Why Would Anyone Ever Want to Run for Congress?

How Democratic and Republican officials cajole potential candidates into signing on for constant stress, ceaseless fundraising, and the danger of losing your job every two years
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"If we would have had anybody else, I don't think we would have won," the DSCC's Guy Cecil says of Heidi Heitkamp. (Associated Press)

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.

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.

So when Ashley Judd was about to take the stage at an EMILY's List event at the Democratic National Convention last summer, it was Stephanie Schriock who pulled her aside. The two had never met, but Schriock had a question for the actress. "I just walked up to her and said to her, just point blank, 'Are the rumors true? Are you thinking of running for office soon?' " Schriock wasn't your average activist; she's the president of EMILY's List. Judd shrugged off the question. "I said, 'Well, when you're really ready to have a serious conversation, give me a call,'" Schriock says.

Ninety minutes later, after spontaneous shouts of "Run, Ashley, run," broke out during the town hall, it was Judd who grabbed Schriock as they cleared off the stage. She said she wanted to set up that phone date. "I was, like, 'That was a pretty good recruitment event!' " Schriock says. Judd got one call and then another. Pollsters and political strategists were looped in, as Judd explored a challenge to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader. By March, word was out that she planned to run.

But even before the recruitment was done, the "decruitment" had begun. Democrats weren't universally thrilled with Judd's reputation as a Hollywood liberal, Obama devotee, and coal critic. McConnell paid for a burst of negative ads about her, and he and his strategists were later caught on tape salivating about savaging Judd's vulnerabilities. In Appalachia and beyond, nervous Democrats, including former President Clinton, cast their eyes toward the young Kentucky secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, as the party's strongest standard-bearer in the Bluegrass State.

By late March, Judd declared she had "thoughtfully and prayerfully" decided not to run. A full cycle of boom and bust -- with the 2014 elections still nearly 600 days away.

Recruiting no longer has an off-season. The DCCC's Israel likes to tell anyone within earshot that he began calling 2014 recruits the night of the 2012 election, including some who had lost races only hours earlier. "Fundamentally, I do not believe you win an election on Election Day," Israel says. "You win it two years before, when you begin identifying candidates."

The math Israel faces in 2014 is daunting. Democrats could win every single House district that Obama carried last year and still fall short of the majority, even though Obama waltzed comfortably to reelection. The path to a Democratic majority runs through the red districts carried by Mitt Romney. And the only way to turn those GOP seats blue is to field enough compelling recruits who transcend party labels.

Emanuel focused on recruiting conservative Democrats, like Shuler, in more rural areas. Israel says he is a "fanatic" about finding centrist "problem solvers" in the suburbs. But history adds to the challenge: The most seats any sitting president's party has gained in a midterm election since 1900 is nine. To gain a majority, Israel is shooting for 17.

If House Democrats face a quantitative problem, the trouble for Senate Republicans is more qualitative. In recent years, the party has fielded five fundamentally flawed candidates who fumbled away winnable races. The most recent was Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin. "He was a shitty candidate," Jesmer says. "Obviously, an unmitigated disaster." With Republicans six seats shy of a Senate majority, they can ill afford another such mistake in 2014.

The tension between the warring Republican establishment and its tea-party base threatens to explode in a series of bloody 2014 Senate primaries. Both factions blame the other for the GOP's blown chances at a Senate majority over the past four years. Into that breach steps new leadership at the NRSC, led by Moran, a no-name first-term senator, and Collins, a former Eric Cantor insider. They must thread the needle between the party's competing visions.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have had a string of strong recruiting classes, but they face a hostile landscape next year. They must protect incumbents in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, and North Carolina -- all Romney states. Plus, five Democratic senators have already announced their retirements, including Tim Johnson in South Dakota and Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia, places increasingly hostile to federal Democrats. The party hopes it has found its unicorn in West Virginia: a rich pro-coal, business-oriented Democrat named Nick Preservati, a man without the baggage of a voting record in the conservative state.

The opportunities for Democratic gains, meanwhile, are limited. Only a single GOP-held seat in an Obama state is up this cycle, but Maine's moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins remains popular. Democrats are instead searching for top-flight recruits in Kentucky and an open seat in Georgia, where strategists hope a weak GOP nominee emerges.

For House Republicans, the chief challenge is to protect their incumbents and find challengers to pry loose the handful of Democrats still occupying districts that Romney won last year. They've already re-upped one star recruit from 2012 who fell short: African-American Mia Love, who is planning to run again against a Democratic incumbent in Utah.

