WASHINGTON (CNN) – When Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, the new executive director of the Democratic National Committee, concluded her brief remarks to a meeting of state party chairs in Washington on Wednesday, she got a clear and simple reminder of what DNC members want from the committee’s new leadership.
"Jen, you don’t really need to hear any questions," New Hampshire party chairman Raymond Buckley told her. "We have three words for you: '50-state strategy.'"
That now-famous program, implemented by outgoing chairman Howard Dean in 2005, placed paid DNC staffers in both red and blue states around the country and was premised on the philosophy that Democrats can be competitive anywhere as long as they show up, work hard and ask for votes.
But now that Dean is gone and Virginia governor Tim Kaine has been installed as President Barack Obama's pick to lead the organization, some of the party chairs who gathered at the DNC’s annual Winter Meeting this week expressed anxiety that the precious resources doled out by the committee could vanish as the new administration takes control of the party machinery.
The DNC-funded field staff positions expired on election day, and the party chairs - particularly those in states long dismissed by national Democrats - want the hiring practice renewed.
"Right now all 50 of the state chairs are on pins and needles," said Oklahoma Democratic chairman Ivan Holmes. "It's possible they could undo in one year what it's taken four years for Dean to do if they don't embrace the 50-state strategy financially, and let the chairs have input on who they hire and what their duties are."
Mississippi chairman Jamie Franks said it's "critical and vitally important to continue the 50-state strategy," which he said helped him keep four extra staffers in his office during the last two election cycles.
"I think that's why we have majority in both houses of Congress and why Barack Obama is president of the United States today," Franks said.
A larger concern expressed at the Winter Meeting is that the DNC could become - in the words of one state party executive director - "too Obama-centric."
The plan to fold Obama's campaign apparatus into the DNC - creating a shop called “Organizing for America” that will use tools like an enormous email list to promote the new president’s policy agenda - has some wondering where that leaves the rest of the committee.
"We know the party has to be Obama-centric, but our success these four years was owed to the fact that the staffers were able to help on any race on any level,” said the executive director, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "And if it now becomes "Do this one thing for the administration,' then you lose that foundation."
State leaders said much of their angst about financing and organization stems from a lack of information and communication with the new party leadership, which has been understandably busy with the presidential transition and inauguration.
There was little doubt among Democrats at the Winter Meeting that the new chairman is committed to competing in traditional Republican strongholds, and most believed Obama’s political operation will continue to target non-traditional voters, a hallmark of his presidential campaign.
Kaine himself was among the first Democratic candidates to receive a helping hand from the Dean philosophy in 2005, when he ran for governor. Since then, along with helping Obama pick up Virginia’s 13 electoral votes last November, Kaine has campaigned tirelessly in his own state to elect two Democratic senators and a make gains the both chambers of the state legislature.
Speaking to reporters after the general session of the DNC met on Wednesday, Kaine vowed to "play strong in all 50 states" and praised Dean’s efforts.
But Kaine was light on details and would not commit to hiring staffers for every state, instead promising to reveal an "intense strategic plan" in the next two months. Some states might need personnel, he said, but others might require "expertise and research."
Few party chairs can predict exactly what Kaine, taking marching orders from the White House, has planned for the 50-state strategy, but most anticipate it evolving beyond its current incarnation. While some chairs will move forward grudgingly and may lose their field staffers, others welcome a fresh perspective on the arrangement.
"You would expect [Kaine] to put his own imprint on that program," said South Carolina Democratic chairwoman Carol Fowler. “But you would just hope that the program continues.”
Fowler, like many state chairs, said Obama’s considerable political success gives him the right to re-evaluate how the DNC does business, but not without maintaining a commitment to some version the 50-state philosophy.
"I support the president without question," said Ohio chairman Chris Redfern said, echoing a general optimistic sentiment about the new administration among party members at the Winter Meeting. "New leadership is important."
But like Florida, Pennsylvania and other populous battleground states, Ohio boasts a robust enough party operation to function without the help of a few extra staffers. Redfern said that's exactly why the national party needs to continue spreading the resources to build Democratic support in smaller Republican-leaning states.
"Ohio is always going to get attention," he explained. "So here I am, an advocate for Mississippi, for Utah. We have to do well in the Rocky Mountain West and in the South. We cannot whistle past Dixie."