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Money-burning Dems pamper neglected reds

Published June 12, 2006 12:45 am

GOP states: DNC Chairman Dean gets flak about the raise-to-spend ratio, but some say the party is growing
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WASHINGTON - Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland says he sees his party making inroads in the most Republican of states, due in no small part to an unprecedented investment from the national party.

But the spending in Utah and in places such as Mississippi, Idaho and other Republican-dominated states, largely written off in the past, has caused some grief for Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. Critics fear the money could run out by November, putting Democrats at a disadvantage nationally at the very time they finally have a shot at taking back one or both houses of Congress.



Holland says the criticism is unfounded and the party's growth across the state shows Dean's "50-State Strategy" is paying off.

"I can't even put into words how much I think this vision is going to change politics," Holland said.

When he was elected Democratic National Committee chairman just more than a year ago, Dean drew strong support from party leaders in Republican bastions such as Utah and Idaho, largely because of his commitment to put DNC-paid staff in every state. In Utah, the national party is paying three full-time staffers - a political organizer, communications director and a grass-roots coordinator - a resource the Utah state party never had before.

"It's us learning what the Republicans did in the '80s and '90s to win," Holland said. "They created a nationwide network, and I think now it's falling apart."

But putting that structure in place has come at a cost. Coupled with increased spending on fundraising and consultants, Dean is spending resources at a rate that has been questioned by some in the party. Democrats see the 2006 election as an unparalleled opportunity. With congressional scandal, President Bush's low approval rating and slipping support for the Iraq war, Democrats see a chance to regain control of either the House, the Senate or both.

The question, then, is whether it is better to spend money investing in Utah and other Republican-dominated states, or try to win in hotly contested races in November?

According to The Washington Post last month, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which focuses on House races, had an angry exchange with Dean over the national party's spending. Paul Begala, a former political adviser to President Clinton, mocked Dean's strategy.

"What he has spent it on, apparently, is just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose," Begala said on CNN.

That drew a pointed letter from Holland. Begala apologized in an online column for denigrating those working "in the trenches." But he said he's still concerned about whether the national party will be able to be a player in the 2006 race.

A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman wouldn't discuss the exchange and said Emanuel isn't talking about it, either. Begala did not return messages.

"The party ought to be spending money in Utah. It ought to be spending in Idaho and Montana and Wyoming," said former Rep. Martin Frost, who once ran the DCCC and challenged Dean for DNC chairman. "The question is: Has the party been spending its money wisely over and above what it has spent out in the states?"

Right now, the party is on pace to eclipse what it raised in the last nonpresidential election, but it also has spent more. Through the end of April, the most recent figures available, the party had raised $79.5 million and had spent all but $9.4 million. The Republican National Committee has $44.7 million in the bank, according to Political Moneyline.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Amaya Smith said the fundraising has been strong, but raising money costs money, as do organizing tools such as e-mail lists, voter databases and technology investments.

And it has cost money to rebuild a technological and grass-roots base that will help in elections, from local races to presidential campaigns, Smith said.

"If you don't have those organizations on the ground and those people available, it's often hard for Democratic candidates who are running to do this last-minute organization and this last-minute" get-out-the-vote effort, Smith said.

"It's a common-sense approach if you really think about it. If the state parties are suffering and not up to speed, then it's hard to run congressional races and even statewide races," she said.

Former DNC Chairman Charles Manatt said the disagreement within the party is "a very natural tug and pull." The DNC leader is elected by state party leaders, so that person has to look beyond the federal House and Senate races to keep constituents happy.

Holland said Dean's 50-State Strategy is creating benefits now and opportunities for the future, as well, including laying the groundwork should someone like Rep. Jim Matheson run for statewide office.

"To do that we need to build a statewide party," Holland said.

It's a big dream for the long-suffering Democrats.

The last Democrat to win statewide office in Utah was Jan Graham, who was elected attorney general in 1996. The last Democratic governor was Matheson's father, Scott Matheson, in 1984. And the last Democratic U.S. senator was Frank Moss, who lost to Sen. Orrin Hatch 30 years ago.

Holland said the DNC's resources have already allowed the party to reach rural parts of the state where it has been absent for years, it has revived atrophied local party organizations and recruited a record number of candidates.

Specifically, Holland cites progress in building the party in Iron County and Cache County.

"There was no way any of that would have been possible if we hadn't had this 50-State Strategy," Holland said.

But the numbers show Democrats still have miles and miles to go if they want to be truly competitive.

Since the 2004 election, 3,486 Republicans have registered in Cache County, compared with 490 Democrats. And in Iron County, the 10,857 registered Republicans still easily overwhelm the 1,423 registered Democrats.

"I'm not naive enough to think there is going to be a magic wand this year," Holland said, "but we're going to make some gains."

How red is Utah?

* In a Salt Lake Tribune poll before the last general election, in 2004, 55 percent of residents claimed Republican affiliation, compared with 17 percent Democratic. About 15 percent claimed independent political status, and 12 percent claimed "other." One percent of the respondents declined to answer.

 

 

 

 

 

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