Schumer Picks Senate Primary Favorites, Angering Progressives

September 9, 2019by Steven T. Dennis
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks to reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill on July 11, 2017. (Alex Edelman/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Chuck Schumer’s effort to unite Democrats behind well-funded, centrist Senate candidates has sparked a backlash from progressives who warn that the Democratic leader risks turning off voters they’ll need to take back the chamber.

Consolidating the party apparatus behind strong candidates early can help raise their profile — and bring in millions in fundraising. But the strategy is angering local activists and competing primary candidates.

The campaign committee associated with Senate leaders has already picked well-established candidates in key battleground states more than a year before the election, including Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon seeking to unseat Republican Susan Collins and former Gov. John Hickenlooper in Colorado targeting Republican Cory Gardner. Most of the favored Senate hopefuls don’t back Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, and in many cases they have more progressive competition.

Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the liberal advocacy group Democracy for America, said Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are “out of touch” for “picking winners in state after state.”

“What they are doing is hurting our chances to win in the end,” said Chamberlain, adding that the DSCC has a terrible track record of choosing candidates early. “This is the heavy hand of Chuck Schumer who doesn’t understand how to run his caucus. The time for Wall Street, corporate Democrats is passed.”

Candidates spurned by the DSCC, which is chaired by Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto but effectively answers to Schumer, complain the national party shouldn’t be dictating to voters who their candidates will be.

“They didn’t just get in putting their thumb on the scale, it was like the full body, right?” Betsy Sweet, a progressive activist running against Gideon in Maine’s Democratic primary, said in an interview last month. Speaking in Augusta, Maine, after a gun control event, she noted that four-term incumbent Collins has beaten Schumer-backed picks before.

“What I see Chuck Schumer trying to do for all these candidates is to package them like a cookie,” Sweet said. “Their formula is raise a lot of money and a lot of negative ads, and you win. I don’t believe that’s what’s going to win.”

Gideon, the primary candidate favored by the DSCC, bristled at the charge that she’s packaged, saying in an interview at a party lobster bake that she “worked with blood, sweat and tears” in the part-time citizen legislature.

“There’s nothing packaged and pretty about that,” Gideon said. “It is just hard work, and hard work that is based on dedication and conviction. And I will put myself up against anybody else in that frame any day with clear eyes and a full heart.”

Like national Democratic leaders, Gideon talks of protecting the Affordable Care Act, acting on climate change and expanding gun background checks. On every issue, Sweet has staked out more progressive positions. Sweet’s politics align closely with presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, backing Medicare for All — it “has to happen,” she says — and a Green New Deal.

The same ideological tension is playing out in the Democratic presidential race, with former Vice President Joe Biden offering more incremental policies and Warren and Sanders pushing for bolder action on healthcare and the environment. But in Senate races, party leaders don’t want to wait for the primaries to sort themselves out.

“If we’re going to stop Mitch McConnell from packing the Supreme Court with partisan judges, gutting access to affordable healthcare, and attacking reproductive rights, then we need to win Senate seats,” said DSCC Communications Director Lauren Passalacqua, referring to the Senate majority leader. “We’re working with the strongest candidates who will help Democrats take back the Senate.”

The endorsement of Hickenlooper in particular — after saying in his failed presidential campaign that he didn’t want to be a senator — brought jeers from other candidates already running in Colorado’s Democratic primary. But Hickenlooper is appealing to national Democrats worried about the general election because he polls well, has name recognition, can raise money and has proven he can win in a state crucial for Democratic hopes to win the Senate majority.

The calculus on Gideon is similar. She was able to raise a million dollars in a little more than a week — far more than her primary opponents — has a raft of state endorsements and a statewide profile as someone who helped build a Democratic coalition that won back the Maine governor’s mansion, the State Senate and massively expanded its House majority in last year’s local elections.

Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, now a progressive Senate candidate, said DSCC officials don’t want a primary and initially scared off consultants who were interested in working on his campaign.

“It strikes me as fundamentally unjust and undemocratic that somebody who runs a party committee in Washington should have more of a say” than Colorado voters, said Romanoff, who trails Hickenlooper badly in recent polls.

The DSCC “made clear to me that they don’t believe supporting progressive priorities like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal is a winning strategy in Colorado,” said Romanoff. He said corporate donations have affected how lawmakers in Washington treat those ideas, which he said are popular with voters worried about healthcare bills and what he called the “existential” climate crisis.

“To me the question is: what do you do when you win?” he said. “If the answer is not much, why did you run?”

Romanoff said he received more than 2,000 donations in the week after the DSCC made its endorsement — more than any other week this year — and quipped that he might send them a thank-you note.

The DSCC did endorse one candidate who backs Medicare for All and a Green New Deal: Ben Ray Lujan, a current House representative and member of leadership running for the Senate in Democratic-leaning New Mexico.

Schumer himself generally avoids those two proposals. He encouraged Democrats to vote “present” on the Green New Deal resolution vote forced by McConnell earlier this year. He has brushed aside reporters’ questions about the party’s splits on healthcare, noting that Democrats are united against Trump’s effort to overturn the ACA in court.

Schumer spokesman Alex Nguyen directed inquiries to the DSCC.

McConnell, for his part, has urged Republican senators to campaign against “socialism,” specifically Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

National Republicans have tried to stoke the Democratic infighting in hopes it could help endangered GOP incumbents. The National Republican Senatorial Committee paid for billboards attacking candidates like Sweet as “too liberal” — which also raises the profile of a candidate the DSCC doesn’t support.

Yet for the candidates, if not for the party activists, the bad blood is unlikely to linger to election day.

Sweet said if Gideon wins the primary, she’ll back her fully, just as she backed Janet Mills after Sweet came in third in last year’s gubernatorial primary. Romanoff, who has also lost in previous campaigns, said he anticipates backing the Democratic nominee against Gardner.

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