The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic group faces backlash after intervening in crowded House primaries

Pennsylvania Democratic congressional candidate Greg Edwards. (Edwards campaign)

A black Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania is accusing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee of undermining his campaign and trying to nudge him out of the race in favor of white candidates.

A Republican super PAC’s poll in Texas has found a Democrat surging after the DCCC published opposition research about her campaign.

Across the country, tensions are boiling over between party activists and the Washington-based committees that usually shape midterm campaigns — with insurgent candidates seeing advantages in attacking the so-called “establishment,” and anticipating little harm when the party comes after them.

In Texas, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), found Houston-area congressional candidate Laura Moser moving up after the DCCC published a short, sharp opposition research document on her last week. According to the poll, conducted with 726 “likely Democratic primary voters,” Moser has moved from sixth to second place since January, which would secure her a place in the May runoff — exactly what the DCCC had tried to prevent. Lizzie Fletcher, an attorney endorsed by EMILY’s List, led the field by a wide margin.

The drama in Pennsylvania is centered on Greg Edwards, a pastor running for a newly drawn swing seat in the Lehigh Valley. On Thursday, he told The Washington Post that the DCCC had approached local Democrats to ask whether he could be persuaded to seek another office.

“As far as I know, they only targeted one candidate to leave this race — the most progressive candidate, the only candidate of color,” Edwards said. “Their inability to understand why that’s fundamentally wrong says everything.”

The DCCC pushed back on Edwards’s claims, saying that the unique situation in Pennsylvania, where a court struck down a gerrymandered map and created 18 new districts just weeks before party primaries, prompted them to ask several candidates if they might run instead for offices further down the ballot.

Tim Persico, a DCCC operative, had indeed asked local Democrats if Edwards, or ex-Allentown solicitor Susan Wild, might leave the crowded primary to run for state Senate in a district where Hillary Clinton had run strongly but the party had struggled to recruit solid candidates. After Edwards learned of the meeting, Persico returned to Allentown and met with Edwards for 30 minutes.

“Pennsylvania’s congressional maps were just completely redrawn, and it’s very typical for candidates to recalculate their campaign plans as a result,” DCCC Communications Director Meredith Kelly said. “As a Pennsylvania native, Tim knows the importance of local politics in the state and went to Allentown for an early, on-the-ground assessment of the political landscape in this newly drawn district, particularly regarding the multiple Democratic candidates’ next steps. This is completely normal. He did not, however, ask anyone to drop out of the congressional race.”

David Marshall, who runs the Pennsylvania Democrats’ state Senate campaign committee, said that Persico had only asked him “if we’d be interested in any of these folks” if they dropped into down-ballot races.

“I said that if a candidate was rolling in with a few hundred thousand dollars, that would be a great, strong start,” said Marshall. “This week, I asked: ‘Is there any movement?’ And he said they took umbrage and felt like they were being pushed out of the race.”

The Edwards mess is the latest example of static between some Democratic candidates and the DCCC, which went into overdrive last week after the committee published the Moser memo. It was an unusual move, one that the party defended, but one that crystallized how the Democrats’ major institutions are mistrusted by its liberal base.

Since then, an organization that was rattled by hacks and leaks during the 2016 election is facing a new problem — Democratic candidates revealing emails and conversations with the committee, in full view of a critical public.

“It’s a shame that the DCCC and the wealthy white donors and revolving door consultants that make up the Democratic Party establishment are actively trying to stop Greg [Edwards],” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, a group that has endorsed left-leaning candidates in a number of races, including some with incumbents, where party leaders prefer different candidates. “Their consultant-driven strategy seems to prefer milquetoast candidates who they believe can appeal to moderate Republicans over progressive candidates of color. This is what systemic racism looks like.”

In Moser’s case, the memo played into a message that the candidate had been hammering for weeks. The Intercept, which has been publishing a series of stories about activist clashes with the DCCC, highlighted Moser last week in a story about Emily’s List. The story investigated whether the group’s endorsement of a more conservative woman in the race “was made at the behest of a major donor.”

The DCCC’s oppo memo went online hours later, and Moser experienced a fundraising and PR boomlet, raising $90,000 in a matter of days and winning more progressive endorsements.

“I wouldn’t have done it,” Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said Friday, speaking to The Washington Post and USA Today as part of C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” series.

There was a larger ripple effect around the country. The day after the Moser story, a DCCC email from Oct. 2, 2017, the day after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, began circulating among progressives. In it, DCCC regional spokesman Evan Lukaske asked candidates in the Northeast not to “politicize” the shooting until more was known, advising that “any message today should be on offering thoughts/prayers for victims and their families.”

That email was published by HuffPost on Feb. 27 in a story that sparked outrage in liberal and left-wing media, and another round of criticism for the DCCC. On Wednesday, HuffPost obtained and published another Lukaske email from after last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., with similar advice.

The DCCC defended its spokesman. “A communications staffer who fails to provide immediate and thoughtful guidance after a national tragedy, based on the best available information at the time, is not doing his job,” Kelly said.

For some insurgent candidates, the DCCC had settled in as a target — a representative of the political establishment. In New Jersey, where the DCCC had welcomed state Sen. Jeff Van Drew to the race, a rival Democrat named Sean Thom published an open letter asking the party why it had embraced a candidate who deviated from his party on gun rights.

“We ask you to carefully review his votes and consider whether a candidate with such poor positions is qualified for the Democratic ticket,” Thom wrote.

In Texas, Republicans hope to use the DCCC’s intervention to boost Moser if she makes the runoff. Moser’s surge since January also coincided with most of her TV ads, so it’s unclear how much she gained from the DCCC memo specifically. But in a poll conducted by the Congressional Leadership Fund, the conservative super PAC, 61 percent of voters disapproved when told that “national Democratic Party in Washington is mobilizing to stop liberal candidate Laura Moser from winning the Democratic primary.”

“Despite the DCCC’s attacks, progressive champion Laura Moser is surging, proving that their party is run by progressive liberals, not the D.C. Democrats intent on making their candidates Republican-lite,” said Corry Bliss, a veteran GOP operative. “As a public service, we’re releasing this poll so the DCCC might save the money they had planned to spend attacking progressive champion Laura Moser.”

And in Pennsylvania, when told that the party was defending its conversations about whether he could switch between races, Edwards said that neither he nor voters wanted the party to call the shots.

“I’d just say that the DCCC got caught red-handed, and admitted as much to us,” said Edwards.

James Hohmann contributed reporting.