Politics & Government

D.C. Democrats playing favorites in Tom McClintock race

Officially, the national Democratic party has stayed out of the hard-fought Democratic battle to take on Rep. Tom McClintock in California's 4th district. But unofficially, D.C. Democrats have sent a pretty clear signal about who they favor to finish among the top two candidates in the June 5th primary.

Campaign finance reports reveal that the number two House Democrat, veteran Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, donated $7,000 to former State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development staffer Jessica Morse in late March — $2,000 from his congressional campaign and $5,000 from his political action committee, AMERIPAC. Hoyer's office confirmed that the donations were "tantamount to an endorsement."

Hoyer serves as the House Minority Whip in Congress, the deputy to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. And he has spent years trying to position himself as Pelosi's heir apparent, whenever she decides to retire from the post.

Hoyer is also actively involved in the party's electoral strategy. Just last week, the news website The Intercept released an audio recording of Hoyer trying to convince Democrat Levi Tilleman to drop out of a Colorado House race and make way for the party-backed candidate. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had already named Tilleman's opponent, Jason Crow, to its "Red to Blue" program for Democratic challengers, a de facto endorsement.

The DCCC has not weighed in on the 4th district contest, which is not a top-tier race for the party at this point. President Trump won the sprawling district, which includes the Sacramento suburbs of Roseville and El Dorado Hills, by a comfortable margin in 2016, and McClintock has faced little competition in recent elections. But the contest has crept onto Democrats' radar in recent months, thanks to local grassroots organizing efforts and a flood of money that has buoyed Morse and a second Democrat, Regina Bateson, a political science professor on unpaid leave from MIT. Political handicappers have moved the race from "safe" Republican to "likely" Republican, as a result.

Less than a month from the primary election, Morse and Bateson remain locked in a fierce fight for party votes. With McClintock expected to advance to the general election thanks to GOP support, the two thirty-something women are essentially battling for the second slot in California's "top-two" primary system. Two other Democrats and another Republican are also running, but have struggled to gain traction.

The Bateson campaign said it received reassurances from the DCCC that they did not plan to endorse in the race. They provided an e-mail to The Bee from a party official last fall saying he did not think it was "likely that we would intervene."

But that doesn't mean the national party isn't working behind the scenes to boost a particular candidate. Hoyer, Pelosi and DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan tend to operate in lockstep when it comes to House campaigns. And as Hoyer made clear to Tilleman in the audio recording, the national party regularly provides "invisible assistance" to a chosen candidate, long before they come out and back them publicly.

In that context, Hoyer's donation to Morse is an unambiguous nod of approval from the national party. And it comes in addition to endorsements from California Democratic Reps. Julia Brownley, Mark DeSaulnier, Jared Huffman, Ro Khanna and Eric Swalwell.

It's not entirely surprising Democrats in D.C. would favor Morse. She has raised the most money of the Democrats in the race — and outraised McClintock three quarters in a row. And she won the California Democratic party endorsement in late February. But it's unlikely to settle the race among local Democrats, who have become intensely divided in their support for either the Morse or Bateson campaigns.

According to Morse's campaign, Hoyer's office reached out, unsolicited, offering to contribute because he felt Morse was the strongest candidate to take on McClintock in the fall.

"We are honored that Whip Hoyer has joined the state party and local Democrats across the 4th Congressional District in endorsing Jessica's campaign to bring effective, local leadership back to our community," spokeswoman Makaiah Mohler said in a statement.

But Hoyer's donations could also spark a backlash among some grassroots activists, who are likely to resent the meddling by a politician based 3,000 miles away. Tilleman's campaign reported receiving contributions from more than 1,000 new donors after the story about his conversation with Hoyer was published.

Bateson, herself, sought to contrast the show of D.C. support for her opponent with her backing from local officials and clubs. "I am definitely not an establishment candidate," Bateson told The Bee, but she argued that gives her a better shot at beating McClintock in the Republican-leaning district. Receiving the backing of national party leaders, as Morse has, will "make it hard to persuade some of the voters here that (she's) really going to be independent."