeration that turned out to be inaccurate."
Rollins recovered quickly from the New Jersey furor. He led the first successful bid to unseat a sitting Speaker of the House when he orchestrated George Nethercutt's victory over Tom Foley in Washington State's eastern congressional district in November 1994. That year, he was also general consultant to the Michael Huffington campaign for U.S. Senate in California, who ran a surprisingly close race in losing to incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein, and also helped direct the Bruce D. Benson campaign for Governor of Colorado.
Other campaigns, 1998-2006
In 1998, Rollins consulted on the campaign of Joe Khoury, a Republican candidate in Southern California's Inland Empire. Khoury was running in the Republican primary against incumbent Representative Ken Calvert. Khoury was an economics professor at University of California Riverside and is of Lebanese descent.
In the turbulent 2002 campaign for Governor of California, Rollins consulted for his long-time friend, and then-Secretary of State Bill Jones, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination, losing to Bill Simon. Rollins was then hired by Simon for the fall gubernatorial campaign, suffering a narrow loss to incumbent Democrat Gray Davis.
In 2006, Rollins consulted on the campaign of Republican New York State Senate contender Kathleen Troia "KT" McFarland. He also worked for the campaign of United States Representative Katherine Harris for the U.S. Senate from Florida. According to a Wall Street Journal article, the two had a falling-out, with Rollins not attending a staff meeting in Tampa and quitting a few days later after he questioned the viability of her campaign.
2008 presidential campaign
On December 14, 2007, Republican Mike Huckabee announced he had hired Rollins as his national campaign chairman and senior advisor. Rollins was later overheard saying that he wanted to "knock out" Mitt Romney's teeth.
2012 presidential campaign
Rollins signed on to plan the campaign of Michele Bachmann (R), U.S. Representative for Minnesota's 6th district. At the time of his appointment, Bachmann had not yet announced her candidacy but was expected to make her intentions known in June 2011. Rollins "stepped down from running day-to-day operations of the Bachmann campaign" as of September 5, 2011. A Bachmann aide said he'd continue with the campaign as "senior advisor" and cited health reasons for the "abrupt change in his role." Later, it was revealed that he had suffered a stroke. Commenting on his decision to step down, Rollins said "I just don't have the endurance to work 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week anymore. I wish I was still 40, but I'm not. I'm 68 and I had a stroke."
2016 presidential campaign
As of May 2016, Rollins joined the pro–Donald Trump Great America PAC and currently serves as a strategist and Co-Chairman, along with founder Eric Beach.
Rollins has been married three times; the first two marriages ended in divorce. He wed Shari Lois Scharfer, a former CBS television executive, in 2003. He has an adopted daughter, Lily, from his second marriage to Sherrie Rollins Westin. Rollins lives in New York, where he has served as political commentator for CNN and (currently) Fox News and Fox Business, appearing frequently on Lou Dobbs Tonight.
- Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms: My Life in American Politics, co-authored by Tom DeFrank (N.Y.: Broadway Books, 1996)