House Democrats are taking a calculated risk to help some candidates in contested, open primaries this cycle — despite the potential blowback that could come down the line.
The minority party faces one of the smallest House playing fields in a decade, so the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hopes that extra support for its top-tier recruits in primaries will yield the best odds of picking up the relatively few competitive seats attainable in 2014.
“Our mission is to help elect the candidate who can win, so when we see a potential candidate who can [win] when other candidates can’t win, we want to help to do what we can,” DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward said in a Wednesday phone interview.
The DCCC’s strategy marks the first time a House campaign committee has publicly helped candidates in contested primaries since Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ran the DCCC in 2006. Then an Illinois congressman, Emanuel handpicked his recruits — often angering his party’s base in the process.
This cycle, the DCCC has selected 16 recruits for its new Jumpstart program, which provides financial, communications and strategic support to candidates in top races. The program acts as a seal of approval from the committee that the candidate has the tools and background to win in a specific district, while other candidates may not.
DCCC aides argue Jumpstart is not a formal endorsement of a candidate. But the first crop of Jumpstart candidates have already received fundraising support via a DCCC event in Washington, D.C.
Two of these Jumpstart recruits face formidable primary opponents who were not selected for the program, and another may have a legitimate primary challenger in the coming months.
In California’s 31st District, the DCCC is not-so-quietly backing Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, who faces three other Democrats — including a former congressman.
Former Rep. Joe Baca, attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes, who has the support of EMILY’s List, and local school board official Danny Tillman are running for this Democratic-leaning seat held by GOP Rep. Gary G. Miller.
Last cycle, a crowded primary paved the way for Miller and another Republican to proceed to the general election under California’s new top-two primary system.
Similarly in Pennsylvania, the DCCC is touting veteran Kevin Strouse in the competitive 8th District held by GOP Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick. Strouse faces small-business owner Shaughnessy Naughton, whose campaign dismissed the DCCC’s support for her opponent.
“We’re not trying to win the race in Washington, D.C., but to win it in Bucks County,” said Jason McGrath, who is doing the polling for Naughton’s race.
In Florida’s 2nd District, the DCCC recruited and touted attorney Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham. She potentially faces a primary from former state Sen. Al Lawson, who has lost two bids for the seat held by GOP Rep. Steve Southerland II.
Lawson has not yet made an announcement about the race, but he’s publicly expressed frustration with the national party’s support for Graham in news interviews, including with CQ Roll Call. Lawson did not return request for comment for this story.
Nonetheless, the committee is taking a chance that its early support for these candidates will pay off in the long term.
“You only have so many races to play in,” said Travis Lowe, a former top DCCC operative. “You can’t let them fall by the wayside because you get an unsophisticated candidate from the primary. So it’s to [the DCCC’s] advantage to support a candidate who gives them the best shot in the general election.”
Taking sides proved to be a hard lesson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and, to a lesser degree, the National Republican Congressional Committee, in recent cycles. In 2010, the NRSC and its leadership supported GOP candidates in primaries who eventually lost to tea-party-backed opponents. The NRSC no longer endorses non-incumbents as a result.
In 2006, the NRCC endorsed a more moderate Republican, Steve Huffman, over the conservative candidate, Randy Graf, in the open-seat Arizona race eventually won by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords. Graf won the primary, which created deep distrust of the Republican establishment in this perennially competitive district. Democrats have held the seat ever since.
As a policy, the NRCC does not endorse in contested primaries anymore. (There has been at least one exception: Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee in 2010.)
This cycle, there are at least eight contested GOP primaries in top races, and NRCC aides say they have not chosen sides in any of them. Instead, the committee invites any candidate who wishes to enroll in its Young Guns program, which sets specific campaign benchmarks for candidates to receive help from the NRCC.
Like the GOP committees, picking sides in primaries once proved problematic for the DCCC, too.
In 2006, Emanuel backed veteran Tammy Duckworth over Christine Cegelis in the Democratic primary for Illinois’ 6th District. A bruising primary fight ensued as local activists fought the national party. Duckworth won the primary but narrowly lost the open seat to Republican Rep. Peter Roskam. Duckworth won another House race last year.
Democrats want to avoid these kinds of primary catastrophes, especially in competitive races.
Ward said the party will support its nominee, even if he or she was not a Jumpstart candidate.
“If a Jumpstart candidate doesn’t win the primary and the Democrat in the general election is competitive and the district is winnable, we will be there,” Ward said.