How the DCCC helps Democrats win the House, with Jason Bresler (transcript)

How the DCCC helps Democrats win the House, with Jason Bresler (transcript)

July 16, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Beard:

Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.

Nir:

And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. The down ballot is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to City Council. You can find us wherever you listen to podcasts, and we’d be grateful if you could leave us a five-star rating and review on Apple Podcasts.

Beard:

We’ve got a lot to cover in today’s episode. So, what are we going to be talking about?

Nir:

We are going to be talking about a shock resignation on New York’s top court that could send that court in a much more progressive direction. We are also previewing some key primaries in Maryland. We are going to be revisiting an important ballot measure about abortion rights in Michigan, and we are going to discuss the fallout from Boris Johnson’s resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. After that, we are going to be talking with Jason Bresler, a Democratic consultant who, in 2018, was the political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee the year that the party won back the majority in the House in a huge wave election. We’ve got a lot to talk about. So, please join us for the whole thing.

Beard:

This week, we got some really surprising news from New York. What’s going on there, Nir?

Nir:

So, we have talked a lot about the importance of elections for state Supreme Courts on The Downballot, but it’s also really important to remember that in a majority of states, judges on each state’s top court get there first by being appointed by the governor. And that brings us to a very shocking development in New York this week. The Chief Judge of New York’s highest court, which is not called the state Supreme Court… it’s called the Court of Appeals… the Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, abruptly announced that she would resign at the end of August even though she had three and a half years left on her term. And at the time, she offered no explanation that made any sense at all for her departure. But shortly afterwards, Law 360 reported that DiFiore was under investigation for interfering with a disciplinary proceeding against the President of the New York State Court Officer’s Association.

Nir:

It’s clear that this guy hates DiFiore and vice versa, but it was sort of a really strange thing for her to meddle in. And also, is that really the only reason why she was resigning? In any event, she’s going to be gone. And that is, in fact, great news for progressives. DiFiore is a former Republican who switched to the Democratic Party in 2007, but more importantly, she was an appointee of Andrew Cuomo, and Cuomo, during his long tenure, before his resignation in disgrace, wound up appointing every single member, all seven members of the New York Court of Appeals, and many of his picks, including DiFiore, were quite conservative. DiFiore formed a majority that regularly ruled against tenants’ rights, against environmental protections, against victims of police brutality. She even joined an opinion that required defendants to pay for their own electronic monitoring devices, but worst of all was an opinion she was part of earlier this year.

Nir:

It was a four-judge majority that ruled that New York’s legislature didn’t have the power to draw new maps for Congress and for the State Legislature, even though the state’s redistricting commission completely failed in its job. And instead, DiFiore and her conservative colleagues on the court allowed a Republican judge in a small, upstate community to draw all of the state’s districts for Congress and for the state Senate. It was a total debacle. The opinion made no sense at all. The legal reasoning was completely tortuous, and it seemed pretty evident that this conservative majority simply wanted to stick it to Democrats, but it’s not just DiFiore and the court and Cuomo that deserves the blame. The state Senate confirmed every single one of Cuomo’s picks, and two of those picks were nominated by Cuomo after Democrats took back the chamber in 2018. Progressives actually begged Senate Democrats to reject Madeline Singus, who was a very tough on crime, anti-reform prosecutor, and she was confirmed anyway, along with Anthony Cannataro, and both of them joined with DiFiore and another Cuomo pick, Michael Garcia, in that redistricting ruling.

Nir:

So, there was really no excuse for Democrats, especially self-styled progressives, to go along with these disastrous picks that Cuomo kept putting forth. Progressives now are calling on Governor Kathy Hochul to pick someone much, much better than DiFiore. If the person Hochul puts forward isn’t an acceptable choice for progressives, then Democrats in the state Senate need to reject that person. They need to show spine that they didn’t show toward Cuomo. And simply by showing spine now in advance, that will help push Hochul in the right direction, but I mentioned all this because obviously DiFiore had a huge impact on New York’s elections this year. But even though top court judges in New York, you don’t get to vote for them… and honestly, that’s probably a good thing; I think judicial elections are a bad idea… It’s really important to remember just how important elections for governor are, because just because you elect a Democrat like Cuomo doesn’t mean you’re going to get good justices on your court.

Nir:

And also, in states where you have the chance to flip a Republican-held governorship, getting a Democrat in there could lead to huge changes on the state’s top courts there. So, always just keep in mind who is doing the appointing. It is so, so important.

Beard:

The question, of course, for me is, “How can we convince a Republican Supreme Court Justice to do the same and resign in the face of controversy,” because that would be great. I just want to take this whole plan and move it up to the national level. So, we’ll see if we can do that somehow. So, July is a relatively light month in primary season, not nearly as busy as June or August, but we do have one upcoming state election in Maryland, whose election was actually originally supposed to be June 28th, but was postponed to July 19th due to the court delaying the election for redistricting reasons, But it’s going to turn out the results might take even longer than July 19th, because Maryland regulations prevent election workers from even starting to count mail-in ballots until the Thursday after the election. So, two days after Election Day is when mail-in ballots can start being counted.

