The Democratic chair plans to fight in every one of the 50 states. Is this shrewd strategy or a recipe for disaster?
Waid and other state-level operatives say their beefed-up parties have also helped in candidate recruiting. "If you can show a candidate you have the support infrastructure to get them elected, he'll run," says Jerry Goldman, party chair in McCormick County, S.C., who now works closely with his state party. "You have to show a candidate that he's not out there by himself." In Arizona, Democrats have candidates in every legislative district for the first time in a decade. "Successful candidates for Congress come from winning offices at the county or municipal level," says Arizona's Waid. "We build that farm team, and it enhances our chances for taking back Congress."
Cultural chasm. At least that's the theory. But in many red states, even some Democrats say their failures have as much to do with the national party's positions on cultural issues like gay rights and school prayer--which have become politically potent only in the past 25 years--as they do with ground organization. Discussing his national party's stance on hot-button issues, Mississippi state Rep. Dirk Dedeaux says, "They don't have to tinker; they have to disavow it. I'm opposed to gun control, opposed to abortion on demand."
Dedeaux says top-of-ticket Democrats can win on economic issues, particularly in poor states like his, but only by narrowing the GOP advantage on social issues. "Democrats believe government is responsible for the needs of average people, not just Big Oil and Big Tobacco," he says. "These aren't sensational issues. They're meat and potatoes."
According to that view, if liberals like John Kerry win the nomination for president, all the precinct captains in the world couldn't muster enough Mississippi votes to put them over the top. Joel Ingram, chairman of the Lamar County Democratic Party, has struck out in trying to organize precinct captains because there's no strong national Democratic candidate at the moment to motivate people. "I believe the solution is top-down," he says. "To get people off the sofa, you need a strong candidate at the top." Howard Dean probably wouldn't make the cut, either. "It would be our fondest dream to have Dean be the nominee," says Mississippi Republican Party Chair Jim Herring. "Or Hillary Clinton."
In the meantime, Dean's bigger challenge may be fending off attacks from his own party. The DCCC's Emanuel reportedly stormed out of a meeting with Dean recently, and the two are said not to have talked since. DCCC sources say Emanuel is steamed that Dean has burned through tens of millions of dollars by hiring direct-mail firms and other vendors, leaving the DNC with $10 million on hand, less than a quarter of the Republican's war chest. The fight now, say DCCC sources, is for the money that's left.
But Dean tells U.S. News that he has pledged $12 million to so-called coordinated campaigns: state-level plans that include Senate and House races, along with lesser offices. "I'm an outsider, and people in Washington don't like advice from outsiders," says Dean. But he says that he works well with the leaders in the House and Senate and that "eventually I'll work well with the DCCC and DSCC."
For now, he seems to be working well with the grass roots. After the presentation in Diamondhead, Lisa Boughton, 40, signs up to be a precinct captain. "In small towns like this," she says, "you vote how your neighbor tells you to."