The Political Report – July 19, 2023

“Democrats only need to flip five seats next year to retake the House majority, but GOP incumbents posted strong quarters as Republicans look to expand their narrow majority, according to second-quarter campaign finance reports filed over the weekend,” National Journal reports.

“Republicans have faced a significant cash disadvantage against Democrats in recent cycles, but the most vulnerable House Republicans have put themselves in a strong financial position more than a year out from the general election. The 18 Republican members in districts President Biden carried raised an average of $739,000, with an average cash-on-hand amount of $1.7 million.”

Roll Call: House GOP well funded for 2024.

Playbook: “The ‘DeSantis in decline’ storyline is a body blow to one of the central arguments for his campaign: that he’d be a competent, disciplined version of Trump. Trump without the chaos. Trump, but with a more professional operation.”

“A negative narrative is taking hold about his campaign — that it is bloated, is overconfident, lacks a clear strategy, etc. Pair that with preexisting negative impressions about the candidate himself (that he is combative, not personable, awkward in retail settings, etc.) and a press corps that is — let’s be honest — somewhat tired of Trump and remains fascinated by the Florida governor, and there are real hurdles ahead for DeSantis.”

“Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tapped out top donors and burned through $7.9 million in his first six weeks as a presidential candidate,“ NBC News reports.

“The numbers suggest, for the first time, that solvency could be a threat to DeSantis’ campaign, which has touted its fundraising ability as a key measure of viability. They reflect the broader reality that DeSantis stalled after his launch: polling ahead of the Republican primary pack but far behind former President Donald Trump.”

Washington Post: Inside DeSantis’s early struggles and effort to rebound.

Semafor: “The bad DeSantis news doesn’t mean he’s dead. But he’s entered a familiar cycle that often ends in collapse: A candidate is hyped up as a top contender, struggles in the polls, and then scrambles to reset a flagging campaign as donors and voters alike parse every move for signs of weakness — or strength.”

“Donors are a key group for DeSantis, who is more reliant on big Republican money than Trump. And while the weekend shakeup placated some, it’s caused others to grow even more uneasy.”

TEXAS 34TH DISTRICT. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has endorsed former GOP Rep. Mayra Flores in her rematch effort with Democratic incumbent Vicente Gonzalez.

MARYLAND 6TH DISTRICT. Hagerstown Mayor Tekesha Martinez on Wednesday joined the busy primary to succeed her fellow Democrat, Senate candidate David Trone, for a seat based in western Maryland and the northwestern D.C. exurbs. Martinez, who was elected to the city council in 2020, became this northwestern Maryland community’s first Black mayor in February after her colleagues appointed her to fill the vacant post. She joins Dels. Lesley Lopez and Joe Vogel, as well as think tank founder Destiny Drake West, in seeking the Democratic nod for this 54-44 Biden constituency.

NEW JERSEY 7TH DISTRICT. Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak tells the New Jersey Globe he’s “still waiting until this November” before deciding whether to seek the Democratic nod to take on GOP Rep. Tom Kean Jr.

NEW YORK 22ND DISTRICT. NY-22: New York State United Teachers, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, has endorsed Democratic state Sen. John Mannion’s bid to take on GOP Rep. Brandon Williams. Mannion is a former public school teacher, and City & State says the labor group has enthusiastically backed him in past races.

ALASKA AT LARGE DISTRICT. Businessman Nick Begich on Thursday became the first notable Republican to announce a campaign against Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, who twice beat him last year for Alaska’s only House seat. But Begich is unlikely to have the top-four primary to himself, especially since many Republicans made it clear last fall that they still harbor a grudge over how he acquitted himself during the final months of longtime Rep. Don Young’s life.

Begich, who is the rare Republican member of Alaska’s most prominent Democratic family (his grandfather and namesake was Young’s immediate predecessor, while his uncle Mark Begich served one term in the U.S. Senate), was initially a Young supporter, and he even co-chaired the congressman’s 2020 campaign. But, as the Anchorage Daily News’ Iris Samuels reported in April of 2022, Begich spent about a month working in the congressman’s office the next year—at Young’s invitation—only to launch a bid against Young soon afterward. “It was just such an invasion of our goodwill and the Congressman’s goodwill,” one unnamed staffer later told Insider’s Bryan Metzger, adding, “We were completely hoodwinked and betrayed.”    

Young, who’d represented the state in the House since 1973, died before that faceoff could occur, and Begich was one of the 48 candidates who filed to run in a special election that featured America’s first-ever top-four primary. But after Begich advanced to the general against former GOP Gov. Sarah Palin and Peltola (a fourth finisher, independent Al Gross, dropped out), it looked likely that one of the two Republicans would prevail in a state Donald Trump took 53-43 in 2020.

