Given how little sleep Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) gets as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, his favorite snack should come as no surprise: jelly beans, preferably washed down with a swig of Diet Coke.
“Keeps me going — my caffeine, my sugar,” quipped Israel, munching on a handful of the chewy candies as he cracked open a soda before a recent interview in his study in the Rayburn House Office Building.
It’s not just juggling two jobs as DCCC chairman and as a Congressman representing New York’s 2nd district on Long Island that stokes Israel’s sugar habit — though he said he’s gone from six to four hours of sleep per night.
What really keeps Israel up at night is super PACs — Republican-friendly super PACs to be exact. The DCCC is well-positioned, Israel argues, to win the 25 seats Democrats would need to retake the House in 2012. The DCCC has outraised its GOP counterpart by close to $10 million and recruited 60 Democrats ahead of schedule last year to run in GOP-held districts.
But the unrestricted super PACs ushered in by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling could spend hundreds of millions in the election — and the vast bulk will likely back Republican candidates.
The top five super PACs supporting presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republican House and Senate candidates have pulled in $102.3 million so far, according to Political MoneyLine — almost three times what the top five pro-Democrat super PACs have raised.
“Everything that we have done that is in our control, we have met or exceeded expectations,” Israel said. “We have outraised the Republicans, we have out- recruited them and we have out-messaged them. … But I know that those super PACs are going to sweep in and spend tens of millions of dollars in stealth money supported by corporate interests, and try to steal this election away from us.”
Not that Israel seems too worried. At 54, the Brooklyn native displays the same hard-charging energy and willingness to buck tough political odds that propelled him from a career in public relations and local politics to a seat in the House in 2000.
Israel wears his victory in that contest — he beat four general election candidates with 48 percent — like a badge of honor. It helps explain how he won the DCCC chairmanship. On announcing Israel’s selection for the post in 2010, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) touted his “practical experience in running and winning in difficult districts.”
As a former member of the Blue Dog Coalition and founder of the now-defunct House Center Aisle Caucus, the centrist was not the obvious choice for such a partisan post. But Israel maintains that Democrats recognize that they lost the majority in 2010 because swing voters abandoned them. And he’s taken to his new partisan role like a duck to Long Island Sound.
“I do remind my colleagues that we lost 63 seats in 2010 because swing voters swung away from us,” Israel said. “Now what’s happening is, they’re swinging back — because Republicans in this Congress have gone so excessively to the right. They’ve been so hyper-partisan, they’ve been so protective of their own perks and privileges, and they’ve been so protective of millionaires versus the middle class, that those swing voters are back in play for Democrats.”
When Israel took over as DCCC chairman, the committee was about $20 million in debt and Democrats were sagging in the polls. In addition to erasing the committee’s debt and putting the DCCC in the black, Israel has set about “applying what I learned representing a swing district to the national political landscape,” as he put it.
“If you knock on somebody’s door, and there’s a pothole outside, and you say, ‘That’s not a federal responsibility,’ you will lose,” said Israel. “Get a shovel. Find some asphalt. Pave the pothole.”
It’s no surprise that Democrats would work to frame House contests around local, not national, issues, Republicans say. Though Democrats now lead by as much as 7 points in generic ballot polls, President Barack Obama may do little to buoy his party.
“In most cases, they are going to do their best to make this not a national election,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “Because at the end of the day, they have a president whose approval rating is not very good right now, and who is not popular in parts of the country, even where they have Democratic seats.”
Republicans acknowledge that they are taking nothing for granted. As Israel likes to point out, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Fox News in April that “there’s a one-in-three chance” Republicans could lose the House.
But because of retirements and newly drawn district lines that have made many GOP seats safer than in 2010, Lindsay said, Democrats really need to win closer to 35 or even 45 seats to regain the majority. Though the DCCC has outraised the NRCC, Lindsay noted, the GOP committee has more cash on hand — $31.3 million compared with the DCCC’s $25 million.
Israel himself is running for re-election in a redrawn 2nd district that is 60 percent new to him. As he adds an extended “listening tour” to his already busy schedule, he might want to stock up on jelly beans. An NRCC memo cites Israel as one of 16 Democrats whose seat redistricting has put in play.