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At the Races: It’s debatable

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.

As the first presidential debate Tuesday threw the country into a panic spiral over the collapse of political discourse and the futility of “joint appearances” devoid of real exchanges of ideas, candidates in some of the most competitive Senate and House races of the cycle were also having their own first debates. For the most part, they were much more productive. 

Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst and Democrat Theresa Greeenfield faced off over the Supreme Court, health care and money in politics, among other issues. In Maine, GOP Sen. Susan Collins and her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, battled over the high court, while a big chunk of the Montana Senate debate between Republican incumbent Steve Daines and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock was spent arguing over political money.

And in South Carolina’s 1st District, vulnerable Democrat Joe Cunningham and GOP challenger Nancy Mace exchanged jabs over tax rates, climate science and the coronavirus pandemic. In North Carolina, vulnerable GOP Sen. Thom Tillis will square off for the third and final time in a debate Thursday night against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.

While some of these exchanges were contentious, they also featured revealing sound bites about hot-button issues and provided clear contrasts to voters who chose to tune in. That’s a valuable opportunity, especially in areas without robust local media. 

“I do think people listen in, and especially undecided voters,” vulnerable Nebraska Republican Rep. Don Bacon told us in an interview. “It’s a chance to solidify your base, to reach moderates, and I do think it’s a chance to challenge your opponent.” 

During his first congressional campaign in 2016, Bacon said he entered the debates as an unknown challenger polling 3 points behind Democratic incumbent Brad Ashford. He emerged with a 3-point lead. “It allowed people to see me in action,” he recalled. 

Bacon said he is looking forward to putting the pressure on his Democratic opponent, Kara Eastman, during a series of debates starting Wednesday. He said Eastman, whom he narrowly defeated in 2018, tries to present herself in her ads as a moderate. But he thinks she is too liberal for the suburban swing district. “You can say what you want in a TV ad,” he said. “In a debate, that’s not the case.”

Starting gate

The 2020 of debates: In case you turned off Tuesday’s debate (who could blame you?), CQ Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski sums up the major moments. Columnist David Winston says no one won. Elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales concludes that’s bad for Trump, who needed to change the trajectory of the presidential race. And congressional Republicans weren’t happy with the prsident’s performance. Bacon told Stephanie, “It hurts [Trump] and it hurts his team.”

CQ Roll Call scoop: The GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund plans to spend a whopping $9 million on the Michigan Senate race, aiming to boost Republican challenger John James against Democratic incumbent Gary Peters. 

Oooops: Some lawmakers and candidates for federal office file opaque or illegible financial disclosures, while the GOP challenger from Virginia’s 7th District offered conflicting income levels in state and congressional forms.  

Campaign trail to committee room: Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings this month will put four vulnerable Republicans who sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee in the spotlight (and not to mention the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee too).

Can they do that?: Minnesota Democratic Rep. Angie Craig is suing after state officials postponed her election from November to February because of the death of Legal Marijuana Now Party nominee Adam Weeks.

Constitution shmonstitution: House members don’t vote on Supreme Court justices, but that doesn’t stop House candidates like Illinois Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan from using nomination fights as fodder for attack ads against incumbents. 

First in ATR: The Credit Union National Association is banking big on incumbents in some of the nation’s most competitive Senate and House races, including new ads the group announces today, first in At the Races, as part of its $7 million political program. It’s supporting Bacon and three other vulnerable House members: Republican Rodney Davis in Illinois’ 13th District, Democrat Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico’s 2nd and Democrat Andy Kim in New Jersey’s 3rd. CUNA plans to run direct mail and digital video ads. The lobbying group already launched ads last week supporting vulnerable Sens. Collins, Daines and Peters. 

Zoomtastic: At the Races will be holding a series of webinars starting next week, with a look at the elections that will decide the majority. Sign up now and tune in at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 8.


