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How One Democrat Named Rahm Emanuel Took Back the House

Every so often, I review a new political book in this space. This week’s column will discuss “The Thumpin’ — How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution,” which is being released Tuesday.

But what I'm writing is not so much a book review as it is an appreciation for what Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois accomplished.

I ought to know better than anyone else the significance of his victory. After all, I held the same job that Rahm did — Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — in 1996 and 1998. We picked up seats in both 1996 (nine) and 1998 (five), but we didn’t go over the top and take back control of the House. The DCCC under Rahm gained 30 seats in 2006 and made Nancy Pelosi the speaker.

First, a word about the book. Naftali Bendavid, deputy Washington bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune, did an excellent job of detailing what happened in 2005 and 2006. He also very accurately captured Rahm's personality and style.

Bendavid was a fly on the wall for most of that time, attending DCCC staff meetings and traveling the country with Rahm. The book is a fun read for anyone looking for an insider’s view of a 22-month election campaign.

Now let’s consider the task that confronted Rahm and how he really pulled this off.

First, everyone should remember that when Rahm took the DCCC job in January of 2005, all the Washington pundits were saying that Democrats would not take the House back in 2006. Sure, the party might pick up a few seats — the "out" party usually wins seats in the sixth year of an eight-year presidency — but the conventional wisdom was that House Democrats would not win the 15 seats necessary to regain control.

What Rahm did was the get the party ready to win in case the wind started blowing in the right direction. He did all the hard work — recruiting good candidates, raising money and softening up incumbent Republicans — and then he got some breaks.

The Republicans began to unravel with the Iraq war going sour, the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina and the Mark Foley page scandal.

However, the breaks wouldn't have mattered if Rahm had not spent all of 2005 and the first part of 2006 finding strong candidates and making sure they had the money to win. Candidates make the decision to run early in the cycle before events take over.

Rahm didn’t always convince everyone he targeted to file but did manage to get many of them and he was relentless in his pursuit of the right candidates for the right districts. He did something that we started when I was chair — he recruited moderate and conservative candidates for southern and Midwestern districts. He didn’t just try to field a slate of liberals.

Equally important to political philosophy was the fact that Rahm recruited a number of military veterans to run as Democrats. It would be hard to paint these candidates, some of whom had served in Iraq, as being soft on national defense and on fighting terrorism.

Rahm also made sure that the DCCC was constantly trying to weaken Republican incumbents by feeding news stories into their districts tying them to the unethical conduct of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff.

And he did something that no other DCCC chair had ever done (myself included): He stayed in constant personal contact with his top challengers. Previous DCCC chairs had left this largely to staff. He talked to them often about what they were doing in their races, prodding them to raise more money and discussing strategy.

It helps if the DCCC chair comes from a safe district so that he doesn’t have to worry about his own re-election, and it really helps if he has the incredible amount of energy and focus that Rahm has.

So what did we learn from Rahm’s two years as chair of the DCCC?

First, we learned that one person can make an enormous difference in a political campaign when he has the right experience (Rahm had been a DCCC staffer when he was young, worked on Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign and served eight years on the White House staff) and the right amount of focus and energy.

Secondly, we learned that in politics, preparation is everything. Rahm and the DCCC couldn’t have waited for events to start breaking in their direction midway through the election cycle. They had to hit the ground running on Day 1 and take part in a 22-month marathon.

Third, we learned that money is still king in politics and there is no reason Democrats can’t be competitive with Republicans in fundraising if they work hard enough at it. Actually, Democrats are out-raising Republicans now that they're in the majority in the House and Senate, but it's possible to be competitive even when in the minority.

And finally, you need to know what to do when the other side opens the door. You have to be ready to charge through that door with an aggressive operation that doesn’t stop working until the last vote is cast.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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