Progressive fears about the Democratic Party’s strategy going into the 2020 congressional elections are already being realized.
In early April, the official campaign arm for House Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said it wouldn’t do business with political vendors — like direct mail companies, advertising firms, or political consultants — that also work for candidates challenging incumbent Democrats. They said it was an effort to protect incumbent Democrats, who they believe give the party’s best chance of keeping control in the House. Progressive lawmakers in Congress railed against what they saw as a “divisive” policy that effectively “blacklisted” groups and candidates.
Now, at least one candidate, Marie Newman — who is mounting a progressive primary challenge against moderate anti-abortion Rep. Dan Lipinski in one of the most hotly contested primaries in the 2020 election cycle — says the DCCC’s rule is actively hindering her ability to campaign.
“I’ve had four consultants leave the campaign,” Newman told Politico. “We’ve now had two mail firms say that they couldn’t work with us because of the DCCC issue, and then a [communications] group, a compliance group and several pollsters.”
Newman is a particularly noteworthy case. In 2018, she ran against Lipinski, an Illinois representative who is now in his eighth term, taking over from his father, as a first-time candidate with almost no name recognition, and almost won. Lipinski, one of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats, eked out a two-point win in the primary. Now, Newman is running again, with a campaign that’s being championed by progressive activist groups.
This DCCC policy around political vendors has already caused friction within the party. When it was first made public, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the first-term progressive superstar, took to Twitter and told her nearly 3.8 million followers to “pause” their donations to the DCCC — the organization charged with keeping Democrats in the House majority.
“Give directly to swing candidates instead,” she tweeted, sharing the campaign websites of several of her vulnerable Democratic colleagues, who just won in previously Republican-controlled districts. Since, progressive lawmakers, and groups like the Bernie Sanders allied Our Revolution, have met with the DCCC chair Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill) to see if the organization is willing to change its mode of operation. Nothing’s happened so far.
That Newman says she’s now losing political consultants gives progressives more reason to fight with the party.
Progressives have been sounding the alarm bells about this policy all along.
Prioritizing incumbent Democrats is something the DCCC has always done. But in early April, the organization put it in writing, publishing its criteria for determining which political vendors it will do business with in 2020. And it made clear that won’t include vendors that work with candidates challenging incumbent Democrats.
The official policy change sparked outrage among House progressives, several of whom found their way to Congress by doing exactly what the DCCC appears to be discouraging: challenging sitting Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez is one extremely notable example. She beat out Joe Crowley, a New York Democratic Party boss who had even been tapped as a possible successor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Another is Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who beat out Boston Democrat Mike Capuano.
Both Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez, with the support of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the DCCC’s decision a “divisive” policy and an effort to “blacklist” groups.
The DCCC has pushed back on the term “blacklist.” There is no active list of Democratic political vendors that are banned from the DCCC right now, and this has always been the unspoken policy, one Democratic Party aide familiar with the guidelines told Vox then.
But progressive House members called out what they see as an exclusionary policy that could cut off important coalitions within the party.
What’s happening to Newman is a perfect example of what these progressives warned about.
This was supposed to be the DCCC’s diversity initiative. Then it soured.
This all started when the DCCC released the official form for political vendors to connect with the campaign arm. To submit their businesses to the DCCC for consideration, vendors had to accept the policy around working with primary challengers.
“I understand the above statement that the DCCC will not conduct business with, nor recommend to any of its targeted campaigns, any consultant that works with an opponent of a sitting Member of the House Democratic Caucus,” the form said.
This was one of three main standards the DCCC has established in writing this year.
The first, which the DCCC wanted everyone to focus on, is a diversity initiative. The organization will prioritize businesses with nonwhite, women, or LGBTQ owners. Another is mandating that the companies the DCCC contracts with use union labor as much as possible (with the understanding that in parts of the country, that’s just not possible). If you ask the DCCC, that’s what it says these rules are about.
“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,” Allison Jaslow, the DCCC’s executive director, told Vox in a statement. “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.”
But ever since the DCCC made these guidelines public, the policy around political vendors — designed to protect sitting Democratic members — has overshadowed any other initiatives around labor and diversity.
Congressional progressive leaders Reps. Pramila Jayapal (WA), Mark Pocan (WI), and Ro Khanna (CA) met with DCCC Chair Bustos (IL), who herself has become something of a star among moderates for being a safe Democrat in a district President Donald Trump won in 2016, to express their concerns.
“This is about having competition,” Khanna said of his conversation with Bustos earlier this month. He compares the DCCC policy to an “antitrust violation” in other industries. “It’s hypocritical for a party that’s campaigning against monopolies to say that we are going to restrict trade.”
The DCCC has shown no tangible intention of changing course so far.
“They seem pretty dug in,” Khanna added. “I don’t see how we can’t come to some agreement. The only way the DCCC works is with the buy-in of all its members.”
Bustos has, however, agreed to meetings with progressive groups, like Our Revolution, who plan on suggesting policy changes.
The DCCC sees primary challengers as a risk
It’s important to note that while the pushback is from progressives, primary challengers come from both sides of the ideological spectrum. Beto O’Rourke, who was a member of the moderate New Democrats coalition in Congress, won his House seat by challenging sitting Democrat Silvestre Reyes, the former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Likewise, Khanna points out that Reps. Eric Swalwell (CA) and Seth Moulton (MA) won, “arguably, running to the incumbents’ right.”
This DCCC policy is ideologically neutral, but it does speak to a broader fear within the party. Democrats just won the House majority in a landslide election by flipping more than 40 seats. In other words, the Democratic majority rests on districts that elected Republicans three years ago.
Incumbents have clear advantages in elections. They have more name recognition, their campaign and fundraising infrastructure is already set up, and, well, they’ve won before.
Sitting members win by big margins, as seen in this chart from the Center for Responsive Politics showing the reelection rates of sitting House members:
Bustos has made this strategy clear.
“Over the next two years, our charge is to build on this progress to fortify our new Democratic Majority so we can deliver bold change for the American people,” she said in a statement. “We will do this by placing a new emphasis on incumbent protection while going on offense in the districts where we came up short this year — we must do both.”
That said, critics are pointing out that protecting incumbents can also hinder progress.