After the Boom: Can Steve Israel Help the DCCC Play Defense?

WASHINGTON – Anticipating large gains on Election Day, some Democrats are beginning to ponder how to maintain their majority in the House of Representatives heading into the future.

And there is increasing buzz that a fifty-year-old, fourth term congressman from Long Island might be at least part of the answer.

Representative Steve Israel, who has spent the last two years working side by side with the Democratic House campaign arm in its effort to steal a handful of seats in New York, is quietly winning the attention of party leaders who in just several weeks time may find themselves scrambling to select a new chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Many party insiders expect Representative Chris Van Hollen step down as chair of the DCCC after the elections, though Van Hollen has not publicly announced a decision.

The key trait Israel brings to the table, some Democratic insiders say, is a personal understanding of how to play defense on difficult political terrain. In 2000, Israel won election in a conservative-minded, heavily Catholic district that had previously been in Republican hands. In his first term in office, Israel worked quickly to raise money and to consolidate his standing in the district, cooling any potential for a challenge from former representative Rick Lazio, who just several years earlier had vacated the seat to run for the Senate against Hillary Clinton. Israel has been re-elected to the seat with solid majorities ever since.

After winning seats in conservative territory in 2006 and again in 2008, “Democrats are going to be playing defense in a big way” heading into 2010, said one party strategist who is close to the DCCC. This strategist went on to argue that the party needed a leader on its campaign arm who knew how to retain a difficult seat.

A selection of Israel, the strategist continued, would just mean “that he’s the right guy for the right cycle.”

In a telephone interview, Israel said he was not jockeying for the position and that he had not held discussions about the matter with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who would be charged with selecting a new DCCC chair. Israel dismissed the chatter of his taking the reins at the DCCC as rumors.

But he left little doubt that, should he be asked to take the job, he would accept.

“It’s safe to say anything the Speaker asks me to do to advance the cause of the Democratic caucus the answer would be yes,” said Israel.

The congressman also said he agreed with the assessment that after November House Democrats would need to readjust to a more defensive mindset, and that working with incumbents in tough districts has been a big part of his work at the DCCC for the last eight years.

“I’m a big believer that the pendulum does swing in both directions,” said Israel. Shoring up incumbents who recently won seats in conservative districts, he explained, “will be an important part of the focus after the 2008 elections.”

For two consecutive cycles, Democrats have sought to expand the political map. In 2006, Democrats won seats in Republican districts in states such as Pennsylvania, California, and Kansas. This cycle, Democrats are knocking on the door in conservative districts across the country, including some in New Mexico, Nebraska, Indiana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

But shoring up incumbents will involve the hand-holding, coercing, and coaxing of new freshman need to win re-election in difficult races.

“The mission over the next two years is that the incumbents we elected are able” to hold onto their seats, said Israel.

Other names that have been floated for the DCCC post include Deborah Wasserman Schultz, Kendrick Meek and Bruce Braley.

While Israel is not openly jockeying for the DCCC chairmanship, there are indications that he has been making moves quietly. Israel, who boasts a strong New York fundraising base, has contributed over $1 million to the DCCC’s “Frontline” incumbent protection program and has raised another $480,000 for the committee this cycle.

Insiders say Israel has already won the notice of Pelosi, who was instrumental in securing a seat for Israel on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Other than Pelosi, DCCC Executive Director Brian Wolff, who is seen in Capitol Hill circles as close to the Speaker, will be central in the decision making process about who the committee’s next chair would be.

Asked about Israel in an e-mail exchange, Wolff responded by email: “We are just focused on November 4th right now and those types of caucus decisions will of course have to wait until after the election.”