House Democratic leaders signaled Tuesday they have no plans to roll back a new policy aimed at protecting incumbents from a potential primary challenge despite the left panning the policy as a consultant “blacklist.”
The message has been delivered in public and in private about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s prohibition on vendors working with candidates who challenge sitting lawmakers.
“I’m for winning the House for the Democrats,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a brief interview with The Washington Post when asked about changing the policy. “ . . . My focus is strictly on winning the election and to putting our resources where it will win the election for the American people.”
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who oversaw the change as the committee chairwoman, was even more blunt in a private meeting last week, telling several leaders of the caucus’s liberal bloc, “We’re not changing it.”
The defiance comes amid a direct challenge from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who told her 3.8 million Twitter followers Saturday — a day before a key end-of-quarter fundraising deadline — to “pause your donations” to the DCCC in protest and instead donate directly to select Democratic incumbents.
Three days later, the results of the informal boycott remain unclear. A DCCC official not authorized to publicly discuss the committee’s fundraising said the group had not seen “measurable downticks” in giving because of the tweets. Meanwhile, two lawmakers promoted by Ocasio-Cortez said they each saw a more than $30,000 boost from the online call-out — a significant but not game-changing total.
But the tensions among Democrats are certain to persist. “Well, some are upset, some are not,” said Pelosi, who was briefed on the policy and approved it before the rollout last month.
According to interviews with nearly a dozen Democrats, the policy will probably stand as praise from House incumbents who want more protection has drowned out the criticism from a handful of liberal lawmakers and left-wing groups.
“Attempting to engage in intraparty campaigns is counterproductive — period,” said Rep. Jim Costa, a California moderate who called Ocasio-Cortez’s boycott inappropriate.
“I just raised about 330-something thousand dollars for the DCCC, so why are we going to reward companies that are going to be going after folks that have paid their dues?” asked Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), a moderate who represents a largely Latino border district. “I totally support Cheri Bustos.”
That support runs especially deep in the Congressional Black Caucus — a powerful bloc of more than 50 lawmakers. Last November, as Bustos campaigned internally to lead the DCCC, she faced pointed questions from that group.
Several had just faced unusually difficult primaries from more liberal challengers. And while none had suffered the fate of Rep. Joseph Crowley, who lost to Ocasio-Cortez, they wanted to know: What would Bustos — who campaigned on her ability to win her own rural swing district — do going forward to protect House incumbents in safe seats?
Bustos pledged to pay heed, according to three Democrats familiar with the interaction. Late last month, she made good on her promise: Political consultants hoping to join the DCCC’s list of most-favored vendors were told for the first time on March 22 that the group “will not conduct business with, nor recommend to any of its targeted campaigns,” any consultant working for a candidate challenging an incumbent.
The backlash from the party’s left was immediate. Justice Democrats, a group with close ties to Ocasio-Cortez that has targeted incumbents, told its social media followers that the DCCC “prefers protecting conservative Democrats . . . over ushering in a new generation of bold progressive leaders.”
The need to protect the House majority, the critics argued, was not being threatened by challenging incumbents in deep-blue districts where Republicans had virtually no chance of victory.
But the new policy was written largely to respond to those very lawmakers, who have complained for years about how they are expected to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in party dues but, because they are rarely in a competitive general election contest, are unlikely to see any DCCC investment in their races. It’s a particularly sore subject for many minority lawmakers, who argue it is more difficult to raise those dues in their relatively poor districts. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a DCCC finance co-chairman, said the hard feelings were understandable. “It’s really hard to go say . . . ‘Please pay your $150,000 dues or your $300,000 dues, and we may use it to hire vendors who are going to run against you in a primary,’” he said. “That’s an impossible ask to make.”
That tension has been exacerbated by a push on the left to unseat a handful of veteran Democrats in safe districts. Two incumbent Democrats lost last year to more-liberal challengers — Crowley and Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) — and several others faced unusually potent challenges, including Reps. Yvette D. Clarke (N.Y.), William Lacy Clay (Mo.) and Daniel Lipinski (Ill.). Outside groups that backed those challengers, such as the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, are pledging to do the same in 2020.
According to multiple Democrats, the DCCC’s traditional role of standing on the sidelines during primaries has been a sore subject since at least 2014 — when Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) faced a challenger advised by a top Democratic pollster, Celinda Lake, who was simultaneously doing work for the DCCC.
Clay, who beat challenger Cori Bush last year by 20 percentage points, praised Bustos for the new policy in an interview, calling it a matter of “fairness.”
“This is about us working as a team,” he said, while also issuing a threat: “To me, there are people on part of Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, who are trying to devastate this party. . . . And they want to come back again this year? That’s fine. I’m gonna kick their [posterior] again, okay?”
The tensions over the new policy broke into the open last week after Bustos met privately with three members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — co-chairs Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), as well as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a liberal firebrand who beat veteran Democrat Mike Honda in 2016.
In the meeting, the liberals argued that Bustos’s new policy risked alienating the party’s energetic left and excluding potential Democratic stars, pointing to former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) as well as Reps. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Seth Moulton (Mass) — all of whom beat veteran incumbents.
Bustos listened and clarified misconceptions about the policy, but didn’t budge, according to two people familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the talks. Khanna left furious and immediately began publicizing his opposition to reporters, as liberal outside groups including Democracy for America and Our Revolution waded into the fight, sending letters to their supporters calling them to protest the policy.
Jayapal and Pocan, meanwhile, are hewing to a less confrontational approach. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has yet to take an official position on the DCCC policy, and many of its roughly 90 members are wary of promoting any boycott.
“We don’t want to blow up the caucus around this,” Jayapal said Monday. “We want to come to a resolution.”
Khanna, for one, said Tuesday he did not condone Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a “pause” in donations: “I’ve been supporting the DCCC since 2005, and I plan to continue to do so, but where I disagree on policy, I will strongly point that out,” he said.
Privately, the liberal lawmakers opposing the policy are discussing some sort of compromise they could offer Bustos. Some liberals have also contacted Democratic presidential candidates to try to get them involved in the internal dispute, hoping outside pressure could move the conversation in their direction. O’Rourke would be nowhere, they argue, if the DCCC had hindered his challenge of incumbent Rep. Silvestre Reyes in a 2012 primary.
Bustos and her allies have been seeking to tamp down concerns about the policy by pairing it with a new set of minority hiring standards and pointing out that it is not technically a “blacklist” — vendors are still free to work for primary challengers but would forgo an official DCCC endorsement.
“This transparent policy follows through on that exact promise and will protect all members of the Democratic caucus — regardless of where they fall within our big tent,” said DCCC spokesman Cole Leiter.
In one sign that liberals might find limited traction in seeking all-out war against the party, two of the freshman Democrats who won backing from Ocasio-Cortez in her weekend tweets shied away from taking sides in the controversy.
California Reps. Katie Hill and Mike Levin both said Monday they were deeply grateful to Ocasio-Cortez and the thousands of her supporters who donated to their campaigns ahead of the Sunday quarterly deadline. But both, elected last year in races in which the DCCC invested heavily, said they would not urge donors to boycott the group.
“I understand both sides of it,” Levin said. “The DCCC has a charge to protect incumbents so, you know, I think it’s ultimately a difficult issue. Not going to be easily resolved.”