Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is taking a stand against House Democrats’ policy protecting sitting members.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the first-term progressive superstar, took to Twitter last week and told her nearly 3.8 million followers to “pause” their donations to House Democrats’ official campaign arm — 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.
The controversy comes down to something the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has always done informally: prioritize incumbent Democrats. But last week, the organization put it in writing, publishing its criteria for determining which political vendors — like direct mail companies, advertising firms, or political consultants — 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.
But progressive House members are calling out what they see as an exclusionary policy that could cut off important coalitions within the party.
If the DCCC enacts this policy to blacklist vendors who work with challengers, we risk undermining an entire universe of potential candidates and vendors – especially women and people of color – whose ideas, energy, and innovation need a place in our party (6/x)
— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) March 30, 2019
This was supposed to be the DCCC’s diversity initiative. Then it soured.
Last week, 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 Rep. Cheri 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. 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.”
But the DCCC has no intention of changing course.
“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.”
The policy has already pushed Ocasio-Cortez away from the official campaign arm. And while the DCCC doesn’t anticipate a downturn in donations, she has made an impact with her grassroots Twitter campaign for swing district candidates, proving she, at least, is an institution herself.
We are blowing through our FEC goal tonight – $50,000 – in just a few hours.
All of it goes straight to cands who stood strong for working people, climate, gun safety, immigrant youth &more.
Thank YOU all for proving that a different politics is possible.https://t.co/ujRYWSa5fH
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) April 1, 2019
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.”