The Political Report – February 22, 2023

Washington Post: “Nearly all of the focus group participants had supported Donald Trump in 2020 and said they would vote for him again against President Biden in 2024. But things got complicated when the moderator asked for the one emotion they now felt when they saw Trump on television or computers screens.”

Said one: “The current Trump is not the Trump that I voted for. I feel like he has shown some things, qualities and non-qualities, whatever, that I don’t care for now.”

“Such hesitation and ambiguity dominated two recent focus groups of persuadable Republican primary voters from the key early nominating states of New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa and South Carolina. In the sessions with 14 votes, conducted for The Washington Post by research firms Engagious and Schlesinger, most stood by their past support for the onetime undisputed Republican leader. The future was a different issue, with most saying they would vote for someone else in the GOP primary. Half of the group said they would vote for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.”

A new Rasmussen Reports survey finds Donald Trump tops both the lists of the “best” and “worst” presidents.

DESANTIS 2024. “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made freedom his calling card, but some conservatives have become skeptical of how liberally the Republican leader is using government power to impose his will,” CNN reports.

“Among GOP donors, leading conservative voices and even some supporters, there is a growing concern that DeSantis has overstepped in his fight against ‘wokeness’ as he seeks to shore up conservative support ahead of a highly anticipated 2024 campaign for president. Several potential rivals for the GOP nomination have seized on DeSantis’ brash approach and top-heavy governing style to draw sharp contrasts with the popular Republican.”

“A newly launched nonprofit group is supporting Ron DeSantis’ national political activity — a major sign of the growing political apparatus around the Florida governor as he moves toward a 2024 presidential bid,” Politico reports.

“The nonprofit organization, called ‘And to the Republic,’ hosted three events DeSantis held Monday in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, where he spoke before law enforcement officers.”

“Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida traveled to New York City on Monday, kicking off a tour meant to highlight the issue of crime in Democratic-led cities in an apparent attempt to position himself as a law-and-order candidate in a presidential campaign he has not announced,” the New York Times reports.

DeSantis appears to have decided not to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, The Floridian reports.

TRUMP 2024. “In the three months since he announced his bid for a comeback, Trump has not set foot in Iowa, the first place his claim of party dominance will be tested early next year,” the AP reports.

SUNUNU 2024. New York Times: “After three consecutive disappointing election cycles for his party, Mr. Sununu says the time for indulging Mr. Trump’s delusions has long passed. The midterms, he argues, proved that the nation, including many Republicans, had little interest in the far-right candidates the former president backed. Even nominating a onetime Trump acolyte from the prospective 2024 field, like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida or the former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, is a misread of the moment, he says.”

“And so, Mr. Sununu — a ‘Seinfeld’-quoting, Covid booster-boosting son of a governor who supported Mr. Trump’s first two campaigns — is offering himself up as a walking referendum on the direction of his party.”

TENNESSEE 5TH DISTRICT. WTVF’s Phil Williams reported Thursday evening that Tennessee Rep. Andy Ogles appears to have fabricated large portions of his life, with Williams writing that the freshman Republican has claimed to be “an economist, a nationally recognized expert in tax policy and health care, a trained police officer, even an expert in international sex crimes”—none of which appears to be true. Ogles won his first term last year in a newly gerrymandered Middle Tennessee district, and he went on to oppose Kevin McCarthy for speaker on 11 straight ballots before finally falling into line.

During last year’s primary, Ogles presented himself “as a former member of law enforcement” in a debate, saying he’d “worked in international sex crimes, specifically child trafficking.” He also made similar claims during the campaign and in his first weeks in office.

But Williams explains that the only law enforcement background Ogles had was his brief service as a volunteer reserve deputy in the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office starting in 2009―a gig that ended just two years later after he failed to meet the minimum requirements for participation, or even attend meetings. A spokesperson for the sheriff added, “There is nothing in Mr. Ogles’ training or personnel file that indicates he had any involvement in ‘international sex trafficking’ in his capacity as a reserve deputy.”

Williams also found that, while the congressman has claimed to have “oversee[n] operations and investments in 12 countries” as the chief operating officer of a group that works to stop human trafficking, his tax returns show he was paid all of $4,000 for part-time work. There’s also no evidence that Ogles ever received an education in economics or worked as an economist. However, unlike fellow first-term Republican fabricators George Santos and Anna Paulina Luna, it appears that Ogles has not claimed to be Jewish.