Beard:

And of course, like in many states, those would become an increasingly high percentage of the votes cast for elections. This is similar to things that we’ve seen in other states in the recent past that have created these long delays in election results. And in fact, the Maryland Legislature actually tried to fix this issue and allow early counting of Maryland votes so that we wouldn’t have this exact problem. But, of course, “moderate GOP” Governor Larry Hogan vetoed it, because the bill didn’t include super unnecessary election security measures that would provide the appearance of increased election security, not that he even had any reason to be concerned about Maryland elections. He just didn’t like the appearance of a lack of election security, as we hear over and over again from Republicans.

Nir:

And what they really should do, in this case, is not release any results until the mail ballots are being counted, because releasing only half the results on Tuesday night is going to be absurdly misleading. But then, of course, if they held onto the results for two days, that would just lead to even more conspiracy theories. This is a total mess. It’s totally unacceptable, and Hogan is simply echoing Trumpist talking points for his BS reasons for vetoing the bill to fix this.

Beard:

Exactly, and lots of states are good at counting votes on election night. Florida, a state that’s been run by Republicans for a while, counts very quickly, counts their mail-in votes, their early votes, their election day votes very quickly. This is doable, if only Republicans actually wanted to get the votes counted on election night, but they don’t care to prioritize that. But, anyway, I did want to go through a few of the key primary races that are going to be happening next week, starting with the Maryland governor’s race, where Larry Hogan has termed out. So, on the Republican side, we’ve got Trumpist state Delegate Dan Cox versus Kelly Schultz, who is the Hogan pick. He has endorsed her, and she also served as both Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Labor at different times under Hogan. So, it’s very much sort of a Maryland establishment type pick who could potentially be competitive. versus a Trumpist… and Cox, who will, if he wins, would almost certainly get destroyed by whoever the Democratic nominee is. On the Democratic side, we’ve got a lot of candidates who have jumped in, of course.

Beard:

It’s seen as a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats in Maryland. So, there was a lot of interest. We’ve got former us Labor Secretary Tom Perez. We’ve got Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot. We’ve got former Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler. We’ve got former CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation and author Wes Moore. And then, finally, we’ve got former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, Jr. So, that’s a lot, but we’re going to focus on three of them. Franchot has been leading most of the polls. He’s the one who’s a current statewide elected official, but he’s only in the 20s in most of the polling, and both Moore and Perez are both within striking distance. So, it’s seen as a good chance that one of those can come up and overtake him, with Franchot already having such good name recognition.

Beard:

Perez notably has support of the Maryland AFL-CIO, which is a state labor organization. He was endorsed by The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, and Democratic primaries are really the place where newspaper endorsements can still matter, where a lot of college-educated voters are still reading those papers and valuing what’s in the opinion section. So, those are things that really matter in a race like in a Maryland Democratic primary, but then Wes Moore also has some big backing. He’s got the backing of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who of course is from Maryland, and Oprah Winfrey, which is, of course, a huge name that pretty much everybody knows. So, he’s got some big backing as well. So, it definitely would not be a shocker to see any of those three candidates come out of the primary victorious next week, or whenever we find out the result.

Beard:

And then we’ve got another primary on the Democratic side for another statewide office, the open attorney general seat. That’s between Congressman Anthony Brown versus former District Court Judge Katie O’Malley, who is probably better known as “former Maryland First Lady Katie O’Malley,” who is of course the wife of former Governor Martin O’Malley, and in a fun fact, Brown was O’Malley’s Lieutenant Governor during the eight years in which he served as Governor. So, there were two people who were both in that administration for eight years who I’m sure know each other quite well, but it has been, at times, contentious. O’Malley has gone after Brown’s lack of trial court experience while Brown has basically criticized, in return, the idea that the attorney general is about trial court experience, and not the other many issues that the Attorney General would face while in office.

Nir:

One other fun fact I have to jump in here with is that the longest streak of failure in seeking a statewide office in the entire country is for Maryland’s Attorney General post. The last time Republicans won this job was in 1918, 104 years ago.

Beard:

Wow, that is some futility, and let’s hope it keeps going. And then, lastly, we’ve got the Democratic primary in Maryland’s Fourth District, which is a district in the D.C. suburbs that’s safely blue. It’s actually the one that Brown is vacating to run for attorney general. And there, we’ve got former Congresswoman Donna Edwards going up against the former Maryland State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey in a race that’s attracted a lot of outside attention. So, we’ll see how that turns out next Tuesday.

