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Emanuel in Washington

He's raising the cash, but can he get the votes?

May 16, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 33 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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Rahm Emanuel, the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has a familiar name, a knack for fundraising, and a robust agenda for the 2006 House elections. Emanuel made his reputation in the 1990s as a shrewd White House adviser and campaign strategist for President Clinton. He left Washington in 1999 but returned three years later after winning an open House race in Illinois's 5th district.

Since then Emanuel has risen rapidly. He serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and early this year he ascended to DCCC chief. He is focused like a laser on 2006, and is confident Democrats can wrest at least a few House seats from Republicans.

Emanuel's primary activities to that end have been fundraising--he's collected $12.4 million in the past three months--and aggressively recruiting a candidate for every open seat. He's enlisted Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen to head a committee of eight House members from various regions of the country to encourage potential candidates. Each of the committee's members is responsible for a weekly progress report that he has to turn in to party leadership. "Open seats are priority A," Emanuel says. "They have the most propensity to move from one party to another."

The DCCC will also be looking at congressmen who captured 55 percent of the vote or less last time around. That group includes, most notably, GOP House majority leader Tom DeLay, who garnered exactly 55 percent in November. (In 2002, before his redistricting plan took effect, he got 63 percent of the vote.)

As proof of DeLay's waning popularity, Emanuel cites a recent Zogby poll in the Houston Chronicle that shows his approval slipping to around 50 percent in light of reports about trips he took that were allegedly paid for by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The DCCC has already given its blessing to challenger Nick Lampson, a former five-term congressman who announced on May 4 that he will go up against DeLay next year. "We're running agents of change," Emanuel says.

That doesn't mean Republican incumbents who aren't in leadership positions will be given a pass. DCCC press secretary Sarah Feinberg says her group has a number of targets. She lists Bob Ney of Ohio, Chris Shays of Connecticut, and Dave Reichert of Washington, and says the candidates who take them on will be given priority for resources. "Of course we're looking at those seats," Feinberg says. "We're noticing that these incumbents are more vulnerable than they have ever been before. Many [incumbents] can be tied closely to DeLay."

While it's been widely reported that Emanuel plans to make DeLay--and ethics generally--the theme of the Democrats' 2006 House campaign, he insists that, while these issues will play a part, along with Social Security, prescription drug reimportation, and lobbying reform, they won't be his campaign's centerpiece. But expect the DCCC to float the anti-DeLay/pro-ethics theme and see what kind of traction it gets.

The DCCC is already hard at work bashing DeLay and trying to connect him to as many Republicans as possible. The first thing a viewer sees after logging onto the DCCC website is a front-and-center link called "Tom DeLay's House of Scandal." Click on the link and you can view several other anti-DeLay features like "GOP Crony of the Week" (Ney won this title recently) and "Tom DeLay's Top Defenders." These include Shays (though he called on DeLay to step down last month), Ney, Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, and Florida's Tom Feeney.

There's also a state-by-state breakdown of every Republican in Congress called "How Tangled Up With DeLay is Your Member?" It cites legislation on which individual members have voted with DeLay. Visitors are invited to write letters to their newspapers to complain about these Republicans.

The DCCC, along with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Governors Association, has also been putting together lists of Republicans who have taken money from DeLay or his PACs, and riffling through photo archives to find pictures of Republican members with the majority leader, according to reporters Chris Cillizza and Erin Billings in Roll Call.

Republicans, for their part, scoff at the notion that these tactics will have any effect on 2006. They tried to zing the Democrats on ethics back in 1998--as the Monica Lewinsky scandal loomed large--to no effect. The Democrats gained seats in the House and broke even in the Senate. "We tried a campaign on ethics in 1998 and we failed miserably," affirms Carl Forti, top spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "People were appalled at what went on in the Oval Office, but we couldn't get them to vote against their congressman because of something someone else did. People tend to like their congressman."

Another problem Republicans see with making an issue of DeLay is that folks who live outside the Beltway (besides those in DeLay's district) often don't know who he is and aren't paying much attention to the news stories that involve him. "This stuff doesn't resonate outside Washington," a senior GOP House aide says. "Voters aren't going to vote for Democrats unless they know what they actually stand for. The Democrats are overreaching."

It's too early to reckon the odds of the Democrats' taking the House next year, but to do so, they must improve on their present total by 15 seats. Emanuel doesn't have a forecast. "I don't make predictions," he says, "I just affect races."

--Rachel DiCarlo is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.