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Why D.C. Democrats Can Still Pick Sides in Primaries Why D.C. Democrats Can Still Pick Sides in Primaries

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Why D.C. Democrats Can Still Pick Sides in Primaries


DCCC Chairman Steve Israel(Richard A. Bloom)

Washington Democrats aren't afraid to play favorites in House primaries. That's an unavoidable (and sometimes desired) effect of efforts like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Jumpstart" program, which gives early financial and organizational backing to promising challengers in Republican-held districts. And though their efforts have led to a recent bout of criticism from other candidates, the national party still remains far more comfortable getting involved in primaries than their Republican counterparts, who have had well-documented difficulties in that arena.

In suburban Philadelphia, Democratic candidate Shaughnessey Naughton slammed DCCC Jumpstart candidate Kevin Strouse as "the hand-picked candidate of the D.C. establishment" ahead of a Strouse fundraiser with DCCC chairman Steve Israel. Down in Florida, twice-defeated Democratic candidate Al Lawson told the Tallahassee Democrat that the DCCC "alienate(s) and kind of rub(s) people the wrong way when you select a candidate," as they have with Gwen Graham in the seat Lawson was contemplating seeking for a third time. Jose Hernandez, a much-touted DCCC recruit in 2012 who lost to GOP Rep. Jeff Denham in California, told the Stockton Record he might still decide to run even though the DCCC already named Michael Eggman a Jumpstart candidate, saying the DCCC's early timetable for recruits wasn't compatible with his career. Hernandez went on to say that he didn't think Eggman was "viable." And in Southern California, former Rep. Joe Baca has been railing against the DCCC for weeks as part of his bid against fellow Democrat Pete Aguilar, another DCCC-backed candidate.

In all, more than half of the DCCC's seven Jumpstart candidates are catching flak from other Democrats for getting in bed with the committee, and the DCCC itself is coming in for a fair bit of local criticism, too.

But these episodes don't seem to signal a tea party-style backlash against party involvement in local primaries. The campaigns are still very young, but criticism of the Jumpstart candidates has thus far come exclusively from opponents looking for a leg up, not from aggrieved Democratic activists seeking alternative choices. And the DCCC feels as though it has a strong enough input from local power centers to make recruiting decisions that appeal to -- or go along with -- them. Strouse, for example, is getting help with his bid in Pennsylvania from former Rep. Patrick Murphy, who remains popular among Bucks County Democrats.

"Our recruiting process is organic -- we put a premium on finding candidates who are promising, who are problem-solvers and who fit their districts," said DCCC spokeswoman Emily Bittner.

When Washington Democrats do get involved, it may work better for them because they have a built-in advantage with their base that Republicans don't enjoy. A Pew Research Center survey in early May found that while only 42 percent of Republicans approve of their party's leaders in Washington, 60 percent of Democrats approved of their own congressional leaders. Those opinions will vary by state and district, but for the most part, rank-and-file Democrats like the leaders trying to influence their primaries.

There is significantly less goodwill on the GOP side after a number of damaging nomination fights over the last decade, which is why officials like National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Jerry Moran tread very cautiously in primaries. "In many instances, if the Senate campaign committee said, 'This is the candidate,' there would be a reaction by others who say, 'Well, they're not going to tell us what to do. We're going to find our own candidate,'" Moran said on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" last Sunday.

Even when things go wrong for the Democratic establishment in primaries, there isn't the same lasting distrust as there has been on the GOP side. When Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., first won his seat in 2006, the DCCC backed another candidate in the primary and then disappeared, convinced McNerney couldn't win, until the final weeks of the wave election. Now, McNerney is helping Eggman raise money.

McNerney said he hopes the party can avoid conflict; he said Hernandez indicated another run against Denham was unlikely in a conversation earlier this year. But McNerney also understands and accepts what the DCCC does. "It's a cold calculation," he said, echoing a common refrain of Steve Israel's. Ultimately, McNerney's primary opponents in 2006 "were very gracious and fell in line with voters' wishes," he said. (Eventually, the DCCC did, too.) "That's something we depend on."

Considering McNerney's decided lack of hard feelings about the episode, it's something Democrats usually get, too.

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