Don’t measure the curtains: The special election for the remaining term of the late civil rights icon and Democratic Rep. John Lewis is going to a runoff after none of the seven candidates won a majority on Tuesday. The top-two finishers, former Atlanta City Council Member Kwanza Hall and former Morehouse College President Robert Franklin, are both Democrats, but neither is on the November ballot for the full term representing the Atlanta-based 5th District. So the winner of the Dec. 1 matchup will serve less than a month in Congress.

A green tsunami: It looks like Democrats’ “green wave” of cash could become a tsunami. Campaigns are already starting to release eye-popping numbers for the third quarter, which ended yesterday. In Texas, MJ Hegar announced that she raised $13.5 million in her race against GOP Sen. John Cornyn, while Rev. Raphael Warnock raised $12.8 million in the Georgia Senate contest. In Michigan, the Peters campaign said it hauled in a record $14 million during Q3.

Green tsunami, House edition: Freshman Democrats Kim in New Jersey, Debbie Mucarsel Powell of Florida and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan each raised $2 million in the three months that ended Wednesday. Democrat Diane Mitsch-Bush, who is running against Republican Lauren Boebert in Colorado’s 3rd District, raised $2.5 million. Mike Siegel, who’s challenging Texas GOP Rep. Michael McCaul, told ATR his campaign raised $1 million (that’s four times his second-quarter haul).  

Speaking of campaign cash: The Center for Responsive Politics estimates the price tag for the 2020 elections will hit a record-shattering near $11 billion. Female donors have already contributed more this cycle than in the 2018 cycle when they smashed previous highs, with 43 percent of 2020 political donors identified as women, the center found.

After the polls close: With state and federal security officials warning that bad actors could seize on uncertainty if results take days or weeks to be finalized, CQ Roll Call politics editor Herb Jackson points to states where delays are almost guaranteed to happen because they won’t even start to process mail-in ballots until Election Day.

‘Playing with fire’: BuzzFeed News reported Tuesday that New Jersey Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski is facing death threats and harassment from supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, in part because of an attack from the NRCC that falsely accused the congressman of lobbying against a national sex offender registry. Malinowski told BuzzFeed News he confronted NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer but Emmer said, “I don’t know what Q is.” After the Buzzfeed report published, the NRCC sent out a statement saying that Malinowski “must live with the consequences of his actions.”

On the airwaves: The DCCC has made additional ad reservations in GOP territory, Politico Playbook reported. The reservations include $300,000 in Arkansas’ 2nd District and a nearly $1.1 million reservation in Minnesota markets aimed at the 1st District.

That’s the ticket: Democrats cheered a court ruling in Texas on Friday that would have reinstated straight-ticket voting, which allows voters to vote for all of the candidates of one party. Public polls have shown a competitive race at the top of the ticket, while Democrats are also targeting Cornyn’s Senate seat and 10 GOP-held House districts. But on Monday, a federal appeals court put a hold on the lower court ruling.

What we’re reading

Stu says: Rumors of Joe Biden’s political demise are greatly exaggerated, CQ Roll Call political analyst Stu Rothenberg writes.

Kicking it with Dr. Webb: Virginia congressional hopeful Cameron Webb caught up with Heard on the Hill about his extensive sneaker collection.

#IASEN: Politico dives into how the Supreme Court vacancy is influencing the Iowa Senate race

The FEC can’t do much: But it can still count to $5,600 — the maximum allowable donation in 2020 elections from an individual. And 237 Trump donors gave more than that to his campaign, the Daily Beast reported, including former Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, now ambassador to the Netherlands.

Ads, unmasked: Politico analyzed 400 congressional ads and found that masks have become a new political symbol.

Book Tina Fey for 2022 dinners now: Sarah Palin is not happy with Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, but as New York magazine notes, Murkowski might be happy to have the former governor in the race when her seat is up in two years. 

Early voting: With voting getting started, several outlets jumped on data from the U.S. Election Project showing Democrats returning far more ballots than Republicans in a handful of states. So it’s worth a reminder what Nathan said about using those numbers to draw conclusions.

