Against the Grain

Meet the Democratic Deadweights

The easiest way for House Democrats to squander their significant advantage is by nominating weak candidates. There are quite a few who fit the bill—and could cost Democrats winnable races.

California Democratic congressional candidate Andy Thorburn
Andy Thorburn for Congress
May 6, 2018, 6 a.m.

At this point, the primary obstacle to a Democratic House takeover is the Democratic Party itself. With the historic number of GOP retirements, an energized progressive base, and a dispirited and divided Republican Party, the math is looking awfully good for Nancy Pelosi to hit the magic number to win back a majority.

For Democrats, the only thing to fear is some of their own candidates. In numerous races across the country, the party is having its own version of a tea-party tantrum, insisting on purity tests for candidates in GOP-leaning districts where outspoken liberalism is a liability. If certain out-of-the-mainstream candidates prevail, the party’s chances of picking up very winnable House seats would take an immediate hit.

This combined with the struggles party leaders are facing in navigating a unique primary system in California—where too many Democratic candidates on the primary ballot could lock a Democrat out of the November election—the party could end up squandering numerous opportunities because of its own internal divisions.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has found it awfully tricky to navigate these complicated primaries. In some races, they’ve tried privately to dissuade certain candidates from running—without much success. In others, they’ve endorsed their preferred candidate, often inviting a nasty backlash from the opposition. And in others, they’ve stayed out entirely, even when stronger candidates could use some extra support.

Here’s a scorecard of the candidates who pose the biggest threat to the Democrats’ chances of winning pivotal House seats:

1. Pastor Greg Edwards (Pa.-07, seat of retiring GOP Rep. Charlie Dent)

The DCCC was so concerned about Edwards’s candidacy that it tried to persuade him to run for a lower-level office instead. But he’s all in for the congressional contest, and has banked more money than his two leading primary rivals.

The reason Democrats are so squeamish about his candidacy is his penchant to cast his campaign in a revolutionary manner. Upon kicking off his campaign, he proclaimed: “This moment does not call for moderation or incrementalism, but for revolutionary ideals rooted in true progress.” He was arrested on Capitol Hill for protesting the GOP’s tax bill, calling it “the most devastating piece of legislation that this nation has ever produced.” He’s an outspoken advocate for a single-payer health care system. It’s this type of overheated rhetoric that’s bound to make it tough to win swing voters—in a newly drawn Lehigh Valley district that backed Hillary Clinton by only 1 point.

But despite his electability issues, Edwards is a hit with progressives. And in the primary, he’s also facing a rare Democrat—district attorney John Morganelli—with a history of praising Donald Trump. His other top opponent is EMILY’s List-endorsed former Allentown Solicitor Susan Wild. It’s easy to see the candidate with the most passionate supporters prevailing in a crowded contest, with no one’s campaign standing out. If Edwards wins, he’ll hand the GOP nominee a mother lode of oppo to use against him in this blue-collar district.

2. Businessman Andy Thorburn (Calif.-39, seat of retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce)

This primary has quickly become one of the nastiest Democratic skirmishes after the DCCC endorsed military veteran and famed lottery winner Gil Cisneros. The race has turned ugly in recent weeks, with Thorburn’s campaign claiming Cisneros left a threatening voicemail and a Thorburn ally accusing Cisneros of sexual harassment (both charges that Cisneros vehemently denies).

National Democratic officials privately believe Thorburn is unelectable, even in a district that backed Clinton by 8 points. His pitch for socialized health care to launch the campaign was always going to be a tough sell in a swing district. Cisneros has already been attacking him for his business record, accusing him of tax evasion and holding secretive offshore accounts—vulnerabilities that Democrats view as particularly glaring for a self-proclaimed progressive. Now, they’re alarmed at Thorburn’s scorched-earth tactics being used against Cisneros, worrying that the infighting could prevent either Democrat from moving into the general election.

3. Progressive journalist Laura Moser (Texas-07, seat of Rep. John Culberson)

The DCCC drew widespread scorn for intervening in the crowded March primary against writer Laura Moser. They rightly viewed Moser’s paper trail of acidic progressive commentary as an impossible sell in a historically Republican district around Houston. But they got gun-shy after progressive activists and Obama administration alums slammed them for attacking a liberal-in-good-standing. Attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, the more electable candidate, finished first in the primary but the controversy allowed Moser to claim momentum, allowing her to nearly close the vote deficit on Election Day (4,308 to 4,263 votes).

Democrats are cautiously optimistic that Fletcher has reestablished herself as the favorite for the party nod since the controversy died down. But they’re just as nervous that Moser’s nomination would automatically hand Republicans a House seat. The DCCC notably declined to endorse Fletcher in the runoff despite its misgivings about Moser—a clear sign that party officials don’t want to reawaken the progressive hornets’ nest.

4. Philanthropist Scott Wallace (Pa.-01, seat of GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick)

Wallace, the grandson of vice president and Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, is the type of candidate whom Republicans love to stereotype. A philanthropist who spends his wealth on behalf of environmental causes, Wallace spent much of the last decade living in an exclusive community in South Africa running his family foundation. He hadn’t lived in the district in decades, moving back only after entering the race. As The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman put it, Wallace’s “ties to exclusive South African country clubs and elite circles is ready-made for GOP attack ads geared towards Bucks County’s parochial, blue-collar electorate.”

Even more damaging, he openly writes about supporting tax hikes — calling himself a “patriotic millionaire” for doing so — but hasn’t always paid his own taxes on time. While in South Africa, he was slapped with a $68,844 lien by Montgomery County for not paying taxes on his Maryland residence. (A Wallace campaign official said: “The Wallaces were notified of the tax bill via mail sent to their home in the US while they were abroad in South Africa doing the work of their foundation. Their mail wasn’t forwarded. It wasn’t until they returned to the US five months later that they become aware of the lien, which they immediately paid and the state waived all penalties and interest.”)

One Democratic strategist said that despite his legitimate defense, the failure to pay his taxes on time will be a serious vulnerability in a general election: “They’ll run an ad saying he wants to raise your taxes but didn’t pay his own.” Indeed, in affluent swing suburbs like this one, a surefire way to lose a winnable race is to be seen as a hypocritical tax-and-spend liberal.

Democrats recruited Wallace into the race largely because of his ability to self-finance an expensive campaign in the Philadelphia suburbs. But his primary rival, 32-year-old Navy veteran Rachel Reddick, offers a much more compelling résumé even if she doesn’t have massive personal wealth. A former registered Republican, she served as a JAG corps lawyer working with survivors of domestic abuse before moving home. But she’s the underdog in the primary because she can’t keep up with Wallace’s aggressive spending.

Overconfident Democrats argue it doesn’t really matter who the nominee is because Trump is deeply unpopular in the district—one that Clinton narrowly carried. Perhaps. But Wallace is certainly the type of candidate who risks giving the seat away against a battle-tested GOP congressman.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story reported that Moser finished with more votes than Fletcher on Election Day. Fletcher led by 45 votes in the primary, among ballots cast on Election Day.

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