Fundraising for Minority Party Tough Job for Campaign Chair

Newspapers that cover Capitol Hill have recently featured articles about the rift between House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., about the way the House Republican campaign committee is being run.

It seems that Boehner doesn’t like some of the peopled Cole has hired to run the committee and is concerned that the committee is not raising enough money to get ready for the 2008 Congressional elections.

I have a unique perspective on this whole matter. I had the exact same job in 1995 that Cole has today -- I was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee right after Democrats lost control of the House in 1994. There is one significant difference, however: I was appointed to the post by then House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., whereas Cole actually was elected to head the Republican committee by a vote of the entire Republican conference.

I can sympathize with Cole. It’s not easy rallying the troops following a major defeat.

Let me offer a few observations based on my experience in 1995 and 1996.

The first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding. You somehow must convince your colleagues not to retire and thus create a number of open seats your own party must defend…a subject I discussed in last week’s column.

The next item is, in fact, money. The NRCC is being out-raised by the DCCC. That is not unusual. The majority party normally has an easier time appealing to contributors since they control the levers of power. We were significantly out-raised by the Republicans in 1995 and 1996. But you can’t let this get you down. You simply have to do the best you can and spend your money wisely during the campaign.

I have a favorite story about fundraising in the minority. For much of the first six months of 1995, I badgered two of my Maryland House colleagues -- Steny Hoyer and Ben Cardin (now a United States senator) about holding a fundraiser for the DCCC in Baltimore. They had all kinds of excuses about why such an event wouldn’t work but I refused to take "no" for an answer.

Finally, Hoyer and Cardin came up with a solution. They decided to hold a fundraiser at the baseball park Camden Yards the night Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripkin broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. They arranged for a 75-seat party box; we sold tickets for $2,500 each and made more than $150,000 on the event. Contributors had such a good time that they called me up the next day to thank me for holding the fundraiser.

Basically, we put the "fun" back in fundraising. Later that cycle the DCCC sponsored fundraisers at Pebble Beach in California for golfers and an event at the Super Bowl for football fans.

We still were out-raised by the Republicans for the cycle, but at least we got back in the game by working on member and donor morale. Members enjoyed attending these events as much as the contributors did.

Next, the job of the campaign chairman is to be both a strategist and a cheerleader. As committee chair, you have to insist on the right to hire your own staff and Boehner simply must let Cole run the committee the way he thinks is best. After all, Cole was elected by a vote of the entire Republican conference. He should get the chance to rise or fall on his own merits as a strategist.

The cheerleading part is very hard but very necessary. The campaign committee chair has the responsibility to pump up his colleagues and to convince both the press and potential contributors that success is possible.

This will continue to be a difficult chore for Cole because of the unpopularity of his party’s president and because of unfolding scandals involving Republicans in both the House and the Senate. However, it is his job to put on a happy face every single day and tell his party’s story the best way he can.

When I was given the DCCC job, the first congratulatory call I received was from another Texan, former DNC Chair Bob Strauss. Strauss, an old family friend, began the call by saying, "Martin, I know why you took this job. Democrats have just lost the House for the first time in 40 years and expectations are low. If you don’t do well, no one will be disappointed. If you succeed, you will be a hero."

Well, I almost made it to hero. We picked up nine seats my first term as chair and five seats my second term in 1998. We came close to taking the House back but the job was not completed until Rahm Emanuel took over the DCCC for the 2006 cycle.

As a Democrat, I am not wishing Tom Cole success. But I do understand the problems he faces. Hang in there, Tom, despite criticism. Do the best job you can and walk away in January 2009 with your head held high.

Respond to the Writer

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.