At the Races: Desert Drama

Our weekly newsletter on congressional campaigns

The primary in the race to replace GOP Rep. Trent Franks is Tuesday. Franks resigned in December amid allegations of sexual harassment. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The primary in the race to replace GOP Rep. Trent Franks is Tuesday. Franks resigned in December amid allegations of sexual harassment. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 22, 2018 at 4:45pm

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This week … Drama ensued in Arizona, Pennsylvania got a new congressional map, and Indiana Senate candidates faced off in their first debate.

Starting Gate

Showdown in the Valley of the Sun: The primary to replace former GOP Rep. Trent Franks is set for next Tuesday. With a crowded field and last-minute drama, the race in AZ-08 is one to watch. Franks resigned after being accused of sexual harassment (aka repeatedly discussing surrogacy with female staffers and offering one of them $5 million to carry his child). Franks is still popular among GOP voters, according to some Republican strategists, which could explain why he hasn’t exactly disappeared from the race.

And now the two front-runners — former Franks staffer and state Sen. Steve Montenegro and state Sen. Debbie Lesko — are facing their own controversies. On Tuesday night KPNX reported on racy text messages between Montenegro (who is married and a minister) and a staffer for the legislature. (BTW he previously said he never had improper relationships with staffers.) Montenegro slammed the report as “false tabloid trash.”

Also on Tuesday, the Arizona Capitol Times reported that Lesko transferred her state campaign funds to an outside group supporting her congressional campaign. GOP candidate Phil Lovas called the action illegal and demanded she drop out of the race. Lesko’s campaign said there has not been any coordination with the outside group and the donation complied with the law.

Will the last-minute drama make a difference? Lots of votes have already been cast, and with 12 Republicans running, some strategists estimate the winner of the primary could garner as little as one-third of the vote.

*BOOKMARK* Franks isn’t the only lawmaker who resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. Keep track of who else won’t be returning in the next Congress with Roll Call’s Departing Members list.

PA Shake-Up: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court implemented a new congressional map Monday, giving Democrats a boost in the upcoming midterms. Even though both parties have been competitive statewide, Republicans held 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts under the old map. With the new map, one Democratic strategist expects the delegation could become nine Democrats and nine Republicans. Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and stop the new map, but that could be a long shot since it previously declined to get involved in the case.

If you’re asking yourself “WAIT WHAT DOES IT MEAN?” Nathan has you covered. He has a district-by-district breakdown of the race ratings under the new map, and what’s changed about each race (aside from just the district numbers which … isn’t confusing at all …) You can also catch up on the whole situation with Roll Call’s Decoder podcast.

Hoosier Hostility: The first debate among Indiana’s three Republican Senate candidates began much as this primary race started — with some punches. GOP Rep. Todd Rokita was on the attack, launching zingers at fellow Hoosier Rep. Luke Messer and former state Rep. Mike Braun. Messer’s campaign later applauded him for being “the adult in the room,” while Braun clearly relished Rokita and Messer’s twin suit-and-tie outfit choices, which contrasted with his “I’m an outsider” talking points. 

Primary Experiment: 314 Action, a group backing candidates with scientific backgrounds, is making its first major ad reservations ahead of upcoming Democratic primaries, though the group is still determining which candidates will benefit from the ads. Aiming to be the EMILY’s List for scientists, 314 is looking to play in primaries.

Uh … GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney drew the ire of Democrats on Wednesday when she said in a radio interview, “So many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats.” The comments came during a discussion about gun control following last week’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Tenney is one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents in 2018 and has been outraised in recent fundraising quarters by her likely Democratic opponent, state Rep. Anthony Brindisi. He called on Tenney to apologize and said her remarks were “shameful” and a “new low.” Tenney said in a subsequent statement that “we know the perpetrators of these atrocities have a wide variety of political views.”

Sláinte! Another House Republican called it quits this week. Florida’s Tom Rooney announced Monday he wouldn’t seek a sixth term in November. He serves on the Appropriations and Intelligence committees and will leave behind a solid Republican seat that Trump carried by nearly 30 points in 2016. Rooney said he looks forward “to serving Florida again in the future in a different capacity.”

The Count: 24 

The DCCC added six more House challengers to its Red to Blue program for promising candidates. Those in the program have to meet certain fundraising and grass-roots engagement goals and can gain access to additional DCCC resources. (Plus, they can brag about it in fundraising emails.) More on the six new Red to Blue candidates here.

Nathan’s Notes

Democratic women outnumber GOP women in Congress three-to-one. And it’s no wonder. Recruitment is important. But the GOP keeps throwing up roadblocks in front of credible female candidates who want to run. Nathan points to Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn as the latest example.

Candidate Confessions 

Former state Sen. Kelli Ward is in the midst of her second Senate run in Arizona. She is in a three-way GOP primary race with Rep. Martha McSally and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Ward was in the race before GOP Sen. Jeff Flake decided to retire, following an unsuccessful primary challenge against Sen. John McCain in 2016. Before she became a state senator, she worked as a osteopathic physician, a branch of medicine that focuses on preventative care. She said she was especially inspired by her mom, who went to medical school in her 40s. Ward and her mother eventually worked together, teaming up a private practice in Arizona for about 10 years.

Reader’s Race

Not enough of you voted on last week’s choices — NM-02 or Maine Senate, which means we’re going to talk about Maine (because, lobster emoji). The crustacean’s chief advocate on the Hill, Sen. Angus King, is facing his first re-election, and so far it’s looking as easy to crack as a soft shell lobster. Elected in 2012, the former governor is an independent who caucuses with Democrats. He ended 2017 with $1.95 million in the bank. No one else who’s filed for the race had more than $100,000. The only Republican who’s filed with the FEC, 29-year-old state Sen. Eric Brakey, had about $85,000. The looming question in this race has been whether Gov. Paul R. LePage, or his wife, will jump in against King. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon reportedly tried to get Ann LePage to run, and The Washington Post reported in December that White House advisers were pushing the governor to enter the race. LePage’s senior political adviser said Thursday that LePage “is not a candidate for the U.S. Senate.” Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic

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Talk to us. It’s easy. Reply to this email and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. As always, send us any race you think we should pay more attention to and we’ll look into it.

Photo Finish

GOP Rep. Ryan A. Costello’s district became a lot tougher for him with redistricting in Pennsylvania. Will he be safe? Or will the Republican baseball team lose its starting shortstop? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo). GOP Rep. Ryan A. Costello’s district became a lot tougher for him with redistricting in Pennsylvania. Will he be safe? Or will the Republican baseball team lose its starting shortstop? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo).