By JAKE SHERMAN & JOHN BRESNAHAN
Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) are raising tons of money, dishing the cash to key House colleagues and cementing their place in Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle.
Wasserman Schultz has given about $300,000 this year alone to Democratic candidates nationwide, and she’s in charge of incumbent retention for 2010. She is also one of nine chief deputy whips — a skill that will be critical in the upcoming health care vote. And she has cemented her reputation as a consistent Democratic presence on cable TV. She appeared side by side with Pelosi in Sunrise, Fla., on Monday to sell health care reform to seniors, a critical voting bloc in Florida.
Israel has positioned himself as a player in a race with national significance — getting deeply involved in the special election for New York’s 23rd District. And he’s doled out about $270,000 to Democrats across the country. Some Democrats also think Israel is “owed one” for bowing out of the race for the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the behest of the Obama administration.
And many see Crowley as a contender because he’s been a “member’s member,” as one lawmaker put it, and has long been doing bidding for the House leadership. Like Wasserman Schultz, Crowley is a chief deputy whip and has long had his eye on a leadership post. He’s also given about $250,000 to Democratic candidates.
Both Wasserman Schultz and Crowley currently serve as vice chairs at the DCCC. Wasserman Schultz heads up the committee’s “incumbent retention” program, while Crowley oversees the DCCC’s finance operation.
This race for a political committee chairmanship for an election more than three years away may appeal only to the most serious of political junkies, but the inside-the-Beltway posturing has high stakes for the future of the Democratic Party. The decision rests solely with Pelosi, who probably won’t make a choice until right around the 2010 race.
“It’s not unusual for the DCCC chair to be used as a steppingstone,” said former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, a two-time chairman of the DCCC.
All the candidates are staying mum on their desire for the top slot. Wasserman Schultz said the decision is up to the speaker, and Crowley and Israel declined to comment.
House insiders say Wasserman Schultz and Israel are the front-runners — but all three candidates have the key traits — strong fundraising, a secure seat and positive relations with Pelosi. And all three have inroads in wealthy conclaves — Wasserman Schultz in South Florida, Israel on Long Island and Crowley in New York.
“Whoever is chair, if money becomes tight, they need to have a strong base and state to call on people to persuade to give,” Frost said.
All three have found themselves on the wrong side of Pelosi in the past, but they have also all worked hard to build positive relationships with her. Still, they could face significant challenges before the speaker makes her decision.
Being in charge of incumbent retention could hurt Wasserman Schultz if Democrats suffer heavy losses in next year’s midterm elections. A Democratic win for Israel in New York’s 23rd District would bolster his ability to manage a tough election, but a loss to a severely divided Republican Party could also spotlight his role in a high-profile loss.
Crowley, meanwhile, is helping wrangle health care votes inside a deeply divided Democratic Caucus, and Pelosi has struggled to whip that vote.
The winner of this party battle could help usher in a youth movement in Democratic leadership. The three top Democrats — Pelosi of California, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and House Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina — are all at least 69 years old. House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut and Vice Chairman Xavier Beccera of California are already in elected leadership — Becerra is 51 and Larson is 61.
A second group of young, dark-horse DCCC candidates has also emerged, including Reps. Bruce Braley of Iowa and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. But these junior Democrats are considered to be long shots for the job, although they could still play significant roles in the 2012 elections. And California Rep. Mike Thompson, who himself has been mentioned as a potential DCCC chair, said he’d like to see Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen serve a third term in the post.
Frost, who works in Washington as a lawyer and is not involved with the selection process, said the most important aspect is the speaker’s confidence in the member’s ability to deliver. He recalled the key to his relationship with then-Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri was that Gephardt had confidence in Frost’s ability to win seats.
“He wasn’t looking over my shoulder,” Frost said. Then-President Bill Clinton was the most interested in congressional races, quizzing Frost each time Democratic leaders went to the White House.
And even though the DCCC chairmanship is clearly a steppingstone for higher leadership, it doesn’t automatically put someone on that path. Reps. Nita Lowey of New York and Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, both past committee heads, have not pursued any leadership posts.
“Sometimes it may be someone not looking for [a leadership role] and just wants to fundraise,” Frost said. “But don’t get me wrong: This is a steppingstone. It will put someone in a real good place.”