Washington - The stir quickly spread through the ballroom at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where hundreds of Georgians were schmoozing and dancing for a bipartisan pre-inauguration gala.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who earlier that day had been formally nominated as Donald Trump's agriculture secretary, swept in beside his cousin, Sen. David Perdue.
And right behind them was Nick Ayers, the 34-year-old Cobb native who some GOP insiders say helped push Trump to pick both Perdue and Georgia Rep. Tom Price for his Cabinet.
"Nick has the confidence of the president and the vice president," said John Watson, a Georgia lobbyist and long-time aide to the Perdues. "In the quiet moments, when these decisions are actually being made, his was a voice obviously being heard."
Price was long seen as a likely contender for Trump's health secretary, but Perdue was more of a long-shot. Trump interviewed at least a half-dozen candidates, including several Latino officials with powerful supporters, and Washington media reported about turf wars raging within the administration over the coveted position.
And while Perdue had his first-cousin in the U.S. Senate and several influential agriculture groups behind him, Ayers may have been one of his most important allies.
He 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.
"I had no interest in joining the campaign. I had my career planned out. I truly did not believe Governor Roy Barnes could be beat at the time, " Ayers said at the time. "After 10 minutes of talking to Sonny, I was one hundred percent confident he was the right person to run this state."
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.
He next led the Republican Governors Association, helping to increase the GOP grip on statehouses, before a brief stint with then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign.
He's since worked as a strategist for 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.
With Trump's victory, Ayers became a contender to lead the Republican National Committee before the job went to Michigan's Rhonda Romney McDaniel. His next role is still undecided, but he's likely to continue to be a lifeline between Georgia GOPers and the Trump administration.
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