In the course of a recent conversation I had with a senior Democratic strategist, the operative expressed a sense of nostalgia for the halcyon days of 2006. That was when Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rahm Emanuel ran the Democratic congressional campaign committees with a no-holds-barred approach, anointing their favored nominees and pushing aside weak candidates to clear election fields. It was machine politics at its best, with the powerful campaign committee chairmen using muscle and bluster to handpick favored candidates, even if it meant raising hackles from liberal interest groups. It was, in the words of the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, “Just win, baby.”
Those days are long gone, even as party officials on both sides of the aisle try to do their best to shape the races to their advantage. The clearest example of the changed environment can be seen at Emanuel’s old stomping grounds at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; the DCCC is at risk of losing four House seats in solidly Democratic territory thanks to ethically tainted incumbents and weak candidates. If Rahm was in charge, as the lore goes, the ethically tainted members would be pressured to retire, and the weak candidates would be forced out from on high. But instead, party officials are taking a wait-and-see approach as the volatile situations surrounding the ticking-time-bomb candidates worsen.
The not-so-fearsome foursome are Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I, Connecticut House Speaker Chris Donovan, running in CT-05, and former Rep. Alan Grayson, running in an Orlando-area seat newly drawn to elect a Democrat. All four districts are solidly Democratic, from Cicilline’s D+15 district in Providence, R.I., to the more competitive D+2 northwestern Connecticut seat that Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy is vacating to run for Senate.
Each candidate sports a glaring vulnerability. Tierney has been connected to crimes committed by his brother-in-law, who was sentenced to several years in prison on gambling and racketeering charges. The brother-in-law has implicated Tierney in the crime, asserting that he knew everything that was going on – which the House member has denied. The story isn’t going away: The Boston Globe ran a front-page expose over the weekend suggesting that Tierney knew more than he claims about his brother-in-law’s ties to drug smuggling and tax evasion.
Tierney represents the most Republican district in Massachusetts, which is akin to saying he’s the best pitcher on this year’s lackluster Red Sox roster. But it’s a district that’s competitive for the right kind of Republican – Sen. Scott Brown took 58 percent of the vote there – and Republicans landed a solid recruit in former state Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, who outraised the incumbent in the last quarter. Allegations of misconduct tend to threaten members, no matter how liberal or conservative their districts are.
The filing deadline in Massachusetts has already passed, but if Tierney dropped out of the race after winning the nomination, party leaders could replace his name on the ballot. There’s no shortage of compelling potential Democratic candidates – Harvard-educated Marine veteran Seth Moulton considered running as an independent before deciding not to. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, consistent with its incumbent-protection policy, is backing Tierney for reelection.
Just to the south in Connecticut, Democrats are facing another tricky situation, this time with a highly touted candidate whose finance director was arrested on federal charges of conspiring to launder campaign contributions. Donovan, the speaker of the state House, hasn’t yet been charged with wrongdoing, but there are signs that he could be charged as the investigation goes forward.
Normally, the timing of the scandal would be a blessing for House Democrats, given that the nomination isn’t settled yet. Donovan is facing a competitive Democratic primary against lawyer Elizabeth Esty, who outraised him in the last quarter thanks to support from EMILY’s List. But Donovan maintains loyal support from labor unions and progressive groups, giving him a solid base of support and making party leaders wary of taking him on. National Democrats have remained studiously silent about Donovan’s ethics problems, fearful that he could emerge as the nominee despite his troubles.
This isn’t a seat that Democrats can take for granted. Even though Obama won 56 percent of the vote, it’s the most Republican district in Connecticut and was held for more than two decades by former GOP Rep. Nancy Johnson. Republicans are running several credible and well-funded candidates of their own. And the district is filled with wealthy Wall Street employers who may be leaning Republican this year, given the Democratic party’s anti-Wall Street rhetoric. With a deeply flawed nominee, that would become all the more likely.
The third New England Democrat to face an unexpectedly tough race is Cicilline, a freshman whose mishandling of Providence finances as mayor has made him one of the least-popular members of Congress. In a district that Obama carried with 65 percent of the vote, Cicilline won only 51 percent of the vote in 2010. Since then, he’s faced a spate of unforgiving headlines in the local papers, which sank his job approval rating to 17 percent in 2011, according to a Brown University poll. Republicans, recognizing the unusual opportunity, landed former state Police Superintendent Brendan Doherty to run – a top-tier recruit with appeal to blue-collar Democrats. Earlier this year, a poll showed Cicilline trailing Doherty by 15 points, 49 percent to 34 percent.
Cicilline faces a primary challenge from businessman Anthony Gemma, whom he defeated in 2010. But there are signs that Cicilline may be able to eke out a primary victory, despite his vulnerabilities – thanks to Gemma’s own limitations as a candidate. And that would leave Democrats stuck with Cicilline. Party leaders had plenty of time to recognize that Cicilline faced serious problems, with his weak 2010 performance, alarming poll numbers and stream of bad headlines. But instead of recruiting an alternative candidate in a district where Democrats dominate, they watched and are still waiting to see what transpires.
Meanwhile, the starkest example of the party’s limited ability to shape the landscape in their favor is in Florida, where Democrats gained a new Democratic-leaning district thanks to the explosive Hispanic growth in the Orlando region. The district was drawn to elect a Latino Democrat. But the candidate running unopposed for the seat is none other than Grayson, the combative former House member who lost reelection in 2010 by a whopping 18 points.
Grayson, despite his myriad vulnerabilities, faces no Democratic primary opposition. His ability to self-fund the race scared away any prospective challengers. Democrats publicly have embraced him, even tasking him to donate his campaign funds to other candidates facing tougher races. But it’s wishful thinking that he’ll going to coast to victory. He could be facing a credible Hispanic Republican (Osceola County Commissioner John Quinones), who could peel off enough Hispanic votes to make it a race. Quinones faces a tough primary of his own, but if he wins, the race will be worth watching.
The irony for Democrats is that one of their strongest national recruits, retired Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, hails from the area. But instead of running in the new district– and being a near lock to hold it – she is facing a much more challenging race against Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., whose neighboring district was made safer in redistricting. Instead of being able to shape the races to their advantage, the party was cowed by Grayson’s deep pockets.
Lose any one of these four gimme races, and it becomes all the more challenging for Democrats to win the 25 seats necessary to gain the majority. It's impossible to predict what Rahm would do if he was still in charge, but it's hard to believe he'd sit still and allow these flawed candidates to emerge as nominees, without at least making some noise.