National Dems’ Attacks On Progressive Signal Aggressive Primary Posture

HOUSTON, TX -- MAY 22, 2017: Laura Moser picking up her campaign materials at a print shop in Houston, Monday May 22, 2017.  Moser is returning to Houston from Washington where her husband worked for the Obama Whitehouse, and is starting her effort to run for the 7th Congressional District in Texas currently occupied by Republican John Culberson. (Photo by Michael Stravato/For the Washington Post)
The Washington Post/The Washington Post

Is the DCCC grappling with a tea-party-in-reverse problem? Read a reporter’s notebook post (Prime access) on this story »

House Democrats’ official campaign committee took a very public swipe at one of its own candidates Thursday night, a sign that it’s willing to risk fury from its base to push forward what it sees as the best general-election nominees.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) posted damaging research on Laura Moser, a favorite of progressives running in a crowded primary who national Democrats worry would cost them a shot at defeating Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) this fall.

The move is by far the most aggressive and public stance the DCCC has taken this cycle against one of its own, a risky move given the current tensions between parts of the liberal base and the party establishment but one they argue is necessary given Moser’s flaws. While party operatives have signaled for months that they’d step in to block candidates they see as unelectable, this shows how much they’re willing to risk the wrath of the left to do so — not just in Texas, which holds the nation’s first primaries, but throughout the coming year as the battle for the House heats up.

“We’ve gotten involved in primaries in the past when there’s a disqualified general election candidate and have noted all cycle we might need to do that again,” DCCC Communications Director Meredith Kelly told TPM Friday morning, arguing the committee was stepping up to help make sure local activists’ efforts weren’t squandered with a flawed candidate. “This potential involvement in primaries is about ensuring voters have a fighting chance to flip these districts in November. These people have been fighting all year organizing against Republican incumbents and we don’t want to rob them of the opportunity to be competitive in November.”

Those decisions are risky ones, threatening to infuriate liberal activists locally and nationally as the party is seen strong-arming locals and picking favorites, potentially the party with a split base heading into the general election. This year, Democrats have a glut of candidates in many top races, a good problem to have but one that risks letting flawed candidates sneak through with a plurality of the vote and blow winnable races.

The DCCC’s move left many liberals livid.

“In this vital year, with so much at stake, the DCCC should be using their limited resources to go after Republicans, not peddle false and misleading garbage against a progressive Democratic woman who has been an outspoken leader in the resistance. It is hard see how the DCCC thinks turning its own voters against each other is a winning strategy,” MoveOn.org Political Action Executive Director Ilya Sheyman told TPM.

The move could also backfire by elevating the very candidates the DCCC wants to stop.

“The DCCC just managed to get a lot more people into this race for Laura,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee head Adam Green told TPM.

On the flip side, national Democrats don’t think they can stay pat — they’ve stayed out of past races where they saw one candidate as their best chance, had another get the nomination and then blow a potentially winnable race.

“Which backlash is worse? Neither of these is a good option,” one former top DCCC staffer who’s grappled with this dilemma in the past told TPM. “The question is which option is less bad — upsetting the apple cart now or ending up with a nominee you don’t think can win in November. If they’re right that this is essential to winning this seat, then they have to do something. But I don’t know if they’re right.”

Another former top DCCC staffer warned that while stopping flawed candidates was necessary, this particular move was “ham-handed” in its execution.

“It’s a hell of a risk,” said the staffer of the public opposition research dump, pointing out that other DCCC-backed candidates were also carpetbaggers and warning the move opened up the party to criticism. “It’s got the subtlety and nuance of a barbarian horde.”

The DCCC has already been heavily involved in recruiting candidates and quietly picking favorites in some districts — like convincing Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to challenge Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) after former fighter pilot Amy McGrath (D) raised big money with a viral announcement video. Four candidates the committee has endorsed have primary challengers that have raised at least $100,000: Those running for the top-targeted seats held by Reps. Rod Blum (R-IA), Mike Coffman (R-CO), Leonard Lance (R-NJ) Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ). California will prove especially problematic: The top two candidates of any party advance to the general election in that state, and Democrats have blown races in the past as two Republicans have advanced in winnable districts. That’s a risk for the party in four different key races.

The last time the DCCC got this aggressively involved in a primary was in 2014, when they tore down former Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA) to make sure that didn’t happen again in a district now held by Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA).

National Democrats have long worried Moser’s progressive views could prove disqualifying in a traditionally Republican suburban district that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried in 2016, but Mitt Romney won by 20 points four years earlier.

The committee highlights that she just moved back to the Houston-area district from Washington, D.C., recently claimed a homestead tax credit for her D.C. home, her campaign has paid her husband’s consulting firm to work on her race, and in a 2014 Washingtonian article wrote that she’d “rather have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than live in rural Texas.

Moser fired back against the DCCC attacks Thursday night.

“We’re used to tough talk here in Texas, but it’s disappointing to hear it from Washington operatives trying to tell Texans what to do. These kind of tactics are why people hate politics. The days when party bosses picked the candidates in their smoke filled rooms are over. DC needs to let Houston vote,” she said in a statement.

The DCCC’s gambit here may not even work, as the party has made similar moves in past years with mixed results. In 2012, the committee tried to push party leaders’ favored candidate past left-wing physician David Gill when he first ran against Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL). Gill still won the nomination, the DCCC belatedly came back in to help him after realizing he had a path to victory, and he ended up losing that race by a narrow margin. Gill is running again this year (his sixth run for Congress) against two candidates national Democrats would vastly prefer to see nominated. He’s raised almost no money this time around, but has a fervent if small base and is the type of candidate they may decide they need to try and block in the coming months. Another victim of national party involvement was Sheyman, who the party blocked in favor of now-Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL).

And they saw stronger candidates lose primaries in winnable races in recent years against Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA) and in the swing district once represented by former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and now held by his brother Brian.

“Better to be a jerk than a loser,” a Democratic strategist who’s doing some work with the DCCC this cycle told TPM.

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