House Democrats Pull Pages From the Rahm Playbook

Posted November 1, 2013 at 2:54pm

Democrats have taken a few pages from Rahm Emanuel’s playbook in hopes of boosting their difficult quest to win the House majority in 2014.

The Chicago mayor served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, when his party beat long odds to win the majority for the first time in more than a decade. This cycle, Democrats face a similarly tough challenge: picking up seats in 17 districts on a map drawn to give the GOP an advantage.

To accomplish this, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel has sought to emulate his former mentor with relentless recruitment, an incessant focus on messaging and Emanuel’s aggressive style — minus a few four-letter expletives.

The two Democrats have a lot in common. Former aides note their shared religion, gregarious public personas, all-in approach to wooing candidates and their soundbite-driven quests to drive messaging.

Israel served as one of Emanuel’s recruitment lieutenants in 2006, along with Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who ran the DCCC in 2008 and 2010. Israel and Emanuel met recently in Chicago and speak regularly by phone, the New York Democrat confirmed in a Tuesday interview with CQ Roll Call.

“You can take Rahm out of the DCCC office, but you can’t take the DCCC out of Rahm Emanuel,” Israel said of their chats.“Rahm, for his part, taught the importance of early recruiting and an aggressive mindset, and I’ve tried to replicate that.”

Above all, Emanuel was known for his persistence and personalized approach to recruitment. He reportedly called one reluctant prospect from his daughter’s ballet recital to help alleviate his concerns about family life in Congress. One former aide described Emanuel’s recruitment approach as a “lack of boundaries.”

Israel often boasts that he started calling future recruits on election night 2012. After the president’s State of the Union address, he immediately emailed potential recruits to say it would be better if they were there. He hosts weekly recruitment meetings at 8 a.m.

Now in his second term as chairman, Israel calls his an “asymmetrical recruitment strategy” — tailoring his approach to the circumstances of each prospective candidate. Instead of relying on unpredictable local delegations to persuade candidates to run, Israel brings a current member with a similar life situation into the process: young families, competitive districts, retirees or a policy interest.

Emanuel was also famous for picking unconventional — and often controversial — candidates. He recruited pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights Democrats in hopes of putting more conservative districts in play. He also publicly picked sides in primaries, and his selections often angered Democrats.

“Remember, we were working on a Republican map. So you got to figure out how to pick the combination to the lock,” Emanuel said in an Oct. 24 interview at the Center for American Progress policy conference. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh, we don’t want those kinds of candidates. Those are the wrong candidates.’ We won, and we also won again in 2008.”

Israel, along with his top deputy, Executive Director Kelly Ward, has also shown a penchant for picking unconventional candidates — and taking sides in races. The DCCC has some success too: The committee’s roster includes a bee farmer, a retired Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, general and a former Army Ranger.

The committee has also been more aggressive in backing candidates earlier than in previous cycles, mostly through its Jumpstart program for top recruits. Last week, the DCCC confirmed it would support Alex Sink’s bid for a competitive special election in Florida over another Democrat who was making her second run for the seat.

“Certainly a big part of 2006 was really recruiting some nontraditional candidates — whether they were veterans, sheriffs, police officers,” said John Lapp, a former top aide to Israel and Emanuel at the DCCC. “There’s no question that a big part of Steve’s strategy … is recruiting non-traditional folks beyond the state legislator types.”

Of course, there are major differences between this cycle and 2006 in the political environment that could make it more difficult for Democrats to win the House.

When Emanuel ran the DCCC, Republicans controlled the House, Senate and the White House. Democrats used their minority status to their advantage by running against an unpopular President George W. Bush, an even more unpopular Iraq War and a “culture of corruption” in Congress.

“There are similarities” between Israel’s and Emanuel’s strategies, said former Rep. Tom Davis, who was once the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. “But what Rahm Emanuel had going for him was he had an anti-Bush wave. You’re not likely to get an anti-GOP wave when Democrats have control of the White House.”

Democrats also control the Senate, making messaging even more difficult — at least until recently, when House Republicans pushed for a government shutdown.

It’s clear Israel also studied in the Emanuel school of campaign messaging. The goal is to slowly build a narrative about the opposition, seizing on events outside the committee’s control. For example, he used House Republicans as the bogeyman of the government shutdown to build a “culture of dysfunction” narrative.

“Whereas 2006 was about a culture of corruption … I think this one is much about a culture of dysfunction,” Lapp said. “This is a really dysfunctional Republican Party, a tea party Republican Party, that is shutting our economy down.”

Israel recruited a few more top candidates in the weeks following the shutdown. The goal is to get as many strong candidates on the board as possible, even in difficult districts.

If a wave comes next November, Israel wants to be fully prepared.

It’s another lesson he learned from Emanuel, whose former aides believe they could have won more seats if they reached further in their recruitment earlier.

“A lot of races for us in ’06 came online late, and we would’ve picked up probably a dozen more seats had we had stronger candidates in those districts already,” said Achim Bergmann, who worked as a strategist at the DCCC under Emanuel. “And that’s what I think they learned from that.”

And like Emanuel, Israel eventually learned not to overpromise.

Last cycle, Israel would often boast that the House was in play. He’s much more cautious this cycle, saying the committee hopes to make big gains — but never exactly declaring the House up for grabs, at least not yet.

It’s the same strategy Emanuel employed, telling donors in 2006 that a House takeover might take two cycles.

“[You’re] not going to know whether you will take back the House until a month out,” Israel said. “You have to start from day one to be able to catch a wave in the final few weeks, and that lesson worked in 2006, it is why we performed well in 2012 and we’re going to try and build on it in 2014.”