The Political Report – April 6, 2023

Donald Trump has widened his lead over his rivals in the 2024 Republican presidential nominating contest, even as he faces criminal charges in New York, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Trump’s lead is now 29 percentage points, up from 14 points on March 20.

A new Morning Consult poll finds Donald Trump is backed by 55% of potential Republican primary voters, up 3 percentage points from last Wednesday, the day before news broke that a Manhattan grand jury voted to indict him.

It gives him a 29-percentage-point lead over his closest polling potential rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis — marking his second-best advantage since tracking began in December. 

WISCONSIN SUPREME COURT. Progressives won their first majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 15 years on Tuesday night when Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz defeated former Justice Daniel Kelly, a lopsided victory that will have huge repercussions for voting rights and abortion access. Protasiewicz prevailed 56-44 in her bid for a 10-year term to succeed retiring conservative Justice Pat Roggensack.

Though the race was officially nonpartisan, the ideological battle lines were unmistakable. Protasiewicz’s victory in this $45 million contest―which shattered the record for the most expensive state Supreme Court race in American history―now gives liberals a 4-3 majority on the Badger State’s highest court. Kelly’s allies, including Republican megadonors Dick and Liz Uihlein and the powerful business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, tried to avert this outcome by running a barrage of ads attacking Protasiewicz as weak on crime, but their message failed to have a big enough impact.

Partly that was due to Protasiewicz’s massive financial edge throughout the race, which allowed her to air more ads thanks to cheaper rates afforded to candidates. She used that advantage to argue that if Kelly returned to the high court, he’d vote to keep the state’s 1849 abortion ban in force. Protasiewicz also voiced her opposition to the GOP’s legislative gerrymanders, which have all but guaranteed huge Republican majorities despite Wisconsin’s swingy nature, blasting the maps as “rigged.”

Progressives had been in the minority on the Supreme Court since 2008, but they’re set to control the court for at least two years. The next race is scheduled for 2025, when another liberal, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, is due to go before voters again.

Conservative outside groups in Wisconsin looking to defend their 4-3 majority on the state’s highest court have spent heavily to portray Protasiewicz as weak on crime, but one powerful organization pulled its ads late Friday after a backlash. The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce had been airing ads arguing that Protasiewicz had issued too light of a sentence in a rape trial, but the victim at the center of the case denounced the commercials for retraumatizing her and misrepresenting the facts of the case.

WMC, which ran similar ads in the 2018 race for Supreme Court over the objections of the family involved, initially defended its new offensive. However, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported Friday that WMC had asked TV stations to take down their advertisements and replace them with older spots, a move that came a day after Protasiewicz’s team threatened legal action against anyone who continued to air the ads. However, a separate organization called Fair Courts America, funded by Republican megadonors Dick and Liz Uihlein, has also been running its own ads on the same topic, and there’s no word as to whether it’s followed suit.

Protasiewicz’s side began the six-week general election campaign with a massive spending edge over Kelly and his allies, but while conservatives have since made up the gap in terms of raw dollars, the progressive camp has retained a much more important advantage. Because candidates are entitled to far cheaper rates than third-party groups, Protasiewicz’s dominant fundraising has allowed her to air more ads. In fact, during the final week, the GOP firm Medium Buying reported that Kelly’s faction had spent or booked $3.3 million on TV and radio, compared to $2.5 million for Protasiewicz. Despite that shortfall, though, Protasiewicz and her supporters aired 54% of the ads during that time frame.

Protasiewicz has made use of her advantage to argue that if Kelly returns to the high court, he’d vote to keep the Badger State’s 1849 abortion ban in force. She’s also labeled her rival as “corrupt” for recusing himself in a voter purge case, then “un-recusing” after the plaintiff’s family donated $20,000 to his unsuccessful campaign for election to a full term on the Supreme Court in 2020, as well as for once likening Social Security to slavery. Kelly’s side has mostly focused on fears about crime, and he even created a shot-by-shot remake of the racist Willie Horton ad that helped George H.W. Bush win the White House in 1988.

Altogether about $45 million has been spent to win this Supreme Court seat, a figure that makes this the most expensive state Supreme Court race in American history by far. The previous record, according to the Brennan Center, was the $15.2 million expended in a 2004 race for the top court in Illinois, which is about $24.1 million in today’s dollars.

1Q FUNDRAISING. The first fundraising quarter of the year, covering the period of Jan. 1 through March 31, has come to an end, and federal candidates will have to file campaign finance reports with the FEC by April 15. But as per usual, campaigns with strong hauls are releasing numbers early, which we’ve gathered below.

WISCONSIN STATE SENATE. Republican Assemblyman Dan Knodl holds a 51-49 edge over Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin with 99% of the estimated vote tabulated in the special election for the 8th District in the Wisconsin Senate, but the Associated Press has not called the race as of early Wednesday; Knodl declared victory on Election Night, while Habush Sinykin has not conceded.