Nir:

I want to return, briefly, to a topic we discussed on last week’s episode. In Michigan, we mentioned that organizers were working to put an amendment on the ballot that would affirmatively enshrine the right to an abortion in the State Constitution. Well, they submitted signatures this week. In fact, they turned in more than 753,000 signatures, which set a new record in the state for the most signatures ever submitted to get a measure on the ballot. It’s more than 300,000 signatures than required by law. It represents a little bit more than 10% of all registered voters. Obviously, there is a ton of work that needs to be done to make sure this actually passes and becomes law. Conservative forces are going to fight, tooth and nail, to stop this, but the fact that organizers were able to collect and turn in a record smashing number of signatures is a rare bit of positive news in the fight for abortion rights.

Beard:

Absolutely. And I also had something to follow up with from our discussion last week in the United Kingdom, where Boris Johnson was facing what seemed to be his final curtain, and it was indeed, as he resigned last week, triggering a leadership contest for the Conservative Party, the winner of which will become Prime Minister, despite not facing the voters for up to two and a half years, which is the maximum length until the next election could be called.

Beard:

So then the way that this works is Tory MPs vote for candidates, with the lowest candidate being eliminated until only two candidates for prime minister are left, and then those two go before the Conservative Party membership, which is about a hundred thousand people, and then those people will vote and the winner of that will become the leader of the Conservative Party and, by default then, the prime minister.

Beard:

Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was one of the cabinet ministers who resigned, which led to Johnson eventually stepping down, is leading among MPs and is expected to make the final two, within two other candidates sort of competing to get into that second place spot, one of which is Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, where a lot of Johnson’s support has gone and is seen as the more right-wing candidate, and then the other potential candidate is Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt, who previously served as defense minister under Theresa May. So those who are competing for the spot, probably alongside Sunak, who will then go to the party membership.

Nir:

Beard, in the U.K., when replacements take over as Prime Minister under circumstances like these, do they typically last out the remainder of the term or is there a possibility of an earlier election?

Beard:

There’s certainly a possibility. We saw that most recently with both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, who called early elections after taking over from their predecessors when they felt that the time was right. Obviously, in Johnson’s case, that worked out and he won a large majority. In May’s case, it did not work out, as she lost a large polling lead and nearly lost the leadership of the country. But I think that there’s a good chance that this parliament will see things out because the Tories currently have a big majority and they’re currently trailing quite badly, and given May’s bad experience with a big lead, you would have to be very confident with a very good lead to want to call an early election, knowing what the risks are rather than serve out two and a half years and hope that that’s a good time, when you have to go to the public. So it’s certainly possible and you’ll have to see how things work out, but with the sizable majority that the Tories currently have, I would expect them to keep the parliament going as long as possible.

Nir:

Well, that’s it for our weekly hits. Coming up after the break, we will be chatting with Jason Bresler, who is a former political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official party arm responsible for protecting and winning majorities in the House. Please stay with us.

Nir:

We are joined today on The Downballot by Jason Bresler, who is the former political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, aka the DCCC, and is currently a partner at The Strategy Group, a consulting firm. Jason, thank you so much for joining us.

Jason Bresler:

Oh, thanks for having me, guys. Really appreciate it.

Nir:

So we would love to hear from you at the start about how you got involved in the world of Democratic campaigns and elections and, in particular, how you worked your way up to the role of political director at the D-trip in 2018, which, of course, was a seminal year for the committee and the party.

Jason Bresler:

Well, it’s always a fun question, and I wish I had a really good answer for this, like I was inspired by a certain candidate or met somebody who got me into this and I couldn’t say no, but the reality was, I was fresh out of college, just moved back from it… I didn’t know what I was going to do after college. I moved to Madrid to teach English for a year, and I figured at some point, I had to move back. My good friend’s mom was running for Congress in Arizona and it was a job. I went out there and I was really, really lucky to have some really phenomenal staff on that team that I learned from and really gathered up as much as I could.

Jason Bresler:

So it was in Arizona, Northern Arizona. For those of you who don’t know the district, northern Arizona is basically the center of the district. It’s Flagstaff, Arizona, and it’s one of the largest non-full state districts… At the time, it was the largest non-full state district in the country, meaning not as big as Alaska or Montana, but if it was not a whole state, it was the biggest by land size in the country. So from end to end, it sometimes took 12 hours. It could take 12 hours to get across through the Navajo Nation and various things like that.

Jason Bresler:

So I like to say we lost the battle but we won the war up there. We know we lost to Rick Renzi by seven points. My candidate’s name was Ellen Simon. But our research there led to Rick Renzi being indicted, his office being raided by the FBI, and eventual, his jail sentence for an illegal land swap that he was in jail for until President Trump pardoned him on his last day of office in 2021. So it was bittersweet on Election Day but ultimately brought a lot of joy down the line.

