For nearly a decade, Republicans have faced an agonizing dilemma in congressional campaigns: If the party establishment got involved to endorse the strongest, most electable candidate in a primary, the base decided to go in the other direction. Between 2010 and 2014, Republicans coughed up at least five Senate seats—and a handful of House races—simply by nominating too-extreme candidates who didn’t match their states or districts. The impotence of the GOP establishment led, in part, to Donald Trump stunningly winning the presidential nomination in 2016.
When they held power, Democrats mostly avoided these messy skirmishes despite very real disagreements between the party’s pragmatists and progressives. And this year, the once-alarming prospect of primary showdowns between candidates who backed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders hasn’t fully materialized. But pay close attention and there’s an unmistakable tension brewing between strategists and activists—one that threatens their chances of winning back the House.
As a record number of Democratic contenders for the House jumped into congressional campaigns last year, the party’s campaign officials consciously decided they didn’t want to intervene on behalf of any favored candidate. Part of this was because many of these candidates were political outsiders and needed to prove themselves on the campaign trail first. Many of these primaries featured multiple candidates with lots of potential. Most significantly, Democrats were concerned they could face the same threat from the base that Republican officials experienced—that being seen as the Washington-endorsed candidate would be a kiss of death.
But as the nation’s first primaries begin in two weeks, Democrats are recognizing they have some serious problems in critical races with little time to spare. In Texas, an outspoken progressive journalist with a paper trail of impolitic remarks is within striking distance of winning her party’s nomination against more-mainstream candidates next month. In one California race, Democrats are at serious risk of squandering one of their most winnable House seats because too many candidates are running, splitting up the Democratic vote in an all-party primary. The unique primary system in California is also raising the outside prospect of Democrats getting shut out of the general election in other key races.
Furthermore, growing activism from the progressive base on the hot-button cultural issues of guns and immigration remain a small risk as crowded primary campaigns get underway. One of the party’s strongest recruits, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey, was harangued by gun-control activists for having accepted money from the National Rifle Association in the past. With that standard becoming a liberal litmus test in the post-Parkland political environment, other Democratic candidates in more conservative parts of the country could feel the heat.
Immigration has temporarily faded from the spotlight, but Democrats could seek to distinguish themselves by veering leftward on supporting sanctuary cities or opposing border-security measures. With many battleground House races taking place in the GOP-leaning suburbs, that’s a risky place for a nominee to be.
The Texas primaries, taking place on March 6, offer the starkest example of the growing tensions Democrats face. Laura Moser, an early anti-Trump activist, is one of the party’s leading fundraisers in the race and currently holds a credible chance of winning the nomination to take on Rep. John Culberson, according to Democratic officials familiar with the race. But the Democrats’ House campaign arm worries she’s virtually unelectable in the GOP-leaning seat because of a past article she wrote saying she’d “sooner have [her] teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than move to rural Texas.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also circulated a memo alleging that a sizable chunk of money from Moser’s campaign has been paid to her husband’s consulting firm. (He’s a former Obama administration official who is now a partner at the progressive ad firm Revolution Messaging.) “Laura Moser’s outright disgust for life in Texas disqualifies her as a general election candidate,” DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly said. It’s the first public shot at a fellow Democratic candidate so far this election cycle, but the committee isn’t ruling out further intraparty engagement.
The DCCC believes that a late, aggressive hit against Moser is the most effective way to disqualify her from the nomination. With justification, it believes that attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis are much better fits for the district, which is filled with Houston’s business and professional elite. In Texas, the top two primary finishers will square off in a May 22 runoff (assuming none of the eight candidates wins an outright majority). Party leaders acknowledge that a one-on-one primary would play to Moser’s advantage—and they want to avoid that prospect.
But the backlash to the gambit has been fierce, and it goes beyond the reliably antiestablishment progressive suspects. NARAL President Ilyse Hogue wrote on Twitter: “Disappointed and dismayed to see anyone going after a genuine progressive and pro-choice committed leader like Laura.” Former Obama administration official and Pod Save America cohost Tommy Vietor wrote: “The DCCC should apologize for this bullshit.” There’s a real risk that the transparent hit on Moser will only make her more popular with primary voters.
There were other tactics the party could have employed to avoid this last-minute gambit. The DCCC could have endorsed one of the other candidates early on, as many other outside groups have done. They could have quietly leaked the damaging revelations earlier to test whether the anti-Moser messaging would make a difference. They could have commissioned polling providing proof that Moser’s chances were weaker against Culberson. But the hard truth is that anything that came from Washington—as their GOP counterparts learned before—would likely have backfired, and risked making her more popular with the base.
The other emerging intraparty showdown is taking place in California, in the seat of retiring Rep. Darrell Issa. The Southern California district is a prime Democratic pickup opportunity, but the race is now complicated by the fact that five candidates are splitting the Democratic vote in the district, giving both GOP contenders a chance to emerge as the nominees for the general election.
A district-wide poll conducted by the Democratic firm FM3 Research gives Democrats reason to be concerned. After presenting both positive and negative information about all the candidates, it found both Republicans (Rocky Chavez and Diane Harkey) leading with 18 percent of the vote, with Democratic candidate Doug Applegate narrowly behind at 17 percent. If those results held in the June primary, Republicans would automatically hold the seat—even though the poll showed Democrats holding a 7-point edge on the generic ballot in the district.
Adding to the party’s anxiety is the fact that the third-place Democratic candidate, former Clinton campaign staffer Sara Jacobs, has substantial personal wealth that she could use against her front-running Democratic opponents. In the poll, she won only 8 percent of the vote, but her deep financial resources could splinter the Democratic field further.
Democrats are well aware that they will probably need to intervene in crowded primaries like these to avoid a nightmare scenario of losing a House race in June. But there’s also not enough urgency yet to make a move—and the backlash that the DCCC is now receiving in Texas will make it harder to be aggressive. The leading Democrats in the race all see viable paths to the general election, where they’d have strong odds to become members of Congress.
Top Democratic strategists say their best-case scenario in this race is that one of the candidates struggles on the campaign trail and voluntarily decides to step aside. Jacobs, whose professional inexperience concerns many Democratic officials, was forced to apologize this week after appearing to dismiss Democratic opponent Applegate as a “crusty old Marine” in a Cosmopolitan interview. The remark was a self-inflicted blunder, especially since the San Diego-area district is home to a Marine training base, Camp Pendleton.
These deepening Democratic divisions underscore how difficult it will be to harness all the anti-Trump energy into pragmatic decision-making in primaries. Priorities USA, the powerhouse party super PAC, warned in a memo last week that Democrats should “not allow themselves to be sidetracked and distracted by Trump’s latest tweets” in favor of a focused economic message geared for the middle class. That would require a degree of discipline that party activists haven’t yet shown.
Democratic primary voters aren’t looking for electability; most want to be part of the #Resistance. If enthusiasm alone is enough to generate a sizable Democratic wave, it may not matter how qualified their congressional candidates are. But if there are enough suburban, independent voters up for grabs, Democrats could squander winnable seats by nominating some not-ready-for-prime-time players.