A win for Knodl would give his party the two-thirds supermajority in the upper chamber it lost after Republican incumbent Alberta Darling resigned last year. Habush Sinykin decisively outraised Knodl, but she always faced an uphill climb in a 52-47 Trump constituency that’s home to longtime conservative bastions in the suburbs and exurbs north of Milwaukee. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson last year also won 54-46 here, according to our calculations, while GOP gubernatorial nominee Tim Michels prevailed over Democratic incumbent Tony Evers here by a smaller 52-48 spread.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE HOUSE. Axios reported Tuesday that Democratic state Rep. Tricia Cotham in North Carolina planned to switch to the Republican Party the following day and give the GOP a three-fifths supermajority, news Democratic leader Robert Reives confirmed hours later as he called for her resignation.

Since the Republicans already hold exactly a three-fifths edge in the state Senate (thanks to gerrymanders that were ruled unconstitutional in December), the switch would enable them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes and put constitutional amendments on the ballot―a development that could lead to many significant policy changes such as new restrictions on abortion rights, voting access, and much more.

Last week just two days after a mass shooting in Nashville made national headlines, Cotham and two other Democrats missed a vote where their absences enabled Republicans to override Cooper’s veto of a bill that repealed a century-old requirement that handgun purchasers first get a permit from their local sheriff. Cotham claimed she was getting treatment for long COVID, but some Democrats alleged that she had purposefully missed the vote to allow it to pass. Local journalist Bryan Anderson reported that this backlash seriously irked Cotham and may have been what prompted the party-switch.

Unlike many previous Democratic lawmakers who became Republicans in the Tar Heel State in prior decades, Cotham changing parties makes very little sense on paper. She represents a Charlotte area district that would have backed Joe Biden 61-38 in 2020 and has been zooming leftward over the past decade like many other well-educated suburban districts.

However, Cotham may be counting on the GOP drawing her a much redder district for next year, since the new Republican majority on North Carolina’s Supreme Court recently reheard a case where the prior Democratic majority in December had ruled that gerrymandering violated the state constitution. Observers widely interpreted that as a sign that the GOP justices would reverse the decision and enable a new round of extreme Republican gerrymanders for the 2024 elections (Cooper can’t veto most redistricting bills regardless).

Even if Cotham does get a redder district to run in, though, she would have to survive a Republican primary first, and that’s far from a given for a member who up until now has been aligned with mainstream Democrats on many major issues. Just earlier this year, Cotham had co-sponsored a bill to codify abortion rights, and her campaign website, as of Tuesday, still expressed support for a $15 minimum wage, treating health care as a right, protecting voting rights, LGBTQ equality, and more.

If Cotham starts voting consistently with Republicans, though, her switch could have profound policy consequences. Until last week’s gun bill, North Carolina Republicans hadn’t been able to override Cooper’s vetoes for four years, which itself came about after the courts curtailed their prior gerrymanders for the 2018 elections. But Cotham’s vote may make it easier for the GOP to carry out an agenda that could include banning most abortions, stripping Cooper of even more executive power, and placing more obstacles to voting ahead of 2024, when North Carolina could again be a swing state.

CHICAGO MAYOR. Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson won the race for mayor of Chicago Tuesday by defeating former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas in a major win for progressives. Johnson leads Vallas 51.4-48.6 with 91% of the estimated vote reporting in the nonpartisan race to succeed Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was denied the possibility of a second term after she took third in the Feb. 28 primary.

Johnson, who is the third African American elected to the post, was outspent by roughly a 2-1 margin, with Vallas running ads arguing that the commissioner supported defunding the police. Johnson has sought to distance himself from the attacks, declaring at a debate, “I am not going to defund the police,” but that didn’t deter Vallas from continuing to make use of 2020 comments in which Johnson said of the defund movement, “I don’t look at it as a slogan. It’s an actual real political goal.”

Vallas also picked up the backing of prominent Democrats like Sen. Dick Durbin and former Rep. Bobby Rush, but Johnson benefited from endorsements from the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor groups. He successfully thwarted his opponent by utilizing old footage of Vallas touting his conservative views. “If I run for public office, then I would be running as a Republican,” he said in one comment, adding, “Fundamentally, I oppose abortion.”

The commissioner additionally sought to make Vallas’ support from the Fraternal Order of Police, which is led by Trump supporter John Catanzara, a liability in this dark blue city. Catanzara himself made news just before the election when he warned that a Johnson win would lead to “an exodus like we’ve never seen before” from the police force, adding that there would be “blood in the streets.” Vallas condemned the comments, though he didn’t renounce Catanzara’s backing.

Johnson ended up pulling off a win on Tuesday in a race where he once looked like an afterthought. “I was polling at 2.3% in October,” he said ahead of Election Day—and indeed, a survey for one of his defeated rivals taken that month put Johnson at just 3%. “No one thought I had a chance. Yet, here I be.”

