‘Rigging’ Primaries Is Fine. Backing Bad Candidates Isn’t.

Oh Hoy. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Democratic Establishment directs resources to its preferred candidates in contested primaries, while encouraging their rivals to cede the stage. This is the core revelation offered by a newly published, secret audio recording of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

The recording was taken by Levi Tillemann, a former official in the Obama administration’s Energy Department, and current progressive congressional candidate in Colorado. Frustrated by the sense that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) was mobilizing behind his primary rival — a corporate lawyer and veteran named Jason Crow — Tillemann decided to tape a meeting he took with Hoyer at the Hilton Denver Downtown.

The Intercept’s Lee Fang details their ensuing conversation:

Hoyer bluntly told Tillemann that it wasn’t his imagination, and that mobilizing support for one Democratic candidate over another in a primary isn’t unusual. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., chair of the DCCC, has a “policy that early on, we’d try to agree on a candidate who we thought could win the general and give the candidate all the help we could give them,” Hoyer told Tillemann matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, I’m for Crow,” Hoyer explained. “I am for Crow because a judgment was made very early on. I didn’t know Crow. I didn’t participate in the decision. But a decision was made early on by the Colorado delegation,” he said, referencing the three House Democrats elected from Colorado.

“So your position is, a decision was made very early on before voters had a say, and that’s fine because the DCCC knows better than the voters of the 6th Congressional District, and we should line up behind that candidate,” asked Tillemann during the conversation.

“That’s certainly a consequence of our decision,” responded Hoyer.

“Staying out of primaries sounds small-D democratic, very intellectual, and very interesting,” said Hoyer. “But if you stay out of primaries, and somebody wins in the primary who can’t possibly win in the general,” the Maryland representative said, citing the surprise victory of Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election, “I’m not saying you’re that person.” But staying out of primaries, he argued, is “not very smart strategy.”

Many progressives found Hoyer’s conduct outrageous. Other Democrats insisted that it was utterly banal — the DCCC has made no secret of its willingness to intervene in primaries when it feels that doing so is in the party’s interest, and there is nothing remotely unusual about a party committee taking that stance.

Both sides have a point.

It is difficult to believe that there are all that many progressives who think it inherently illegitimate for the leadership of a political party to intervene in a contested primary, regardless of the circumstances. If four left-wing politicians with identical policy commitments were splitting the traditional Democratic vote in a district — thereby leaving a white-supremacist demagogue with a serious shot at winning a plurality of the vote, and thus, the nomination — it seems unlikely that many leftists would put their commitment to intra-party democracy ahead of their substantive preferences.

Further, if the Democratic Establishment was dominated by a coalition of socialist trade unions that had a proven track record of identifying leftist primary candidates capable of winning general elections, I doubt that many Berniecrats would object to their intervening in primaries against “unelectable” neoliberal challengers. The idea that party committees must maintain complete neutrality in primary elections is not a first principle of democratic socialism. The issue here isn’t that the DCCC puts its thumb on the scales in primaries — it’s who their thumbs land on and why.

In most election years, the vast majority of races will be decided by the fundamentals. In an era of hyperpolarized — and nationalized — politics, the letter next to a candidate’s name will usually matter more than anything else about them. Exceptionally strong or weak candidates can flip races; and in exceptionally tight races, modest disparities in candidate quality can be decisive. But as that adverb suggests, these are the exceptions.

Thus, what’s really at stake in most of this year’s Democratic primaries isn’t whether the party will win a given race this fall, but rather, which factions and ideas the party will win it with.

If there were no reason to believe that the DCCC preferred to win with corporate-friendly moderates — and no cause for doubting the committee’s talent for identifying exceptionally strong or weak candidates — then their interventions would likely be uncontroversial.

But as Lee Fang notes, that isn’t the case:

In 2006, the last cycle viewed as a wave midterm election for Democrats, the DCCC famously became heavily involved in Democratic primaries. In that election, just as in 2018, the party attempted to pick moderate, business-friendly veterans, while nudging left-leaning candidates out of the election. But some of the party’s chosen primary candidates ended up losing, and several candidates viewed as too progressive to win the general in Republican-held districts — such as John Hall, Carol Shea-Porter, and Jerry McNerney — went on to win that election with little to no DCCC support.

…In races in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Texas, Nebraska, California, and beyond, progressive candidates are finding that the DCCC has mobilized support for moderate candidates with access to early campaign cash at the expense of progressives. As we’ve reported, many first-time candidates are told by the DCCC that before they can even be considered, they have to perform the “rolodex” test to show they can raise $250,000 or more from the contact list on their phone.

It is certainly true that it takes money to win elections — and that, in some cases, there is an electoral cost to progressive purity. But there is little evidence to support the idea that ideological moderation is always a political virtue. In fact, there is good reason to believe that Democrats have more to gain than to lose by embracing certain left-wing economic policies.

And there’s even more cause for thinking that it is in the Democratic Party’s long-term political interest to elect candidates who are willing to govern progressively: A misguided faith in the electoral virtues of moderation is in no small part responsible for the Democrats’ current lack of power. A version of the Affordable Care Act that included a public option — and larger, deficit-financed insurance subsidies for the middle class — would be far more popular than the one we got. If Senate Democrats had abolished the filibuster, and passed a larger stimulus, more foreclosure relief, card check for unions, and citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants on a party-line vote, there’s a strong chance that Donald Trump would have never become president. Add a few million more immigrants to the electorate — and a couple percentage points to the rate of private-sector unionization — and you end up with a country that is both more democratic and more Democratic.

Thus, if the DCCC wishes to be truly pragmatic, it will pick its shots more carefully. In toss-up districts with crowded primary fields, and a conspicuously strong (or weak) general election candidate — as indicated by the strength of his or her ties to the district and past electoral performance — it might be wise for the DCCC to intervene. Where the terrain is more favorable, or the candidates more evenly matched, the committee should let local activists and voters pick their horse.

Alternatively, the committee can keep putting purity above pragmatism, and take needlessly divisive stands in support of candidates who meet its litmus tests.

‘Rigging’ Primaries Is Fine. Backing Bad Candidates Isn’t.