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At the Races: Supreme politics

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.

A year that has included the impeachment of a president, a global outbreak of a deadly virus, an economic collapse and nationwide protests around social justice has added one more historic event to the list: a partisan battle over a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not to mention a looming electoral showdown, with President Donald Trump on Wednesday not committing to a peaceful transfer of power.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death Friday sent shockwaves through the political world, but it’s not clear how the battle to replace her could roil the 2020 elections. Amid all the chaos, the presidential race has remained remarkably stable since voters are so polarized.

Ginsburg’s death did inject new energy into Senate races, with record amounts of cash flowing to Democratic campaigns and Republicans expecting the fight to rev up their base. Will the Supreme Court battle actually move swing voters? Candidates’ TV ads could provide clues about whether campaigns see the high court as a salient issue. On Wednesday, for example, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper released a new TV ad in his race against GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, where he references the high court, connecting it to other issues, including health care costs and abortion. 

As the Supreme Court fight shakes up Senate races, one contest could actually affect the confirmation tussle in Congress. The winner of Arizona’s special Senate election to serve out the last two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s term could be seated shortly after the November election, and potentially in time to vote on Trump’s nominee. GOP Sen. Martha McSally, who was appointed to the seat, has been locked in a heated race against retired astronaut Mark Kelly. On Wednesday, Kelly told “The View” that the winner of the special election should be “promptly seated” once the results are certified.

Starting gate

RBG impact: The battle over replacing Ginsburg is infusing Senate candidates with a new burst of money and energized volunteers. Democrats channeled their grief and anger into donations, while Republicans said it could help turnout among their base. The latest Political Theater podcast also delves into how the Supreme Court fight is shaking up Senate races and the Senate itself.

Everything’s bigger in Texas … including the potential impact of the high court vacancy, which could cast a new spotlight on the state’s Senate contest. Democrat MJ Hegar so far hasn’t raised the same eye-popping numbers as other Senate challengers as she takes on GOP incumbent and Judiciary Committee member John Cornyn.

Things are different up north: Alaska Democrats are hoping to use Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan’s call for a quick vote on Ginsburg’s replacement as a reminder of his party loyalty as they make a play for the state’s large bloc of unaffiliated voters to try to flip the Senate and at-large House seats. Their nominees in those contests, orthopedic surgeon Al Gross and education advocate Alyse Galvin, are independents. 

Surprise! Democrats are still talking about health care: CQ Roll Call’s Mary Ellen McIntire explores how the Supreme Court fight underscores Democrats’ focus on health care on the campaign trail. 

Ratings they are a-changin’: Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has shifted the race ratings for six House districts and one Senate race. (Hint: This senator is in the Supreme Court spotlight.) 

Going green: CQ Roll Call’s Benjamin J. Hulac looks at how vulnerable Senate Republicans are emphasizing environmental issues in an attempt to appeal to moderate voters. 

Latino outreach: Some Democrats are fretting over polls suggesting that Joe Biden’s presidential campaign isn’t reaching Latino voters, CQ Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone and Jim Saksa report.

Job losses: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce laid off a dozen employees recently, as the big political and lobbying player continues to struggle.


Relationship status — it’s complicated: Facebook announced Wednesday it would reject any ads “that claim victory before the results of the 2020 election have been declared.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said earlier this month that the platform was “partnering with Reuters and the National Election Pool to provide authoritative information about election results.” Jesse Littlewood, vice president of campaigns for Common Cause, called the move a “token gesture,” in a statement.

On the trail: Axios reported that Biden is expected to hit the campaign trail in states featuring competitive Senate races.

And the award goes to: Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler has our vote for the most bizarre political ads so far this cycle, with two spots asserting she is more conservative than Attila the Hun. The ads feature a grunting actor in period costume who appears to order an attack on China, the elimination of “liberal scribes” and the persecution of various offenders of conservative values. But, in our opinion, Loeffler’s ad falls short of Carly Fiorina’s 2010 “Demon Sheep” spot in the ranking of weirdest ads of all time. 