DENVER MAYOR. Former state Sen. Mike Johnston and former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough appear positioned to advance to the June 6 general election to succeed their fellow Democrat, termed-out Mayor Michael Hancock, though local media organizations have not yet called the nonpartisan primary.

Johnston is in first with 25% with 108,000 ballots tabulated early Wednesday, while Brough is outpacing criminal justice activist Lisa Calderon 22-15; either Brough and Calderon would be the first woman to lead Colorado’s capital and largest city. Sixteen people were running on Tuesday, but AdImpact says that 80% of the ad spending came from Johnston, Brough, and their respective allies.

WEST VIRGINIA U.S. SENATOR. The deep-pocketed Club for Growth on Tuesday backed its old ally, Rep. Alex Mooney, who is the candidate GOP Senate leaders reportedly do not want as their nominee against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Politico reports that NRSC Chair Steve Daines has been trying to recruit Gov. Jim Justice, while the Senate Leadership Fund in February released a poll touting him as “far and away the strongest Republican candidate in the U.S. Senate race in West Virginia.” The head of the Club, though, previously characterized the governor as someone “in what we would call the moderate camp.”

The Republican firm National Public Affairs, a group Politico says has “some ties” to Donald Trump, has publicized its mid-March Republican primary survey showing Gov. Jim Justice pummeling Rep. Alex Mooney 55-24. A February poll for the Senate Leadership Fund from The Tarrance Group showed Justice, who always seems to be just on the brink of announcing a bid against Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin, beating Mooney 55-40.

WEST VIRGINIA GOVERNOR. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey on Tuesday announced that he’d enter the 2024 primary to succeed his fellow Republican, termed-out Gov. Jim Justice, rather than seek a rematch against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

While Morrisey waited until now to reveal his plans, prominent donors had already been preparing to support his campaign for governor. A group called Black Bear PAC said last month that it already had $2 million in the bank, and MetroNews’ Hoppy Kercheval reported that about half of that came from megadonor Dick Uihlein. The PAC also previously publicized a late February internal from National Research Inc. that showed Morrisey beating state Delegate Moore Capito 28-15 for the GOP nod.

The New Jersey-reared Morrisey first sought elected office in the Garden State in 2000 when he took last in the four-way primary for the 7th Congressional District behind the eventual winner, Mike Ferguson; that field also included Tom Kean Jr., who holds the current version of the 7th. Morrisey, after working as a D.C. lobbyist for interests that included pharmaceutical companies, found considerably more electoral success in West Virginia: In 2012 he narrowly unseated five-term Attorney General Darrell McGraw, a victory that made Morrisey the first Republican to hold this office since 1933, and he convincingly won re-election four years later.

Morrisey aimed for bigger things in 2018 when he won the primary to take on Manchin, but the senator held him off 50-46 after emphasizing the Republican’s Jersey roots and work on behalf of pharma companies in a state dealing with the brunt of the opioid crisis. That loss, though, didn’t stop Morrisey from claiming another term as attorney general without trouble in 2020, and he’s betting it won’t hold him back in next year’s contest for governor.

Morrisey joins a GOP primary where he stands out as the only major candidate who is not from a notable West Virginia political family. Capito is the son and namesake of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito as well as the grandson of the late Gov. Arch Moore; auto dealer Chris Miller’s mother is Rep. Carol Miller; and state Auditor JB McCuskey and Secretary of State Mac Warner also have relatives in state politics.

VIRGINIA U.S. SENATOR. Scott Parkinson, an official at the anti-tax extremist organization the Club for Growth, announced Monday he would seek the GOP nod to challenge Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

Parkinson, who previously served as chief of staff to then-Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis, used his kickoff video to label himself “a regular citizen,” because apparently that’s what regular people do. The challenger also told the AP that he identifies as “pro-life,” and reporter Sarah Rankin writes he “declined to directly answer a question about what limits on abortion rights he thinks are most appropriate, including whether he supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.”

The GOP will have a tough time unseating Kaine in Virginia, which hasn’t supported a GOP candidate in any statewide federal election since George W. Bush carried it in 2004, but Parkinson isn’t the only Republican eyeing this contest. Navy veteran Hung Cao has expressed interest in both a bid for Senate and a rematch against Rep. Jennifer Wexton, who beat him 53-47 in 2022, and he seems to be leaning toward taking on Kaine. His advisor responded to Parkinson’s launch by saying, “Captain Cao has been humbled by the many Virginians, and others around the country, who have encouraged him to consider a run for the Senate in 2024 and he is strongly considering it.”

PHILADELPHIA MAYOR. Former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker picked up an endorsement Monday from Rep. Dwight Evans, who represents close to half the city, ahead of the May 16 Democratic primary.

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