A day after a populist challenger knocked off one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, in part for taking too much corporate campaign cash, Rep. Seth Moulton, a moderate liberal who has raised money from Bain Capital in his capacity as a would-be Democratic Party kingmaker, convened reporters on Wednesday in a conference room just outside Capitol Hill for an announcement.
Moulton, 39, styles himself a New Democrat, but given where the energies in his party lie at the moment, he sounded very much like the old guard. He was there to talk about his Serve America PAC, which helps elect veterans. The PAC added 12 candidates to its list of endorsements and expanded its endorsement criteria to include people who have performed other types of public service. The PAC is endorsing state and local candidates for the first time; four down-ballot contenders are among the 12 additions.
Discussing what sort of leadership qualities he looks for in a candidate, Moulton, an Iraq War veteran who unseated incumbent Democrat John Tierney in 2014, spoke of cooperativeness and bipartisanship, of politicians floating above the fray.
“It’s about picking good leaders,” he said. “I see how different people come to Congress. And some of them just play along with the system and do what they need to do to get re-elected, and some of them stand up and are willing to buck the system and do the right thing and vote for change.”
We’ve worked hard to raise money, but it’s just based on the energy and enthusiasm for these candidates. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.)
Fourteen hours earlier in New York City, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old democratic socialist, unseated Rep. Joe Crowley, a powerful Democrat believed to have designs on the House speakership. Her victory demonstrated the virtues of a left-wing platform grounded in frankly stated values rather than in Moulton’s pragmatism for pragmatism’s sake.
If the New York primary colored Moulton’s thinking, he didn’t show it on Wednesday. Pragmatism was still his priority. He insisted that his group does not have any ideological or policy criteria for the candidates it endorses.
“They’ve got to be true service leaders that I’m proud to attach my reputation to,” he told reporters.
That’s not to say that the PAC bestows its endorsement on every military or public service veteran who happens to be running for office. The goal of Moulton’s initiative is to help Democrats flip the House, so he has limited himself to candidates in swing districts who he has determined are the best candidates to win in the general election.
Moulton denied that Serve America did not endorse James Thompson, an Army veteran turned civil rights lawyer running in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District, because he is too progressive. In an April 2017 special election for a district that Donald Trump won by 27 percentage points, Thompson held his Republican opponent to a 7-point win.
Moulton instead referred to the PAC’s prerequisites, which include targeting candidates best poised to help take back the House. “We’re actually being very selective,” he said.
Through Serve America PAC, he has some major wins under his belt, foremost among them the March special election victory of Conor Lamb, a fellow Marine who defied the odds in a Pennsylvania congressional district that Donald Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points.
And in May, Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot endorsed by the PAC, defeated a candidate recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in a primary for the Democratic nomination in a GOP-held Kentucky seat that Democrats hope to flip.
The PAC’s new endorsees include M.J. Hegar, an Afghanistan War veteran and women’s rights pioneer running in Texas’ 31st; Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer running in Virginia’s 7th; and Aftab Pureval, the Hamilton County clerk of courts running in Ohio’s 1st.
While Serve America has not endorsed conservative Democrats with views far to the right of the party’s mainstream, none of its candidates have been especially progressive either.
Moulton’s supposedly nonideological approach is a peculiar one at a time when progressive idealism and opposition to the corrupting influence of money in politics have become increasingly dominant themes in the Democratic Party.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign against Crowley focused heavily on his history of fundraising from well-heeled donors and corporations. The movement against money in politics has gone much further. In total, 140 House candidates and members have taken a pledge not to accept corporate PAC money, according to End Citizens United, a PAC that promotes the pledge.
Tuesday happened to be an especially good night for the left across the country, with progressive candidates upsetting establishment picks in Maryland’s gubernatorial primary and New York’s 24th Congressional District as well.
Over the course of the entire election cycle, the Democratic establishment has had more success elevating its preferred candidates. But even many establishment-backed candidates and mainstream incumbents have either signed onto the once radical positions of Medicare for all, free college and a $15 minimum wage or shifted closer to them than would have been imagined as recently as two years ago.
Of course, Moulton’s nonideology is itself an ideology. He is is a member of the pro-business, fiscally moderate New Democrat Coalition.
Unlike many of his fellow New Democrats, Moulton voted against legislation in May rolling back part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. But he was also one of just 12 House Democrats to vote against a defense appropriations bill amendment that would have required parity between military spending and domestic discretionary spending.
Moulton’s view of bipartisanship as an end unto itself seems to have led him to some strange conclusions about the political landscape.
“Let’s be willing to reform Obamacare rather than just say, ‘Oh, no, no, we can’t touch this because it’s perfect and we’re not willing to make changes,’” he said. “Ironically, why Romneycare was more popular than Obamacare in Massachusetts is because Democrats and Republicans worked together to reform it time and time again, year after year in the state legislature.”
But a bipartisan effort to amend Obamacare broke down in the Senate because of a dispute over whether federal funding could go to insurance plans that cover abortions, not a Democratic unwillingness to negotiate. Even that legislation was almost certain to go nowhere in the more conservative, GOP-controlled House anyway.
And in Massachusetts, Democrats have had hegemonic control for years. The few Republicans in the state government are largely moderates in the mold of Gov. Charlie Baker.
Then there’s Moulton’s big-dollar fundraising model. It’s hard to believe that he is not at least a little bit ideologically constrained by his donor base.
Asked how Democrats should plan to rebuild their fundraising network in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which is likely to reduce labor unions’ political spending, he claimed he could offer no special insight on fundraising.
“I don’t have a political network,” Moulton said. “We’ve worked hard to raise money, but it’s just based on the energy and enthusiasm for these candidates.”
Joshua Bekenstein, a co-chairman of Bain Capital, and his wife, Anita Bekenstein, together donated $162,000 to the Serve America Victory Fund, a fundraising vehicle for the PAC, last year and so far this year. (Moulton raises money for the PAC through a joint fundraising committee that enables him to raise vast sums as long as it is divided into maximum amounts of $2,700 to individual candidates.)
Taking big money from major financiers like a Bain co-chairman almost certainly has subtle effects on its recipients’ political strategy and policymaking.
Bain Capital recently elicited scrutiny for its role in the bankruptcy of Toys R Us, which it bought with other private equity firms and saddled with debt. The company’s collapse this year put 33,000 retail workers out of a job, and they are now demanding $70 million in severance from Bain and the other private equity firms.
Some members of Congress have spoken up on behalf of Toys R Us employees. Moulton is not one of them.
When asked about the funding his PAC receives from big business executives, Moulton noted his support for campaign finance reform. But he insisted that campaign cash has never affected his policy positions.
“I just have the confidence to make my own decisions and not be influenced by anybody, whether it’s a donor or a lobbyist or anyone else,” he said.
As for Ocasio-Cortez’s win, Moulton cautioned against making too much of it.
“It’s dangerous,” said the New Democrat, “to read too many national implications into this very low-turnout primary in New York.”