And They're Off And Running!
For the hopeful Democrats, November's coming up fast
There is little doubt that Republicans are heading into 2006 on a shaky foundation. President Bush hopes for a new start after the worst year of his presidency. His party, meanwhile, faces the strongest challenge to its control of Congress in years, with an influence-peddling scandal centered on lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatening to implicate lawmakers. For Democrats, 2006 could be the way 1994 was for Republicans; that's when President Bill Clinton's travails and Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" combined to help the Republicans retake the House of Representatives after 40 years in the minority.
But the Democrats still have hurdles to overcome--including the fact that as far away as November seems, time is running out. No one understands this better than Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who, as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is tasked with crafting the party's strategy, presenting a clear alternative to voters, and finding candidates who can win. Emanuel, a fast-talking former ballet dancer and Clinton staffer, has become a rising star in the party since being elected to a Chicago district in 2002. At the Clinton White House, he'd earned the nickname "Rahmbo"for his political brawling skills. He'll need those skills for the coming fight.
In the 435-member House of Representatives, Republicans hold a 231-to-202-seat advantage, with one independent and one vacancy. Democrats would have to retain all their seats and win 15 spots now held by Republicans to retake the House. And turning over seats is harder than ever; in the past decade, congressional districts have been gerrymandered to heavily favor incumbents. So experts say only about 30 House races nationwide are really likely to be competitive this fall.
Emanuel says the current scandal may help Democrats, but only to a point. Official Washington gets "hot and bothered about the culture of corruption," he says, "but at the kitchen table," incumbents of all stripes are vulnerable, because average folks are more worried about problems like rising healthcare costs and low wages.
Hard sell. For Emanuel, the crucial first step has been recruiting new congressional candidates; that process began a year ago, when he was picked to lead the DCCC, and hit its peak last fall. He has wooed prospective candidates by calling them incessantly and bringing them to Washington. Emanuel "can definitely test your will," says Brad Ellsworth, an Indiana sheriff who met with Emanuel on Capitol Hill before deciding to run in Indiana's Eighth District, known as the "Bloody Eighth" for its tight races. Another of Emanuel's targets was former college football star Heath Shuler. "I know all the angles that people use to recruit you," Shuler told the Chicago Tribune. "Nobody does it as well as Rahm Emanuel."
Emanuel has homed in on several types of seats: those held by ethically challenged incumbents such as Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican ensnared in the Abramoff probe, and those with incumbents either retiring or seeking a different office. He has also focused on districts where Sen. John Kerry won a strong majority and districts that haven't seen strong Democratic challengers. In addition, Emanuel has recruited candidates from more diverse backgrounds, like Shuler, who's running in his native North Carolina, and Mary Jo Kilroy, president of the Franklin County Commission in Ohio, who's running against Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce. Emanuel has also tapped military veterans.