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At the Races: Will health or wealth motivate voters?

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.

More than 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, as of this week, and more than 40 million have filed for unemployment. With 159 days until the November elections, it’s impossible to know how the coronavirus crisis will factor into voters’ decisions. But already we’re seeing signs of how Senate and House candidates are approaching the twin calamities of the virus itself and the economic tailspin.  

Democrats (as we noted last week) plan to focus on health care, while Republicans want to talk about jobs. Take Sen. Thom Tillis’ new TV ad, in which the North Carolina Republican touts his “humble” roots: “My job is fighting for your job. We will build this economy back, and I’ll remember who needs it the most.” North Carolina’s Democratic Party shot back, attacking the vulnerable incumbent for working against a Medicaid expansion plan when he was speaker of the state House in 2013. Tillis faces Democrat Cal Cunningham in November. 

The status of the economic recovery may prove pivotal in swing states

“The more Americans focus on the economy, the more it benefits Republicans up and down ballot,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told At the Races. “By the fall, the health care piece is probably going to look better relative to how it is now, and the economic picture is likely to look better as well. … If you’re in a position where you need America to fail to benefit politically, it becomes a messaging challenge.” 

GOP firm Firehouse Strategies released some recent polling that indicates voters may already be putting the economy top of mind, relative to late March when health care was a bigger priority. “As the economic toll of coronavirus grows, Americans’ concerns are shifting from health care to economics,” said Alex Conant of Firehouse Strategies in a news release about the poll.

Starting gate

Minority report: Updating the ratings for 15 races, Nathan L. Gonzales sees the competitive House landscape shrinking, which is not good news for the Republicans’ attempt to retake the majority.

Save me a slot: The first fall airtime reservations from the DCCC are focused on states where Senate and presidential campaigns will also be competing for viewers’ attention.

No longer King of the Hill?: Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King has a history of making controversial and racist statements, but his House colleagues’ decision to punish him for remarks last year may be his downfall in next week’s primary.

Hoosier gonna call?: Primaries next week in Indiana for the open House seats being vacated by Republican Susan W. Brooks and Democrat Peter J. Visclosky could turn on which candidate’s name voters recognize, CQ Roll Call’s Jessica Wehrman notes.

Keystone State’s key races: Pennsylvania features a handful of competitive House races, whose matchups will be decided next week.

More money, more problems? Outside money is pouring into the Senate Democratic primary in Iowa, with most of it helping the DSCC’s preferred candidate. But there’s a lot more spending to come in the Hawkeye State.

Straight talk: Claire Russo, a Marine veteran running in a crowded Democratic primary in Virginia’s 5th District, is introducing herself to voters with a television ad about her successful pursuit of criminal charges against a superior who sexually assaulted her. The ad, which starts with the words, “I was drugged and raped,” is the latest example of female candidates confronting subjects once considered taboo.


Red to Blue: The DCCC added six new candidates to its Red to Blue program, a designation that provides access to organizing and fundraising help from the committee. The additions were Kate Schroder in OH-01; Kara Eastman in NE-02; Pat Timmons Goodson in NC-08; Joyce Elliot in AR-02; Kathleen Williams in MT-AL; and Alyse Galvin in AK-AL (who is actually running as an independent).

Young Guns: The NRCC also made additions to its program for strong contenders, although unlike the DCCC, the GOP committee can highlight multiple Republicans in the same race. The NRCC has multiple levels to its program, and candidates have to reach fundraising and organizing thresholds to advance. Fifteen candidates made it to the third level: Carlos Gimenez in FL-26; Maria Elvira Salazar in FL-27; Karen Handel in GA-06; Ashley Hinson in IA-01; David Young in IA-03; Jeanne Ives in IL-06; Jim Oberweis in IL-14; Esther Joy King in IL-17; Michelle Fischbach in MN-07; Matt Rosendale in MT-AL; Tom Kean Jr. in NJ-07; Nicole Malliotakis in NY-11; Claudia Tenney in NY-22; Sean Parnell in PA-17; and Scott Taylor in VA-02.

Man about town:  With restaurants and some businesses in D.C. beginning to reopen this weekend, the campaign of Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who doesn’t have an opponent in November but is thought to be laying the groundwork for a presidential bid, has started lining up a slate of in-person fundraisers, according to email invites. He’s got dinners on June 8 and June 15 on the books as well as lunches on June 18 and June 23 — all limited to 10 attendees.

See you in court: Fresh off of winning a California special election where voters received ballots in the mail, the RNC, NRCC and California GOP are suing Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop officials from doing the same in November. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement, “Newsom’s illegal power grab is a recipe for disaster that would destroy the confidence Californians deserve to have in the security of their vote.”

Goin’ to Jackson: Former White House physician Ronny Jackson nabbed some crucial endorsements ahead of the GOP primary runoff in Texas’ 13th District on July 14. President Donald Trump, after expressing support for him before the March primary, tweeted on Friday that Jackson has his “complete and total endorsement.” And the anti-tax Club for Growth also announced it would be backing Jackson.

