Dem primary tensions spill into public view

Simmering tensions between the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and grass-roots progressives have boiled over into public view.

As the DCCC tries to boost primary candidates they see as the most viable options to help Democrats take back in the House in November, activists opposed to DCCC’s efforts are responding by leaking details on what they see as unfair meddling from Beltway Democrats.

Those party squabbles are spilling into the public eye months before the pivotal November midterms, when Democrats hope to take back the House majority. A potential Democratic wave has made the party especially eager to help pick what they see as the best candidates for general elections.

But now, some candidates are striking back at the DCCC.

The Intercept, a left-leaning news outlet, has turned out a series of articles airing inside details about DCCC primary interventions. The stories center on establishment power brokers allegedly putting their thumbs on the scale, often to the disadvantage of the more liberal candidate in a race.

The split threatens to reopen old wounds from the 2016 presidential primary. Some progressives are still smarting from a sense, bolstered by emails obtained by Russian hackers, that the national party skewed the race in favor of Hillary Clinton at the expense of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The latest clash between the DCCC and progressive activists centers on the contested Democratic primary in Colorado’s 6th District, where Democrats are hoping to topple GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, a top Democratic target, in a district Clinton won in 2016.

The Intercept obtained audio of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) urging Democratic candidate Levi Tillemann in a December meeting to drop out of the race. Tillemann is running against Jason Crow, a veteran who has the backing of a host of local and national Democrats and a big fundraising edge.

Hoyer explained to Tillemann that the head of the DCCC has a “policy” of getting behind a candidate the group believes can win in a general election.

The Hoyer audio sparked furor among progressive groups such as Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which have repeatedly accused Democratic leadership of getting in the way of primary voters. 

The Colorado fight is the latest example of the long-running party tug of war over how to win. Many in the establishment see moderate candidates with broad appeal as the best path forward, while progressives believe that nominating unapologetic liberals will motivate the base and connect with voters who want the party to take stronger stands.

“There is a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, and Steny Hoyer and his corporate cronies already lost,” PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor said in a statement last week. “They don’t represent the future, and it’s time for them to step aside and make room for a new generation of leadership — one that inspires and motivates the base instead of depressing it.”

The PCCC responded to The Intercept story by raising money for Tillemann’s campaign, as well as campaigns of two other Democratic candidates who feel they’ve been passed over by the national party. 

Tillemann has seized on the publicity as he tries to mount an upset win over Crow.

“More than a year before a single vote was cast, a small party elite decided to throw the entire weight of the Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee behind [Crow],” Tillemann said Wednesday during a press conference. “This is not a one-off, this is a pattern of abuse we’ve seen against progressive candidates across the country.” 

But top Democrats — including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — defended Hoyer’s attempt to get Tillemann out of the race. They believe the party has an imperative to push for the candidates they see as having the best chance at the majority.  

“It’s clearly not the attention you want, but it’s attention you can’t avoid. For DCCC to hold back on a district they can win because they don’t want unpleasant attention would be folly,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who chaired DCCC during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles. “The day after the election, your colleagues look at your win-loss record. That’s it.”

The Hoyer recording was unique for offering the close-up details on how the national party intervenes in primaries — and for the fact that someone was, apparently surreptitiously, recording a top Democrat. But intra-party warfare has surfaced in several other key contests this cycle.

The first high-profile clash between the DCCC and progressive activists came in a suburban Houston district. The DCCC made the unusual decision to publish opposition research on a fellow Democrat, activist Laura Moser, one week before the March primary.

DCCC argued that the ammunition — involving concerns about residency, mildly controversial language in articles Moser wrote in the past and questions about whether her husband’s consulting firm benefitted from her campaign — would have been enough to doom her chances against Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), another GOP lawmaker running for reelection in a district Clinton won.

Moser apologized for some of her writing, but her campaign and allies framed the DCCC move as an attack on her progressive values. 

A week later, Moser stormed into a runoff against fellow Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who is backed by other powerful Democratic groups including EMILY’s List. 

The DCCC attack failed to keep her out of the runoff, and could ultimately backfire by drawing more draw more attention to Moser from progressives who believe the DCCC has made a habit of targeting liberal candidates. But that remains to be seen ahead of the May 22 primary.

The Moser saga brought to light stories of other candidates who felt spurned by the Washington establishment.

A handful of candidates across the country have told news outlets that the establishment has sought to push them out of their race, while others have voiced frustration with seeing their primary rivals being on the “Red to Blue” list, a DCCC designation for top candidates that translates into additional resources. 

Another flashpoint came shortly after the Tillemann story broke, when The Intercept posted another story with audio purporting to be a voicemail in which California Democratic candidate Gil Cisneros threatened to “go negative” on rival Democrat Andy Thorburn. Cisneros is a part of the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program. 

Cisneros’s campaign has aggressively denied the charge, saying the person on the voicemail isn’t Cisneros. They’ve provided voice identification analysis arguing the message wasn’t from him and are threatening to sue.

The Intercept originally stood by the reporting, arguing the message was too short for any valid analysis. But in an updated version posted Wednesday, the paper admitted “there is room for doubt about who left the voicemail.” 

Frustration has also boiled over in New York’s 24th Congressional District, where Juanita Perez Williams, who ran an unsuccessful bid for Syracuse mayor in 2017, joined the race last month to challenge GOP Rep. John Katko. Katko also represents a district that Clinton won in 2016, making him a high-profile target for Democrats. 

Perez Williams is a higher-profile candidate, and Democrats had been open for months about their effort to bolster recruiting there. But many local Democrats backing candidate Dana Balter criticized the late arrival, outcry that deepened when she told that the DCCC had assisted in her signature-gathering efforts.

Despite the criticism, Democrats of all stripes see some DCCC intervention as a necessity — especially in California. That state, which includes several key pick-up opportunity, uses a “jungle primary” system in which the top two candidates in a primary move onto a runoff regardless of party affiliation.

Amid concern that split Democratic fields could box the party out of a runoff, many Democrats, including some progressive leaders, are calling on someone to take action to narrow the Democratic fields.

The newfound energy on the left sparked by President Trump has driven people to feel that running is an imperative, Israel said. That is a good thing on the whole, he said, but it creates crowded primaries — and additional challenges.

“There are a lot of people, in the past, who ran because they had an egotistical urge or maybe wanted to run for something else. You could manage those impulses. But if somebody really feels a calling to run for Congress, it’s tougher,” he said. “At the same time, if Democrats want checks and balances to this administration, they’ve got to win seats. And in some districts, the best way to win might be with a candidate who is a better fit with the electorate.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump John Culberson John Katko Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer Steve Israel

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