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At the Races: Make debates no-fly zones

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.

President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic dominated the start of last night’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s running mate. The debate came six days after Trump tested positive for COVID-19, ensuring the health crisis would remain front and center in the final weeks of the campaign. 

Pence hasn’t been the only one facing questions about the president’s handling of the crisis. Vulnerable GOP senators have also been asked to grade Trump’s response in debates over the last week. Pressed on the issue during a debate Tuesday, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally acknowledged that “mistakes were made at all levels” but praised Trump’s decision to impose travel restrictions on China. Her Democratic opponent, Mark Kelly, criticized the administration’s response and repeatedly cited the statistic that the U.S. accounts for more than 20 percent of the world’s deaths from the virus despite making up just 4 percent of the global population. 

Trump’s diagnosis and an outbreak at the Capitol have also shaken up the campaign trail. Vulnerable North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis tested positive and has been in quarantine, with the senator’s campaign shuttering its headquarters in Charlotte. 

But some Republicans are still forging ahead with in-person events, including appointed Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who said she will not require people attending her campaign events to wear masks. “I want to keep people safe, but I also want to keep people free and I don’t think we can mandate masks,” she said.

Starting gate

10 most vulnerable senators: In an otherwise unpredictable year, the list of the most vulnerable senators running for reelection has stayed largely stable. But new to our rankings, with less than four weeks to go until Election Day, is South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who finds himself in a tight race against Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.

10 most vulnerable House members: The list of the most vulnerable House members has shaken up quite a bit since a few months ago, with Nebraska Republican Don Bacon now topping the list. There are also some new additions, including Ohio Republican Steve Chabot, who looks increasingly at risk of losing his suburban Cincinnati district; and California Democrat TJ Cox.  

Left hanging: Pence and Harris brought back civility during their Wednesday debate, but left some of the most poignant questions unanswered. For one, Pence did not say whether he would encourage his home state of Indiana to outlaw abortion should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, while Harris didn’t say whether a Biden administration would support expanding the high court. 

Two-term Toomey: Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey announced this week that he is not running for reelection or for governor in 2022.

*Siren Emoji*: Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales shifted race ratings in two Senate races and 12 House contests.

If they do debate: There are several issues about national security and defense that Biden and Trump should discuss with voters. CQ Roll Call’s John M. Donnelly runs them down in this video.


October surprise: In the Trump era, a scandal involving an extramarital affair seems quaint, but it’s getting traction in North Carolina where Democratic Senate nominee Cal Cunningham, who has led in the polls, admitted to a relationship with a married woman — not his own wife. “I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” he said in a statement. The news overshadowed incumbent Tillis’ recent COVID-19 diagnosis after the Republican attended a “super-spreader” event at the White House. Now the Tillis campaign is out with a new ad, hitting Cunningham’s integrity.

Family feud: Brad Ashford, the last Democrat to represent Nebraska’s 2nd District, shook up the race there this week with an endorsement for endangered two-term Republican Don Bacon. Ashford lost the seat to Bacon in 2016 and ran again the following cycle, losing to the more progressive Kara Eastman in the Democratic primary. Eastman, who lost to Bacon by 2 points in 2018, is running again and defeated Ashford’s wife, Ann, in this year’s primary. 

Trump, who? In Arizona, McSally and Kelly clashed in a heated debate this week. In a sign that Trump has been struggling in the Grand Canyon State, McSally declined multiple times to directly answer whether she was proud to support the president.

Eyes on 2022: The better question for the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate race might be which Republicans are NOT considering a run, and one of them is former Rep. Lou Barletta, a Trump ally. Barletta said he won’t make any decisions until after the election, but pointedly said he is considering a run for governor. Barletta ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Bob Casey in 2018, losing to the Democrat by 13 points.  

Politics stops at the newsfeed’s edge: Facebook announced this week it will indefinitely ban all political and issue-based ads after Election Day, following a similar announcement from Google in September. The New York Times also reports that Facebook will “place notifications at the top of the News Feed notifying people that no winner had been decided until a victor was declared by news outlets.” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos and DSCC Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto said this morning the platforms should reinstate political ads. They said the bans on ads “do little to stop bad actors from pushing dangerous disinformation organically.”

Passing the progressive hat: Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who became a darling in the progressive movement during his primary challenge from Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, used his fundraising platform to solicit $3 donations. No, not for Senate challengers but for progressive Democrats, who beat House incumbents in primaries, and who are certain to win their deep-blue districts in November: Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th District, Cori Bush in Missouri’s 1st and Marie Newman in Illinois’ 3rd, among them.

What we’re reading

Stu says: Stu Rothenberg looks at the state of the presidential race following Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.

The Senate map: The Washington Post delves into the headwinds facing Senate Republicans as they try to hold onto their majority. The Wall Street Journal also takes a look at the battle for the Senate after Trump’s illness. 

