For grassroots candidates running for the U.S. Senate, one big, national endorsement can make or break an entire campaign. That’s why the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—a powerful, Washington-based organization that spends tens of millions of dollars each cycle supporting Democratic candidates—wields such outsized clout. An endorsement from it is in effect the Establishment’s stamp-of-approval for the party’s biggest donors to cut checks.
But that’s also why the DSCC’s pattern of endorsing candidates early in their primaries has sewn resentment among some grassroots campaigns and progressive activists in a handful of crucial states, including Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina.
“I think there’s a general feeling that we would put forward better nominees as a party to defeat Republicans if we let voters decide candidates, as opposed to trying to divine from within the confines of the Beltway who we think is most likely to win over, say, Kentucky or Colorado,” Karthik Ganapathy, a progressive strategist, told TIME. The DSCC should embrace a “role as sort of intermediaries and arbiters as opposed to kingmakers,” he adds.
At a time when the Democratic party is increasingly split between its moderate, Clintonian wing and a more revolutionary, progressive left—represented by the rise of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—DSCC endorsements also carry weighty implications for the future of the party. Some progressive critics argue that the DSCC mostly endorses moderate candidates.
“Their style seems to be [to choose] candidates who can stay on the phone all day to call big donors, do very few press events, and then put all of their money on television,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist, of the DSCC. “It’s their playbook.” (Republicans can be criticized on similar grounds, she says.)
A DSCC spokesperson says the organization endorses the most viable candidates as part of a broader, national strategic effort. “If we’re going to stop Mitch McConnell from gutting access to affordable health care, confirming partisan judges to lifetime appointments on the federal bench and Supreme Court, and attacking reproductive rights, then we need to win Senate seats,” Stewart Boss, a DSCC spokesperson, told TIME in an email. “We’re working with candidates who will do exactly that and help Democrats take back the Senate.” In recent years, some DSCC recruits have pulled out unexpected wins, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona in 2018.
The Democratic primary in Iowa, where at least four candidates are vying for the nomination to run against Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, is one example of where this tension is playing out. That race won’t heat up until after the Iowa presidential caucuses in February, and the field is still wide open. One October Emerson poll showed no clear front runner. Yet the DSCC has already endorsed a candidate: Theresa Greenfield, the president of a Des Moines real estate business.
Greenfield’s opponents accused the DSCC of anointing a winner from afar. “We shouldn’t rig elections,” retired Admiral Michael Franken, who is also running against Greenfield, told TIME. “And that’s a tough word—rig—but generally speaking the operatives in Washington, DC, do not have a track history in this state of choosing the most viable candidate.”
Kimberly Graham, who is also running against Greenfield, said the DSCC’s endorsement came too early. “Why not let the candidates who are going to get in the race get in, give them six months or whatever amount of time, and see what happens, see what they do?” she said in an interview with TIME. “If we really want a democracy then maybe we should back off a little bit and let the Iowa voters decide who is the best person to represent them.”
Early DSCC endorsements rankled outsiders in other states’ U.S. Senate races this cycle, too. In North Carolina, the DSCC backed army veteran and former state senator Cal Cunningham to take on Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, despite the fact that another Democrat, state Senator Erica Smith, is leading in polls. Smith has been running since January.
In a statement after the endorsement, Smith dismissed Cunningham an an “heir apparent” and accused the DSCC leadership, who she said she met with directly, of interfering in the democratic process. “Ultimately, the voters of North Carolina will decide who their next United States Senator will be — NOT a handful of DC politicians making back room deals in windowless basements,” Smith wrote.
A similar dynamic has played out in Colorado. In August, the DSCC endorsed former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper just two days after he joined the race after his failed presidential bid. Some of the Democratic candidates who were already running to challenge Republican Sen. Cory Gardner attacked the DSCC’s decision. “Democrats: This is a moment of decision. Do we want DC to dictate our choice and buy this election before any ballots are even cast—or do we believe voters still matter?” tweeted Andrew Romanoff, one of the candidates running to the left of Hickenlooper, a moderate. Meanwhile, former Obama-era Ambassador Dan Baer, who had raised almost $1.4 million for his campaign for that seat ended his bid when the DSCC weighed in.
In his first fundraising quarter in the race, Hickenlooper raised $2.1 million. Both Hickenlooper and Cunningham have a slew of endorsements in addition to the DSCC’s.
In Iowa in particular, many DSCC critics say the issue is not whether Theresa Greenfield is the right candidate; it’s that they believe voters should have been given time to consider each candidate’s merits before the DSCC weighed in. Greenfield received the DSCC’s backing just three days after entering the race, alongside an endorsement from EMILY’s List. She has since banked more endorsements from both national organizations, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, and local ones, including AFSCME Council 61 and several other unions. A number of current and former Iowa elected officials, including U.S. Representatives Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack, have also endorsed Greenfield.
Jordanna Zeigler, Greenfield’s campaign manager, did not respond immediately to questions about the DSCC’s early endorsement, but described broad backing for her candidate. “We’re proud that Theresa’s earned support from across the state, including endorsements just this week from labor unions representing nearly 12,000 hardworking Iowans,” she said in a statement. “Her hard work and the growing momentum for her campaign are how Theresa outraised Joni Ernst last month and why she’ll flip this Senate seat in November.”