Begich and Palin, though, instead went negative on one another while ignoring Peltola (that is, when they weren’t smiling in selfies with her), which helped give the Democrat the opening she needed. Begich was only too happy to portray Palin as a disastrous governor who only cared about being a celebrity, while Palin hit back by castigating Begich for supporting his Democratic relatives.

An unscathed Peltola went into ranked-choice tabulations with 40% of first-choice votes, with Palin edging out Begich 31-28 for second. But following the fratricidal GOP campaign, Begich’s backers only went for Palin by a 50-29 margin as a crucial 21% didn’t express a preference for either finalist. As a result, Peltola pulled off 51-49 upset.

All three candidates, plus Libertarian Chris Bye, competed again in November for a full two-year term, but things went even worse for the GOP this time. Begich and his allies pointed to data from the Alaska Division of Elections saying that he’d have defeated Peltola 52-48 had he come in second place in the special election to make his case that conservatives should choose him over Palin. But several of Young’s former staffers not only endorsed Peltola, who had enjoyed a close relationship with the late congressman for decades, they also vocally aired their grievances against Begich for what they saw as his duplicity.

One particular incensed Young aide was a former communications director, Zack Brown, who posted a picture of Begich’s congressional intern badge in a since-deleted tweet. “Begich was planning on primarying Young all along,” he wrote. “He used DY & staff to secure inside info.” Brown followed up, “According to FEC docs, he claimed campaign expenses BEFORE he came on as an INTERN in Don Young’s office. He KNEW he was going to primary Young before he joined our office, but used the Congressman and staff for his own ends anyway. Disgraceful.”

Peltola this time almost took a majority of first-choice ballots, scoring 49% of them as Palin once again staggered into second place, beating out Begich 26-23. Peltola then crushed Palin in a 55-45 drubbing after the instant-runoff process was finished. To add insult to injury for Begich, election data showed he would have lost by a slightly larger margin than Palin this time―just under 11 points―had he taken second.

Republicans are likely to make a priority of beating Peltola, who represents the reddest Democratic-held seat in the chamber, but it remains to be seen who else will join Begich in the top-four. The Anchorage Daily News writes that Palin, who rather prematurely named her congressional chief of staff the day after the November election [i]In anticipation of an announcement of victory,” hasn’t shown any sign she’s thinking of trying a third time, though that hardly means she won’t surprise everyone like she did when she decided to run last year.

WISCONSIN 3RD DISTRICT. Both state Rep. Katrina Shankland and former La Crosse County Board chair Tara Johnson tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that they’re interested in joining the Democratic primary to take on GOP Rep. Derrick Van Orden.

UTAH 2ND DISTRICT. State election officials confirmed this week that both former RNC member Bruce Hough and former state Rep. Becky Edwards have turned in enough valid signatures to make the Sept. 5 special Republican primary to succeed outgoing Rep. Chris Stewart. The pair will face Celeste Maloy, a former Stewart aide who qualified for the ballot by winning last month’s party convention. The winner will be favored on Nov. 7 against Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe in this gerrymandered 57-40 Trump seat.

INDIANAPOLIS MAYOR. Democratic incumbent Joe Hogsett has gone on TV well ahead of the Nov. 7 general with a spot hitting his wealthy foe, Republican Jefferson Shreve, that utilizes footage from the ads Shreve ran during his failed 2016 state Senate bid. “Jefferson Shreve will fight for the right to life,” says Shreve’s old narrator, “and our Second Amendment rights.” Indianapolis backed Joe Biden 63-34, but Republicans are hoping Shreve’s resources will help him argue that change is needed after Hogsett’s two terms.

HOUSTON MAYOR. Former Republican City Councilmember Jack Christie tells the Houston Chronicle he’s considering entering the Nov. 7 nonpartisan primary to succeed termed-out Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner, though he said he was still “far from signing up.” Attorney Tony Buzbee, an independent who lost the 2019 runoff to Turner 56-44 after spending $12 million, likewise says he hasn’t ruled out another campaign even though he’s representing Attorney General Ken Paxton at the Republican’s upcoming impeachment trial. The filing deadline is Aug. 21, weeks before Paxton’s Sept. 5 trial starts.

NASHVILLE MAYOR. The Nashville Scene reports that a conservative group called Save Nashville PAC is spending $150,000 on TV ad campaign to help the one notable Republican in the race, party strategist Alice Rolli, advance past the Aug. 3 nonpartisan primary. The messaging, unsurprisingly, invokes the specter of crime in big cities … other big cities, that is. “How many once-great cities around the U.S. are now complete disasters?” asks the narrator, “Is Nashville next? Alice Rolli will protect Nashville and keep it a clean, safe city.”

