NRCC Uses Continuity, Experience to Become Political Bronx Bombers

Posted February 25, 2005 at 5:29pm

There are two things to know about the New York Yankees. First, they are the most successful sports team in American history. They don’t win every game or every year, but over the past century they have won more than anyone else. [IMGCAP(1)]

Second, when the Yankees are at their best, they are a model of stability, experience and self-confidence.

Miller Huggins managed the Yankees for 12 years, winning six pennants and three World Series. Joe McCarthy ran the team for 16 years, winning eight American League championships and seven World Series.

Casey Stengel managed them for 12 years, winning 10 league championships and seven World Series. And Joe Torre has managed the Yankees for nine years, finishing first in his division eight times and winning four World Series. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre has been with Torre for each of those years.

Each of the managers had a small group of stars who stayed with the club for years, integrating new players into the team and teaching them how to win.

So what does any of this have to do with politics? Recently, the National Republican Congressional Committee appears to have been modeling itself after the Yankees, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s approach has been more akin to that of the Washington Redskins — a revolving door of coaches and key players and an owner who thinks he’s also the general manager and coach.

Over the past three cycles, the DCCC has been “managed” by the late Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), and Reps. Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and Patrick Kennedy (R.I.), all committed Democrats not known for their interest or expertise in campaigns. The party’s House leader, who often had other things on his or her mind, preferred to be the driving force at the committee.

The NRCC, by contrast, has opted for strong leadership, stability and political savvy.

With the exception of Rep. John Linder (Ga.), who ran the NRCC for a single, undistinguished term (1997-98), the Republican campaign committee has been run by chairmen who served at least two terms at the helm. In the mid 1990s, it was then-Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.), who was ambitious, hands-on and politically adept. More recently, political junkie Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) and now-Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), a veteran of the political wars in the Empire State Legislature, have exhibited strong leadership.

But continuity, stability and expertise at the NRCC has extended beyond the team’s “manager.”

NRCC political director Mike McElwain is in his second cycle at that post. Before that, he served at the committee as national field director, where he mentored under then-Political Director Terry Nelson, who served two tours in that post at the NRCC.

Two of McElwain’s current top deputies, Jonathan Poe and Larry Telford, started working at the committee in 2001 as field representatives. Poe was national field director last cycle, and he moves up to deputy political director this cycle. Telford is beginning his second cycle as director for incumbent retention.

Committee Communications Director Carl Forti held that post last cycle and is staying at the NRCC again. Forti, who managed the NRCC’s independent expenditure program in 2002 and 2004, actually joined the committee as deputy communications director in the spring of 1999.

Over at the DCCC, the committee has tried to reinvent itself every two years. Many of the DCCC’s top staffers have been experienced and extremely talented, but the committee’s relatively weak leadership and turnover have taken a toll.

The invaluable Mark Gersh has been a key consultant to the committee for years, and Peter Cari was the committee’s political director last cycle after spending part of the previous cycle running the DCCC’s independent expenditure program. Current Communications Director Greg Speed handled press in 2003-2004 as well. But the committee has fielded a new team almost every two years, and that has had its downside.

The DCCC’s new leader, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, is the savviest political strategist since then-Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), the last two-term DCCC chairman.

A one-time national field director for the DCCC in the late 1980s, Emanuel knows campaigns, and he brought in some talented political people to run things at the committee (including John Lapp and Dave Hamrick). That should help, but you can’t create institutional memory overnight.

Stability and continuity aren’t always signs of health, of course. Then-Rep. Guy VanderJagt (Mich.) ran the NRCC for more than a dozen years even though his party consistently failed to make major gains. Back then, the committee chairmanship had no glamour, and VanderJagt kept his job in large part because nobody else wanted it.

But now the NRCC chairmanship, a coveted elective office, is seen as a stepping stone to greater power, while the Democratic House leader often has to beg a friend to take the DCCC job. The Democrats need that to change.

Emanuel’s selection by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi signals that the California Democrat understands the DCCC needs to be run by someone who understands campaigns, not merely by someone who will take orders from the leadership. That’s a good first step.

The Yankees suffered through some tough stretches between the eras of Stengel and Torre, during which the club’s owner, George Steinbrenner, opted for chaos over stability, for Billy Martin over, say, a Torre.

But the Yankees eventually returned to stability, continuity and experience, and to their winning form. That’s a lesson Pelosi, Emanuel and House Democrats ought consider as they think about the future of the DCCC.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.