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Roll Call

10 Years Later, Murray Is Leading a Changed DSCC

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Sen. Patty Murray begins a second term at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in some ways about where she left off.

Record-breaking fundraising, tragedy and Republican electoral gains marked Murray’s first stint as DSCC chairwoman. While much has changed a decade later, the four-term Washington state Democrat believes the 2002 cycle is a cautionary tale for election forecasters. 

“When I took on the task the first time around, no one could have predicted all of the dynamic changes over the next two years, or how it would affect people,” Murray told Roll Call in her first newspaper interview since taking control of the DSCC.

“I take that into this cycle. People change, events happen. You can’t predict one election to the next,” she said.

In the 2002 midterms, Republicans won back the Senate, picked up seats in the House and for the first time in 50 years held a majority of state legislative seats. Today, Republicans are again coming off a successful cycle, having won back the House, picked up seats in the Senate and won nearly 700 state legislative seats. And twice as many Democratic Senators are up for re-election in 2012 as Republicans.

Back then, Murray’s task was to defeat Senators who were bolstered by a popular Republican president. Campaign finance laws allowed parties to take unlimited donations, which translated to $50,000 checks from Silicon Valley technology executives and Microsoft moguls. YouTube was years from existence and the idea of a news story coming at the speed of a tweet might have seemed laughable.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recruited Murray back to the job for the 2012 cycle because of the challenging landscape, when few others were up to the task. Murray is coming off a tough re-election of her own and wants to make sure her Democratic colleagues make it back as well.

“I really believe that the policies we are working hard on are right for the American people,” Murray said. “It’s important we have people in the Senate who will do the work to make that happen.”

Democratic consultant Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, who ran the DSCC’s communications team along with Robert Gibbs in the 2002 cycle, said Murray is the right person for the job.

“Press calls, candidate meetings, political meetings — it’s just a ton of hours,” Ravitz-Meehan said. “But she’s very good at managing it all.”

Murray did it before amid one of the more volatile political atmospheres following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By Election Day 2002, President George W. Bush’s approval rating hadn’t been below 60 percent since Sept. 10, 2001.

The popular Bush spent a considerable amount of time on the trail campaigning and raising money for Republicans, including five trips to South Dakota alone for then-Rep. John Thune, whom Bush recruited to the race. Thune lost to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) by just more than 500 votes, though Johnson notably ran an ad touting his own support for Bush.

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.

“In the 1998-2002 period the party committees, working through state party committees, expended substantial sums in competitive contests,” said Magleby, a senior research fellow at the Brigham Young University Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “In 2004 and since they have done the same thing with hard money independent expenditures.”

Chris LaCivita, a Republican consultant who served as political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in both the 2002 and 2010 cycles, has witnessed the difference firsthand. 

“In 2002, the committees were much more focused on the product than the day-to-day dealings of a campaign,” LaCivita said. “By virtue of the product leaving the building, the focus is more on the campaigns being strategically and tactically sound.”

Murray said there have been a lot of changes in the past 10 years, but after winning a tough re-election of her own last year in a challenging landscape for Democrats, the most crucial aspects of winning campaigns are constant. 

“The fundamentals of campaigning are all the same,” she said. “Having good, strong campaigns and candidates, and having the resources.”

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