In 2018, a handful of House candidates came within a few percentage points of winning despite serious reservations from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that they had a shot. This time around, even as the candidates have launched new bids for office, the party committee is taking a hands-off approach.
That’s a departure from how the DCCC, which is responsible for electing Democrats to the House, has done it in the past. Heading into the 2006 midterm elections, the DCCC was faced with the question of how to deploy last-minute resources. Races that were deemed unwinnable got shorted, while the party pushed its chips where it felt it had the best chance to win. The DCCC missed badly in a significant number of races, and a handful of candidates who had been written off won their elections, or just barely lost.
Recognizing its mistake, the party committee got in early the next cycle behind those who had barely lost in 2006 — Larry Kissell in North Carolina and Dan Maffei in Syracuse, New York — and helped push them over the top.
In 2018, the DCCC similarly deemed a handful of races unwinnable, yet the candidates nearly won anyway. In Omaha, Nebraska, the party walked away from Kara Eastman, but she came within 2 percentage points of flipping that House seat. Again in Syracuse, the DCCC wrote off Dana Balter, spending just $300,000, but she fell just 5 percentage points short on Election Day. In Texas’ 10th district, Mike Siegel ran an aggressive race against Michael McCaul, the Republican currently serving in Tom DeLay’s former seat. The national party didn’t have the race on its radar, but Siegel, who put together a strong grassroots network and ran as an outspoken progressive, gave McCaul a scare, losing by a margin of 4 percentage points.
Unlike in 2008, the last presidential cycle to follow a Blue Wave, the DCCC seems to have little interest in 2020 in revisiting its assessment of candidates who fell just short. In Texas, the DCCC is courting a corporate lawyer with big-money backing to challenge Siegel in a primary. In Omaha, Eastman is running again, but the DCCC, whose recruit lost to her in 2018, has its eye on several other potential candidates. And in Syracuse, there’s been no shift in the DCCC’s distant posture toward Balter, who is running again, so far without the support of the party committee.
A DCCC spokesperson acknowledged that the party committee is not rallying behind candidates who fell just short in 2018 but said that they are not opposing them, either.
Eastman’s race in particular was a progressive flashpoint in 2018, because in the primary, the DCCC supported former Rep. Brad Ashford, who was broadly conservative and had a record as an anti-choice state legislator. The committee did spend some $300,000 on Eastman’s general election race, after opposing her during the primary, but that was far less than it invested in a typical race, and down the stretch, the party committee declined to help push Eastman over the top.
One potential candidate the DCCC is courting in lieu of Eastman is Gladys Harrison, the general manager of a beloved Omaha restaurant, Big Mama’s Kitchen. Harrison, who has never run for office before, has not yet formally announced but told The Intercept in late May that she was considering entering the race. Reached again last week about running, Harrison said “at this time I am not ready to comment.”
Local party officials, who closely monitor political developments in the district, said the DCCC was working to recruit Harrison into the race. “I know they’ve been reaching out to her, and they’re considering supporting her for Congress,” said Ben Gray, president of the Omaha City Council.
A spokesperson for the DCCC said they would “not confirm or deny” whether they have worked to recruit her.
Sam Barrett, who managed Ashford’s 2016 campaign, is now working for the DCCC. Ashford lost his primary bid to Eastman in 2018, and his wife, Ann Ashford, is now competing against her for Congress. (On Wednesday, Ann Ashford announced on Facebook that she had been endorsed by six former elected officials, including her husband.)
The DCCC also spoke with another potential candidate, Denise Blaya Powell, according to an active member of the local Democratic Party. Powell started a local organization called Women Who Run, but she is an Eastman supporter who donated to her campaign in March.
Crystal Rhoades, an Eastman supporter and the chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party, told The Intercept that she spoke directly with the DCCC about their efforts to recruit other candidates about a month ago. “The DCCC told me, ‘Well, we can’t win on Medicare for All; Omaha is an insurance town,’” she said. “And I said, ‘I know corporations are people now, but insurance companies don’t actually vote.’” Rhoades added that in a district like hers, the challenge is not peeling off Republican voters but boosting Democratic turnout.
Despite the $300,000 the DCCC spent on the general election, Rhoades said she felt the party committee did not really support Eastman. “The DCCC didn’t support Kara last time, even in the general, and anyone who says differently is lying because they did not,” said Rhoades. “Most support from the DCCC and those other national organizations comes in the form of independent expenditures, and they did nothing for Kara, and yet she still came in with less than 2 points as a first-time candidate for federal office in a district as tough as ours. That she did that with zero help from the DCCC is really a testament to her candidacy.”
Meanwhile in Texas, after his near loss, Mike Siegel started earlier this time, announcing his bid in January 2019. Knowing how important the D.C.-based party committee considers early fundraising numbers, he came out of the gate strong, raising $150,000 to start. It didn’t matter. Instead, the DCCC has had its eyes on Shannon Hutcheson.
