TIP-TOE THROUGH THE BATTLEFIELD
House Democrats Fear That the Gavel Could Slip Away
With a critical stretch nearing, especially in California, the party is leaning on aggressive tactics to keep their strong 2018 position intact.
John Vigna still regrets what happened in 2012.
He was press secretary for California’s Assembly speaker that cycle. And Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) was running for Congress in California’s 31st Congressional District—favorable terrain for Democrats. Aguilar was the top Democratic vote-getter in the primary. But because of the newly instituted “jungle primary” rules, in which the top two vote getters of either party advanced to the general election, he never made it to the next round. His 22.6 percent was good enough for third.
It was a wasted opportunity, one that would take two years to fix, when Aguilar ran again and went on to win.
“It left a very bitter taste in everyone’s mouth,” Vigna, communications director for the California Democratic Party told The Daily Beast.
Six years later, it could all happen again only on a much grander, more consequential, scale.
Voters in California head to the polls on June 5. And with Democrats leaning heavily on the state to deliver some of the 23 flipped seats needed to wrest back control of the House, the jungle-primary rule may once again trip them up.
For months, Democrats have entertained the possibility of it happening. But with election day approaching, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is now taking aggressive steps to prevent what some strategists view as a calamity.
Officials at the committee said they have been investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in voter registration efforts, ads, and get-out-the-vote programs, which specifically target three districts represented by retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). In addition, California Democrats have struck an agreement between two Democratic campaigns to cease negative ads against each other in the particularly nasty primary in California’s 39th District. And on Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that members would be picking sides in some of the primary battles.
“They may be subjected to criticism for that,” Pelosi said, “but I’d rather be criticized for winning than criticized for losing.”
And criticized they have been. Some California activists are furious at the national party’s intervention, viewing it as putting its thumb on the scales for their preferred candidate.
Those tensions boiled over this past week when the DCCC decided to add businessman Harley Rouda, a Democrat, to its coveted “Red to Blue” program. The decision meant that the committee would be prioritizing Rouda’s attempt to unseat Rohrabacher. It sparked a carefully worded rebuke from the CDP, which had endorsed another Democrat in the race, Dr. Hans Keirstead (PDF).
“Throughout our partnership, I have been consistently clear on one key point: when CDP Delegates endorse a candidate, that candidate is the official candidate of the Party, and the DCCC should tread carefully in openly supporting a different candidate,” chair Eric Bauman wrote.
National Democrats are sensitive to the charge and California Democrats acknowledge that the two have the same ultimate goals. Increasingly, however, national officials feel that it’s a price worth paying. That’s because few stretches may be more critical toward winning back control of the House of Representatives than the one coming up.
With the congressional generic ballot poll numbers between the two parties having narrowed, national officials are keeping a watchful eye on races in Kentucky, Georgia, Iowa, New Jersey, and other states where voters will head to the polls in the next two weeks.
So far, the party remains bullish about its prospects. For good reason. Even if they find their candidates locked out in certain California contests, there are opportunities elsewhere. A new map in Pennsylvania gives Democrats a strong chance of flipping five-plus seats in the House. Democrats are hopeful for gains in New York and New Jersey as well.
They also have managed to lessen some of the tension in contests elsewhere. After the DCCC was widely criticized for putting out an opposition research memo on Democratic candidate Laura Moser in Texas’ 7th Congressional District, feuds between candidates and the committee have calmed down.
In Kentucky, a primary race in the state’s 6th Congressional District has also gone from dicey to more civil—at least for now. Former fighter pilot Amy McGrath’s campaign was initially furious with the DCCC for encouraging Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to jump into the race, believing that they had already proved their capacity to run a strong general election contest.
But in April, McGrath’s campaign manager Mark Nickolas said their campaign shared polling with the DCCC showing McGrath up seven points in the primary. Nickolas insisted that the DCCC “concluded that their initial analysis was wrong” though Gray’s campaign also publicly released a poll showing him handily winning the primary and said they didn’t buy McGrath’s numbers.
“I told her, you know it’s not a personal thing,” Nickolas said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “They just sort of view this as Gray’s more likely to win. The best revenge is just winning.”
The DCCC, for its part, has backed off from outright supporting either candidate in the race, with a committee aide stressing that general election polling indicates incumbent Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) is vulnerable against either candidate. But it’s also clear that the detente is delicate. McGrath’s campaign was incensed on Friday about a new negative ad from Gray that painted her overseas service as a negative, to the degree that it had kept her away from the district.
The DCCC has found itself having to manage political fires elsewhere. Just last Tuesday, nonprofit executive Kara Eastman took down former Rep. Brad Ashford (D-NE) while running on a platform including Medicare for All in the sought-after 2nd Congressional District in Nebraska.
Ashford had been included in the DCCC’s Red to Blue program. And his loss not only suggested that the national committee was losing its ability to move voters in key races, but raised the possibility of lingering tensions with the party’s general election candidate. Eastman, however, said in an interview that there was no bad blood.
“Ben Ray Lujan called me,” Eastman said referring to the chairman of the DCCC. “[Rep.] Steny Hoyer called. I’m confident that we’ll be able to work together moving forward.”
At the moment, there aren’t specifics as to what kind of cooperation there will be, but Eastman’s comments underscore the necessity the party sees in making sure there are few intra-party squabbles as Democrats face a historic opportunity in November.
“We will just continue to unite, because we need a unified party and that’s really what the voters deserve,” Eastman told The Daily Beast.