Minutes after President Obama finished this year's State of the Union address, Rep. Steve Israel slipped off the House floor, pulled out his iPhone, and began to type. In the address field were the names of people scattered across the country whom Israel, the man in charge of helping Democrats try to win back control of the House, most wanted to run for Congress in 2014.
"Did you watch it?" Israel asked them. "In two years, you could actually watch yourself."
It was a move ripped straight from the playbook of a college football coach, the equivalent of dialing up a blue-chip running back in the middle of the big game just so he can hear the roar of the crowd. Israel, a fast-talking New Yorker in his second cycle atop the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, beams in retelling the tale. "I am a fanatic when it comes to recruiting," he says, jabbing his fist in punctuation.
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Now is the heart of recruitment season, a time when the nation's top talent scouts fan out from Washington to scour the country's small towns and big cities for, if not the next undiscovered political star, then at least a viable 2014 congressional challenger. Polls are conducted. Fundraising stats are reviewed. Research, often into the candidates themselves, is commissioned. For those who make the cut, the courtship begins. As House Democrats seek to climb from the minority and Republicans seek to attain 51 Senate seats for the first time since 2006 (navigating intra-party squabbling while doing it), finding that ideal candidate is mission-critical.
"It's the most important thing that we do," says Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Without a good candidate, it makes your job a helluva lot harder."
Wives are wooed. Inspiring role models are found. Frequent-flier miles are accrued. It is not a job for the impatient. Experienced recruiters say it takes at least a couple of months to get most candidates off the fence and into a race. For some, it takes years. Congress can be a tough sell these days, with its popularity rivaling colonoscopies and root canals. Cecil says it took him seven to nine months and an estimated 100 conversations to persuade Richard Carmona to run in Arizona in 2012 -- and his bid wasn't sealed until he got a phone call from the president. (And, as a reminder that there are no guarantees in politics, Carmona lost.)
Call, convince, cajole, reassure. Repeat. It is a persistence hunt.
Rob Collins, the top strategist for 2014 at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says he is modeling his efforts after Nick Saban, the University of Alabama football coach and winner of three of the past four national championships. "Nick Saban is a genius recruiter because he's constantly talking to his recruits. He's in their face. He lets them know that they're wanted. He lets them know they fit into the team and they they'll have a role that they would want," Collins says. "We're kind of taking that approach."
While college football is the most common recruiting analogy, dating is another. One senior GOP strategist active in the process said finding the right candidate is like identifying a potential mate. You don't want the ones who don't want you, but you don't want the ones who will go home with you on the first date either. And be forewarned: Nobody ever wants to know he or she is anyone's second choice.
It makes for a delicate task. While most politicians enjoy the ego-stroking that a courtship entails, many -- especially Republicans, these days -- fear being tagged as the pick of party bosses. So, wooing is often done on the hush-hush. Rob Jesmer, who had Collins's job in 2010 and 2012, said he would rendezvous with prospects in remote locales, like "a diner far away from town," safe from prying eyes and ears. "So people would not see."
The process is less about unearthing the next Marco Rubio or Barack Obama, although that would be welcomed, and more about finding the occasional Heidi Heitkamp, the new Democratic senator from North Dakota who won last year even as voters in her state thumped Obama by nearly 20 points. Heitkamp is the kind of political unicorn recruiters dream of catching: the one Republican who can win in New York City, say, or the perfect Democrat to carry Kentucky -- a candidate so compelling that he or she upends a district's or state's natural political geography. "If we would have had anybody else, I don't think we would have won," Cecil says of Heitkamp.
The unquestioned star in the modern era of recruiters is Rahm Emanuel, the former House member who became President Obama's chief of staff and is now mayor of Chicago. He helmed the DCCC during the go-go 2006 campaign cycle, when Democrats took 31 seats and the majority in the House. As is his style in all things, Emanuel was relentless in pursuit of a candidate.
"When my phone rang, my kids would say, 'Is that Rahm?'" says Heath Shuler, a moderate North Carolina Democrat whom Emanuel pressed to run for the House. Shuler had been a star quarterback, wooed by colleges (he ended up at the University of Tennessee) and NFL teams (he was the No. 3 pick in the 1994 NFL draft). He says, "Rahm was literally the best recruiter at any level, for any reason."
Shuler had concerns about balancing Congress and family. So Emanuel called him every time he was with his own. "Just letting you know I'm watching the dance recital of my daughter," Emanuel would say. "Hey, I'm just letting you know I'm watching the swim meet." Shuler started screening his calls. He also ultimately ran and won. (He retired from the House last year.)
To this day, Emanuel's photo hangs in the DCCC chairman's office. It's a reminder to Democratic recruits, Israel says: "No matter how bad they have it with me, it could be worse."
Across the Landscape
Each party in each chamber has its recruiting arm. For 2014, it's Israel at the DCCC and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., leading the National Republican Congressional Committee; Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Michael Bennet, D-Col., head the efforts in the Senate (Bennet's brother, James, is editor in chief of The Atlantic). It is often a thankless job -- endless hours of recruiting and fundraising -- but also a stepping-stone to greater power and influence. The four groups combined spent nearly $600 million in the 2012 elections. When people speak of the permanent campaign, these are four of its pillars.
But convoluted campaign-finance rules that limit the cash party committees can collect have diffused the recruiting process. Other sources of money now play a part, including the Club for Growth, which bankrolls conservative candidates, and EMILY's List, which spends millions every election to recruit Democratic women who support abortion rights.