GOP hopes to capitalize on crowded Dem primaries

GOP hopes to capitalize on crowded Dem primaries

Crowded primaries have become the new norm for Democrats, throwing a lifeline to Republicans hoping that brutal internal fights will help blunt Democratic energy in the midterms.

But even after primaries in Texas and Illinois in March took out some top Democratic candidates, Democrats believe the angst over crowded primaries is overblown.

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In many cases, the party has a handful of strong options in a primary field. Democrats argue they’d rather be stuck with too much energy rather than too little.

“In an election cycle like this, there is nothing that will cause more Democratic bedwetting than having a lot of candidates,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former top aide to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

“But in reality, there's nothing that's better evidence of a wave building than the number of candidates that are running.”

The most-watched primary race in Texas showed how Democratic enthusiasm could threaten the party’s chances for a House majority, at least in the eyes of the party establishment. 

The DCCC, worried that a divided field in a Houston-area district could put forth a candidate it believed wasn’t strong enough to beat Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonEx-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR Former GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company Bottom line MORE (R-Texas), blasted a progressive candidate with a last-minute opposition research dump. Those attacks on activist Laura Moser raised questions about her résumé and allegations her husband's company is improperly benefitting from her campaign.

Some top Democrats, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE, condemned the DCCC's attacks and argued a competitive primary will only help the party. 

That candidate made it to the runoff anyway after arguably being strengthened by the attack from the party establishment. Moser will face off against Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer seen by many establishment Democrats as the stronger general election candidate.

In the scuffle, Alex Triantaphyllis — a polished candidate who impressed many with his strong fundraising — was eliminated.

That race displayed both the benefits and risks of a crowded field in the eyes of the national party. A viable general election candidate lost out to one the party establishment had expressed concerns about, but another top candidate won the plurality of the vote and came into the runoff in a strong position.

Then there are other crowded primaries, like the brewing fight in Virginia’s 10th District.

Democrats are aiming to knock off Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockGun debate raises stakes in battle for Virginia legislature Progressives face steep odds in ousting incumbent Democrats K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers MORE (R-Va.), who has been a top target in each of her two congressional campaigns.

Jennifer Wexton, a longtime local prosecutor, had been seen as the race’s early favorite. But the crowded field includes a handful of other strong candidates. Former State Department official Alison Friedman and Army veteran Daniel Helmer both outraised Wexton in 2017, while former Veterans Affairs official Lindsey Davis Stover fell just short of Wexton’s haul.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has pilloried Wexton and the Democratic establishment for failing to stand out from the pack. NRCC spokeswoman Maddie Anderson in a statement last week called Wexton’s recent endorsement from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam “the latest desperate attempt to make her relevant.” 

The GOP has also taken aim at the other candidates in the race, blasting them as too liberal for the district or pointing out how many of their donations have come from outside the district.

Still, Democrats are optimistic that any of the four candidates will present a tough challenge to Comstock.

"The Virginia primary is a good example — we can have multiple candidates as long as the multiple candidates are credible alternatives to the Republican," Ferguson said. 

But even if Democrats are comfortable with their options in that race, there’s no question that Comstock will benefit from stockpiling cash and resources while Democrats spend money on the primary fight.

That’s also the case in Minnesota’s 8th District, where a crowded Democratic field got a late start on campaigning when Rep. Rick NolanRichard (Rick) Michael NolanHold off on anti-mining hysteria until the facts are in Minnesota New Members 2019 Republicans pick up seat in Minnesota’s ‘Iron range’ MORE (D) announced in February that he wouldn’t run for reelection.

The GOP settled on their pick a long time ago — Pete Stauber, a former top college hockey player who worked for two decades as a police officer.

But nearly two months after Nolan announced his retirement, Democrats are far from finding a consensus choice of their own.

The field includes North Branch Mayor Kirsten Kennedy, former federal intelligence analyst Leah Phifer, state Rep. Jason Metsa and former state Rep. Joe Radinovich. Only Phifer had been running before Nolan’s announcement, and she failed to gain much traction against him.

Michael Ahrens, the Republican National Committee’s rapid response director, highlighted crowded primaries in Minnesota’s 1st and 8th districts in party messaging this week, arguing that “Democratic infighting” is “jeopardizing Democrats’ chances to regain the House majority.”

The seat will be difficult terrain for Democrats. While Nolan squeaked out reelection in 2016, Trump won the district by 16 points.

Then there’s California, where state election law has Democrats bracing for a nightmare primary scenario in several competitive House districts. 

There’s a wealth of candidates running in three seats that are ripe for Democratic pick-up opportunities: six Democrats are running for the seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceMystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp House panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference MORE; four Democrats are running to replace retiring GOP Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaWhy the GOP march of mad hatters poses a threat to our Democracy Elijah Cummings, native son of Baltimore, gets emotional send-off from Democratic luminaries Lawmakers come together to honor Cummings: 'One of the greats in our country's history' MORE; and seven Democrats are trying to challenge GOP Rep. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherGeorge Papadopoulos launches campaign to run for Katie Hill's congressional seat The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz MORE.

But those crowded primaries could be costly because of California’s “jungle primary” system, where the top two candidates advance to a general election regardless of party. Democrats worry their candidates could split up the Democratic vote and cede the top two spots to Republicans, shutting them out of flipping those districts.

Democrats view those three seats as critical opportunities in their path to taking back the House since Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family MORE carried all of them in 2016.

Each of these seats has a few leading contenders, but polling from some local groups shows that all Democrats remaining in these races increases the likelihood that they risk those races.

Republicans have multiple candidates running in these House seats too, which could complicate the GOP’s path forward too. But the massive Democratic fields are seen as a larger problem on the left.

California Democrats have become increasingly vocal about the party’s primary dilemma, issuing calls for candidates not meeting certain benchmarks to consider dropping out and backing the front-runners. Some candidates have followed suit, but anyone who drops out after the now-passed filing deadline will still appear on the ballot.

The DCCC is still weighing its options in California. Prior to the filing deadline, the campaign committee conducted some polling showing the party could get shut out of certain races. Other local California groups and billionaire mega-donor Tom Steyer are actively considering wading into these contests so Democrats aren’t left off the ballot in the fall.

But as Democrats saw in Texas, there’s no guarantee that intervening in a race will work — a reality that will keep the party on edge through primary season.

— Lisa Hagen contributed