Image: Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel
Alex Brandon  /  AP
In this June 6 file photo, Rep. Rahm Emanuel talks with then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama in Chicago.
updated 11/11/2008 1:33:46 PM ET 2008-11-11T18:33:46

The attention paid to President-elect Barack Obama's selection of Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., as his chief of staff has focused almost exclusively on what it says about the new president and his governing style. But what does his absence mean for House Democrats, especially going into the 2010 midterms?

Love him or hate him, Emanuel is universally respected for keeping House Democrats in line. And despite the lore, it's not all by four-letter words and dead fish wrapped in newspaper. It's about understanding the individual districts and incumbents and knowing where the friction points will be. Emanuel could do that because, as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he'd actually been active in almost every one of the competitive races of 2006. Keeping incumbents safe is more than just pumping money into their campaigns in the on-year. It's making sure that they have the resources and are paying the right attention to their districts long before the even-numbered year hits.

To be sure, a favorable political climate is a big reason why the Class of '06, many of whom were elected in very tough districts, lost only three incumbents this time around. But it's also important to note that most came into the '08 cycle with well-stocked coffers and a game plan. Rep. Tim Mahoney's sex scandal aside, none of them made any serious gaffes that created openings for their GOP opponents. This wasn't a coincidence. It was a coordinated strategy by Emanuel and other Democrats to keep very tight tabs on their most vulnerable members.

It's also true, however, that the "Myth of Rahm" tends to overshadow lots of others who are integral to the success of the Democrats. Such is the fate of Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Emanuel's successor as DCCC chair. Although he had an incredibly successful election -- picking up at least 20 seats -- there's been a lot more attention paid to the fact that Democrats weren't able to do even better.

Van Hollen will ultimately be judged not by how well he did in '08, but how well he'll do at keeping the majority in '10. And, for the first time since 2005, that narrative won't involve Emanuel.

Given the large number of seats he has to defend in what is traditionally the toughest year for the "in" party -- the first midterm election -- it's understandable that Van Hollen had to be talked in to staying around for a second tour of duty. While the Obama tide helped Democratic challengers like Jim Himes beat Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.-04) and Steve Driehaus defeat Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio-01), there were plenty of other Democrats who outperformed Obama. As my colleague Richard Cohen points out, 81 Democrats sit in districts carried by President Bush in 2004. That's a lot of folks to manage -- and not something that just one member can do. Given House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's even busier role in '09, it's also not something that she can devote her full attention to, either.

Instead, Van Hollen is going to need to assign other members the task of being enforcers. Also integral to this strategy, says one Democratic insider, is the continued presence of DCCC Executive Director Brian Wolff. Like Emanuel, he knows where the pressure points are for each and every one of these vulnerable incumbents. And he's not afraid to do what needs to be done to keep those seats in the Democratic column.

Everyone agrees that there's no obvious replacement for Emanuel among the Democratic caucus. To survive what could be a very rough midterm, every member of the Democratic caucus is going to need to summon his or her own "inner Rahm."            

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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