Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer has taken a heavy-handed, top-down approach to selecting Democrats to challenge vulnerable Senate Republicans this cycle, putting his thumb on the scale for candidates willing to shun grassroots outreach in favor of a smile-and-dial, fundraising-first approach, according to an audio recording obtained exclusively by National Review.
In the recording, taken during a September 26 talk at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, North Carolina state senator Jeff Jackson describes the experience of courting Schumer while he was considering running for the Democratic nomination to challenge the state’s incumbent Republican senator, Thom Tillis, in 2020.
Jackson had grand ambitions: When he flew to Washington to meet with Schumer earlier this year, he told the minority leader that he was going to do “100 town halls in 100 days” and talk to as many North Carolinians as possible to get a feel for the electorate’s priorities. But Schumer, who had previously dispatched his staff to meet with Jackson at his home, had other plans.
“Wrong answer,” Schumer said when confronted with Jackson’s grassroots strategy, according to the account of their conversation Jackson gave at UNC Charlotte. “We want you to spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money and then we’re going to spend 80 percent of it on negative ads about Tillis.”
Jackson explained that, while he didn’t technically require Schumer’s support to run, the minority leader’s control over the funds disbursed by major donors and the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), made running without his support an impossibility.
“So, did I need his permission to run for that race? No,” Jackson said during his address at UNC Charlotte. “But talking to my family and seeing the opportunity we have — sort of the obligation we have to try and take the majority to end gerrymandering in 2020 — and realizing that I probably wasn’t going to have the support of this group, which is important financially because I ain’t rich . . . I mean, they kind of tipped the scales in favor of not running.”
And if the lack of funding wasn’t enough, Jackson said he was turned off by Schumer’s insistence on running an entirely negative campaign against the incumbent, Tillis — a preference that Jackson attributed to “artistic differences” between himself and the minority leader during his UNC talk.
Instead of Jackson, Schumer and national Democrats are throwing their considerable support behind Cal Cunningham, a former state legislator and Army veteran who, in apparent accordance with Schumer’s wishes, has given just three interviews since announcing his candidacy in June. Reached for comment, Cunningham’s spokesman denied that the candidate has eschewed public appearances and grassroots activism in favor of fundraising.
“Cal is proud to have earned support from across the state, including dozens of North Carolina elected officials and community leaders, and the more than 4,000 North Carolinians who contributed to the campaign in the third quarter because they are excited about Cal’s experience as a veteran who prosecuted corruption, and they trust him to represent them in the U.S. Senate where he’ll fight for their jobs, their health care, and our climate,” the spokesman said.
A copy of Cunningham’s campaign schedule obtained by National Review lists 18 appearances at various barbecues, galas, and church services from August 10 to September 29. During his remarks at UNC, Jackson dismissed these appearances as meaningless window-dressing compared to the town halls he’d planned for his own campaign.
“Yes,” Jackson said when asked if Cunningham has been in “a windowless basement” since announcing his candidacy. “He hasn’t held a public event. He didn’t have a kickoff. This is like month three. He goes to Democratic-party events if you follow him, right — places where they’re going to say, ‘And everybody, Cal Cunningham is here!’ And he gets to be like, ‘Hey!’” (Jackson did not respond to a request for comment, but announced his endorsement of Cunningham hours after he was contacted and learned of the existence of the audio recording.)
As RealClearPolitics reporter Susan Crabtree noted in August, Cunningham appears to be benefiting from his adherence to Schumer’s “windowless-basement strategy”:
During the second fundraising quarter, just before he entered the contest, Cunningham received $152,000 from New York donors — nearly 35% of his itemized contributions for that period, according to federal election records.
Every one of those 55 donations were made during the last week of the quarter and 51 donors maxed out their contributions of $2,800 to Cunningham. All but two of them have donated to Schumer, ponying up a total of $675,000 to him over the course of his political career, the records show.
Cunningham’s chief primary rival, state senator Erica Smith, who announced her candidacy roughly five months before him, has already taken note of the national party’s intrusion in the race.
“The special interest groups and big, wealthy donors out of New York are trying to buy this Senate seat, and it’s just shameful and it is embarrassing,” she told Crabtree. “I just worry about the people I serve in North Carolina. We don’t have the same demographics as New York, and this Senate seat is not for sale.”
Reached by phone, Smith lashed out at Schumer and the DSCC for being dishonest about their support for Cunningham, telling National Review that Schumer’s public and private stances on candidates were “diametrically opposed.” She claimed that shortly before she learned Cunningham was fundraising off of the DSCC’s email list, Schumer had assured her that he had not endorsed any particular candidate and would remain agnostic for the time being.
Smith has also pointed out that, in addition to avoiding public appearances, Cunningham appears to be avoiding public-policy commitments altogether. The only information or interactive features on his website concern donations.
“We can’t find his policy positions either,” Smith tweeted in August in response to a message one constituent wrote about the difficulty she’s had in identifying where Cunningham stands on any policy she cares about.
The same pattern, in which Democratic leadership handpicks a preferred candidate to run against a vulnerable Senate Republican, is also playing out in Maine and Iowa.
In Maine, incumbent Republican senator Susan Collins is sure to face a tough reelection amid the liberal backlash to her support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Schumer and the DSCC have made clear that their preferred candidate is state House speaker Sarah Gideon. Like Cunningham, Gideon has carefully avoided the spotlight and policy commitments. And like Cunningham, she’s benefited from her deference to Washington: She raised more than $1 million in the first ten days after she announced her candidacy in June, and she’s reaped the high-profile endorsements that follow from being taken under Schumer’s wing.
Like Cunningham’s opponent, Smith, Gideon’s opponent, Betsy Sweet, has taken notice.
“An open letter to Democratic leadership,” reads an August fundraising email from Sweet’s campaign. “How many times. How many times are you going to interfere with primary races by picking an opponent before the people do?”
In Iowa, it’s Theresa Greenfield, a real-estate-development executive and first-time candidate, who has been chosen to follow the Schumer playbook. The DSCC endorsed Greenfield just three days after she announced her candidacy in June, shunning J. D. Scholten, who vaulted to national acclaim last year after nearly beating the racist Republican representative Steve King in the state’s fifth district.
“We don’t need a primary,” Schumer reportedly told Scholten on a phone call at the end of May.
Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.