POLITICS

DCCC Promises To Blacklist Firms That Work With Candidates Challenging Incumbents

The move drew immediate criticism from progressive groups.
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a centrist member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, chairs the Democratic Congress
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a centrist member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced Friday that it will not hire any private political vendors that provide services to Democratic primary challengers, and it will discourage individual House Democrats from doing so as well.

The announcement, first reported by The Intercept and National Journal, is a shot across the bow to insurgent candidates and the firms that work with them. It applies broadly to firms that do polling, advertising, digital consulting, fundraising and field organizing.

The DCCC’s new policy, which it sent to over 100 political firms on Friday, also laid out new diversity requirements aimed at ensuring the party employs firms that reflect its voters’ diversity along racial, gender and other lines.

A statement from DCCC Executive Director Allison Jaslow focused on the diversity efforts, rather than the blacklisting of firms. 

“The DCCC is responsible for protecting and growing our House majority, but I also know that we have the ability to set the course for the future of the Democratic party while we’re doing that,” Jaslow said. “Our voters are diverse, we are actively recruiting candidates to ensure their elected officials better reflect them, and we have a responsibility to do our best to ensure the political professionals we work with do so as well.”

Democrats took back control of the House largely by running moderate candidates in suburban, GOP-held swing districts. Perhaps in a nod to that reality, the House Democratic Caucus elected Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, as chairwoman of the DCCC. Bustos subsequently elicited criticism from the left for tapping a team of like-minded centrists to head up her candidate recruitment and incumbent defense efforts.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) had an upset win in 2018. The DCCC's new policy would blacklist any firms that work with cand
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) had an upset win in 2018. The DCCC's new policy would blacklist any firms that work with candidates challenging Democratic incumbents in the House.

Although the DCCC memorandum lays out robust new rules to ensure the diversity of private firms it works with, its efforts to discourage primary challenges sparked more interest — and criticism. The move appears designed to tamp down on growing anti-establishment energy in the left wing of the party. In the 2018 midterm elections, two progressives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), succeeded in ousting two Democratic incumbents, sending shockwaves through the party establishment.

But the DCCC notes that the policy would apply equally to protecting left-leaning incumbents like Reps. Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) as it would to more conservative House members like Dan Lipinski (Ill.).

Lipinski, an abortion rights opponent and immigration hardliner, was the target of a spirited ― if ultimately unsuccessful ― primary challenge in March 2018. Some more moderate groups and individuals have mused about the possibility of challenging Ocasio-Cortez and Omar from the right.

The ban would also not prevent the DCCC from partnering with groups like EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America, which are not themselves political vendors but may have contracted with vendors that assisted primary challengers.

The new rules would also still allow individual House Democrats or House candidates to hire firms that work with primary challengers if they choose to do so. The firms would simply not be on the DCCC’s “preferred” vendor list.

One former senior DCCC official said that while the new rules are public, they’re really just a reiteration of what they already do: “This policy is nothing more than a public declaration of the status-quo. The DCCC has long practiced a policy of icing out consulting firms that don’t conform to what committee leadership deem politically expedient.”

The DCCC emphasizes that as an organization, it is singularly dedicated to protecting Democrats’ majority in the House. But some progressive critics of the decision note that left-wing groups have only sought to target incumbent Democrats in deep blue districts, ensuring that their work would not jeopardize the Democratic majority.

Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, which was active in Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley’s primary wins, claimed that the party campaign arm preferred conservative Democrats like Lipinski and Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) over “a new, diverse generation of courageous leadership.” Justice Democrats is recruiting candidates to try to challenge Cuellar in 2020.

Rebecca Katz, a longtime adviser for progressive Democrats, worried that the move would make the already difficult path for primary challengers that much rockier. 

“If there’s a candidate who you know has the opportunity to go far and inspire, but you as a consultant think it will doom your business, you’re going to think twice,” Katz said, before declaring that it would not deter her.

The DCCC is “doing this to send a message. And I think the message sucks,” she added.

Karthik Ganapathy, a former aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and then-Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) who is founding his own communications firm, likewise promised to disregard the DCCC’s guidelines.

“I know I’m not the only one who will proudly help candidates running challenges against Democrats in Name Only like Rep. Henry Cuellar, who votes with Trump an overwhelming majority of the time,” Ganapathy said.

One Democratic strategist said that while it’s understandable the DCCC wants to protect its incumbents, it was a bad idea to blacklist firms that work with challengers. There are only a limited number of races, and the party already tends to work with the established firms.

“It’s bad for them, and everyone else, long-term to cut off new and young people and consultants,” he said. “Any bigger or established firm now got its start challenging someone.”

Barring upstart firms, which may be more diverse, could also end up undermining the DCCC’s commitment to diversity, the strategist said. 

Indeed, the new crop of progressive insurgents tends to be more diverse. Lipinski’s challenger, Marie Newman, is a woman. Pressley, an African-American woman, unseated former Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who was ideologically progressive, but critics said did not reflect the diverse character of his Boston-area district.

The Democratic Governors Association, which helps elect and re-elect Democratic governors, does not have a similar policy.

Faced with an insurgency several years earlier than Democrats, however, national Republicans took similarly dramatic steps to punish those who would aid primary challengers. In 2013, the National Republican Senatorial Committee barred the firm Jamestown Associates from receiving any NRSC contracts, after Jamestown consulted for the Senate Conservatives Fund, which tried to oust Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

A national Republican strategist applauded his Democratic counterparts for learning from the GOP’s difficulties with an aggressive anti-establishment wing.

“Republicans spent three cycles figuring this out. Democrats have the benefit of seeing what we eventually figured out,” the strategist said. “This might help them defeat the lunacy faster.”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Kevin Robillard and Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.

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