The offensive comes at a time when two wealthy Democrats, former AllianceBernstein executive Jim Gingrich and former economic development chief Matt Wiltshire, continue to dominate the airwaves in the contest to succeed retiring Democratic Mayor John Cooper. AdImpact relays that Gingrich and his allies have outspent Wiltshire’s side $1.6 million to $1.2 million in advertising, while Democratic Metro Council member Freddie O’Connell is far back with just $190,000.

A firm called Music City Research, though, has released a survey showing that, despite being heavily outspent, O’Connell leads with 22% as Wiltshire outpaces Rolli 17-13 for the second spot in the likely Sept. 14 runoff. The pollster is affiliated with Harpeth Strategies, which is run by one of O’Connell’s supporters, fellow Metro Council member Dave Rosenberg. Rosenberg tells us this poll was conducted for a “private entity and not a mayoral campaign or an organization associated with a mayoral campaign.” He added that, as far as he is aware, the sponsor is not backing or opposing anyone.

The last poll we saw was over a month ago, and it showed a far more unsettled race. The Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, working for real estate development group NAIOP Nashville, had O’Connell at 10% as two Democratic members of the state Senate, Jeff Yarbro and Heidi Campbell, respectively took 9% and 8%.

MAINE 2ND DISTRICT. The Cook Political Report mentions state House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham as a possible GOP opponent for Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, whose only notable declared foe so far is businessman Rob Cross, a former USDA official. Cook also adds that state Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, whose name has come up before, is “probably at the top of the NRCC’s wish list.” Stewart hasn’t said anything publicly yet, though last cycle, he waged a month-long campaign for this seat before deferring to former Rep. Bruce Poliquin. Poliquin, whom Golden narrowly ousted in 2018, was unsuccessful in his comeback attempt, losing 53-47. Golden is one of just five House Democrats who represent a district carried by Donald Trump.

OHIO BALLOT REFERENDUM. Supporters of a GOP-backed amendment that would make future amendments harder to pass at the ballot box in Ohio have launched their first TV ad ahead of next month’s special election, but the new spot doesn’t address the measure at all. Instead, it encourages a “yes” vote by stoking fears over a likely November vote on a separate amendment that would enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution.

The group behind the advertisement, Protect Women Ohio, has made no secret of its true aims: On its website, it’s explicit in saying it seeks to thwart the ballot measure on abortion. But its new television spot doesn’t mention abortion, nor does it explain what the August measure, known as Issue 1, would actually do—namely, increase the threshold for future amendments to pass from a simple majority to a 60% supermajority.

Instead, viewers are greeted by footage of a young girl getting tucked into bed. “You promised you’d keep the bad guys away, protect her. Now’s your chance,” a female narrator warns. “Out-of-state special interests that put trans ideology in classrooms and encourage sex changes for kids are hiding behind slick ads.” On-screen we see shots of a teaching tool called the Gender Unicorn and a clip of what appears to be a drag queen story hour.

The abortion amendment, however, has nothing to do with any of these issues. Its text, rather, states that individuals would have the right “to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care, and abortion.”

“You can keep this madness out of Ohio classrooms and protect your rights as a parent by voting ‘yes’ on Aug. 8,” concludes the narrator. Protect Women Ohio says it’s putting $2 million behind the ad, on top of the $1 million it’s already spent on radio and online advertising. Reproductive healthcare advocates and opponents of the GOP’s amendment, meanwhile, have already been on the air for more than two weeks, with ads focusing both on the substance of the August measure and on statements by Republican officials who’ve made it clear their intent is to block abortion rights.

“Yes, it’s 100% about abortion,” Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose says in a clip that’s at the centerpiece of a new ad by the campaign to defeat Issue 1, the Republican-backed constitutional amendment to require 60% voter approval to pass future amendments. “Corrupt politicians and special interests have called a special election this August to rewrite Ohio’s constitution to end majority rule,” declares the narrator for One Person One Vote. “They’re trying to rig the rules to lock in Ohio’s extreme abortion ban and stop efforts to restore our rights.”

Another spot from One Person One Vote depicts an empty polling place as a different narrator warns that Issue 1’s backers called the Aug. 8 special election “[b]ecause they’re trying to sneak something through, hoping you won’t vote.” The group began airing ads late last month ahead of the Aug. 8 special election, while conservatives have yet to launch their own TV and radio buy to promote Issue 1.

