DCCC Shade: Paths for Progressives in NJ2 and NJ3

This week, the Washington Post dove into the complicated dynamics of Democratic primaries throughout the country, and the increasingly questionable role that the DCCC is playing in those primaries:

A black Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania is accusing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee of undermining his campaign and trying to nudge him out of the race in favor of white candidates.

A Republican super PAC’s poll in Texas has found a Democrat surging after the DCCC published opposition research about her campaign.

Across the country, tensions are boiling over between party activists and the Washington-based committees that usually shape midterm campaigns — with insurgent candidates seeing advantages in attacking the so-called “establishment,” and anticipating little harm when the party comes after them.

The article even highlights our own primary in NJ2:

For some insurgent candidates, the DCCC had settled in as a target — a representative of the political establishment. In New Jersey, where the DCCC had welcomed state Sen. Jeff Van Drew to the race, a rival Democrat named Sean Thom published an open letter asking the party why it had embraced a candidate who deviated from his party on gun rights.

“We ask you to carefully review his votes and consider whether a candidate with such poor positions is qualified for the Democratic ticket,” Thom wrote.

That NJ2 race is starting to heat up, particularly as current events forces favorite Sen. Van Drew’s (D) brutal record of gun control into the public eye. That parallels what’s happened in NJ3, where incumbent and favorite Tom MaCarthur (R)’s role in trying to repeal Obamacare made him a national Democrat target.

So why is Andy Kim, the progressive in NJ3, alone in the race with MaCarthur while progressives such as Sean Thom and Tanzie Youngblood are huge underdogs in a crowded field in NJ2? I argue that the differences have to do with 1) preexisting infrastructure 2) the timing of the political moment which made those races national news and 3) the active role the party plays in picking candidates for more attainable seats.

  1. One of the biggest differences between Kim and the progressive in NJ2 is preexisting infrastructure. Kim started the race with national connections through the Obama administration, and built a professional campaign. As such, he has been able to built off of both the Obamacare issues and also the more recent gun controversies. That hasn’t been the case for Sean Thom and Tanzie Youngblood, who are newcomers to politics and had to build from scratch. As a result, they are in a worse position to capitalize on this political moment.
  2. The timing also matters. In Kim’s race, MaCarthur became a Democratic pariah early in the campaign. That allowed Kim to consolidate early support and translate it into campaign infrastructure. In NJ2, the gun issue became national news relatively late in the campaign. That means that for a progressive to win, they either a) had to be in the campaign early and have built the type of infrastructure to win before the Parkland shooting or b) need to be able to built infrastructure very quickly by pivoting off the news. Youngblood and Thom appear to be trying to do the latter, but it’s an uphill climb. But the former is also a challenging path, it’s hard to ask a well-positioned progressive to enter a race when the path to winning isn’t yet obvious (and won’t be unless something breaks right for the candidate). In other words, sometimes a good candidate needs to already be in the race and get a little lucky.
  3. Finally, somewhat counterintuitively, progressives may have better paths to being elected in districts that are less blue. That’s because, when there is a clear path to a seat, it’s more likely the party will handpick it’s candidate. That’s the big lesson of the DCCC article in the Washington Post, and it’s the same here in New Jersey. Part of the reason a progressive has a clear path to a 1-on-1 matchup against MaCarthur is because it’s a more difficult seat to win. In NJ3, as soon as LoBiondo (R) retired, the party had lined up Van Drew for the seat. In other words, the DCCC and local party is more likely to hand-pick a candidate to run in a district with a clear path to winning because they see it as a better use of their resources. There may be a clearer path for progressives to run in traditionally difficult for Democrat districts because they won’t face funded competition from within the party.

In other words, the path for a progressive into office depends on a complicated number of factors. All paths are clearer for progressive candidates who have been doing the work and are able to build professional campaigns capable of fundraising. But the likelihood of winning depends heavily on the timing of political moments, such as MaCarthur’s role in Obamacare repeal or controversy over Van Drew’s gun record after the Parkland school shooting. Sometimes a candidate needs to already be in the race when such a political moment happens, and already have built the infrastructure to turn that oxygen into a victory. Lastly, the local and national party may actually make paths more difficult for progressives by handpicking candidates and supporting them in races with clear lanes to victory. The path to victory may be easier for progressives in relatively more Republican districts — they do not have to fight national and local parties to win, and may still be able to ride the anti-Trump wave into office.

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