Dean Plans to Aid House Democrats With New Group

Posted March 19, 2004 at 5:32pm

When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) announced the formation of his new political organization in Seattle last week, one of the loudest cheers came when he emphasized the need to elect Democrats to Washington state’s two open House seats and send House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) back to Houston.

“When [Dean] said his priorities were not only the presidential race, but also Congressional and downballot, the crowd ate it up,” said Kelly Young, an attendee and executive director of 21st Century Democrats, a group teaming with Dean to train young activists for campaigns.

Known as Democracy for America, the Dean organization will have a number of facets, including a political action committee and a so-called 527 soft-money group. One of its main tasks will be to bundle money from Dean’s extensive Internet donor base to vulnerable Democratic incumbents and challengers in Congressional races.

“People who signed up for the Dean campaign are still very dedicated to taking our country back,” said Dean spokesman Jay Carson. “They realize that one of the key ways to do that is to take back both houses of Congress.”

Carson said that the new group received a Web contribution within three minutes of its unveiling early Thursday morning and had raised $15,000 before Dean formally announced its existence.

The unveiling of Democracy for America was applauded by Democratic Members and party strategists even as several expressed skepticism about its efficacy.

“This is going to be great for us,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). “I don’t see any downside at all.”

Matsui added that while he hasn’t spoken directly to Dean about the bundling plans, he has had extended conversations about it with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a close ally and key early supporter of the former governor. The DCCC, he said, has provided Dean with a list of vulnerable Democratic incumbents as well as a handful of top-tier challengers.

Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), a former DCCC chairman, also embraced the idea but cautioned that “Members will have to make their own judgments” about whether it would be beneficial for Dean to raise money for them.

Frost said that many Democrats — especially those in Southern swing districts — disagreed with Dean’s vehement opposition to the war in Iraq, a point that would have to be made in any fundraising solicitation Dean would do on their behalf.

“I could see some Members saying they’d rather not have the help,” said a Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But there are plenty of Members and candidates who will want the help.”

Dean has already had two dry runs to test the transferability of his Internet network.

In late December, Dean raised $52,000 for the campaign of Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) in just 24 hours; in the days leading up to the March 16 Illinois primary, Dean sent an e-mail appeal for Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D). No dollar total from that solicitation was available at press time.

While the fundraising pitch for Boswell was seen as an overwhelming success, a Democratic strategist said it is not an accurate predictor of whether Dean’s new bundling venture will work.

“Who knows how successful it will be?” said the strategist. “He had trouble raising money for himself at the end.”

All told, Dean raised better than $50 million for his presidential campaign, far more than his rivals — including Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the party’s presumptive nominee.

But Dean’s campaign spent at an outsized clip without any noticeable results.

He placed a distant third in the Iowa caucuses, second in the New Hampshire primary eight days later and then was unable to win any of the seven states that voted Feb. 3.

After failing to win the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17, Dean ended his campaign.

Democratic consultant Jenny Backus said that Dean’s decision to focus on Congressional races shows he has learned “this isn’t about Howard Dean anymore.”

“The core of his message that worked was ‘you have the power to change your life’” —an empowerment theme that remains potent despite Dean’s defeat, Backus said.

Matsui said that with the Dean movement shifting from focusing on the candidate to an organization, it will likely insulate potential candidates from criticism for accepting its donations.

Dean’s searing experience in the presidential primaries also appears to have taught him that a loyal group of supporters willing to donate money and exchange stories on a campaign Web log does not necessarily equate to an army of foot soldiers that will effectively turn out voters.

To remedy that problem, Dean has joined forces with 21st Century Democrats, a political organization that trains and places activists in state and federal campaigns nationwide.

“We are closers,” said Young, the organization’s president. “What we are able to do is make sure all the efforts of volunteers and activists are targeted in the right way.”

Young’s group has been in existence for 16 years and claims to have placed more than 4,000 activists in campaigns during that time.