Wisconsin – Three local Democratic officeholders were vying for the nomination in an open seat previously held by a Republican. One of the three candidates, Tammy Baldwin, was openly gay and some local politicians feared she couldn’t win. I invited all three candidates to Washington for a session where some of the party’s toughest pros asked them questions. When the session ended, I walked out of the room and told my chief of staff at the DCCC that Tammy was the best candidate. We quietly passed the word. She won the primary and the general election and was elected to the U.S. Senate last year.
Mississippi – One of Mississippi’s Congressional districts was 35 percent African American. African Americans consistently won the primary and then lost the general to white Republicans. At my request, the state’s African-American Congressman Bennie Thompson passed the word to the local African American leadership that this was the year to support a moderate white who could win the general election. Major African-American candidates stayed out of the primary which was won by a white acceptable to the Black community, Ronnie Shows, who then won the general election.
Colorado – There was an open swing district in Colorado that we believed could be won by the right Democrat. A well-known candidate who had run unsuccessfully state wide wanted to make the race. I interviewed him and decided he did not have a good game plan for this particular district. At that point we quietly passed the word that another candidate, Mark Udall, would be our best choice. Mark won the primary and the general election and 10 years later was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Kansas – A suburban district near Kansas City had been represented for years by a moderate Republican woman who retired in 1996. She was succeeded by an arch right wing Republican who beat the moderate candidate in the primary that year. After hearing the incumbent GOP congressman testify before my Rules Committee, I called my chief of staff and said, “We can beat this guy if we can find the right candidate.” We recruited a former prosecutor Dennis Moore who won the seat and held it until he retired years later.
Putting your thumb on the scale to help the best candidate win your party’s primary is not always easy. It has to be done quietly and without a lot of fanfare. The Republican leadership has been unsuccessful in doing this in recent years and that may be impossible for them to accomplish in the future because of Tea Party dominance in some states’ primaries. Democrats don’t always get it done either, but a good political committee has to do everything possible to field the best team.
Frost, a former Democratic representative from Texas (1979-2005), is a former chairman of the DCCC and a former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.