Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui’s (Calif.) not-so-veiled suggestion last week that he is unlikely to seek a second term in the post has begun the official behind-the-scenes jockeying to replace him after the November elections.
The leading candidate at this point is freshman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), according to interviews with a number of Members, leadership staff and consultants who follow the machinations at the committee closely.
“When you think of a DCCC chairperson, you think of Rahm Emanuel,” said one Democratic consultant.
Other names mentioned include fellow Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky and California Rep. Mike Thompson, although both may have marks against them in the eyes of the Caucus.
Schakowsky’s husband was recently indicted on federal check-kiting charges, while Thompson is still recovering politically from an ill-fated 2002 trip to Iraq in the runup to the war.
Without question, the race is on to head the Democrats’ campaign arm, although, as per usual in these sorts of contests, all of the principals rejected the idea that they are looking beyond the 2004 election.
Emanuel refused to comment on whether he is interested in the DCCC post, and has regularly deflected even speculation about a future post as chairman.
After effusively praising the job Matsui has done, Thompson said he would “cross that bridge when we come to it” when asked about his own interest in the job.
Schakowsky was similarly noncommittal.
“I’m not at all focused on what my personal next moves are going to be,” she said. “It’s not something I’m thinking about.”
Although they are not speaking publicly about the race, both Emanuel and Schakowsky have been positioning themselves for months in hopes of being named to head the party committee, according to senior aides and their colleagues.
Emanuel is routinely described as one of the more politically savvy members of the Democratic Caucus and has already shown a strong fundraising ability.
“He has all the tools,” said one Democratic consultant.
Emanuel has donated $100,000 to the DCCC and another $20,000 to Democratic incumbents and challengers so far this cycle. He also serves as a vice chairman in the organization.
Emanuel has also made a concerted effort to cozy up to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), said several leadership sources.
The Illinois Democrat’s institutional knowledge of the committee is his strongest attribute, according to a Democratic consultant with ties to the committee.
“The thing he comes to the table with right away is he knows exactly what the role of the job is and what you are there to do,” the consultant said. “He understands you need to take care of the Members.”
Emanuel served as national field director at the DCCC during the 1988 cycle under then-Rep. Beryl Anthony (Ark.).
He went on to serve as one of the top fundraisers in the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton and then headed up the White House political operation.
Emanuel’s experience at the DCCC could also bring more stability to the post, which will likely have its fourth new chairman in as many cycles come January.
By contrast, Virginia Rep. Tom Davis served as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman in the 2000 and 2002 cycle, and his successor, New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, has pledged to serve for two cycles as well.
“The NRCC and the Republican majority has benefited over the past few cycles from a continuity of leadership and continuity of staff,” said NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti.
Opinions are mixed about the effect of the Democratic turnover.
Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), who chaired the DCCC in the 1996 and 1998 cycles, insisted that the party doesn’t suffer when the DCCC changes chairmen every two years.
“It really doesn’t matter,” Frost said, noting that Pelosi is very involved with the fundraising committee’s activities and helps keep consistency in the operation.
One Democratic consultant disagreed.
“There is always a learning curve,” the consultant said. “It takes us a little longer to get going than the Republicans.”
Although Emanuel is generally well- regarded, concerns remain among party leaders — especially the freshman Member’s desire to have a hand in nearly every aspect of the Caucus.
“He is a great thinker, but he’s one of the worst at focusing and committing to any one thing at any one time,” said a high-level Democratic aide. “He’d be a great DCCC chair, but he has to focus solely on being DCCC chair and drop other things.”
There is little question among House Democrats that Schakowsky, one of Pelosi’s closest allies, is poised for a party leadership position in the near future.
But she may now have to wait a cycle to make that leap as her husband wades through legal troubles at home, Democratic leadership sources said.
Schakowsky’s husband, Robert Creamer, was indicted earlier this month. Schakowsky faces no allegations of wrongdoing and has said she is confident he will be fully exonerated.
“Schakowsky is a strategic thinker who knows how to campaign at the grassroots,” said a senior Democratic aide. “It remains to seen how the situation with her husband will play out within the Caucus and on the outside as to whether she can hold a leadership position.”
Even as those issues play out, senior Democratic sources say Schakowsky is continuing her pace helping Democratic candidates in raising money. Schakowsky has headed up the Women LEAD program for the DCCC for the past two cycles.
She has already given $85,000 this cycle to the DCCC and an additional $23,000 to her endangered colleagues.
Though Emanuel and Schakowsky are seen as the early frontrunners for the post, Thompson also has his share of backers.
“His advantage is that he is well-liked by all the different factions of the Caucus, and being from where he is in Northern California he has strong money connections,” said a Democratic consultant.
Thompson is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate and conservative Democrats, but is also a close ally of Pelosi, which affords him entree to the progressive wing of the Caucus. He also serves as head of the DCCC’s Business Advisory Council.
He was widely seen as Pelosi’s preferred choice to run the committee this cycle, but became an untenable pick after he traveled to Iraq with Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.) and then-Rep. David Bonior (Mich.) in the fall of 2002.
During the visit both Bonior and McDermott questioned the Bush administration’s Iraq policy; Thompson did not but became a victim of political guilt by association.
It is not clear whether that taint has worn off.
Regardless of who succeeds Matsui, all parties agree that chairing the DCCC is an arduous — and at times thankless — endeavor.
“It requires an enormous amount of enthusiasm, and you must devote every waking hour of your life to it,” said Frost.