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Off-Year Shenanigans: What’s a Party Committee to Do?

It’s the off year for the House and Senate campaign committees, which means that most of the time is spent on matters like planning, fundraising and candidate recruitment.

But few campaign operatives are entirely content with doing just that. They’d rather stir the political pot whenever possible, hoping that they are laying the groundwork for the time when real voters are paying attention.

That’s the best way to explain some of the very early maneuvering over the years by the Republican and Democratic campaign committees during this political training camp period.

This cycle, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is already stirring the pot in a couple of places. For months, the DSCC has been churning out press releases blasting former Rep. Rob Simmons (R), who has entered the race against Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

On March 16, a DSCC press release demonizing Simmons included a five-year-old quote from him saying that he is a “big fan” of President George W. Bush and that he’s proud to be a Republican.

The release also asserted that Simmons held a fundraiser (in 2004) at a restaurant owned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, accepted contributions from Abramoff and his wife, and accepted contributions from former Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) PAC.

Two weeks later, another DSCC release “congratulated” Simmons for “showing his true colors” by “hobnobbing at Republican headquarters with lobbyists who represent Washington special interests.”

Then, just to make sure that even voters who are illiterate got the message, the DSCC released a Web video on April 2 calling Simmons a “special interest Congressman” and a “special interest candidate,” and chiding him for attending “a meet and greet with lobbyists for Shell, Chevron, and Bank of America.”

On one hand, it’s interesting that Democrats have chosen to attack Simmons on his connection to lobbyists and special interests — Dodd’s greatest weakness and the reason the five-term Senator is performing so horrendously in the polls.

In September, the Hartford Courant wrote that Dodd had collected nearly $6 million over the past two years from PACs and employees of finance-related firms. Since then, the incumbent Democrat has been linked in unflattering ways to disgraced mortgage lender Countrywide Financial and even to American International Group, the embattled insurance and financial services company.

You might think that it’s crazy for Democrats to bring up ethics, lobbyists and Washington insiders where Dodd is concerned. Shouldn’t Democrats want the Connecticut Senate race to be about something where Dodd actually looks good? No, say a number of consultants I spoke with about the tactic.

They note that the DSCC’s strategy is right out of the campaign textbook: Convince voters that there is no difference on ethics and lobbyists between Dodd and Simmons, and voters will make their vote choice on other matters, including party, where Dodd has a significant advantage.

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