WASHINGTON (AP) — Grasping to keep control of Congress, Democratic leaders are turning their backs on some of their staunchest supporters in the House and propping up stronger candidates who have routinely defied them on health care, climate change and other major issues.
Raw politics — the drive to win a House-majority 218 seats, no matter how — is increasingly trumping policy and loyalty in these decisions, as Democrats shift money and attention in the closing days of the campaign toward races they can win and pull back from those seemingly lost.
The Democrats are shelling out $40 million in 59 congressional districts in the last three weeks of the campaign for TV advertising. Republicans, boosted by well-funded outside groups, are working to expand the political battleground by pouring money into 82 races next week alone.
Feelings are being hurt along the way.
In a fundraising video in Ohio this week, Rep. Steve Driehaus lashed out at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for “walking away” from his race after he “had the guts” to cast tough votes for key measures.
The House campaign arm has in recent days canceled millions of dollars worth of advertising it had planned for Driehaus and other endangered Democrats including his fellow Ohioan Mary Jo Kilroy, Suzanne Kosmas in Florida, Betsy Markey in Colorado and Steve Kagen in Wisconsin. All of them voted for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and for legislation to curb carbon emissions — only to be savaged by Republicans on the campaign trail for doing so.
The list of Democratic candidates being lavished with national party help in the final days of the race includes many of the defectors on those marquee votes: Reps. Michael Arcuri in New York, Bobby Bright in Alabama, Travis Childers in Mississippi, Larry Kissell in North Carolina, Jim Marshall in Georgia and Glenn Nye in Virginia, among others.
Bright and Marshall have even said they wouldn’t vote to keep House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in her post. National Democrats are also spending freely to defend Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who opposed the climate bill and has run TV ads calling it “Nancy Pelosi’s energy tax.”
The situation is similar for Rep. Frank Kratovil in Maryland, Zack Space in Ohio and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota, all of whom voted “no” on the health care law and are receiving TV ad dollars from the Democrats’ campaign committee in the critical final days.
They’re all in tight contests that Democrats believe they must win to hold Republicans back from the 40-seat gain that would hand the GOP House control.
Party leaders deny they’re abandoning any Democrats at this critical stage in the campaign and argue they’re maintaining the flexibility to help all of their candidates.
Recipients include some who enthusiastically supported the party line, such as Rep. Raul Grijalva in Arizona — who’s facing an unexpectedly tough race — and some who did not, like Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, locked in a close battle for an 11th term.
“What we’re doing is focusing on races across the country to make sure that there’s that majority so that we can move forward on an agenda that serves working families and taxpayers,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the DCCC chairman. “We’re strongly supporting all our members in a variety of ways.”
Democratic strategists acknowledge the tough decisions are based on harsh reality: If the party loses the House, all of its plans and Obama’s would face major GOP roadblocks, so right now it’s about scoring as many wins around the country as possible — whether that benefits friends or foes of core party principles.
“They have to make very cold-blooded decisions. They have to …. be involved in the races that they still think are close and, in a few cases, pull out of races where the candidate is too far gone,” said former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who held Van Hollen’s job in the 1990s.
“The important thing is to hold onto as many seats as you can. It doesn’t have anything to do with how they voted — this is pure politics, and both parties play it exactly the same way,” Frost said.
At the heart of Democrats’ strategy is hard arithmetic. There are only about 170 congressional districts across the nation that will routinely elect liberals, and in the rest, Democrats must field more centrist — and in some cases downright conservative — candidates to win.
The party excelled at recruiting such contenders in 2006 and 2008, when it added 55 House members. Pelosi nicknamed them her “majority makers.” But the blessing was mixed. Democrats knew from the moment these new moderates arrived in Washington that they would have to maneuver carefully to avoid alienating their constituents. In general, they’ve been given a wide berth to buck the party position when necessary to safeguard their political chances, immensely complicating Democrats’ task in pushing through major legislation.
Some, like Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, have unapologetically sided with Democrats on virtually all major issues, and are campaigning on their records, arguing they’ve done what’s right even when it wasn’t popular. The DCCC is still spending money in Perriello’s highly competitive race against Republican state Sen. Robert Hurt.
Other newcomers, such as Nye, have broken with Democrats on virtually all the significant agenda items and have worked to distance themselves from the party. Nye, too, is getting substantial help from the party in his close race against Republican businessman Scott Riggell.
Party leaders may not be the only ones focusing on candidates who can demonstrate a reasonable path to victory.
Driehaus took to the liberal fundraising website ActBlue this week with his video message asking for donations to reward the difficult stances he took on key issues.
“I’ve taken those votes because it was the right thing to do for the American people. Now the DCCC is walking away. Let’s send a message to the DCCC. Let them know that you support candidates who stand up for your principles.”
As of early Saturday afternoon, the appeal had raised a grand total of $4,571.