A White House Political Operation Kicks Into Gear

The sudden career-changing decisions of at least four Democrats -- and rapid responses by national Democratic political officials -- speaks to a revived and fairly robust White House political operation.

The imprint of White House involvement can be seen in at least three of yesterday's decisions. Informally, White House aides have been circulating private and public polls to Democrats whose seats they deemed vulnerable. In general, the idea was to get these Democrats into campaign gear early. Officials did not expect Byron Dorgan (who has seen these polls) to retire. Chris Dodd, on the other hand, was sort of a covert project for the White House political team. No White House official formally approached him and told him that, for the good of the party, he ought to step aside. Indeed, Vice President Biden raised money for Dodd last month. Obama has high regards for Dodd, and the thinking inside the White House was that Dodd would eventually arrive at the decision to retire himself -- which he did. Meanwhile, Obama's political team had been in touch with Attorney General Dick Blumenthal, who has a Hamlet-like record of not getting into races he is expected to get into, and had cemented from his team an assurance that, if Dodd stepped down, Blumenthal would indeed formally announce.

In Michigan, the White House never believed that Lt. Gov. John Cherry was a viable candidate, and fairly direct pressure was applied in order for him to step aside. It is not clear whether the White House has a preferred replacement -- one person to watch is entrepreneur Denise Ilitch, who would be a self-funder. House Speaker Andy Dillon will establish an exploratory committee today.

In Colorado, the White House was prepared for the retirement of governor Bill Ritter, even though Ritter had managed to keep his intentions a secret from almost everyone. And the White House even has a candidate in mind: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the former Colorado Senator, and a man who has long aspired to be Colorado's governor.

So did the White House orchestrate the quartet of retirements? Probably not. Dorgan's decision seemed to shock virtually every national Democratic politico, and one senior Democratic official told me that even Dorgan's colleagues weren't given more than a day's notice. But national Democrats, led by the White House, did have inklings about the other retirements, and they had contingency plans in place. At worst, assuming Salazar does run, the Democrats will find themselves about even. Winning in Michigan, in this political and economic environment, was always going to be tough. Blumenthal is now the favorite to win the Connecticut Senate seat; Dorgan's seat will be picked up by a Republican. The psychology of retirements is never good for the party in power; it sends a message to the public about governance: the Dems can't get their act together, and even their own party leaders know it. So there's no question that, from the 30,000 foot macro perspective, yesterday was a tough day for the Ds. Rats fleeing the sinking ship -- all those metaphors apply.

At the same time, the level of White House engagement in these races should give -- or might give -- Democrats comfort. Because of pre-planning, no prognosticator can change the overall prediction; no certain net Senate gain for the Republicans; and arguably, depending on who runs in Michigan and Colorado, picking up a Democratic seat in those states may have gotten more difficult.

In 2009, that operation, led by Patrick Gaspard, was criticized for failing to improve the lots of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, and for a clumsy attempt to convince New York Governor David Paterson that he ought to step aside. Behind the scenes, though, Gaspard and other White House officials played critical roles in key Democratic successes, including the decision by Dede Scozzafava to switch parties endorse Democrat Bill Owens in New York's 25th Congressional District.