Ted who?: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy rescinded his endorsement of Republican Ted Howze in California’s 10th District following Politico’s reports on Howze’s offensive social media posts.

What’s up, Doc? Kansas GOP Rep. Roger Marshall, an OB-GYN who has been volunteering at a COVID-19 clinic during his Senate campaign, is fighting with state officials for the right to appear on the ballot as Roger “Doc” Marshall. 

Tweeting it in: FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, takes on the GOP allegation that voting by mail leads to “massive corruption and fraud” in a lengthy Twitter thread. “There’s simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud. None,” she writes.

What we’re reading

Not new from Stu: Two months of pandemic, stock swings and soaring unemployment later, CQ Roll Call political analyst Stu Rothenberg sees the post-Memorial Day outlook for the presidential election nearly the same as it was in March, when his rating moved from a toss-up/tilt to leaning toward Democrat Joe Biden.

All cleared?: The Justice Department said it was no longer investigating stock trades by Sens. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.; James M. Inhofe, R-Okla.; or Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., but it gave no such notification to Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C. And as CQ Roll Call’s Chris Marquette points out, the Securities and Exchange Commission has a lower standard of proof.

Convention anyone?: As decision time approaches on whether to pack a large group of party delegates into an arena in August to nominate a president, The Washington Post carried an op-ed on airborne transmission of the coronavirus and The Wall Street Journal reported on the role of “super spreader” events in the pandemic.

Voting and virus: Wisconsin counties that had higher rates of in-person voting in the April 7 primary saw increases in positive tests for the coronavirus, while those with higher rates of voting absentee had lower rates of infection, a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Ball State University found.

Voters gonna vote: The Washington Post has a helpful roundup of how states are changing election rules and processes amid the pandemic.

Connecting dark-money dots: An organization that has funded ads to discourage voting by mail and accuse Democrats of cheating is really just a rebranded group that is part of a dark money network already helping to remake the federal judiciary, The Guardian reported in a project with the Center for Responsive Politics.

The count: 43 percent

States that vote entirely by mail have high levels of turnout, and it appears states that are expanding voting by mail during the pandemic are seeing spikes in turnout as well. Iowa voters were mailed applications for absentee ballots ahead of next week’s primaries, and turnout has already increased by 43 percent compared to the 2016 primaries. According to the Iowa secretary of state’s office, nearly 297,000 ballots have already been cast in the primaries, which are still five days away, while nearly 207,000 total votes were cast in the 2016 contests.

Nathan’s notes

After attacking Democratic incumbent Chris Coons in a recent email as “Christian hating,” Delaware Republican Senate candidate Lauren Witzke “might be surprised,” Nathan wrote, “to learn that there’s a weekly bipartisan Bible study in the Senate” and that Yale Divinity graduate Coons has been its leader.

Candidate confessions

Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Democrat running to unseat Republican party switcher Jeff Van Drew in southern New Jersey’s 2nd District, was the youngest of seven children and the first in her family to go to college. She paid her way through college by working at Atlantic City casinos, as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, and as a campaign coordinator for 10-term congressman Bill Hughes, who died in 2019. For the past 25 years, though, she has taught political science at Montclair State University. She said her favorite class to teach is American government, a subject she wrote a textbook about. “It’s nice to teach 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds who don’t think they are political,” she said. “They realize they actually care about this stuff.”

Reader’s race: PA-08

Pennsylvania’s most hotly contested House primary next week is in the 8th District, where six Republicans are competing to take on Democratic incumbent Matt Cartwright. This is the second cycle Cartwright is running in the redrawn district since Pennsylvania’s congressional lines changed in 2018 as a result of a redistricting lawsuit. Had the new lines been in place in 2016, Trump would have carried the district by 10 points. Republicans were optimistic they could unseat Cartwright in 2018, but he won a fourth term by 9 points. Cartwright has a financial advantage this cycle with $1.9 million in his campaign account as of May 13. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Democratic. 

Still, Republicans are optimistic that Trump will drive out his supporters in the district, boosting the GOP challenger. But Biden also has roots in Scranton, where the 8th District is based, so it could be more competitive than 2016. The DCCC is preparing for a fight there, reserving $400,000 in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre media market. 

Four of the GOP contenders have raised over $100,000. Former Hazleton Mayor Mike Marsicano has the largest war chest, but he’s self funding his campaign. Strategists watching the race consider the top two contenders to be Jim Bognet, a political consultant who worked at the Export-Import Bank as a Trump appointee, and Earl Granville, a veteran of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard who lost a leg serving in Afghanistan. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has backed Granville, but Trump has notably not weighed in so far. The primary has not been without drama, with some heated exchanges between the candidates after Bognet’s strategy memo highlighting his opponents’ weaknesses was posted online.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race in South Carolina’s 1st District or the North Carolina Senate contest. Email us at

Coming up

Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey, one of our most vulnerable senators, will face off against his primary opponent, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, in a debate Monday in advance of the Bay State election on Sept. 1.

Photo finish

Distancing signs were prominent at an early voting site at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple in Washington, D.C., a week ahead of Tuesday’s primary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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