Following President Trump’s election, the Democratic Party urged its enraged grass-roots to channel their energy into politics and run for office. But the party didn’t actually want just anyone to run. They wanted candidates with resumes and resources they deem most palatable in a general election, and for everyone else to get out of the way. So what does a party organization do when they notice energy amassing behind a primary candidate whom they perceive to be a general-election disaster?
“It’s like threading a needle, and you have to be careful not to draw your own blood,” former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the DCCC in the 2012 and 2014 cycles, told me in an interview Tuesday. Israel never enjoyed the luxury—and the headache—of the unbridled energy that his successor, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, is now expected to harness. “This is a fairly new and unchartered environment for the DCCC, because the energy is so massive and so widespread that it becomes increasingly difficult to channel.”
That difficulty was on display this week in Texas’ 7th Congressional District, where the Democratic Party chose to publicly dump opposition research on Laura Moser, a progressive writer (who’s written for Slate) and activist running to unseat Republican Rep. John Culberson.
What was the party’s problem with Moser? The official “narrative” labeled Moser a “Washington insider” who despises Texas and is engaged in nefarious self-dealing schemes with her consultant husband, while having written that she’d “rather have my teeth pulled out with anesthesia” than live in Texas. (Moser wrote that about Paris, Texas, a far cry from her Houston district.)
But that was all a cover story for the real concern: that Moser was too liberal or too unlikely a candidate to win in a traditionally Republican suburban district in Texas that may be trending bluer under Trump’s Republican Party, but is still a traditionally Republican suburban district in Texas.
At least in the first round of voting, the gambit backfired spectacularly. Moser made it into a runoff against Lizzie Fletcher, and the DCCC’s intraparty public relations nightmare will play out for two more months. Fletcher earned 29 percent of the primary vote to Moser’s 24 percent, a modest five-percentage-point gap that was wide enough for DCCC regional press secretary Cole Leiter to declare that 7th District Democrats had picked “a clear frontrunner.” The DCCC is not backing off Moser—though perhaps they’ve put away the machete.
“The DCCC has long recognized and appreciated the unprecedented influence that the grass-roots have in these races,” DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly told me in a statement about balancing Democratic energy while advancing its preferred candidates. “As we’ve indicated all cycle, the DCCC is keeping all options on the table to work with our allies and ensure that there’s a competitive Democrat on the ballot for voters to elect in November.”
The DCCC isn’t exactly wrong for thinking ahead to the general election, even if it mangled the calculus in Moser’s race. “You’re constantly weighing the importance of turnout with the imperative of persuasion,” said Israel. “You’ve got to turn out your base, but there are too many districts on the battlefield where the base just isn’t enough in a general election, so you’ve got to expand your universe of persuadables. And in red-leaning districts, your persuadables lean red. So you’ve got to find candidates that fit that profile.”
Tuesday was the first big primary night for Lujan in the cycle, and that striking that balance will only get harder. In a couple of months, a whole other migraine called “California,” where Democrats hope to net at least a half-dozen pickups in November, will hold its primaries. The congressional fields are so crowded with energetic Democrats that there’s fear the party could be shut out of general elections through the state’s top-two primary system.
The DCCC’s stumbling performance in Texas won’t make it any easier to chase candidates out of those California races, given how progressives and small donors flocked to Moser when national Democrats tried so aggressively to knock her off.
Israel, who wanted to be perfectly clear that he would never second-guess another DCCC chairman, having been second-guessed so many times in his tenure, did suggest that one should “try to be subtle and under the radar” when targeting fellow Democrats.
“You can’t control how many people run,” he said. “That’s a fool’s errand.” But, he said, “you can help a candidate with national Democratic donors”—something that risks its own grass-roots backlash—or to try to find alternative races for candidates who want to run for something.
Those, at least, are the nice options.
“There are tools that I can’t share with you,” he told me, “because I’d have to kill you.”
Republican Rep. Pete Sessions, who happens to be a top target for Democrats in Texas this cycle, had no qualms about second-guessing the judgment of the DCCC. Sessions chaired the National Republican Campaign Committee during the 2010 and 2012 cycles, when the party establishment was wrestling with the Tea Party. The 2010 cycle for Republicans was essentially a mirror image of 2018, in which an enthusiastic base is overflowing with energy against a new president, and Sessions said the campaign chairman has taken care to channel it properly.
“We had a number of fields that had large [groups of] people where the incumbent was a Democrat. One of them was in Florida, as an example,” he said. “I think we had 12 people running. And we had a Democrat who was in office and the feeling was we were going to win.”
Sessions suggested some friendly tools for winnowing such a field, like connecting preferred candidates to donors or trying to persuade candidates to run for other races. He also mentioned some unfriendly ones, like the use of opposition research—though it’s best not wielded so late in the game, or so bluntly.
You have to do it “ahead of time, not the day before the primary,” he said. “And when you discover that you have a problem the day before the primary, it’s a pretty bad indication of your organizational skill set.”
It’s easy to recall a handful of Republican losses in 2010, particularly the Senate seats they may have squandered when they failed to chase Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell out of the primaries. But what was the actual result for Sessions when he was navigating the same waters that Lujan is today? Republicans picked up 63 House seats and regained control of the House in 2010.
It struck me, over the course of reporting this piece, as a little bit silly that I and other reporters were writing articles about how difficult it can be for a party to have such a tailwind heading into midterm elections.
“You cannot win with a quarter of a tank of gas,” Israel said,” and the Democrats’ tanks are full right now. The gas tanks are overflowing. It’s a good problem to have, but it still becomes problematic.”
Did the DCCC ham-fistedly handle Laura Moser’s candidacy in Texas? Sure looks that way, having pulled off the twin feats of irritating progressives nationally and advancing Moser’s campaign to round two. But the final verdict on how Lujan and the party managed this or any other winnable district won’t come until November.
“If Ben Ray Lujan wins the majority,” Israel said, “Nobody is going to remember what happened in Texas’ 7th.”