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Party leaders playing bigger role in primaries

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Tobacco went out of style years ago, but the era of the smoke-filled room may be inching back to politics.

In their zeal to win control of Congress in November's elections, party leaders in Washington are picking winners and shoving aside losers in many local party nominating contests rather than staying neutral and letting the locals decide.

In one recent example, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), endorsed a candidate in Tuesday's Virginia Senate primary over a rival widely favored by local party activists. Schumer's candidate, James Webb, won.

In another, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the chief political and fundraising operation for House Democrats, recently endorsed a candidate in a four-way primary contest for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in New Hampshire. The endorsement angered local activists and irked the state party chairwoman.

The Democrats aren't alone. President Bush and his White House political machine have long abandoned Ronald Reagan's "11th commandment" against taking sides and speaking ill of a fellow Republican. Bush aggressively picked candidates he wanted in congressional races in 2002, and this year he's worked hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to push Rep. Katherine Harris out of the Republican Senate primary in Florida.

In many states, local party activists are chafing at the interference, calling it a move back toward the days when cigar-smoking party bosses picked candidates in closed-door meetings.

After Schumer recruited an abortion opponent over an abortion-rights supporter in Pennsylvania, for example, he said he received "11,000 e-mails in the first hour saying, `Don't throw women overboard.'"

When Schumer picked sides in Virginia, an angry former Virginia Lt. Gov. Don Beyer canceled plans to host a fundraising event for Senate Democrats.

"They have made themselves kingmakers," said Jacalyn Cilley, a Democratic state representative from Barrington, N.H.

"It's disenfranchising the voters," said Marcia Moody, a Democrat from Newmarket, N.H. "We should pick our nominees, not them. They're afraid of grassroots candidates. It's like the backrooms are back, the smoke-filled rooms."

Both women were irate that the DCCC endorsed James Craig, the party's leader in the state house, in a four-way primary for a U.S. House seat nomination.

Kathy Sullivan, the chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said the DCCC "wants to take Congress back so badly that they're willing this year to take sides in races in ways they haven't in the past. . . . There's such a potential to take back the majority that they're willing to do this."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., the co-chairwoman of the DCCC's program to win Republican-held House seats, told the New Hampshire press that the committee thought that waiting until the September primary to pick the candidate could injure the party's chance of unifying and winning in November.

"We're not taking any chances waiting until Sept. 12," she told the New Hampshire Union-Leader.

DCCC leader Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., and his group have taken sides elsewhere as well.

Emanuel supported Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth over businesswoman Christine Cegelis in a suburban Chicago primary—even though Cegelis had run before and come close to defeating an incumbent congressman. Duckworth won the primary.

In New York, former U.S. Public Health Service official Les Roberts said he was shut out by the DCCC in an upstate House primary after Emanuel spoke favorably in the local press of another candidate. "The DCCC stopped answering our calls," Roberts complained to The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper.

Schumer also has intervened in other races. In Minnesota, he backed Amy Klobuchar while other major candidates were still in the race. In Ohio, Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett said he was pushed out of the Ohio race for the Democratic Senate nomination by party bosses in Washington.

The DSCC denied blackballing Hackett among big Democratic donors. But at least one prominent Democrat agrees that Hackett was pushed out.

"I think there was some skullduggery in Washington that was going on, which I don't approve of," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

After watching his candidate win in Virginia on Tuesday, Schumer dismissed concerns that he has left angry Democrats in his wake. "It hasn't hurt us yet in any state where we mixed in," he said.

And a spokesman for the Senate campaign committee was unapologetic.

"Our goal is to win Senate races, and that sometimes means cracking eggs to ensure that the candidates who have the best shot of winning get on the ballot," said Phil Singer. "Democrats have lost Senate seats the last two elections and cannot afford to just let the chips fall where they may."


For more on the major party committees:

For more on other candidates in New Hampshire or Virginia:


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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