At the Races: Keystone State Nail-Biter

Our weekly newsletter on congressional campaigns

Posted March 15, 2018 at 3:46pm

Welcome to At the Races! You can keep track of House and Senate races with this weekly newsletter by subscribing here. We want to hear what you think. Email us at with your questions, tips or candidate sightings. — Simone Pathé and Bridget Bowman


This week … a Pennsylvania special election upset came down to the wire, and a Mississippi candidate swapped Senate races, and Illinois candidates gear up for a primary.


Marie Newman is taking on Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois’ primary on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Marie Newman is taking on Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois’ primary on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Starting Gate

Mark Your Calendars: The second congressional primaries in the country are in Illinois on Tuesday. Democrats are targeting four GOP-held seats in the state, where EMILY’s List has played an early, influential role backing candidates it thinks will be viable in the general election. But the Prairie State primary that’s received the most attention is actually in a solid Democratic seat. EMILY’s List is involved in this race too (although it took a while for the group to endorse), and it’s quickly become a flashpoint in the fight over the identity of the Democratic Party. On one side is first-time candidate Marie Newman, who’s backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (who carried the 3rd District in 2016), two members of the Illinois delegation (pictured above), New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, SEIU and a coalition of reproductive rights and progressive groups.

On the other side is seven-term Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, who opposes abortion rights and is one of the few remaining Democrats in the House who voted against the 2010 health care law. He has the AFL-CIO and Chicago’s editorial boards in his corner. As the son of a longtime congressman (a Lipinski has been on the ballot here for nearly 36 years), he’s also got the ground game of a well-connected Chicago politician. Newman’s tried to paint Lipinski as a “Trump Democrat” in her ads, but he’s on air too listing how he’s voted against Trump. Public polling has this race close, with Lipinski with a slight edge.

*Bookmark* With primary season kicking off, catch up on key dates and races to watch with Roll Call’s midterm guide.

An Upset in Trump Country: Conor Lamb declared victory in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District Tuesday night, even though no one had declared him the winner yet. The Associated Press says the race is still too close to call. A source with the Saccone campaign said they were waiting to see what the official count showed, and weren’t exploring recount or potential legal action. But one GOP source said Republicans were investigating potential vote count issues and likely to file court action. As a reminder the PA lines are changing, and both candidates will be running in newly configured districts.

Republicans acknowledged Lamb’s apparent victory signaled a rough road ahead in the midterms, but they also tried to downplay the upset. What else can we learn from this election? Nathan Gonzales has 16 thoughts on the race and Stu Rothenberg points out that this race is a red flag for Republicans. Two other effects could be more retirements, or Republicans opting not to run — like former Rep. David Jolly, who ruled out a rematch in Florida’s 13th District after the special election.

See you at Starbucks, amirite? It’s that time of year, when Hill staffers start doing campaign work for their bosses — out of the office, of course. Sending campaign press releases or taking donor phone calls from House or Senate office buildings is a big no-no. That’s Ethics 101 in Washington. But even the most black-and-white lines are still crossed. And in reality, some lines — like what constitutes government time — are murky, especially when enforcement is lacking. What are the ethical pitfalls and when can violations became a political liability? Find out here.

PAC Play: A super PAC backing West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is spending on digital and mail ahead of the May 8 Senate primary. 35th PAC’s target? The same as it’s always been: GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins. Within hours of Jenkins announcing his campaign last May, 35th PAC was calling him and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin as “two peas in a pod.” The super PAC is continuing to attack Jenkins as a liberal Democrat. 35th PAC (more on who’s running the group here) ended 2017 with about $470,000 in the bank. The super PAC backing Jenkins ended the year with just $50 — yes five-zero. Jenkins’ fundraising was also underwhelming (he raised $205,000 during the fourth quarter), but his campaign ended the year with more money in the bank than Morrisey’s. Jenkins has continued releasing automated polls showing him ahead, with former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship gaining ground.

Magnolia State Moves: Chris McDaniel announced Wednesday that he’s decided to run for the newly open seat in Mississippi, instead of launching a primary challenge against GOP Sen. Roger Wicker. Shocker! (McDaniel waited until the last minute to file against Wicker because he was waiting to see what McDaniel was going to do.) In announcing for the November special election, McDaniel asked Republicans to unite around his campaign. And interestingly, he used the recent Alabama special election to make his case. More here.

The Count: 4,000,000

Americans for Prosperity announced its second $4 million ad buy targeting Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri for not supporting the tax overhaul. This is part of a larger $20 million effort to defend the law.

Nathan’s Notes

The DCCC has gotten quite a bit of attention lady (hey there, Texas’ 7th District), and Nathan profiles the man behind the curtain: executive director Dan Sena. He’s the first Latino to run the campaign committee.

Candidate Confessions

Former Nevada GOP Rep. Cresent Hardy is looking for a comeback in Nevada’s 4th District. It [theoretically] is an open seat since Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen is retiring after being accused of sexual harassment. Kihuen was reconsidering his decision to retire, and we’ll find out soon since if he’s actually running because the filing deadline is Friday. Since Hardy lost to Kihuen in 2016, he’s been back in Nevada working on his 120-acre hay farm. If Hardy prevails in the GOP primary, he could have another rematch against former Democratic Rep. Steve Horsford, who said he would run for his old seat. But first Horsford would have to win a Democratic primary. The Nevada primary is June 12.

Reader’s Race

California’s 39th District will be one of the most closely watched races in 2018. Democrats were targeting the southern California seat since Hillary Clinton carried it by 8 points in 2016. A slew of Democrats had signed up to challenge GOP Rep. Ed Royce, but then Royce announced in January that he was retiring. With multiple Republicans jumping in to run, this created a problem for Democrats hoping to flip the seat. California has a top-two primary system, so the top two vote-getters advance to the November election regardless of party affiliation. With some Republicans and a number of Democrats running, Democrats were concerned their vote would be split, causing Republicans to secure the top two spots.

National and local Democratic operatives have been sharing polling with various candidates in the race, and it appears some of their efforts may have worked. Former school board member Jay Chen announced in an email to supporters that he would drop out of the race. The subject line of the email was “the greater good.” And education consultant Phil Janowicz announced Wednesday that he would also be dropping out of the race.

The filing deadline for the open-seat race was Wednesday, and it appears county websites are still being updated. But the race is likely to remain crowded on both sides. On the Republican side, candidates who have said they would run include Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, Brea City Councilman Steve Vargas, former state legislator Bob Huff, and former Assemblywoman Young Kim, who worked for Royce. On the Democratic side, three candidates have so far filed for the race, including Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros is running, along with former teacher and health care executive Andy THorburn, and pediatrician Mai-Khanh Tran, who has been endorsed by EMILY’s List. A handful of other Democrats, including former congressional aide Sam Jammal, are also expected to run. Inside Elections rates this race a Toss-up.

For next week, email us at and let us know which race you want to know more about: Iowa’s 1st District or New Hampshire’s 1st District.

Photo Finish

“We’re gonna win it!” Saccone proclaimed Tuesday night when the race was too close to call. His team is waiting to determine its next move until after the official count is completed.

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