Private Eyes

Calming a potential candidate's concerns about balancing elective office and private life is often the key to unlocking a run. Many of the toughest recruits are parents, especially young mothers. They worry as much about winning as losing -- and what it would mean for their still-growing families.

Like most recruiters, Rob Simms, the NRCC's political director, said he connects political prospects with congressional role models based on shared experiences. For a young mother, he said, that means a chat with the likes of second-term Rep. Martha Roby, a 36-year-old mother of two young children. Those vitals statistics make Roby the exception in a House Republican Conference that is still about 90 percent white men with an average age over 50.

In fact, some elements of Roby's male-dominated Republican Conference weren't so keen on her candidacy initially, according to Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the man who recruited her. The former NRCC chairman said that "people in the delegation" were worried about fielding her in a 2010 Alabama race seen as a political must-win.

"Martha Roby had a lot of people who, quite honestly, saw her as a young mother. They weren't sure that that's what they wanted to see," Sessions said. They worried, "That's a seat we've got to win -- why would we necessarily go and be for somebody who has a lot of family needs?" he said. "We could lose the seat. Maybe she -- you know the issues. It's not second-guessing her; it's saying that, 'Does she have, you know, what it takes.' "

Sessions pushed for Roby anyway and was vindicated when she won. But such resistance is symptomatic of a white- and male-dominated party that has struggled to appeal to women, youth, and minorities. After an "autopsy" of the 2012 election, the head of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, announced in March that the party would invest $10 million to improve its outreach. That the GOP wants a diverse ticket, "I think it goes without saying," Simms said. Andrea Bozek, the NRCC communications director, noted that more than 20 Republican women, from incumbents to long shots, ran for the House and lost to Democratic men in 2012. "We do recruit women candidates. Unfortunately, they lost last cycle -- to males," she said.

In contrast, the Democratic apparatus to recruit mothers is humming.

"I'm the mom adviser," jokes Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a mother of three, including 13-year-old twins. She and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a mother of two, including a son born during her time in the House, tag-team the duties of talking to Democratic mothers about potential runs for office.

Because Wasserman Schultz has kept her family in Florida and Gillibrand has moved hers to the capital, they are often strategically deployed, based on family-relocation desires of the potential candidate. Wasserman Schultz tells moms "about how technology is my friend, and how I used to have my kids' homework faxed to me so I could check it" when in D.C.

"I can give context, or at least life experience, that you can still be a good mom and a Congress member at the same time," says Gillibrand, who has also created a PAC, Off the Sidelines, to encourage and donate to women running for office. "I feel very passionate that women in Congress can make a difference."

Schriock of EMILY's List calls Wasserman Schultz and Gillibrand her "closers." Party officials call them indispensable.

But even more prevalent than a parent's worries about children are a candidate's fears of seeing a spouse become enmeshed in the electoral process -- and all the good and bad that springs from it. The seven-month courtship to get Missouri's Claire McCaskill to run for the Senate in 2006 didn't end until after a dinner date in London between McCaskill and her husband and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., then head of the DSCC. When Schumer heard that he happened to be in London at the same time as McCaskill's family, he quickly arranged the international get-together. And because McCaskill's husband was the holdout, Schumer made sure to sit next to him.

For the same reason, then-Rep. Tom Davis booked a table for three at Minnesota's finest steak house in 2001 when he jetted out there to try to persuade Republican John Kline to run for Congress for a third time, after he had suffered two straight losses. There were no illusions of the evening's target, Kline says. "He needed to convince my wife." Davis did ("I can still taste that steak," a satisfied Davis says, more than a decade later), and Kline has served in Congress ever since.

(Not every high-dollar recruitment trip hits its target. Davis took Rhode Island's Republican former attorney general, Jeffrey Pine, to the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park -- it was at least three hours of a guaranteed audience -- to plead his case. Pine still didn't run. Why? "Honestly, he had a good marriage," Davis says. "He didn't want to jeopardize it.")

Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has literally written the book on hesitant political partners. It's called ... and His Lovely Wife, the tale of Brown's 2006 Senate race and her reluctant role. It's a staple on the spouse section of congressional bookshelves. "[Rob] Portman's wife read it," Brown says of Ohio's other senator. "She said, twice." The book has made Schultz something of a go-to woman for prospective candidate wives. Although Brown and party officials downplay Schultz's advisory role in recruiting, she says, "I've probably talked to more than 100 spouses since 2006, in varying degrees, sometimes through e-mail."