Jason Bresler:

And then after that, I did a couple special elections for the DCCC in Massachusetts for Niki Tsongas and one in Ohio for Robin Weirauch before ending up on Judy Feder in 2008. I don’t like to tell people, but the reality is, if you find another operative that lost election days in 2006 and 2008, I’d love to meet them, because I think I’m the only one.

Jason Bresler:

And then from there, in 2010, I managed Ron Klein in Southern Florida against Allen West. Allen West, as many folks here know, is an incredibly easy politician to loathe, and he’s become an even bigger character of himself over the last 10 years. But I got to be honest, I learned more on that race than any other race I’ve done, that I’ve managed in the past. West probably should have been in an insane asylum, but the reality was he had something that voters really gravitated to in 2010, and the reality was he had some unquestionable authenticity.

Jason Bresler:

I remember we had a fundraiser where President Obama came down to help Ron Klein fundraise, and it was held at this beautiful house. It was Alonzo Mourning’s house, who played for the Miami Heat, in Coral Gables, and the bottom-line price to get in was multiple thousands of dollars. At the same time, Allen West had a pancake breakfast or dinner, whatever the case may be, for $5. And I could tell you, it really pissed me off, but it was certainly a learning experience to take with me, which I did in 2012.

Jason Bresler:

In 2012, after I started in on a few races that kind of fizzled after redistricting, because we were in a post-redistricting cycle, I ended up in Southern Illinois, where it was an open seat for Jerry Costello, who was retiring from Congress, and we were running against Jason Plummer, who ran statewide in 2010 as a lieutenant governor, who ultimately lost, but was a self-funder. His dad owned a chain of lumber yards all across southern Illinois, his name was well known throughout the district, and, like I said, he had the ability to self-fund.

Jason Bresler:

So Bill Enyart was retiring as the Adjutant General of the Illinois National Guard on the day before the absolute deadline to get his name in after the current nominee, and sorry, this is really complicated, Brad Harriman had to drop out because of illness. So, Bill Enyart gets in on the same day I arrive, and we’re a million dollars in the hole and a year behind our competition.

Jason Bresler:

We polled and we started off the race about eight points behind, but the reality was, we had that sort of… I’ll talk more about what DCCC does for races, but that, to me, is sort of DCCC at its best, between myself and what DCCC can do when they do their best. Like I said, we were starting a campaign from fresh in June of the on-year against a well-known, well-funded challenger in an open seat that we had a lot of catch-up to do, but the DCCC, we all sort of moved in there together. I stayed longer, but we all sort of moved in together to launch Bill, and then four months later, we won that race.

Jason Bresler:

One of the things I took from Allen West, and happy to do it, was Speaker Boehner came in town for a fundraiser for Jason Plummer, and they stayed at the only… I don’t know how you would even call it, but… the only exclusive hotel in all of southern Illinois. While they were there, we had a campaign breakfast. We had a pancake senior breakfast for seniors who were facing cuts from the Ryan healthcare plan, from Medicare cuts in the Ryan healthcare plan. So the reality was it ran on both St. Louis news and in the St. Louis [Post-]Dispatch, and because they couldn’t go inside the event, it was a picture and story of my candidate shaking older voters’ hands and talking about the Ryan tax cuts, which our opponent was in favor of, and John Boehner and Jason Plummer getting into limos outside of this exclusive hotel in Southern Illinois. So Allen West may have gotten me in 2010, but I did take something with me to help for the next person later on.

Nir:

I love it.

Jason Bresler:

And then after that, I was his chief of staff. I lasted about six months on Capitol Hill before realizing it just wasn’t for me. I joined a consulting firm for a little bit and then worked as an advisor for the DCCC in Illinois in 2014, which was a tough cycle. And then in 2016, I joined the DCCC as a Midwest regional.

Jason Bresler:

One thing I’ll say is that having spent 10 years on the road and 10 years hopping across the country, managing races, look, I get it, that’s not for everybody, but I wouldn’t have been ready for the DCCC, let alone 2018, without that core experience.

Nir:

Jason, I want to get this clear. You worked AZ-01 in 2006.

Jason Bresler:

Yep.

Nir:

VA-10 in 2008.

Jason Bresler:

Yep.

Nir:

And we ultimately flipped both of those districts. And then you worked the Allen West race in 2010, and then we-

Jason Bresler:

Yes.

Nir:

… flipped that one back in 2012 with Patrick Murphy, and they still hired you, huh?

Jason Bresler:

Everywhere I go, they win after I leave. Whenever I go, they win after I leave, not while I’m there.

Beard:

It was the building blocks. It was the building blocks that you set, is what that is.

Jason Bresler:

That must be what it is, that must be what it is.

