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At the Races: October surprises are so 2016

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.

Just when it seemed 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, Tuesday night’s news about Iranian meddling with the election came as a reminder that a lot can still happen between now and Nov. 3. 

But with more than 44 million ballots already cast, the chance that any October surprises could skew the election results is diminishing by the day. The latest RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows former Vice President Joe Biden with a 7.7-point lead over President Donald Trump.

Biden is also leading in states with races that could decide control of the next Senate, including North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Colorado and Maine, though several leads are inside the polls’ margins of error.. 

In North Carolina, Biden and Democratic Senate nominee Cal Cunningham are both leading by an RCP polling average of 2 points, in spite of Republicans’ efforts to hammer Cunningham over recent revelations surrounding extramarital romantic texts. In Iowa, where Biden’s average lead is less than 1 point, Democrat Theresa Greenfield leads by an average of 1.8 points. 

In Maine, Biden’s 11-point lead in the RCP polling average means trouble for Sen. Susan Collins in her race against Democrat Sara Gideon. Collins is one of two Republicans, along with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who have said they will vote “no” on Monday against the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, whose Supreme Court nomination advanced out of the Judiciary Committee today after  Democrats boycotted the hearing. But the chance for Collins to assert her independence from the GOP might come too late to counter the backlash from voters upset about her 2018 vote to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Gideon leads by an average of 4.2 points in the Pine Tree State.

Starting gate

Attention Phoenix TV stations: Arizona is a top battleground for the White House and the Senate this year, with most political ad spending in the Phoenix media market. And that isn’t going to end anytime soon, since the state is set to host competitive Senate races in 2022 and 2024.

Still Trump country?: Democrats are hoping to expand their majority by winning districts Trump carried handily in 2016, such as Michigan’s 3rd. CQ Roll Call’s Jim Saksa dives into how the race to replace retiring Rep. Justin Amash is shaping up.  

Suburban scrutiny: The open seat in Indiana’s 5th District, just north of Indianapolis, is a test case for whether traditionally Republican suburban voters will reject the aggressive partisanship espoused by Trump, writes CQ Roll Call’s Jessica Wehrman.

Political microcosm: House races in Minnesota are so very 2020. One district features legal challenges stemming from a candidate’s death. Another race offers an example of how Democrats have expanded their map into traditionally red turf, while in a rural district, a Democratic-Farmer-Labor incumbent faces a serious threat.

Too little, too late?: House GOP challengers boosted their fundraising during the third quarter, but they largely still lag behind Democratic incumbents.

Cha-ching: We knew some Senate Democrats would post giant third-quarter fundraising numbers, but the reports (due last week) give a clearer picture of where the cash battle stands. Every GOP senator in a competitive race was outraised last quarter, and Democrats raked in eye-popping totals. 

What we said: Hope you caught our final elections webinar with politics editor Herb Jackson and elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales! If you missed it, stay tuned to ATR next week for the link. And if you missed our earlier webinars, here’s Stephanie, Kate and Bridget talking with Herb on Oct. 8 about the races that will decide the majority, and Kate and Herb talking on Oct. 15 about what to expect after the election’s over.


Block that kick: After repeatedly not answering questions about packing the courts, and then saying he was not a fan, Biden called for a commission to study the issue. That’s not making anyone happy either, CQ Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski reports.

Sparking interest: Voters in five states — Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — will decide marijuana initiatives, which could add to pressure on Congress to end the federal prohibition, CQ Roll Call’s Emily Kopp reported.

Closing up: Twitter is shutting down its company PAC and disbursed some of its remaining funds to the NALEO Educational Fund and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, according to a new filing with the Federal Election Commission. “In line with our belief that political influence should be earned, not bought, Twitter will officially close its Political Action Committee, #PAC. #PAC has not made donations to candidates since 2018 and is donating the remaining funds to support non-partisan voter registration activities,” a Twitter spokesman emailed ATR.

Count on it: The Supreme Court deadlocked this week on a Pennsylvania mail-in ballots case. That means a state court’s decision will stand allowing officials to count ballots received up to three days after Election Day.

The party line: A Pew Research Center survey released this week showed that a very small percentage of voters plan to split their tickets between the presidential race and a Senate contest in their states, voting for one party for president and the opposite party for Senate. 

Thanks, Obama: Former President Barack Obama made his first in-person appearance on the campaign trail for Biden this week. And he waded into competitive Senate races, filming TV ads supporting Democratic Senate candidates in Maine, Georgia, Michigan and South Carolina, as well as a radio ad in Texas. 

Calling it quits: The New Hampshire Senate contest wasn’t viewed as really competitive with Democrat Jeanne Shaheen expected to win reelection. Now her GOP opponent, Corky Messner, seems to have some staffing woes; at least three aides quit the campaign, according to a WMUR report.  

Masks off: Virginia Republican Bob Good, who is in a tight House race in the open 5th District, has posted pictures on his Facebook page of two maskless fundraisers with top GOP officials this week. Photos from an indoor event Monday showed maskless attendees mingling with Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon who leads the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Good posted a video Thursday from an outdoor event where he and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, neither of whom wore masks, appeared to embrace. Good, who has downplayed the efficacy of masks, is competing against Democrat Cameron Webb, a doctor who has been treating COVID-19 patients during the pandemic.

