National Democrats Have Endorsed Three Former Republicans in Key Senate Races

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is continuing a futile party strategy of endorsing moderates over candidates with more progressive platforms.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters after saying on the floor that he wants to call top White House officials to testify for the Senate trial, which is set to start next year if the House impeaches President Donald Trump this week, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 17, 2019. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Senate Democrats’ campaign arm has endorsed three former Republicans, adding to a list of races in which the party has continued a futile strategy of backing moderates over candidates with more progressive platforms. 

The latest endorsement came on Monday, when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put its weight behind M.J. Hegar, who voted in the 2016 Republican primary, in the race to replace Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. The other former Republicans backed by the DSCC are Mark Kelly, who voted as a Republican as recently as 2012 and is now running for an Arizona Senate seat, and Barbara Bollier, who became a Democrat last year and is running in Kansas. 

Democrats need to win at least four additional seats — or three seats, and the presidency —  in order to take back a majority in the Senate. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has had trouble recruiting candidates, said he’s focused on eight races, including at least four states where the DSCC has already made endorsements: Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Texas. In some of those states, national Democrats have overlooked popular progressive candidates who say the committee is unfairly playing favorites in races and taking away voters’ ability to make their own choices. By toeing the line between Republicans and Democrats, the DSCC is continuing a broader party strategy of backing away from — and in some cases, trying to intimidate — progressives in favor of more moderate centrists that has been repeatedly shown not to work, costing them several races

“We’re proud to support candidates who are running strong campaigns and can win their races,” DSCC spokesperson Lauren Passalacqua said in a statement to The Intercept. “Unlike their Republican opponents, these candidates will do what’s right for their states and fight for taking action against climate change, making health care more affordable, and getting big money out of politics.”

Hegar, who has only recently committed to the Democratic Party, in her 2018 campaign was noticeably contradictory on gun policy, though in recent months she’s expressed support for stricter gun control laws. One of her opponents, longtime Texas organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, raised $459,000 in the third quarter to Hegar’s $1 million, though she is slightly ahead of Hegar in a November poll from the University of Texas at Tyler. Tzintzún Ramirez has spoken out against the DSCC’s recruitment policy, calling it “tone-deaf.” 

Kelly, meanwhile, will likely win the Democratic primary and face Republican Sen. Martha McSally in a special election next year. As recently as 2012, he voted in the Republican presidential primary in Texas, the Arizona Republic reported. Kelly then voted for Barack Obama in the general election. He changed his voter registration from “not declared” to Democrat in December of last year. 

The DSCC endorsed Bollier, a Kansas state senator who became a Democrat just last year. She officially entered the Senate race in October and was endorsed by the DSCC that same month. Before switching parties, she served as a Republican for seven years in the state legislature — six as a representative, one as a senator. Bollier is seeking to replace Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who announced in January that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection. Usha Reddi and Nancy Boyda are among other candidates running in the Democratic primary. Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom was the top Democratic fundraiser with $468,000 before he dropped out in October and endorsed Bollier. 

In other Senate races, national Democrats are backing conservative Democratic candidates over viable progressives. In Kentucky, for example, the party has coalesced around Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, a centrist who lost a winnable 2018 House race and stands little chance of unseating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. State Rep. Charles Booker is running to her left

In North Carolina, the DSCC has endorsed commercial litigation attorney, former state senator, and military veteran Cal Cunningham to replace Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who is one of the least popular senators in the country. The committee has backed Cunningham even though state Sen. Erica Smith, a progressive, has led both Cunningham and Tillis in polling — as recently as November. Cunningham has far outraised Smith, with $1.7 million — including $200,000 of his own money — to her $133,000, including $4,500 of her own money. Cunningham has had significant fundraising help from donors linked to Schumer. 

Cunningham served in the North Carolina legislature from 2001 to 2003. During his 2000 campaign, he received an A rating from the NRA, and he later took several positions that aligned him with the gun lobby. Cunningham has recently supported stricter gun control measures, including universal background checks, which Smith also supports, and his campaign spokesperson Rachel Petri said in his current campaign, he’s “been clear in his support for passing background checks and banning high-capacity magazines that turn guns into weapons of war.” Smith, who’s been in office since 2015, has a record of support from unions, as well as pro-choice, environmental, and good governance groups.   

In Colorado, the DSCC endorsed former Gov. John Hickenlooper almost immediately after he dropped out of the presidential race to run in the Democratic primary to face Republican Sen. Cory Gardner next year. He’s a self-described friend of business interests, and has said he supports “universal healthcare” but not Medicare for All. Hickenlooper once drank fracking fluid to try to prove that fracking wasn’t all that bad. At the time of Hickenlooper’s entry into the race, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff was a top contender, and he’s raised $1.4 million so far. He’s called the DSCC strategy a “recipe for disaster.” The DSCC pressured consultants not to work with Romanoff before they endorsed Hickenlooper, The Intercept reported in August.

Critics say the DSCC strategy closely mimics that of its counterparts in the House, where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is refusing to work with vendors contracting with primary candidates challenging incumbents. While the DSCC endorses former Republicans over more progressive candidates, the DCCC continues to give a significant amount of business to firms working with Republican candidates, The Intercept reported this week. Last year, the DCCC backed Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who has supported restrictions on abortion, received a 100 percent rating from the NRA, and has been vocal against impeachment, over potentially viable progressive candidates including former Cory Booker staffer Will Cunningham and retired teacher Tanzie Youngblood. Van Drew is expected to switch to the Republican Party later this week. 

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