By Ralph Dannheisser
September 11, 2007
Not surprising, both sides express confidence: Democratic spokesmen are convinced they can expand the majorities the party won in both chambers in 2006; Republicans are equally certain they can reclaim them.
On the House side, the task of justifying optimistic predictions falls to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). In the Senate, the equivalent organizations are the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
The Democrats currently enjoy a 232-201 seat advantage in the House of Representatives, with two seats vacant.
The Senate is split 49-49, but two Independent senators caucus -- or organize -- with the Democrats, which gives the Democrats a majority. Even such a slim edge is vital because the majority party controls the flow of legislation and gets more members on the committees that draft those measures. Committee chairmanships also are held by members of the majority party.
At first glance, the Republicans' task of regaining a majority might seem easier in the narrowly divided Senate, but in 2008, 22 of the 34 seats up for election are held by Republicans, while the Democrats must defend only 12 seats.
BOTH PARTIES EXPRESS OPTIMISM
Rebecca Fisher, communications director for the NRSC, acknowledged "the mountain that we're up against," but predicted success. "Americans have given Democrats a chance to lead, and have seen that they're failing," she said.
All four campaign committees are chaired by members of the House and Senate, who must combine the strategic vote-getting function with their legislative tasks -- and with their efforts to retain their own seats.
In an interview with USINFO, former 13-term Representative Martin Frost of Texas, who chaired the DNCC in the 1996 and 1998 election cycles, cited three key aspects of the committees' job: fundraising, recruiting candidates and developing a message attractive to the voters.
That message must be a coordinated one, Frost said, which requires substantial contact between the House and Senate organizations.
Frost cited an important recent development that tracks the overall escalation in the costs of political campaigns: "Fundraising has grown dramatically in the past 10 years. When I was chairman, we raised roughly $40 million for each of those cycles. Now they raise two or three times that amount," he said.
The NRSC's Fisher pointed out another change: the new technology the committees are using to reach their audiences.
"We're really getting into the world of online communications," she said. "We're reaching out to online publications and blogs to get our message across and we're also doing a lot with video -- Web ads and video of our candidates."
A look at the NRSC Web site confirms the new approach. The site carries polls on political issues, straw polls on presidential candidates and video messages from Republican senators.
The rival DSCC also is adopting interactive techniques. Its site features a video of Democratic adviser James Carville promoting a nationwide contest to craft a bumper sticker for the 2008 campaign.
The committees' Web sites also criticize the opposing party. A funding appeal on the NRCC site starts by comparing the group's reliance on donations from "individuals from all walks of life who contribute $25, $35 or $50 per year" to the DCCC's supposed heavy dependency on funding by "labor union and trial lawyers' interest groups."
Ken Spain, press secretary of the NRCC, said he sees the low public approval ratings for Congress as a reflection on Democrats that "absolutely shows we can win back the majority." Spain said a key effort will be to retake districts in several states, now represented by Democrats, that "almost always go Republican."
Spain termed tax policy a "very important" campaign issue.
"The Democrats have passed a budget that includes one of the largest tax hikes in history," he said. He listed a number of domestic issues where he contended the Democrats have overreached -- easing union recruitment, expanding a child health program and seeking to force enrollees in private health care plans into a government program.
Turning to international issues, he said, "Obviously the War on Terror and funding for the troops in Iraq will be important issues."
Doug Thornell, DCCC press secretary, expressed opposite views. He predicted voter support based on efforts to deal with "some of these pocketbook issues that the voters sent Democrats to Washington to fix after 12 years of neglect by Republicans."
Further, the DCCC spokesman said, "The American people are looking for a change of course in Iraq and that's what they're going to get. ... We believe this campaign is going to be all about which party best represents change. We believe it's the Democratic Party."
Vital to all the committees' success is directing limited resources to districts where they can make the greatest impact, and all pay careful attention to this element.
Thornell said the DCCC is focusing on four categories: Open-seat districts where Republican representatives are retiring; seats that Republicans won in 2006 by less than 5 percent; districts represented by Republicans but which Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry won in 2004; and districts represented by what he terms "Republicans who are under an ethical cloud."
"We feel very good about our prospects," Thornell said, echoing sentiments expressed by Democrats and Republicans alike. But at this stage in the 2008 campaigns, only one thing is certain: Someone's prediction will be wrong.
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