Democratic Candidates Taking a Pass on Convention

Along with some top Senate candidates, the vast majority of Democrats running in competitive races for House and governor will not be in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia skyline.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
July 22, 2016, 2:40 p.m.

Democrats have spent weeks crowing about the long list of Republicans keeping their distance from Donald Trump and his coronation in Cleveland. But in many cases, the Democrats challenging them are also choosing to skip their party’s convention next week in Philadelphia.

The list of absentee Democrats includes a trio of this cycle’s top Senate recruits, all candidates running in the five most competitive races for governor, and the overwhelming majority of Democrats competing in the party’s most targeted House races.

In choosing to the sit out the confab, campaigns repeatedly cited scheduling conflicts or the need to remain in their home states to campaign. None pointed to presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as a factor.

“Why would you possibly have anything to gain by going to the Democratic National Convention when your job is to get yourself elected?” said Colm O’Comartun, a former executive director for the Democratic Governors Association. “Our advice when I was at the DGA would always be, ‘Stay in your states, connect with your constituents, and get yourself elected.’ There will be time later to celebrate and support other folks and fly the flag.”

Among Democratic Senate candidates, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander will not be in Philadelphia. Kirkpatrick, who represents a competitive House district, told CNN she never goes to the conventions because she is too busy campaigning. Feingold cited the same reason, though he has also complained in prior years that conventions have morphed into nothing more than “corporate trade shows.” Kander cited scheduling conflicts.

Former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running to replace Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, is also not attending.

“The campaigns are making their own decisions based on scheduling and other responsibilities,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said.

Of the 38 candidates listed in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, just six told National Journal they are at least planning to be in Philadelphia, while 32 will not make the trip.

Democratic state Rep. Steve Santarsiero, who is running for retiring Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick’s seat in the Philadelphia suburbs, will attend a couple of events around the convention but won’t appear on the floor, according to his campaign. Josh Gottheimer, a former adviser to Clinton’s 2008 campaign who is challenging Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey, is "highly likely" to be at convention activities, his spokesman said.

The gubernatorial map is a challenging one for Democrats this year, with competitive open races in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is also up for reelection in North Carolina. Across those five races, not a single Democratic candidate will be in attendance. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, West Virginia gubernatorial nominee Jim Justice, and both major candidates in New Hampshire are all taking a pass.

“I think a number of candidates are deciding that it makes more sense to campaign back home, and that’s especially important in state elections that are decided on state issues,” DGA spokesman Jared Leopold said. “That is a phenomenon that has definitely been true on both the Democratic and Republican side.”

Just four Republican gubernatorial candidates attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and three of them were Indiana Republicans jockeying for Gov. Mike Pence's newly open seat.

Republicans insist that Democrats skipping the confab are running away from their party’s nominee.

“The real reason is they don’t want to associate themselves and want separation from the top of the ticket with Hillary Clinton,” said Republican media consultant Dan Allen, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Some Democratic Senate challengers, including former state Rep. Deborah Ross, who is running against Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina, have said they will be in Philadelphia for part of the convention. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, and Pennsylvania Democrat Katie McGinty will also be there for at least a few days.

On the House side, two of the attendees, Ruben Kihuen of Nevada and Tom Suozzi of New York, are convention delegates. Both are running in competitive districts: Suozzi is running for the seat of retiring Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, while Kihuen, who is set to speak at the DNC, is challenging Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist and former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, the other two Democratic House candidates attending the convention, are running in Democratic-leaning districts in Florida. Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock’s rival, LuAnn Bennett, might attend the convention if her home-state senator and “friend” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia is named Clinton’s running mate, her spokesman said.

Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota, one of the most vulnerable House Democrats, will be campaigning in his district, while Rep. Brad Ashford of Nebraska, another top GOP target, isn’t sure of his plans yet.

"The path to victory is different in every district, and Democratic candidates are doing what's necessary to win their races," DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly said.

In 2012, Israel, who was then DCCC chairman, told candidates to campaign in their districts and skip that year’s September convention in Charlotte, while denying that President Obama’s poor approval ratings were the reason.

Allen, the GOP strategist, said, “It’s become more and commonplace in the past several presidential cycles. The allure of the national convention has been offset by the baggage that might come with it.”

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