Beard:

So the DCCC has become a lot more prominent in recent years. Definitely, some of my less in-the-industry political friends would have had no idea what the DCCC was five or 10 years ago, and now, the name is everywhere, it’s a lot more commonly heard. But it’s not necessarily understood well. I think there’s people who think that the DCCC control everything from every portion across the country or people who think, “What does it even do? It seems sort of pointless.” So how does the DCCC actually interact with congressional candidates? How do they help them? How do they move through the cycle with them?

Jason Bresler:

That’s a really good question. So look, unlike other committees, namely, let’s say, the Democratic National Committee, we have one goal and one goal only, and it’s either to win the majority or expand the majority. That’s it, point blank. And for my department that I oversaw and, frankly, most of the DCCC, there’s sort of three acts when it comes to involvements with campaigns. Act one is recruitment, recruiting candidates and launching their campaigns. Act two is building their infrastructure and preparing them for engagement for the campaigns. And then act three is, obviously, engagement for the campaigns.

Jason Bresler:

For act one, for somebody who, as a former regional political director, that’s a hell of a lot of fun. Meeting, going out and learning about districts, finding candidates, meeting with local leaders, electeds, business leaders, or, in certain cases, labor leaders is a lot of fun, and figuring out the district and trying to find the right candidate. And then after you have the candidate you have your eyes on, we bring them to Washington for what we call a recruitment trip, and that’s meeting with other members, talking about what life is like as a member of Congress, depending on who they are, depending on how important of a recruit it is, potentially meeting with leadership, whether that’s Mr. Clyburn, Steny Hoyer, or Speaker Pelosi, and then included in that act is launching their campaign.

Jason Bresler:

I think people don’t realize DCCC, it’s in their hands so far, and I think maybe there’ll be a little bit disagreement, but ‘launch’ is sort of what the DCCC is. It’s really important for campaigns, right? If you have a failure to launch a campaign, it’s really hard to find success after that. And launch is not just getting your website ready and turning on your Act Blue page and sending a press release, right? There’s a lot of groundwork that goes into this long before candidates have staff on the ground.

Jason Bresler:

So, the reality is, for your first leg of your campaign, DCCC is, frankly, supporting your campaign until they can find the staff to replace them to take over full time. And then, after that, act two is sort of refining the campaign and building out the rest of the staff, finding them a call time manager, finding them potentially a pollster, finding them a television firm, finding them a campaign manager, all of that. And getting more stuff off your plate.

Jason Bresler:

And then lastly, engagement is when the DCCC is working with you on everything from helping you build your field plan and then helping fund your field plan through the state party. Same thing with sort of your communications and paid communications, whether it’s through DCCC helping fund that, or helping point allies in a direction for non-coordinated (meaning independent expenditure) activities, in which case DCCC can, all things legally, of course, help you navigate that really potentially disastrous landmine of a situation.

Nir:

So, one thing I’m curious about is what does the D-trip do in situations where you have multiple strong candidates, especially if different groups of leaders in a given district are divided on whom to recommend?

Jason Bresler:

Look, there’s a lot of times where we’ve done multi-launches in the same district. Especially in 2018, we did it a ton. I mean, look, the reality is, I would love to take credit and say that I recruited everybody that is a star in our caucus right now. But the reality is, we had candidates literally who showed up at our door, and wanted to run for office. So, in that case, look, when I think of… I’ve talked to you a lot about Antonio Delgado, who’s now the Lieutenant Governor nominee. In that race, and as folks remember, in NY-19 in 2018, I think there were at least four, if not five, credible candidates.

Jason Bresler:

And look, it’s in our interest to make sure… At the end of the day, we don’t know, until we have any kind of data suggesting at that point, which is not going to happen until much later in the cycle, it’s in our interest to make sure everybody at least has the tools to be successful. At that point, it’s up to them. Especially in 2018, there were tons of times where we launched two if not three, and sometimes even four candidates inside of a race. That’s a little bit abnormal. But if there are two quality candidates in a race, it does us no good to pretend without any real evidence that somebody is not going to win a primary and just go away if we think there’s potential for them to be a nominee. Because they’re going to need our… Trying to build a ship as it’s already flying it up in the air is a hell a lot harder than being at the ground level to start putting it together. Does that make sense?

Nir:

Yeah, absolutely. And what I’m also curious about is if you are an outside observer like ourselves, the host of this show, but also all of our listeners, and you are following the primary season and the campaign launch process, are there any signals or tells where an outsider might know, “Oh, this is a campaign that probably got a launch boost from the DCCC.” As opposed to, maybe this is a campaign that did not.

Jason Bresler:

That’s a good question. And there are some. I mean, the reality is, following the tip sheets in the morning is obviously a place to start. If a candidate’s getting included in the DC rags for their launch, it’s hard to imagine anybody on the ground frankly cares enough. And rightfully so, to make sure they’re included in the political roundups. But that’s what DCCC is going to make sure those folks are being seen by the PAC folks who are reading that, the K Street folks who are potentially going to be investors in their campaigns and things like that. But that’s the one way to do it.

