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The overhauled Democratic communications war room has emerged as an unofficial partner to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as the party tries to protect 17 incumbents up for re-election in 2012.
The DSCC and the Democratic Policy and Communications Center do not coordinate directly. But Democratic operatives said the DPCC — which is run by Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Vice Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) — was purposely constructed to run like a campaign organization with incumbent protection in mind. The DPCC provides communications advice and research services on major and local policy issues geared toward raising Members' standing with voters back home.
The messaging and research ultimately is parroted by the DSCC's political activity on behalf of Democratic incumbents and against Republicans. One senior Democratic Senate aide described the relationship this way: "The DPCC calls the plays on the Senate floor, and the DSCC handles the political follow-through."
DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray, who also serves as Conference secretary, made it clear that the campaign committee and the DPCC work on "separate tracks." But the Washington state lawmaker did not dispute that the war room has been particularly useful to Democratic incumbents running for re-election.
"I would say for Democrats, that what the DPCC is doing under Schumer's direction — giving us a way to talk about the issues that resonate — is really important for us as a caucus," she said. "We don't coordinate."
The DPCC employs a regional communications director whose job is primarily to handle messaging for 2012 incumbents. Its policy arm handles research, pumping out information and statistics for legislation under consideration on the floor and in committee, as well as on other national and local issues relevant to Members. The DPCC was created by combining the old communications war room of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and the Democratic Policy Committee.
This month, DPCC strategy was on display in how Senate Democrats reacted to escalating energy costs. The communications team's approach involved legislative action and messaging to the press, all while allowing incumbents up in 2012 to take the lead and enjoy the spotlight.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) sponsored a bill to eliminate subsidies for oil companies — Republicans called it a tax increase that would raise gas prices. The DPCC promoted the co-sponsors to the bill as well, including Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.). The legislation failed in a Tuesday vote. Also this week, McCaskill asked for a federal investigation into gas prices. All four Senators face potentially difficult re-election bids.
Additionally, the DPCC orchestrated a press conference at a Capitol Hill gas station to highlight Democratic action on the issue while putting Republicans on the defensive. Menendez and Stabenow spoke, as did another 2012 incumbent, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.). The DPCC plans to implement a similar comprehensive strategy on Medicare and the House GOP budget, which is expected to receive a Senate vote before the Memorial Day recess.
"I think we've had a wonderful strategy on gas prices and oil subsidies," Stabenow said. "People want to be communicating with the citizens in their state, and that's what we're helping them do."
Stabenow, like Murray, dismissed any suggestion of official coordination between the DPCC and the DSCC. But the DPCC is run largely by Schumer, the former two-term DSCC chairman who helped Democrats win 14 Senate seats in 2006 and 2008, and party operatives say the New York Senator built the new war room with politics in mind. Additionally, it is standard practice for Conference leadership to closely monitor progress at the DSCC.
Senate Democrats hold a four-seat edge in the chamber, and at this point in the election cycle, the majority appears to be saddled with a daunting electoral map. Democrats are defending more than twice as many seats as Republicans, and many of those are in GOP-leaning states. One Democratic source with knowledge of how the Conference operates suggested that the DPCC and DSCC work toward the same goal.
"The DPCC is set up in some ways as incumbent protection. It comes out in the people they ask to do events and the statements they put out," this source said. "Plus it's Schumer, so you know he can't say too far away from the DSCC."
Though Senate Democrats praised the DPCC, some appeared hesitant to discuss the relationship between the war room and the DSCC. Two Democratic Senators who are up in 2012 indicated that the DPCC has had a minimal effect on their political and legislative activities.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said the DPCC does a "great job." But the Minnesota lawmaker said her state has unique issues, such as flooding, and emphasized that "I've been doing my own thing."
Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) declined when asked to say that the DPCC has been specifically helpful to her campaign, although she said it has been positive for the Conference and "helpful to people."
"I think they've been very effective in taking the Democratic message and communicating it to what middle-class Americans are concerned about right now," Cantwell said.