Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The DSCC Rolls the Dice on Endorsements

Katie McGinty (D-PA)
The DSCC, the campaign arm of the Democrats' Senate operation, has notoriously, in the past, been non-confrontational when it comes to contested primaries.  It's rare, in fact, that they go into a race unless there's an incumbent or a clear frontrunner (like, say, two years ago when Alison Lundergan Grimes and Michelle Nunn were such surefire nominees that they were basically incumbents in the eyes of the committee).  The reason for this is simple-unless the person at the top is someone who has already proven they can win a Senate race (ie an incumbent), you should let the candidates get out there and prove which one is the best in terms of operation and voter appeal, as theoretically they are going to be the best candidate in the primary.  Plus, why waste money trying to get your best candidate in the primary when you could end up having wasted money to try and get them through, and still have a different Democrat you have to now trumpet?

At least that has been the theory of the DSCC for about a decade now, but it appears that this reasoning has gone out the window under the leadership of Sen. Jon Tester, and it's worth examining if this is a good change of strategy.  Tester, who is currently chairing the DSCC, has been frequently extending his hand into contested primaries that feature no incumbent, and so far has done so with relatively strong success.  Endorsements of Deborah Ross (NC), Ted Strickland (OH), and Tammy Duckworth (IL) accompanied wins for all three candidates, whom the DSCC has already started boosting for the general election.  Having the Senate's clearly-backed candidates as your nominee is a coup in the sense that they have candidates who will likely be more loyal to Senate leadership (you scratch my back, I scratch your back), and theoretically they're the strongest candidate (why else get into the race?).

The interesting dilemma right now, though, is that the DSCC has gotten a little bit riskier heading into the next couple of races, and has actually endorsed two candidates who are currently behind in the polls.  Rep. Patrick Murphy (FL) and gubernatorial Chief of Staff Katie McGinty (PA) have received the committee's endorsement, despite being behind in the polls to Reps. Alan Grayson and Joe Sestak, respectively.  This poses a dilemma for Tester, who is putting his money where his mouth is (the DSCC will be spending $425k in the coming weeks on advertisements to help McGinty), who may end up with two candidates his committee campaigned against, giving fuel to the Republicans ("not even their own party wanted them!") and likely angering the liberal grassroots communities in those states in the process.

It's not hard to see why Tester is doing this, of course.  Alan Grayson has a history of bombastic remarks that would be electoral poison in a state as purple as Florida (compared to Murphy, who has a center-left profile that is in the mold of successful incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, it's an easy decision), while Joe Sestak frequently has been a thorn in the side of Democratic leadership, beating out an incumbent in 2010 that had been endorsed by President Obama and then going on to lose the general election.  McGinty and Murphy cut a more compelling presence in a general election and could appeal to moderates that are more easily picked off.  However, the endorsements cut both ways and in a year where anti-establishment is a compliment, getting to run against Washington isn't the worst thing.  Plus, that nearly half-a-million dollars is going to look like burned money if Sestak beats McGinty, particularly if the DSCC is strapped for cash this fall as some have anticipated.

Admittedly, not every person who beats a DSCC-endorsed candidate ends up losing in the general, and no one would know that better than Jon Tester.  In 2006, he was pushed (hard) by Sens. Reid and Schumer to get out of the race and line up behind State Auditor John Morrison, but he refused.  This ended up being a godsend for the party later when it was revealed that Morrison was having an affair and likely would have lost in the general, thus costing the Democrats their majority.  Still, this can hurt (just look at Sestak in 2010), and cause bad blood between the DSCC and a theoretical future senator, something that Schumer and Tester, both hoping to gain stature in a Democratic majority, want to avoid at all costs.

So is this a good strategy?  It's one of those situations where if it works, it's smart, and if it doesn't, it was the height of foolishness.  There's little denying that McGinty and Murphy would be better candidates in the general election, and that is what is driving this.  After all, in contested races like California and Maryland, where the Democrat is assured a win no matter what, Tester has stayed out even if Kamala Harris and Chris van Hollen would arguably be slightly better general election candidates (Loretta Sanchez and Donna Edwards would also win, albeit by narrower margins, so why waste time and risk alienating a potential future colleague?).  In a year where the DSCC is hunting for literally any seat they can find (four seats, despite what some overzealous Democratic pundits may say, is a tall order for the party to overturn), my gut is this is probably smart, but they better hope the polls start saying the same thing.

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