Mark McKinnon cut a stylish profile at last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Never mind that the bar was low in the sweat-soaked environs of Quicken Loans Arena, where frumpy suits and kitschy costumes were the norm—it could have been a Hamptons garden party and the Texas transplant would have still stood out. Decked out in slim-cut jeans, cowboy boots, brightly patterned button down, tailored blazer, and a scarf, McKinnon wielded the sort of charisma that wins elections, complete with an infectious smile and twinkling blue eyes that are equal parts charm and mischief. And as one of the most proficient political strategists of the modern day, the dapper man described by one colleague as “Neil Young meets Richard Simmons” does win elections, and presidential ones at that.
Yet McKinnon’s roots go deeper than your average prep school and Ivy League political professional, and that’s a part of what distinguishes him, and his winning record.
Born in Colorado, his first dream was to be a musician, a dream that nearly came true when Kris Kristofferson took a liking to his high school band and tried to get them signed.
“He [Kristofferson] came out and did some sessions, tried to get us a record deal, which never happened, and isn’t surprising if you hear the tapes,” McKinnon drawled, a slight Texan burr on his voice. “But I got the bug as a result of that so I ran away from home and hitchhiked to Nashville.”
In Music City, he moved into Kristofferson’s apartment, serving as a caretaker while the country singer/songwriter/actor was on the road. McKinnon remained in Nashville for a couple of years, “hanging around the publishing house” and getting an insider’s view of the music industry, before heading to play a folk festival in Texas, where he discovered Austin and immediately fell in love with the artsy oasis in the heart of Texas. He moved there in 1975, and hasn’t left. After a while, however, the musical dream fell aside.
“I always loved writing, that’s what I loved about music, I loved to write songs,” he said with a laugh, quickly admitting that “I reached a point where I realized that on the arc that I was on, in 20 years I was going to be the second act at the Pfleugerville Holiday Inn. So I got into journalism.”
Even during his stint as a journalist, his true calling was becoming clear: political campaigns.
“I loved politics, and writing about politics,” he said. “And then a local politician from Austin went running for the state Senate and I volunteered on his campaign. I got hired on his campaign, and then I got the campaign bug and it just took off from there.”
That was Lloyd Doggett, who still serves, now as a Democratic congressman. McKinnon pursued his newfound passion for practicing politics first in Louisiana, and ultimately as far afield as South America and Africa. But eventually the Lone Star State called him back, and he started his own firm in Austin.
He wound up handling the successful re-election campaign for then-governor George W. Bush, a friend, McKinnon says, before he was a client. When Bush focused on the White House, he called on McKinnon to get him there, which he did, twice.
Although he’s represented both sides of the aisle, McKinnon identifies as a Republican now, the result of a “mid-life crisis.” While he won’t weigh in on his feelings for Trump, he sees the current state of the Grand Old Party as inevitable.
“I’ve been saying for a long time we needed to blow up the Republican Party, and this has blown it up,” he stated. “I had no idea it would happen this way, but … It’s been driftless and visionless for a while, and something needed to happen.”
Now getting a bit on in age and eyeing spending more time at home mountain biking and hanging with his grandkids, McKinnon has stepped away from the king-making game. At present, he’s combining his love of a good story with his insider access for Showtime’s real-time political documentary, The Circus, which he helped create and where he’s a co-host and co-executive producer.
“I started thinking that I’d done a bunch of campaigns, and found them to be fascinating ecosystems of players and drama, most of which the public never sees,” he noted. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could show that to the public, and do it in real time or close to real time so that that there’s some suspense, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know the end of the story yet.”
So far 12 episodes deep in the 2016 presidential primaries, it’s proving to be the hardest thing McKinnon has ever tackled.
“We shoot Monday through Saturday and release on a Sunday. The first month or two I thought my head was going to explode. No one has ever done this before. Most network executives are used to seeing things weeks or months ahead of time, but Showtime sees this hours before it goes up.” He chuckles, shaking his head. “Remarkably, we haven’t had a situation where they’re like, ‘This can’t go on the air,’ and we’re fucked up and it’s a crisis.”
Given his quick charm, obvious inquisitiveness, and easy engagement, all decked out in that top-notch sense of style, it’s easy to see why McKinnon thrives in show biz. When asked how he managed to develop such a signature look in a political realm often viewed as the opposite of well-dressed and which even he describes as often being “rural, in either a costume or a suit,” he smiles.
“Well, I just decided a long time ago I didn’t want to look like everyone else,” McKinnon said as he tipped his hat to passing delegates and warmed up to the explanation. “I wanted to go into a meeting and be “the other guy.” There’s not a picture of me growing up where I don’t have a hat on, so I’ve always been The Cat in the Hat. The other thing is, I’ve always hated ties. The convention of a tie to me is completely diabolical. Somebody a hundred years ago decided to put a cloth noose around their neck, and now it’s the only thing men wear? It’s just ridiculous, I don’t get it, so I’ve adopted a scarf as my nod toward formality. And I just like to be comfortable. I’m from Colorado and Texas, so I’m a jean and boot guy.”