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At the Races: Iowa still matters after Monday

By Stephanie Akin, Bridget Bowman and Simone Pathé 

Welcome to At the Races! Each week we’ll bring you news and analysis from the CQ Roll Call team that will keep you informed about the 2020 election. Know someone who’d like to get this newsletter? They can subscribe here.

Ladies and gentleman, start your engines, prepare your hearts, and brush up on your delegate rules. The Iowa caucuses are finally upon us. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have been leading recent Iowa polls, and it’s not clear which will win on Monday. These could be the craziest caucuses ever, one Iowa expert tells CQ Roll Call’s Jason Dick on this week’s Political Theater podcast. Jason also has a useful video on how the caucuses work (featuring his extensive collection of RAYGUN t-shirts).

One question we’ll be watching is whether more vulnerable House Democrats start to take sides in the primary once results start rolling in. Some vulnerable members are concerned that more liberal candidates could complicate their own races in swing districts, so they have started to back Biden, who campaigned for a lot of them in 2018.

Also don’t forget about Iowa after Monday! The owner of RAYGUN hasn’t forgotten that there’s a competitive Senate race and is backing retired Vice Admiral Mike Franken to take on GOP Sen. Joni Ernst (Franken’s supporters will be sporting “Iowa’s admiral” t-shirts from the store at Monday’s caucuses). All four of Iowa’s House districts could also be competitive in 2020. The CQ Roll Call team was out in Iowa in August taking an early look at these races and you can check out our Hawkeye State dispatches here.

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Starting gate

Next week’s primary: No, not that one. We’re talking about the Democratic fight to succeed the late Elijah E. Cummings in Maryland’s 7th District, which features more Democrats than the presidential race. Voters go to the polls on Tuesday — the day after the Iowa caucuses and the same day as the State of the Union address. Don’t ignore this race, though: there’s plenty of drama. Cummings’ widow is trying to become the first woman to hold the seat (there are currently no women in the delegation), and her biggest competition is former congressman Kweisi Mfume, who’s facing sexual harassment allegations. Both are making a pitch to black women, a crucial voting bloc in Baltimore, where we spent Sunday taking the temperature of the race.

A new boogeyman in town: House Democrats are running against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, rather than the GOP leader of their own chamber or President Donald Trump. That messaging strategy, embodied in DCCC ads about prescription drug pricing this week, reflects House Democrats’ political and legislative reality.

Sounding the alarm: House GOP leaders issued an urgent message to Republicans this week: step up your fundraising. After a “green wave” of cash helped Democrats flip the House in 2018, Republicans are raising concerns that the tide still hasn’t gone out in 2020. So why aren’t House Republicans keeping up even as Trump raises record numbers? And are GOP lawmakers getting the message? We dive into those questions here.

The race is on: Georgia Rep. Doug Collins’ Senate candidacy sets up a competitive fight against newly appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler that could jeopardize GOP control of the seat. Take it from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which now has two seats to worry about in the Peach State: “All he has done is put two Senate seats, multiple house seats, and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in play,” executive director Kevin McLaughlin said in a statement. With all candidates in the special election running together on the same November ballot, they fear that multiple candidates could split the GOP vote. As expected, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a well-known Democrat in the state, also announced his candidacy this week. Collins is backing a state House bill that would create a regular party primary for the race, but the measure was sent back to the rules committee Thursday morning, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. 

One of their own: Presidential candidates Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg came to DC last week to address a convention of the nation’s mayors. They both argued that mayors would make great presidents, pointing to their own experience running New York City and South Bend, Indiana. Guess what? The mayors in attendance agreed.


Districts are (or were) Red, Democrats are Blue: The DCCC announced its first slate of “Red to Blue” candidates this week, a distinction that can help with fundraising and signal the committee’s preferred candidates in primaries. The list included California Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who’s running in the special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill in the 25th District. Smith’s Democratic opponent, Cenk Uygur, host of the liberal “Young Turks” show, slammed the move. Uygur said the committee “declared war on the progressive arm of the party” and it was indicative of larger, systemic issues “that all too often push out candidates of color in favor of less diverse, more conservative candidates.”At a briefing with reporters Thursday DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos opened by touting diversity in the Red to Blue class. Asked about Uygur’s criticism specifically, she said, “We’re in the game of winning.” Bustos said Smith “fits that district like a glove” and a DCCC spokesperson noted Smith has the backing of a slew of local and national Democratic groups. 

Raise your hand if you’re thinking about 2024: Here’s looking at you, Sen. Rick Scott. The Florida Republican launched impeachment-related ads in IOWA this week. Politico reported that Scott “has let it be known” that he wants to run for the White House in 2024, which could explain the early state spending.

