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10 Years Later, Murray Is Leading a Changed DSCC

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At a news conference the morning after the elections, Murray cited Bush’s “highest approval rating in modern history” and Democrats’ inability “to convince enough Republicans and independents to cross over, which was necessary with the political geography of this cycle.”

The 2002 cycle also featured a torrent of unexpected action in the Senate. Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) announced in May 2001 that he was leaving the GOP to become an Independent and caucus with the Democrats, giving Democrats a 51-49 majority.

Then there was the last-minute exit from his re-election race by ethics-challenged Sen. Robert Torricelli (N.J.). And less than two weeks before Election Day came the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (Minn.). Both Democrats had to be replaced on the ballots.

Several things have changed in politics since Murray last chaired the DSCC. Technological advances have brought new and faster ways to communicate, including YouTube, Twitter and the ubiquity of cell phones. 

“There were a lot of changes in the last decade, technological changes that make a difference in campaigns and disseminating information,” said Ravitz-Meehan, who also noted that cell phones have changed the way polling is conducted. “We talked about a 24-hour news cycle then. Now it’s amplified.”

A change within the DSCC itself is the building that houses it. The committee moved out of Democratic headquarters on South Capitol Street, buying its own row house on Maryland Avenue Northeast for $2.9 million at the end of the 2002 cycle. The move placed the party’s Senate campaign office in a more convenient location for Senators. 

The row house buy and the Democratic National Committee headquarters renovation were paid for just before a federal ban was placed on soft money contributions, which allowed the committees to accept unlimited donations from corporations and labor unions.

That happened with the implementation of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, which went into effect the day after the 2002 elections.

In the four cycles since, the essence of how a campaign committee operates has changed dramatically. Along with cutting off soft money, the most glaring change was the firewall built between the committee and independent expenditure unit, which controls the committee’s advertisement strategy and expenditures in support of or opposition to a candidate.

In 2010, the Democratic and Republican Senate campaign committees spent a combined $65 million on independent expenditures, according to the Sunlight Foundation. But that is a far cry from how the committees expended strategic dollars eight years earlier. 

As David Magleby highlighted in “The Last Hurrah?” a book detailing party committee spending in the 2002 elections, the influx of soft money fundraising in the 1990s led to alternate spending avenues. 

By 2002, coordinated and independent expenditures to individual campaigns were largely ignored in favor of contributing to state parties, which had less strict restrictions on spending soft money. According to the Federal Election Commission, in 2002 neither of the two Senate campaign committees spent a dime through independent expenditures.

In an e-mail to Roll Call, Magleby noted the changes in spending.

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