When the Senate Democraticcampaign arm endorsed John Hickenlooperthedayafter he announcedhewouldchallengeGOPSen.Cory Gardner, the backlash was swift.
A half dozen women alreadyrunningpenned a scathing letter attacking the committee for perpetuating a good ol’ boy system by throwing its weight behind a moderate, white man in a diverse primary field.
Story Continued Below
“Offensive,” was how state Sen. Angela Williams, who signed the letter, put it. “For someone to think just one candidate, one man, can win this is not who we are in the state,” she said. “And we’re better than this.”
National Democrats view Hickenlooper, a former two-term governor who flamed out of the presidential race, as their best bet in Colorado, a must-win for the Senate majority. He isn’t the only candidate they’ve endorsedinaprimary: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also pickedfavorites in a handful of racesacross the country rather than allowing primaries to play out unimpeded.
It’s a risky decision after similar endorsements have backfired for the party in recent cycles, and it’s already created a fierce reaction within their own ranks— before Democrats even get to taking on Republicans incumbents. But Democrats defend the decisions as a necessary boost for candidates they see as best-positioned to prevail.
The DSCC has already backed Theresa Greenfield in Iowa and state House SpeakerSara Gideon in Maine, two battleground states with multiple Democratic contenders, and endorsed Mark Kelly in Arizona, where the primary field was cleared of potential rivals. They’re also officially behind Rep. Ben Ray Luján in New Mexico and Jaime Harrison, a former state party chairman, in the reach state of South Carolina.
The endorsements can provide candidates with party resources and much-needed fundraising boosts. But they have left some progressiveslivid, saying the party should allow the process to play out and force their preferred candidates to prove themselves without help. Rival candidates are angry at the detrimental effect on their bids, while other Democrats say the DSCC involvement kept them from running at all.
Several Colorado Democrats defended the DSCC’s involvement, even though there were already nearly a dozen candidates in the race. They point out Hickenlooper already has major local endorsements, including fromformer Sen. Ken Salazar and Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and that he won two gubernatorial races in 2010 and 2014 — two banner years for Republicans. Recent polling shows Hickenlooper with a massive lead in the primary.
One state lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said some candidates and activists frustrated by the endorsement fail to grasp the scope of the race, which will be a top contest for control of the Senate.
“The women candidates have failed to present themselves as serious contenders, and I think that’s what a lot of people understand,” the lawmaker said, pointing to low, early fundraising totals.
Others were more blunt.
“Sometime between when we put away the shorts and start waxing our skis, people will realize that the goals for 2020 are to beat Gardner, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch]McConnell and [President Donald]Trump,” said Curtis Hubbard, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Hickenlooper, calling him “our best hope for all three.”
Hickenlooper’s detractors roundly disagree with that analysis. Several other Democrats in the race are well funded, they argue, and more in line with the state’s progressive base.And despite winning two terms as governor, they point to Hickenlooper’s failed presidential campaign as evidence of his weakness as a candidate — including his statements about the Senate race, saying he’s not “cut out to be a senator.”
“For the DSCC to put their money on a guy who has some serious flaws as a leader, I just find it to be abysmal,” said Joe Salazar, a former state lawmaker who helped draft the letter the women candidates signed.
The DSCC and its allies vehemently defend endorsing in primaries, arguing every decision is in service of winningcontroloftheSenateafternextyear’selections. Candidates they have backed also have significant local support: Gideon announced more than60 Maine endorsements on the day she launched in June, and Greenfield announced endorsements Thursday from nine local elected officials, party chairs and activists, adding to a list that already included unions and former statewide elected officials.
Dan Sena, who ran the House campaign committee in 2018 when Democrats took back the majority — after getting involved in primaries behind a number of candidates — argued that endorsements come after significant local engagement and data.
“These are not decisions made on a whim or a popularity contest,” Sena said. “These are decisions that are very well thought-out, take time to develop, and often they’re critical to being able to flip a seat.”
Democrats aren’t alone in dealing with challenging primaries. Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) both have GOP challengers, and Republicans face crowded and potentially divisive primaries in Alabama and Kansas, two red states they must win to maintain their majority.
Republicans have already tried to drive a wedge in Democratic primaries, spending money on billboards lifting up lower-tier Democratic challengers with fewer resources they view as easier general election opponents.
“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,” said Stewart Boss, a DSCC spokesperson. “We’re working with candidates who will do exactly that and help Democrats take back the Senate.”
But some liberals say that to get involved this early shuts the door on potential candidates who could prove themselves as majority-makers. There is lingering frustration from 2016,when the committee backed formerGov.Ted Strickland in Ohio and formerSen.Evan Bayh in Indiana only to see both flop on the campaign trail.
Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist, worked with John Fetterman, thenalocalmayor, in the three-way Pennsylvania Senate primary in 2016. The DSCC endorsed Katie McGinty in that race, aiming to block former Rep. Joe Sestak, wholostaSenateracein2010, from becoming the nominee — but Katz said the interference alsodiminished energy for Fetterman. McGinty won the primary but failedtounseat Republican Sen. Pat Toomey inthegeneralelection. Fetterman won the lieutenant governor’s race two years later.
“The DSCC should be out there looking for the best candidates, but they shouldn’t be stifling energy. And when they make endorsements like this, that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Katz said. “Once again, they are ignoring what Democratic primary voters want for who may look better on paper.”
Stacey Walker, a county supervisor in Iowa, was considering running for Senate earlier this year and said the DSCC’s endorsement was the primary reason he stayed out to protect his nascent political career.
“I couldn’t risk damaging myself by going up against the establishment’s preferred choice,” Walker told POLITICO in an interview. “Getting involved a year out without letting the field settle itself, and everything that comes along with that, just makes it real hard to have a competitive primary.”
Mike Franken, a retired three-star Navy admiral who entered the Iowa race this week — well after the national consolidation around Greenfield — said he preferred a primary contest without interference but wasn’t deterred by the DSCC’s endorsement.
“They do choose presidential candidates here, and I certainly think that in stride they can choose the best senatorial candidate,” Franken said. “Let’s just let the voter decide.”
Even in states where the DSCC hasn’t endorsed candidates, they’ve taken heat. Matt Jones, a sports radio host in Kentucky, launched an exploratory committee Thursday eyeing a run against McConnell. He’s been critical of Amy McGrath, who has not been endorsed but has significant national backing that helped her raised $2.5 million the day she launched.
“To take down the [Democratic] Party first, and the Republican party second, that’s not exactly easy,” Jones said on his radio show Thursday.
In Maine, Democrats have rallied around Gideon, who enteredthe race against GOP Sen. Susan Collins in June with a flood of local endorsements and raised $1 million in a week.
Gideon said in an interview earlier this month that she was glad to have support from national organizations like the DSCC and End Citizens United, but also said she’s “really proud to have the support of many, many people in Maine.”
But Betsy Sweet, a progressive activist and lobbyist who placed third in last year’s gubernatorial primary, is running to Gideon’s left and has become a vocal critic of the national involvement.
“No one ever talked to me,” Sweetsaid. “No one ever reached out to me.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.