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Politics

Obama's Helping Hand Surprises Hill Democrats

The president told Nancy Pelosi he'll fundraise for a Democratic House majority.

Even though Democrats face long odds taking back the House, President Obama has been assisting Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.(Jonathan Ernst/AP)

photo of Reid Wilson
July 18, 2013

As it became clear that President Obama would win a second term in the White House, he called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He wanted to keep trying to reach compromises with the Republican majority in the House, Obama told the Democratic leader. But in the event that didn't happen, Obama said, he was committed to helping elect a Democratic majority.

To the surprise of Democrats on Capitol Hill, few of whom have been shy in criticizing Obama's apparent disinterest in their political troubles, the president, who loathes the rubber-chicken fundraising circuit, has come through. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said Obama has been "deeply engaged" in the efforts to help his party.

Every administration fields its share of complaints from its allies on Capitol Hill. Bill Clinton's strategy of triangulation put his political well-being above that of congressional Democrats. George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism angered many on the right flank, leading in part to the rise of the hyper-conservative tea-party movement. And congressional Democrats have complained that while Obama's political initiatives have cost them House seats, the president has done little to help members of his party win elections.

 

To calm the complaints, just a week after he won reelection, Obama dispatched Jim Messina, his campaign manager, to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to talk with top Democrats about the ways the White House could help. Messina and Alyssa Mastromonaco, the White House's deputy chief of staff for operations, kept in frequent touch with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which had its own list of requests.

The outcome of those conversations: Obama has committed to hold a total of 14 fundraisers for the two committees, including five for each in cities around the country, separate events in Washington, and two joint events.

The only request congressional Democrats made that the White House didn't fulfill was an ask for a direct transfer of money from Obama's campaign to the two committees.

"The president and his political operation have been an enormous help raising money to support our work to keep the Democratic majority in the Senate," said Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Perhaps the biggest commitment the White House has given its Democratic allies is a promise to provide access to Obama's vaunted e-mail lists and trove of voter data, almost invaluable collections of information that will help Democratic campaigns raise money and target both persuadable voters who swing between parties, and irregular voters—Democrats who rarely vote in midterm elections. Those voters will get motivational messages aimed at spurring them to cast a ballot in the congressional elections.

Obama's political advisers haven't finalized how they will treat their data trove, according to several sources with knowledge of their discussions. The advisers are working with lawyers to decide whether the list is better housed either inside an organization operated under section 501(c)(6) of the tax code or inside a limited liability corporation. But his fellow Democrats will reap what Obama has sown. Dan Wagner, the Obama campaign's chief analytics officer, has already met with the DSCC to help devise ways that Obama's data can help Senate Democrats.

For the moment, Obama for America owns the lists and data. The Democratic National Committee owns the voter file, but the Obama campaign owns the additional information that helped it target individual voters with such specificity.

The White House hopes its more active involvement quells some bitterness among Democrats on Capitol Hill who feel they have stuck their necks out for a president who hasn't always had their backs. Obama campaigned infrequently for Democrats in both 2010 and 2012; he cut only one television advertisement, for Rep. Tammy Duckworth, and held just two fundraisers for the DCCC and the DSCC last cycle.

Congressional Democrats were angry that the Democratic National Committee, which operates as the political arm of the White House when a Democrat holds the Oval Office, contributed no money to the DCCC or DSCC during last year's elections. It was the first time in decades, party operatives said, that the DNC hadn't helped out the two congressional committees. Obama's presidential campaign still owes nearly $3.5 million to vendors and consultants, making a transfer of money unlikely.

But the White House used last month's special election in Massachusetts to demonstrate its new approach. The president, first lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden all traveled to Boston to raise money for, or hold rallies with, Rep. Edward Markey, who on Tuesday was sworn into the Senate. The DNC sent a message, signed by the president, to Massachusetts voters on Obama's e-mail list. And a fundraiser the first lady hosted for Markey's campaign raised between $650,000 and $700,000, according to one Democrat with knowledge of the figures, likely the largest amount of money she raised at a single event for a campaign other than her husband's.

The efforts stand in stark contrast to 2010, when the White House avoided campaigning for Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley until the final weekend before Election Day. Obama advisers were nervous about allowing the president to appear with a candidate who was about to lose; strategists involved in Coakley's campaign wanted Obama involved earlier to help turn out lethargic Democratic voters.

Biden has also been an active surrogate for his party. He has already held two fundraisers for the DNC (a third was canceled due to bad weather), hosted an event for both the DCCC and the DSCC, and appeared at a fundraiser for Sen. Mary Landrieu, the endangered Louisiana Democrat, in January. Earlier this month, during a trip to California, Biden joined Rep. Mike Honda, who is facing a potentially difficult primary challenge, at an informal stop designed to show that the lawmaker had the White House's support.

Biden is helping recruit Democratic candidates, too. The vice president has called and met with a small handful of potential House candidates, a Democratic source said, in hopes of persuading them to run in winnable districts.

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