Jason Bresler:

Maybe let me be clear here too. I mean, Rick Nolan, who I had in my region in 2016, I think he was probably the third or fourth choice of anybody in that primary up there in Minnesota Eight. And he was a former Congressman in the 70s, and took a brief 30-year break before coming back and attempting a comeback in 2012. The committees and the powers that be in D.C. all figured that Tarryl Clark, who ran and lost against Michele Bachman, and obviously a very challenging year in 2010, and ran a good campaign, but moved to Minnesota Eight to run in that district, was going to be the nominee. And Rick Nolan just really made a connection with voters, despite not raising a lot of money, and ended up winning that district.

Jason Bresler:

So, just because DCCC is behind somebody, doesn’t always work out for them to win the primary. And in some cases, we are all fallible humans. And in that case, each of us, we clearly got that wrong. Rick Nolan won that seat in 2012, and then held onto it in two incredibly tough years for Democrats in the Iron Range in 2014 and 2016, when Donald Trump, I believe, won that district by close to 20 points in 2016. And Rick Nolan held on to beat a self-funder up there. So, look, not only can we be wrong, but sometimes being wrong works out for everybody too.

Beard:

And I want to take us to sort of the other end of the election cycle with the DCCC. When it has to, due to our very, very strange campaign finance laws, basically split itself in two. I think what people might not know is that there’s a whole setup of the DCCC, which you would be in as the political director, that works directly with the campaign, that does all the sort of things that we’re talking about. And then, sort of a whole separate side where all this money has been raised, where if you get the campaign emails from the DCCC, and then if you see the ads, if you’re in a competitive district, come from that other group that is very isolated due to sort of these firewalls that the D-trip has to put up. So, talk about that process and how that sort of makes things very unusual due to how campaign finance law is set up.

Jason Bresler:

We’ve come a long way since we’ve started interacting with what we call the other side of the wall, meaning the independent expenditure arm that we are not allowed to coordinate with behind closed doors. So, the reality is, we can still, on the coordinated side… at least at DCCC, I can’t speak to other organizations… but we set the budget on the coordinated side for a given race, and then we go and we send it to the independent side. Meaning let’s hypothetically say the old Michigan Eight, Elissa Slotkin’s district. Coordinated side will take into account what the candidate’s fundraising is, what the candidate’s media plan is, what the outside other groups, both allies and enemies, have placed in this district. Meaning what HMP is going to spend here, what Citizens United’s going to spend here, versus what Congressional Leadership Fund, which is now McCarthy’s group, and NRCC here have all placed sort of publicly.

Jason Bresler:

And the executive director and the senior leadership team will set the budget for that before the independent side is given a budget for which they’ll be spending for that district. And then, on the coordinated side, we are using what we call a red box. It was invented, I believe Robby Mook invented this thing in the end of, it might have even been the 2010 cycle, which was obviously a challenging cycle for us. But the red box is a place where folks can see, it’s legal communication, because it’s in a public place where coordinated campaigns dictate what they would like for the independent side to do, and what they would like them to communicate on.

Jason Bresler:

So, what that will look like is, after polling and lots of research is done on a coordinated campaign, a message will go into, usually in most places, it’s on the committee’s website. Sometimes they’d be on the candidate’s homepage. That will say something like voters need to see, or voters need to read, or voters need to hear. Or sometimes all three. In which case that’s calling for, see is television, hear is obviously radio, and read would be mail. And then, you lay out what the campaign side would like to see be communicated on that side. Now, look, that’s up to… Sometimes the independent side can have more money than the coordinated side. So, sometimes they’ll take that information and choose to go a different direction. That’s the nature of the beast, because you can’t coordinate with them. That’s sort of what happens. But it is a dance that happens with sort of every targeted campaign that has a fair amount of money and fair amount of interest from outside groups. But it certainly is complicated.

Nir:

Shane Goldmacher of The New York Times had a really good piece investigating the red boxes, which are not always literal red boxes, back in May. I recommend that folks read that for a better understanding of this whole concept. One thing that amused me was these days, they now also say “On the go voters need to see X, Y, Z on the go.” Meaning that it should be digital ads.

Jason Bresler:

That’s right. That’s a really good point. I forgot about our digital friends.

Nir:

So, let’s go back to 2018, which of course wound up being an excellent year for House Democrats. This is when you were political director at the DCCC, and I’m curious to know if there were any moments that particularly stood out for you cycle. And was there any moment specifically where you thought, “Okay, yeah, we’re going to do this thing. We’re going to take back the House.”

Jason Bresler:

So, Georgia Six, both nights, there was a lot for me to take away from those ones. And the way I remember this is, and one of the lessons we took away the night after the runoff was, we never wanted to be in a race and be half pregnant. And in that, what I mean is, in hindsight, I think probably our only chance to win this race was winning it in the primary. In which case, for listeners who don’t remember or recall, in those races, if we had gotten to 50%, there would’ve been no runoff. Jon Ossoff would’ve been a United States Congressman filling out the rest of that term. And ultimately, history looks vastly different than it does right now.

