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Tensions flare among Democrats as primaries approach

Democrats running across the country find themselves at odds with each other just a week ahead of the first primary elections, as divisions between the progressive and establishment wings spill out into the open and attempts to winnow down one of the largest fields of candidates in recent memory creates a headache for the national party.

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Eric Bradner (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Democrats running across the country find themselves at odds with each other just a week ahead of the first primary elections, as divisions between the progressive and establishment wings spill out into the open and attempts to winnow down one of the largest fields of candidates in recent memory creates a headache for the national party.

In Texas, where the first primaries take place on March 6, it's gotten nasty and personal, with progressive anger directed at the party's campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for intervening in the Houston-area primary race by posting negative research on a candidate.

The attack sent signals to Democrats running everywhere: The DCCC is willing to step into primaries and even attack Democratic candidates to make sure what it sees as viable contenders advance to November's midterm elections.

In California, Democrats are encountering an embarrassment of riches: With so many candidates running, activists and party leaders are fretting that a top-two-advance primary system could shut Democrats out of the general election because their primary votes are split. It's led to a mad last-minute scramble to winnow the primary field before a March 9 filing deadline.

And in other races throughout the country, where the dynamics of the intra-party squabbles vary, national and local Democrats have sharpened their elbows.

"We've gone through the diplomatic stage and are fast approaching the military intervention," one party official said, employing a war analogy.

Progressive ire directed at DCCC

Less than two weeks before voters in Texas head to the polls, the DCCC threw a haymaker in the race to unseat Republican Rep. John Culberson by posting negative research on progressive Democratic hopeful Laura Moser, labeling her a "Washington insider" and highlighting a comment in which she said she wouldn't want to live in Paris, Texas.

The attacked led progressives to cry foul at the national party, which grassroots activists had accused of favoritism for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential race.

"Houston is pretty indicative of a broader trend that's been happening cycle after cycle where they have an outdated playbook of what a winnable district is and what an electable candidate is," said Annie Weinberg, the executive director of Democracy For America, one of the DCCC's loudest critics within progressive ranks.

Meredith Kelly, the DCCC's communications director, said the organization "is keeping all options on the table" to make sure there's a "competitive Democrat" on the ballot November.

"Voters across the country have been working hard for over a year to hold House Republicans accountable and flip key districts blue, and the DCCC has long recognized and appreciated the unprecedented influence that the grassroots have in these races," Kelly said.

After its step into the Texas race, the DCCC faces intense scrutiny. Its Red-to-Blue program, which highlights 24 Democratic candidates in targeted, Republican-held congressional districts, operates as a de facto endorsement -- leading to complaints from other candidates in those races.

Keith, an African-American candidate who was highlighted by The Collective PAC, which complained recently that African-American candidates hadn't been included in the Red-to-Blue program, said being excluded from the program has made her candidacy a tougher sell with donors -- in part by creating the impression that the party wouldn't back her if she emerged from the primary.

"In a time where the energy of the voters is not necessarily stacking up behind the biggest self-funders, the most wealthy-candidates, to say, 'We hear you, we hear you, we hear you, we just don't care, we're going to tell you who the candidate's going to be,' is inappropriate," Keith said.

Pam Keith, a candidate in the Florida 18th District race, where the DCCC included primary foe Lauren Baer in its Red-to-Blue program, said, "The DCCC has deputized itself to be the ultimate arbiter of who is and who is not viable, who can and who cannot win."

Some Democrats involved in 2018 races defend the role the DCCC plays in recruiting and identifying top prospects, even if it means shoving others aside.

"They have an impossible job this cycle. It's impossible," said Jon Soltz, the chairman of VoteVets, which backs Democratic military veterans' campaigns. "There's so many great people running across the board that it's impossible to make everybody happy."

He said with such a vast crop of candidates, the party plays an important role in identifying strong candidates to help donors and outside groups identify where to spend their money.

"Donors are overrun from candidates calling them and they don't know which ones to support and which ones not to," Soltz said.

Wild West

In California, Democrats have taken a much different tone on heavy-handed involvement in primaries: Local activists eagerly welcome it.

Because of the party's primary system, in a race with many more Democratic candidates than Republicans, the top two vote-getters could be Republicans, even if Democratic candidates collectively receive much more support. Looming large is the March 9 filing deadline. After that, candidates can withdraw from the race, but they'd still appear on ballots.

The two races worrying national, state and local party leaders are the 39th District, where Rep. Ed Royce is retiring, and the 49th District, where Rep. Darrell Issa won't seek re-election.

"We all are quite worried. It's not just the political chattering class," said Terra Lawson-Remer, the head of Flip the 49th, a local grassroots organization.

The DCCC has stepped in, conducting polls in both districts in January and then sharing the results with every candidate. It also held meetings with California's congressional delegation and leaned on those lawmakers to help prevent the primary fields from growing larger still.

The party's moves, an official said, could also include spending to boost certain Democratic candidates, as it did to boost Salud Carbajal through a top-two primary in 2016. Or, Democrats could also repeat a Moser-style attack.

In an effort to winnow the field, Flip the 49th invited all five candidates to a forum on Friday night, where they'll be asked to speak directly to their paths to victory -- and if none exists, they'll be prodded to drop out.

"What leadership looks like is stepping aside for the collective good and the good of the country instead of putting your own ego first," Lawson-Remer said. "This is way more urgent than people realize."

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