Tuesday, March 03, 2009

DCCC Ad Campaign on Stimulus Ignores Defectors

By Nathan L. Gonzales

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is trying to turn up the heat on a number of House Republicans who voted against the stimulus bill, while turning a blind eye to a handful of Democratic Members who voted the exact same way.

Over the past two weeks, the DCCC has sent out a series of “hypocrisy alerts,” which highlight Republican lawmakers who voted against the stimulus bill but are allegedly “celebrating” the benefits of it in their districts.

On Tuesday, the DCCC also launched the third phase of its “Putting Families First” campaign, targeting a dozen Republicans who opposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act by mounting a “major grass-roots campaign” against them that includes phone calls, e-mails and text messages.

“House Republicans can’t have it both ways. ... Americans will hold House Republicans accountable for ‘just saying no’ to the largest tax cut in American history and saving and creating three to four million jobs,” DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in a news release. “We will hold accountable those Republicans who continue to vote in lockstep against President Obama’s economic recovery plan for the American people.”

But after six House Democrats voted identically to House Republicans on the stimulus, is the DCCC trying to have it both ways?

Democratic Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Parker Griffith (Ala.), Walt Minnick (Idaho), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Gene Taylor (Miss.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) opposed the initial House stimulus plan that passed in January, as well as the final version that was signed into law. All represent conservative districts, though only Bright, Griffith and Minnick are considered politically vulnerable in 2010.

House Republicans unanimously opposed both bills.

On Feb. 9, the DCCC launched the second phase of its effort by targeting seven GOP freshmen with automated telephone calls to “focus on the Republicans’ out of step priorities by putting partisan politics before the needs of the jobs in their districts,” according to the release.

The six House Democrats who opposed the stimulus voted against creating or saving 270,000 jobs in their states, according to the DCCC’s new Web site, recoveryforamerica.org, which was created to detail how the stimulus affects each state and to hold Republicans accountable. They also apparently voted against 8,670,000 families receiving the Making Work Pay tax credit, against 312,000 additional students receiving the college tax credit and against 1,225,000 children receiving the Child Tax Credit.

According to Democratic strategists, the difference is that for Republicans, it was a premeditated effort to obstruct the recovery at all costs, while for the Democrats, it was a principled vote that fit their district.

Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, who represents Minnesota’s 6th district, was targeted during the first phase of the DCCC’s campaign on Feb. 2 because she voted against the stimulus bill. Meanwhile, Peterson represents the neighboring 7th district and voted against the bill as well.

Bachmann, who was one of 28 Republicans on the DCCC’s initial target list, earned a week’s worth of drive-time radio ads, telephone calls and e-mails from the DCCC for her vote, while Peterson maintained his chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee without a whimper of discontent.

“I expected to catch hell about this,” Peterson said, according to the West Central Tribune. “Every single person that came up to me said they agreed with me.” According to Peterson, calls to his offices were 100-1 against the stimulus bill, which is even greater than the 9-1 ratio of calls against the bill that Bright told the media he received.

But their reports are a stark contrast to other media stories. Van Hollen senior adviser Doug Thornell distributed a Feb. 3 National Journal story titled “Frosh Finding Stimulus Popular at Home,” which talked specifically about the warm welcome Democratic Reps. Travis Childers (Miss.) and Betsy Markey (Colo.) were finding for the bill in their conservative districts.

Instead of making district-by-district evaluations, the DCCC appears to be simply sowing the seeds in the 2010 playing field.

The latest list of Democratic targets includes a mix of usual suspects (such as Washington Rep. Dave Reichert, Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk and Pennsylvania Reps. Jim Gerlach and Charlie Dent), incumbents that had surprisingly close races last cycle (including California Reps. Ken Calvert and Dan Lungren, and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter), and longer-shot GOP-held seats that Democrats are trying to pull into the competitive category (including those of Illinois Rep. Judy Biggert, Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, Missouri Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer and the open seat in Florida’s 12th district). The DCCC threw National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) onto the target list for good measure.

After winning more than 50 seats in the House over the past four years, Democrats believe the stimulus vote is an opportunity to create takeover opportunities that are harder to come by these days. And even though the committee’s mission is to maintain and expand its majority, it doesn’t change the fact that the DCCC’s rhetoric about the stimulus bill doesn’t match with its leaders’ public lack of concern about Democratic defections.

“We fully recognize and understand that with 256, 257 Members spread out across the country ... we’ll have a situation where people don’t always agree,” Thornell said in a Los Angeles Times story, which also noted that Democrats made no effort to woo Minnick, who agonized over whether to support the stimulus package on the first vote.

Not only were Minnick and some of his Democratic colleagues given a pass, but he, Bright and Griffith were added this week to the DCCC’s “Frontline” program, which is designed to boost vulnerable incumbents through fundraising and outreach, on the same day the committee unveiled its third round of attacks on Republicans.

Overall, the impact and effectiveness of the DCCC’s campaign is unclear. No one can accurately predict the political climate for the midterm election that is 20 months away. And more importantly, no one knows whether a vote against the stimulus bill will be an asset or liability when November 2010 rolls around.

In addition, the Putting Families First campaign looks to be designed to gain the most amount of media attention by expending the fewest dollars possible, rather than persuading a large number of voters in targeted districts.

E-mailing the DCCC’s list of 3 million voters costs nothing, to say nothing of its ability to affect Republican incumbents’ behavior. And a week’s worth of “targeted” radio ads during drive time is an inexpensive endeavor.

Rounds of 100,000 person-to-person phone calls sound impressive, but at 75 cents per call (according to one Democratic consultant), it’s not particularly expensive, and the automated calls only cost about 8 cents per call.

The “national initiative” has also been strategically rolled out in waves to generate a new round of stories each time, creating a sense of momentum, even when the dollars behind the deeds are minimal. Cost is an important factor to a committee still carrying more than $16 million in debt from the past cycle.

Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to take advantage of the stimulus vote. Last week, the NRCC launched a television ad against freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) and automated phone calls against 10 other Democrats, “in the next phase of holding Democrats accountable for supporting a pork-laden so-called ‘stimulus’ package,” according to a release.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on February 26, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.