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The Unusual Suspects: DCCC Hunts for Outsiders

Any Democratic effort to take control of the House begins with this simple step: recruiting a few good men and women to run.

And this cycle, House Democrats are looking beyond the usual suspects — the next-in-line state representative or local elected official — in their search for talent.

Recruitment poses challenges for both parties, but especially for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. House Democrats need at least 17 winning candidates to take the majority, a steep climb in many GOP-leaning districts drawn by Republicans to stay in their control for the next decade.

So this cycle, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel, his staffers and his lieutenants are looking for “problem solvers.”

“We don’t necessarily look for the legislator with a voting record,” DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “We look for solutionists, people who have a track record of solving problems in that community or have a story that really resonates with the voters in that community — mayors, business leaders, veterans.”

Israel broadcast his committee’s general recruitment strategy in a highly touted news conference Wednesday. He said DCCC recruitment is “emphatically focused on problem solvers as the antidote to tea party extremism.”

House Democrats have sung this song before, as recently as last cycle. The New York lawmaker deployed the same phrase — “problem solver” — when he discussed recruitment during his first term as chairman.

In fact, some of the Democratic Party’s successful 2012 candidates came from state capitals: Reps. Julia Brownley of California, Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, Denny Heck of Washington, Steven Horsford of Nevada, Pete Gallego of Texas, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and many more.

Although the “problem solvers” mantra is not new, it reflects the party’s adjustment to the contempt voters feel toward people who write and pass laws. Even on the local level, lawmakers evoke the dreaded “establishment” label increasingly abhorred by voters. State legislators also come with the baggage of a voting record.

“Hesitance isn’t the word I would use,” Ward said of recruiting legislators. “[But] it’s not necessarily the first candidate that we go to.”

Still, the DCCC has not completely written off legislators. Former state Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who is challenging Rep. Mike Coffman for Colorado’s 6th District, was one of the committee’s earliest recruits this cycle.

After all, the party will need more than 17 recruitment stars to have a shot at the House if some of its own members lose re-election. Democrats picked up several seats in 2012, but there are vulnerable incumbents on both sides of the aisle going into 2014.

Most notably, the House playing field is rigged against Democrats. Last cycle, Republicans controlled the decennial redistricting process in many competitive states, drawing GOP-friendly districts wherever they could. Neither party dominated the 2012 elections, which means many members from both parties remain in competitive districts.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is also on the hunt for top candidates to pick off remaining Democrats in GOP districts. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, NRCC Executive Director Liesl Hickey declined to detail the kind of candidates her committee is seeking for 2014.

Instead, Hickey emphasized the efficacy of the committee’s Young Guns program in vetting talent. The program serves as an internal benchmark system that rewards organized candidates who prove their fundraising chops.

“You have a program that everybody can participate in and everybody can have access to the best information on how to run a great campaign, and I think what you see is that the candidates who work through the process and work through the program end up being strong candidates,” Hickey said. “You have a natural weeding out process.”

Similarly, Israel announced the DCCC’s new Operation Jumpstart at his news conference this week, including plans to unveil the first round of choice candidates next month.

“When we bring recruits into a race, we want to start them off strong,” Israel said. “So we want to give them a little jump start. Candidates who show early promise receive very significant DCCC assistance. We help them with fundraising, we help them with strategic advice. We start them two steps ahead of the competition.”

But some of the DCCC’s top recruits have had two years’ worth of a head start. House Democrats have focused on several of last cycle’s failed candidates for 2014: for example, former Orlando Police Chief Val B. Demings in Florida, Iraq War veteran Brendan Mullen in Indiana and former Rep. Mark Critz in Pennsylvania.

In fact, Israel — a former DCCC recruitment lieutenant — boasted that he started his 2014 pitches on election night while making conciliatory calls to unsuccessful candidates.

Republicans are less conciliatory: Aides say they autopsy why a candidate lost before encouraging them to run again.

The DCCC’s new recruitment chief, Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, knows the truth behind trying twice for office. She lost her first bid for Congress, an unsuccessful 2006 primary challenge to Rep. Albert R. Wynn. Edwards ran again in 2008 and defeated him.

“I certainly have the experience that the second time is a charm,” Edwards said.

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

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