Politics

Even as They Embrace Luján, Democrats Take Aim at DCCC Staff

Frustrated members look for answers for last four cycles

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, center, and Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, right, have been critical of DCCC staff. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For a party that gained seats, the aftermath of November’s election has resulted in unusually loud griping from Democratic members about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, specifically its staff. 

Rep. Tim Ryan said last week that if he were in charge, he’d ask the DCCC staff to reapply for their jobs.

Coming from the Ohio Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for minority leader, that’s not shocking. He hasn’t regularly paid his DCCC dues or been active in the committee.

Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur also once weighed a challenge to Pelosi. This year, she was a Pelosi loyalist, but she, too, said she’s had a “terrible experience” with the DCCC staff. 

Whether or not disgruntled members’ grievances about the DCCC are legitimate, their complaints are indicative of a disconnect between parts of the caucus and the committee.

The griping isn’t directed at New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, whom the caucus elected to a second term as committee chairman Monday night. 

“We truly believe he never really headed the DCCC,” Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego said last week. The perception is that Pelosi ran the show, beginning with her appointment of the chairman. 

Members generally like Luján and believe that making his slot an elected position is a step toward bringing transparency to a committee that they think needs more of it — even if they’re not quite sure what it is they’re looking for behind the curtain. 

Whatever it is, they believe it begins with wresting perceived power away from staff. “Our mission,” Gallego said, is “this is going to be a membership-driven DCCC instead of staff- and consultant-driven.”

Another cycle of failure? 

Despite losing the presidency, Democrats picked up a net of six House seats in 2016. It’s the first time since 2000 that the party lost the White House but netted House seats. 

And yet, the DCCC fell below expectations publicly set by leadership and came nowhere close to winning the 30 seats needed to take the majority during a presidential year when Democrats should have had the advantage based on turnout.  

Midwestern Democrats have blamed the DCCC for abandoning its working-class base. Traditionally, though, crafting a national economic message is the job of Congress or the White House.

Democrats face a challenging map, which won’t change until they control enough state legislatures to redraw congressional districts in their favor. But red-state Democrats are especially frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of initiative from the committee to contest districts in their areas of the country. 

Kaptur sees it in her own backyard. The fact that Democrats hold just four of the state’s 16 congressional seats isn’t just about gerrymandering, she said, but “DCCC neglect.”

“It is not for lack of Ohio members trying to penetrate their closed minds over there,” Kaptur said.

“We go back and we say, ‘We have some individuals that we believe have the capability to run and also, we have media organizations that have won elections in our part of the country, we want you to consider them.’ It’s always no. No, no, no, no,” she said.

Currently, Republicans don’t hold a single Ohio district that President Barack Obama carried, so there aren’t any obvious takeover targets where the committee would spend limited resources.

But it’s not just red states where the DCCC is faulted for not playing more aggressively. The party failed to land top-shelf recruits in the Philadelphia suburbs and in at least two Illinois seats previously drawn to elect a Democrat.

Monday-morning quarterbacking has come down hard on the Democrats’ strategy of tying House Republicans to Trump. The DCCC has argued it was the best strategy for the climate. And yet, pursuing that strategy in districts where Trump was leading, like Iowa’s 1st District, raised eyebrows even before the election.

In its first post-election discussion with members last month, Luján said that many of their recruits were on a upward trajectory — with Virginia’s LuAnn Bennett tied with Rep. Barbara Comstock, for example — until the release of the letter from FBI Director James B. Comey about potentially reopening an investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails. 

But some Democrats say they’ve heard similar excuses after disappointing election results in 2010, 2012 and 2014. 

“As long as the storyline is, ‘Our polling was great! Our strategy was perfect. James Comey screwed us,’ then it’s a sign there’s no drive for accountability,” one Democratic consultant said. “Somehow, every cycle when the DCCC falls short, someone else is to blame,” he said. 

Member engagement 

That perception of failure exists among some members who are taking aim at a campaign committee that they don’t think has been working for them. A member’s opinion and understanding of the DCCC may be influenced by their reliance on the committee to get elected and re-elected.  

The committee held weekly recruitment meetings, open to all members. The first recruitment meeting for 2018 is Thursday. 

But most members aren’t intricately involved enough with the committee’s operations to articulate what it is that they think is wrong with the committee or its staff. 

“I sat in all the recruitment meetings that were run by Cheri Bustos and Denny Heck, and I thought they did a great job,” said New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, elected in 2014 from a district Obama twice carried by double digits. “But I didn’t know anything about the staffers that were there. Was everything being carried out? We just don’t know.”

As eager as they are to give Luján another chance, members are taking their frustrations out on the committee staff — much more so than in cycles past.

“We realize that it’s also unfair to blame him for the direction of the DCCC when systematically that staff of the DCCC, starting from the top, and almost all the way through middle-management, has been nothing but bureaucratic and ineffective for many, many years,” Gallego said last week when answering a question about why he wanted to keep Luján on as DCCC chairman. 

“He wasn’t given the time or the power to get rid of them,” the freshman Democrat added.

While Gallego and others suggested the staff was handpicked by Pelosi, that’s hardly the vast majority of bodies sitting in the DCCC’s South Capitol Street office.

“It’s far easier to blame a nameless, faceless, nebulous staff than it is to confront reality,” said a senior Democratic strategist not working with the committee this cycle.

Ryan, who’s had limited interaction with the committee, pointed his finger at the greater web of political consultants who do business for the DCCC and their recruits. “They need to go on a consultant detox,” he said. 

“There’s a closed shop,” a Democratic consultant added. “That would be OK if there were a record of success,” he said, but “we’re not winning the close races.”

Of the seats Democrats gained, Illinois’ 10th District and Nevada’s 4th District were seats that Obama carried by double digits and that Democrats arguably should have won in any presidential year. In two others — Florida’s 7th District and New Jersey’s 5th District — Democrats had strong recruits but the GOP incumbents suffered self-inflicted wounds.

The perception remains that a limited class of consultants contributes to a group-think culture, but the committee’s independent expenditure arm did add at least five new consulting firms this year, including Latino and women-led shops. 

“There are favorites that get played and that tends to be with the larger firms, or the people staff think they can get a job from,” another Democratic consultant said. 

Any consultant who feels he or she isn’t getting enough business could have an incentive to complain. But “the closed shop” concern is bigger than one consultant or even one party.

“It is something we faced,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said outside the speaker’s lobby Monday night.

After losing 30 seats in 2006, Cole said the NRCC opened up. 

“You put staff in and tell them, ‘I don’t want a select group of people here. We want to throw this open, we want everybody who’s a reasonable consultant to have a legitimate opportunity to compete,’” he said. 

Looking for answers

Pressed about what needs to change at the committee, especially at the staff level, Rice has consistently said it’s impossible to know without a post-mortem. “There has been no accountability for any race results since 2010,” she said last week.

The DCCC has conducted internal reviews of its data and messaging after each cycle, and shared much of their results with members in meetings and memos.

But New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who dropped his challenge to Luján for DCCC chairman, is now overseeing an unprecedented member-led after-action review.

He plans to interview consultants and members, likely a welcome overture to lawmakers who want to share their experiences. Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, who had one of the closest margins of victory of any Democratic incumbent, said last week that no one at the DCCC or in leadership had yet asked him how he won while Clinton lost his 1st District seat.

But for any introspection to be effective, some Democrats say, a review must take into account not just one, but four cycles of disappointing results.

Lindsey McPherson and Rema Rahman contributed to this report. 

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