Taking a page from the Republican playbook, senior Senate Democratic staffers are meeting every Monday with representatives from powerful liberal interest groups and lobbyists to seek advice on how to counter the White House bully pulpit.
The meetings are part of a multi-level plan being executed by Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) in what is the most aggressive effort by Democrats to deliver their message to voters since President Bush won election in 2000.
In addition to the meetings with outside allies, Daschle has formed an internal rapid-response team that meets each morning to evaluate the current news cycle and decide what issues Democrats need to highlight that day.
The Minority Leader has also tasked Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to work with left-leaning radio personalities to help them compete with conservative talk-show hosts, and has appointed five Senators to lead issue-oriented working groups.
“With the loss of the election and the loss of the Senate we felt it was very important to get our message across to Americans using every available avenue,” said Ranit Schmelzer, Daschle’s spokeswoman. “Senator Daschle is engaged and energized and committed to the issues he cares about and conveying those issues to the American public.”
It is this renewed focus by Daschle that is giving Democrats a glimmer of hope about regaining control of the Senate in 2004. Daschle wrestled with the idea of running for president in the wake of the midterm election losses, but much to the relief of many Democrats, he ruled out a bid in early January.
“I think he is focused on making the Senate a good place, and that has made a difference,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Democrats, who must defend 19 seats in 2004, four more than their Republican counterparts, face an uphill battle to take back the chamber. Upgrading the Democratic message operation is seen as a key component of their election strategy, individuals involved in the planning said.
Meeting regularly with influential constituencies is such a vital part of the plan that Daschle had his staffers convene the first meeting less than one week after he announced his decision to stay in the Senate.
Led by Democratic leadership staffers, the group meets each Monday on Capitol Hill for an hour to talk about current issues, and participants are allowed to discuss topics that are of interest to their constituencies. At the most recent meeting, for example, the judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada was discussed.
Participants so far have included Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; Monica Mills, political director of NARAL: Pro-Choice America; Ellen Nissenbaum, legislative director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Sheila O’Connell, political director of EMILY’s List; and Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO. Top staffers for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also attend the meetings.
This is the first time the Democratic leadership has held regularly scheduled, formal meetings with outside groups, which has long been a regular practice of the GOP. Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) regularly meets with K Street brokers and the GOP leadership on both sides of the Capitol constantly participate in strategy sessions with lobbyists.
“I think any way to upgrade or enhance communication about the message is a really positive thing, and I think it has been very helpful,” Mills said of the recently renamed NARAL: Pro-Choice America.
In analyzing the midterm elections, many strategists have pointed to the twin factors of Bush’s popularity and the Democrats’ failure to effectively articulate their message to voters as the main reasons Republicans made gains in each chamber.
“The fact was last year, and particularly after 9/11, Democrats were in a little bit of disarray because they were facing a popular president and there was a lot of concern about security,” Samuel said. “That tended to overwhelm what united Democrats and their allies, which is the economy.”
Implementing these new components into their existing public relations machine is a top priority for Daschle, advisers said. The talk-radio element is a pet project for Daschle, who was slammed by Rush Limbaugh for his stewardship of the Senate last year.
Stabenow is working closely with her finacé Tom Athans, executive director of Democracy Radio, to help spawn a new generation of liberal talk-radio hosts. Last month, more than 30 talk-radio hosts were squired around Capitol Hill by Athans to meet with Democratic Members and discuss issues.
“The desire is to begin to encourage new voices in communities all across the country,” Stabenow said. “Rush Limbaugh started as a local person and developed a following and was picked up and syndicated. The idea would be to encourage people of different perspectives other than the right-wing conservatives.”
Since January, the rapid-response team has issued position papers criticizing Bush on issues ranging from Bush’s budget proposal to his plan for Medicare. Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) said being relegated to the minority allows Democrats to be “more aggressive” in their approach to denouncing White House policies.
“It is the difference between proposing and defending,” Dorgan said. “We obviously have a lot to propose and with this administration we have a whole lot to defend against, and I think that is what you are seeing.”
Within the Democratic Caucus, Daschle has deputized five Senators to act as coordinators on Democratic signature issues: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), environment; Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), economy; Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), civil rights and education; Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), homeland security; and Stabenow, health care.
Each Senator is charged with briefing leadership each Wednesday about his or her efforts on the issue and outlining a plan for the upcoming week. Daschle is so serious about gaining ground on these issues that if one of these Senators misses two meetings in a row, the Senator is stripped of his responsibility and title.
In the coming months, Daschle is also expected to lean heavily on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Coordination Committee, to help with grassroots activists.