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Is It Really So Bad for Party Leaders to Pick Primary Favorites?

In most states, primary elections make official just who gets to call themselves the Democratic or Republican nominee. But that doesn't mean party leaders have to be neutral in those contests.
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U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

Last week we received more evidence that national Democratic leaders have been aggressively picking favorites in some key swing congressional districts this year. In this case, it was Colorado's sixth congressional district, currently held by Representative Mike Coffman (R). Some have already written about just what it means for a party to play favorites in a primary. But what are the effects when this sort of thing comes to light?

To quickly review the details, Colorado's sixth is a highly contested district. Hillary Clinton won it by nine points in 2016 even though Coffman retained his seat by eight. Coffman has held his own against some strong challengers, but the overall Democratic tide this year might still sweep him up. So many Democratic leaders, in both state and national office, have offered their backing for Jason Crow, an attorney and Army veteran. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already put Crow on its Red-to-Blue list, providing him extra support.

However, Crow is not the only Democrat vying for the seat; former Obama administration Department of Energy official Levi Tillemann is also running. Tillemann has only raised about a quarter of what Crow has, but party leaders are clearly concerned enough about him that they want him to leave the race. United States House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer met with Tillemann in December to encourage him to bow out. Tillemann recorded the meeting and then shared it with the Intercept, which promptly released a recording.*

The Intercept's coverage of this was quite alarmist, suggesting that "senior Democratic officials have worked to crush competitive primaries and steer political resources, money, and other support to hand-picked candidates in key races across the country, long before the party publicly announces a preference." And indeed, as Ella Nilsen at Vox noted, Democrats have been doing this sort of thing in several districts across the country this cycle, including Texas' seventh congressional district and a number of districts in California.

Here's the thing: Of course party leaders are trying to manipulate nominations. This is what party leaders do. In most states, primary elections make official just who gets to call themselves the Democratic or Republican nominee, but that does not mean party leaders have to be neutral in those contests. Complete neutrality in primaries is actually pretty rare.

Now, party leaders' activity and influence in these contests varies considerably. Sometimes prominent party members will offer their endorsements for a candidate, and maybe some money. Sometimes they'll serve as speakers at rallies. Sometimes they'll just subtly encourage their friends and allies to support a particular candidate. Sometimes you'll see something like what Hoyer did in Colorado's sixth district race, privately asking a candidate to leave the race. What Hoyer did here was actually rather genteel. Modern history is littered with examples of party leaders pressuring undesired candidates out of primary races, sometimes through threats or even physical violence. More often, a local party group will simply present a united front and discourage other candidates from entering. If you're thinking of running for office in south Los Angeles, you'll see that Representative Maxine Waters, local church ministers, union leaders, and Democratic club officials have already endorsed and donated to your primary opponent. You quickly get the message that this isn't your year to run.

Of course, there are risks when party leaders take sides in a primary—namely, backing a candidate who loses. Then you end up with a nominee who resents the party's leadership, which can create problems down the road. We've also seen (most recently in the Colorado race and Texas' seventh district race) "outside" candidates utilize their ostracism as a political tool, framing themselves as the David up against the monolithic, Goliath-like party. That strategy makes sense: For a substantial portion of the primary electorate, the influence of party leaders in primary elections is a sign of corruption. (Recall how many supporters of Bernie Sanders were—and still are—convinced of the Democratic Party's corruption because some DNC staffers dissed Sanders in internal e-mails.) In Colorado, Tillemann is trying to make an issue of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's preference for his opponent to rally his anti-establishment supporters.

This may or may not actually help Tillemann in his bid for the Democratic nomination. But by secretly recording his conversation with Hoyer and then giving the recording to a news outlet, Tillemann is going to have an important impact on party nominations this cycle, probably in both parties: Neither Hoyer nor any other party leader is going to have such a meeting again. Hoyer's message, while certainly conveying information Tillemann didn't want to hear, was nonetheless courteous and useful. Candidates sometimes assume that some elites don't like them, but it's difficult to be sure. In this case, Hoyer very clearly said that they wanted him to leave the race. To my knowledge, he didn't issue any threats or demands; he simply made the party's preferences clear, and urged Tillemann not to tear down his primary opponent.

Other candidates are not likely to get such a clear message from their party's leaders. They'll just have to read the tea leaves to figure out whether party leaders like them or hate them, but no party leader in their right mind would have a meeting or an e-mail exchange with a non-preferred candidate at this point, lest they want to see that transcript in the news the next morning.

*Update—April 30th, 2018: This story has been updated after it was brought to our attention that the meeting between Hoyer and Tillemann took place in December, not in April, and was an in-person meeting, not a phone call. In addition, the Intercept never released a transcript of that meeting, as we had originally reported.