#IASEN: Bloomberg News does a deep dive on the Iowa Senate race

Record breakers: The Guardian looks at the record number of women of color running for Congress this year, spotlighting five Democrats. 

On the ground: Maine’s longtime Republican senator, Susan Collins, is fighting to survive in a political climate remade by Trump, his Supreme Court picks and a nationalized Senate election, writes Roll Call alum Amanda Becker in The 19th News.

Battle for the House: The Magnolia Banner News delves into the race for Arkansas’ 2nd District, where Democrats are racing into GOP territory. The Modesto Bee unpacks the race for California’s 10th and whether freshman Democrat Josh Harder has locked up his reelection. Politico dives into the contest in Florida’s 26th. The Wall Street Journal looks at how crime is an issue in New York’s 11th. And The Philadelphia Inquirer explores Pennsylvania’s 17th, where Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb is trying to win over Trump voters for his own race and for Biden.

They zig, you zag: With more than $110 million flowing into TV and radio ads in the Georgia Senate matchup between GOP incumbent David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, a pro-Perdue PAC is looking to unconventional media to convert undecided voters. Georgia Action Fund is spending $5 million on digital ads and online media. 

Reverse coattails: Texas is a top House battleground this year, and The Texas Tribune looks at how the activity down-ballot could help put the state in play for Biden.

The count: $28.7 million

That’s how much money Democratic Senate hopeful Theresa Greenfield raked in during the third fundraising quarter in her race against Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, she announced this morning. That’s more than any Iowa Senate candidate has ever raised in an entire election cycle, according to Iowa Starting Line. Greenfield’s announcement is the latest eye-popping haul from a Democratic Senate candidate, with both Cunningham in North Carolina and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also announcing they raised more than $20 million from July through September. Third-quarter reports are due next week, so keep an eye on how much cash on hand these candidates report for the final stretch of the election. 

Nathan’s notes

Almost a year ago, Nathan broke down the four potential outcomes of the November 2020 elections. His latest column revisits those scenarios and looks at which two are most likely, along with what else could happen.

Candidate confessions

The nation’s focus has been on Trump’s COVID-19 infection and treatment, but another Republican in a tight race for reelection survived the illness with much less public attention a couple of months ago. Rep. Rodney Davis, who represents Illinois’ 13th District, was diagnosed in August. He routinely monitored his temperature and noticed a slight increase, to 99 degrees, prompting him to seek a test.  

He isolated at home and said he experienced only mild symptoms. In addition to his elevated temperature, he noticed “a slight loss of taste and smell.” 

“I just gave a plasma donation this past Monday,” Davis told ATR last week. Blood plasma may contain antibodies to COVID-19 and can be used in treatments for other patients.   

Reader’s race: Kansas Senate

As Democrats expand their Senate battleground, they are looking in some unlikely places, including an open seat in the longtime conservative stronghold of Kansas, where GOP Sen. Pat Roberts is retiring. 

It’s been 88 years since the Sunflower State elected a Democratic senator — the party’s longest drought in the country.

But Democrats think they have found the perfect candidate to break the streak with Barbara Bollier, who was among the most moderate Republicans in the state Senate before switching parties in 2018. 

National Republicans’ biggest worry about this race was allayed in the primary, when Rep. Roger Marshall defeated conservative firebrand Kris Kobach. But while Marshall is a more palatable candidate for general election voters, he hasn’t been able to lock up the race. 

Recent polls show a single-digit margin for Marshall, who is underperforming Trump — and the president’s FiveThirtyEight polling average showing a 7-point lead over Biden is well below his 20-point margin in 2016. 

Bollier has also been helped by local backlash to the deep budget cuts that decimated state services under the administration of former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. She has been highlighting support from prominent Republicans in ads designed to appeal to centrists. Marshall, meanwhile, has doubled down on support for Trump. Both candidates are doctors, so their campaigns have focused heavily on their opposing approaches to health care and the response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Neither Bollier nor Marshall has released third-quarter fundraising numbers. But Bollier, who easily defeated her only primary opponent in August, had a 4-to-1 cash on hand advantage over Marshall on July 15.

And outside groups from both sides have committed millions in spending in the final weeks of the race, a sign that both parties see it as competitive. Inside Elections rates the race Lean Republican.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the Texas Senate race or the contest for Minnesota’s 7th District. Email us at

Coming up

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings start Monday, and the next presidential debate is set for next Thursday (or maybe not?). But the real drama on Thursday will be over at where candidates will file their third-quarter fundraising reports! Stay tuned here for our analysis of what the latest disclosures mean in the battle for Congress.

Photo finish

If there was ever any doubt, the Q Street Barbie Pond (slogan: “Lowering Logan Circle property values since 2014”) makes it clear which ticket it is backing. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

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