Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer defended his role in urging a Democratic candidate to drop out of a primary in Colorado, arguing the party needs to back candidates who can win the general election.
The Maryland Democrat faced sharp criticism from liberal groups Thursday after The Intercept reported Hoyer encouraged Levi Tillemann, who worked in President Barack Obama’s Energy Department, to drop out of the race in Colorado’s 6th District. Hoyer told Tillemann the party was backing attorney and Iraq War veteran Jason Crow.
“[W]hat is really important from our perspective is making sure that we have a Democrat that can win in districts that are tough,” Hoyer told reporters Friday. “So we work towards that end.”
Colorado Politics first reported Hoyer’s meeting with Tillemann in January, but the Intercept released portions of audio from that meeting on Thursday that Tillemann had secretly recorded.
The 6th District is once again a top target for Democrats who are hoping for a net gain of 23 seats to win back the House. GOP Rep. Mike Coffman has been an elusive target in past cycles, but Hillary Clinton won the district by 9 points in 2016.
Leaders of liberal groups including Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee decried Hoyer urging Tillemann to leave the race and called on Hoyer to step down from Democratic leadership.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was the subject of similar criticism after intervening in a Texas primary, dropping opposition research on Democrat Laura Moser, who made comments that she would rather have her teeth pulled without anesthesia than move to Paris, Texas. Moser was viewed as an unelectable candidate but received a boost in fundraising after the intervention, and advanced to a May 22 runoff.
Hoyer said the pushback for intervening in primaries does not have party leaders rethinking their willingness to do so. He noted the party relies on input from people on the ground when determining the strongest candidates.
“Leadership requires trying to make recommendations that you think will be the most effective,” Hoyer said. “So I don’t think we’re dissuaded from that.”
“I understand the locals are going to make the decision,” Hoyer added. “But it would be foolish if asked, and in terms of trying to have a working majority so that we can change policies, to not try to put ourselves in the strongest position to be in that place.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi defended Hoyer on Thursday.
“If the realities of life are that some candidates can do better in the general than others, then that’s a clear-eyed conversation that we should be having,” Pelosi said. Pelosi also said she was concerned the meeting was recorded without Hoyer’s consent and leaked to the press.
The focus on Democratic intervention comes roughly one month before the California primary on June 5, where crowded fields have raised concerns among Democrats in Washington and in the Golden State. Under the California system, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. Some are concerned that crowded fields of Democrats could split the Democratic vote, causing two Republicans to advance to the November ballot.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, state party officials, and members of the delegation have been working behind the scenes to encourage some candidates to drop out of the primaries. The DCCC openly backed one candidate in California’s 39th District by adding Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros to its Red to Blue program.
“We’re worried about that,” Hoyer said of the California primaries. “…So we are focused on that and trying to make sure that we have at least one, maybe two that really we think are viable.”
Hoyer said he was not aware of further actions in California and had not discussed the issue with DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.