Dems Plot Ways to Win Back House Seats

Shy and retiring aren’t terms that spring to mind to describe Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, new political point men for out-of-power congressional Democrats.

Try aggressive or combative.

By his own account, Emanuel asked President Clinton to butt out when the chief executive walked into the religious study sessions the one-time White House aide held with his rabbi.

And Schumer?

Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey once joked to an audience of journalists that the most dangerous ground in Washington was between the New York senator and a television camera. And he wasn’t the first member of Congress to say so.

So it wasn’t surprising that both Schumer and the Illinois congressman haggled with their own party leaders before agreeing to head the Senate and House campaign efforts. They wound up with coveted assignments to Congress’ tax-writing committees as well as other concessions.

“They are the two hardest-working men in show business,” said Howard Wolfson, who worked on Schumer’s first Senate campaign in New York in 1998 and oversaw national strategy for Emanuel when the House Democrat won his Chicago-area seat in 2002. “They will live, breathe, sleep, eat and drink this effort.”

It may not be enough.

Historical trends point to Democratic gains in 2006, the second midterm elections of President Bush’s administration. But last November’s elections pushed Democrats deeper into the minority in both houses, and in separate interviews, neither Schumer nor Emanuel predicted they would break the GOP hold on power next year.

“Our job will be to try and pick up seats,” said Schumer, looking at an election lineup with more Democratic than Republican seats on the ballot.

Democrats must gain 15 House seats in 2006 to reclaim the majority they lost a decade ago. But fewer than three dozen of last fall’s 435 winners were held below 55 percent of the vote, and the number of close races was roughly evenly divided between the parties.

GOP Rep. Tom Reynolds, a New Yorker who heads the House Republican campaign committee, says flatly, “Republicans will be in the majority” when the 2006 votes are counted.

For Schumer and Emanuel, the challenge is straightforward, if steep. Recruited in part for their fund-raising prowess, they must pull money from their political bases in Democratic-friendly states to use for candidates who can win in states that Bush took in November.

“I’ve got to win seats where there are seats,” Emanuel said, acknowledging that many of the competitive battles are likely to be in Republican states or rural areas where Democrats have struggled in recent years. “We had 11 competitive open seats last cycle and we won two of them. … That’s just unacceptable.”

So far, the two men are in the early stages of recruiting, and are talking of developing a more compelling Democratic message. Fund raising has begun. The $4 million debt that confronted Schumer is gone, and the $11 million hole dug by the House committee is reduced.

Schumer, 54, was elected to the New York Legislature at age 23, stepped up to Congress six years later and remained in the House 18 years before successfully challenging a veteran Republican for a Senate seat.

He showed separation from party liberals in his first statewide campaign by emphasizing support for stronger anti-crime measures, including a broader death penalty. He hastens to point out that he won 61 of 62 New York counties in his re-election campaign last fall.

“Lucky for you there aren’t two of me,” Schumer once told Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, with a smile at the end of a fierce committee struggle over one of Bush’s judicial nominees.

“It’s a great blessing for the country,” was Hatch’s in-kind reply.

Emanuel, 45, has been known to pinch people when he felt that words weren’t strong enough to be persuasive. He clashed with fellow aides at the White House, and those who have dealt with him say he can be verbally abusive.

Still, those who know him also say he has mellowed from the time more than a decade ago when he sent a Democratic pollster a dead fish as a gesture of his esteem, an event that was well-chronicled at the time.

His ascent has been rapid. In the late 1980s – still the era of a seemingly permanent Democratic House majority – he worked for the committee he now heads. That was followed by a stint in Clinton’s White House, then a successful turn at investment banking in Illinois. His fund-raising, aided by connections to Clinton, helped him win the nomination to Congress in 2002, and he coasted to victory in the fall.

At some point, it’s likely the political imperatives of Schumer and Emanuel will collide.

Already, Schumer is courting Democratic House members to run for the Senate, while Emanuel must discourage Democratic House retirements so he can focus his efforts on GOP-held seats.

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© 2005 The Associated Press