Let the triaging begin: It’s getting to be that time of year when outside groups start to triage — move money from races that are no longer Toss-ups. According to the firm Medium Buying, the DCCC pulled money out of Maine; Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Detroit. The Texas Tribune reported that the NRCC was canceling its buy in Houston. Politico reported that the DCCC was moving money to Colorado’s 3rd District, Michigan’s 3rd and Texas’ 23rd, while the GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund has launched a new ad campaign in Wisconsin’s 3rd District. 

United in fundraising: EMILY’s List, which raises money for female Democrats who support abortion rights, and BlackPAC, which works to mobilize Black voters, said this week they were creating a $1.5 million joint fundraising agreement. The effort will target the races of Democratic incumbents such as Reps. Lucy McBath in Georgia’s 6th District and Lauren Underwood in Illinois’ 14th, among others, as well as Democratic challengers, including Joyce Elliott, who is running against GOP Rep. French Hill in Arkansas’ 2nd, and Pat Timmons-Goodson, who is challenging GOP Rep. Richard Hudson in North Carolina’s newly drawn 8th District.

It’s in the mail: In an ominous sign for November’s elections, Florida rejected more than 35,0000 mailed-in ballots in the state’s August primary because they didn’t meet signature requirements or arrived too late. The rejections accounted for 1.5 percent of the total vote, Politico reported. Similar rejection rates could be a big problem in November, when the state is expected to be crucial to the presidential race. So far, more Democrats have requested to vote by mail than Republicans. 

Voting early and in person: Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, who is challenging GOP Rep. Rodney Davis in Illinois’ 13th District, took advantage of her state’s early, in-person voting, which kicked off Thursday. She and her family turned out this morning at the Sangamon County Election Office, according to her campaign. Davis’ campaign told ATR the Republican also plans to vote early in Taylorville, as he normally does, but the precise date depends on the House calendar. 

Quittin’ time? Republicans resigned from the North Carolina Board of Elections after a settlement on absentee ballots.

What we’re reading

The Senate map: Stu Rothenberg’s latest column explains why Democrats still appear to have an advantage in the battle for the Senate. 

Speaking of the Senate: Politico looks at how Democratic Senate candidates aren’t rallying around the liberal cries to expand the Supreme Court. 

More Senate races! HuffPost has a story on how this election cycle could be a “breakthrough year” for Black Senate candidates.

Money talks: Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz told Trump supporters at a recent rally in Georgia that Sen. Kelly Loeffler offered the Trump campaign $50 million to get GOP Rep. Doug Collins to drop his Senate bid against her, The Daily Beast reports. Gaetz, a Trump ally, is supporting Collins in the race.

Motivator: Supporters and opponents of abortion rights were already making voter persuasion their main focus this fall, but a vacancy on the Supreme Court “pours rocket fuel on the 2020 election,” Tony Perkins, president of FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, tells CQ Roll Call’s Sandhya Raman.

All politics is … local:  CQ Roll Call’s Clyde McGrady catches up with Christina Henderson, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, about her run for D.C. city council, with a toddler in tow.

On the (battle)ground: In North Carolina, with competitive races for president, Senate and governor and control of the state legislature up for grabs, voters are being deluged by advertisements, The New York Times writes.

Loose lips sink ships: Kansas Democratic Senate nominee Barbara Bollier took the unusual step of requiring campaign volunteers to sign nondisclosure agreements, The Kansas City Star reports. The campaign said the measure was meant to guard against foreign election interference. But the story points out that it was likely geared toward warding off domestic political opponents.

The Q vote: Yahoo News takes a look at a series of ads from the NRCC attacking Democrats as “secret supporters of sexual abusers of young children.” The ads, the story argues, represent a not-so-subtle attempt to appeal to supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that Trump is the leader in a fight against a shadowy cabal of “deep state” pedophiles. The Washington Post also had a fact check of one of the ads, an attack against New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski, and gave it four Pinocchios.

