DINO Hunting: Netroots vs. Steve Israel

In a handful of races, progressives are challenging the D.C. establishment to try to steer the Democratic Party in a new direction.

02.28.14 10:45 AM ET

Even before Gary Miller announced that he was retiring from Congress, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee got behind Pete Aguilar, the mayor of the city of Redlands, Calif., and third-place finisher the previous cycle. But then the San Bernardino Republican abruptly retired this month, and the race to succeed him has sparked a fierce battle on the Democratic side, with the DCCC standing behind Aguilar while online organizers known as The Netroots rallied their base to back Eloise Gomez Reyes, a labor lawyer.

“More and Better Democrat” declared The Daily Kos in a headline. “Aguilar publicly stated back in 2012 that he would vote for the Simpson-Bowles plan to destroy America’s middle class. Worse yet, Aguilar’s campaign manager admitted that Aguilar takes orders from the DCCC and have told him not to take stands on contentious issues,” added the blog The Apollo Report. Down With Tyranny, which raises money through a PAC for progressive candidates, went even further, saying Aguilar was DCCC chairman “Steve Israel’s lame, empty-suit, handpicked candidate.”

The threat from the left to the Democratic establishment is, to be sure, nothing like the scale that the Tea Party provides to the GOP, but in a handful of races around the country, progressives, spurred on by online activists and grassroots organizations, are challenging candidates of the D.C. establishment in an effort to steer the Democratic Party in a new direction. 

In addition to Reyes/Aguilar tangle in California’s Inland Empire, there is the 13th District in Illinois, stretching from the St. Louis suburbs up through the rural parts of the state, and where the DCCC is backing Ann Callis, a judge, while the netroots are behind George Gollin, a professor at the University of Illinois, for a seat currently held by a Republican.

Israel has been an enthusiastic supporter of Callis, touting her judicial background. “She’s one of our top-tier candidates around the country because she is a quintessential problem solver,”  to which one blogger at Prairie Blue State replied that it meant “We want Democrats who can be bought off by corporate special interests and hurt the Democratic brand.”

In other instances, there has been no official imprimatur from the DCCC, but there is little doubt where the party establishment stands. These races include one in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Daylin Leach, who is known as “The Liberal Lion of Pennsylvania,” has received the backing of MoveOn and Democracy for America in his race against Marjorie Margolies, a friend of the Clintons who has been endorsed by the likes Steny Hoyer, the second highest ranking member of Congress. In other cases, activists say, there are Democrats running virtually unopposed in primaries and in districts where if they had the resources they could knock out Republican incumbents, but that the national party is reluctant to get engaged. Meanwhile, they say, the DCCC gets behind some conservative Democratic candidates who are running nearly impossible races, while ignoring progressives in neighboring districts that actually have a better chance of winning.

This standoff does have a history. Back in 2006 and 2008, activists were furious that even though Democrats took back the House, they did so on the backs of centrist Democrats, many of whom supported the Iraq War, which was deeply unpopular among the base. In 2012, two conservative Democrats were knocked off by grassroots activists.

This year, in what is considered an uphill year for Democrats nationwide, activists are laying off the challenges to incumbent Democrats, and focusing instead on expanding the map and making sure that Democrats keep to an economic populist message.

“There are far more seats in play than conventional wisdom says is possible this year,” said Ilya Sheyman, the executive director of MoveOn’s political action committee—and who ran his own race for Congress in 2012 without the DCCC’s backing, ultimately losing to a more conservative contender.

Sheyman said that his organization has polled in Republican-held districts, and found that a core Democratic message of raising the minimum wage and preserving entitlements outpolled the GOP’s message.

“The question for us is can we find excellent progressive candidates in these races so that Republicans aren’t running uncontested when they are working against what their districts need?”

At times, progressives go to great lengths to smooth over the differences between them and the party establishment.  In lieu of an interview on the subject, for example, a spokesperson for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which was set up in part as a more progressive DCCC, sent over a quote that just included a list of races where the two camps concur.

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“I think there is a whole lot of ‘agree to disagree’ right now. This isn’t the same battle there was in 2006,” said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America. “I think even the most establishment, pro-Wall Street Democrat understands that there is a lot less tolerance for the kind of coziness that goes on with the big business.”

Campaign operatives say that the difference between the two camps is that the DCCC and other institutions of the establishment are concerned with winning in the immediate term, rather than building a long-term Democratic base in difficult districts. Donors are discouraged from giving money to the handful of races that the party deems winnable, for fear of wasting a single dollar on a seat they view as unlikely to flip the next November.

“They look at who can raise money, who can build a viable campaign,” said Sheyman. “The thing we look at is do you have a track record of standing up and fighting for progressive values, especially when it comes to fighting income inequality.”

Some donors, though, have decided that they will give their checks to the grassroots organizations or the candidates themselves rather than have their money dispersed to candidates who do not share their values.

Doug Kahn, used to give regularly to the DCCC, but has instead given over $250,000 the last couple of cycles to individual candidates and liberal groups. The DCCC, he says, is “going to give my money to people who are going to campaign directly against my values.”

And Guy Saperstein, a Bay Area lawyer who is on Nancy Pelosi’s finance committee, said that even the minority leader’s personal entreaties could not convince him to give to the DCCC. He wants instead something closer to the Tea Party for the left.

“The Tea Party provided a model for reforming political parties. They don’t go after the mainstream. They go after the Republican Party and they terrorize them, and they proved that the Republican Party can’t win with out them. I thought it was a good model for our side.”