Members Vent at DNC

Posted June 25, 2003 at 6:45pm

An increased competition for campaign funds and the departure of Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) from the leadership team have combined to exacerbate tensions between House Democrats struggling to break out of the minority and the party’s national committee, according to Members and top aides.

House Democrats say privately that the divide between their leaders and the Democratic National Committee has widened to a point where communication and cooperation in fundraising efforts has all but ceased.

Several senior House Democratic lawmakers and aides said that with the race for the party’s presidential nomination heating up, the DNC and chairman Terry McAuliffe have largely ignored their plight.

“They’ve done embarrassingly little to help the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee],” said one top House Democratic aide. “They talk about giving us money, but they don’t spend the money in ways that help us win back the House.”

Gephardt and McAuliffe are close, and while Gephardt was leader there was a clear line of communication between the caucus and DNC.

“Gephardt could say, ‘We need a check’ in those days,” said one senior Democratic lawmaker. “Now, there’s no way to build a relationship.”

The DNC, however, said that while the presidential race takes top billing, supporting the Congressional campaign committees remains a priority and noted that many of the targeted presidential states are also host to key House and Senate races.

“The mission of the DNC and its first priority is clearly to take back the White House,” said Debra DeShong, DNC communications director. “We believe a strong top of the ticket helps win back both the House and Senate and we’re doing it in such a way that we’re doing a great deal of overlap in our focus.”

Several Democratic lawmakers and aides said new Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) isn’t close to McAuliffe, making it even more difficult for House Democrats to ask for financial help from the DNC. And until the Democratic presidential nominee or president chooses a successor for McAuliffe, House Democrats don’t foresee any major improvement.

“There’s no relationship between Pelosi and McAuliffe,” said one senior Democratic aide. One Democratic lawmaker close to Pelosi echoed that the two had “no ongoing trusting relationship.”

A party strategist observed that while “Terry and Nancy haven’t hit it off,” such tensions were hardly unique.

“It’s never been good,” said the strategist. “When Gephardt was there — because of the personal relationship he and McAuliffe had — it was marginally better. But even so, there has always been hostility.

“The House and Senate, and the House in particular, have always felt they were getting the shaft.”

For her part, Pelosi brushed aside talk of a rift, saying in a statement that McAuliffe’s “enthusiasm and commitment are great assets to the Democratic Party. Terry is laying the groundwork for Democratic victories in 2004.”

DeShong characterized McAuliffe and Pelosi as having “a close working relationship.” She added that the DNC also has relationships with other House leaders including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who are scheduled to attend a DNC fundraiser Wednesday night.

She said the party committees also work together daily on message, fundraising and individual campaigns. While campaign finance reform has led to greater competition for money, DeShong said the committees are looking for creative ways to identify new donors.

“We’re going to be working very hard to make sure we coordinate our efforts,” she said. “We’re spending time and energy trying to take back the House and take back the Senate.”

In 2002, DeShong noted, the DNC spent $15 million on coordinated campaign efforts, state party assistance and donations to the DCCC and DSCC, and the DNC lent an additional $2 million to the DCCC before the last election.

Still, frustrations are still mounting. Even during Gephardt’s tenure in the last Congress House Democrats said they received virtually no support from McAuliffe for their battles over redistricting. The DNC had initially promised as much as $13 million for the efforts, but later provided $5.5 million.

“Getting that money was difficult,” said one former Democratic aide. “It was like taking blood from a stone.”

One high-ranking Democratic lawmaker said many House Members feel the DNC should be as concerned about winning back a House majority as it is about winning the 2004 White House.

Members “don’t really have any use for the DNC in the context of this goal,” said the lawmaker. “There’s the friction.”

Another senior aide said those tensions are much less evident on the Senate side, in part because of McAuliffe’s close relationship with Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

“His whole mission is to win the presidential,” said the staffer. “He’s so close to Hillary Clinton and to Daschle. That naturally pushes McAuliffe to the Senate Democrats and his presidential priorities and nothing pushes him to House Democratic politics.”

New caps on how much donors can give to party committees have also increased the competition between the three committees.

Those laws put a $57,500 cap on how much anyone can give a party committee over a two-year period. For example, an individual can give $25,000 per year to the DNC, which leaves only $7,500 to be divvied up among any of the other party organizations. The DNC has aggressively courted those contributions, hurting the fundraising abilities of the House and Senate campaign committee, House sources argued.

Another sore spot for House Democrats is that interest groups sympathetic to the party have focused their attention — and financial support — on the closely divided Senate more and more, seeing it as a last line of defense against Republican initiatives.

DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) said his organization and the DNC work to ensure they have a consistent dialogue.

“I don’t feel there is any antagonism,” Corzine said. “Is it perfect? No. Part of it is the separation … but I think we will work very closely together.”

Until last year, the DSCC was housed in the same building as the DNC. Before the new campaign finance law was passed last fall, the DSCC used its soft money to buy its own building close to the Hart Senate Office Building.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who once teamed up with fellow North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan to pressure McAuliffe to pay more attention to rural states, now praises the chairman.

“I have found the DNC under this chairman to be very responsive and very helpful,” Conrad said. “I think this chairman deserves enormous credit at being remarkably effective in an extraordinarily difficult environment.”

As for McAuliffe’s critics, Conrad said it “goes with the territory.”

“The guy is in motion and he is doing things,” he said. “Anyone who is out there aggressively making things happen gets criticized.”

Still, a senior Democratic Senator said most Democrats have written the DNC off.

“I think Senators have sort of given up on the DNC,” said the Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It is a presidential instrument.”

A Democratic aide long familiar with House Democratic fundraising efforts noted that the party should take a cue from their Republican counterparts. The staffer said that in 1994 when the GOP took the House Majority, the RNC began redirecting some of its money to the other party committees.

“That’s the type of commitment that the DNC has never made to House Democrats,” said the aide.

Mark Preston contributed to this report.