The DCCC chooses a leader — but needs some new rules
Congratulations to Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) for being elected to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Now the hard work begins, and the first step should be cleaning up the DCCC internally.
There have been systematic and repeated failures at the DCCC for all but a few of the past 30 years, and Maloney can make necessary, lasting changes by instituting some internal ethics reforms.
Young staffers at the DCCC falling into nests they feathered, while making decisions about contracts worth millions of dollars with a limited consulting community, has been a recipe for disaster.
I’ve worked with — and against — the DCCC countless times over the past three decades. I’ve watched the revolving door of doom, where a few make fortunes despite losing. A few rules could keep Democrats in the majority, despite the historically fraught impending midterms:
- Have a two-year moratorium on any staffer going to work for a campaign consulting firm after leaving the committee. This disincentives a wink and a nod when hiring firms to do independent expenditures or recommending consultants to campaigns.
- Require anyone in a senior or upper-level position to have real experience in winning congressional races or larger. Long ago having been a 27-year-old campaign operative, I recall being seldom uncertain but often wrong. It’s not their fault. They simply have not been in the trenches long enough to understand the fight. The fault falls to those who hire these young people and put them in positions for which they are not yet equipped.
- Require that a regional political director hails from the region he or she is working. Someone who grew up in Massachusetts has no idea how Texans think or operate.
- Demand a staff that looks like America but also thinks like America. How many staffers have ever fired a gun? Driven a pickup? Worked on a farm or a ranch? Fished? Attended junior college? Worked at minimum wage? Been food insecure? A building full of solely liberals has little chance of helping to hold swing seats.
- Drop the ban on consultants who work against incumbents in primaries. The truth is, an experienced, successful firm would be unlikely to sign on to work for a congressional challenger, with the possible exception of the candidate being a friend or a firm deciding they will grab all the business possible and shop it out. That approach is probably the best incumbent-protection program anyway.
- End the practice of having an approved list of consultants. A first-time congressional candidate will not buck the building and hire a consultant they may like but who is not blessed by the DCCC.
For too long, Democratic operatives have failed up. They are rewarded with contracts from the people they helped get work at the committee, despite clearly lacking talent. A few win, and America loses, when family or professionally incestuous arrangements are made at the expense of success.
Indeed, the DCCC and the Democratic establishment repeatedly have rewarded failure, with a few exceptions.
It would be unnecessarily mean during this holiday season to name some of those who held senior-level positions at the DCCC and went on to historic failures at the national level. But highlighting the two most successful teams could be instructive. Then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel made John Lapp the executive director and Democrats took control of the House under their leadership. Both men were highly experienced, with track records of winning campaigns. Indeed, Emanuel got his start as an opposition researcher and DCCC staffer. The other dynamic duo was Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) as chair and Dan Sena as executive director. Now a senator-elect, Lujan clearly understands how to win campaigns, and Sena spent two decades in the trenches running — and winning — races at all levels up to the U.S. Senate.
Experience matters, and that can’t be gained by virtue of a job title.
The choice of Maloney as DCCC chair — and who he hires as staff in the next few weeks — may be more important than specific congressional races. The staffing choices can make or break some candidacies before anyone even files to run.
Dane Strother, a partner in Strother Nuckels Strategies, is a veteran Democratic strategist and communications consultant.