DCCC Chair Race Could Be Evergreen State Battle

Denny Heck and Suzan DelBene are exploring bids to run the House Democrats' campaign arm next cycle.

Rep. Suzan DelBene speaks to supporters Aug. 7 during a gathering on the night of Washington state's primary election in Redmond, Wash.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Oct. 11, 2018, 6:13 p.m.

The race to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee next cycle could come down to two members of the Washington state delegation.

Reps. Denny Heck and Suzan DelBene have expressed interest to colleagues and party leadership about running for the chair position, which, depending on the party's midterm showing, could entail protecting the majority and its swath of moderate freshmen in red-leaning districts.

This is the second election for the position since the caucus changed the selection process in late 2016 and the first time that it’s an open-seat contest. Current DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján is not expected to seek a third term.

Incoming members will be eligible to participate in the December leadership election, before they’re sworn in the following month. Heck’s two terms chairing the DCCC's recruitment efforts give him an advantage, having drafted or mentored many of the candidates that are well-positioned to win next month, such as Susie Lee in Nevada, Abby Finkenauer in Iowa, and Haley Stevens in Michigan.

Heck also cochairs Red to Blue, the DCCC program that provides additional assistance to the most-promising campaigns.

His pitch to current and prospective members will be that after six years at the committee, he needs little on-the-job training, begins with in-depth knowledge of the district dynamics, and has relationships with DCCC staff and vulnerable members in their first terms.

“Along with Ben Ray Luján, the current chair, Denny probably has the best pulse on these close races across the country,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, a Heck supporter. “That’s helpful because we want to make sure we have a person in there who has a good sense of where we’re strong and where we need to improve.”

While his recruitment work is done for the cycle, Heck has been on the campaign trail in Iowa and California and has planned visits this month to Colorado, Kansas, New York, Minnesota, and Nevada. He's given more than $180,000 to Red to Blue candidates so far.

DelBene has proven fundraising prowess. She brought in $3.3 million this cycle for the DCCC as the committee’s finance cochair and has also contributed $100,000 to Red-to-Blue candidates. A former Microsoft executive, she is personally wealthy and gave herself $2.8 million in her successful 2012 bid.

The congresswoman has received encouragement from members of the caucus to pursue the position and will make a final decision after the midterms, a DelBene spokesman said. And at a time when Democrats are eager to make leadership more representative, she would be the first female DCCC chair since Rep. Nita Lowey of New York led campaign efforts in the 2002 cycle.

Her northwestern Washington district stretches from the Seattle suburbs to the Canadian border and includes urban and rural areas, a tech sector, dairy farms, and timber towns. One of her selling points will be that that kind of diversity helps her identify with candidates and members across the country.

DelBene and Heck, who represents a district based in Olympia and the Tacoma suburbs, are in their third terms and are members of the New Democrat Coalition, which advocates for moderate, pro-business policies.

“They’re both good people,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who is running for assistant Democratic leader. “They’ll probably have different strategies as to what their pitch will be to the caucus and we’ll just have to make a decision as to what we think makes the most sense.”

The chair previously was chosen by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, but she acquiesced to a more democratic selection process requested by younger members who were upset with the party's meager showing in 2016.

In December of that year, Luján ran unopposed for a second term, largely evading blame from colleagues who felt that the rank-and-file had too little say in the campaign committee’s operation. This cycle, members and aides have praised Luján’s inclusiveness as chairman, citing his efforts to increase involvement from state delegations in recruitment and strategy.

Heck and DelBene are the two Democrats most actively pursuing the chairmanship, senior Democratic aides said. Several other members floated as potential candidates are seeking chairmanships or spots on influential committees.

Reps. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California, for instance, have declared bids for other leadership spots, but it's possible they could be pushed to helm the DCCC depending on how races for their preferred positions shake out.

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