The Political Report – September 27, 2023

Although many national polls predicted a “red wave” in the 2022 midterm elections, it never materialized. A better indicator turned out to be the special elections that preceded the midterms.

In five House special elections after the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Democratic candidates outperformed the 2020 election results by an average of 7 percentage points.  This was followed up by a big win for abortion rights advocates in a Kansas referendum. In retrospect, these elections told us quite a bit more about the midterms than the polls.

With national polls currently predicting a deadlocked race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump — and one outlier suggesting Trump is a head by 10 percentage points — it probably makes sense to look again at actual election results.

In 40 congressional and state special elections across the country so far this year, FiveThirtyEight found Democrats outperforming the partisan lean by an average of 10 percentage points. Similarly, the DailyKos tracker finds Democrats outperforming by an average of 7.6 percentage points in 27 special elections this year.

That means that in real elections with actual voters, Democrats are once again outperforming by a similar margin as they did in 2022. If that holds, a 2024 rematch between Biden and Trump won’t be as close as the polls suggest.

DALLAS MAYOR. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, a longtime Democrat, said he’s switched parties to become a Republican, the Texas Tribune reports.

Johnson used a Friday op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to announce he was defecting from the Democratic Party to the GOP, a decision that makes Dallas the largest city in America with a Republican mayor three years after it gave 70% of its vote to Joe Biden. Johnson won this May’s nonpartisan race for a second term without opposition, and term limits will prevent him from running again in 2027. His party switch makes Johnson the first Republican to lead Dallas since Tom Leppert served as mayor from 2007 to 2011.

Johnson previously served in the state House’s Democratic minority from 2010 to 2019. He attracted attention for leading the successful charge to remove a plaque from the legislature that had lionized the Confederacy and pledged to pass on the lie that the Civil War “was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.” He also launched a quixotic 2018 bid to serve as speaker, declaring, “What Texas needs is a strong, pro-growth, progressive leader presiding over the Texas House to act as a counterbalance to a far-right governor and lieutenant governor.”

Johnson had far more success the next year when he won the race for mayor with support from termed-out Democratic incumbent Mike Rawlings and plenty of prominent business leaders, a win that made him the city’s second Black chief executive. His electoral successes didn’t always translate to policy wins, though, as the city council decisively voted Wednesday to pass a new $4.6 billion budget over his opposition, with Johnson complaining it didn’t do enough to cut property taxes. (Notably, Dallas is one of the largest U.S. cities with a council-manager system of government instead of a strong mayor).

The “strong, pro-growth, progressive leader” took to the Wall Street Journal two days later to explain his party switch by saying that “the overwhelming majority of Americans who call our cities home deserve to have real choices—not ‘progressive’ echo chambers—at city hall.” Democratic state Rep. John Bryant, meanwhile, responded to the news by tweeting, “Switching parties? I didn’t know he was a Democrat.”

CALIFORNIA 22ND DISTRICT. Chris Mathys, a perennial candidate who last year came close to denying Rep. David Valadao a place in the general election, tells 17 News he’s decided to once again challenge his fellow Republican. Two Democrats, 2022 nominee Rudy Salas and state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, are already running in the March top-two primary, so it’s possible that two candidates from the same party will advance to the general election for this 55-42 Biden seat.

Mathys previously served on the Fresno City Council before moving to New Mexico and losing campaigns in the Land of Enchantment in 2018 and 2020. Mathys relocated back to California in time to launch an intra-party campaign against Valadao following the incumbent’s vote to impeach Donald Trump. (The 22nd District does not include Fresno.) Mathys, who self-funded almost all of his campaign’s budget, attracted little outside attention for most of the race, and Trump didn’t even bother to endorse him ahead of the top-two primary.

