Could it be that Howard Dean is really a savvy political strategist? For the past two years, the former Vermont Governor and 2004 presidential candidate has been flying off to Democrat-scarce zones like Mississippi, giving local party officials $8 million to carry out his controversial "50-state strategy." The Democratic National Committee chairman argues that if the Democrats want to win presidential elections, they need to spend to build strong state parties across the country rather than pump all their cash into swing states like Ohio. Other top officials, led by Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel, the man in charge of electing Democrats to the House on Nov. 7, have fumed at what they consider Dean's boneheaded approach. They wonder why he is investing in a victory in 2020 in Alabama instead of pouring that money into closely contested districts that could help Democrats get the 15 seats they need to grab control of the House now.
But following the Mark Foley scandal, Democrats are talking about not just winning the House but piling up as many as 40 new seats and also capturing the Senate. And some of the places where they are now competing lie in the blood-red states where Dean has been on his lonely crusade to find blue voters. In Idaho, where President Bush won 68.4% of the vote in 2004, Democrat Larry Grant is close enough to winning a House seat that Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert have made visits to campaign for Grant's opponent. In Kansas, G.O.P. incumbent Jim Ryun had Cheney in town to raise money in his race against Democrat Nancy Boyda. Democrats are holding out hope in two House districts in another Republican stronghold, Nebraska.
Victory in any of those races is still a long shot, but local officials say support from Dean could help put their candidates over the top. He has sent at least two organizers to most states to register voters and rebuild moribund state parties. With the help of Dean's staff, the Nebraska Democratic Party held conventions in 68 of the state's 93 counties this year, up from 36 in 2004; participants signed up to canvass and serve as precinct captains. Grant says staff members from the Democratic National Committee have worked to identify and contact potential voters in his district, a task congressional candidates in most states have to do themselves. Party officials in Idaho and Nebraska credit the communications directors they hired with Dean's funds--neither state had a full-time party flack--with helping coordinate their messages and successfully attack G.O.P. candidates. "If we win a House seat in Nebraska, Howard Dean will get more credit than Rahm Emanuel," says Barry Rubin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
That Dean's project might pay dividends this year is surprising to everyone, including its creator. "I didn't expect much to come of this strategy for four or even six years," Dean told TIME. And if one of the red-state candidates wins, Dean may show he can scream even louder in vindication than he once did in defeat.