Hutcheson had a more direct route into the good graces of the DCCC than a mere show of strength. Her finance chair, Aimee Boone Cunningham, a Container Store heiress, gave $35,500 to the committee on February 20. Not long after the donation, Hutcheson traveled to Washington to meet with DCCC officials, a meeting confirmed by a DCCC spokesperson. On March 4, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi headlined a signature Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Travis County, Texas, which included a VIP reception honoring Cunningham as a “philanthropist & activist.” Cunningham, a major Democratic donor, is chair of the board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and previously served on the board of Emily’s List and its Texas version, Annie’s List.
Hutcheson has a long career as a corporate attorney, and in 2010, a critical year for Democrats, voted in the Republican primary. (It may seem odd, but that profile — a corporate lawyer who was recently a Republican — is attractive to the DCCC, which sees in it money and bipartisan appeal.)
The DCCC has not publicly endorsed Hutcheson yet, but the message is clear. Four of the first followers of Hutcheson’s new campaign Twitter account are DCCC officials. Within just two days of entering the race, she announced having raised $165,000. She did not boast of it coming from small donors, which suggests she had lined up commitments from the ultra-wealthy ahead of the announcement.
Siegel said that he’s frustrated the party appears to be taking sides against its own electoral interests. “In 2018, we stepped up and ran our campaign the right way in a district that the state and national party had left for dead,” he said. “We campaigned in all nine counties, had 1,000 volunteers. We put this district in play. We made up 15 percentage points against an incumbent considered to be unbeatable. We put this in play. Running a top-down campaign attempting to buy a district is what McCaul did [to win the primary to succeed DeLay], that’s not what we need here.”
Siegel is confident he can win the race with the DCCC’s support or its neutrality, but it becomes dicier if he has to battle not just the GOP but his own party too. “What my campaign brings is, we’ve made tens of thousands of voter contacts, won the loyalty of grassroots groups, and can combine that with a traditional red-to-blue campaign,” he said. “I can do that with the DCCC’s support, and I can also do it if the DCCC remains neutral. But if they actively work against me, they’re sabotaging what is probably our best chance to win this seat.”
In some cases, it may make sense for the DCCC to stay out, as it gives other candidates a chance to come forward and compete. In Texas’ 24th District, Jan McDowell fell by just 3 percentage points to incumbent Rep. Kenny Marchant and is running again in 2020. Money isn’t everything, but McDowell raised just $108,000 over the entire cycle, the mark of a campaign that never truly caught on, either with big donors or with a grassroots network. And in context, her 3-point loss is less impressive than it looks: Beto O’Rourke carried the district during his Senate run, and state Senate and House candidates also flipped seats.
This cycle, Candace Valenzuela, a local school board member whose launch video of her time spent homeless as a child went viral, is also getting in the race. “I’m never going to be a favored establishment candidate,” she told The Intercept. “I don’t have a rich aunt Jill to call and ask, can you send me $2,800? And get all your friends from — I don’t know what rich aunt Jills do — your manicure circle, and tell them to send me money too?”
My congressman has been a politician since before I was homeless, sleeping in a kiddie pool outside a gas station.
Now I’m running to unseat him. #TX24
— Candace Valenzuela (@candacefor24) June 25, 2019
Also jumping into TX-24 is Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel. In her own viral ad, she boasts of playing a leading role in the Kosovo air war, which she called “the largest bombing campaign since World War II,” and “a battle we won without a single loss of life.” If the more than 500 people killed by that bombing campaign could hear her make that claim, they’d surely be surprised. (She presumably means that no Americans were killed.)
Later in her ad, she alludes to war profiteering she engaged in, which ended her military career when she accepted a fine and a reprimand to avoid a court martial. “Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006. There’s no evidence that the DCCC recruited or is supporting Olson, or that it’s otherwise gotten involved in the district.
The DCCC, however, does know how to consolidate around a candidate they’d previously overlooked. Gina Ortiz Jones lost a nail-biter in Texas’ 23rd District in 2018. The DCCC had preferred her opponent in the primary, but after the party’s recruit didn’t even make the runoff, the committee got behind Ortiz Jones and remains supportive of her for 2020, even if there hasn’t been an official endorsement.
Sri Kulkarni, running against Pete Olson outside Houston, ran one of the most effective grassroots campaigns of the cycle, falling fewer than 5 percentage points short on Election Day 2018. This time around, he said, the DCCC has been a valuable partner, though it has not officially endorsed him. “They finally realized we are doing something big here,” he said.
Update: June 27, 2019, 2:10 p.m.
This article has been updated to include the DCCC’s limited support for Dana Balter ahead of the general election.