#NY27: Republican leaders picked their candidate in the special election to replace former GOP Rep. Chris Collins, who is heading to prison for insider trading charges. State Sen. Chris Jacobs will likely face Democrat Nate McMurray in the special election, which is expected to take place on April 28. McMurray nearly defeated Collins in the deep red district in 2018. But Republicans could still see a crowded primary in the race for a full term with some GOP hopefuls sharply criticizing the decision to back Jacobs. The conservative Club for Growth is also not a fan of Jacobs and could spend against him in the primary for a full term.

Doubling up: Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Victory Fund are planning to spend at least $60 million in the 2020 elections up and down the ballot, doubling their 2018 spending. The groups will be especially focused on expanding their strength in the suburbs, where gun safety has proven a salient issue, particularly among women voters, senior adviser Charlie Kelly wrote in a memo this week.

Abortion on the ballot?: Conservative Kansas lawmakers are pushing for an August vote on a ballot measure that would amend the state’s constitution to block access to abortions. If they succeed, it could be bad news for the moderate candidates on the same ballot in the GOP primary for the state’s open Senate seat. Another possibility is to put the measure on the ballot in the November general election, which would not be the best option for Democrats.

Potential climate changer: Environmental advocates are preparing to launch a Super PAC to support incumbent Sen. Edward J. Markey in his primary fight against Rep. Joe Kennedy III, Politico reported. The move, by George Bachrach, the former president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, is meant to recognize Markey’s leadership on the Green New Deal, which he co-sponsored. It also fuels a dispute with Kennedy, who wants Markey to sign a pledge to limit outside spending in the campaign.

Things get real for Riggleman: Bob Good, who is opposing Virginia Rep. Denver Riggleman in the 5th District GOP convention, left his position at Liberty University to focus on his campaign. 

Kansas City wants to know: Freshman Rep. Sharice Davids has avoided making controversial moves since she flipped a swing district in Kansas last cycle. But this week she made a Super Bowl wager with Rep. Eric Swalwell that could force her to show her hand on a highly partisan subject in her suburban Kansas City District: which restaurant makes the best barbecue. Davids told Swalwell, of California, that if the Kansas City Chiefs lose to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, she will send his office a delivery of “world-famous Kansas City BBQ.” She did not say where she would place the order — probably a wise move for a representative from a region that keeps tallies of where political candidates get their slabs. And another reason for Davids to root for the Chiefs.

Drilling down: Florida Democrats plan to spend a lot of energy in 2020 reminding voters that a second-term Trump administration could revive a plan to open the state’s coastal waters to off-shore drilling. The Trump administration said the state would be excluded from a 2018 plan to expand oil and gas drilling across nearly all U.S. waters, after bipartisan backlash from Florida politicians. But because of a legal glitch, there is still a possibility that the plan could be revived. The state’s Democrats think that prospect could help win over undecided and independent voters in the state, where 29 electoral votes are at stake, CQ Roll Call’s Elvina Nawaguna reports.

Shades of green: Sure, they all want to put the United States back in the Paris accords and condemn Trump for downplaying the threat posed by climate change, but that doesn’t mean the Democrats seeking the presidential nomination are in lockstep agreement on how to change energy policy. CQ Roll Call’s Benjamin J. Hulac highlights five areas, including carbon taxes and what to do about nuclear power, that split the field.

Wild times: Trump held a rally in Wildwood, New Jersey, this week, with Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew. CQ Roll Call’s Dean DeChiaro spoke to Trump supporters in the crowd who largely said that if Van Drew, who has a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood, is good enough for Trump, he’s good enough for them. Van Drew’s candidacy as a Republican, though, is inspiring plenty of opposition from Democratic candidates — and one Republican — who say they’ve been betrayed.

What we’re reading

It’s Trump’s party, and they’re just livin’ in it: If you’ve been paying attention to GOP primaries lately, you know these contests are all about who is most loyal to Trump. The New York Times dives into the primary against Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, whose GOP challenger accuses Fitzpatrick of not supporting the president. In this story, our own Nathan L. Gonzales also drops some knowledge about primaries in the Trump era.

Don’t geofence me in: New York Times political columnist Thomas Edsall took a deep look at presidential campaigns’ digital tracking strategies, which are dramatically changing the game without a lot of regulation or disclosure. The Trump campaign has been way ahead of the pack on this, but Democrats are investing in it too.

Gone to the dogs: We’ve been getting fundraising emails from congressional candidates’ dogs for a while now, but dog surrogates have become a no-risk strategy for presidential candidates too. The New York Times explored how Bailey, Truman and Buddy are helping their humans run for president. And while former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t quite know how to greet a canine he met on the trail, he at least did better than the president, who doesn’t even have a pet. Bloomberg followed up with a new video with some four-legged testimonials.

