The Political Report – July 11, 2023

A new Florida Atlantic University poll in Florida shows Donald Trump still trouncing Gov. Ron DeSantis among state Republicans in their duel for the 2024 GOP nomination, 50% to 30%.

And almost 1-in-5 of Republicans said it is “disloyal” to vote for a candidate other than Trump.

CALIFORNIA 31ST DISTRICT. Democratic Rep. Grace Napolitano announced Saturday that she would not seek a 14th term and was endorsing state Sen. Bob Archuleta, who would be the oldest known freshman to ever join the House, to succeed her.

But as we’ll discuss, a trio of other Democrats declared their candidacies for this seat in the eastern San Gabriel Valley before Napolitano confirmed her departure. Joe Biden carried this majority Latino constituency, which is home to Los Angeles suburbs like El Monte and West Covina (not quite just two hours from the beach), 64-33, and a pair of Democrats could advance past the top-two primary.

Napolitano, who at 86 is the oldest member of the lower chamber, is only the second representative to announce they’re retiring and not campaigning for another office; the first was Indiana Republican Victoria Spartz, who unexpectedly announced her departure just days after being sworn in for her second term in January. (Another 10 House members are seeking a promotion to the Senate.)

Napolitano, unlike Spartz, has long been the subject of retirement speculation, and several Democrats have been preparing to run here for a while. One of them is Archuleta, who set up a campaign committee back in April and confirmed he was in on Saturday.

Archuleta, who currently represents 18% of the district in the state Senate, is often identified as a moderate, an image he’s very much cultivated: When the Orange County Register asked Archuleta during his successful reelection contest last year to rank his ideology on a 10-point scale with one as the option furthest to the left, the Democrat volunteered that he was a five. That campaign took place the year after a former staffer filed a still unresolved suit against Archuleta for alleged sexual harassment and retaliation, allegations he’s denied.

Archuleta, who will be 79 when the 119th Congress is seated in January of 2025, would be all of three days older than the oldest known House freshman in history, Kentucky Republican William Lewis, was when the latter was sworn in following his 1948 special election. (The House’s website gives this distinction to Illinois Republican James Bowler, but he was only 78 when he won his own 1953 special.) However, because Archuleta would need to wait almost two months between Election Day and the start of the new Congress before he could take office, Lewis would still maintain his title as the oldest non-incumbent ever elected to the House.

However, Archuleta was hardly the first notable Democrat to enter this race. Citrus Community College Trustee Mary Ann Lutz, a former Napolitano staffer and Monrovia mayor who talked about succeeding her old boss all the way back in 2017announced her campaign in mid-June.

Baldwin Park Planning Commissioner Ricardo Vazques, who narrowly lost a race for the city council last year, likewise filed with the FEC a month ago and told the Los Angeles Times Friday he was in. State Sen. Susan Rubio, whose legislative district is home to more than 70% of the 31st’s residents, also said Friday she’d run. The paper identifies Rubio as a moderate, though the senator launched her campaign by emphasizing issues like LGBTQ+ rights, gun safety, and environmental protection.

An unnamed advisor for former Rep. Gil Cisneros, finally, says the current Department of Defense undersecretary has received encouragement to run. Cisneros in 2018 flipped the old 39th District in an expensive battle against Republican Young Kim, but he lost their rematch two years later. According to data from Daily Kos Elections, all of five of Napolitano’s current constituents live within the boundaries of Cisneros’ old seat.

While many of Napolitano’s would-be successors have spent years waiting for the incumbent to retire, she was once the one who was in that holding pattern. The now-congresswoman, who grew up in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, spent two decades as a secretary and claims processor for Ford Motor Company, and she was working there in 1986 when she was first elected to Norwalk’s city council. Napolitano won a seat in the state Assembly in 1992, and she soon set her eyes on running for Congress once Democratic Rep. Esteban Torres retired from what was then the 34th District. 

