‘Something wild’: Two Washington Dems battling to lead party’s House campaign effort

Rep. Pelosi celebrates new Democratic majority in the House

Nancy Pelosi spoke to supporters on November 6, 2018 after it was clear that Democrats would win enough seats in the House of Representatives to retake the majority.
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Nancy Pelosi spoke to supporters on November 6, 2018 after it was clear that Democrats would win enough seats in the House of Representatives to retake the majority.

The race to lead the Democratic party’s 2020 election battle has become a highly unusual clash between two Washington members of Congress from neighboring districts.

Reps. Denny Heck and Suzan DelBene are two of the four candidates for the chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the main super PAC that funds party candidates running for the House of Representatives.

Neither deferred to the other, which usually happens when two lawmakers from the same small state consider running for the same position within the party.

The turn of events has flabbergasted Ron Dotzauer, a Seattle-based political strategist and former Democratic consultant, who thinks it may be unprecedented, at least in Washington.

“That’s something wild,” Dotzauer said. “I’ve never seen it done.”

Two other candidates — Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Cheri Bustos of Illinois — are competing against the Washingtonians in the Nov. 28 DCCC election.

Heck chairs recruitment for the DCCC, and is touting his ability to attract quality politicians. Democrats feel they fielded a deep class of candidates this past election cycle.

DelBene is the co-chair of finance, and emphasizes her ability to convince donors to open their checkbooks. Both say they feel good about their chances.

Dotzauer gives the edge to Heck, whom he said was widely expected to run, and has “paid his dues” and “been toiling in the fields, if you will, with recruitment.”

Dotzauer has known Heck, 66, for decades, and has donated to both Democrats’ campaigns. He said he’s “very impressed” with DelBene, 56, but Heck is “one of the smartest political strategists I’ve ever met.”

The Democratic leadership position is currently held by Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, who is seeking to become assistant Democratic leader after a successful midterm for the DCCC, which helped Democrats flip more than 35 Republican seats. The DCCC outraised its National Republican Congressional Committee counterpart this election cycle, $250 million to $174 million, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan campaign finance research group.

Heck, a three-term congressman representing Olympia and part of Tacoma, plans to focus on protecting the party’s gains in 2020 if he wins.

“There’s no question that we’ll rotate the dial” toward defense, he told McClatchy.

He added in a letter to Democratic colleagues: “Next cycle, with our great and large crop of new members, we need to place more emphasis on their needs. It’s just math. It is simply more cost effective to protect an incumbent than to defeat one.”

DelBene is a three-term congresswoman representing several northern Washington counties. She touted raising more than $4 million for the DCCC in her current role, and said in a crowded 2020 cycle where donors will be giving to presidential nominees, Democrats need someone experienced in raising money.

“I think it will be a tougher environment just because there will be so many more folks out there,” she said. “I’ve worked really hard to fundraise both for the DCCC and for my own races. It’s all about being on the phone, calling people, talking to them, making sure they understand how those resources are going to be used.”

Alex Hays, a Tacoma-based GOP strategist, worked for Heck’s Republican opponent in his 2012 House race, but said the congressman, whom he knows personally, would be a strong choice for DCCC chair.

“He is a smart, centrist, reasonable guy,” Hays said. “Does a pretty good job actually of moving legislation. What you want a congressman to be, even if you’re a Republican.”

Hays thinks Heck ran a strong campaign in 2012, when he was first elected. DelBene, he said, won her first campaign in 2012 in large part because she spent $2.8 million of her own money. Heck loaned himself just under $100,000 in the 2012 cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission.

“That first campaign really shapes who a person is, for sometimes their whole career,” Hays said. “How each of them arrived in the body will give them lessons that they will take away.”

DelBene said she does not think spending her own money in 2012 should have an impact on her candidacy for DCCC chair.

“I think people know that I have been working hard in my role and working hard as well to support others,” she said.

DelBene, a former Microsoft executive, scored a high-profile endorsement Monday, when civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, announced his support.

“Her experiences in the tech industry, as an entrepreneur, and as head of revenue finance for the state of Washington make her a great resource as a fundraiser,” Lewis said in a statement. “She will be able to speak the language of donors and respond to their concerns.”

Kellen Browning, 202-383-6102, @kellen_browning