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.