Torres had pledged to seek another term in 1998 shortly before he instead announced his departure just three days before the filing deadline, timing that Napolitano argued was done to help Jamie Casso, who was both his son-in-law and chief-of-staff. She had good reason to think this: Torres’ late declaration meant that anyone who’d already filed to seek a state office wouldn’t be able to simply remove their names to run here. But Napolitano, who had told supporters she’d drop her own planned bid for the state Senate if Torres retired, had given herself enough flexibility to switch races, and she was Casso’s only intra-party foe.

Napolitano, who already represented about 60% of this seat, began the contest with a big advantage in name recognition, but Casso used every chance he could to tie himself to Torres. Casso also benefited from endorsements from many of the congressman’s colleagues, the state party, several unions, and every local state legislator other than Napolitano herself, and he portrayed his opponent as soft on crime.

The assemblywoman, though, worked hard to frame the election as a choice between a proven community leader and an inexperienced newcomer more than two decades her junior, telling the L.A. Times, “I don’t know what this young man has done, but people in this district expect you to pay your dues.” Napolitano’s team also blasted Casso for living outside the seat, declaring, “It is the height of arrogance for Casso to choose to live outside the district and thumb his nose at the good people who do live there, in effect, telling them that their communities aren’t good enough for him.” Casso responded by saying that he lived just “four houses outside of the district,” but that did nothing to deter his opponent.

Napolitano, who had EMILY’s List’s support, enjoyed a financial edge as well, and she increased it with a $150,000 loan ($280,000 in 2023 dollars) at 18% interest. Napolitano, who said she needed to offset IRS penalties for cashing in her Ford pension before she was 65, would hold a “debt retirement” fundraiser a decade later after the interest rate was dropped to 10%.

This contest was conducted using a blanket primary where all the candidates ran on one ballot but only the top vote-getter from each party advanced to the general election, a system the U.S. Supreme Court later struck down in 2000 for violating political parties’ rights to association. (California voters would approve the current top-two rules in 2010.) Napolitano outpaced Casso 37.4-36.6―a margin of 618 votes―with Republican Ed Pérez taking 22%. The Democratic nominee months later would beat Pérez 68-29 in the first of what would be many easy general election wins.

Napolitano, who had pledged to serve just three terms, announced in 2003 she was abandoning that promise because “[t]hat’s only six years,” but she had no trouble remaining in Congress afterwards. Her only notable opposition came in 2016 when Democratic Assemblyman Roger Hernandez faulted her for living 9 miles outside what was now the 32nd District, and the current top-two rules meant that his 51-25 primary deficit still earned him a place in the general.

But Hernandez’s already-underfunded campaign collapsed after his ex-wife, the aforementioned Susan Rubio, was granted a three-year restraining order against him for alleged physical abuse. The assemblyman announced he was dropping out months later even though he’d still be on the ballot, and Napolitano won 62-38.

NEW JERSEY 7TH DISTRICT and U.S. SENATOR. Roselle Park Mayor Joseph Signorello told the New Jersey Globe Monday that he’s decided to end his longshot Democratic primary bid against Sen. Robert Menendez and instead challenge freshman GOP Rep. Tom Kean Jr. Signorello’s entire 14,000-person community is located in Democratic Rep. Donald Payne’s 10th District, but the mayor previously said he lives “five minutes away” from Kean’s constituency.

The only other notable Democrat campaigning for the 7th is Working Families Party state director Sue Altman, who says she raised $200,000 during her first month in the primary. Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak has talked about getting in as well, while the Globe reported last week that former State Department official Jason Blazakis is also considering joining the race.

IDAHO TOP FOUR PRIMARY REFERENDUM. Election reformers looking to bring a top-four primary to Idaho on Friday got the green light to collect signatures to place their initiative before voters in the 2024 general election, but they announced days later that they’d first sue the state’s far-right attorney general, Raúl Labrador, for issuing a ballot summary they say is biased and false. “We’re going to ask the court to substitute what [Labrador] has proposed,” former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones told the Idaho Capital Sun, “and we want instead to have an impartial statement of what is contained in the initiative.”

