“Nick’s not perfect,” Mr. Barbour said. “But he realizes that. I think he’s really grown as an individual and as a man.”
After the embarrassment of the Pawlenty campaign, Mr. Ayers made an effort to lower his profile, his allies say, while trying his hand at entrepreneurship. He was an early investor and a board member of a company called Media Group of America, which was established in 2013 and quickly made waves on the right with two successful subsidiaries — a popular conservative website called Independent Journal Review, and a digital advertising firm called imge.
Mr. Ayers also started his own firm, C5 Creative Consulting. He built a brisk business advising Fortune 500 corporations like Coca-Cola and Aflac, as well as political candidates and committees, including nonprofit money groups that backed politicians who were his clients, and have become the subjects of recent complaints and investigations.
The venture that perhaps best epitomized Mr. Ayers’s ambition — and the backlash to it — was a company called Advance Media Capital. Mr. Ayers and his associates created it in July 2015 mostly to purchase large chunks of television airtime in swing states months before the 2016 election. The company planned to package the airtime with targeting data and sell it to deep-pocketed political committees, including “super PACs,” at higher rates closer to Election Day, according to documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews with people involved in the effort.
The company raised $177 million from 28 investors by mid-March 2016, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which indicated that the company would receive commissions based on the sales.
But partly because Mr. Trump’s campaign and his allies spent much less on television ads than other recent presidential candidates, the plan was not fully executed. The money was returned, according to people familiar with Advance Media Capital, which was dissolved last year.
But it did not slow Mr. Ayers’s ascent. He advised several Republican campaigns and committees in 2016, including Mr. Pence’s bid for re-election as governor of Indiana, which Mr. Pence abandoned to sign on to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign that year. The Pence campaign, and later Mr. Pence’s vice-presidential political action committee, Great America Committee, have worked with imge. Both imge and Great America Committee have also worked with C5 Creative Consulting.