Democrats ‘Whip’ for Herseth

As part of House Democratic leaders’ final drive to elect South Dakotan Stephanie Herseth to the House, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) has tasked several well-placed Members with twisting arms within the Caucus to encourage contributions to her campaign.

Hoyer tapped roughly 10 lawmakers to work over their fellow Members until Congress adjourns for the Memorial Day recess, just a week before the June 1 special election that pits Herseth against state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R). Slightly more than half of the 205-member Democratic Caucus has contributed to Herseth so far.

“I want everyone to participate in this race,” said Hoyer, who has traveled to South Dakota to help Herseth and so far has contributed $23,000 to her campaign through his leadership political action committee and re-election committee.

The unofficial call to aid Herseth is part of the leaders’ ongoing effort to make her the second Democratic win in a special election this year. Rep. Ben Chandler (Ky.) scored their first such victory in February when he beat Alice Forgy Kerr (R) for a vacated seat.

Some 108 Members have given to Herseth so far, with contributions totaling $187,900. By comparison, 119 gave $195,750 to Chandler.

“By the time this is over, we’re going to do very, very well,” said Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “This should be better than what we did for Chandler. This race is critical for us.”

Republicans have also heavily targeted South Dakota, making Diedrich’s candidacy a top priority. The party already has sent heavy hitters like Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), White House senior adviser Karl Rove and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) to help out, and first lady Laura Bush will travel to South Dakota to campaign for Diedrich on Tuesday.

Rep. Ralph Regula (Ohio), a top appropriator campaigning to take the committee helm next Congress, is leading the fundraising charge for the GOP. And Carl Forti, spokesman for the NRCC, scoffed at Democrats’ last-ditch attempt to coax Members into giving more money.

“We don’t have to get anyone to arm-twist our Members. They are eager to participate,” said Forti. “With the help of Ralph Regula we’ve collected over $300,000 [from Members] for Larry Diedrich.”

While Hoyer stressed that the Democrats’ internal effort for Herseth is not part of his official Whip operation, he said he opted to take a lead because he is the No. 2 House Democrat. Hoyer has also helped guide the party’s candidate recruitment efforts and has campaigned for key candidates in swing districts this cycle.

“As a party leader, I’m saying, ‘Let’s go to our colleagues and ask them to give,’” Hoyer said. “A win for Stephanie Herseth would be a change of two for us. I’m saying, ‘This race has significance, and House Democrats have a huge stake in this.’”

Democratic leaders are targeting the majority of their Members to give to Herseth, but leadership aides said they will give passes to the 18 most threatened lawmakers. The Caucus is running a separate “Frontline” program to aid those incumbents, who are facing the toughest re-election bids this fall.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Hoyer have each given Herseth $23,000, the most overall. Other prolific contributors include Matsui with $6,000 as well as Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), George Miller (Calif.), David Obey (Wis.) with $5,000 each, and Rep. Mike Thompson (Calif.) with $3,000.

Sixteen other Members have given $2,000 each, the maximum a lawmaker can give from an individual re-election account.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), who has given $2,000 and is helping Hoyer solicit more contributions, said even though just two weeks remain in the campaign, “we need to be prepared for whatever comes up.”

“We all need to be engaged,” Crowley said. “We need to make sure we are doing everything we can. We need to make sure Stephanie Herseth has everything she needs to win.”

“Steny asked us to remind Members how important it is to contribute,” added Rep. Baron Hill (Ind.), who despite his Frontline status is helping the effort and just cut a $1,000 check. “I’m confident they will step up to the plate.”

Another Member heeding the latest call is Rep. Bill Pascrell (N.J.), who said he hadn’t contributed yet but was on the cusp of signing a check. Pascrell said once he contributes, he will talk to his colleagues about helping out.

“We’ve all got to step up to the plate,” he said.

Throughout the Caucus, Herseth’s race is viewed as a must-win for House Democrats, who now sit at a 12-seat deficit to the GOP. By winning next month, Democrats believe they can continue to build on their momentum and show others inside and outside the Beltway that the party has a chance in November.

“People will believe we have a chance and will invest in House races,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “Instead of us just saying we’re going to win the House back, these two key special elections in key parts of the country in Republican districts will send the right message that we can win.”

The NRCC’s Forti, however, stressed that Democrats shouldn’t get too set on a victory.

“It’s tightening,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’m the Democrats how confident I would be. It comes down to turnout and it’s a Republican state.”

Recognizing that, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), another one of the Democrats’ most threatened Members this cycle, said Caucus members have to get involved in anticipation that in the waning days Republicans will “throw everything including the kitchen sink” in to win.

“Across our Caucus, there’s a strong sentiment we want to be there standing with our candidate,” Pomeroy said.