DSCC Uses Bullhorn to Air GOP Weakness

Posted June 13, 2003 at 6:07pm

Faced with a daunting playing field and the likelihood of being heavily outspent in the 2004 elections, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has embarked on an aggressive earned media campaign to motivate the party’s activist base.

Dubbed “Project Bullhorn,” the program’s goal is to “run virtual campaigns in the absence of campaigns with an intensity level that has not been done before,” said DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse.

At its essence, Project Bullhorn is an attempt to turn conventional wisdom on its head by running a public relations campaign to develop long-term electoral messages against Republican Senators up in 2004.

“We have an obligation to demonstrate that we have a good shot this cycle,” Woodhouse said. “We have an obligation to demonstrate that some of these Republicans are and can be vulnerable.”

Looking at the raw numbers alone, however, Democrats in both the Senate and the House seem to face uphill battles to reclaim their majorities and are further hampered by the message clutter caused by the nine Democrats currently running for president.

“Both the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and the DSCC are in tough positions because they are the lowest of the low on the totem pole when it comes to attention from donors and the press,” said a Democratic strategist. “They are the Canadian Football League.”

Democrats need to pick up only three seats to take back control of the Senate but have to defend 19 seats to Republicans’ 15 in 2004.

In addition, a number of Democrats are considering retiring, including Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.), John Edwards (N.C.), Fritz Hollings (S.C.) and John Breaux (La.). Sens. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) have already announced their retirements.

Unfazed by these statistics, Woodhouse pointed to data of his own.

The DSCC has already sent out 120 news releases this cycle, he said, 40 more than the committee sent out in all of the previous cycle. The frequency of the releases is proportional to the perceived vulnerability of each Republican Senator, each of whom has been ranked and divided into targeting tiers, according to knowledgeable Democratic sources.

One Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, warned that the committee’s prolific activity could backfire later in the cycle.

“You don’t want to lose currency [with reporters] because every time they turn around there is another release,” the strategist said.

As another part of the project, the DSCC has set up a satellite office in Illinois and staffed it with a former communications operative for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

The DSCC is also targeting its attacks, establishing an “Arlen Specter Watch” in Pennsylvania and the “Voinovich Project” in Ohio to monitor the votes and actions of the two GOP Senators.

The emphasis on Specter and Sen. George Voinovich, however, reveals that while Project Bullhorn may score rhetorical points it has yet to inspire Democratic candidates to enter targeted Senate races.

Specter, a moderate, is being challenged by conservative Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in a race that could create a real opportunity for Democrats.

While the Democrats have repeatedly knocked Specter for moving to the right on issues ranging from port security to the child tax credit in order to beat back Toomey’s challenge, they have yet to field a viable candidate of their own in the race.

Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) as well as wealthy philanthropist Marsha Perelman, the sister-in-law of Revlon head Ron Perelman, are contemplating bids but do not appear to be near a decision.

In Ohio, the DSCC may actually have one too many candidates as both state Sen. Eric Fingerhut and talk show celebrity Jerry Springer appear set to run for the nomination.

Driven by his universal name identification, Springer seems the likely nominee, a prospect that has the DSCC worried.

“Jerry Springer certainly has the right to run, but clearly, the Democratic Party and the people of Ohio could do better than Jerry Springer,” Woodhouse has said.

Even if Springer becomes the nominee, polls have shown Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor and Buckeye State governor, crushing him in a general election.

Republicans believe the DSCC’s program is all talk, with little substance to back it up.

“Ultimately we are judged on the resources we are able to raise and the quality of recruits we are able to get into races,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen. “Senate Republicans are pleased with where we are in the process.”

The NRSC raised $8.4 million in the first four months of 2003; the DSCC brought in $6.3 million.

The DSCC’s attempt to establish a cohesive and coordinated message for candidates across the country may also be hampered by the fact that on any issue, Senators are capable of cutting deals with colleagues across the aisle.

“It is harder for [the DSCC] to weave an opposition party narrative,” said a Democratic strategist. “Everyone is making deals.”

Recent Democratic defections on the president’s tax bill and the Medicare compromise highlight the difficulty of the DSCC’s task.

Woodhouse remains unbowed in the face of criticism about the effectiveness of the program, pointing to Illinois as an early success story.

“We ran a significant public relations campaign against Jim Edgar,” he said.

Edgar, a former two-term governor, was heavily recruited by the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee to run for the seat being vacated by Fitzgerald.

He eventually decided against the race, although Republicans insist that the DSCC’s missives had nothing to do with his choice.

Woodhouse disagreed, noting that when Edgar announced he wouldn’t run he complained that “politics is a blood sport in Illinois.”

“We shed a little blood as he was considering whether or not he wanted to run for U.S. Senate,” Woodhouse said.

In Illinois, the DSCC hired Stacey Zolt, a former Durbin staffer, to help communicate the Democratic message amid a crowded primary as another outcropping of Project Bullhorn.

Potential problems aside, most Democrats contacted for this story applauded the DSCC’s efforts.

“You have to do something to fill the news cycles,” said one observer.