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Emanuel and Schumer at the helm

This year, the Democrats had the best team of boat builders their congressional party has seen in decades: Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chuck Schumer.  By Howard Fineman.
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Campaigns are sailboats. You build them and rig them to catch whatever wind comes up. This year, the Democrats had the best team of boat builders their congressional party has seen in decades: Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chuck Schumer. The Democrats’ successes on Election Day — and there will be many — will be due in large part to this pair of intense, detail-obsessed and well-connected strivers from Chicago and New York, respectively. “Rahm” is a one-word Washington synonym for action; “Schume,” as the tabloid headline writers sometimes call him, for shrewd authority.

Preparation is everything, in their view.

Sources tell me that Rahm spent hours, literally hours, war-gaming a seven-minute appearance on a national political talk show last week. He convened conference calls of experts to help him. That is a signature trait of the Sons of Daley — the Daley family in Chicago — and Rahm is one of them.

Schumer’s similar attitude stems from Harvard and Harvard Law. He prepared for the cycle with the meticulousness of an appellate lawyer, studying the precincts, the history and the national historical patterns.

James Carville likes to say that money is not just the mother’s milk of politics; it is the skim milk, the evaporated milk and the two-percent milk, too. Rahm and Schume would agree.

Emanuel began his career as a fundraiser; he has a seat on Ways and Means — a great perch from which to acquire the ways and the means. Emanuel and Schumer, whose political base includes Wall Street, milked the cash cows of American politics as well as any Democrats have done since the days of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. Schumer quickly retired the left over debt of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when he took over after the 2004 cycle. Both men squeezed — early and often — fellow members of congress to give early and often from their own private PAC stashes of unused cash.

The two men together represent the next stage in the nationalization of congressional campaigning. Tip O’ Neill famously said that “all politics is local.” Twenty-five years ago, when he made that proclamation, congressional campaigns still were largely built from-the-ground-up. No more. Both men plunged unabashedly into the work of picking candidates, using money as a lure and a weapon, encouraging the reluctant to run, telling the problematic “forget it.”

A hand-picked field
In Kentucky, Emanuel helped lure former Congressman Ken Lucas back into politics, for example; in Pennsylvania, Schumer teamed up with Gov. Ed Rendell to clear the field for Bob Casey, Jr., even though (and in culturally conservative Pennsylvania, precisely because) he was a foe of abortion. In Virginia, Schumer went so far as to endorse Jim Webb (who worked for Ronald Reagan) in the Democratic primary, over a more liberal candidate. Emanuel looked for moderate candidates, too.

Raising money is one thing; spending it carefully another. Rahm and Schume were models of discipline — often bluntly — refusing to spend a dime on races they thought were out of reach, changing their minds only reluctantly and usually when the candidates themselves showed their own ability to raise cash (or give to their own campaigns).

In Louisville, for example, Emanuel added Democratic challenger John Yarmuth to the list of supported candidates only late in the game, after polls tightened and Yarmuth kicked in another $100,000 or so of his own family money. The former editor of an alternative newspaper, Yarmuth had written some controversial columns over the years. More than a year ago, when Emanuel was visiting Louisville, Yarmuth went to meet him to make his pitch for support. “I walked in to sit down with Rahm and he made it clear that he had read every column I had ever written.”