Democrats counter Republicans' pre-redistricting push

Harold Ickes, shown on Democratic National Committee business in 2008, will lead a pre-census charge.
Harold Ickes, shown on Democratic National Committee business in 2008, will lead a pre-census charge. (Kevin Wolf/associated Press)
By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010

Hoping to counter a series of Republican efforts aimed at winning governorships and state legislatures in advance of the decennial congressional redistricting process, the Democratic Governors Association is launching its own venture, led by veteran party strategist Harold Ickes.

Ickes, who served as one of the top operatives in Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, characterized his role as fundraiser in chief ("I don't do strategy," he says wryly) for the effort, which is being called Project SuRGe (Stop Republican Gerrymandering). While acknowledging that redistricting is a tougher sell to donors than a presidential race or Senate contest -- "It's in the weeds," Ickes says -- he sees his job as "explaining to people the implications of redistricting at the federal level."

Republicans have clearly grasped the importance of controlling the line-drawing process. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a group funded in 2002 and dedicated to winning state legislative races, has recently been taken over by a who's who of national Republicans including Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Reynolds of New York. (Ickes praised Gillespie as "formidable.")

The RSLC is far from the only GOP organization focused on redistricting. The American Majority Project, a tax-exempt group that can accept unlimited donations, was created this year with the support of, among others, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan and campaign lawyer Ben Ginsberg. And there is also GOPAC, an organization dedicated to recruiting, grooming and electing Republicans at the local level.

"That Ed Gillespie, [Mississippi Gov.] Haley Barbour and [former White House adviser] Karl Rove are all publicly focusing on governor's races gives some indication that this is a serious matter," Ickes said.

Ickes would not detail the budget for Project SuRGe, but sources familiar with the plans suggested the group would spend several million dollars. For the year, the DGA hopes to raise $30 million -- nearly double what the committee brought in during the 2006 cycle. The Republican Governors Association is no financial slouch itself, reporting $25 million in the bank at the start of the year.

There are 37 governor's races this November, including contests in the most populous states.

A handful of those states -- Texas, California, Ohio and Pennsylvania top the list -- will get special attention from both parties. That's because they are slated to either gain or lose House seats in the reapportionment process, in which the 435 House seats are allocated based on population increases and decreases found in the 2010 Census. Controlling the governorship and the state legislatures in those states could make a difference of several House seats in each state for the better part of the next decade.

"Our donors know that the effects of redistricting are far greater than a typical congressional cycle -- these lines, which Republicans promise to draw to give themselves a partisan advantage, will last for the next decade," said DGA Executive Director Nathan Daschle.

Big job for Smoot

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has asked Brian Smoot, a longtime party hand, to direct its independent-expenditure efforts this fall. It's an enormous undertaking in which he must smartly spend tens of million of dollars on a dozen or so of the most competitive contests in the country.

Smoot began his career in Washington as chief of staff to Rep. Rodney Alexander (La.) but left in 2004 when Alexander switched from Democrat to Republican. Smoot did a stint as chief of staff for Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) before serving as political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2008 election cycle.

"Chairman [Robert] Menendez has made clear that for Democrats to be successful, this election must be a choice between Republicans standing up for Washington's special interests and Democrats standing up for the voters' interests," Smoot said. "I am looking forward to making sure that voters face that choice in November."

During the 2008 cycle, the independent expenditure program for the DSCC, which is barred by law from having any direct contact with the committee or any campaign, spent roughly $70 million -- primarily on television ads -- under the leadership of Jim Jordan, then the DSCC's executive director.

Unlike in 2008, however, Democrats are playing far more defense this cycle thanks to several unexpected retirements (Indiana, North Dakota) and a national playing field tilting against them.

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