Jason Bresler:

But after the primary, we kind of felt like we were stuck in the middle, and we spent money, and it was really eye opening, and in some ways, overwhelming. The enthusiasm was clearly there and not going away. And likewise, the pressure on all of us and all of our allies was going to be immense and was never going to wane. And we better figure it the fuck out pretty quick. And that was challenging. And knowing that was ahead of us. And then, fast forward about 10 months, the Conor Lamb race was… And that one felt really good. Republicans had just passed their massive tax cut legislation, and they wanted to use that race as sort of a raise the flag and show that this is what they’re doing for America, and this is their secret sauce for how they’re going to get their mojo back and sort of get back on the horse and keep the gavel.

Jason Bresler:

And Conor Lamb is a… everybody else can dissect the Pennsylvania Senate primary, but I’ll say this. In 2018, he was a hell of a general election candidate. And he stayed focused. He never let the national narrative creep into his race. They were very focused and localized that race as much as they could, in a district where Trump won by close to 20 percentage points. And we were running against a pretty decorated, this was a guy who was, I believe, he oversaw Guantanamo Bay at one point in time. So, while everybody remembers Conor Lamb as being the veteran in the race, the reality was our opponent, and I’m drawing a blank on his name right now, was a much more decorated veteran than Conor Lamb was.

So, they had taxes, and they started running the race on that. I mean, the outside groups started pouring in, and they were making this race a referendum on their tax cutting legislation. And one thing we discovered early on in that race is the way they were paying for that. And this is why multi-facets of every campaign are…. You have to have a multifaceted campaign in order to be successful. Research found Republicans were taxing Social Security and Medicare to help pay for the tax cuts that were coming out of this bill. And in most cases, when you’re running up against a legislation like that, Democrats tend to not want to talk about tax cuts, right? If they have an issue, voters tend to trust Republicans over taxes and not us, right?

Jason Bresler:

What we did in that race, and what Conor did in that race, was go right back at him, and made sure voters understood that these tax cuts weren’t coming to you in rural Pennsylvania, and in fact, not only were they not coming to you, you were going to be taxed more because of them. And not only did they have to lower their flag pole, we sort of took the baton from them and turn it into a bludgeon for us. And they never were able to run on that issue, run on that one, what they thought was a landmark piece of legislation, the rest of the cycle, and we never saw it again. So, that was a huge night to remember.

Jason Bresler:

And then the other night that I remember that I recall really well is California primary night. Now look, I know I’m going to sidebar here for one second. I know DCCC gets a lot of flak for getting involved in primaries, and rightfully so sometimes, but like I mentioned before too, DCCC has one goal, and it’s either to keep or win the majority. And like I said, I understand when people get upset why DCCC gets involved in the process, and a lot of times it can blow up in their face, but the reality is, DCCC only gets involved in primaries to keep that race alive for the general.

Jason Bresler:

So if they have tangible evidence that suggests a race is over if candidate X wins or if candidate X loses the primary, meaning that race will no longer be a viable opportunity for us to win in November, is my opinion, it’s DCCC’s job to get involved in that race and keep as many races on the battlefield as he possibly can heading into election year. And that’s in a wave, a wave coming for us, or a wave coming against us, or frankly, a non-wave cycle. If there’s a wave for us, removing things off the battlefield immediately means that wave is not going to be as high as he thought. If there’s a wave coming against us and Republicans are able to narrow that field and chalk up wins early on, it’s going to make that wave that much bigger. It’s DCCC’s job to keep races on the battlefield.

Jason Bresler:

Let’s transition to California here. As folks on this pod probably know and remember, California has a primary system called the Top Two, meaning the top two candidates advance out of the primary, regardless of party, meaning sometimes you could have a Democrat and a Republican, other times you can have a Republican and a Republican and a Democrat and a Democrat, et cetera. So following 2016, there were seven seats in California that Hillary Clinton won and were currently held by a Republican representative. We thought we had a chance to win four or five of them, and in California, it was a huge part of our strategy in order to get 24 seats to win back the House.

Jason Bresler:

And without getting four or five out of California, we just thought we didn’t have much of a chance. So actually heading into the primary night, there were three seats that we were in some trouble of being potentially locked out of on the primary. Those were California 10, California 48, and California, I believe it was 39. It was. California 39. And in those three seats, we got involved and endorsed in the primary there, and worked with our allies to ensure that we were able to preserve those seats for the fall. And we won.

