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House Democrats Pull Pages From the Rahm Playbook

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
The leadership style of Israel, right, at the DCCC has clearly been influenced by Emanuel and his success in the post. Israel said an early start to recruiting is key to winning seats.

“Remember, we were working on a Republican map. So you got to figure out how to pick the combination to the lock,” Emanuel said in an Oct. 24 interview at the Center for American Progress policy conference. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh, we don’t want those kinds of candidates. Those are the wrong candidates.’ We won, and we also won again in 2008.”

Israel, along with his top deputy, Executive Director Kelly Ward, has also shown a penchant for picking unconventional candidates — and taking sides in races. The DCCC has some success too: The committee’s roster includes a bee farmer, a retired Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, general and a former Army Ranger.

The committee has also been more aggressive in backing candidates earlier than in previous cycles, mostly through its Jumpstart program for top recruits. Last week, the DCCC confirmed it would support Alex Sink’s bid for a competitive special election in Florida over another Democrat who was making her second run for the seat.

“Certainly a big part of 2006 was really recruiting some nontraditional candidates — whether they were veterans, sheriffs, police officers,” said John Lapp, a former top aide to Israel and Emanuel at the DCCC. “There’s no question that a big part of Steve’s strategy ... is recruiting non-traditional folks beyond the state legislator types.”

Of course, there are major differences between this cycle and 2006 in the political environment that could make it more difficult for Democrats to win the House.

When Emanuel ran the DCCC, Republicans controlled the House, Senate and the White House. Democrats used their minority status to their advantage by running against an unpopular President George W. Bush, an even more unpopular Iraq War and a “culture of corruption” in Congress.

“There are similarities” between Israel’s and Emanuel’s strategies, said former Rep. Tom Davis, who was once the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. “But what Rahm Emanuel had going for him was he had an anti-Bush wave. You’re not likely to get an anti-GOP wave when Democrats have control of the White House.”

Democrats also control the Senate, making messaging even more difficult — at least until recently, when House Republicans pushed for a government shutdown.

It’s clear Israel also studied in the Emanuel school of campaign messaging. The goal is to slowly build a narrative about the opposition, seizing on events outside the committee’s control. For example, he used House Republicans as the bogeyman of the government shutdown to build a “culture of dysfunction” narrative.

“Whereas 2006 was about a culture of corruption ... I think this one is much about a culture of dysfunction,” Lapp said. “This is a really dysfunctional Republican Party, a tea party Republican Party, that is shutting our economy down.”

Israel recruited a few more top candidates in the weeks following the shutdown. The goal is to get as many strong candidates on the board as possible, even in difficult districts.

If a wave comes next November, Israel wants to be fully prepared.

It’s another lesson he learned from Emanuel, whose former aides believe they could have won more seats if they reached further in their recruitment earlier.

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