House Democrats are fielding a historic number of top-tier challengers who could give Republicans their toughest races in years, but they’ll need to survive primaries first.
Competitive Democratic contests are already brewing in more than a dozen of the party’s top battlegrounds, as pent-up ambition, outrage over Washington, and an inviting political environment draw a flood of candidates—similar to what Republicans experienced in 2010.
This dynamic highlights Democrats’ energized base, and party strategists continue to tout the fact that the majority is in play. But it also carries the potential to drain candidate resources, leave nominees bruised, or, in a nightmare scenario in seat-rich California, shut the party out of a general election thanks to the top-two primary.
“Look, I can think of a couple of districts off the top of my head, no names mentioned, that I would dearly love for them not to be the primary I see evolving,” said Rep. Denny Heck of Washington, who chairs recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But would I trade that for the kind of reaction and the kind of effort required to recruit candidates in ‘16 and ‘14?”
Democrats like Heck said the upsides—such as increased enthusiasm and higher candidate name recognition—outweigh the negatives. But others privately expressed concerns that crowded fields could force candidates to take positions unpalatable to swing voters in the country’s most moderate districts.
Party infighting could also complicate the ability of the eventual nominee to consolidate their base, particularly if the primary becomes a race to the left.
“Because the Democratic nomination is being seen as something worth having this cycle, a lot of consultants will be encouraging their clients to take positions that in any other cycle they would never touch with a 10-foot pole,” said one national Democratic strategist who works on House races.
A financial hurdle is also at play: Several districts that Democrats are targeting lie in prohibitively expensive media markets, such as Miami, Dallas, and Washington.
Northern Virginia is a prime example, as Democrats landed a long sought-after recruit in Jennifer Wexton, a popular state senator and former prosecutor, to take on Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in a district that backed Hillary Clinton by 10 points. Wexton must first navigate, over pricey airwaves, a massive Democratic field that includes a former teachers’ union president, a Naval intelligence officer, and two former Obama administration officials.
Daniel Helmer, a Rhodes Scholar and Bronze Star recipient who said in his April campaign announcement that he’d already raised $120,000, appears likely to use Wexton’s time in elected office against her: “There are real contrasts between insiders who come up through the system and somebody with a background of service,” he said, casting himself as the only outsider in the race.
Democrats offered several reasons for the unprecedented number of candidates in many of these districts, ranging from backlash to President Trump to opposition to the GOP’s health care bill. Strategists also cited the influence of groups focused on candidate recruitment, including established organizations such as EMILY’s List and new PACs such as 314 Action.
In some key races, the groups won’t all be on the same page.
In GOP Rep. Mike Coffman’s Colorado district, former Army Ranger Jason Crow is an establishment favorite, though EMILY’s List has had preliminary talks with state Sen. Rhonda Fields, a potential candidate. Levi Tillemann, a green energy expert, is also running.
Shaughnessy Naughton, who chairs 314 Action, suggested increased involvement from outside groups will bring a fresh perspective to a party in need of a new strategy.
“How many seats have we lost in the last six years?” said Naughton, who fell short in a contentious primary last year for a suburban Philadelphia House seat.
Republicans are already seizing on Democratic fissures after years of grappling with establishment and tea-party divides.
“If you’re a Democrat running in my district, are you for single payer?” said Republican Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania. Costello, who leads a National Republican Congressional Committee program to help vulnerable members, holds a Clinton district that Democrats are targeting.
Some Democrats suggested that DCCC may not be able to significantly shape crowded fields. Still, they said the committee could be strategic behind the scenes about its organizational and logistical support.
For now, DCCC is projecting optimism about the possibility of primaries, citing the chance for first-time candidates to sharpen their message.
“Our primaries will litigate House Republicans even longer,” said Dan Sena, the committee’s executive director. “I’m looking forward to that.”
With months before filing deadlines, the number of primaries with at least two compelling candidates could multiply.
For example, in Southern California, a Vietnamese refugee-turned-pediatrician who worked her way through Harvard as a janitor could face a former Frito-Lay manager who used his $266 million lottery winnings to create scholarships for Hispanic students. In Tucson, a former congresswoman is weighing a bid and could join a field that includes a former assistant secretary of the Army. And in northern New Jersey, an ex-Navy helicopter pilot could be pitted against a longtime state assemblyman.
The possibility of a packed primary could be especially problematic in California, which uses a jungle system that advances the top two vote-getters to a runoff, regardless of party. The state offers a trove of pick-up opportunities with seven GOP-held seats that Clinton won, including at least four that already have multiple strong Democratic contenders.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has drawn at least three notable Democrats in his Orange County-based district but might also face a GOP rival in Scott Baugh, who last year left the door open to challenging the incumbent and has nearly $550,000 in a campaign account.
“What you don’t want to see is the Democratic vote get divided among four, five, six candidates and cause an opportunity for the Republican Party,” said Harley Rouda, a Democratic businessman in the race.
In some of these districts, the fields could narrow naturally as fundraising and campaign efforts accelerate. Democrats also maintained that, compared with 2010, the party’s outside groups are in a much stronger position to coordinate with one another.
“There’s a real commitment to leverage each other’s interests, because we can’t duplicate efforts,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said. “We don’t have the resources to do that.”
Clarification: The story was updated to reflect that the DCCC reserves the right to get involved in primaries.
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