The count: $2 million

That’s how much money former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts transferred from his old campaign account into a super PAC that supported his son’s failed Senate bid against incumbent Edward J. Markey. 

Joseph P. Kennedy III lost to Markey in the state’s Sept. 1 Democratic primary. Citizens for Joe Kennedy 1988 was disclosed recently as a major donor behind the New Leadership PAC, which spent more than $4 million backing the younger Kennedy’s challenge. The former congressman seems to have used up the bulk of his old account, which reported holding $2.8 million as of June 30 before transferring out the $2 million in two installments in early and mid-August, disclosures show. 

Former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island in the House but now lives in New Jersey, gave $2,500 to the super PAC. His wife, Amy Kennedy, is running against GOP Rep. Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey’s 2nd District. 

Nathan’s notes

In his latest column, Nathan unpacks why the battle for Gisnburg’s seat on the Supreme Court is unlikely to shake up the race for the White House.

Candidate confessions

Georgia Republican Rich McCormick, an emergency room doctor running for the open 7th District in suburban Atlanta, grew up poor with a single mom, but he managed to have a life full of cinematic turns. His mother once worked in a Las Vegas recording studio whose clients included the flamboyant pianist Liberace. He grew up in Oregon, where he picked berries alongside migrant workers as a middle school student to save up for his first bicycle, which he painted lime green and used to get a job delivering newspapers. The movie “Top Gun” inspired him to join the Marines where, at 21, he was selected to appear in a classic recruiting commercial. He’s the Marine who emerges from a chess piece when it is struck by lightning in the 1992 spot. 

Reader’s race: Montana Senate

This seat, currently held by Republican Steve Daines, offers Democrats one of their top pickup opportunities in their quest to gain control of the Senate. The race has been competitive ever since March when Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, a former presidential contender, got in. But like other pivotal 2020 Senate contests, the Supreme Court fight has taken a spotlight in recent days, and Daines has embraced it as a way to rally the state’s GOP base. 

The incumbent told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt that he would welcome Democrats’ attacks on a Catholic judge, such as Amy Coney Barret, the perceived front-runner to replace Ginsburg. “I will take that fight all day. I’ll take that culture war all day,” Daines said. 

Both Daines and Bullock tout their support for public lands. A conservation and national parks measure, dubbed the Great American Outdoors Act, that lawmakers approved this summer was viewed as an effort to help boost Daines and Sen. Cory Gardner, who has an even tougher reelection fight in Colorado. Bullock and Democrats have criticized Daines’ vote in support of the 2017 tax law overhaul as evidence of the incumbent’s coziness with corporate interests. Bullock declines donations from corporate PACs, while Daines has disclosed donations from the PACs of Marathon Petroleum, American Airlines and Goldman Sachs, among others.

Neither campaign had a money problem as of June 30, when Daines held $7.1 million to Bullock’s $7.6 million. Ads from the dueling campaigns and their allies have bombarded the airwaves. Outside groups have invested some $40 million, mostly in attack ads, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics

The most recent polls have show a razor-slim race, with Daines holding the advantage in a state that Trump won by more than 20 points in 2016 (the same year, Democrats like to remind, that Montanans reelected Bullock as governor). 

Daines may have Trump’s backing, but Bullock has “The Dude.” Jeff Bridges (of “The Big Lebowski” fame) has campaigned for the Democrat, including one virtual event this week focused on college affordability. Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-up.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race for California’s 25th District or the Iowa Senate contest. Email us at

Coming up

The president says he’ll nominate his pick for the Supreme Court on Saturday, and the first of the presidential debates will be Tuesday, moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace in Cleveland. Also Tuesday, voters in Georgia’s 5th District will pick from seven candidates — none of them Republicans — vying to fill the remainder of the late Rep. John Lewis’ term.

Photo finish

Flowers were placed at a “right turn here” sign as a crowd gathered Saturday at the Supreme Court to mourn the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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