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DCCC’s Bad Week a Lesson in Political Basics

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Conyers’ ballot blunder in Michigan is just one thing that happened to the DCCC this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s been an undeniably rotten week for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And, just as certainly, the people running the House minority’s political operation have only themselves to blame.

One of the party’s mostly highly touted challengers to capture a seat in Florida abandoned his candidacy on Tuesday, after several holes too many appeared in his biography. Hours later, the party’s most senior incumbent running for re-election became a man without a place in his Michigan primary, after several hundred questionable signatures too many appeared on his ballot petitions.

The unsightly fortunes of both Ed Jany and Rep. John Conyers Jr., it seems clear, could have been avoided had the DCCC orchestrated — or at least insisted on — some minimal political and organizational due diligence.

In Tampa Bay, the problem is irreparable; the Democrats have now given away a House seat that was central to their midterm election goals. In Detroit, the party faces potentially lengthy legal and public relations challenges but in the end won’t have to sweat to hold one of the most lopsidedly Democratic districts in the country.

Jany, a Marine Reserve colonel and former police officer, was recruited just before Florida’s filing deadline, so his abrupt decision to walk away just two weeks later means the party will put up no one at all against Rep. David Jolly, the Republican who eked out a victory by just 3,500 votes two months ago in territory President Barack Obama carried in both his elections.

Local Democrats and the DCCC worked hard to persuade Alex Sink, the state’s former chief financial officer and the loser of that special election, to stand for a rematch. When she demurred a month ago, they started wooing former Hill aide Jessica Ehrlich, whom they had spurned after she lost as the 2012 nominee against Rep. C.W. Bill Young, in what ended up being the Republican’s final campaign before his death.

And when Ehrlich declined, the party cast a wide net in search of almost any alternative to a Democrat they were convinced had no chance — the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of a big Baptist church and president of the St. Petersburg NAACP.

That’s how they settled on Jany, concluding his law enforcement and military background could trump two manifest shortcomings. Jany lives on the other side of the state, in Tampa, and he registered as a Democrat too recently under state law to be able to appear on the Democratic ballot line in November. (Instead, he would have shown up on the ballot with no party affiliation.)

Neither the Florida party nor the DCCC, however, apparently bothered to figure out what the Tampa Bay Times learned within days: One of Jany’s diplomas is from the unaccredited Madison University, and his claim to another degree from the University of Minnesota is untrue.

The erstwhile candidate did not cite his padded résumé as reason for dropping out. Instead, he claimed he’d just realized that he couldn’t simultaneously run a congressional race and serve as a security consultant in Brazil to this summer’s World Cup — and that his paying job had to come first.

Either way, Democrats were blindsided in a way that both leaves them without a candidate and has infuriated an important part of their base by antagonizing a prominent spokesman in the black community.

Coincidentally, another influential African-American pastor is a central player in the Michigan morass. The Rev. Horace Sheffield III is for now the only person whose name will appear on the Aug. 5 primary ballot — thanks to his successful challenges to the paperwork Conyers’ team submitted in his bid for a 26th term.

Conyers, who turns 85 on Friday, is the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and in line to become dean of the House next year after the retirement of fellow Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell, of an adjacent district.

The Wayne County clerk ruled Tuesday that just 592 of the 2,000 signatures Conyers turned in were valid, in large part because two of his canvassers are not registered voters, as state law requires. (That one of them is a fugitive was, legally speaking, beside the point – but nonetheless added to the perception that after half a century of easy wins the Conyers political organization had grown pretty loose at the edges.)

While waiting on an appeal to the Michigan secretary of state, which could be decided as soon as next week, the Conyers campaign is pursuing a lawsuit in federal court alleging the petition-circulator registration requirement is an unconstitutional. They say another 644 signatures should count toward the 1,000-signature requirement. (His lawyers cite a 1999 Supreme Court decision striking down a similar rule in Colorado.)

If both efforts fail, Conyers campaign chairman and state Sen. Bert Johnson vows to launch a vigorous write-in campaign. It’s an expensive option that’s also far more legally and logistically taxing than gathering signatures. And Sheffield, despite facing misdemeanor domestic violence charges involving his estranged wife, has a solid organization of his own. In addition to his pulpit at New Destiny Christian Fellowship Church, he’s the father of a Detroit City Council member and the namesake son of a prominent United Auto Workers figure.

But Conyers has almost universal name recognition in the district, and succeeding as a write-in is not without precedent. Sen. Lisa Murkowski won her current term in Alaska that way after losing her Republican primary in 2010, and so did the new mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, in last summer’s Democratic primary.

“The DCCC fully supports Rep. Conyers in his re-election campaign, and I have every confidence that when this long process is complete, Rep. Conyers will continue to serve the people of Michigan,” the DCCC chairman, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, said in a statement seeking to put the best spin on an awkward situation.

To his credit, Israel did not offer an obvious rejoinder — in the 2012 campaign it was the Republicans who got into an even more embarrassing petition mess in Michigan. That one resulted in the fraud prosecutions of four staffers and the resignation of a veteran House Republican, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter. And, two years later, the lingering fallout gives Democrats an outside shot at seizing McCotter’s former seat from GOP Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, the highly unexpected initial beneficiary of the dustup.

The familiar moral to the story: Nothing lasts forever in politics, and certainly not the screw-ups.