Jason Bresler:

And California 48 being the closest, that was the seat, as folks may remember, that was the Dana Rohrabacher seat, who had said some pretty loony things, but had also been there for 40 years or something like that. He was running against Scott Baugh, who is now running against Katie Porter in a California seat. But Scott Baugh was a former Orange County Republican chair, a former pretty powerful legislator in Sacramento. We had two candidates in that race who were raising a fair amount of money with decent profiles, and we were sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place there.

Jason Bresler:

And ultimately, we ended up endorsing in that race. There was some people that were happy, some people that were upset, as the case may be, but in all three cases where we endorsed, we dragged those folks across. I think we got through all three of them by a combined, probably 10,000 votes to ensure all those were still kept alive. And in the case of the Valadao seat, one of the people who was running in that race was initially running in California 10, T.J. Cox. We didn’t have a candidate to run against Valadao. And we convinced T.J. Cox to move to California 21, take on Valadao, when we all kind of admitted that was going to be a tough race and Valadao was tough.

Jason Bresler:

And I’d be lying if I said personally I thought T.J. Cox was coming to Congress in 2018, but we ended up sweeping all seven of those. And T.J. Cox wasn’t called for another three or four weeks later. But the reality is, when it doesn’t work, you always hear about it, as you should. That’s what the job is for. That’s why the job should be… DCCC should be where… The DCCC and all these committee jobs, frankly, should be after you go on the road and have managed races in million places all over the country and have an expertise. And that’s why you’re there, and that’s the kind of scrutiny you should face.

Jason Bresler:

But the reality was that what we were able to do there, and Chairman Lujan sort of giving us the space and the ability to do what needed to be done to keep those races live. If we don’t do that, there’s no way in hell we’re walking out not only with seven in the general election, but we’ll probably only have four seats that even we’re able to compete in the general because the other three are gone.

Jason Bresler:

And then lastly, the moment I, frankly, was very confident we were winning the House, ironically enough, was after a loss. It was Danny O’Connor’s race in Ohio 12. And Danny’s a friend of mine. I talk to him all the time now. And he ran a really good race, but he was running in a +12 Trump seat. And he was running against a Republican, who the biggest crimes against Troy Balderson were that he was lazy and dumb. And that’s not necessarily going to outrage voters. So basically we had a… And like I said, I love Danny. Danny’s a good buddy of mine, but effectively, we had a pretty generic Democrat versus a pretty generic Republican, and in a +12 seat, and we lost by a thousand votes. And knowing that we had 87 seats or some number like that, that were technically better seats and better opportunities for us to pick up coming in the fall, I felt damn good that we were going to win the House that night.

Beard:

So looking now to this year, and given House Democrats’ very narrow majority, I think most people think Republicans are probably favored to take the House at this point, but obviously the DCCC isn’t there to sort of throw up their hands. They’re there to keep the majority, if they can, at all costs. So what would you be doing right now, if you were the political director still? What would you be telling these candidates to focus on as they’re facing this very tough year, potentially?

Jason Bresler:

Let me take the first one on, the first question, on what would I do. Look, we’re also in a post redistricting cycle, which makes this even more challenging for the political department and for the committee at large, right? The reality is there’s plenty of open and challenger seats that are frankly just better opportunities for us to win than some of the incumbent seats. And keeping in mind, there’s one goal of the committee. It’s either to win or expand the majority. My advice would be you have to take that mantra to this as you look at the battlefield.

Jason Bresler:

I really hope they’re ready for cut and dry ruthlessness. Yes, it’s hard to cut anyone, let alone an incumbent member of Congress. That’s not fun. And it’s very hard and there are always ramifications that come that way. But at the end of the day, your goal is the goal and your mission is the mission, and that’s to win the majority or keep the majority. And in order to do that, you sort of have to take a blind eye to this, and where your best opportunities are, you go. That’s the advice I would give them.

Jason Bresler:

As far as candidates and members, don’t overthink this. It’s a challenge, but the overthinking it’s only going to… You aren’t here to out-think or out-strategize Republicans. You’re here to win votes. And how does what you’re doing show your backbone. How does what you’re doing show care for your voters? We’re at an all-time high right now, an all-time high, of lack of faith and trust in elected officials. And for candidates and incumbent members, in order to reach out and grab someone’s hand, you’ve got to show some backbone here, and you got to show some empathy, and you have to show that you know things are hard, but you’re going to make things a little bit easier. And unless they’re thinking about that and doing that every day, they’re just not going about this in the right way.

Nir:

We have been talking with Jason Bresler, who is the former political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee about his experience at the DCCC and his thoughts on 2022. Jason, thank you so much for joining us on The Downballot today.

Jason Bresler:

Guys, thanks so much for having me. Really good seeing you guys.

Beard:

That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Jason Bresler for joining us. The Downballot comes out every Thursday, everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach us by email at [email protected] And if you haven’t already, please like and subscribe to The Downballot and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our producer, Walter Einenkel and our editor, Tim Einenkel. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.



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