Six hours after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it was blacklisting firms that work with primary challengers, I met with a potential client who was considering a Democratic primary. The client told me that two consultants dropped out that morning — and now the candidate may not run at all.*
The timing of the DCCC’s blacklist is not remotely coincidental. In the first quarter of an off-year, many potential candidates decide whether to jump into a race. If campaign staff dries up before day one, a once-daunting campaign can feel impossible.
This is precisely what the DCCC wants. The committee is hoping that these young women will stop contemplating challenges against Democratic incumbents. We can’t allow the DCCC to succeed and block these brave challengers.
Like many women in their 20s across America, I feel inexplicably hopeful and manifestly seen when I watch Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez take on the stale and insular political dynamics of Washington. We feel spoken for and welcome to speak when we see one of our own — a young, fearless woman in fire engine-red lipstick — transfigure politics from a bureaucratic, impervious institution for old white men into her own bully pulpit for affordable health care, green jobs, and living wages. We cannot imagine a Washington without her.
Ocasio-Cortez’s unapologetic energy in Washington cannot be separated from her decision to run against Joe Crowley in Queens, New York. Every action Ocasio-Cortez takes carries the same fearlessness that prompted her not to wait her turn. Our party desperately needs countless more Ocasio-Cortezes who won’t wait until their representative is done serving — especially when these elected officials have stopped “serving” anyone but themselves and their donors. And we need a national party that encourages and supports firms that work with new progressive challengers.
Yet instead of embracing Ocasio-Cortez and the fresh path she has opened, the DCCC and other national “Democratic” organizations are wrapping their arms more tightly around the heavily white, male incumbent Democrats in Washington.
As astounding as Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise was, part of the now-infamous story is how she did it with just grassroots volunteers and minimal campaign infrastructure. Imagine how many Ocasio-Cortezes we could have if the Democratic Party was supporting firms that work with progressive challengers — instead of threatening us with extinction. There’s a reason why Ocasio-Cortez’s rise seems like a political fairytale to many of us. As consultants, we frequently see talented candidates struggle to gain momentum because of inadequate support. Yes, it’s possible to run a campaign with little paid staff and a team of tireless volunteers. But when your opponent has top-tier fundraisers, pollsters, and digital and communications support, you’re inevitably at a forbidding disadvantage.
For those of us who work in politics, launching a campaign can feel like second nature. But for potential candidates who are new to the political arena, experienced staff can provide a key guiding hand — especially during those critical early months. Outsider candidates without political experience — say, a former bartender or a public school teacher — are precisely the types of leaders we need more of in Washington, and exactly the types of candidates who benefit the most from early campaign guidance.
In the past year alone, I’ve had clients return from meetings with national Democratic organizations dissuaded because they were told that they have no chance of winning and shouldn’t try. I’ve had clients threatened by New York’s Democratic establishment, their donors scared off and their campaign funding dried up. I’ve watched clients struggle to find talented staffers who are willing to work with a primary challenger — and then mocked for making simple campaign missteps. Time after time, the leaders of the Democratic Party who purport to pursue a strong Democratic majority are throwing up roadblocks that make running a viable campaign near-impossible. Yes, there are the shining stars like Ocasio-Cortez who manage to break through. But imagine how many more potential candidates now won’t even try.
As campaign consultants, we must keep working with primary challengers — lifting them up, connecting them to critical early resources, and providing the guidance and support they need to run a successful campaign. But the DCCC needs to do its part. Stop threatening firms with financial ruin if they work with Democratic incumbents and challengers alike. Instead of protecting ineffective Democrats, offer primary challengers access to the resources they need.
At a time when Democrats have largely failed to stir national political excitement, we should encourage reflection and promote debate within our own party. We should recruit and support primary challengers like Ocasio-Cortez across the nation. Yet the DCCC’s efforts to suppress primaries and punish firms for working with challengers accomplish the opposite.
Representatives who are effectively serving their communities should have nothing to fear from a primary challenge. On the other hand, throwing up ridiculous roadblocks and consulting bans is more telling than ever. The old guard of the Democratic Party is petrified — because their record is flimsy, their vision outdated, and their bank accounts filled with corporate donations. This fear is the clearest signal we have that it’s time for a new generation of Democratic leaders. Bring on the primaries.
*Editor’s note: A reporter with The Intercept spoke with the candidate in question and confirmed the resignation of two key consulting firms just ahead of the potential launch of a congressional campaign against a Democratic incumbent.