Schultz offers straight talk: "I'm not going to be responsible for misleading someone, and her life gets turned upside down," she says. Some potential candidates opt out because of the chats, and that's fine by her. "If it's just, hey, recruit at all costs, Connie is not your woman. I'm not going to do it that way."

Schultz says, "When they're really trying to recruit, they say it's not going to be that different. It's not true. It is an earthquake." She vividly recalls watching two men in suits jump out of a white van to grab her trash shortly after her husband's Senate campaign began. "Your family is going to be pulled into this, whether you want to or not."

In one of her book's telling scenes, Schultz recounts Schumer's hardball tactics to get Brown into the race. Her husband had been worried that she would have to give up her columnist job, fresh from winning the Pulitzer. Schumer's reply: "Well, Connie had her chance at the brass ring. Now it's time for her to support you." Schultz was taken aback, although she writes that she came to appreciate Schumer's "willful disregard for perceived obstacles."

Surfin' USA

That disregard is part of what made Schumer and Emanuel so successful. They heavily recruited candidates in deep-red territory. Davis, the former NRCC chairman, still remembers one particular Emanuel brag before the 2006 election: "He told me, 'I've got some surfers. If we've got a high tide, they'll ride it in.'" Sure enough, a Democratic wave came. "You always plan for the big year," Davis says.

The unspoken interplay between recruiter and recruit is that it is in the party's best interest to field the strongest possible candidates everywhere, even if the best a particular candidate can likely do, short of a major wave election, is lose honorably, as Richard Carmona did last fall in Arizona. The party must persuade those candidates to run anyway -- just in case. That possibility is why the perception of political momentum, especially for those in the minority, is so important in recruiting.

As NRCC chairman, Sessions was able to do that in 2010 when House Republicans seized an enormous 63 seats, including the defeat of 52 Democratic incumbents. Party operatives partly credit the GOP's Young Guns program, which identifies promising political prospects and sets metrics for them -- doors knocked, dollars raised, and so on -- to receive party support. (House Democrats have a similar program called Red to Blue.) House Republicans won the same way Emanuel's Democrats did in 2006: fielding top-flight candidates in all corners of the country, even against the most veteran Democratic incumbents.

Sessions still proudly remembers the burst of ads the NRCC aired over the July 4, 2009, weekend in the Missouri district of legendary Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton. It was an effort to signal the seriousness of the GOP's intent to target a 30-year incumbent and to shake loose local Republicans who might want to take on the challenge.

Liberals mocked the ads as money tossed down a sinkhole. But Sessions's phone rang with two calls over the holiday weekend; one was from a GOP state senator, another from Vicky Hartzler, a local conservative activist. Both ran in the GOP primary, and Hartzler won en route to ousting Skelton. "We teed that up," Sessions says. "We got high-level people because we went out and made the pitch."

This year, the Democratically aligned House Majority PAC and EMILY's List have each named their top GOP targets for 2014, as part of an effort to lure strong challengers, and in the latter case, strong women challengers, into the contests.

Similarly, the Club for Growth has aired its first ad of the 2014 cycle in Arkansas, aimed at softening up Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. As much as the spot was a jab at Pryor, it was also a kiss blown to Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., whom many conservatives hope makes the leap into the Senate race. "I figure he might see the ads; I don't know," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola says, barely able to repress a smile. "Yeah, sure, we like Tom Cotton." The club followed up by releasing a poll showing Cotton outpacing Pryor.

No group has put more "surfers in the water" more consistently in recent years than Senate Democrats. One of them was Christopher Coons, who stepped into Delaware's 2010 Senate race late after Beau Biden, the vice president's son, unexpectedly bowed out and left Democrats with the unsavory prospect of ceding a Senate seat in a solid-blue state to a popular Republican House member.

The day Biden dropped out, he called Coons, a leading local official, urging him to run. Next, Vice President Joe Biden called. Then top Senate leaders. One of the Bidens -- Coons can't remember who because the day became such a blur -- told him, "This guy's going to call you in five minutes. You don't know who he is, but you've got to take his call."

