Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean is making a concerted effort to better coordinate with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee going into the 2006 elections.
A recent example was a small newspaper ad buy targeting six GOP lawmakers on ethics issues produced by the DCCC and paid for, in part, by the DNC.
In one of his first interviews touching on the party’s Congressional election strategy, Dean, the former governor of Vermont, said that in the past, the committees have not worked together closely enough.
“This is the first main thing, we fully expect there to be more,” Dean said about the modest $36,000 buy.
While party strategists say such attempts at cooperation between the DNC and the Congressional committees are nothing new, they do agree that, if maintained, Dean could make the DNC a bigger player in Congressional races going forward.
“Every two years, every four years, everybody says they’re going to coordinate better and everybody has the best of intentions … but the DNC is essentially a presidential committee,” said one Democratic strategist who did not want to be named.
The DNC and the DCCC already are planning to criticize another group of House Republicans in similar advertisements but Dean would not elaborate on the specifics.
“We’re going to stick with this all the way through the election in ’06 and maybe ’08 — the anti-corruption stuff is here to stay,” he said.
The goal of the ads is to paint Congressional Republicans as power hungry and ethically challenged.
The first round focused on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Reps. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) and Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).
Cunningham just announced he will retire at the end of this Congress after questions surfaced about the sale of his house to a defense contractor and federal authorities raided his Washington, D.C., residence.
“We think that the culture of corruption in Washington will be a big issue in ’06 and we’ll expand the list the next time we do this,” Dean said.
But Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, said Congressional Democrats could be vulnerable to accusations that their leaders have been less than squeaky clean.
“If they want to make ethics an issue, we’ll be happy to talk about [DCCC Chairman] Rahm Emanuel [D-Ill.], [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [Calif.] and [House Minority Whip] Steny Hoyer [D-Md.] and all their problems,” he said.
Dean said any Democratic ethical missteps pale in comparison to those by their Republican colleagues.
He also acknowledged that some of the Members targeted in the first go-round of ads do not represent especially competitive districts. But he said that Democrats are laying the groundwork to expand the field in case 2006 turns out to be an anti-incumbent year.
He pointed to the fortuitous strategy Republicans employed in 1994 that allowed them to unexpectedly take over the House.
“I’m unabashed in my admiration for [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.],” Dean said. “I think we’re going to win in some districts that we’re not expected to … there’s the potential for ’94; I’m not saying it’s likely or we’re counting on it but” Democrats should be positioned to capitalize on any anti-Republican sentiment that may develop.
Democrats will target Republicans who conventional wisdom says are safe in addition to those who are vulnerable.
Dean named long-term Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) as an example.
Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, abruptly closed a recent hearing on the PATRIOT Act when Democrats used it as a forum to criticize many of President Bush’s policies. A challenger could say it is illustrative of Sensenbrenner’s prickly side and use it against him, said DNC spokesman Josh Earnest.
“If they want to waste their money, more power to them,” Forti shot back.
Republicans also mocked the initial joint effort as inconsequential, noting it was a small, one-day print buy.
But Dean said that an ad campaign need not be big to be effective.
“The Swift Boat ad wasn’t a big buy either,” he observed.
“It was definitely worth the investment,” considering the amount of press attention the ads garnered, Earnest pointed out.
The ethics ads were not Dean’s first effort to bring the committees closer together.
In the spring, when Bush was touring the country to tout his plan to overhaul Social Security, the DNC and DCCC worked together to run radio advertisements in the districts Bush visited.
“We worked with the DCCC to target those ads,” which the DNC underwrote, Earnest said. “Depending on the market we bought some rural, some African-American, Spanish language and mainstream radio.”
They focused on about 10 House Members.
Asked if it paid off, Earnest answered: “The president’s poll numbers on Social Security speak to our success.”
DCCC spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg said the efforts will continue.
“The DCCC works closely with the DNC where it makes sense for our candidates, and will continue to do so throughout the election cycle,” she said.
During the May showdown over federal judges, when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) threatened to invoke the “nuclear” option to do away with the filibuster, the DNC coordinated very closely with the office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee “to make sure we were on the same page,” Earnest said.
One of the biggest assets the DNC can share with the DSCC or the DCCC is its large e-mail and donor list, Earnest said.
During the nuclear option fight, the DNC put out “calls to action” through its database of supporters which resulted in angry calls to Frist’s office and petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures, he said.
Dean’s labors have not gone unnoticed.
“The left hand knows what the right hand is doing and the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, which is giving a significant boost to our 2006 effort,” said DSCC spokesman Phil Singer.
To that end, the DNC and DSCC recently coordinated a conference call about the looming debate over filling the Supreme Court vacancy.
The call to reporters, supporters and Democratic organizers featured Reid, who was introduced by Dean.
The DNC had already been working closely with Reid on the Supreme Court issue, Earnest said. “There are daily conversations on the staff level.”
On the principal level, Dean, Reid and Pelosi meet regularly — about every other week. Dean also speaks routinely to Emanuel and DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).
“Dean has a keen understanding that we all need to be on the same page both in Washington, D.C., and back home in individual Member districts,” Earnest said.
A centerpiece for Dean is devoting more resources to putting people on the ground in all 50 states.
The DNC has already put $2 million in 16 states to hire organizers, Earnest said.
“We haven’t had a long-term business plan” in the past, Dean recognized. “The Republicans have been pretty successful at branding the Democrats, so now the shoe is on the other foot.”
Forti took Dean’s work in stride, noting that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
“We’ve always worked very closely with the Republican National Committee and I think they’re probably trying to copy our model,” Forti said. “Every cycle they try [to make gains] and every cycle they go backwards.”