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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.

Democrats have taken a few pages from Rahm Emanuel’s playbook in hopes of boosting their difficult quest to win the House majority in 2014.

The Chicago mayor served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, when his party beat long odds to win the majority for the first time in more than a decade. This cycle, Democrats face a similarly tough challenge: picking up seats in 17 districts on a map drawn to give the GOP an advantage.

To accomplish this, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel has sought to emulate his former mentor with relentless recruitment, an incessant focus on messaging and Emanuel’s aggressive style — minus a few four-letter expletives.

The two Democrats have a lot in common. Former aides note their shared religion, gregarious public personas, all-in approach to wooing candidates and their soundbite-driven quests to drive messaging.

Israel served as one of Emanuel’s recruitment lieutenants in 2006, along with Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who ran the DCCC in 2008 and 2010. Israel and Emanuel met recently in Chicago and speak regularly by phone, the New York Democrat confirmed in a Tuesday interview with CQ Roll Call.

“You can take Rahm out of the DCCC office, but you can’t take the DCCC out of Rahm Emanuel,” Israel said of their chats.“Rahm, for his part, taught the importance of early recruiting and an aggressive mindset, and I’ve tried to replicate that.”

Above all, Emanuel was known for his persistence and personalized approach to recruitment. He reportedly called one reluctant prospect from his daughter’s ballet recital to help alleviate his concerns about family life in Congress. One former aide described Emanuel’s recruitment approach as a “lack of boundaries.”

Israel often boasts that he started calling future recruits on election night 2012. After the president’s State of the Union address, he immediately emailed potential recruits to say it would be better if they were there. He hosts weekly recruitment meetings at 8 a.m.

Now in his second term as chairman, Israel calls his an “asymmetrical recruitment strategy” — tailoring his approach to the circumstances of each prospective candidate. Instead of relying on unpredictable local delegations to persuade candidates to run, Israel brings a current member with a similar life situation into the process: young families, competitive districts, retirees or a policy interest.

Emanuel was also famous for picking unconventional — and often controversial — candidates. He recruited pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights Democrats in hopes of putting more conservative districts in play. He also publicly picked sides in primaries, and his selections often angered Democrats.

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