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Longabaugh and Winding Road for LCV Official

Mark Longabaugh knows a thing or two about winning — and losing — elections.

In the galaxy of interest group political directors, Longabaugh is the rarest of stars: a former candidate for political office himself.

In 1995, Longabaugh lost an election for the city council in Cincinnati, his hometown. A year later, he was the unsuccessful Democratic challenger to Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), spending $544,000 and winning 43 percent of the vote.

Organized labor went to the mat for Longabaugh in 1996. But other activist groups were less involved than he wanted them to be. Longabaugh remembers thinking wistfully at the time, “If we ever got the green army involved in politics …”

Now, as the political director for the League of Conservation Voters, Longabaugh has a chance to turn that lament on its head. He has mobilized a green army for the electoral war, and so far he has won three battles impressively.

While endorsing a slew of incumbents and challengers this year, LCV, the political arm of the environmental movement, has decided to limit the number of races to which it devotes significant time and money.

“We have to have a concentration of firepower and not scatter our resources,” Longabaugh said. “To have an impact on the Hill, you have to be able to win your races.”

Other than presidential nominee John Kerry, the candidates the LCV has helped most extensively so far this cycle are Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama (D), who is all but certain to be the next Senator from the Land of Lincoln; new-Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), the former state attorney general who won a special election in February; and former Michigan state Sen. Joe Schwarz (R), who is heavily favored to replace retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R).

For starters, not a bad record at all for the league — or for Longabaugh, who, among other things, is a talent scout for the board of LCV’s political action committee, which ultimately decides where to direct its money.

It’s a skill he comes by honestly. For in the years surrounding his time as a politician, Longabaugh was a campaign manager for a slew of candidates around the country, from former President Bill Clinton to Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) to ex-Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), among many others.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Longabaugh’s talent as an operative that got him into trouble as a candidate. In one notable exchange during the campaign with Chabot, Longabaugh ran a TV spot attacking Chabot for defending drunken drivers as a lawyer. The spot featured a picture of the yellow pages ad for Chabot’s legal practice.

The Congressman responded with an ad inviting voters to look at the local white pages for the previous 16 years, because they would not, he insisted, find the itinerant Longabaugh in them.

Longabaugh believes that he and the entire environmental movement have learned valuable lessons from previous defeats.

This year, he said, LCV has taken “a more holistic approach” to the campaigns it becomes involved with. In cycles past, the league, like the AFL-CIO, EMILY’s List and similar organizations, simply has raised money for races, handed it to the candidates, and hired consultants to design cookie-cutter ads and mail pieces on the environment.

This time, however, LCV is writing campaign plans for its prime candidates, covering all aspects of the race, going beyond the organization’s bread and butter. And in the Chandler special election and the Schwarz primary campaign, LCV had a major ground game in place, with hundreds of volunteers going door to door, Longabaugh said, “so we could put a real face on who the League of Conservation Voters are.”

And while the environment is naturally a central focus of the LCV push, it is not the only thing the group is emphasizing in its targeted races. In Schwarz’s primary, for example, the league ran ads highlighting his medical background and volunteer work at a community health clinic.

“You have to go with what works,” Longabaugh said.

For the final six weeks of the election, in addition to helping Obama — who doesn’t seem like he needs it — and, of course, Kerry, the LCV plans to come to the aid of Erskine Bowles, the Democratic Senate nominee in North Carolina.

And it is running an unusual “coordinated” campaign in Colorado, splitting its resources among state Attorney General Ken Salazar, the Democratic Senate nominee, and three Democratic House candidates: state Rep. John Salazar, who is running for the seat now held by retiring Rep. Scott McInnis (R); Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, who is challenging freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (R); and former state Sen. Stan Matsunaka, who is in a rematch with freshman Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R).

A canvass is already under way in Colorado’s 7th district to benefit Thomas and Ken Salazar. LCV expects to spend between $1.5 million and $2 million in North Carolina and Colorado alone.

But plans could change, even with less than six weeks to go before Election Day.

“We’re working on being fast-footed enough to move quickly,” Longabaugh said. “This is not a set battlefield. The battlefield is very dynamic.”