Williams wasn’t the first Tennessee journalist to question Ogles. In late January, the Tennessee Lookout’s Sam Stockard reported that Ogles claimed to be a graduate of Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management when records show he actually went through the school’s executive education program. Those two programs may sound similar but they’re nothing alike. “Participants in the short-term, non-degree programs typically receive a certificate, according to a Vanderbilt spokesman,” wrote Stockard. “In other words, he probably attended a few hours of lectures and got a piece of paper.”

State Sen. Heidi Campbell, the Democrat Ogles defeated 56-42 last year, also says she had some idea about her opponent’s other alleged lies, specifically his supposed law enforcement background, but none of these stories surfaced during the primary, where Ogles defeated former state House Speaker Beth Harwell 35-25, nor in the general.

Ogles’ campaign finances are also a shambles. The month after his win, the Federal Election Commission threatened to audit the incoming congressman over his fundraising reports; among other things, he failed to properly identify donors and recorded accepting multiple contributions over the legal $2,900 limit. Williams further reported last month that Ogles has also failed to file the personal financial disclosures that all federal candidates are required to submit.

Campbell now argues that she might have won had her opponent’s alleged fabrications emerged during the campaign, though Tennessee Republicans last year did everything they could to make sure that any Republican would win the 5th District. While Nashville’s Davidson County had been contained in a single congressional district since the 1950s, the GOP’s new gerrymander divided it between three different constituencies and immediately transformed the 5th District from safely blue to solidly red.

Veteran Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper decided to retire right after his seat morphed from a 60-37 Biden district to one Trump carried 54-43, and Ogles went on to beat Campbell in a race that almost everyone agreed would be an easy GOP pickup. Ogles’ victory, as well as the successful re-election campaigns of fellow Republican Reps. John Rose and Mark Green, ensured that Nashville would be represented by Republicans for the first time since Horace Harrison left office in 1875 after losing his bid for another term.

TEXAS ATTORNEY GENERAL. We learned Thursday night that the federal corruption probe into Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton remains active after state prosecutors said in a statement that Justice Department officials in D.C. would take over the investigation from San Antonio’s U.S. attorney. The state prosecutors who revealed this are involved in the unrelated securities fraud case against Paxton, who is still awaiting trial after being indicted in 2015.

Paxton recently reached a tentative settlement in a separate whistleblower lawsuit that four of his former aides brought against him, but state House Speaker Dade Phelan said Wednesday it was up to Paxton to convince the legislature to approve the requisite $3.3 million taxpayer-funded payment to the plaintiffs. These former Paxton employees group told federal investigators in 2020 that their boss had used his office to aid a wealthy ally named Nate Paul in exchange for favors, including an expensive home renovation.

WISCONSIN SUPREME COURT. Yesterday was Wisconsin’s officially nonpartisan primary for a seat on the state Supreme Court, which will determine which two candidates will advance to the crucial April 4 contest that will determine control of the body.

In a late development just ahead of the vote, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Daniel Bice reported on Friday that one of the two conservatives on the ballot, former Justice Daniel Kelly, took part in talks with Republicans following the 2020 presidential election in which participants discussed fielding fake Trump electors. Former state GOP chair Andrew Hitt told the Jan. 6 committee that Kelly, who became the party’s “special counsel” following his re-election loss the prior spring, had “pretty extensive conversations” with him about the plan, though Hitt didn’t say what the former justice had advised.

Kelly’s campaign said in response that he “took a call from RPW Chairman Hitt on the subject of Republican electors and was asked if he was in the loop about this issue and Justice Kelly stated he was not.” It added that the candidate “believes Joe Biden is the duly elected president of the United States.” Bice’s article also revealed that Kelly has received $120,000 from the Wisconsin GOP and Republican National Committee, with the most recent payment occurring in December. The former justice told a party meeting last June that he was being paid to work on “election integrity issues.”

Both the liberals running in Tuesday’s contest, Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, were quick to attack Kelly as a partisan extremist, while the other conservative contender, Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow, remained silent.

Kelly, though, has continued to make waves in other ways during the final days of the campaign by once again refusing to say if he’d endorse Dorow if she beats him out for a spot in the April general election. In explaining his reticence, Kelly once more brought up Justice Brian Hagedorn, who has occasionally departed from his fellow conservatives on key rulings. “I think it’s just terribly presumptuous to say that I have to endorse her blind,” Kelly said of Dorow, adding, “And, especially after Brian Hagedorn, I’m just not doing blind endorsements.” Dorow herself has pledged to support Kelly if it comes down to it, arguing, “I’m not going to take the chance to take someone out so that the left can win this election.”

