House Dem: Liberal groups need to back off for party to succeed this cycle

Liberal groups need to stay out of Democratic primaries if the party is going to retake the House majority, according to a conservative Massachusetts Democrat.

Rep. Stephen Lynch was one of several Democrats who faced an aggressive primary challenge from the left in 2010. His challenger Mac D'Alessandro, a former top official with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), received almost $300,000 from labor groups for his campaign.

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“There was a lot of money spent against Democrats by Democrats,” Lynch told The Ballot Box. “That contributed to the scale of our losses.”

Lynch survived his primary and was reelected in November, but several House Democrats who were targets of the left lost their reelection bids. For instance, the SEIU encouraged its members in Ohio’s 18th district to “skip-a-Space” on their ballots and not vote for Rep. Zack Space because of his opposition to healthcare reform. The two-term Democrat was subsequently defeated by Republican Bob Gibbs.

Liberal groups also targeted Alabama Democrat Bobby Bright because of his opposition to the healthcare reform bill. The group Blue America PAC spent almost $50,000 against Bright in the general election, according to records compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group.

And in New Hampshire, liberal groups helped Ann McLane Kuster defeat establishment-favorite Katrina Swett in a bruising 2nd district Democratic primary. Kuster went on to lose to Republican Charlie Bass in a tight vote.

“I think if we had avoided that, we would have saved, maybe, six or eight more seats,” said Lynch. “I don’t think it would have stopped the overall result, but maybe six or eight seats” could have been held.

Clearing primaries for members and discouraging liberal groups from spending against incumbents should be a priority for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he said. “It would definitely help, I think. You need to talk to those groups.”

Kuster's camp, meanwhile, argued the primary produced a stronger candidate and noted that despite the environment, her performance was better than Swett had done in her previous run.

"Kuster lost to Bass by 1 percent in 2010; Swett had lost to Bass by 16 percent when she faced him back in 2002," said Colin Van Ostern, Kuster's former campaign manager. "So it is hard to draw any conclusion except that the primary caused Democrats to put up the strongest possible candidate."

DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) brushed aside concerns about contested primaries limiting his party’s chances.

“I have not had to worry about that yet,” Israel said. “I haven’t had to even contemplate urging people not to run. The net is wide open. And then we’ll make decisions as we go forward.”

Liberal activists dismissed the suggestion that primary challenges added to the Democrats’ losses in 2010.

“I don’t think that they really had any impact,” said Jane Hamsher, the founder of the liberal website Firedoglake.

Whether there will be an aggressive approach to challenging Democratic incumbents in the 2012 primaries remains to be seen, she added. “It totally depends on what the climate looks like for 2012. It’s hard to say at this point.”

--Updated at 8:04 p.m.