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Protecting Incumbents

Matsui’s Plan for DCCC Seen as An Answer to DeLay’s ROMP

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) unveiled the early sketch of his plans to return the party to the majority in the House in a series of meetings with colleagues last week.

Included in the plans is the creation of a joint-fundraising committee known as Frontline Democrats, which will help direct money to at-risk incumbents. The program is seen as an answer to Republicans’ Retain Our Majority Program initiated by Majority Leader Tom Delay (Texas) in the 2000 cycle.

“We needed to tell our Caucus at-large what we are doing to protect incumbents, how we are going to take the House back and how we are going to finance the operation,” Matsui said.

Matsui presented his strategy to members of the DCCC leadership Tuesday afternoon and followed that session up with a talk to the House leadership that afternoon.

On Wednesday night, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) hosted a “party effectiveness dinner” in the Longworth cafeteria, where she rolled out an overall communications strategy — a large part of which was centered on the DCCC.

In addition to unveiling their strategic plan, the DCCC also announced that it has hired Glenn Rushing as its national field director, Greg Speed has been brought on as press secretary and Karen Petal will be deputy political director. Ruben Hernandez will serve as Hispanic vote coordinator.

The hiring of Rushing, who is black, is likely to quiet — at least temporarily — the grumbling among some members of the Congressional Black Caucus about a lack of minorities in senior staff at the committee.

The biggest splash of the presentation, however, was the new joint fundraising committee designed to funnel campaign contributions into the coffers of a dozen or so Members who sit dead-center in the Republicans’ targeting program.

“People throughout the country can contribute and it will be apportioned out to the Members who need help,” Matsui said.

The actual list, which the DCCC has not yet established, will be “very fluid,” according to Matsui, with potentially vulnerable Members being added or subtracted depending on whether they draw a major opponent.

Kori Bernards, communications director at the DCCC, said one of the primary aims of the new committee is “to raise money from constituency groups these [Members] might not otherwise raise from.”

Because of its status as a joint fundraising committee, donors can write checks directly to “Frontline Democrats” that will be spent specifically on at-risk incumbents.

Joint fundraising committees came into vogue over the past several cycles, especially in Senate races, where the parties used the organizations as soft-money conduits to raise money from wealthy donors.

With the raising and spending of soft money by national parties now banned, Frontline Democrats is an all-hard-money entity, one of the first of its kind to sprout after the new campaign finance laws took effect last November.

The organization will also function as a mentoring and monitoring device so that the DCCC leadership can “urge, support and when necessary kick in the backside,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), who will serve as incumbent retention chairman.

“Each and every seat is too important to our effort to let any Member goof it up,” Pomeroy added.

Although protecting vulnerable incumbents is nothing new at the DCCC, Matsui said the Frontline Democrats program moves beyond past efforts.

“It formalizes and puts in an organizational structure to how we are going to protect Democratic incumbents,” Matsui said.

It will be a two-pronged approach, he added, focusing on “helping Members now that could become vulnerable and helping those Members that become vulnerable late.”

Bernards noted that the new program “makes sure [incumbents] have solid financial and campaign operations sooner in the process.”

Pomeroy said “this is an entirely different level of focus and support than has previously existed.”

Pomeroy speaks from personal experience, having been targeted in each of his re-election races since he won the at-large seat in 1992. Despite Republicans’ best efforts, Pomeroy defeated state Tax Commissioner Rick Clayburgh 52 percent to 48 percent in 2002.

Pomeroy said the increased level of attention began with the efforts of 2002 DCCC Chairwoman Nita Lowey (N.Y.).

“This kind of follow-along attention is an outgrowth of her work,” Pomeroy said.

In previous cycles, Pomeroy said the DCCC’s strategy on behalf of endangered incumbents was significantly less coordinated.

“It was everyone for themselves and they didn’t distinguish between those of us in competitive races and those in dead-safe seats,” Pomeroy said.

One senior Democratic aide was unimpressed by the DCCC plan.

“There’s nothing new here,” the aide said. “Every DCCC has been focused on trying to get as much money to vulnerable incumbents as possible.”

The DCCC has a stellar record of success in retaining incumbents over the last several cycles.

In 2002, five Democratic incumbents were defeated, but three of them were forced by redistricting to run against a Republican incumbent. Only Reps. Bill Luther (Minn.) and Karen Thurman (Fla.) lost general election races to nonincumbents.

The three preceding cycles saw only six incumbent Democrats defeated, compared to 27 Republicans.

Several of these losses were extremely damaging however, especially in the 2000 cycle when Reps. David Minge (D-Minn.) and Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) lost races that were considered only marginally competitive just weeks before the election. Those unexpected losses hamstrung Democrats’ efforts to win the House back with just six seats separating the parties, and they were unable to win them back last year.

Due to the expanded 12-seat advantage Republicans currently enjoy, Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) said re-electing all incumbents is absolutely necessary to Democrats’ chances of winning back the House in 2004 and beyond.

In order to do so, Frost said, Members in safe districts must contribute significantly more — and more often — from their hard-money campaign accounts to both the DCCC and candidates.

“Republicans have been very successful in recent years in getting their Members to give to their committee,” said Frost, referring to the overwhelming success of the GOP’s “Battleground” program in 2000 and 2002.

“We have a quite a few Members who have secure districts and have cash on hand,” Frost noted. “Those Members are going to be asked to participate in a significant way and they should.”

The early returns show that at least some Members have bought into the new philosophy. In the first two months of 2003, 45 Democrats have donated $811,000 to the DCCC. At the same time in the 2002 cycle, no Members had donated to the committee.

Unfortunately for the DCCC, Member giving has made up roughly 25 percent of all donations the committee received in the first two months of the year.

By contrast, the National Republican Congressional Committee has received only six contributions from Members — only one of which was more than $1,000 — but has raised better than $15 million. [see related story, page 11].

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