In the last fundraising quarter, Greenfield pulled in more than $1.1 million —slightly out-raising Ernst. The DSCC sees that as a success: its endorsement can help make candidates competitive in fundraising against powerful incumbents. But Graham, Greenfield’s more progressive opponent, says it has given some of the voters she’s spoken with the impression that “Chuck Schumer and the DSCC put their thumbs on the scale.”
DSCC endorsements have broader implications at a time when the Democratic party, pushed left by the rise of popular liberal candidates, is in a period of self-reflection and reinvention. Many progressives complain that the DSCC’s tendency to select more moderate candidates fails to reflect an increasingly liberal Democratic base—which, they argue, might translate to electoral wins with the support of the party.
According to one recent Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll, a combined 40% of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa are planning to caucus in the presidential primary for one of the two top moderates, Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg. But nearly a third—a combined 31%—planned to caucus for Sanders or Warren. (The poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.)
Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, who endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for the 2020 primary, noted that a DSCC endorsement—or the lack thereof—affects who enters the race in the first place. He considered running in the Senate race himself, but decided against it on the grounds that the primary was “orchestrated by Washington elites, instead of being left up to the voters.”
“I don’t have the privilege of challenging institutional forces on this scale without incurring significant damage to my political career,” Walker wrote in a post announcing he wouldn’t run for the Senate, “and at the end of the day, this fear won out over my courage and I’m not proud about that.” Walker has since endorsed Graham.
Penny Rosfjord, a former Iowa Woodbury County chair, dismissed concerns about DSCC’s effect on state elections. “I think that people are reading too much into it. I think that anybody can run for the Senate,” she told TIME. “I think this is a nonstory for me.”
But Ganapathy, the progressive strategist, argued that a DSCC endorsement can distort who gets into a race, who rises, and who receives fundraising dollars. “The whole idea behind a primary is just [that] we’re going to get better nominees if we actually let voters decide,” he said. In an ideal world, the DSCC would play a broader role: “Don’t direct resources to any single candidate, and if you’re going to help a candidate, help all candidates equally,” he said.
In 2016, Katz, another progressive strategist, worked for progressive Senate candidate John Fetterman in the Pennsylvania primary. Fetterman lost to DSCC-backed Katie McGinty—but McGinty went on to lose the general election. Two years later, Fetterman ran for lieutenant governor and won the state race. (Katz later added she sees what she characterized as a strategy to keep candidates out of trouble as the Republican playbook too.)
Iowa state Sen. Rob Hogg argues that because the DSCC is a national organization, it often fails to identify the candidate most appealing to in-state voters. In 2016, he emerged as a formidable primary opponent against DSCC-backed Patty Judge, who was ultimately defeated soundly. “I believe to this day that that was a mistake by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee to intervene in that race,” Hogg said. In 2014, the DSCC endorsed Bruce Braley, who ran what most Democrats agree was a bad campaign. He too lost to Ernst.
“I don’t think Iowans have much confidence in the ability of the DSCC to pick candidates,” Hogg told TIME, describing DSCC endorsements as “meddling” in state primaries. “Unquestionably people want the DSCC to stay out of our primary,” he added. Hogg has not endorsed in the current primary.
Bryce Smith, the chair of the Iowa Dallas County Democrats, defended DSCC support as important to statewide candidates. But added that Iowa voters, who are used to using a very personal caucus system, are particularly sensitive to the notion of Washington selecting a nominee. “I definitely feel as though it kind of rubs against the grain,” he told TIME.
“In my personal view and what I hear from people is that that help comes once the nominee has been picked by Democratic voters,” he added. “I think that’s kind of the hurdle that’s being skipped by the DSCC.”
Eddie Mauro, who, like Greenfield, unsuccessfully ran for Iowa’s third district nomination in 2018 and also entered the Senate race this year, said that in conversations with Schumer and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the chair of the DSCC, in the spring, he was also told that they did not want a primary. “We talked about the prospects of me running for the US Senate,” he told TIME. “They were concerned about having a primary, they preferred not to have a primary at all.”
In June, TIME reported that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also attempted to dissuade J.D. Scholten, the candidate who nearly beat Rep. Steve King in Iowa’s fourth district in 2018 who was at the time considering jumping into the 2020 Senate race, from running for Senate in an attempt to clear the way for Greenfield. “We don’t need a primary,” Schumer told Scholten, according to a source familiar with the situation. Scholten eventually chose to run in the fourth district again.
Greenfield ran in the Iowa third district primary in the 2018 cycle, a seat now held by Democratic US Rep. Cindy Axne, but dropped out after a campaign staffer faked signatures for her petition paperwork. The staffer later publicly apologized in an ad in the Des Moines Register.
What’s clear is that Democrats have their work cut out for them in 2020. Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine are among the most competitive races, although some Democrats argue that Iowa is within reach. The state voted for Trump by about 10 points and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the 2020 race as “Likely Republican,” but President Barack Obama won the state twice and it wasn’t so long ago that Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin represented the state. And as the saying goes, Democrats have to fall in love.
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