McClatchy: Inside the veteran candidate network fighting to remake the Democratic Party

RICHMOND, VA. — Eight days after a Republican super PAC publicized confidential records of a CIA officer-turned-congressional candidate, national security experts were still seething.

So Seth Moulton took to his private Slack channel to offer some guidance to the House candidates he has endorsed, many of them military veterans who were horrified that Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger had been exposed.

“We usually think about how we’re going to get hit in terms of whatever weaknesses we may have in our resumes, mistakes we’ve made in the past, etc.,” the congressman wrote to his endorsees on the messaging platform, something he set up to dispense exactly this kind of advice. “But they go after our strengths. (Look at how Pelosi always attacks me—on my motives for serving.)”

“Please don’t be afraid to reach out to me or to each other when you need to vent,” Moulton continued. “Because this stuff isn’t easy, and you’re not alone.”

Moulton—a Massachusetts Marine veteran and adversary of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—has spent the past two years working to create a sense of community for the candidates he’s supporting. That list includes military and national security veteran contenders running in pivotal House races, from Spanberger in Virginia to Amy McGrath in Kentucky to Dan McCready in North Carolina.

In Congress, Moulton is a polarizing member, and nationally, the second-term congressman admits to being largely unknown—though in an interview he didn’t entirely close the door on a future presidential bid. But to many of these campaigns, he is a significant figure, acting as part coach, part therapist, major fundraiser and full-time convener. 

“He’s created a network of people who are able to lean on each other, share experiences, discuss what the campaigns are like,” said Spanberger, who is running in a Richmond-area district (while Republicans promoted elements of her security clearance file, the U.S. Postal Service apologized for releasing it improperly).

Connections are forged at fundraisers and late-night drinks, through Slack and texting threads and staff-to-staff strategy sessions. There was a congressional delegation-style trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, and a debate prep session in Washington led by top Obama-world alumni.

As the Democratic Party braces for a clash between ascendant progressives and moderate holdouts, newcomers and old-guard leadership, Moulton and his network of younger veterans—with their national security expertise, anti-establishment streaks and often, ties to more conservative districts—could have substantial influence in a potential Democratic majority, if enough of them survive tough races on Nov. 6.

“If we’re fortunate enough to get elected, I think we’re going to have a network of people that many freshmen in Congress don’t have,” said McGrath, who is running in a tight race in the Lexington, Ky. area. “Hopefully that will be a powerful network, to make sure we have a strong voice in doing what we think is best for the country.”

*****

In the early morning hours following Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, Moulton composed a note to his despondent staff.

“You will probably remember tonight as one of the most disillusioning of your lives,” he wrote. “I feel as sick as all of you, and sad for the country I so deeply love. But there will be a big difference in the morning between the political teams—the public servants—who pick up and find a way forward, and those that simply wallow in...despair.”

As he weighed his options, Moulton heard from acquaintances and former classmates who were considering public office—such as McCready, another Marine veteran and friend from Harvard Business School, and Ken Harbaugh, an Ohio-based Navy veteran who knew Moulton through a veterans-related organization.

“My niche is veterans and they happen to do very well in swing districts,” Moulton, 39, told me one morning in late September as we drove through Virginia’s coastal Hampton Roads region, in search of breakfast before an event for Democrat Elaine Luria (his order, when we found a diner: a medium-rare pork chop, eggs, greens and a large glass of milk). “I decided I would endorse a few candidates and try to support their races.”

When I met up with Moulton, he was fresh off a swing through the Midwest, where he had campaigned with candidates running in Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa. That trip underscored how much his operation has expanded since he wrote his team that anguished note nearly two years ago.

Moulton has now endorsed 28 military or CIA veteran House candidates through his political arm, Serve America PAC (20 survived primaries), and he also backs non-veteran House candidates as well as state and local contenders. Through Moulton’s campaign, Serve America, and its joint fundraising committees, he has raised more than $8 million in the 2018 cycle so far, of which more than $4 million went directly to supporting his endorsed candidates, according to his spokesman. He participated in some Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee veteran recruitment efforts (though hasn’t agreed with the party on every race) and Moulton’s personal involvement with his endorsees, especially the core group of House veteran candidates, now takes up the majority of his time.

He is in near-constant communication with them—stumping for them, offering feedback on their events, texting with them, connecting them with each other. He recorded a get-out-the-vote video with Luria in a parking lot after they campaigned at an FDA compliance-related company. (It required two takes. “I thought I was rough,” Moulton said. “I thought I was rambling,” Luria, an ex-Navy commander, offered.)

And he provides everything from wellness tips for the campaign homestretch (“You need to eat, sleep and work out,” he said on Slack on Sept. 29) to guidance on discussing one’s military service on the campaign trail, something he grappled with in his first race.

Moulton also often includes a policy component on his campaign trips. In practice, that can seem more in keeping with someone who is considering a national campaign—and is building the requisite national relationships—than someone entirely focused on reclaiming the House.

