Salena Zito

“It sucked, it sucked, and it was terrific.”

That’s a remarkably blunt answer to a question posed to Republican pollster Neil Newhouse about the GOP’s generic-ballot poll numbers in the last three congressional election cycles.

In the three months since Republicans blew down the Democrats’ House in the 2010 midterm election, both parties have started to gear up for the 2012 races.

In the political volatility following the Civil War, the National Republican Campaign Committee formed in 1866 under “Radical Republicans” who favored civil rights for newly freed slaves, especially the right to vote.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee formed two years later.

For about 100 years, both functioned similarly – as modest, peripheral, monetary components to the electoral process.

That changed drastically in the 1970s and ’80s, as direct-mail and telemarket fund-raising became popular. Led by professional staffs with solid field operations, the committees’ money ramped-up, and so did candidate recruitment.

The process has remained in sync with each technological advance since. Yet repeated monetary mistakes have snared both party apparatuses.

In 2006, U.S. Rep. Tom Reynolds, then chairman of the NRCC, spent good money after bad. The committee borrowed endlessly and ran up vendor bills, even when it was obvious its congressional majority was lost. He left the NRCC with $18 million in debt.

Although 2008 was not quite as horrible for Republicans as 2006, the NRCC was financially crippled and faced an "aftershock" election.

That year, the DCCC outspent the NRCC on independent-expenditure ads by roughly $73 million to $23 million.

Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, named NRCC chairman in late 2008, learned from 2006 and decided to follow DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel’s playbook. That meant having a wide playing field, going after the "reddest" seats – no matter how popular their incumbents were – in order to get candidates in the ballgame, then waiting for the money to follow.

Rep. Steve Israel of Long Island, named DCCC chairman late last year, inherited an even worse mess than did Sessions.

One factor, which hasn’t been mentioned much in the aftermath of 2010’s midterm, is that the DCCC's vaunted Frontline program disintegrated. Kicked-off in 2006, Frontline sent a steady stream of cash to endangered incumbents, freeing the DCCC to go after seats in ruby-red districts.

It worked: Democrats didn't lose a single Frontline race in 2006.

The DCCC bragged that it was playing hardball and, if you weren't hitting your marks, it would leave you on the field for dead.

The Democrats’ program was smart – so smart, the NRCC modeled its Patriot Program on it.

At the end of the last election cycle, the DCCC ignored its own program and started burning cash everywhere, regardless of whether an incumbent worked with the committee or not. Conversely, it left out other people even if they played ball, such as Reps. Steve Driehaus of Ohio and Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie, both of whom lost.

It will be interesting to see if the DCCC can keep its threat real in the next cycle, because it didn't hold onto its program in 2010’s chaos.

The DCCC’s problems are huge but not unique. It is $19 million in debt, as it reported just last week; the NRCC, in contrast, is $10.5 million in debt.

Yet the DCCC relies heavily on what the stock market would describe as "institutional investors" – its members' own campaign accounts.

Those accounts, not unlike big Wall Street mutual funds, are not casual spenders. They only give money if they think you can win.

The NRCC’s “institutional investors” held back money in 2008 because they saw a bad year and a mountain of debt.

Thanks to wild spending in political mega-markets at the end of the 2010 election cycle, the DCCC’s Israel is in a deep hole, almost guaranteeing a crisis in confidence from his institutional investors. That leaves him spending the entire year trying to get out of debt.

Then there is the whole recruitment problem: Thanks to political gerrymandering, Israel must convince candidates to run for Congress when they won’t know what their districts look like until well into next year.

Nothing stays the same in life or politics. Yet, if you play the game well, a chance to win comes again.

Perhaps Israel should steal Sessions’ playbook – the one Emanuel wrote at the DCCC.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.
 


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