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Bench Strength

No one would mistake me for the president of the Howard Dean fan club. I can't even count the number of times that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee has said things that I considered a bit over the top and that I thought contributed to the caricature that the Democratic Party has become in the minds of many Americans. In his most recent dustup, though, Dean is absolutely right.

Last Sunday, Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post reported that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada met with their party chairman and "complained about Dean's priorities -- funding organizers for state parties in strongly Republican states, such as Mississippi, rather than targeting states with crucial races this fall."

While Pelosi and Reid are right that control of the Senate will be decided by races in just eight or nine states and that, likewise, a small fraction of House districts will truly be in play, they ignored one set of facts.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee exists solely to win House races. On the Senate side, there's the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. For the party's governors, there is the Democratic Governors' Association. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee was created to boost candidates for state legislatures. And the GOP, of course, has comparable committees for all of its candidates.

The primary responsibility of the DNC is not to win House, Senate, gubernatorial, or state legislative races, but to build and sustain a national party and to oversee the presidential conventions and nomination process. The same is true of the Republican National Committee. No other entities within the two major parties are charged with those missions.

In January, while giving a speech at Mississippi State University, I happened to meet a DNC staffer, a former executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, who was assigned full-time to party-building in Mississippi. In the 33 years that I have been involved in politics, I have never heard of the national Democratic Party assigning a full-time staff member to organizational efforts in Mississippi.

Although organizing in Mississippi might not seem important to Pelosi and Reid -- after all, the state won't have competitive House or Senate races this year -- at some point, conservative Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor will retire, and then the House Democratic leadership may see the wisdom of their party already having a presence in southern Mississippi.

When Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott retire, the Senate Democratic leadership just might have a similar revelation. Keep in mind that if Lott had opted to retire at the end of this year, as many had expected, Democrats would have had a pretty fair shot at winning that seat by running former state Attorney General Mike Moore.

The Democratic congressional leaders' shortsighted, penny-wise/pound-foolish complaints show why their party has become bicoastal. Congressional Democrats have trouble winning in many interior states, in part because leaders like Reid and Pelosi have failed to appreciate the importance of maintaining a strong national party apparatus. The Democrats' inability to consistently win elections in places where gun shops outnumber Starbucks is a big reason the party controls neither the House nor the Senate.

Right now, one of the biggest obstacles to Democrats' taking the House back is their failure to recruit strong candidates in many Republican-held districts that ought to be in play. Party building means lining up a solid team -- organizing and winning lower-level offices that give the party a talented bench from which to draw for higher contests.

Dean's view -- that Pelosi, Reid, and their party committees have their jobs and he has his -- is the one that he ought to stick to. He should also resist pressure from interest groups, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members raise very little money for the DCCC even though a Democratic takeover of the House would elevate many black lawmakers to chairmanships.

Howard, stick to your guns.

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