Top liberals have reached a détente with the House Democratic campaign arm in a dispute over a policy that inhibits primary challengers to incumbents — a move intended to unify Democrats in this year’s battle to protect their majority and defeat President Donald Trump.
Some of the House’s most influential progressives, including Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), said they will contribute tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, despite a contentious new rule that blacklists campaign consultants who work for candidates taking on sitting Democratic members.
The decision by the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus represents a thawing of monthslong tensions with DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (Ill.), who had fiercely defended the policy over bitter objections from high-profile Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The group — Bustos and about two dozen progressive Democrats — sat down privately last week to discuss the 2020 cycle, during which she thanked liberals in the room who have agreed to pay their dues, according to people familiar with the meeting.
“I intend to pay the full dues. I have a view that, in 2020, we have to come together to ensure the defeat of Donald Trump and the retaining of our majority,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), another sharp critic of the DCCC policy who began paying dues in January.
A rank-and-file member like Khanna, who isn’t in leadership or on an exclusive committee, is expected to pay roughly $150,000 in party dues during the election cycle.
“My view has always been that I think that policy should be changed,” said Khanna, who ousted a Democratic incumbent, then-Rep. Mike Honda, in 2016. “But we have to make sure that we’re supporting the effort.”
So far, Ocasio-Cortez remains the most prominent exception to the newly improved relationship between progressives and the DCCC.
The New York Democrat — whose stunning primary victory in 2018 stirred fear in incumbents across the country — first urged her millions of Twitter followers to “pause” their contributions to the campaign arm when the blacklist policy was announced last March.
And earlier this month, Ocasio-Cortez declared she had no plans to pay party dues despite raising millions of dollars last year and was instead launching her own political action committee to fund the candidates she supports directly. The Courage to Change PAC has raised a staggering $229,000 in the 11 days since its launch this month, according to figures provided by her campaign.
“DCCC made clear that they will blacklist any org that helps progressive candidates like me. I can choose not to fund that kind of exclusion,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
Much of DCCC’s fundraising is devoted to protecting hard-fought seats in GOP-leaning territory. Ocasio-Cortez does still contribute to some of those battleground Democrats’ campaigns: She has donated to Reps. Mike Levin (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), all freshmen the DCCC considers to be in competitive districts.
And she pointed out that her fundraising for fellow Democrats exceeds the $250,000 amount that she owes in dues as a member of the prestigious Financial Services Committee.
Still, the freshman’s position has irked some of her fellow Democrats.
“Members have a right to make that decision,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, a fellow New York City Democrat who had previously criticized Ocasio-Cortez’s position on dues and faces his own, Ocasio-Cortez-inspired primary this spring. “I want us to be all together as a team. I don’t want us to have dialogue that divides us as a team, that makes us weak,” he added.
Progressive leaders suggested that they respected Ocasio-Cortez’s choice — even if they would not follow her lead. Pocan said he believed “most of us see it as broader than any one person who you may not love the dues going to.”
“AOC has a very unique ability to raise lots of money on the outside that no one else does and she can use that to also be helpful,” Pocan said. “So I don’t at all diss what she’s doing if she finds another vehicle to be helpful. For most of us, it’s the collective efforts that happen through the DCCC that help make sure that we’re in the majority.”
The agreement between liberal leaders and the party’s campaign arm is significant as Democrats gear up for an election that determines whether they can hold onto their nascent majority.
“Progressive members in our caucus bring an important perspective to the table. I value their input on our strategy,” Bustos said in a statement to POLITICO about partnering with the CPC. “That’s why we have already made major early investments in field organizing, voter registration and voting-rights litigation.”
But the temporary truce does not entirely resolve the age-old dispute between the activist and establishment wings of the Democratic caucus: how best to protect incumbents without blocking the path of left-leaning challengers, like Ocasio-Cortez, who are helping to energize the party.
Jayapal, who worked with Pocan behind the scenes for months to protest the DCCC’s policy, said she realizes the so-called “blacklist” rule won’t change this cycle but wants to keep a line of communication open with the committee.
“Hopefully that is something we can get taken care of in the next,“ Jayapal said of the policy, adding, “all of our dues matter.”
“We also want to make sure that we are doing as much as possible to maintain our House majority and so the key is: Can we get to a place where our members feel like the DCCC is supporting all of us?” Jayapal said.
Withholding dues is not an uncommon practice. Dozens of House Democrats have shirked the duty this year for an array of reasons, such as fundraising prowess, dynamics in their district and members’ own relationships with DCCC. The same pattern has also plagued House Republicans.
The most endangered Democrats, for example, are not required to chip in to the caucus’s fundraising efforts. And certain groups, like senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have historically withheld dues because they felt the party organ has neglected them in the past.
More than a third of all Democrats hadn’t paid dues as of December 2019, according to a campaign report obtained by POLITICO. That list included progressives like Pocan, Jayapal and Khanna, some of whom have since contributed to DCCC or say they plan to this year.
Three other prominent liberal Democrats, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), also did not pay dues as of December. Their staff did not respond to requests for comment about whether they planned to start paying dues.
Donating to the party committee can also be a symbolic gesture, a way for a member to demonstrate their commitment to and gain clout within the House Democratic caucus.
The spotlight on dues-paying Democrats comes after the DCCC announced last year that it will not contract with or recommend any political vendors that help a candidate primarying any sitting incumbent in the caucus.
The new hiring standards incensed progressives who accused Bustos and her team of kneecapping insurgent candidates following in the footsteps of Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, who ousted then-Rep. Mike Capuano last cycle.
The committee is a powerful gatekeeper for campaign consultants. It doles out millions of dollars in business for its independent expenditure arm and also connects them with candidates.
In past cycles, the “blacklist” policy operated in as an unwritten, loosely enforced rule. But the codification of what had been general practice had a large impact because of an increase in primary challengers inspired by the 2018 cohort.
Ocasio-Cortez relied on few traditional campaign vendors, but others did. AKPD Message & Media, a prominent Democratic firm that worked for former President Barack Obama, made TV ads for Pressley — and Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, which is working for former Vice President Joe Biden this year, did her polling.
Several of this year’s primary challengers said the negative effects of the policy were swift. Marie Newman, a marketing consultant who is making a second run against Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), one of the most conservative House Democrats, lost four consultants within a month of the introduction of the blacklist.
Top progressive leaders have made repeated appeals to Bustos to end the policy, but she has held firm. She has marketed it as a way to protect the moderate majority-makers from liberal challengers who could divert precious resources away from the general election — the types of Democrats who helped elect Bustos as campaign chair last year.
But the policy also benefits members of the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses who have seen an uptick in primary challengers — some of whom have earned public endorsements from Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez.
In a briefing with reporters last week, Bustos declined to rule out spending for Democrats in safe seats who have tough primaries. She specifically noted DCCC had met with Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) to offer advice and campaign staff recommendation. Beatty was outraised in the third-quarter of last year by a Democratic primary challenger, consumer advocate Morgan Harper.
“We offer that to any member of the Democratic House,” Bustos said, calling her committee, “an incumbent friendly organization.”