HOUSTON — The congressional primary season kicks off Tuesday with the Democratic Party facing an unexpected question: Do they have too much of a good thing?
Emboldened by widespread anger with President Trump and wins in gubernatorial and Senate races last year, record numbers of Democrats are running for Congress. While this cascade of candidates reflects the high level of enthusiasm in the party out of power, it has deepened divisions, stoked fresh rivalries and prompted meddling by Democratic officials that has fueled controversy.
These uncomfortable developments have raised questions about the party’s preparedness for the next stage of the campaign. It has also put new hurdles between Democrats and a top goal in November: winning back the House majority.
“The good news is that energy is not a problem,” said former congressman Steve Israel of New York, who chaired the House Democratic campaign arm. “The bad news is you’re trying to manage the energy of a nuclear weapon — there’s so much of it.”
This election cycle, giddy Democrats watched candidates pile into races where they had once struggled to recruit anyone. Now comes the weeding-out process. And so far, it has been messy.
Nowhere has that been clearer than here in Texas’s 7th District, where Democrats believe they can knock off nine-term Republican Rep. John Abney Culberson. It’s the kind of moderate suburban area that party strategists argue their path to the majority will run through in November.
But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has branded liberal activist Laura Moser unelectable, prompting a backlash here that has consumed the final week of the contest.
Texas is just the first in a series of decisions that party officials will need to make about how, when or whether to play favorites.
In California, a surplus of candidates could make it easier for a Republican to win competitive seats under the state’s blanket primary, in which the two top finishers in the primary advance to the general, regardless of party affiliation.
At the doorstep of the nation’s capital is a crowded and potentially divisive primary in the district represented by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), a top Democratic target.
Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to win the House. Buoyed by a series of Republican retirements, Trump’s low approval rating and the historical struggles the president’s party experiences in his first midterm, 1,133 candidates had filed to run as Democrats for the House by the end of 2017.
Not all are seen by Democratic leaders as good or even passable contenders.
The drama here in the 7th District has turned “DCCC” into an epithet. The committee’s intervention against Moser was condemned by every candidate in the race, curdling the mood in what had been a feisty but positive primary.
On Saturday night, Moser stopped by a supporter’s living room to update backers on the race. She had more than 1,000 volunteers and had talked to voters who had never met a Democratic candidate in person.
Still, less than two weeks before the primary, the DCCC posted unflattering research about her on its website, accusing her of opportunism.
They pointed to an item she wrote in Washingtonian magazine in 2014 in which she wrote, “I’d sooner have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than live in Paris, Tex. They also highlighted other controversial comments and noted that she only recently moved to Texas.
“That was a pretty dumb idea,” Jason Westin, a cancer researcher who is running in the Democratic primary, said of the committee’s actions. “The way they did that offended a lot of people here in Houston. We’re Texans. We’re going to decide who represents us. We don’t need partisan hacks up in D.C. meddling in this race.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez distanced himself from the strategy last week, saying he would not have used it, in an interview with The Washington Post and USA Today on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”
“With everything I say or do, I’ve become a symbol of something, instead of a candidate running a local race on local issues — which I believe I am,” Moser said in an interview.
Moser has been running an online advertisement asking voters to reject “the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose.”
The DCCC has not picked a favorite candidate in the race. But the committee is not ruling out a more aggressive stance if the contest goes to a runoff should no candidate win a majority Tuesday. They are taking the same wait-and-see position throughout the country.
“As we’ve indicated all cycle, the DCCC is keeping all options on the table to work with our allies and ensure that there’s a competitive Democrat on the ballot for voters to elect in November,” said Meredith Kelly, the communications director for the DCCC.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the DCCC chairman, has said the party may get involved in key Democratic primaries in California. There are four Democrats running to replace retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R) in his San Diego-area district and eight Democrats running to replace retiring Rep. Edward R. Royce (R) east of Los Angeles.
A fifth candidate to replace Issa, Air Force veteran Christina Prejean, dropped out of the race Friday, citing her concern that the crowded field would benefit Republicans. “We are on the same team, and our mission is to flip the 49th [District],” she wrote in a tweet.
Unlike the DCCC intervention in Texas, which caused a sharp backlash against Washington strategists, there is broad agreement in the California Democratic Party, and among many progressive activists, that there may need to be a further filtering of candidates before the June 5 primary. The filing deadline is Friday for races with incumbents, March 14 for open seats.
In Virginia’s 10th District, where Comstock has attracted a packed Democratic primary field, the distance between the party’s base and Democratic power brokers could grow in the coming months.
“Look, there are a lot of local elected officials who have decided they’d like to see us take the same route we’ve taken before,” said Dan Helmer, an Army veteran and Rhodes Scholar who is running on a liberal platform and as a change-of-pace candidate.
In Texas’s three most competitive seats, 19 Democrats are running. Most of them will lose, while the rest will either win outright or, more likely, move on to 10-week runoff elections. Races in the Dallas-area 32nd District and the Rio Grande-area 23rd District have been crowded but rarely bitter.
Since the DCCC attacked Moser, several campaigns have leaked internal memos and emails to the media, undermining the committee. Candidates who were not on the DCCC’s radar have trumpeted their lack of “establishment” support.
Texas Democrats are enthusiastic, pushing past Republicans for the first time in the history of Texas early voting. Just 352,963 early votes were cast in Republican primaries, which include six open House races, while 406,302 votes were cast in Democratic primaries — nearly double their early vote total in 2014.
But there’s little consensus on how to direct that energy, whether toward centrists who won’t scare Republican voters or toward candidates who sound like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“I think they aided Moser by attacking her,” said Indy Chakrabarti, a 42-year-old software manager who attended the Westin meet-and-greet. “I’ve seen a groundswell of support for her in the last week.”
The 7th District, a crescent of suburbs heavy with immigrants and college-educated whites, became a Democratic target as soon as Trump won the presidency. In 2012, Barack Obama lost the district by 21.3 points; Hillary Clinton won it by 1.4 points.
Culberson, the nine-term incumbent, has remained on his party’s right flank as his district has moved to the center.
While Moser has been campaigning as a “resistance” leader, attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher has campaigned as a pragmatist.
“Our system isn’t designed to change overnight; it’s designed for incremental change,” Fletcher said in an interview at her campaign office. “We want to win, and I think everyone recognizes that if we aren’t unified in taking on John Culberson, the opportunity could fall through our hands.”
As Democrats have squabbled, Republicans have taken notes. After the DCCC’s memo dropped, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) released a poll that found Moser edging Westin for a runoff slot with Fletcher.
CLF President Corry Bliss, who has said that the PAC intends to boost less-electable-looking Democrats in crowded primaries, called Moser a “progressive champion” and said that national Democrats were “intent on making their candidates Republican-lite.”
Sullivan reported from Washington. Michael Scherer contributed to this report.