Behind the Democrats' Money Worries

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Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) in his office on Capitol Hill

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Democrats have been leading in the polls for months now, but that doesn't mean everyone in the party is feeling so comfortable about their chances of regaining the House in November.

Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago congressman in charge of getting House Democrats elected, has already been in a months-long feud with Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, complaining that Dean isn't spending enough of the DNC's money on this year's congressional races. But now Emanuel is expanding his fight with other groups in his own party, blasting George Soros and, two key sources of campaign cash for liberal candidates in 2004, for not spending enough money so far in 2006.

Noting that had run ads in four key congressional races earlier this summer and then stopped, Emanuel told the New York Daily News "they literally moved on. The election is in November, and they moved on in June. What is going on here? I don't get it. I'm bewildered." On Soros, Emanuel said "he says his No. 1 priority is taking back the House. I say, 'Okay, I'm into that. So what are we going to do?'"

Both Soros and sharply defended themselves, with MoveOn Washington director Tom Matzzie telling TIME regarding Emanuel's remarks that "it's really in poor taste, it shows no class and its not not going to help Democrats get elected." (MoveOn says it stopped running ads in the earlier districts because Emanuel's Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is now involved in those races so they've focused their efforts on other places where ads by Democratic groups aren't running.)

But the flare-up underscores one of the Democrats' biggest worries about this fall's elections: money. Top party officials are fretting that the GOP will dominate the ad wars in September and October. "My greatest fear is there will be a wall of money coming in at the end," said David Plouffe, a Democratic strategist working on some of the House campaigns. House Democrats actually have almost the same amount of money as House Republicans, $33 million to $34 million, but the Republican National Committee has $43 million, compared to $11 million for Dean's DNC.

And GOP interest groups are putting in big ad buys as well. Democratic congressional officials were concerned earlier this month when the Chamber of Commerce starting running thousands of dollars in ads in key districts, praising several vulnerable GOP incumbents such as U.S. Rep. Thelma Drake of the Virginia Beach area, for their support of the Medicare prescription drug benefit; the Democratic challengers in those races couldn't respond, hoping to save their money for the end of the year. In fact, for all Emanuel's criticism, one of the few liberal groups actually running ads is, which currently has spots up in a handful of congressional districts, attacking Republicans like Charlie Bass of New Hampshire for their support of the Iraq war. has so far spent more than $2 million on ads in House races, although this still pales in comparison to the GOP-supporting Chamber of Commerce, which has already spent a combined $10 million on House and Senate races.

Looking at key individual races only highlights the problems the Democrats have as they try to up pick the 15 seats the party must gain to take control of the House. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, according to the last campaign finance filing, Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy had $960,000, compared to $2 million for Republican incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick. In a district near Denver, Democratic challenger Ed Perlmutter had raised $250,000, compared to $1.2 million for Rick O'Donnell. If an anti-incumbent wave hits, heavily underfunded Democrats could still win, but party officials think money that allows GOP candidates to bombard races with either positive or negative ads could be the difference. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has spent much of August on a 25-city fundraising tour, raising $5 million for the party.

But even if they can raise enough money, the Dems continue to worry that, as in 2002 and 2004, the GOP might beat them in getting core supporters to the polls. This has become the latest issue in the battle between Dean and other Democratic officials, who are worried Dean won't put enough money or the right people to win the "ground game" in key races. Emanuel has reportedly reached out to Michael Whouley, a veteran organizer who was a key strategist in John Kerry's come-from-behind victory in the Iowa caucuses in 2004, to help Democrats with turnout. And when people approach Pelosi for autographs on her road trips, she's been imploring them to knock on doors in support of their local candidates.

Despite the critique by some Democrats that in 2002 and 2004 the party lost because they didn't have a clear message, Democratic officials are much less concerned about the party's proposals than about money and mobilizing voters.

After months of discussions, the Democrats came up with their campaign platform "A New Direction for America" last month and many candidates are now pushing some of the ideas in it, such as increasing the minimum wage, reversing President Bush's policy on stem cell research and making college tuition tax deductible.

The internal discussions that shaped the document included bringing in a bunch of corporate consultants who helped Democrats structure the plan. Jack Trout, a Connecticut marketing expert who has helped IBM and Burger King, said the party should define its message in terms of clearly "differentiating" themselves from the GOP, a term nearly every Democratic lawmaker is now using.

The opening line of the Democrats' agenda — "Congressional Democrats believe America should work for everyone, not just those at the top" — is a message Trout promoted constantly in conference calls and in meetings, while Democrats picked six issues, rather than five or seven, at the urging of software entrepreneur John Cullinane, who has been consulting with House Democrats since 2004. ("Seven is too many, five is too few" he says.)

Still, the marketing experts weren't all that happy with the final product. Trout said "they tend to do a lot of laundry listing," while George Lakoff, a University of California professor of linguistics whom Democrats brought in to talk about their use of language, said "it doesn't get to the deepest values and principles behind what the Democrats believe."

Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who is considering a 2008 presidential run, was even less impressed. He called the Democrats' proposal on Iraq, which asks President Bush to start withdrawing troops from Iraq this year, "weak tea." In a meeting with TIME reporters earlier this month, Feingold said "running out the clock, this is so much what the Democrats are trying to do. They're going to play it safe." He called for a much bolder agenda from the party, including a universal health care plan, full withdrawal of troops from Iraq this year and a commitment to stop any attempt to ban gay marriage. In fact, Democrats wouldn't have to look too far for some bolder ideas. Emanuel, along with another former Clinton White House adviser, Bruce Reed, just released a book called The Plan that calls for universal national service, requiring that every job come with a 401(k) plan, and expanding the army by 100,000 troops.

But the agenda satisfied the Democrats' overriding goal: offer something that didn't give the Republicans much to shoot at, but wouldn't allow the GOP to say its rivals have no ideas. Democrats believe the lesson from 1994 — when the Republicans put out a 10-point plan for governing called "The Contract With America" and won huge margins that gave them control of the House and the Senate — wasn't that the Contract helped the GOP get elected: most voters hadn't heard of the Republican plan when they cast their ballots. Democrats say, that like 1994, an anti-incumbency feeling exists all over their country, and they need to keep voters focused on what President Bush and the Republicans have done wrong. So Democrats eschewed a big health care plan, for example, because they worried it would reinforce the Republican critique of Democrats as the "tax and spend" party. "Eighty percent of our message is negative," one party strategist said.