The count: 9

That’s how many congressional candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed this week, although all but two of them are already members of Congress in districts rated Solid Democratic. The two non-incumbent endorsements included Jessica Cisneros, who’s taking on Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in a primary (she already had Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement and has the support of other groups including EMILY’s List) and San Diego City Council president Georgette Gómez, who is running to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Susan Davis in California’s 53rd District. (That race also features Sara Jacobs, who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in the 49th District in 2018). Inside Elections rates both of those races Solid Democratic as well.

Warren also weighed in on congressional races this week, backing Mondaire Jones, who is running to replace New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey. Jones, who worked in Obama’s Justice Department, had initially been challenging Lowey in a primary, but she decided not to run for reelection. Warren also endorsed school board member Candace Valenzuela in Texas’ 24th District, an open GOP seat Democrats are looking to flip in 2020. Valenzuela has the backing of EMILY’s List, but the race also features Air Force veteran Kim Olson, who VoteVets and New Politics have endorsed.

Nathan’s notes

All seven of the so-called national security Democrats represent House districts that Republicans recently held. And while the Washington-Post op-ed these freshmen wrote last fall precipitated the impeachment proceedings that Republicans think will help them, these individual Democrats seem to be doing pretty well. Nathan takes a closer look at each of their races. 

Candidate confessions

When Amanda Makki decided to pursue a career in politics, the first person she had to convince was her Iranian-born father.

“Your last name is Makki,” he told her. “It isn’t Kennedy. So, good luck.”

Now that she is on the campaign trail in Florida’s 13th District, where Makki is competing in the crowded GOP primary to take on incumbent Democrat Charlie Crist, Makki has found plenty of evidence to dispel her father’s fears that she would not be embraced by the political establishment. She has high-profile endorsements from conservative groups and sitting members of Congress. Indeed, she told the story about her father in front of a crowd of GOP luminaries at a recent event for Rep. Elise Stefanik’s E-PAC, which works to get more Republican women elected. But Makki has also encountered some bigotry.

Makki was born in Tehran and brought to the United States when she was 11 months old, when her family sought political asylum in South Carolina. She volunteered on the Bush campaign and was hired by the Pentagon post 9-11 because she could speak Farsi. She later earned a law degree and served on the staffs of Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski before entering the private sector.

The long resume didn’t stop supporters of opponent George Buck from standing outside a recent fundraiser for her campaign with a sign that read, “Makki is a terrorist.”

Buck, a veteran and a firefighter, was dropped from the NRCC’s Young Guns program in December after his campaign circulated a fundraising email calling for Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., to be hanged for treason. Buck condemned the accusation against Makki, telling that she is, “a nice lady.” Later, though, he went on Facebook to defend his supporters’ rights to wave signs in public, pointing out that they are “also strong Trump supporters.”

Reader’s race: SC Senate

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s well-documented evolution from Trump skeptic to Trump champion has earned him plenty of national attention, which seems to be benefiting both him and his likely Democratic opponent. Graham and Jaime Harrison, an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former chairman of the state Democratic Party, are raising big money. Harrison announced raising $3.4 million in the final quarter of 2019, and several weeks later, Graham one-upped him, announcing a $3.9 million haul. That Harrison came that close to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says a lot about Democratic interest in this race. Donors and activists love a good villain. But as we saw in the 2018 Texas Senate race, where Beto O’Rourke raised crazy money for his challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz, money alone isn’t enough. (And Graham still has a big cash-on-hand advantage, with $10.3 million in the bank to Harrison’s $4.6 million.)

The three-term senator is running for reelection in a state Trump carried by 14 points. And while Democrats picked up a seat in South Carolina last year — freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham is among Democrats’ most vulnerable members — it’s still a deeply red state. Graham won his last two elections by 15 points. Harrison will certainly have money to energize the state’s African-American voters, as well as moderates and independents who may be turned off by Graham’s lovefest with Trump. But while this might be Graham’s toughest race, it’s unlikely to be his undoing. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Republican.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the Colorado Senate race or the Ohio’s 1st District race. Email us at

Coming up

After a couple weeks with all eyes on the Senate chamber, action switches to the House side Tuesday night for the State of the Union. Cameras will be focused on Trump, but we’re wondering if Doug Collins and Kelly Loeffler try to outdo each other cheering on the POTUS.

Photo finish

Kweisi Mfume, Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, arrives at a campaign rally in Baltimore, Md., on Sunday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Kweisi Mfume, Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, arrives at a campaign rally in Baltimore, Md., on Sunday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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