The rumors started flying weeks ago, with lawmakers and lobbyists under the Gold Dome chatting about an intriguing possibility: Could Republican strategist Nick Ayers, a top adviser to Mike Pence and an architect of the Perdue political dynasty, join the race for governor?
At first, it seemed a longshot. Ayers, a 34-year-old strategist with no elected experience, had his hands full in Washington while a growing group of past and current officeholders and outsiders considered the race. Besides, top allies to the Perdues - Sen. David Perdue and former Gov. Sonny Perdue - were known to be trying to recruit other Republicans to enter the contest.
Ayers declined to comment then, and those close to him described it as a dim possibility.
Ayers still won't say anything about a potential candidacy, but the rumbling about him jumping in the wide-open race to succeed a term-limited Nathan Deal never really died down. And Politico reported Wednesday that people close to the Donald Trump administration are already discussing the impact of an Ayers run.
His supporters say he'll be a fundraising force, able to tap not only the Perdue network in Georgia but also out-of-state behemoths from his time working with Pence and other national politicians. And he would likely bring an outsider's flair to the race backed by his ties to the Trump-Pence administration.
"I am aware that Nick is certainly being encouraged by a lot of people to run for governor," said Rayna Casey, the Atlanta businesswoman who chaired Trump's Georgia campaign. "Nick already has a phenomenal record of proven success. He would be a great governor I would be proud to support."
Ayers started as a teenage "body man" to Sonny Perdue during the Republican state senator's underdog bid for governor in 2002, taking time off from Kennesaw State University to join the campaign. He initially went to school with dreams of being a banker, but that role with Perdue – part assistant, part adviser, part protégé -- convinced him to launch a career in politics.
Four years later, Perdue tapped him to serve as his campaign manager for a reelection battle against Democrat Mark Taylor. Ayers led an extraordinarily young staff - the average age was 25 - and worked six days a week, skipping breakfast and huddling in his office most days around 7 a.m.
That campaign also tested him in a different sort of way. He was charged with DUI about a week before the election after he was pulled over by an Georgia State Patrol trooper; the charge was later reduced to reckless driving. Ayers apologized and Perdue stuck by him.
He next led the Republican Governors Association, dramatically increasing the GOP grip on statehouses, before a stint with then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign.
He's since worked as a strategist for Sen. David Perdue and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner before landing a gig as the main consultant on Pence's Indiana re-election campaign. When Pence clinched the vice presidential nod, he made sure Ayers came along with him. After the election, he was considered a top contender to lead the Republican National Committee.
A run for governor would be a new ballgame. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who hasn't formally announced, is considered the presumptive Republican frontrunner and has long been gearing up for a gubernatorial run. Secretary of State Brian Kemp has already joined the race and has also spent years crisscrossing the state and earning IOUs. A handful of other candidates - some high-profile, some not - could jump in by the summer.
And an Ayers campaign could also test the limits of the Trump brand in Georgia, a state he won by 5 points despite losing most of metro Atlanta. Look no further than the 6th District for an example of how Trump can transform an otherwise sleepy Georgia race into a nail-biter.
Ayers, the father of three-year-old triplets, has been tight-lipped about his future, though his friends have said he'd be just as content to run his businesses and stay behind-the-scenes.
A member of Trump's presidential team, he said in a recent interview with WSB-TV he was focused on helping the transition.
"What comes after that," he said, "we'll have to make decisions on."
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