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Democrats launch mission to save their campaign chief

Republicans are pouring in millions to defeat Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, forcing Democrats to spend to protect the head of their House campaign committee.
Sean Patrick Maloney speaks during the House Democrats' news conference in the Capitol on Feb. 8, 2022.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney during the House Democrats' news conference in the Capitol on Feb. 8.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP file

For the second time in as many election cycles, Democrats are launching an 11th-hour rescue mission to save the very House campaigns chief responsible for protecting vulnerable incumbents and preserving their fragile House majority.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decision to spend more than $600,000 on TV ads to bolster its chairman, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, came as cash-rich Republicans dumped millions into the once-sleepy race and Democrats retreated in other battleground districts around the country.

The fresh spending is on top of another $110,000 from Our Hudson, a super PAC backing Maloney as he runs in a new district based in the lower Hudson Valley that President Joe Biden won by 10 points just two years ago.

The move came Monday shortly after the election handicapper Cook Political Report moved Maloney’s race for New York’s 17th Congressional District from “lean Democratic” to “toss up.” Republicans have been spending big to boost Maloney’s GOP opponent, state Assemblyman Michael Lawler, pouring nearly $8.8 million into the race, according to a source tracking spending, and hitting Maloney on high inflation, surging crime and his past support for ending cash bail for those in jail.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, is spending $4.7 million, while the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) has invested $1 million in campaign ads, polling and other resources. On Monday, the NRCC said it would spend another $867,000 to take out the Democratic chief.

The dizzying spending is reminiscent of the homestretch of the 2020 campaign when a key Democratic super PAC spent $1 million to shore up the embattled DCCC chair that cycle, Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois. She won re-election, but five months later announced this Congress would be her last.

Some Democrats, particularly those being targeted by Republicans in this tough cycle, voiced frustration that the party has had to dip deep into its coffers in the homestretch to save its past two campaign chairmen. And the situation has reignited a debate about whether the DCCC leadership post should revert to being appointed by the top House Democrat rather than elected by rank-and-file members, and whether future campaign chiefs should hail from safe, blue districts instead of battlegrounds.

“DCCC chairs are like ship captains; they’re duty-bound to get their front-liners in lifeboats before saving themselves,” said a moderate House Democrat being targeted by the NRCC, one of several Democrats who requested anonymity to speak openly about the matter.

A second House Democrat who has worked closely with Maloney laid out the competing interests pulling at the chairman: He’s strategizing which districts to spend money in across the country to save their fragile, five-seat majority while trying to keep an eye on his own backyard.

“Look, he’s got to win. But his attention is definitely going to be diverted. This is the toughest cycle of all and there’s a lot of demands on them right now,” said the second Democratic lawmaker. “People are going to be like, ‘Oh, I need money here. I need money there. I need resources here.’ And so when you’ve got your own crazy battle, balancing that all is really tough.”

Maloney declined to be interviewed for this article but has said he recused himself from making the decision to spend DCCC money on his own race. The DCCC also informed front-line members before announcing the ad buy in Maloney's district, a Democratic aide said.

DCCC spokesman Chris Taylor defended the congressman’s leadership of the committee and said GOP money has flooded the race because Lawler’s campaign “couldn’t compete on its own.”

“Since day one, Chairman Maloney has been working tirelessly as a player coach. He’s built a campaign and we’ve built an operation at the DCCC that can support that reality,” Taylor said. “As we have with every decision this cycle, we are making investments that ensure Democrats hold our House Majority.” 

The new DCCC ad, which will begin airing Tuesday in the New York City region, slams Maloney’s opponent as “MAGA Mike Lawler,” tying him to what it calls “MAGA extremists” like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who worked to ban abortion and overturn the 2020 election “as police died," the ad says over images of Jan. 6.

In an interview with NBC News earlier this year, Maloney laid out that very playbook for protecting vulnerable incumbent Democrats.

“What we’re going to run against are the extreme elements that define the Republican Party today and that will hurt working people … ” Maloney said. “Marjorie Taylor Green is the face of that party. We’re going to let the voters know.”

While Maloney’s become a high-profile target for Republicans in recent weeks, the ambitious and brusque New Yorker had already rubbed a number of his Democratic colleagues the wrong way. 

After a disastrous redistricting process for Democrats this spring, Maloney stunned the New York congressional delegation — and many in his own caucus — by announcing he would abandon his 18th district and run in the new 17th, which included Maloney’s home but also most of the district that had been represented by freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y, one of the first openly gay Black men in Congress. 

Black and Hispanic caucus members were outraged at Maloney, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., who called on Maloney to resign from the DCCC, and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who accused him of trying to “dismantle and tear down Black power in Congress.” Rather than face a bruising primary with Maloney, Jones opted to run in New York’s 10th district, miles away in New York City, but failed to win the crowded primary. Some colleagues now appear gleeful as they watch Maloney fight for his political life.

“Obviously, I hope he wins. But can you spell schadenfreude? It’s ironic, isn’t it?” said a third Democratic lawmaker, who also has worked with Maloney. “He’s found ever new ways to make enemies and make people angry at him. There is bad blood to begin with because of the whole situation with Mondaire.”

As they are doing in races around the country, Republicans are zeroing in on crime as they look to unseat Maloney. Congressional Leadership Fund has been running an ad seizing on Maloney’s comments as he ran for state attorney general in 2018 that he “absolutely” backs ending the cash bail system that progressives say hurts the poor, saying he’d “make it a top priority.” A narrator says Maloney wants “violent criminal defendants back on the street” over video images of masked people holding guns.

Maloney has since tweeted that he supports new bail reforms in New York and that it's "essential that we keep dangerous people off the streets."

Lawler, Maloney’s GOP opponent, is echoing CLF’s message, portraying Maloney as soft on crime.

“People are very concerned about what they’re seeing every day in the news, whether it is a subway stabbing, a shooting in broad daylight, a young child getting killed. ... People, they just don’t feel safe, and that has permeated throughout the district," Lawler said in a phone interview. "And the Democrats aren’t doing anything about it. And people are pissed.”

Maloney campaign spokeswoman Mia Ehrenberg argued that the five-term congressman has a stronger record on crime and backing law enforcement than his opponent, including passing bills this year to strengthen gun laws and fund local police forces.

“While Lawler was voting against common sense gun safety reforms like not allowing teenagers to buy semi-automatic weapons, Rep. Maloney was helping pass bipartisan gun safety reforms,” Ehrenberg said in a statement. “Voters won’t fall for MAGA Mike’s act.“

A Republican strategist working on the Maloney race said the tightening election for governor is helping the GOP, as Republican Lee Zeldin gains on Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul.

The GOP strategist, who spoke about the race on condition of anonymity, insisted Republicans believe they can win the race. Two recent polls show a close race with crime registering as a top issue for voters. The strategist said Hochul’s tightening race, the rise of crime as a concern for New Yorkers and Maloney’s decision to run in a different district — which requires him to reintroduce himself to voters — has put the district “firmly in the middle of the battlefield.”