Against the Grain

The Democrats’ Dilemma: Too Many Candidates

Some party strategists are worried that some not-ready-for-primetime candidates could emerge in must-win congressional races.

Multiple Democrats are angling to face Rep. Darrell Issa in California.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Jan. 2, 2018, 8 p.m.

Two years ago, 28-year-old Sara Jacobs was beginning her job as an unpaid staffer for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign—a position she obtained with the assistance of a well-connected family friend. The granddaughter of Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs, she held 28 months worth of professional experience in jobs at the United Nations, the State Department, and UNICEF before landing the Clinton post. She quickly parlayed her work with Clinton into becoming a CEO of an educational non-profit—then disbanded the company after less than a year to pursue a closely watched race for Congress.

It’s not the typical resume of a blue-chip recruit for the House of Representatives. Indeed, she looks like a millennial in a hurry, spending minimal time working lots of interesting jobs. But Jacobs is suddenly one of the leading contenders to take on California’s Darrell Issa, one of the most vulnerable House Republicans in the country. The powerhouse Democratic women’s group EMILY’s List endorsed her candidacy last month, giving her nascent campaign a boost against three other intraparty opponents. Her family connections helped her bring in over a half-million dollars in the just-completed fundraising quarter, according to a campaign source, with some of that money coming from her own wealth.

Jacobs’s inexperience is giving some Democratic strategists jitters, worried that her limited professional accomplishments could cost the party a winnable seat if she emerges as the nominee. In addition, the prospect of several well-funded Democratic candidates feuding with each other in the run-up to the June primary could hurt their prospects in a general election. One of her campaign strategists told National Journal that EMILY’s List recruited Jacobs into the race—despite two other well-regarded candidates running—after trying and failing to encourage other women to enter the contest.

In an interview with National Journal, Jacobs said despite not getting paid by the Clinton campaign, her work was substantive and her title was always “policy adviser.” She said she didn’t ask for a salary because she felt so strongly in Clinton’s candidacy.

“If you look at the [Democratic] people I’m running against—I may be the youngest but I have the most policy experience,” Jacobs said. “Like many young people, I have many mentors across industries and I am very fortunate they’re willing to put in a good word for me for jobs I want to get.”

The Democratic primary against Issa provides a cautionary tale for Democrats facing a very promising environment heading into this year’s midterms. They have so many candidates running—including many outsiders with minimal experience in elective politics—that they haven’t fully vetted all of their records. Party officials are so confident in certain Republican members’ vulnerabilities they they’ve adopted a laissez-faire approach to the nomination process, letting all of their candidates prove their staying power in competitive primaries without putting a finger on the scale.

Jacobs isn’t the only Democratic candidate in the race facing baggage that Republicans could exploit. Military veteran Douglas Applegate, who ran against Issa in 2016, was accused of threatening and harassing his ex-wife during divorce proceedings. At a time when Democrats are counting on backlash against sexual misconduct to play in their favor, Applegate’s messy personal history would be an inconvenient reminder that the issue isn’t a partisan one. The Democratic field also includes two other credible candidates: Mike Levin, an attorney specializing in environmental issues; and Paul Kerr, a real estate appraiser.

One Democratic operative involved in the Issa race expressed confidence about the field, pointing to a partisan poll showing the congressman down double-digits to a generic opponent. (Applegate nearly defeated him in 2016, coming within 1,621 votes.) Another Democratic operative, working to assist Jacobs’s campaign, called her a “young, fresh new voice” when pressed about her lack of professional experience.

To be sure, in a wave election, it doesn’t take much to defeat vulnerable incumbents. (paging now-retiring congressman Blake Farenthold) At the same time, Democrats nominating unprepared or ideologically extreme challengers could be the only way some embattled GOP members survive. Republican officials haven’t ruled out engaging in competitive Democratic primaries to help ensure weaker challengers emerge from crowded races.

Last year’s special congressional election in suburban Atlanta should provide a cautionary lesson for giddy House Democrats. Republicans lampooned Jon Ossoff, the Democratic nominee, for inflating his resume and lacking the qualifications to be a member of Congress. Despite raising gobs of money, he ultimately couldn’t benefit from the historically friendly Democratic environment. The list of House battlegrounds closely resembles that suburban Atlanta district—well-educated, trending in the Democrats’ direction, but traditionally Republican. The voters in these swing districts are able to sniff out a phony.

The challenge of sorting out blue-chip recruits from not-ready-for-prime-time players is being replicated in Democratic primaries across the country. In the Northern Virginia seat held by GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock, Democratic officials rallied behind state senator Jennifer Wexton, who had shown the ability to win over swing voters in her state legislative campaigns. But a slew of outsider candidates—including an anti-human-trafficking activist, a business consultant, and an Army veteran—have raised impressive amounts of money, making the primary unpredictable. In a competitive Kentucky race, a female fighter pilot with a made-for-television biography is facing the harsh reality that some Democratic leaders prefer a popular local mayor with more elective experience.

In 2006, the last time Democrats regained control of Congress, Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel famously played kingmaker in numerous Democratic primaries. They threatened uncooperative candidates, sweet-talked inexperienced ones into running for lower offices, and paid close attention to whether the recruits matched the disposition of the districts they ran in.

Democrats don’t need to be quite so heavy-handed in 2018. But if they overlook some glaring flaws for candidates running in some of their most important races, they could find themselves disappointed that the much-anticipated tidal wave didn’t materialize.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Sara Jacobs’s role with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She was an unpaid policy adviser.

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