Campaign Committees Anxious to Tap Obama’s Popularity

Posted May 4, 2009 at 6:50pm

During last week’s media frenzy surrounding President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office, the audacity of the White House’s early policy initiatives was widely discussed.

But when it comes to the president’s willingness to engage on the political front, it is clear that he has been much more risk-averse in spending the capital with which he began his term.

“He’s a lot more cautious with his political capital than Wall Street has been with its money in recent years,— one Democratic consultant said of Obama last week.

A few Democratic insiders have even privately expressed concern that the White House has been too guarded when it comes to using Obama’s popularity to help candidates and the party’s overall cause — especially when Democrats are heading into 2010 battling historical trends.

Since Abraham Lincoln, only two newly elected presidents saw their party gain seats in Congress in the first midterm elections. On average, the president’s party has lost 30 seats in those first midterms.

So when Obama said at his White House press conference last week that — considering the challenges the country is facing — he wished he could put off the political side of his job until 2010, some Democrats were uneasy.

“I would like to think that everybody would say, You know what, let’s take a timeout on some of the political games, focus our attention for at least this year and then we can start running for something next year,’— Obama said in response to a question about what has troubled him. “And that hasn’t happened as much as I would have liked.—

The president’s desire to stay away from the political game certainly caused some hand-wringing within the party during the recent special election in New York.

Heading into the final week of that contest, when polls showed Scott Murphy (D) had overcome a deficit of more than 20 points and was basically in a dead heat with James Tedisco (R), reports began surfacing that a few Democratic consultants close to the race were anxious for the White House and its political arm at the Democratic National Committee to step up their efforts to ensure the party held the seat.

In the end, Obama did step in to endorse Murphy five days before voters went to the polls, and the DNC released a television ad that featured Obama’s image the following day.

Murphy’s narrow margin of victory was only certain after weeks of recounting and recanvassing. In retrospect, some Democrats think that much of that anxiety could have been avoided.

“Hindsight is 20-20, but if [the White House and the DNC] had jumped in earlier, the election would have been decided on Election Day,— one Capitol Hill Democrat said last week.

Seven days before the March 31 election, the Republican National Committee had funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race with little response from the DNC. According to independent expenditure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent $574,000 on the race before the DNC made its first significant investment totaling $10,000 on March 26.

Democratic consultant Steve Murphy who handled media for now-Rep. Scott Murphy (no relation) during the campaign, said the results justify the decisions that were made.

“Regardless of the timing, the president did get directly involved, the DNC did produce a television commercial, they did authorize a mailing to Democrats,— Murphy said. “We won; there’s enough credit to go around.—

Last week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) described the interactions between the DNC and the DCCC during the special election as “a very productive relationship.—

“Is it possible that we put together a long list and they didn’t do some of the items on the list, sure. But … we were very pleased with the support we received from the president and the White House,— he said.

Van Hollen said that the DNC and the DCCC “are on the same page moving forward. … We’re going to be working very closely with the Obama team and the team at the DNC going forward.—

Indeed, it is still relatively early in the 2010 campaign for Congress — even if the beginning of this cycle has been more active than most in recent memory — and to this point both parties have been focused almost exclusively on recruiting and fundraising.

If by this time next year Obama hasn’t fully embraced his role as campaigner in chief, then there might be cause for concern among Democrats.

“I don’t think there is much to [Obama’s] involvement or noninvolvement in political races other than the fact that [he has] been trying to fix a severely damaged economy in the first 100 days,— said Democratic consultant John Anzalone, who has worked with both the DCCC and the DNC in past races.

DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said the committee is continuing to build a strong relationship with the DCCC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“We have weighed in heavily on what’s going on in Minnesota, we weighed in on New York 20, and [DNC Chairman Tim] Kaine is committed along with the president to maintaining and growing strong Congressional majorities for Democrats so we can continue to see the president’s agenda enacted in Congress.—

Woodhouse said the DNC is working to continue to energize the grass-roots network that Obama cultivated and built during his presidential run, an effort that party leaders hope will continue to pay dividends for Congressional Democrats next year.

“I think we’ve been doing a lot of tilling the soil work in putting the Republicans in a defensive posture going into 2010, which I think will help in the House and the Senate races,— he said.

And it’s not like Obama’s calendar is void of political events.

In recent weeks, the president has agreed to attend a Las Vegas fundraiser in May for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), be at another fundraiser in Indiana for Democratic House candidates and headline a dinner in June to benefit the DSCC and the DCCC.

Per Obama’s fundraising ground rules, donations from registered lobbyists and political action committees will be barred at those fundraisers.

The DNC abides by those fundraising rules in all its activities while the DSCC and the DCCC have agreed to adhere to them only when Obama headlines events.

Without lobbyist or PAC donations it will be interesting to see if the Congressional campaign committees will be able to raise as much as their Republican counterparts did at dinners under former President George W. Bush. A strong performance would certainly demonstrate that Obama’s vaunted small-dollar and Internet-based fundraising organization will continue to be a financial juggernaut heading into the midterms.

As of the end of March, FEC reports showed that the three Republican campaign committees had a combined $20 million in cash on hand, with the lion’s share held by the Republican National Committee. The three Democratic committees were collectively more than $5 million in debt.

Some Democrats say the best thing Obama can do right now is to stay away from politics and concentrate on his policy initiatives because his success on that front is the best way for the party to succeed in 2010.

“To the extent that 2010 will be seen as a referendum on the president’s performance, the best thing he can do for Democrats also happens to be the best thing he can do for the country: continue to work to get this economy back on track,— DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz said.

But another Democratic political consultant said that if the president wants to avoid the Republican wave that washed over Congress during President Bill Clinton’s first midterms, the party should not shirk its political duties.

“Considering some of the same people are in the White House that were there in 1994, hopefully they aren’t suffering a case of amnesia and they’ve learned a lesson about their [political] responsibilities,— the consultant said. “Hopefully they know whose midterm report card will be delivered on Nov. 2, 2010 — that’s Barack Obama’s.—