No one has released a single poll of the race, but the one set of hard numbers we do have shows Protasiewicz maintaining her dominant advantage in the money race. Wisconsin requires candidates to report any donations of $1,000 or more received since the most recent fundraising period ended on Feb. 6, and Protasiewicz has taken in $530,000 over the last two weeks. This number, which does not factor in small donations, is more than four times what her other three opponents have reported during this time combined: Dorow outpaced Kelly, $84,000 to $53,000 among large donors, while Mitchell brought in just $12,000.

That’s helped fuel an expensive contest: Altogether, $7 million has been spent on advertising through Thursday, by the candidates and their allies. According to data collected by Kantar Media/CMAG and compiled for the Brennan Center, Protasiewicz has spent $1.1 million compared to $402,000 for Dorow on the airwaves. Protasiewicz’s advertising has largely focused on her support for abortion rights, while Dorow has emphasized how she presided over a high-profile trial that saw a man named Darrell Brooks sentenced to life in prison for killing six people at the 2021 Waukesha Christmas parade.

Kelly hasn’t run any ads himself, but he’s received $2.4 million in support from Fair Courts America, a super PAC funded by megadonors Dick and Liz Uihlein. One other outside group has also spent heavily: A Better Wisconsin Together, a liberal organization, has deployed $1.8 million to run spots accusing Dorow of issuing too-lenient sentences to convicted criminals, a tactic aimed at hurting her chances against Kelly, whom progressives would rather face.

While the two conservatives have feuded on the campaign trail, they’ve refrained from attacking each other on the airwaves. However, a pair of right-wing groups, the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, has spent a combined $735,000 attacking Protasiewicz as soft on crime. A short time later, she hit back with her own ad arguing that Dorow and Kelly were the ones who hadn’t done enough to keep Wisconsinites safe. (Mitchell has received no major outside help or opposition.)

It’s possible that two candidates with the same ideological orientation will advance to April, though that would be a major surprise. If control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is on the line as everyone expects, however, the second round will be far more pricey. In fact, it may well shatter records: The Brennan Center reports that the biggest outlay on a supreme court contest in American history was the $15.2 million expended in a 2004 race for the top court in Illinois. This year’s race in Wisconsin is already almost halfway there even though the state’s electorate is just half the size of Illinois’, though the Illinois outlays would be about $24.1 million in today’s dollars.

ARIZONA U.S. SENATOR. While the Washington Post writes that Arizona election denier Kari Lake’s flirtations with a potential Senate run has “frozen the Republican field,” state Senate President Pro Tempore T. J. Shope responded Sunday by tweeting, “Hasn’t frozen me… we need somebody who can actually win in November and that’s why I’m seriously considering this US Senate seat!” This is the first time we’ve heard Shope mentioned as a possible contender.

The Post also writes that “at least three Republican candidates” are waiting to see what Lake will do before making up their own minds, though it didn’t name them. It seems that Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb isn’t one, though, as he tells the paper he could decide in weeks; the article, by contrast, says that an unnamed Lake associate says she’s “eyeing a June timeline.” The story adds that 2022 attorney general nominee Abe Hamadeh, who like Lake has refused to recognize his defeat, is considering his own Senate bid, though it notes that he’s close to Lake.

OHIO U.S. SENATOR. Secretary of State Frank LaRose has publicly confirmed his interest in challenging Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Spectrum News adds that Republican insiders “have assumed” he’ll get in. State Sen. Matt Dolan currently is the only notable GOP contender campaigning against Brown, though several others could also run.

CALIFORNIA 30TH DISTRICT. Los Angeles City Council President Paul Krekorian says he won’t run to succeed his fellow Democrat, Senate candidate Adam Schiff.

FLORIDA STATE HOUSE. Former Rep. Dave Weldon, a Republican who served in the U.S. House from 1995 until he retired in 2009, has announced that he’ll campaign for an open seat in the state House next year. Weldon was last on the ballot in 2012 when he sought the GOP nod for U.S. Senate to take on Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, but that bid did not go well: Rep. Connie Mack IV overcame his own “Charlie Sheen of Florida politics” image enough to win 59-20 only to suffer his own drubbing against Nelson.

Delaware politics from a liberal, progressive and Democratic perspective. Keep Delaware Blue.

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