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Rothenberg: Can Rahm Take Back the House?

Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel is a terrific choice to be the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But that may not matter next year.

The dirty little secret that nobody likes to admit is that campaign committee chairmen often have only minimal effect on whether their party gains or loses seats.

[IMGCAP(1)] Consider the 2004 election cycle. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee outraised its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, $86 million to $79 million, and it recruited a truly outstanding class of open-seat candidates and challengers. But when the results were in, the Republicans had gained four seats, primarily because of the states in play and the cycle’s overall dynamic.

NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) looked brilliant. And he was. He was brilliant to run the committee when most of the real races took place in solidly Republican states … brilliant to chair the committee when five Southern Democrats retired … brilliant when strong partisan fissures in the country and a major Bush turnout effort brought millions of conservative Republicans to the polls for the presidential race.

It’s easy to look brilliant when things are working for you. And it’s hard to look brilliant when things aren’t.

Emanuel is a savvy political strategist who has the contacts to help him raise plenty of cash, and he’s smart enough to try to work with his party’s House and Senate leadership to develop a legislative strategy that could pay off next fall.

The former Clinton White House official is certain to put his considerable energy into the DCCC job, since it’s an obvious way for him to move up the ladder in his party’s House (and national) leadership. He is — I will say it one more time so that nobody thinks I’m being critical of Emanuel — a solid selection to head the committee.

But campaign committee chairmen are, in a sense, prisoners of their respective election cycles. This includes the new DCCC chairman, as well as Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) of the NRSC and Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) of the DSCC.

The chairmen have a role in raising money, recruiting candidates and developing a campaign message, but they can’t control international events, President Bush’s popularity, the shape of House districts or the Senate seats that come up for election. They can’t make a candidate run if he or she doesn’t want to.

That doesn’t mean chairmen don’t matter. A good one will put his or her party in position to take advantage of a favorable environment, or minimize the damage in an unfavorable environment.

If you don’t have the cash or the challengers, you won’t maximize your potential gains if the atmospherics turn your way. So a strong chairman is probably a necessary ingredient for a good election year, but not a sufficient one.

But when the new DCCC chairman says that he (or his party, it isn’t entirely clear) can “create an environment and also a dynamic,” he is being overly optimistic about his impact.

Emanuel’s greatest problem is the shape of House districts. The paucity of competitive districts makes it hard for either party to make significant gains in 2006, and that’s something the two-term Representative from the North Side of Chicago cannot change.

Of course, 2006 could turn out to be a great year for the Democrats. But that depends primarily on Bush’s performance, and on whether circumstances next year favor candidates calling for change.

So, the next time you hear someone say how smart and skilled Rahm Emanuel is and how he’ll help the Democrats gain seats in 2006, just remember that being smart and skilled isn’t enough. Campaign committee chairmen need to be lucky too.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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