The plan being put forward by a coalition of several reform groups known as Idahoans for Open Primaries would replace the state’s partisan primaries with the same type of system that was pioneered in Alaska in 2022. All candidates, regardless of party, would compete in one primary, and the four contenders with the most votes would advance to an instant-runoff general election. The measure would apply to races for Congress, the governorship and other statewide offices, the legislature, and county posts, though it would not impact presidential elections or contests for judicial offices. (Maine also uses instant-runoff voting in most races.)

Reformers argue that change is necessary because the status quo prohibits independents, who make up about a quarter of Idaho’s registered voters, from participating in GOP primaries in a state where Republicans haven’t lost a single statewide election since 2002. (Democrats, who have long been deep in the minority, allow nonaligned voters to cast ballots in their nomination contests.) Proponents also say that the top-four approach will empower more moderate politicians, with one Republican supporter declaring, “Our current primary system incentivizes candidates to demonize people who disagree with them rather than focus on solving problems.”

Republican legislators, however, are not fans, and even passed a law earlier this year to ban ranked-choice voting. (This initiative would repeal that bill.) Labrador, who spent his four terms in the U.S. House as one of the most prominent tea party shit-talkers, has also been an ardent foe, tweeting in May, “Let’s defeat these bad ideas coming from liberal outside groups.” The attorney general released a report the following month arguing that, because the proposed initiative would both do away with party primaries and institute instant-runoff voting for the general election, it violates the state constitution’s “single-subject rule.”

Labrador was also tasked with writing up the summary that voters will see on their ballots. IOP was not happy Friday when he released text claiming that their plan would “replace voter selection of party nominees with nonparty blanket primary” and “require ranked-choice voting for general voting for general election.”

The coalition responded that the phrase “nonparty blanket primary” is “an obscure term that is almost entirely absent from common usage.” Reformers also said that, because voters would still be free to select just one general election candidate, ranked-choice voting would not be “required.” Jones, a Republican who has long had a terrible relationship with Labrador, meanwhile blasted the attorney general’s work as “misleading and treacherous.”

Labrador also warned that the dispute might involve more than just the ballot language, telling Secretary of State Phil McGrane that he believes the initiative is “ineligible for placement on the ballot” and he’d “litigate that objection if and when it becomes ripe.” Jones responded, “The main problem I see is Labrador is setting it up so it will look like there are two subjects on the initiative, which is pure baloney.”

(Labrador himself has no love for Jones, who aided his Democratic opponent last year and even used his official perch to broadcast that fact. “It is no secret that Jim Jones has an unhealthy obsession with AG Labrador,” his office charged in a statement last month. “His criticisms at this point aren’t grounded in the law but based entirely on his personal biases.”)

State law allows anyone unhappy with ballot summaries to take the matter directly to the Idaho Supreme Court, and that’s what IOP says it will do. It remains to be seen how long such a lawsuit might take, but we do know that the coalition needs to turn in about 63,000 signatures―a figure representing 6% of Idaho’s registered voters―by May 1 in order to make the ballot in November of next year. Organizers must also collect enough signatures to account for 6% of the registered voters in at least 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.

It would only take a simple majority of voters to approve the initiative, but that likely wouldn’t be the end of the battle. While a win would repeal the law barring ranked-choice voting, the Capital Sun notes that legislative Republicans could try to pass a new law to repeal it all over again.

“This is a voting system that is being spread around the country I would say a little like a virus,” state Rep. Dale Hawkins, who drafted the current ranked-choice ban, said in March. “It’s destabilizing people’s normal voting abilities and it’s, according to the people in some of these states, very harmful. But everywhere it goes, it seems to do a little bit of confusion to the voter.” A poll of Alaska voters last year commissioned by supporters of ranked-choice voting found that 85% of respondents found the system to be “simple.”

NEW HAMPSHIRE STATE HOUSE. Democratic state Rep. David Cote, who hadn’t attended a session of the legislature since the start of the pandemic, announced his resignation from the New Hampshire House on Wednesday. His departure will set up a special election for his safely blue district in Nashua. Should Democrats prevail, they’ll have an additional voting member on the floor of the closely divided chamber, where day-to-day absences can determine which party has functional control of the agenda despite the GOP’s nominal majority.

