The Democratic Party’s Campaign Arm Grows More Toxic in Midterm Races

The campaign committee has been on the receiving end of outrage from a number of candidates and progressive groups in recent weeks.

Michael Stravato/The Washington Post via Getty

Just days ahead of the first primary of the 2018 midterms in a year of enormous consequence for the Democratic Party, its congressional campaign arm has become the story—and not in a good way.

In at least three Democratic primaries in contested districts, candidates eager to flex their progressive bonafides have gone after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for, what they see as, unfairly backing opponents too early in the process. Tensions were stoked further this week after a series of damaging leaked emails from the DCCC led progressive groups to accuse the committee of abandoning the ideological principles that are the bedrock of the party.

The most high-profile clash is taking place in Texas’ 7th Congressional District where activist Laura Moser will compete against six other Democrats in Tuesday’s primary for a seat held by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). The district, hugging Houston’s western suburbs, has been identified as prime real estate for a Democratic flip, as Hillary Clinton managed to win it in the 2016 presidential election.

Just over a week ago, the DCCC took the unheard-of step of releasing opposition research on Moser (a candidate in their own party) in an effort to stymie her bid.

Among other things, the memo accused Moser of being “a Washington insider” who stated in 2014 that she would rather have a tooth pulled without anesthesia than move to Paris, Texas. It also cited the fact that Moser paid over $50,000 to Revolution Messaging, a firm where her husband works, for her television ads.

Meant to undercut the potential for Moser to win, the file may have, instead, elevated her bid. Progressives already suspicious of the Washington establishment were incensed at the DCCC and its memo became a rallying cry for the Moser campaign.

“We have to fix our broken politics. And that starts by rejecting the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose,” Moser said in her most recent ad. “We tried that before and look where it got us.”

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), the current chairman of the DCCC, was not available for an interview. But his committee’s intervention against Moser only shined a sharper light on the delicate task it has heading into the midterms. With the toxicity of Donald Trump compelling numerous Democrats to run for office, the DCCC has been forced to juggle sometimes competing interests: the bubbling of progressive enthusiasm and their own institutional judgements over which candidates stand the best chances of flipping seats.

The manner in which it has made these calls, has drawn criticism from other top Democratic officials. In an interview on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers program this week, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez questioned the way in which the DCCC waded into the Texas primary.

“I wouldn’t have done it,” Perez said, when asked about the memo. “I would have done it differently. I think the DCCC has the ability to endorse in primaries and they do that from time to time. But again, I would have done it differently.”

Former officials who have been in the same spot before—quarterbacking a campaign arm to elect Democrats across the country—sympathized with the difficult position in which the DCCC now finds itself.

“When you are chosen as the chairman or as the head of DCCC, you have only one mission and that is to win elections,” Steve Israel, former Democratic congressman from New York and previous head of the DCCC, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.

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“There are districts that, like the one in Houston, where you have to thread the needle and produce a candidate that can win in a red-leaning district while at the same time not being clumsy about it,” Israel said. “It’s difficult for every DCCC leader to do.”

Asked if the DCCC had been “clumsy” in its approach to Moser, Israel said that people were missing the forest for the trees.

“The more critics of DCCC focus on the process, the less we’re focusing on how to win that district,” the former congressman said. “I understand that people are upset but you know, I’d be more upset if we get involved in a civil war that costs us a victory in a district and produces another Republican who will rubber stamp Donald Trump.”

But the hiccups for the DCCC have extended beyond just process. They’ve been self-inflicted, policy-centric wounds as well. As reported by HuffPost, the DCCC advised candidates to not politicize gun control policy in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting in Las Vegas last year and said that candidates should “be careful about what you post on social media” following last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Those two emails, combined with a report from The Intercept detailing an effort to get candidates to not wholly embrace single-payer health care, have led a constellation of progressive groups to circulate petitions chastising the DCCC.

In other contests, meanwhile, the committee has been accused of backing moderate candidates who don’t reflect the party’s current zeitgeist. Progressives in New Jersey have been incensed in the state’s 2nd Congressional District that the DCCC is backing state Sen. Jeff Van Drew in a primary to replace retiring Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo.

Van Drew is part of the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program which provides organizational and fundraising support to candidates. An operative with the DCCC noted that they are picked with the input of local parties and grassroots organizations. But Van Drew also has a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association. And he made unwanted headlines when a student confronted him about previous contributions to his campaign from the gun lobby, charging that he had lied to her AP government class about it.

Van Drew’s opponents in the race have been deeply frustrated with the DCCC for backing him in advance of the state’s June primary contest in a southern New Jersey district that voted for former President Barack Obama twice but backed President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

“We are talking about a Republican masquerading as a Democrat,” Tanzie Youngblood, a retired schoolteacher and one of Van Drew’s primary opponents, told The Daily Beast. “It was a slap in the face,” she said of the DCCC deciding to endorse her opponent.

Youngblood, an African-American woman, also noted that none of the candidates in the “Red to Blue” program are black, something which she said neglects the party’s major consistent voting base.

“All they had to do was stay out until June,” Youngblood said. “I just see it as a way to stop me from having the opportunity to run a decent race.”

Youngblood is not alone in her concern about the lack diversity in the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program. Collective PAC, a Democratic organization that supports African-American candidates, recently wrote a letter asking the DCCC why no black candidates had appeared on this target list.

The group specifically highlighted Pam Keith, an African-American former Navy officer running in Florida’s 18th Congressional District. The district, encompassing parts of St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties, is represented by freshman Republican Rep. Brian Mast. But previously it elected a Democrat. Obama won it in 2008 by a small margin but Trump won in the district by nine points in 2016.

The DCCC, which told Collective PAC that it looked forward to meeting with its representatives and discussing issues further, has backed Keith’s primary opponent Lauren Baer in advance of the district’s August primary.

“I think the DCCC has forgotten the lessons of the story from David and Goliath,” Keith told The Daily Beast. “Goliath does not end up the hero in that. The strongest candidate will emerge. But when the party machinery of D.C. inserts itself on behalf of one candidate, they turn that candidate into Goliath.”

Though tensions among Democrats are not new, the party has, for the most part, largely avoided acrimonious primary campaigns since the election of Donald Trump. That calm seems to be dissipating, however, as actual voting nears. With insurgent candidates and the established campaign arm butting heads, other progressive groups appear eager to stoke the conflict too, sending out petitions “telling DCCC to stop undermining progressive values.”

Tuesday’s primary in Texas will serve as a first test for whether the DCCC’s efforts will lead to their intended outcome or whether their involvement will simply animate the progressive base around candidates they aren’t backing. Either way, Israel cautioned that the disputes within the party would be dwarfed by the larger mission of the general election.

“People are voting for or against the Trump agenda,” the former DCCC chairman told The Daily Beast.” Most voters are not propelled or motivated to cast their vote for a candidate that is for or against the DCCC or the DNC. To make this a referendum on the DCCC is the ultimate in inside baseball.”