House Progressives readying plan to influence primaries

A group of progressive House Democrats is preparing to make a major effort in its party’s primaries this year, buoyed by a surge in liberal energy that has left them flush with cash and enough confidence to unveil a series of endorsements in competitive primaries.

It’s a significant escalation from the group’s previous political efforts, and it already has some Democrats worried that liberal candidates could complicate the party’s path to a House majority.

“This really is our moment,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. “And we want make sure we’re out there and as active as possible to make sure progressives have an advantage in their races.”

The Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC’s plan takes advantage of the wave of progressive energy that has transformed the Democratic Party since Donald Trump’s election, one that has turned millions of voters into engaged liberal activists and pushed issues such as single-payer health care to the forefront.

Like many liberal groups last year, the PAC saw a spike in fundraising: It raised $561,000 last year, an official with the PAC said. That’s nearly double the $297,000 the group raised during a two-year period last election cycle. (That’s still pennies when compared with other Democratic groups’ haul; House Democrats’ campaign arm — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — raised more than $95 million in 2017.)

“We’re looking to make sure we take advantage of the momentum out there,” Pocan said. “Where there’s a clear progressive choice, we want to make sure we’re getting behind someone who can be a good progressive member of Congress and can get elected.”

House Democrats face dozens of competitive primaries this year, a byproduct of the explosion of liberal energy that has persuaded many first-time candidates to run for office. Some competitive primaries have as many as a half-dozen credible candidates running.

The enthusiaism to run is a good thing, say many Democratic strategists who have watched the party struggle to recruit even a single candidate for battleground contests in recent elections. But the surge has also provoked anxiety among some campaign operatives, who worry a free-for-all in the primary could lead to the party having a substandard candidate in the general election.

It has also sparked fears of kindling tension inside the Democratic Party.

On Friday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC released its first round of endorsements, a list that included a handful of top Democratic candidates such as Angie Craig in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District and Andy Kim in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District.

But the progressives’ list also included Gina Ortiz Jones, a first-generation Filipina-American and Iraq War vet running in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District. Jones who has far less cash than her rival Jay Hulings. The eventual Democratic nominee will take on Republican Rep. Will Hurd in this battleground district, which stretches across a huge swath of the Texas-Mexico border. To some Washington Democrats, who consider the seat a must-win, Hulings is the stronger candidate.

“This is a heavily Hispanic district, particularly the primary electorate,” said one national Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Jay Hulings is Mexican American and a former prosecutor who busted corrupt politicians and put cartel leaders at the border behind bars — he’s a perfect fit and pretty clearly the best chance to flip this seat.”

Hulings is on the “watch list” of the New Dem PAC, the political arm for a coalition of centrist, business-oriented House Democrats, and has the endorsement of Bold PAC, affiliated with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

But progressives aren’t swayed. Pocan said Jones’ background and agenda will “captivate” voters.

“If we learned anything from the presidential election, people were surprised to see Bernie Sanders do as well as he did,” he said. “People are hungry for authentic candidates who don’t worry about every word they said or matching what every poll says.”

Pocan said he expects a lot of overlap between the candidates his caucus supports and the candidates backed by Democratic Party leaders in Washington. But he emphasized that progressives won’t shy away from making a different choice in competitive primaries.

“I’m sure there’ll be cases where they pick wrong,” the Wisconsin congressman said. “And we’re going to work really hard to get our candidates elected.”

The PAC makes its endorsements after a vote from its 77 members, all but one of whom serve in the House. Sanders is the lone member from the Senate.

After a devastating 2016, Democrats are looking to reclaim both the House and the Senate in 2018 but there are a few obstacles in their way.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty