House Democrats Juggle Candidate Influx

Some of the party’s top pick-up opportunities feature multiple credible candidates vying for the nomination.

State Sen. Jennifer Wexton gestures during a news conference by the Senate Democratic caucus at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 14, 2016.
AP Photo/Steve Helber
Ally Mutnick and Kimberly Railey
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Ally Mutnick and Kimberly Railey
June 29, 2017, 8 p.m.

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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