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Luck of the Draw

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Soon the 2006 midterm elections will be over, and pundits will portray some political operatives as geniuses and others as goats. None of those assessments is likely to be entirely fair.

I've seen enormously talented people on the losing side of elections, particularly wave elections. And I've seen very lucky people, who happened to be at the right place at the right time, credited with victories that fell into their laps.

At this juncture, Democrats appear likely to gain 20 to 35 Houses seats -- more than the 15 they need to take control -- and perhaps far more. In the Senate, Democrats appear headed toward a net pickup of at least four seats. A six-seat gain, enough to grab the majority, is entirely possible. I doubt Democrats can add as many as seven Senate seats, but stranger things have happened. Witness the 1974, 1980, 1986, and 1994 elections.

If Democrats succeed, the captains of their respective Senate and House campaign committees, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois will deserve an enormous amount of credit, not only for their amazing fundraising prowess but also for their aggressive style, jump-starting a party that had forgotten how to win.

They saw opportunities and seized them, and that is often what political victories are all about. Schumer's and Emanuel's teams also deserve credit for outstanding performances under the leadership of such demanding taskmasters.

In the likely event that Republicans lose the House, it won't be because Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York and his team at the National Republican Congressional Committee were not up to the job. They were dealt a horrible hand and played it better than anyone had reason to expect. In the NRCC campaign division, Mike McElwain and Jonathan Poe are among the most talented operatives ever to work at any House or Senate party committee. A GOP debacle, if it materializes, will be in spite of them, not because of them.

If Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and her team at the National Republican Senatorial Committee fail to retain their majority, which looks to be a 50-50 proposition, they cannot be faulted for candidate recruitment. They fielded some fairly strong contenders.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, in particular, turned out to be a far better candidate than I ever dreamed he would be. His imaginative ads helped to shape his image as not just another boring politician. Maryland is a very tough state for Republicans and this is an especially difficult year for them. But whether he wins or loses, Steele will probably beat the point spread.

In Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington state, Republicans ran good Senate candidates who might have won in another year. Perhaps one will win on Tuesday. The anti-GOP climate, not poor recruiting, will doom most -- or all -- of them, though.

Did Dole raise as much money as Schumer or as much as the Senate Republican effort needed? Of course not. But other Senate Republicans ought to look in the mirror before pointing fingers at her. Although House Republicans, House Democrats, and Senate Democrats have solid track records of actively raising money for their campaign committees and digging into their own war chests to contribute, Senate Republicans are less willing to share their wealth.

For at least the 28 years that I have watched the NRSC and the GOP Senate caucus, just a few Republican senators -- generally the NRSC chairman, the majority or minority leader, the whip, and maybe one other lawmaker -- really work on behalf of their party committee. For the most part, the others go to two fundraising dinners a year and think they have given at the office.

With a majority leader who is running for president, a campaign committee chair who is a less aggressive fundraiser than her Democratic counterpart, and an uninvolved caucus, Senate Republicans never had a chance financially. There is a limit to what incoming GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky could do, since he hasn't taken the reins yet. GOP senators will have only themselves to blame for insufficient funds.

 
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