Battle for the House: Politico details how House Democrats, who started the cycle on defense, are now spending just as much on offensive targets. The Hill has a dive into Texas’ 2nd District, where Democrats are trying to defeat well-known GOP Rep. Daniel Crenshaw. National Journal looks at Pennsylvania’s 10th District, where Democrat Eugene DePasquale is running against a recession as well as Republican incumbent Scott Perry. And The New York Times unpacks the race for Colorado’s 3rd District, featuring Lauren Boebert, as well as Nebraska’s 2nd District.

Trust but verify: Newsweek uncovers the lengths to which GOP opposition research firm America Rising went to figure out if Alaska independent Senate candidate Al Gross actually killed a grizzly bear. 

The count: $750

Yes, that’s how much President Donald Trump paid in taxes in 2016, according to a bombshell New York Times report. It’s also a figure that popped up this week in fundraising appeals from the other side of the aisle. 

In New Jersey, Rep. Andy Kim sent out a campaign email with $750 as the subject line. “Our final quarter FEC deadline is coming up in two days,” the email read. “Will you donate $7.50 to help make sure we keep a Democratic majority that will put working families first?” 

Pam Keith, the Democrat challenging GOP Rep. Brian Mast in Florida’s 18th District, also invoked the $750 in a fundraising solicitation, as did the liberal outside group American Bridge 21st Century.

Nathan’s notes

If you’ve ever found yourself in an Austin bar arguing whether MJ or Beto would be a higher draft pick, Nathan’s analysis of Texas candidates’ Vote Above Replacement scores has the definitive (until November) answer: Rep. Lizzie Fletcher. 

Candidate confessions

In Montana, Daines is getting a little taste of what life must be like for movie star Brad Pitt. The GOP senator can’t go anywhere without someone recognizing him because of the deluge of political ads in his hotly contested Toss-up race against Bullock.

“In fact, I was going through a Dairy Queen here recently, getting an ice cream cone with my wife, and there was a 14-year-old girl there [who] was helping me,” the incumbent said at a debate this week. “And she looks through the mirror and sees that there I am because she’s seen me on digital ads everywhere, either an ad that we’re running or dark money ads that are on the attack.”   

Reader’s race: Iowa Senate

Democrats looking to flip the Senate have their sights set on Iowa. Trump carried the Hawkeye State by 9 points in 2016 after Barack Obama won it twice. On average, recent polling has the presidential race tied in Iowa, according to RealClearPolitics. The tight presidential battle is a problem for GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, who is running for a second term after catapulting into the national spotlight in 2014 with her trademark “make ‘em squeal” campaign ad.

Democrats are quick to point out that real estate executive Theresa Greenfield is faring slightly better in polling than Biden, which they view as a good sign since Trump could still carry the state. Greenfield has been stressing her rural roots, describing herself as a “scrappy farm girl.” Democrats believe she could cut into Ernst’s margins in rural Iowa, where the incumbent needs to run up the score to win statewide. On average, public polling has shown Greenfield with a 3-point lead over Ernst, according to RealClearPolitics

Greenfield stressed those roots this week during their first debate, where the two candidates clashed over the Supreme Court, policing and health care. “Iowans want the divisiveness to end. … I got in this fight for hardworking families, and I’ll never forget who I’m fighting for,” Greenfield said. Ernst said in her closing statement that she’s fighting for Iowans, noting she has shared experiences as someone who grew up on a farm and is a veteran, a single mom and a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Some of the most heated clashes of the night were over money in politics. Greenfield accused Ernst of being beholden to corporate donors, while Ernst said the “radical left” is funding Greenfield’s campaign. Outside money has flooded the state with television ads. Nearly $77 million has been spent for or against Ernst and Greenfield in the race so far, including during the primary, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-up.

For next week, let us know which Senate race you’d like to learn more about: Kansas or Minnesota. Email us at

Coming up

Next week marks one month until Election Day! Stay tuned to CQ Roll Call next week for our latest update of the 10 most vulnerable incumbents in the House and Senate.

Photo finish

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Capitol on Tuesday as Vice President Mike Pence and other top White House officials look on. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Pool)

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