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’96 Campaign Chairmen Recall Shifting Terrain

If Republicans in 2007 are feeling anything like Democrats did in 1995 following the GOP takeover of Congress, it’s anything but good.

Ex-Rep. Martin Frost (Texas) and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, respectively, during the first cycle after the 1994 Republican tidal wave engulfed Capitol Hill.

In recent interviews, they described their leadership positions during those first two years of the Republican Congress as part pop-psychologist and part political strategist and fundraiser, as each sought to rally their troops from disastrous defeats and rebuild for the future.

“It was very hard the first six months. We had to get people’s chins up off the floor,” Frost recalled. “We had been in control for 40 years, so it was a shock.”

Suddenly out of power, the Democratic campaign committees saw their financial edge over Republicans evaporate, while the task of preventing retirements also became a tougher chore. Those are exactly the dilemmas the Republican Congressional campaign committees are facing now.

Frost said he had to pare down operations at the DCCC and think of creative ways to raise money. Kerrey, noting that the DSCC was in debt, said he was trying to recruit new candidates and convince Democratic incumbents to remain in office in an environment that saw incumbent Democratic Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) switch parties and join the Republican Conference.

“That reinforced the idea that the country should prefer Republicans to Democrats,” Kerrey said. “It was gloomy days.”

Then as now, the party dealing with its newfound minority status still controlled the White House. And while then-President Bill Clinton was running for re-election and was in much better shape politically by 1996 than President Bush is today, Kerrey still had a tough job on his hands.

Kerrey was quick to point out that Clinton raised plenty of money for Democratic Senate candidates that cycle and touted their candidacies throughout his ultimately successful bid for a second term. But he also said the Clinton campaign’s strategy simultaneously undermined his effort to gain back seats by telling voters they should re-elect the president to balance out the Republican Congress.

In doing so, the Clinton campaign legitimized and made attractive the notion of divided government and made it harder for Democratic Senate candidates to argue that voters should give the reins of Congress back to the Democrats, Kerrey said.

“We were in the desert without gas and water,” he said, in describing the myriad factors that were making the political terrain tough for Congressional Democrats throughout the 1996 cycle.

Conversely, Republicans were on top of the world.

Former Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.), who was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 1994 and 1996, said the GOP had to contend with a well-funded and smartly directed opposition campaign run by organized labor.

And he said several business groups — and other advocacy organizations that should have been supportive of Republicans over the years but were not because of their longtime minority status — held back to see if 1994 was a fluke. But he acknowledged that things in the majority were a lot easier than they were in the minority.

“It was obviously easier for us to raise funds,” Paxon said. “But it still took a lot of efforts to break decades of bad habits. In 1996, while we were under fire from organized labor, there were a lot of groups that should have been Republican-leaning that were waiting to see what happened in the ’96 election.”

Republican House Members worked hard in 1994 to help claim the gavel from Democrats. But Paxon noted that the efforts of his fellow Members, and in particular their commitment to the NRCC, were even more dramatic in 1996 on the heels of their big victory two years earlier.

Paxon said his colleagues’ work on the electoral front, when it came to recruiting, fundraising and traveling the country to campaign, “went into another order of magnitude.”

Over at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, then-Sen. Al D’Amato (N.Y.) took over for ex-NRSC Chairman Phil Gramm (Texas), who had helped steer the GOP to control of the Senate in 1994.

D’Amato was on vacation and unavailable for comment as this article was being reported. But political consultant Gordon Hensley, who was the communications director at the committee during that cycle, said D’Amato was a prolific fundraiser and credited much of the New Yorker’s success in retaining the majority in the midst of Clinton’s re-election victory to his decision to move the NRSC’s independent expenditure political unit off-site.

D’Amato did so, Hensley said, purely as an interpretation of a Federal Election Commission decision that came down during the cycle that suggested that the Congressional campaign committees would have to separate their independent expenditure activities from their normal activities.

But he said D’Amato’s decision allowed the independent expenditure political unit to be particularly effective in the 1996 campaign — even as former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the GOP presidential nominee facing Clinton — was a bit of a drag on the Republican ticket generally.

“That move proved to be quite effective in the end,” Hensley said. “It completely changed the nature of the game and greatly benefited the NRSC vis-ŕ-vis the DSCC.”

Hensley said the political messaging that cycle was defined much more by the presidential contest than specific Senate races.

Even though Republicans held the political advantage in Congressional races, he explained, they still had to work hard in 1996 to overcome the hurdles created by their sagging fortunes at the presidential level.

“In a presidential cycle, a greater portion of the structural and messaging dynamic is influenced by the presidential race,” Hensley said. “Clearly that will be the case next year as well.”

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