The Democratic-affiliated House Majority PAC, though, saw a late opportunity to knock out Valadao well ahead of the general election, and it ran ads late in the contest to boost Mathys by ostensibly attacking him as “100% pro-Trump and proud.” But the congressman’s allies at the Congressional Leadership Fund deployed even more money on their own campaign to sink Mathys, an investment that helped Valadao fend off the upstart 26-23 for the second spot in the general election. Salas, who was the only Democrat on the ballot, easily took first with 45% of the vote, but Valadao fended him off 52-48 in the fall.

Mathys is hoping Trump will gift him an endorsement this time, a sentiment that plenty of Democrats likely share. “The first thing and most important thing to me is to see that President Trump gets elected president and that we have a majority of Republicans that support him,” he told 17 News in an interview where he also slammed Valadao as “not a Republican.”

NEW JERSEY 3RD DISTRICT. Democratic Rep. Andy Kim’s decision to run for the Senate opens up his 3rd District, a once-competitive South Jersey constituency that became significantly more Democratic after the tiebreaker on the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission voted for the Democratic-backed map. Joe Biden would have carried the current version of this seat 56-42, while Donald Trump prevailed 49.4-49.2 under the old boundaries, which the commission drew last decade by selecting the Republican plan..

Several of Kim’s fellow Democrats have already expressed interest in running to succeed him: state Senate Majority Whip Troy Singleton, state Assembly Majority Whip Carol Murphy, and Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello. Murphy tells the New Jersey Globe she’ll decide after the Nov. 7 legislative elections, but David Wildstein relays that party sources say “she is extraordinarily likely to enter the race.” Sollami Covello, meanwhile, told the site, “I am waiting to see who else is running.”

Wildstein mentions several other Democrats as possible options: Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo; Marlboro Mayor Jon Hornik; Hamilton Township Mayor Jeff Martin; and Mercer County Democratic chair Janice Mironov. On the GOP side, Wildstein names Assemblymembers Vicky Flynn and Brandon Umba; Burlington County GOP chairman Sean Earlen; and 2022 nominee Bob Healey, who lost to Kim 55-44.

VIRGINIA 10TH DISTRICT. While no notable Democrats have publicly expressed interest in campaigning to succeed Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton, who announced Monday she’d retire for health reasons, Politico’s Brittany Gibson reports that at least three members of the House of Delegates are interested: Dan Helmer, David Reid, and Suhas Subramanyam. Subramanyam is the party’s nominee on Nov. 7 for a safely blue state Senate seat, while Helmer and Reid are similarly favored to win reelection.  

An unnamed GOP source speculates to Gibson that 2022 nominee Hung Cao could drop his Senate campaign and run here again, though Cao’s own team said Tuesday he’d continue his longshot bid against Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine. Joe Biden carried the current version of this Northern Virginia seat 58-40 in 2020 a year before Democrat Terry McAuliffe took it by a small 51-49 spread in his unsuccessful race for governor, and both parties are looking at this year’s legislative and local races for early clues about the 2024 climate.

OHIO 13TH DISTRICT. Attorney Greg Wheeler said Thursday that he was dropping out of the GOP primary to face Democratic Rep. Emilia Sykes. Hudson City Councilman Chris Banweg, a regional medical device company executive who now has the field to himself, meanwhile told The Repository that he has the support of Sen. J.D. Vance.

NEW JERSEY 8TH DISTRICT. As the fallout from Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s indictment for corruption last week continues to unfold, a new story from the New Jersey Globe indicates that the senator’s troubles could endanger the political career of his son, freshman Rep. Rob Menendez, who represents the Jersey City-area 8th District. The Globe reported Monday that Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla is reaching out to Democratic insiders to gauge their support for a primary challenge against the younger Menendez, and Bhalla’s spokesperson confirmed that his boss is “seriously considering running for Congress.”

Last year, Rob Menendez easily won his first term in public office, representing this safely Democratic district, which the elder Menendez himself held from 1993 to 2006, in large part thanks to his father’s sway with the local county Democratic parties. Local party support plays a key role in New Jersey primaries since the ballot format typically gives party-endorsed candidates a big advantage over their rivals.

