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Democrats Scrambling To Organize Voter Turnout

Steve Rosenthal, chief executive of America Coming Together, and Maria Watson review lists before canvassing in Philadelphia for Democrats.
Steve Rosenthal, chief executive of America Coming Together, and Maria Watson review lists before canvassing in Philadelphia for Democrats. (By Jim Graham For The Washington Post)

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By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Top Democrats are increasingly concerned that they lack an effective plan to turn out voters this fall, creating tension among party leaders and prompting House Democrats to launch a fundraising effort aimed exclusively at mobilizing Democratic partisans.

At a meeting last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) criticized Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for not spending enough party resources on get-out-the-vote efforts in the most competitive House and Senate races, according to congressional aides who were briefed on the exchange. Pelosi -- echoing a complaint common among Democratic lawmakers and operatives -- has warned privately that Democrats are at risk of going into the November midterm elections with a voter-mobilization plan that is underfunded and inferior to the proven turnout machine run by national Republicans.

The Senate and House campaign committees are creating their own get-out-the-vote operations instead, using money that otherwise would fund television advertising and other election-year efforts. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) -- who no longer speaks to Dean because of their strategic differences -- is planning to ask lawmakers and donors to help fund a new turnout program run by House Democrats. He recruited Michael Whouley, a specialist in Democratic turnout, to help oversee it.

"I am not waiting for anyone anymore who said they were going to" build a turnout operation, Emanuel said. "It has got to be done."

Many Democrats said that despite a favorable political climate and record-setting fundraising, the campaign to recapture the House and Senate could fall short if the organizational problems persist. "What the party really needs is to get serious about local, volunteer-based" operations, said Jack Corrigan, a longtime Democratic operative. "The last-minute, throw-money-at-it approach . . . does not really solve the fundamental failure to organize that is there. The DNC is moving in the right direction, but needs to do more, fast," he said.

Democrats consider the 2006 elections their best chance in a decade to recapture the House, with widespread unease over Iraq and with Republicans lagging in polls. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), who would become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee if Democrats picked up the 15 seats needed to regain the majority, said in an interview yesterday that he will quit Congress if the party does not capitalize on an unparalleled opportunity.

Democrats' organizing has been slowed by a philosophical dispute between Dean, who argues that the party needs to rebuild its long-term infrastructure nationwide while trying to win back the House and Senate, and congressional Democrats, who want to use party resources for an all-out push this fall.

Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is less concerned about the Dean approach than House leaders are. "We are obviously concerned," a senior Senate Democratic strategist said, but Schumer moved ahead two months ago with a plan to fortify get-out-the-vote operations in 15 states, including targeting disgruntled Republicans. Democrats sympathetic to Dean said Emanuel and Pelosi are trying to blame the DNC chief in case they do not win back the House.

In a letter sent to Democrats on Monday, Dean said: "We've got a big secret . . . and it is going to help us win." He asked Democratic donors for $25 a month to fund mobilization programs nationwide. "What many people do not realize is that . . . we are turning our operation into a 50-state, get-out-the-vote effort."

Many Democrats are not convinced. "We are concerned in certain parts of the country, and that is why we want to have this insurance policy" of the DCCC effort run by Whouley, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

Republicans are far more united in their approach, building on what both sides said worked well in 2002 and 2004. They are routing all turnout efforts through the Republican National Committee, which had $45 million in the bank -- four times as much as the DNC -- as of June 30.

The RNC runs a strategy known in political circles as the 72-hour program. It focuses on using phone calls, polling data and personal visits to identify would-be GOP voters and their top issues early in the cycle. The information is then fed into a database, allowing party leaders to flood them with pro-Republican messages through e-mail, regular mail and local volunteers. On Election Day, they receive a phone call or a visit to remind them to vote.


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