That man was J.B. Poersch, then the DSCC's executive director. Time was precious, and Poersch wanted a meeting, fast. He arrived at Coons's Delaware home the next morning and planted himself there for three hours, wooing the Democrats' second choice as if he'd been their first. "I talked about the reasons that my wife and I might well be willing to take it on," Coons recalls. "And we talked through some of the concerns we had."

Republican Rep. Mike Castle was flying high in the polls, but Poersch made the case the race could still be won. A flurry of calls and a week later, Coons took the plunge. Castle stumbled in the primary to the now-infamous Christine "I'm Not a Witch" O'Donnell, who, in turn, imploded in the fall. Less than a year after Poersch's impromptu visit, Coons was sworn in as a U.S. senator.

Such success begets success. In 2011, Coons returned the recruiting favor, calling Joe Donnelly, then a moderate Democratic representative from Indiana who was mulling a long-shot challenge to Republican Sen. Dick Lugar, a fixture in the Senate since the late 1970s. "I said, 'Joe, you know, if the Republican primary works out the same way they say it might, you will have the same outcome that I did.'" Which, as it turns out, is exactly what happened. Lugar lost. His Tea Party slayer, Richard Mourdock, collapsed. And Donnelly is now the junior senator from Indiana.

Donnelly's was one of five 2012 Senate races that the Democrats won in states that Romney carried. They also prevailed in the four most hotly contested swing states: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And Democrats ousted GOP Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts with another top-tier recruit, Elizabeth Warren. In contrast, Senate Republicans carried only a single state, Nevada, that Obama won in 2012.

Democrats not only recruited strong candidates, they often cleared the primary field for their picks. "We're willing to say up front, we're all in," Cecil says. No serious primary challengers opposed Coons, Donnelly, Heitkamp, and a host of other victorious Democrats. And the party is already working to do the same for top-tier Senate races, including in Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, and West Virginia, in 2014. It's something that Republicans, mired in internal divisions, have been unable to do.

The biggest testament to the Democrats' recruiting prowess comes from Collins, the NRSC strategist. "I think success for us is: How do we do what the Democrats did in our primaries?" he says. "That's our goal. That's the journey we have to take."

The Great Divide

It won't be easy. Poisonous primaries have repeatedly produced either erratic and unelectable right-wing nominees, or mainstream candidates who fail to inspire. Perhaps as troubling for the GOP's future is that a recent round of self-examination has led to drastically different diagnoses from the party's warring wings.

Establishmentarians, led by super-strategist Karl Rove, have prescribed a new group, the Conservative Victory Project, to meddle in Senate Republican primaries to ensure more-electable nominees. That effort has drawn howls from the Right, where the tea-party base believes the party's bigger problem has been poor execution, wasted money, and a lack of clear ideological vision from party leaders and nominees.

"The focus of Karl Rove and like-minded folks that there are these crazy candidates that get nominated and can't win just isn't true," says Chocola, whose Club for Growth spends millions of dollars on campaigns, including in contested GOP primaries. The group has scored some of the biggest tea-party victories in recent years, including the election of GOP Sens. Marco Rubio in Florida, Ted Cruz in Texas, and Pat Toomey, a former club president, in Pennsylvania.

Tensions are so high that leading tea-party activists mailed a letter in March to some of the Rove network's biggest financiers urging them not to give any more money. Matt Hoskins, head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, another tea-party-style group, has been canvassing the country for undiscovered conservative talent. "I think the Republican Party has been very lazy in its recruitments: Who has high name ID, who is independently wealthy, who is well established," Hoskins says. "Often the party overlooks a strong candidate who doesn't have some of those characteristics."

Chocola brushes aside the failed candidacies of Akin, O'Donnell, Mourdock (the only one of the three his group backed in a GOP primary), and the like as outliers. He believes the raft of party-approved Republicans who fell short in 2012 illustrates the bigger problem. "The question they should be asking is, why did Denny Rehberg, Rick Berg, Linda Lingle, Tommy Thompson, George Allen, Heather Wilson -- why did they all lose? They were all party establishment, these-are-the-type-of-people-that-can-win-elections," he says. "And they all lost."

That is not the question party leaders are asking. They are focused on avoiding another Todd Akin. But that is harder than it sounds.

Republican primary voters distrust the GOP establishment so thoroughly that overt public pressure from Washington can backfire. Rubio may be a GOP superstar now, but four years ago, party leaders tried to shove him out of the 2010 Florida Senate race. As Rubio recounted in his biography, An American Son, the strong-arming inadvertently helped. "The NRSC endorsement of Charlie Crist would turn out to be a blessing in disguise," Rubio wrote. "It would galvanize conservative support for me, and fury with the Republican establishment."

