Iowa political operative Chuck Laudner is trading in a 2012 pick-up truck for a 2016 private jet.
In the last campaign cycle, Laudner was a key Iowa aide for GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who famously campaigned in all 99 of the state’s counties in Laudner’s Dodge Ram, which was nicknamed the “Chuck Truck.” Santorum narrowly won the state’s caucuses that year and is a candidate again this time. But Laudner has switched allegiances, and he is working on retainer for another, very different likely contender: real estate mogul and reality TV host Donald Trump.
“Everyone wanted him, but he saw me at an event and liked it and agreed with me. He’s terrific,” Trump told msnbc by phone from Iowa, where he and Laudner had been campaigning that day.
Laudner – who is still driving the truck, now with some 240,000 miles on it – brings political credibility and a history of winning Iowa’s kingmaker caucuses to Trump’s effort, which has largely been criticized so far as a political sideshow.
Tuesday will be the moment of truth for both men: After teasing potential candidacies for years, Trump actually seems poised to jump into the race. Launder will be in New York for the event; after that, he and Trump will head straight back to Iowa for a big event on Wednesday where Laudner said big crowds are expected.
So what drove Laudner to trade in the homespun Santorum for the flashy tycoon and “Celebrity Apprentice” host?
Trump “taps into the angst, if not the anger, of the American people that this stuff is unacceptable, this is not the way it’s supposed to be,” Laudner said, citing the Veterans Affairs scandal as an example of what’s wrong with the country. “If they want to call it a sideshow they can call it that all the way into the fall of 2016.”
It’s also yet another blow for Santorum, who has seen several key team members of his 2012 team defect for other campaigns. Santorum’s advisers insist most of the team has stuck around, though a handful weren’t asked back or received better offers at other campaigns.
Laudner, for his part, says he didn’t switch teams for a bigger paycheck.
“Donald Trump didn’t make his money by paying over-price for things,” he said. “He pays the going rate.”
Laudner insists that on substance, Trump and Santorum aren’t that different. The candidates he has historically worked for have run the gamut from “long shots to contrarians,” Laudner said, but they’re always candidates “who are dissatisfied with the status quo.”
Still, trading in Santorum’s shoestring operation for Trump’s glitzy, moneyed one is a big change for a grassroots organizer like Laudner.
“If we’re trying to grow the party and make a difference, then there’s no way than that’s a bad thing of speaking to 800 rather than eight,” he said of Trump’s following. “We’re hitting so many more people that we just wouldn’t reach otherwise.”
He said there are more tools for him as an organizer, too. “There’s certain things you do that just cost money, like tele-town-halls.” he said. “There are basic organizational tools that just aren’t available to you if your bank account reads zero.”
Santorum raised just $2.2 million in his 2012 campaign, millions less than candidates like Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman, both of whom didn’t do nearly as well in the primary.
Trump also brings one big, flying advantage to the campaign, Laudner said: a jet. “We can be in more place, and see more people than other campaigns I’ve worked on,” Laudner said. “We can hit multiple media markets in one day.”
Trump echoed that point in his interview with msnbc, saying, “Our transportation is great.”