House Democrats Move to Hobble Primary Challengers

The party’s congressional campaign arm rolled out new hiring standards to deter firms from working with candidates who run against incumbents.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (right) makes a statement at a House Oversight and Reform Committee, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez listens, on Feb. 26.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
March 22, 2019, 10:56 a.m.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is making an early move to deter primary challenges against sitting incumbents in the caucus with a new policy aimed in part at protecting the new majority.

The campaign arm on Friday sent out a list of hiring standards to more than 100 political firms, including one provision that made clear it will neither contract with nor recommend to House candidates any political vendors that work to oust sitting members of Congress. That offers key protection to the caucus’s moderate members in battleground seats, where House control will be won or lost.

It is intended to help stymie attempts by insurgent progressive groups who plan to primary incumbents deemed insufficiently liberal on key issues, but also to shield members of the party's ascendant liberal wing who represent safe Democratic territory and could face intraparty challenges of their own.

"The core mission of the DCCC is electing House Democrats, which includes supporting and protecting incumbents,” the committee wrote in a memo.

The new protocol, intentionally debuted early in the off-year before most campaign hiring begins, presents a stark financial deterrent to the country’s top firms that provide essential services ranging from polling to TV advertising to strategy. It could cripple would-be primary opponents’ ability to entice top talent to join their staff. The DCCC independent-expenditure arm doles out millions in contracts to consultants and drives more revenue toward them by connecting campaigns with vetted operatives.

“The DCCC is oftentimes the gatekeeper for consultants to get to candidates,” said Ian Russell, a campaign media strategist and former top official at the committee. “Unless you have a steady stream of income coming from another source, it would be very difficult to navigate the House world if you were shut out by the DCCC.”

Democrats involved in crafting the standards intend for them to bolster members across the ideological spectrum, from the fiscally conservative Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas to the progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota—both of whom could be subject to contested primaries.

Still, the largest implications will be for protecting a House majority made of dozens of centrist members in Trump-friendly districts.

Regardless, the change is likely to spark backlash from the constellation of liberal groups that are plotting against incumbents. Their central argument is that primary challenges are healthy for the party and bring in crucial perspectives, particularly from young women of color.

"The DCCC can do anything it wants to try to prevent the next generation of Democrats from taking power. They will not succeed," said Sean McElwee, cofounder of Data for Progress, which is helping recruit primary challengers.

McElwee said his group would help those opponents find firms with which to work: "There are plenty."

The midterms demonstrated that not all campaigns needed large-scale operations to be successful. Now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted then-House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley on a relatively bare-bones campaign budget in a low-turnout, David-and-Goliath race.

The DCCC's practice is not without precedent. In the 2014 midterms, the House and Senate Republican campaign arms blacklisted Jamestown Associates after it worked to target Republican incumbents.

In practice, some prominent Democratic firms already have an internal policy not to work against incumbents, consultants said.

But other political outfits haven't shied away from it. They could not do so again without penalty.

Former Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts lost a primary bid for his eleventh term to now-Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who hired both AKPD Message & Media, which was founded by consultants who worked for Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns, and Anzalone Liszt Grove, a top-tier Democratic polling outfit.

And in suburban Chicago, Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Democrat who opposes abortion rights, nearly lost to Marie Newman, a progressive challenger who worked with Mothership Strategies, a firm also used by DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos.

The standards are largely preemptive and will not retroactively apply to firms that worked with primary challengers in past cycles.

Newman, who is exploring a 2020 rematch, received help from abortion-rights groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America. Individual firms that work for an outside group on a campaign against an incumbent would not be penalized, a DCCC official said.

Both Newman and Pressley challenged members in safe Democratic districts that would not threaten their party's majority. So far, liberal groups such as the Justice Democrats and Data for Progress have largely trained their efforts on incumbents in Democratic territory, like Cuellar and Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts.

This policy could stifle similar attempts in competitive districts, though it may not deter those who are already prepared to wage underdog campaigns. At least one swing-seat Democrat will face such a primary opponent.

Eva Putzova, a former Flagstaff city councilwoman who waged a successful effort there to raise the minimum wage, plans to run to the left of Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a Republican-turned-Democrat who holds a sprawling rural Arizona district that Donald Trump carried in 2016.

Putzova is in talks with progressive organizations, including Democracy for America and Brand New Congress, and said she’s not concerned that establishment groups sometimes ignore her attempts to reach out. Putzova said she's hired a Phoenix-based firm to help with fundraising.

“I’m choosing partners who we are on the same page with politically,” Putzova said in an interview this week. “We don’t have to rely on the Democratic Party usuals.”

Also included in the DCCC hiring standards is an effort to increase opportunities for groups underrepresented among the consultant class.

In most cases, the committee will contract only with businesses that meet at least one of five key diversity standards. Among them, it asks potential vendors to report if their firm is at least partially owned by someone who identifies as LGBT, a woman, a minority, a veteran, or a person with disabilities. Other prioritized attributes: if 50 percent of senior staff positions or 60 percent of total staff positions are filled with people in those categories.

DCCC Executive Director Allison Jaslow said in a statement to National Journal that while the committee's top responsibility is to retain and grow the majority, it also has "the ability to set the course" for the party's future.

"Our voters are diverse; we are actively recruiting candidates to ensure their elected officials better reflect them, and we have a responsibility to do our best to ensure the political professionals we work with do so as well," Jaslow said.

Some in the party have long called for greater representation of minorities and women among consultants, arguing that they offer perspectives crucial to campaigns—particularly after the experience of 2018, when women candidates and voters drove Democrats' success.

“It’s very different when you yourself have not had to go on maternity leave or face any of the challenges that are unique to women," said Molly Murphy, a partner at Anzalone Liszt Grove. "When you have people at the table who have actually lived that, you are just able to relate to voters a little bit better.”

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