Exactly two years ago, a crop of Democratic House recruits were in Washington, D.C., being fêted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The seven recruits were in the initial crop of the newly launched Jumpstart program, which sought to squash potential primary battles in top-target races by supporting seemingly strong recruits early.
But this cycle, the DCCC is holding off for the moment on playing in primaries, according to nearly a half-dozen Democratic operatives who had conversations with the committee's leadership. It's a lesson operatives say the committee learned after it "rushed to judgment" in a few races, endorsing candidates who didn't live up to the DCCC's expectations.
"They're being more methodical this cycle," said one Democratic consultant who worked on competitive House contests last cycle — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about conversations with the DCCC. "They still want strong candidates ... but I think last time it was more a push just to get people in so they had time to raise money, and less of a qualitative look at the full district and who else might be out there. And so they aren’t rushing to judgment."
The DCCC declined to comment on the future of the Jumpstart program, but said Democrats are confident the party will net House seats in 2016.
“Democrats are on offense all across the map in competitive seats that become even more competitive as this Republican Congress tries to enact their reckless agenda," DCCC Communications Director Matt Thornton said in a statement. "2016 is not a question of if Democrats will pick up seats, rather how many.”
Primaries have already formed in at least a half-dozen races — almost all of them in districts Democrats are targeting as they seek to put a dent in Republicans' historic House majority.
In Nevada's 4th District, which President Barack Obama carried by an 11-point margin in 2012, three Democrats launched bids to face freshman Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy. A fourth appears close to entering the race.
In Iowa's 1st District, three Democrats hope to face freshman GOP Rep. Rod Blum, who holds a district Obama carried by a 14-point margin.
And in Pennsylvania's 8th District, an open-seat race following GOP Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick's retirement , two Democrats are vying for the nomination. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney barely captured the district in 2012, while Obama won it by a 7-point margin four years earlier.
Some Jumpstart candidates hailed as top recruits wound up being disappointments on the trail — losing their races by wide margins, even in competitive seats.
The committee's endorsement of veteran Kevin Strouse did not deter scientist Shaughnessy Naughton from entering the primary to run against Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania. Strouse barely beat Naughton in the primary and went on to be a disappointing candidate in the general election, capturing just 38 percent against Fitzpatrick despite the district's competitive bent. Naughton is running again in 2016 in this now-open seat, and faces a primary against state Rep. Steve Santarsiero.
Initial Jumpstart recruit Domenic M. Recchia Jr., now lamented as one of the weakest candidates of the cycle, lost to scandal-plagued Michael G. Grimm, R-N.Y., by double-digits, despite vastly outpacing him in the fundraising race. Grimm resigned after pleading guilty to tax fraud.
Former Judge Ann Callis, another Jumpstart alumna, was uncomfortable in her role as a candidate despite a stellar résumé on paper. She struggled to connect with voters and lost to GOP Rep. Rodney Davis by a 17-point margin, despite the Illinois district's even partisan split.
Looking toward 2016, Democratic operatives say the change in the DCCC's recruitment strategy has a lot to do with the fundamental differences in the cycle.
In 2014, faced with a daunting political climate, operatives said the DCCC had to prove to donors it had the kind of candidates who could compete in a challenging cycle. The committee also had to sweeten the deal for reluctant candidates who feared the midterm's challenging dynamics.
"It was in the interest of the DCCC ... to show signs of life," a second Democratic consultant involved in House contests said of the committee's tactics last cycle. "But [DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward] said, 'We’re not doing that this cycle.' She said, 'We’re a lot more about getting the right candidate, even if it means they're not getting in until the fall.'"
This cycle, with the party anticipating more favorable turnout boosted by likely presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats say the DCCC has more time to let fields form before deciding whether to play in primaries.
"They might still jump in some races where it matters," said a third Democratic operative who works on House races. "But assuming it’s going to be better year with presidential-level turnout, there's no need to dabble as much."
Endorsing in primary contests always comes with risks. If the other candidate ends up securing the nomination, they could cause troubles for the party in a general election. It could also anger grass-roots activists in the district, who help mobilize critical voters.
Knowing the risks, the National Republican Congressional Committee does not publicly back candidates in primaries — even when more electable choices face rabble-rousing fringe candidates.
While the House committees appear to be taking a more hands-off approach to primary endorsements, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has so far endorsed candidates in five top Senate contests.
Unlike the House — which is almost assured to stay in Republicans' hands — the Senate is in play in 2016. Democrats must net five seats to ensure Senate control, and are facing GOP incumbents in nearly a half-dozen states Obama carried twice.
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