On my day trailing him, the issue was transportation: we rode a bus around Richmond with Mayor Levar Stoney, who is considered a rising Democratic star. In Iowa, the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state where Moulton recently appeared with candidates Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, he said he learned about tax policy.

“The big concern about the tax bill is the way the elimination of deductions hurts laborers who are traveling worksite to worksite,” he said. “There’s a strong sentiment, the strong feeling the Democratic Party is not talking about that enough.”

And in Washington, there’s a strong feeling that Moulton’s efforts add up to an ambition bigger than winning reelection to the Sixth District of Massachusetts. Moulton dismisses that, saying that members of Congress vote on these policy issues and should know about them.

“I’m not running for president,” he said when I asked about 2020.

We went back and forth over how firmly he was ruling this out (read excerpts of our conversation, including Moulton’s thoughts on a Senate bid and the future of the Democratic Party).

“I don’t think it’s the best way I can serve the country right now,” he said eventually. “If that were to change, I would consider it. But I don’t think it’s the best way I can serve the country.”

To some Democrats, the idea of Moulton in any kind of leadership position is ludicrous. They consider him a sanctimonious sophomore who hasn’t paid his political dues and will be one of many trying to claim credit should they retake the House. In reality, one Democratic operative close to leadership said, “he’s one in a long list.”

“Inconsequential,” Pelosi told Rolling Stone, speaking of Moulton and Rep. Tim Ryan, another Pelosi detractor. “They don’t have a following in our caucus. None.”

Moulton, who says he does not want to be speaker of the House, is betting that the Democratic caucus after Nov. 6 will look much different, especially if a wave hits and the new majority is built on the kind of candidates he is backing: veterans, often from red districts, who preach pragmatism over partisanship and tend to oppose Pelosi for speaker and in some cases, other leadership positions (though that’s not a “litmus test” for Moulton’s support).

“She obviously thinks she can twist arms after the election, but this would be disastrous for these candidates who just won us the majority,” he said. “To force them to break a campaign promise, it would be terrible, and frankly the exact opposite of selfless leadership.”

That combative approach has earned Moulton enemies on Capitol Hill. But in other Democratic circles, there is also—sometimes grudging—recognition that he has provided top-tier candidates with meaningful fundraising assistance and connections to prominent party players. A recent Serve America Victory Fund fundraiser in Washington claimed honorary host committee members such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Debate prep before the event was led by former Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter and Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, according to operatives outside Moulton’s team familiar with the event.

“Look, is he a self-promoter? I mean, which of them aren’t, at some level?” said a senior Democratic Party strategist who is “not a fan, not a foe” of Moulton’s and was granted anonymity to candidly assess internal party dynamics. But in comparison to other anti-Pelosi members, the source continued, Moulton “comes across as the critic who also puts skin in the game.”

*****

In the spacious backroom of a Richmond brewery, Moulton took the stage to scattered shouts of “oorah!”—the Marine battlecry—to introduce Spanberger, and himself.

“I’m pretty new to this politics thing,” Moulton said at a Veterans for Spanberger event. “I’ve only been doing it for about three years. But I was a Marine for six—“

“Oorah! Oorah!” more attendees cheered, breaking into applause.

As we left the gathering, he received a call from Van Taylor, a Republican state senator running for Congress in Texas—like Moulton, a Marine veteran with multiple Harvard degrees. He was calling, Moulton said, to give a heads-up about visiting D.C.

“It’s a tight veterans’ community,” Moulton said.

Certainly, he is far from the only political player on that landscape, and his involvement and influence even with his endorsees can vary widely from campaign to campaign.

Serve America also has multiple partners, including New Politics, the bipartisan, service veteran-focused organization that initially recruited Moulton and offers intensely personalized support to its candidates and their staffs. Several military veteran candidates told me that their first two calls, as they mulled jumping into 2018 races, were to Moulton and to Emily Cherniack, the founder of New Politics and, according to Harbaugh, the “godmother of the operation...she’s really been a key player in bringing us all together.”

The two organizations have worked together on fundraisers, events that were critical to establishing a broader community of veteran candidates—one that some are hoping to parlay into a congressional caucus.

“If I have the honor of serving North Carolinians in office, I want to form a caucus of post-9/11 veterans from both sides of the aisle,” said McCready, running in a competitive Charlotte-area race. “If we could get five, even 10 folks in this caucus, it could become a nonpartisan swing vote…in areas, maybe, like national security, the Constitution, ethics, we could vote as one voice.”

For that to happen, these candidates first need to win in challenging terrain next month.

And if they do, that raises another question: Is there room in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party for aspiring leaders who echo their less partisan, “country over party” message, given the fury of the progressive base and the political tribalism raging in both parties?

“Folks might be too angry right now, but that doesn’t mean that’s how they’ll feel a year from now,” Moulton said when I raised this in the context of the next presidential campaign. “I believe it’s incumbent on whoever follows Trump to work to bring the country back together.”