The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released an opposition dossier on Texas Democratic candidate Laura Moser two weeks ago, triggering a backlash that stretched from outside progressive groups all the way to Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez. But at California’s recent state convention, Kyle Layman, the DCCC’s top staffer for the west coast, suggested it wouldn’t be the last such intervention, according to multiple sources familiar with the message he shared.
Layman has overseen what is shaping up to be an extraordinary debacle in California, with multiple failures stacking up on each other to produce the possibility that Democrats will fail to field candidates in the general election in several winnable districts.
Typically, recruiting strong candidates in a midterm election, when turnout is low, is difficult for Democrats. But with Donald Trump in the White House, this is no ordinary midterm, as was evident within weeks of the inauguration, if not on the day after, when 5 million people turned out for the Women’s Marches around the country.
Failing to anticipate the easily foreseeable wave of interest in running for office as a Democrat in 2018, Layman cast a wide recruiting net. That net reeled in a lot of fish — and many more fish hopped in the boat on their own. That would be great in most states, but the problem for Democrats is that California has a top-two system, which means that regardless of party, the top two vote-getters move on to the general election.
So think about it: If there are two Republicans running, and seven Democrats in the race, Republican voters will split their votes among the two, while Democrats will have to pick between seven. So the two Republicans finish first and second, while the top Democrat comes in third and fails to make the general election.
Back in February 2017, Democrat Christy Smith was contemplating a bid for Congress in California’s 25th District and explored the possibility. She realized that the party was paying no attention to the downside of too many candidates getting in. “With all of this newfound energy, there’s not a lot of understanding of strategy with those folks, because they’re new to the game,” she told me at the time. “There’s a broad ‘y’all come’ attitude, with people coming out of the woodwork. … We need to be smart if we’re going to flip this district.” Smith ultimately opted not to make a congressional bid, running instead for the California state legislature.
The smarts Smith hoped to see did not materialize. Compounding the problem was what from the outside appeared like a gift: a raft of Republican retirements in California. Presumably, a retirement should make a seat easier to win, but instead it allows two Republicans to get in, competing against the broad field of Democrats. In at least four districts so far — the 39th, 45th, 48th, and 49th — the nightmare scenario of no Democrat on a general election ballot is possible, and it is consuming staff at DCCC headquarters, according to candidates and other operatives who’ve spoken with them. After all, if a candidate loses an election, the DCCC gets publicly credited for doing the best it could, and it doesn’t take the blame for the candidate’s loss. But if the party doesn’t even manage to field a candidate on the ballot, then that’s the DCCC’s fault. Avoiding that scenario, then, is becoming the DCCC’s primary goal.
That’s where Laura Moser comes in. Layman, according to the people who spoke with him at the convention, explained that the DCCC did not believe Moser, unlike others in the primary, had any chance to win in the district in suburban Houston, held by longtime Republican Rep. John Culberson. In a case like that, Layman said, the party committee wouldn’t hesitate to intervene, just as it would do in California if candidates resisted gentle nudges to step aside.
Layman was not shy about sharing that message, which was understood, by those who heard it, to mean that he was comfortable with it spreading.
The Washington Post on Monday, without naming Layman, reported that the DCCC, in going after Moser, was “sending a signal about their willingness to wade into crowded primaries and gauging the reaction from the left as they plot strategy for looming primary fights.”
Howie Klein, who has been writing critically about the DCCC for at least a decade, previously reported that Layman said at the convention that “the only reason they savagely attacked Laura Moser was to send a message to Orange Co. Dems that they’re going to get the same treatment.”
Meredith Kelly, communications director for the DCCC, said that the party committee wanted to defer to grassroots enthusiasm as much as possible, which led to the surfeit of candidates. The Intercept described the DCCC’s move against Moser as going “nuclear,” and Kelly stuck with the nuclear-war terminology when asked about Layman’s suggestion that the primary interventions will continue if need be.
“Voters across the country have been working hard for over a year to hold House Republicans accountable and flip key districts blue, and the DCCC has long recognized and appreciated the unprecedented influence that the grassroots have in these races. 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 Kelly.
The problem with the strategy, however, is that it could backfire. Moser has raised gobs of money in the wake of the attack and may still make it into a runoff for the nomination. Several California candidates told The Intercept they would welcome an attack by the national party, which would help distinguish them in a crowded pack. Though they weren’t so eager for it that they wanted to say so on the record.
The Texas primary is on Tuesday, with a runoff set for May if nobody breaks 50 percent. California’s primary is June 5.