Long Island Democrat Steve Israel, the incoming DCCC chairman isn’t a typical Nancy Pelosi ally. Among other things, he’s a former Blue Dog who voted for the Iraq war and the 2001 Bush tax cuts. But last week, after urging his fellow Democrats to support Pelosi’s continued leadership of their party, Pelosi nominated him to head the election committee over the perceived favorite, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.
Wasserman-Schultz and Pelosi have clashed in the past, but the former’s fundraising acumen is unquestioned and, in a challenging environment for Democrats, she was seen as a natural choice.
But Israel didn’t come out of nowhere.
In the 10 years since Israel took office, his district has become more liberal and he has moved closer to the mainstream of his party. As an appropriator and an assistant whip, he’s put himself on a glide path to party leadership.
According to internal DCCC figures, in 2010 alone, Israel provided the campaign arm with over $3.4 million: Nearly $2 million of that he raised explicitly for the DCCC; just over $1.2 million went to swing districts trending toward Democrats and $250,000 came from his dues.
Israel is known to throw a punch — his allies compare him favorably to fellow New Yorker Chuck Schumer. And he has a number of allies — former staffers — already situated the DCCC, including John Lapp, senior adviser for independent expenditures, and current executive director Jon Vogel.
As his critics see it, that could be a major problem.
“Generally speaking, he was a very, very Bush friendly Democrat,” says Howie Klein — a progressive activist and long-time critic of the DCCC. “He started a thing [The House Center Aisle Caucus] a little informal caucus of Democrats and Republicans. Supposedly the middle. Right wing Democrats paired with mainstream Republicans.”
Klein has long been critical of the way the DCCC, and the current DCCC leadership, allocates its money — funneling vast sums to some of the least loyal Democrats in the party. Pair Israel allies with his own conservative views, and Klein thinks you have a recipe for another round of recruiting conservative Democrats to run in marginal districts.
This cycle, though, recruitment won’t be the biggest problem Democrats face. The DCCC has identified 61 seats currently held by Republicans in districts that Barack Obama won in 2008.
“Republicans won a lot of seats they have no business winning,” said a top Democratic strategist. “It’s going to be a full-on recruitment cycle [and] Israel is the perfect person for that.”
The bigger challenges this year will be redistricting and, over all else, fundraising. The DCCC starts the 2012 cycle $17 million in the hole. Filling it, and building up a sizable war chest will be tough in the coming months with the economy depressed, the Democratic donor base disgruntled, and an inevitable tug of war between party outfits. With nearly two dozen Democratic Senators up this cycle — and, of course, Obama up for re-election — the competition for funds will be fierce.
Spokesmen for Israel and Wasserman-Schultz did not respond to requests for interviews.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.