Say what?: Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff reported raising over $2 million in the days after his GOP opponent, Sen. David Perdue, repeatedly mispronounced his Senate colleague Kamala Harris’ name at a Trump rally. Perdue has said he didn’t mean to mangle Harris’ name when he called her “Ka-MAL-a (sic), Ka-MAL-a or Kamala, Ka-mala, -mala, -mala, I don’t know, whatever,” eliciting laughs from the crowd. Ossoff immediately took to Twitter to criticize Perdue’s remarks, which Harris spokeswoman Sabrina Singh called “incredibly racist.”

What we’re reading

Stu says: Partisan waves typically happen in midterm election years, but Stu Rothenberg writes that one may be building this year.

On the airwaves: CNN’s analysis of Senate Republicans’ TV ads found that GOP senators aren’t really talking about the coronavirus anymore.

Speaking of ads: HuffPost looks at the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that raised a whopping $92 million in September. HuffPost reports that Republicans “are set to outspend Democrats on TV in four key Senate races,” including Michigan, Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina.

Trump tightrope: Time magazine breaks down the five different tactics of Senate Republicans trying to navigate Trump in their competitive races. One example includes Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram his relationship with Trump was similar to “women who get married and think they’re going to change their spouse, and that doesn’t usually work out very well.” The Washington Post also looks at how some vulnerable GOP senators are actually running behind the president in their states.

Battle for the House: The Hill looks at the large House battlefield, with Democrats and Republicans launching TV ads in 61 districts. Politico dives into two districts Democrats are defending: Oregon’s 4th, where Rep. Peter A. DeFazio is facing a high profile challenger, and New York’s 11th, where Max Rose is looking to leverage his brand as a blunt-talking moderate to win in a Trump district. The Wall Street Journal also looks at New York’s 19th District, where Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado appears to be coasting to reelection despite a hard fought 2018 win. 

Holding their nose while voting: The Washington Post, on the ground in Charlotte, North Carolina, reports that Cunningham’s extramarital exploits appear not to have doomed his Senate challenge to Tillis, even though one Cunningham voter described his reaction to the scandal as, “I was like, ugh!” 

Big donors’ big role: Even in an election cycle with little donors stealing the spotlight, big-money contributors still matter a lot in the Biden operation, writes The New York Times. 

The count: 1,311

That’s how many political ads ran on TV — per day — in Arizona from Sept. 8 to Oct. 18, a study from the Wesleyan Media Project found.

Nathan’s notes

“With scant evidence that the overall political environment is improving for President Donald Trump, Republicans down the ballot continue to suffer,” Nathan writes in his latest column detailing Inside Elections’ new race ratings.

Candidate confessions

Stressing that her comments were “not as the DCCC chair, but on a personal level,” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos told reporters during a press call Wednesday that the race for Illinois’ 13th District was her “No. 1 interest in this entire nation.” That’s because fellow Illinois Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, who is locked in a close rematch against GOP Rep. Rodney Davis, is Bustos’ friend. “We’ve known each other since we were little girls,” Bustos said, noting that their families were friends.

Reader’s race: NC-11

That this race is even on the map as potentially competitive speaks to just how tumultuous and unpredictable the political landscape is in 2020. Republican Mark Meadows, a founder of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, abandoned the seat to become chief of staff at the Trump White House. But Meadows’ preferred successor, Trump-endorsed real estate agent Lynda Bennett, lost in the GOP primary to political novice Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old motivational speaker.

Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair because of paralysis from an automobile crash, made a charismatic appearance at the Republican convention this summer. But he’s also been dogged by reports of making unwanted sexual advances in the past. He faces Democrat Moe Davis, who was a colonel in the Air Force and chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. (He says he resigned his post after the George W. Bush administration ordered him to use evidence gained through torture.)

State officials redrew the 11th District last year in response to a legal challenge. The district includes Asheville, a liberal enclave, as well as rural mountainous stretches that favor the GOP. The district has Democratic roots — Heath Shuler, a member of the Democrats’ more conservative Blue Dog Coalition, held an earlier version of this seat before Meadows. The Davis campaign released internal polling Wednesday that showed him leading Cawthorn 45 percent to 42 percent, within the margin of error.

Cawthorn has raised more money, just shy of $3.2 million to Davis’ $1.5 million, but Davis had more in the bank at Sept. 30, $825,000 to Cawthorn’s $516,000. The race has also attracted considerable outside spending. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to House Republican leaders, has invested more than $850,000 in the district. Inside Elections recently moved the race in Davis’ direction from Solid Republican to Likely Republican.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race for Texas’ 23rd District or Arkansas’ 2nd. Email us at

Coming up

Tonight is the last presidential debate, and it’s another fundraising report deadline. “Pre-general” reports covering the first two weeks of October are due to the FEC by midnight, giving us one last look at campaign fundraising and spending before Election Day.

Photo finish

More than 44 million Americans have already cast their ballots, according to the United States Election Project, either voting early in person, by mail or placing ballots in drop boxes like this one at Union Market in Washington, D.C. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

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