RHODE ISLAND 1ST DISTRICT. The Rhode Island Laborers’ union, whom WPRI’s Ted Nesi describes as “a deep-pocketed group that has often played kingmaker” in state politics, has given its backing to Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos in the special election for the vacant 1st Congressional District. Nesi notes that the Laborers played a key role in powering Matos’ boss, Gov. Dan McKee, to victory in last year’s Democratic primary for governor.

Most other top labor organizations, however, have yet to get involved in the extremely crowded race to replace former Rep. David Cicilline. Matos is just one of nearly two dozen Democrats in the all-important Sept. 5th primary for this safely blue seat; a general election will be held on Nov. 7.

Lincoln Town Councilor Pamela Azar at some point quietly ended her campaign for the Democratic nod and endorsed one of her many former rivals, state Sen. Ana Quezada.

FLORIDA STATE HOUSE. Newly invigorated Florida Democrats have a shot at flipping a vacant seat in the state House, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has prevented the race from getting underway by once again dragging his feet when it comes to scheduling the legally mandated special election.

The 35th District has been without representation since the end of last month, when Republican Fred Hawkins resigned to take a job as president of South Florida State College. As many reports have noted, Hawkins has no background in higher education, but he’s particularly tight with DeSantis and even sponsored the high-profile and extremely controversial bill that allowed the state to take over the special development district run by Disney World earlier this year.

(The relationship between the two, incidentally, seems to have experienced quite a turnaround from just a few years ago, when DeSantis suspended Hawkins from his post on the Osceola County Commission after he tried to enter a private meeting by pretending to be a sheriff and flashing an honorary “special deputy” badge.”)

But even if Hawkins earned his new gig for all the wrong reasons, the suburban Orlando turf he once represented is now up for grabs. And the most appealing bit of news for Democrats is that his district leans just slightly to the left, at least on the presidential level: It backed Joe Biden by a 52-47 margin and supported Hillary Clinton 49-46. However, thanks in large part to desultory turnout last year among Democrats statewide, Hawkins won a comfortable 55-45 victory over Democrat Rishi Bagga.

Since then, though, Sunshine State Democrats have gotten a new infusion of energy after unexpectedly winning the March race for mayor of Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city and a GOP stronghold for three decades. While they remain deep in the hole in the state House—Republicans hold a daunting 83-35 advantage, with both Hawkins’ seat and the solidly red 118th District vacant—Democrats are eager for the opportunity to show that Jacksonville wasn’t a fluke and that there’s still life left in the party.

DeSantis, unsurprisingly, doesn’t want to give them the chance. State law requires that he call a special election, but he has delayed in doing so—a stunt he’s regularly pulled in the past. In 2021, DeSantis declined to order elections in three heavily Democratic legislative seats in South Florida for more than three months and only scheduled them after he was sued. By dawdling, he ensured that Democrats’ diminished ranks would not be replenished until the very end of the next session of the legislature, allowing Republicans to enjoy an even larger majority than they were otherwise entitled to.

Notably, all three of those districts were served by Black Democrats, and all were home to majorities of Black voters. They’d become vacant because of a Florida law that required their representatives to resign in order to run in an earlier special election—this one for a vacant seat in Congress. DeSantis had likewise stalled in calling that election, waiting a month after Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings’ death in April of 2021 to do so, and again only acting after a lawsuit had been filed.

Once he finally did act, DeSantis set an election calendar that meant residents would lack representation for a full three-quarters of a year. That 280-day wait was almost twice as long as the gap that had preceded the state’s two most recent congressional special elections at the time—both of which were held to replace white Republicans in 2014, when Republican Rick Scott was governor.

Yet when it’s suited DeSantis, he’s moved with alacrity: As Nicholas Warren, an attorney with the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted last year, the governor waited less than two weeks to call a special election after GOP state Rep. Joe Harding, the author of the state’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, resigned after getting indicted on fraud charges.

The Florida ACLU in fact just sued DeSantis on Friday for failing to order a special election for the 118th District in the Miami suburbs, more than a month after he appointed GOP Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin to a post in county government. Here the delay is harder to understand, given the district’s rightward lean, but as the ACLU’s filing points out, it’s still a dramatic departure from past practice: From 1999 through 2020, Florida governors took on average just over a week to call special elections. Only more recently has DeSantis sought to gum up the gears of democracy.

Whether or not another suit is necessary to force the governor’s hand, though, Democrats will be ready. Along with another Democrat (and a trio of Republicans), Bagga is already running again for the 35th District, and he says he raised more money in his first month on the trail this time than he did during any single month all of last year. DeSantis can keep trying to drag things out, but sooner or later, he’ll have to let this seat go before voters and find out whether this newfound enthusiasm among Florida Democrats is for real.

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

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