When she challenged Representative Joe Crowley in 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did it by knocking on over 100,000 doors in her New York City district, calling even more people’s phones, and sending out still more text messages.
But it wasn’t just sweat equity that did the trick. Composed mostly of young activists and strategists who’d worked for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential run two years earlier, Ocasio-Cortez’s technology team developed an innovative tool to find voters who might have been missed in traditional door-knocking campaigns.
After she upset Crowley in a landslide, her team of techies gave their new tool a name, Reach, and they formed a company to assist other progressive campaigns. But one place where they found their services weren’t wanted was at the very top: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
After Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, also a progressive woman of color, defeated longstanding Democratic members of Congress in 2018, the D.C.C.C. instituted an official policy: No consultant or political group that had supported a challenger against an incumbent Democrat in the House would be allowed to do business with the party’s official campaign arm.
The policy drew fire from many left-leaning Democrats, and some worried that it would put a chill on challenges by women and people of color like Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley. In response, Ocasio-Cortez encouraged her supporters to stop donating to the D.C.C.C.
But apparently the committee’s leadership — which changed hands after the 2020 elections — has been listening. Its new chairman, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, officially reversed the policy today.
Chris Taylor, a spokesman for Maloney, said in a statement that the committee was opening its doors to a diverse array of consultants. “This policy change means that the only criteria for a vendor to be listed in the directory are our standards for fair business practices,” he said.
Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats — an insurgent group that grew out of Sanders’s 2016 campaign and supported Ocasio-Cortez’s and Pressley’s runs — celebrated the move, saying that the ban on challenger consultants hadn’t just been anti-progressive. It had had strategic implications, too.
“Because over 70 percent of congressional districts do not have a competitive general election, there is so much innovation happening in competitive primaries,” he said in an interview today after the policy was reversed.
Shahid argued that the party was harming itself by disallowing tools such as Reach to be used in any of its campaigns. “That happened to some of the best digital vendors in the country,” he said. “They work on a lot of progressive primary campaigns, and they can’t work for the party’s handpicked candidates.”
It’s a long-held political custom for parties to protect their incumbents, and the D.C.C.C. had long had an unofficial policy of shunning groups that supported primary challengers. But it felt notable that the party’s leaders had decided to make that policy official at the very moment when the progressive wing was gaining clout — and savvy.
Justice Democrats immediately cried foul. It created a website, dcccblacklist.com, listing all the organizations that had been officially banned from doing business with the party under this policy.
One such organization was Data for Progress, a left-leaning research and strategy firm that uses innovative technologies to test political messages and advise campaigns. The firm came up against the D.C.C.C. “blacklist” last year, after doing some polling work for the campaign of Julie Oliver, a progressive who ended up winning her Democratic primary in Texas but losing the general election.
Because Data for Progress was also working with Justice Democrats on the primary campaigns of Cori Bush in Missouri and Jamaal Bowman in New York — both of whom eventually toppled longtime Democratic incumbents — Oliver’s team had to make a decision.
“Once the party got more formally involved, we were booted from the account,” Gustavo Sanchez, a principal at Data for Progress, said in an interview. “It’s not because the campaign wanted us gone. It was more that the campaign is forced to make a choice as to whether it wants to get money from the party or use us as a vendor.”
He added, “We didn’t really do much House work after that because we know the campaigns have to choose.”
Both Sanchez and Shahid said that they were heartened by Maloney’s decision to reverse the ban — but that they still weren’t expecting the party to welcome their insurgent spirit with open arms.
“I would hate to see the D.C.C.C. go back to an informal blacklist, which is what their policy used to be,” Shahid said. “But it is a step forward to not have an explicit blacklist.”
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