Howard Dean as Unsung Hero?

If the pundits are right and Democrats manage to win the White House and boost their margins in the House and Senate, a fair amount of the credit ought to go to Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

50-state strategy (opens in new tab)

When Dean took over the DNC in 2005, barely a year after his infamous scream helped knock him out of the 2004 presidential race, he quickly began hiring staff and building ground operations in every state -- really every local district -- even those that were overwhelmingly Republican. Many Democrats privately and publicly denounced him for wasting resources in places that would never vote Democratic. Paul Begala, a long-time Democratic consultant, was famously quoted by Sam Stein (opens in new tab) as accusing Dean of "just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose." Shouting matches were reported in 2006 between Dean and the Democrats in charge of the congressional campaign efforts over where to use limited resources.

Dean stuck to his guns and it helped Democrats take control of Congress in 2006, but it really started to pay off this year, when Democrats won three special House elections (opens in new tab) in strongly leaning GOP districts in Mississippi, Illinois and Louisiana. Many pundits were surprised, but Dean wasn't among them. Nor is he surprised now that Democratic House and Senate challengers are competitive in usually red states and districts in South Carolina, North Carolina, Nebraska, Mississippi, Alaska and many others.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

To be sure, the 50-state strategy picked up a lot of steam from the prevailing political winds -- disillusionment with Bush and the war in Iraq, the weakening of the Republican "brand" and the economic crisis. It also helped a lot that it dovetailed so well with Obama's effort to put several red states in play, to say nothing of the benefits from Obama's huge supply of money and volunteers. But wind at your back doesn't mean much if you don't have a sail. Dean should get credit for creating a structure that Obama and congressional Democrats could take advantage of. Dean also did a lot to modernize voter databases and bring the DNC into the modern digital age, building on efforts begun by his predecessor Terry McAuliffe (opens in new tab).

What's more, no matter what happens on Election Day, the structure is in place to stay for a while. Democrats have proven that they can get elected almost anywhere. So anyone in the future who suggests backing away from the concept, which Dean always envisioned as a permanent infrastructure of the party, will run into real resistance.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter