Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls her “one of the most talented people I’ve met.” Republican strategist Mary Matalin calls her “the total package.” And there’s a Facebook group of more than 150 people hoping she’ll return to her home district and run against incumbent Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.).
Meet Princella Smith, who at age 25 is poised to be a key player in Republican messaging come 2010. Earlier this year, Smith took over as communications director for freshman Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana. And her boss — a Republican in a mismatched district — is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top targets for next year’s election cycle. Cao faces a tough reelection: Black voters make up a majority in his district, and they voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama. Cao, the first person of Vietnamese descent elected to Congress, won in a political upset after longtime Democratic incumbent William Jefferson was battling charges of corruption.
Cao’s challenge will be to explain the rationale behind his wishy-washy voting record, which has bounced between a vote against the Democrats’ health care plan and a vote with them for expanding children’s health insurance.
In Smith, he’s got a solid communications advantage. Her attention-getting voice booms from her nearly 6-foot frame — and her résumé boasts training with some of the best message makers in the political world, including Gingrich, who has made a major comeback as a GOP voice over the past several years.
According to Smith, the key to an effective message will mean steering clear of a bad GOP habit: trying to formulate special messages for minority and youth groups. “We can’t just ride in there with a partisan flag and wave it. So this is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” Smith says. “The hype of, ‘Let us all fashion a special message for African-Americans’ in some ways could be insulting because they just want to know, ‘How are you going to make my community better?’”
Republican leaders have been eyeing Smith as a young rising star for several years. And now she’s poised to help Cao’s campaign set a working example of how to attract voters that largely migrated to the Democratic Party last year, especially youth and minority groups.
“She has real good rapport within the African-American community. It’s really a win-win for the state to have her here. And for Cao, she adds tremendous value to his organization,” says Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere Jr. “Cao made a good selection; she’s really going to help him out.”
“While her value to [Cao] and to the party has always been natural and creative strategic and tactical abilities to communicate policy, her greatest gift is the passion she brings to conservatism. She walks the walk,” says Republican strategist and former George W. Bush assistant Matalin, a mentor to Smith and a constituent of Cao’s. “In short, the total package.”
As gas prices skyrocketed above $4 a gallon last summer, Smith dominated major network media outlets as a voice for Gingrich’s American Solutions for Winning the Future, a 527 think tank. She served as a key face behind Gingrich’s catchphrase, “Drill here, drill now, pay less,” a slogan that soon took on a life of its own. The job catapulted her into the national media space with regular appearances on major networks including Fox News and CNN, debating energy experts and Democratic strategists twice her age. Gingrich credits Smith for the success of the campaign as much as himself.
“She did some amazing television and radio hits and aggressive outreach development,” Gingrich says.
Besides her impressive network, Smith is also a media hound and shameless attention getter. Her personal website, princellasmith.com, suggests she has no shortage of confidence.