While the younger Menendez was not implicated in Friday’s indictment against the senator, he was the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation who defended his father after the news broke. Given the Menendez family’s close ties to the local county parties in this majority-Latino district, Rob Menendez may still be a formidable incumbent to take on. However, if someone like Bhalla were to run, it would already mean the incumbent would be facing a more prominent foe than in his initial election, when he won an open seat without major opposition.

NEVADA 3RD DISTRICT. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has endorsed Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic Rep. Susie Lee in this 52-46 Biden seat in the southern Las Vegas area. Kasama kicked off her campaign last month and had already earned an endorsement from GOP Gov. Joe Lombardo.

OHIO 9TH DISTRICT. 2022 GOP nominee J.R. Majewski, the QAnon ally whose disastrous campaign for this red-leaning seat resulted in a 57-43 landslide loss against Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur last year, announced that he “definitely” wants to run again and would decide by early October. Majewski previously kicked off a bid for a rematch against Kaptur only to drop out back in May, but he’s since attacked his party’s establishment for lining up behind former state Rep. Craig Riedel, who lost 36-31 to Majewski in last year’s primary.

ALABAMA REDISTRICTING. The court-appointed special master in the Alabama congressional redistricting case has filed his three recommended maps with the court for the judges to consider, which follows the court’s recent rejection of the new map GOP lawmakers adopted in July. All three of the special master’s proposals would be likely to see a Black Democrat replace a white Republican if adopted for next year, doubling the number of districts where Black voters can elect their preferred candidates.

All three plans would significantly revamp the 2nd District compared to the GOP’s invalidated maps by linking the cities of Montgomery and Mobile, both of which have large Black populations, via the rural Black Belt region while dropping whiter rural areas outside the Black Belt. However, the special master put a high priority on preserving as much of the GOP’s blocked 2023 map as possible elsewhere in the state. Consequently, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th districts would be unchanged from the GOP’s new map while the 6th and 7th would see only small changes.

The parties to the case have until Thursday to file briefs commenting on the proposed maps, and the court will hold a hearing over any objections on Oct. 3. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers are still appealing to the Supreme Court to try to keep their 2023 map in place for next year, but their odds of success are low.

MAINE 2ND DISTRICT. Republican state Rep. Austin Theriault kicked off his campaign on Monday to take on Democratic Rep. Jared Golden in a northern Maine district that Donald Trump would have won 52-46 in 2020. Theriault’s entry gives national Republicans their preferred candidate in one of just five House seats nationwide that favored Trump in 2020 yet elected a Democrat in 2022.

This rural district has a large working-class white population and had backed Democrats for decades before it lurched sharply to the right in the past decade. However, Golden, who is one of the most moderate Democrats in Congress, has proved to be a strong campaigner. Golden first won the previous version of this seat by narrowly ousting GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin in 2018, and he held onto it in two more heavily contested races, including a 53-47 victory last year in an expensive rematch against Poliquin.

Theriault is a former NASCAR driver who made it to the top level of American racing, the NASCAR Cup Series, in 2019, where he competed five times before an injury led him to become a driver consultant. (His career-best performance in the NASCAR Cup Series was 32nd place.) Last year, he won elected office for the first time when he flipped the seat long held by retiring Democratic state Rep. John Martin, who served as the powerful speaker of the House from 1975 to 1994. Theriault won that open seat 69-31 two years after it favored Trump by a much smaller 54-44, according to Dave’s Redistricting App—a sign Theriault could be a strong general election candidate.

Although Theriault has reportedly consolidated the support of national GOP leaders, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his allies, he’ll first have to get through a Republican primary. Theriault’s GOP rivals include fellow state Rep. Mike Soboleski, who recently launched his own campaign and is running as a steadfast Trump ally, as well as mortgage broker Robert Cross, an underfunded candidate who unsuccessfully sought the nod for a state Senate seat last year. Hard-line state Rep. Laurel Libby also said earlier this month that she hasn’t decided if she’ll also get in.

Both the primary and general elections will be conducted using instant-runoff voting.

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

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