Audio: Dem Whip Steny Hoyer Pressuring Underdog Congressional Candidate

Hoyer: 'You keep saying I would like you to get out of the race, and of course that’s correct'

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) / Getty

Allegations by a congressional candidate that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put its thumb on the scale during a Colorado primary for its preferred candidate have reemerged after the Intercept published an audio recording of the conversation between the candidate and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer on Thursday.

Levi Tillemann, a candidate for Colorado's 6th Congressional District, alleged in January that Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, had told him during a December conversation that another candidate, attorney Jason Crow, was the choice of Hoyer and other high ranking party officials.

However, Tillemann had only said that he and his campaign manager made notes of the conversation after talking with Hoyer in a downtown Denver hotel, which may have led some to undervalue or dismiss the allegations. With the release of the audio, Tillemann's claims appear to be broadly substantiated.

The Intercept acknowledged they edited the audio, but only in an effort to remove certain personal details that did not change the overall thrust or context of the conversation.

As transcribed by The Intercept:

"Yeah, I'm for Crow," Hoyer explained. "I am for Crow because a judgment was made very early on. I didn't know Crow. I didn't participate in the decision. But a decision was made early on by the Colorado delegation," he said, referencing the three House Democrats elected from Colorado.

"So your position is, a decision was made very early on before voters had a say, and that's fine because the DCCC knows better than the voters of the 6th Congressional District, and we should line up behind that candidate," asked Tillemann during the conversation.

"That's certainly a consequence of our decision," responded Hoyer.

"Staying out of primaries sounds small-D democratic, very intellectual, and very interesting," said Hoyer. "But if you stay out of primaries, and somebody wins in the primary who can't possibly win in the general," the Maryland representative said, citing the surprise victory of Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election, "I'm not saying you're that person." But staying out of primaries, he argued, is "not very smart strategy."

In another portion of the conversation, Tillemann says, "You [Hoyer] would like me to get out of the race."

"You keep saying I would like you to get out, and of course, that's correct," Hoyer replied.

Seconds later, Hoyer added, "I'm for Crow, because a decision was made early on. I didn't participate in the decision."

"Whip Hoyer is committed to taking back the House, and that involves working with local leaders to identify and support the strongest candidate for that district," his spokeswoman Katie Grant said in a statement.

Requests for comment from the DCCC were not returned.

"One thing I've said in the past: I don't really believe in the Republican concept of ‘trickle down' economics," Tillemann told the Washington Free Beacon in early April.

"But it doesn't work in the political system either. We don't want to be in a country where political parties are practicing ‘trickle down' politics, where they give all the money and the resources to people who they perceive to be at the top and try to shut people out of the conversation."

Colorado's 6th has been one of the most competitive seats in the country for several cycles, and is held by Republican Mike Coffman, a former state treasurer and Iraqi war veteran who held on to the seat in part by assiduously cultivating the minority communities in his constituency.

The audio could also raise questions for Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, who is currently running for governor, because according to Hoyer, "a decision was made early on by the Colorado delegation [for Crow]," which would have included Polis. However, in a January report from ColoradoPolitics.com, all three Democratic members of the state's congressional delegation denied the claim. 

"U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter, Colorado's Democratic House members, disputed the [Hoyer] account through spokespersons," the website reported. "While Perlmutter acknowledged he supports Crow—he's known Crow and worked with him for a decade on veterans' issues—all three lawmakers denied they had a hand in recruiting Crow and maintained there had been no decision by the delegation to marshal resources in support of his campaign."

Polis previously took heat from grassroots Democratic voters during the presidential primaries of 2016. The multi-millionaire congressman from Boulder was also a Democratic superdelegate, meaning his vote at the party convention would count several times more than the vote of the normal party delegate.

That summer, after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders narrowly won the state's caucus, grassroots voters turned their messaging to the superdelegates, including Polis, who were pledged to Clinton. At the peak of the debate, Polis was getting handwritten notes in his restaurant take out urging him to cast his vote for Sanders, not Clinton.

The Polis gubernatorial campaign did not return a request for comment.

Crow is still featured on the DCCC’s "Red to Blue" campaign page, which "arms top-tier candidates with organizational and fundraising support to help them continue to run strong campaigns." However, Tillemann has managed to make it on the ballot for the June primary.

Hoyer's words could resonate in races where similar allegations that the DCCC is choosing candidates before the grassroots party voters have a chance to register their preferences have been made.

In California, the progressive group Indivisible slammed the DCCC for essentially endorsing a congressional candidate when it promoted the candidate into the DCCC's "Red to Blue" program.

"How dare you elevate Gil Cisneros to a favored position for CA39 when you haven't consulted the actual residents of this district???!!" a leader for Indivisible wrote on Facebook.

In February, the DCCC published opposition research on a Democratic candidate for Texas' 7th Congressional District, a strategy that backfired somewhat when the candidate qualified for a run-off election for the primary.

Jesse Hunt, the national press secretary of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the House Democratic leadership was using "heavy-handed tactics."

"Progressives are so concerned about national Democrats’ heavy-handed tactics that they’ve decided to record private conversations with House Democratic leadership," Hunt said. "These battles will only intensify as primary season heats up."

Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee, slammed Hoyer for "carrying water for greed-driven corporate interests in Congress."

"We saw what happens when Democratic Party leaders put their fingers on the scale in primaries in 2006 through 2016, when we lost nearly 1000 elected offices up and down the ballot," said DFA's Executive Director Charles Chamberlain. "Steny Hoyer likes to spend a lot of time talking to progressive candidates about electoral viability but, after his exposure in these recordings, it's time for him to recognize that only thing that's truly not viable is his leadership role in a House Democratic caucus that depends on an enthusiastic grassroots progressive base for its majority."

"Steny Hoyer should resign or be removed from House Democratic leadership immediately," Chamberlain added.

Cameron Cawthorne contributed to this story.