GQ: Kiss the Ring

For a man whose ability to raise cash is already the stuff of political legend, it's a special kind of torture that once he collects that money, he has to hand more than half of it over to guys who work in a room he's not even allowed to enter—but that's what the rules say he has to do. The last round of changes to campaign-finance law gave political parties the ability to spend more money—with the caveat that the additional funds had to be spent without any communication with the candidates. Since Rahm coordinates everything with his House campaigns, he can't also then spend tens of millions of dollars for ads and mail to help them. That has to be done by a staff of operatives who work for a hermetically sealed committee within a committee, called the IE because it makes independent expenditures on behalf of the DCCC's top House candidates. In short, Rahm can talk to the candidates as much he wants, but the amount of money he can give them is limited, while the IE can never talk to the candidates but can spend as much money as it wants on ads and mail and anything else that might help them win.

The IE is run by a 35-year-old Rahm loyalist named John Lapp. The bizarre setup means that Rahm, Washington's most famous control freak, has spent the past two years raising $122 million, only to fork over $67 million of it to Lapp. Even worse, Rahm, not known for keeping his opinions to himself, is barred by law from telling Lapp how to spend the money.

The arrangement "drove Rahm nuts," Lapp says. "Rahm always used to taunt me: 'All on your shoulders now. How does it feel to have all of the money, twice what the IE was last cycle, only to lose?'"

In Washington, political staffers tend to morph into their bosses over time. Some of the doppelgängers are legendary: Chuck Schumer's spokesman Phil Singer talks exactly like his boss; John Kerry's flack David Wade is the only man his age with Senator Kerry's haircut. And Lapp has become more and more like Rahm. When I arrive at the IE headquarters, twenty-five days out from election day, he is bouncing from task to task, adjusting TV ads, sculpting the content of direct mail, and erupting at Republican attacks ("Whalen," he screams at one point, referring to Republican candidate Mike Whalen of Iowa, "that fat piece of [expletive]. I want to [expletive] that bastard!").

Here at the IE, going negative is all they know. "We're hack-and-slash," Lapp says. One side of the IE office is dominated by a view of the Capitol, the other by a whiteboard listing every key House race in the country, divided according to competitiveness. The board will change today. In the two weeks since the Foley scandal exploded, the DCCC's army of pollsters has been surveying races everywhere, trolling for new targets of opportunity. On the whiteboard, these races are indicated with pink boxes drawn around them. "You are the only one who knows this information outside this building," Lapp warns me. He and Rahm are quietly planning a push into some of these districts.

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