Spending more money won't necessarily make a difference, either. "Most of the time, the establishment candidate outspent the insurgent candidate," says Jesmer, the former chief NRSC strategist.

In fact, in the past two cycles, the GOP campaign committee in the Senate has tried both the hands-on (2010) and hands-off (2012) recruitment approaches. Neither was a success. In 2014, Collins has what he calls a "break-glass plan": neutrality except in cases of emergency. He says, "I think if we saw a candidate with fatal flaws, that we knew that Democrats would make them unelectable in their state and would become contagious to other Senate campaigns, we would do everything in our power to make sure that campaign did not make it through the primary."

Given the delicate task before him, he is in no rush to settle the party's pending recruitment questions. "We're comfortable not getting our best recruits until 2014," Collins declares.

The great hope to bridge the gulf between people like Chocola, who says "ideology is everything," and Rove, who focuses on who is most electable, is Ted Cruz, a tea-party favorite who bucked an establishment pick to win his seat last year. He is also the NRSC's vice chairman in charge of recruitment. Not that he sounds the part.

"The Washington establishment has proved to be exceptionally poor at picking winners in elections," Cruz says. "And I don't think a handful of Washington insiders should be deciding who should win primaries across the country."

If party leaders were hoping Cruz would provide cover to push for more moderate nominees, he hasn't gotten with the program. He notes that all three new Republican senators -- himself, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Jeff Flake of Arizona -- "won with substantial support of the tea party." Cruz says, "I think that is a recipe for winning elections, if we find strong effective candidates who can communicate a pro-growth conservative message -- with a smile."

Go for Glory

One truism in football recruiting is the shortage of top-tier talent. Scouts often elbow each other to secure a commitment. And that's just as true for Congress.

That story is playing out right now in Georgia, where Rep. John Barrow, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat, is widely seen as one of the party's strongest potential Senate candidates. The problem: A Barrow for Senate candidacy would all but assure that Republicans would pick off his House seat. The same dynamic played out in 2012 with Donnelly. "It's probably fair to say, Steve [Israel] said, 'Hey, buddy, don't ditch me,' " Donnelly says of the DCCC chairman, who was lobbying Donnelly to pass on the Senate run and stay put.

Among Republicans, the Senate and House campaign committees are currently tugging in different directions in Iowa. There, Rep. Tom Latham's recent declaration that he wouldn't run for the Senate was cheered by Walden, the NRCC chairman. But Latham's statement left some wiggle room, and he has maintained contact with the NRSC, according to a person familiar with those talks.

The truth is, Senate recruiters tend to dominate these inter-chamber competitions. "Usually, people are a little more excited about not having to run every two years in a competitive district," says the DSCC's Cecil. The Senate Republicans' Collins put it this way: "The [Republican Governors Association] is going to steal candidates from me; I'll steal from them. And everyone's going to steal from the NRCC."

Their underdog status means that House recruiters have to be a bit more entrepreneurial. Hence, Israel whipping out his smartphone after the State of the Union. Or, during inauguration weekend, inviting top Democratic prospects to town and rolling out the red carpet.

For Israel and his cause, a little razzle-dazzle is necessary. Prognosticators see little chance that he and his Democratic colleagues can climb out of the minority. So, much of his job is selling the mystique of momentum to donors, recruits, and reporters. In March, he excitedly launched a new early-recruiting program, calling it "Jumpstart," A PowerPoint slide featured multiple photos of rockets ready to bust through Earth's atmosphere.

"We use all the tools in our toolbox," Israel says. "Some of them are sharp; some of them are blunt; some of them are softer. But we use every tool."

Including the DVD player.

Often, Israel says he turns to Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick to inspire his troops. He keeps a copy of Glory, the 1989 Civil War film, on a shelf in his office, nestled next to a documentary about Rahm Emanuel. Israel says he cues up the final scene of the movie, when an integrated band of Union soldiers charges a mighty Southern stronghold. "They are carrying the flag at Fort Wagner," Israel says, "and the guy with the flag gets taken out, the next guy picks up the flag, and they keep on storming the hill with the flag."

It's a stirring message about courage and camaraderie and country. Even if the charging soldiers failed to take Fort Wagner that day.

"I don't show them at the end, everybody died," Israel laughs.

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Shane Goldmacher is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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