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Israel As DCCC Chair: "It Could Have Been Far Worse"

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AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Long Island Congressman Steve Israel says it could have been worse.

The six-term incumbent from Huntington, N.Y., has finished his second term as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a job aimed at getting — and keeping — as many Democrats in Congress as possible.

As head of the DCCC, Israel had to raise money, screen candidates, decide which candidates to spend the money on, and strategize national messaging.

In addition to all that, Steve Israel found the time to write a novel.

"Simon and Schuster is publishing it in January, and I wrote the entire thing on airplanes and long car rides associated with my DCCC responsibilities," Israel said.

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Credit Charles Lane
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Six-term incumbent Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) conceding defeat in what he called "an awful year for Democrats."

Unfortunately for Israel his DCCC responsibilities fell short on election night, giving Republicans their largest majority since 1925.

"This was a wave election," Israel said, "and in any wave election the average loss to the president's party is 29 seats. In 2006 the Republicans lost 30 seats, in 2010 we lost 63. In 2014 we lost somewhere between 12 and 15. That's 12 and 15 too many, but far, far less than history suggests it should have been."

Israel banked the Democrat's message on middle class worries over student debt and women's issues. But Israel says those issues didn't stand a chance against the Ebola panic that surfaced just before the election.

Criticisms of Israel's two terms over the DCCC are few and far between. Most blame the Democrats' poor showing on circumstances. Not only are midterm elections historically bad for the president's party, Democrats are still at a competitive disadvantage because of redistricting in 2012.

"This was a terrible year for Democrats and I think the DCCC did a good job in minimizing the losses," Martin Frost, a former Congressman from Texas who served two terms chairing the DCCC said. "We did hold on to a number of seats in very close races where advice from the campaign committee really made a big difference."

Israel out-raised his Republican counterpart by $38 million in large part, Israel says, because he changed fund raising strategies to focus on small donations.

"We have brought more resources to the DCCC thanks to our online donations than at any time in history," Israel said.

Republicans sniffed at this.

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined at left by Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., holds a news conference to announce Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., will head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"That's like the losing team in a Super Bowl blowout bragging about how many first downs they got," said Ian Prior, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.  

Despite the loss, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked Israel to chair the committee for a rare third term. Israel declined.

"Winning campaigns requires new technologies, new strategies, new tactics, and it's time for someone else to employ those things."

Taking Israel's place will be New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Lujan.

At 42, Lujan is 14 years younger than Israel. Age is no small consideration for a post that requires long nights and longer road trips.

"It takes a lot of your time, and it takes a lot of energy and it particularly helps if you have a member who's in his thirties or forties. That member usually has more energy," Frost said.

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Barack Obama, right, talks with Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., during a visit to the campaign office of State Senator Ted Lieu, left, on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Congressman Israel says the time spent on districts other than his own actually helped him represent Long Island constituents. Israel and others say the DCCC chair has influence over Congress and even the White House that a normal Representative might not have.

Israel cites as an example a meeting with President Obama where he was able to increase the threshold for tax cuts to $450,000 in order to match New York's high cost of living.

"That's an example of an achievement that I secured for my district that I would have never been able to secure had I not had access to the White House," Israel said.

While heading the DCCC, Israel missed fewer votes than years prior, and the year Israel took over the committee he introduced more legislation than he had in the past, though none of those bills ever made it to the floor for a vote.

Going forward, Israel has taken a newly created position within the Democratic party that focuses on political messaging. 

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.
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