Years before Barack Obama showed that a liberal Democrat could win in red states like Indiana and Virginia and seriously compete in North Carolina and Missouri there was a lone Democrat in Washington, D.C., who was talking up just such a scenario.
In fact, from the moment Howard Dean took over the Democratic National Committee in 2005, he set about re-engineering the national party to meet that goal, plowing millions of dollars that had traditionally been used for TV ads into a new program aimed at organizing every part of the country, including its most Republican enclaves, from the ground up.
Dean called it his 50-state strategy, and much of the Democratic establishment opposed it from the start. As the 2006 midterms approached, then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) now in line to be the next White House chief of staff griped that Dean was starving him of funds in what was shaping up to be a golden opportunity for Democratic gains. There is no cavalry financially for us, he told Roll Call.
Even after the Democrats reclaimed Congress in 2006, party elders like James Carville argued that they could have won even more races had it not been for Dean wasting money in the Deep South and other long-held Republican territory.
But Dean persevered with the decidedly unglamorous party-building tactics of the 50-state strategy: providing salaries for three or four new staffers (field organizers, press aides, fundraisers, technology experts) for nearly every state party and training them to use the DNCs newly modernized voter file. The model for party building was the Republican National Committee, Dean says. We copied almost everything and improved on it.
Three years later, Obama has realized Deans vision, winning five states that had been in the Republican column for the past two election cycles and coming close in a handful of other such states. And though hes received almost none so far, Dean deserves a good deal of the credit.
In Indiana, the 50-state strategy gave the state Democratic Party enough money to nearly double the size of its staff by hiring a full-time communications director and three field directors. That infrastructure not only helped the Democrats defeat three Republican lawmakers in 2006, it also gave the Obama camp a big leg up when it began organizing the state in earnest last spring. Laying the foundation for whats happening now all occurred during 2006, Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker said just before Election Day. Democrats at the national level didnt think they could win here before that.
In North Carolina, which at press time was still too close to call, the state Democratic Party used its new DNC windfall to hire regional political directors who developed strategic plans with every county chairman in the state for the first time.