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DSCC’s Poersch Driven to Win

The first of four profiles of Congressional campaign committee executive directors.

Within a matter of two weeks in January, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director J.B. Poersch endured what could easily be his highest and lowest points of the 2010 cycle so far.

Embattled Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) announced on Jan. 6 that he would not run for re-election in a contest where he had become a serious underdog — greatly improving the party’s chance of holding the seat. Two weeks later, Senate Democrats were caught by surprise and lost the special election to fill the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) unexpired term.

In the middle of all the Massachusetts mayhem, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) needed Poersch to help him move a baby dresser. Poersch agreed to drive his beat-up 2002 Land Rover Freelander over to a Capitol Hill baby store one Wednesday afternoon to help his former longtime boss pick up the piece of furniture that was, according to Poersch, five times his own portly size.

“And let’s just say I’m not in the best physical shape,— Poersch recalled in an interview last week. “And I said to Jack, ‘I have two questions for you: Why are you moving this? And why am I?’—

Exactly. Why on earth is Poersch doing this?

After leading the DSCC through back-to-back victorious election cycles in which Senate Democrats netted a total of 14 seats and won back the majority, why did Poersch decide to stay in his grueling gig for an unprecedented third tour of duty? After all, history and the current political environment portend that Democrats are poised have a rough election cycle in 2010.

“I was still hungry after that one,— Poersch admitted while sitting in the same office he has occupied since 2005. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be asked and was honored that I was. It sounds trite, but I’m here in part because the leader and the chairman asked.—

That same Majority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), now entrusts Poersch and his committee to help him win what is expected to be his most difficult re-election battle yet. There are tough races forecasted for Reid, Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and converted Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.). And even though Senate Democrats see potential pickup opportunities in open-seat races in New Hampshire, Missouri and Ohio, it’s still going to be a tough cycle for the party.

[IMGCAP(1)]Incoming DSCC Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), however, approached the process of persuading Poersch to stay on a little differently. The father of two daughters under age 5, Poersch was wary of signing on to a third term because of the demands on his family. But his wife is in the business, too — they met at a DSCC fundraiser, and she is a fundraising consultant whose clients include Lincoln. All it took was a little special persuasion.

“Well, I sweet-talked his wife, to be very honest with you,— Menendez said, chuckling. “He was not inclined because they had a child, and they were thinking of having a second child. There was a quality-of-life issue because this job takes an enormous amount of time.—

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who served as DSCC chairman in the 2006 and 2008 cycles, was notorious for being a demanding boss and, according to former aides, was on the phone with Poersch a dozen times or more throughout the day.

“I think we have a good understanding about the same quality-of-life issues,— Menendez said. “He’s still working 18 hours a day, but I guess he was working more than that a day with Chuck.—

The political life is familiar to Poersch. He grew up distributing campaign leaflets door to door for his father, a Schenectady County district attorney for 12 years in New York. As the oldest of six in an Irish Catholic family, Poersch recalled playing in his basement with newspaper clips in “half-broken frames— proclaiming former President John F. Kennedy’s victory as the first Catholic president.

These days, a framed November 2006 New York Times cover page with the headline “Democrats Take Senate— hangs on the wall of his third-floor office at DSCC headquarters in the Stewart R. Mott House.

Poersch’s first national campaign was working on then-Sen. Al Gore’s (D-Tenn.) 1988 White House bid, when he helped his candidate win the Wyoming caucuses. The beginning of a 14-year career with Reed began at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where Poersch was a regional political director before the future Senator tapped him to run his House office and eventually to be his chief of staff when he moved to the Senate.

Poersch, 47, is a far cry from the smooth-talking political operatives that often walk the hallways of the Senate. He regularly kicks off his shoes during work hours (including during this interview), and former aides say he often spills coffee on himself throughout the day. The hairs on his head increasingly stand up as the day continues, and those who have worked with him report that he gnaws on his shirt collar when he gets nervous.

Perhaps most importantly, colleagues say, Poersch actually understands every piece of the campaign puzzle: fundraising, press, recruitment, the politics of the state and how they all fit together.

“He also understands how the culture of the Senate works, which is incredibly important,— one former DSCC aide said. “The Senate is a weird place. It’s a really clubby place. One of the jobs of the DSCC is convincing Senators to do things for you.—

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is one of 18 Senators who have been elected during Poersch’s reign. Although she said Senators did much of the phone calling asking her to run, Poersch was the one who answered her questions.

“I had some pretty probing questions about how this would work in terms of what the DSCC would and wouldn’t do,— McCaskill said. “And he was always upfront with me. He never over-promised. He always under-promised and over-delivered.—

Poersch describes his work as very “personal,— and the attachment to his job is obvious as he describes the Democratic Senate classes of 2006 and 2008.

“But 18 Senators, some of them are gong to be here for maybe decades,— Poersch said. “And the fact that they’re going to be and having an influence on the direction of the country, that’s incredibly rewarding. It’s not so much the majority, it’s getting the individuals here.—

Another one of Poersch’s strengths is his lack of ego, his colleagues say, as well as his ability to suck the drama out of a situation.

“I think he feels an obligation to the party, and you know, that part of it is he wants to make sure he can do everything he can so he doesn’t lose all of the gains he’s made over the past two election cycles,— said Guy Cecil, Bennet’s chief of staff and a former DSCC political director. “I think he takes his job personally.—

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