DCCC’s Vogel Translates Emanuel and Races

Posted February 19, 2010 at 5:14pm

The third of four profiles of Congressional campaign committee executive directors.

After helping elect 233 House Democrats in 2006 and then 255 in 2008, there are three numbers that still make Jon Vogel sick.

“You would see the 773 area code on your phone and everything would just tense up in your body,” Vogel recalled, imitating his reaction by gripping his stomach. “You just knew you went from being relaxed to ‘I’m dealing with something.'”

Seeing the Chicago area code meant that Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman in the 2006 cycle, was on the line.

Four years after Emanuel led the party’s House takeover, the DCCC’s executive director doesn’t hear much from his former boss, now the White House chief of staff.

Vogel has had a pretty astounding success rate over the past three years under current Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.): He led the DCCC’s 2008 independent expenditure operation, and under his leadership as executive director, Democrats picked up two seats in 2009 special elections.

His former colleagues praise him as methodical and relentless, and his predecessor even calls him “annoying.”

“Even when he was a desk person, he was like ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease,’ said Brian Wolff, the committee’s executive director in the 2008 cycle. “That guy fought for his candidates so far. … It was so annoying.”

[IMGCAP(1)]During an interview last week, Vogel, 34, sat with his legs crossed in his small, sparsely decorated office. Clearly labeled three-ring binders are strewn across the room, but Vogel’s office could still be one of the neatest spaces in the entire Democratic National Committee building.

“What gets me going is the strategy behind these races,” Vogel said. “These are 80 different puzzles you need to figure out. And the more time I can spend doing that, the more enjoyable it is for me.”

Although the DCCC has a notable cash advantage over its GOP counterpart, there is universal agreement that Democrats face their most difficult environment in three cycles as they try to defend their large majority.

But out of all of the races that Vogel will oversee this cycle, there is perhaps only one that he describes as “painful” to execute. The Philadelphia native and avid sports fan will have to work to re-elect Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.) over former Eagles offensive tackle Jon Runyan (R).

“That is not my favorite thing to have to do, to take down an Eagle,” he said. “But he’s a [San Diego] Charger now. And that’s Eagles fans. We have short memories.”

Vogel got his big break working for Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) first campaign, when he raised upward of $800,000 in the six short weeks after the now-Congressman upset a local official in the 2000 Democratic primary.

“I never could have won that race without raising that money, and I never would have raised that money without Jon Vogel,” Israel said.

Vogel followed Israel to Capitol Hill to serve as his deputy chief of staff alongside another colleague from the campaign trail, then-Chief of Staff John Lapp. Years later when Lapp became executive director of the DCCC in the 2006 cycle, he tapped Vogel as northeast political director.

“I think there are few people who come into that executive director job with the skills and the knowledge that this job requires,” Lapp said.

Vogel dabbled in the consulting business, although he never stayed for long. He was a vice president at a direct-mail firm in 2004 and was a pollster at the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group after leaving his post as IE director at the end of 2008. During his brief tenure with the firm, he worked on Democrats’ victorious special election in New York’s 20th district — a win that allows him to boast that he has a “1,000 percent average as a pollster.”

But he wasn’t at the firm more than three weeks before Van Hollen asked him to come back to the DCCC.

“I don’t know if it was a tough sell, but we certainly pushed hard,” Van Hollen said of his recruitment pitch.

Vogel took the gig, which was one of the few that he had not held yet at the committee. What’s more, Van Hollen said Vogel knew it was going to be one of the toughest election cycles in recent memory.

“We’re in the fight of our lives here,” the chairman recalled telling Vogel. “This is no time to get someone who needs on-the-job training. We need someone who can handle everything that’s going to be thrown at us in a very tough political environment and understands everything that’s at stake.”

According to Wolff, bringing back Vogel “made perfect sense” to Van Hollen.

Throughout his many cycles at the DCCC — including a six-month stint in 1997 ­— the red-haired Vogel has been known for his intensity and seriousness. He installed a home gym a couple years ago and religiously gets up at 5:45 a.m. to work out.

One former colleague recalled e-mailing Vogel during his first few weeks on the job in the 2008 cycle asking what time he was expected to arrive at work the next day, a Saturday. Vogel replied to the staffer, copied the entire political staff and deadpanned, “What a great question. 8 a.m.”

“Jon has a biting sarcasm,” Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I’d be lying if I said I haven’t seen a couple of Jon’s jokes fall totally and completely flat in the DCCC conference room.”

Vogel takes great pride in his work with Murphy, a first-time candidate in the 2006 cycle. He recalled the moment with excitement when he was driving through upstate New York with Emanuel and saw polling data from Murphy’s race showing he was going to defeat 12-term Rep. Nancy Johnson (R).

“I have a deep affinity and loyalty to Jon because he had the guts to see something in our race that no one had seen for 24 years prior,” Murphy said.

In the 2006 cycle, Murphy recalled when Emanuel summoned him to the DCCC to discuss one of his campaign consultants. Emanuel said he was concerned about one of Murphy’s hired hands but calmly stated that he would not tell the candidate what to do. On his way out of the office, Murphy ran into Vogel — who former colleagues say often served as a translator for candidates when it came to Emanuel’s abrasive style — in the hall.

“Vogel looks at me and he said, ‘When Rahm tells you that he’s not telling you what to do, he’s telling you what to do,'” Murphy said. “They were right. It was the best move we made, and we never looked back.”

Vogel is also known for working with a kitchen cabinet of sorts in the consulting industry. He says he often goes to Lapp, Wolff, pollsters Geoff Garin and Anna Bennett, and media gurus Saul Shorr and Steve Murphy with questions.

Steve Murphy hailed the DCCC as “the best operation” he’s seen in 30 years of working with campaign committees. From dealing with special elections to allocation of resources, he said Vogel’s instincts have been spot-on.

“Jon overruled several of our strategic recommendations, and he was right every time,” Steve Murphy said.