National Democrats have turned to the centrist members of their party to reach far, wide and early to identify and bolster candidates beyond their urban strongholds.
Conor Lamb's performance in Pennsylvania's 18th District Tuesday showed that Democrats can win in areas not recently receptive to the party by focusing on issues important to the local communities and by staking out more centrist positions.
The committee responsible for supporting the election of House Democrats began an effort to target candidates like Lamb last spring after losing a high profile special election in suburban Atlanta, according to multiple Democratic party strategists who detailed the effort to CNN. The effort ramped up in the fall, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invited a group of moderate Democrats that put them in the majority in 2006 to talk through a winning strategy.
The committee gave the "Blue Dog mafia," as some call them, free rein to work with candidates on campaign operations in some of the toughest districts on the expanded Democratic target list.
The group, made up of former policy and campaign aides who now work at DC lobbying shops, consulting firms and industry groups, have set up their own satellite political operation to help vet candidates, determine who is viable to beat the Republican nominee in November, and provide support to build volunteer networks, set up digital operations, and make fundraising connections.
"It was the first time since 2006 that we have become a partner in running and winning these races," said Kristen Hawn, former Communication Director to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative lawmakers from rural and suburban districts. She is now a senior adviser to their political action committee.
The Blue Dog Coalition wielded influence within the Democratic caucus when it grew to 54 members in 2008. But Blue Dogs have struggled to impact the agenda after more than half lost in 2010, and now count 19 members as part of the group with the addition of Lamb.
Now those members have found new relevance as Democrats seek to compete in more conservative districts across the country.
"The path to the majority goes through the blue dogs. My very progressive colleagues here get that. It's the first time since I've come to Congress where I feel like the caucus has my back," Rep. Kurt Schrader, elected in 2008, told CNN.
The moderate Oregon Democrat heads up recruiting efforts for the Blue Dog Coalition. So far the group has endorsed 14 candidates, including Lamb, and expects to add more in the coming months.
While outside progressive groups are pressing Democratic candidates to pledge support for things like single payer health care plans or champion pro-abortion rights positions, Schrader says his group has criteria about economic positions but "no litmus tests."
He advises candidates to take positions in sync with their constituents, something he said Lamb did, which made him harder to pigeon hole as a typical Democrat.
Ben McAdams, the current mayor of Salt Lake City, is a Democratic challenger running against Utah GOP Rep. Mia Love and was endorsed by the Blue Dogs. In a phone interview with CNN, he repeatedly framed himself as a bridge builder.
"I can move the needle on the issues and people are familiar with my style of putting problem solving ahead of partisanship," McAdams said.
He added that his would-be constituents are pressing for Medicaid expansion in his state, and said if he won he wanted to work with Trump to boost infrastructure spending.
Schrader told CNN he has a lot of Trump supporters in his own district and said he's open to working with the president. He understands why his posture could be considered "treasonous" by some of his more liberal colleagues and progressive groups he often doesn't agree with on big issues.
But he also says, "frankly Trump is the gift who keeps on giving for Democrats. As long as he doesn't wreck the country or get us into nuclear war for God's sake, we want Democrats to take over this next midterm and he may be our best asset right now."
Rep. Denny Heck, D-Washington state, is a member of the New Democratic Coalition, a growing pro-business group that now has 68 members, and like the Blue Dogs, is playing a central in party recruiting. He told CNN the playbook for these races is "local, local, local."
"Talk about the issues that matter in your community. Involve people in your community, engage in conversations about issues that affect your community," Heck said. "They won't be the same as my community."
Heck describes the difference between heading up recruiting efforts this cycle for the DCCC compared to 2016 as "night and day."
He said it took him three cycles to convince Brendan Kelly, a Navy veteran and prosecutor to run for a seat now held by GOP Rep. Mike Bost in Illinois.
"There are an awful lot of people running who never would have considered it in other times," Heck said. He pointed to a group of female candidates with national security backgrounds who are running in New Jersey, Michigan, and Florida.
As to why people took the leap this time, Heck said, "the same reason probably a lot of people decided, which is they like to see Congress be more functional and get more done on behalf of the people back home in their districts."
Democrats have candidates running against all except 8 sitting House Republicans. There are 101 districts that the party has identified as in play, and out of those, two dozen have been designated as "red to blue" races where the campaign committee provides resources and other campaign support.
One Democratic campaign operative familiar with the planning estimates that there will be roughly 50 to 60 races where the party could invest significant resources, a figure double than the committee spent money on in 2016.
Republicans argue that the glut of Democrats running for Congress are coming from progressive groups who are the most outspoken critics of Trump. They point to many districts where multiple Democrats competing in primaries and believe that dynamic means general election candidates will be out of step with voters in the same competitive races Democrats believe they can flip to blue.
Heck acknowledges that may be the case in some places.
"The energy among Democrats that has resulted in hotly contested multiple candidate primaries will very likely end up costing us a few seats. However, we will gain way more seats as a consequence of that energy than we will lose because of the crowded primaries."
Another Democratic strategist told CNN that the sheer number of candidates is a key reason why centrist Democrats and their networks across Washington are playing a more active role - the party needs all the resources it can get to manage the field, including recruiting quality candidates.
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a former Iraq War veteran and another member of the New Democratic Coalition, helped enlist a group of more than two dozen former military members or others with public service backgrounds.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has also been tapped in some cases to make calls to help close the deal with potential candidates.
"I think that the leadership is listening," California Democratic Rep Jim Costa, co-chair of the Blue Dog group, told CNN. "We are cooperating and collaborating in the last year like we never have before. It's just a fact."
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