Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) has modeled the majority’s revamped policy and messaging shop on the political operation that he built during two successful cycles at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as Senate Democrats look to re-create lost magic and counter emboldened Congressional Republicans.
Combining the Democrats’ old policy committee with the press operation of Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) into the new Democratic Policy and Communications Center — run mainly by Schumer — has not gone without growing pains. The integration of Reid and Schumer staffers initially generated tension, and Democratic Senators are still adjusting to life under the new leadership regime, despite giving it favorable early reviews.
With Reid’s daily consultation and sign-off, Schumer’s goal has been to better involve rank-and-file Democrats in political and policy strategy with an eye toward winning back middle-class voters in 2012. The DPCC is focused on ensuring that the Democrats’ legislative agenda is designed with this priority in mind and that all floor action is accompanied by complementary and effective messaging.
And rather than point fingers at minority Republicans in their own chamber, a major component of Schumer’s strategy includes fixating on the actions of House Republicans, whom the New Yorker views as a juicier target because of their majority status and potential for political and legislative overreach.
“We need to show [the middle class] that the Republicans who came in, particularly in the House, are not focused on them and are extreme,” Schumer said this week in an interview. “This gives us space to occupy the middle ground.”
“I think the consensus would be that we’ve had a good first month,” the Democratic Conference vice chairman added.
The DPCC outlined short- and long-term plans to the Democratic caucus in three slides during a meeting last week in order to show lawmakers how it intends to measure progress. In the short term, Democrats plan to go on the attack to put Republicans on the defensive, according to a copy of the presentation obtained by Roll Call.
Over the past few weeks, Senate Democrats have zeroed in on the GOP move to repeal the health care reform bill and have highlighted various positive areas of the bill that Democrats say will disappear if Republicans are successful. Developing a “smart and effective” floor strategy was identified as a goal of the DPCC.
One Democratic aide said coordinating messaging with the floor operation is critical to making sure the issues that the DPCC is promoting have a lasting effect. The operation’s long-term goal is to “permanently win over the middle class” — a message that Schumer stressed during his chairmanship of the DSCC.
To achieve this, the DPCC plans to involve the entire Democratic caucus in the process — based on the policy interests of various Senators — to both solidify party unity and amplify the messages that it is promoting.
This runs counter to a more centralized operation previously run by Reid that gave latitude to committee chairmen and is similar to how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his team run the Republican Conference.
Democratic Senators asked about the DPCC were positive about the new venture and optimistic about its prospects for the future.
“I think it’s doing well. I think it’s galvanizing our messaging, our thought process, the preparation for critical issues, and so far so good,” Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) said.
Still, DPCC Deputy Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow conceded that her Conference was still becoming accustomed to the new operation.
“Overall, I think people are positive, but obviously when you’re working with a whole caucus, there’s things we can improve on,” the Michigan Democrat said. “But overall I’m hearing positive things.”
One area of friction associated with the transition has been the merging of Reid and Schumer aides into single entity housed in the Majority Leader’s third-floor press room of the Capitol. One Senate Democratic aide said there were still “growing pains” as the staffers figure out “who does what.”
In fact, there are parts of the office that still function separately.
Brian Fallon, the DPCC’s chief spokesman, is Schumer’s primary mouthpiece, while Jon Summers, the DPCC communications director, is Reid’s top spokesman. Meanwhile, the DPCC’s staff director is Katie Beirne, a longtime top aide to Schumer. The third-floor communications office, formerly a Reid operation in its entirety, now houses Beirne, Fallon and two other aides brought over from Schumer’s staff. It is also the location of three staffers associated with Reid, in addition to Summers.
“There have been some personality clashes between the Schumer staff and the Reid staff,” one Democratic aide said. “There has been some tension as they feel each other out.”
In addition to providing leadership on political and policy strategy, Member services are another key component of the DPCC.
The research arm of the operation has ramped up its efforts to provide issue-
related data tailored to each state and talking points that reiterate the importance of the issue in each region. For example, a document circulated on the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill by the DPCC and obtained by Roll Call provides a range of facts, talking points and press release suggestions for communication directors to use.
A second Democratic aide said the operation has vastly improved its outreach to Members, particularly those who are up for re-election in 2012. Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this cycle, indicated that this could be of immense help to incumbent Democrats and challenger candidates heading into an election cycle that could be brutal for the majority. The GOP needs to flip only four seats to win control of the Senate, and 23 Democrats are up next year.
“I think Chuck Schumer’s doing a really good job of helping us really understand and focus on the issues that are important to us as Democrats,” Murray said.