Citing chronic health conditions, including cerebral palsy and a heart attack, Cote last cast a vote on March 11, 2020. He had sued for the right to participate in legislative business remotely under the Americans with Disabilities Act in a case that is still pending. (The state Senate offers a remote option but Republican Speaker Sherman Packard has refused to do the same in the House.)

Despite his absence, Cote easily won reelection in each of the last two cycles, continuing a long career in the state House that began in 1982. That three-decade streak made him the second-longest tenured representative, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. During that time, Cote also held leadership roles, most recently serving as acting minority leader last year even though he was not physically present at the capitol.

Following Cote’s resignation, Republicans have 199 members to Democrats’ 196. Two other seats are held by independents (one ex-Republican and one former Democrat) while three are vacant. Two of those vacant seats, including Cote’s, should be easy holds for Democrats, while the third is a swingy Republican seat that will go before voters in a special election on Sept. 19. If Democrats win all three, the chamber would be formally tied between the two parties.

NEW MEXICO REDISTRICTING. The New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Wednesday that a lawsuit brought by Republicans challenging the state’s congressional map can proceed, holding that the state constitution permits litigants to raise claims of impermissible partisan gerrymandering. The justices directed a lower court judge to assess the map, which was crafted by Democratic lawmakers, according to a three-part test laid out by Justice Elena Kagan in her dissent to a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision that decreed that partisan gerrymandering challenges cannot be brought in federal court.

That test is fairly deferential, with the court stating that “a reasonable degree of partisan gerrymandering” is “permissible” but warning that it cannot be “egregious in intent and effect.” That will present a central question for the lower court as it scrutinizes New Mexico’s map, which Democrats redrew in 2021 so that the rural 2nd District in the southern part of the state would take in a portion of the Albuquerque area. As a result, the 2nd was transformed from a solidly Republican seat into a light-blue swing district, a key reason why Democrat Gabe Vasquez was able to oust freshman GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell last year.

But that race was extremely close, with Vasquez prevailing by less than a percentage point, 50.3 to 49.6. And even though Joe Biden would have carried the district 52-46, Republican Mark Ronchetti narrowly won the 2nd in his unsuccessful bid for governor last year by a 48.7 to 48.4 margin, according to analyst Drew Savicki.

The competitive nature of the district could therefore make it difficult for plaintiffs to prove, as Kagan instructs, that Democratic lawmakers’ “predominant purpose” was to “entrench” their party in power and that the new lines “substantially” dilute Republican votes. Herrell in fact kicked off a bid for a rematch earlier this year, suggesting she does not believe Vasquez is “entrenched” in his seat.

Yet even if plaintiffs can make such a demonstration, Democrats would still have the opportunity to show that they had “a legitimate, non-partisan justification” for their choices. The map’s sponsor, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, has argued just that, saying his goal was to ensure all three of the state’s congressional districts would include both cities and rural turf.

“For 20 years I’ve worked to erase the chosen boundaries, which historically assigned southern NM to the Republicans in exchange for the north assigned to Democrats,” he tweeted the day his proposal was signed into law. “This plan rejects that past thinking, mixes urban and rural areas, and will bring us together as a state.”

PENNSYLVANIA 7TH DISTRICT. Republican María Montero, who is the director of public affairs for the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, filed FEC paperwork this week for a potential bid against Democratic Rep. Susan Wild. No notable Republicans have announced campaigns yet for this 50-49 Biden constituency in the Lehigh Valley, but Montero isn’t the only one eyeing the race. Technology consulting company owner Kevin Dellicker, who came unexpectedly close to winning last year’s primary, has updated his donation page to tell viewers he’ll “be making an announcement soon,” while says state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie is “rumored” to be considering.

Montero previously served as director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs under former Gov. Tom Corbett, and she tried to win a seat in the House in 2019 when she ran in the special election for the dark red 12th District. (The old 12th, which was situated in the rural northern part of the state, does not overlap with Wild’s 7th District.) Party officials, rather than primary voters, decide nomination contests in Pennsylvania specials, and Montero was eliminated after the third convention ballot shortly before state Rep. Fred Keller prevailed.

Dellicker, for his part, sought to challenge Wild last year, but he was completely overshadowed in the primary by 2020 nominee Lisa Scheller. It was consequently a major surprise when Scheller, who enjoyed the backing of Kevin McCarthy, only outpaced Dellicker 51-49. Wild went on win a tough general election, also by a 51-49 margin. Inside Elections reported in April that GOP sources doubt Scheller will try again.

CALIFORNIA 34TH DISTRICT. Former prosecutor David Kim, who twice came unexpectedly close to beating Rep. Jimmy Gomez in all-Democratic general elections for this dark blue seat in downtown Los Angeles, announced Wednesday that he’d wage a third effort this cycle.

Just three years ago, Gomez seemed to be in for an easy win against Kim, whom he’d outspent by a 15-to-1 margin, so it was a big surprise when the incumbent prevailed only 53-47. Kim, who ran on an explicitly left-wing platform, relied on a large volunteer corps to make up his financial deficit and attacked Gomez for accepting campaign donations from the private prison industry and fossil fuel companies. The challenger also likely benefited from the area’s sizable Korean American population.

Gomez was determined not to get caught off guard the next time and sent out mailers charging that Kim was running “with QAnon-MAGA support.” Gomez’s campaign argued the attacks were fair because, in 2020, Kim had received the backing of Republican Joanne Wright, a QAnon conspiracy theorist who failed to advance out of the top-two primary. The congressman’s team said that Wright’s beliefs were already public at the time, but Kim retorted that Gomez was misleadingly making it sound like he’d gotten support from QAnon acolytes for his 2022 race. Despite his more aggressive campaign, though, Gomez hung on by just a 51-49 margin.

GEORGIA 6TH DISTRICT. Cobb County Commissioner Jerica Richardson, whom legislative Republicans are trying to unseat through gerrymandering, tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she’s been encouraged to seek the Democratic nod to take on freshman GOP Rep. Rich McCormick and hasn’t ruled out the idea. Last cycle, Republicans made the 6th District dark red, but civil rights advocates are hoping that last month’s Supreme Court decision striking down Alabama’s congressional map will also result in Georgia needing to draw another majority-Black seat in the Atlanta area.

The fate of Richardson’s current job may be decided first, though. Lawmakers drew up a new map for the commission last year that moved Richardson’s home out of her constituency, and some legal experts have argued the state’s residency requirements could force her out of office even before her term is up. The commission’s Democratic majority responded by passing its own map that would keep Richardson where she is. A judge is set to hold a hearing on the validity of the competing plans Friday.

VIRGINIA 2ND DISTRICT. Navy veteran Missy Cotter Smasal, reports Inside Elections’ Jacob Rubashkin, is “moving toward” challenging freshman Republican Rep. Jen Kiggans in a competitive seat where Democrats are awaiting their first serious contender. Cotter Smasal previously lost an expensive race for the state Senate 52-48 against GOP state Sen. Bill DeSteph. (Donald Trump had carried that constituency 51-43 in 2016, though Joe Biden would take it 50-48 the year after Cotter Smasal’s defeat.)

The current version of the 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of Virginia Beach and other Hampton Roads communities, also supported Biden 50-48. Kiggans last year went on to unseat Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria 52-48, and while Luria went on to form a PAC to help her party in this fall’s state legislature contests, Rubashkin says she’s “unlikely” to seek a rematch.

MARYLAND 6TH DISTRICT. State House Minority Leader Jason Buckel tells Maryland Matters’ Josh Kurtz that, while he’s still considering a bid for the GOP nod, he’s postponing his decision from late July to late August.

Former Del. Dan Cox, the election denier who cost the GOP any chance it had to hold Maryland’s governorship last year, also says he remains undecided, but he adds that he had nothing to do with a “Dan Cox for U.S. Congress” FEC committee that was set up Monday. “I’d like to know who did this,” Cox said of the committee, which ceased to exist the following day.

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

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