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At the Races: Closing time

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.

It’s almost over. Well, at least we can start to see the beginning of the end of the 2020 campaigns. We’re in what our own Nathan L. Gonzales has dubbed the eye of the storm. Congressional candidates, just like their counterparts at the top of the ticket, have come in with their closing arguments, releasing their final television ads this week. 

Democrats have doubled down on the same messages they’ve amplified throughout the cycle: health care and combating corruption. The Democratic super PAC House Majority PAC launched new ads in 14 districts this week highlighting those themes. Democratic candidates are doing the same. Pennsylvania state Auditor Eugene DePasquale, who is in a Toss-up race against GOP Rep. Scott Perry, highlighted his brother’s struggle with muscular dystrophy in his closing ad. “That’s why I’ll fight to protect health care for everyone,” DePasquale says in the 30-second spot.  

The GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund launched ads in six districts, tying Democrats to the “radical left” and focusing on taxes, energy policy and funding for police. One spot against Oklahoma Rep. Kendra Horn featured footage of Joe Biden saying in the final debate that he would “transition from the oil industry.”

Some Republican candidates are using their closing ads to combat Democrats’ health care messaging. Indiana state Sen. Victoria Spartz, who is in a hotly contested open-seat race in the 5th District, featured her daughters and her father-in-law in her final two ads. Her father-in-law, who is battling cancer, said Spartz “will protect Medicare and health care for people like me.”

It’s worth remembering that the window for candidates to make their closing arguments is quickly closing, especially as record numbers of voters cast their ballots before Election Day. More than 79 million people have already voted through mid-Thursday, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

Starting gate

Most likely to succeed?: The Senate class of 2014 is facing a vastly transformed political world as they run for reelection this year.

Loyal maverick: Maine’s Susan Collins has one of the lowest scores of all Senate Republicans when it comes to voting to support President Donald Trump’s nominees and positions on bills. But that score was still almost 90 percent, CQ Roll Call’s Shawn Zeller explains while comparing her to another vulnerable Republican, Cory Gardner of Colorado.

Profane socks?: CQ Roll Call’s Jessica Wehrman manages to tell us what sometimes protects the House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman’s ankles in her review of Oregon Rep. Peter A. DeFazio’s tough race against an Afghanistan veteran who played himself in a Clint Eastwood movie. 

O say can UC: Analyzing what might happen if a state ends up sending two competing slates of electoral vote tallies to Congress, politics editor Herb Jackson looked at the unanimous consent request Vice President Richard Nixon used in that situation in 1961.

After the polls close: Even with Amy Coney Barrett now sworn in, election experts tell CQ Roll Call’s Todd Ruger it’s still a long shot that the Supreme Court decides the result of the presidential election. Todd and Herb also discussed their stories with host Jason Dick on a Halloween-themed episode of the Political Theater podcast.

ICYMI

Late arrivals: The Supreme Court decided Wednesday not to wade into disputes over ballot counting in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, but there are signs of what issues the court could decide after the polls close, Todd Ruger reported.

Too late? After leaving so many vacancies at the Federal Election Commission that it couldn’t even hold meetings for most of the 2020 campaign cycle, the Trump administration said Wednesday it planned to nominate a bipartisan pair to the hobbled agency. But the timing of their confirmations remains unclear, and one campaign finance watchdog called it “too little, too late.”

Spoiler alert: The drama in Minnesota’s 2nd District continues. The Supreme Court this week declined a petition by GOP nominee Tyler Kistner to delay the election. He’s challenging freshman Democrat Angie Craig, who won a previous legal challenge reinstating the election for November after state officials had postponed it until February because of the death of a third-party candidate, Adam Weeks. Weeks, who was running on the Legal Marijuana Now Party ticket, told a friend before he died that Republicans had recruited him to draw votes away from the Democrat, according to the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.  

Bloomberg’s bet: Mike Bloomberg is pouring $15 million into Texas and Ohio, The New York Times reported. Some Democratic outside groups have also started spending in the Texas Senate race, so we’ll find out soon whether this late spending boosts Democrats up and down the ballot.

Double dipping: Some Senate candidates have been teaming up with the Biden campaign this week. In Maine, where the DSCC is making a last-minute ad buy, Democrat Sara Gideon participated in an event with Jill Biden. And this week, Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both took the stage at a Biden rally in the Peach State.

Who’s ready for 2022??: Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson announced this week he’s launching a run against Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in 2022. (Johnson initially said he would only serve two terms, but he left the door open for another run last year.) In Ohio, Buzzfeed News reported that Democrats launched a fund to support Republican incumbent Rob Portman’s eventual opponent, hoping to capitalize on a burst of fundraising around Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation.

Media moguls: After the elections, the Lincoln Project, the effort of anti-Trump Republican strategists, may morph into a media company. Axios reports that the group is in talks with the United Talent Agency to help build out Lincoln Media and is weighing offers from different television studios, podcast networks and book publishers.

GOP $ in the Banks: The Guardian Fund, a PAC chaired by Indiana GOP Rep. Jim Banks that was originally founded by former Rep. Allen B. West, endorsed four more candidates this week: Michelle Steel in California’s 48th District and three other Republicans in safe Democratic seats. The PAC aims to support Republicans of color and veterans running in Democratic territory. So far this cycle, the Guardian Fund has backed 65 candidates, making $250,000 worth of direct contributions and $500,000 in independent expenditures. Banks could direct even more political spending next year, since he’s running unopposed to chair the conservative Republican Study Committee, giving him control over the House Conservatives Fund.

Both sides of the mic: Brent Roske takes Jason Dick on his journey from working on a TV series about  a fictional House candidate, to becoming a candidate himself, to talking with candidates running in Iowa now.

Rough landing: Utah Republican Burgess Owens, who is challenging freshman Democrat Ben McAdams in the 4th District, came under fire this week for separate reports that he had accepted at least $135,000 in illegal donations and for appearing to suggest in an interview that ideas promoted by the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory deserved a “deeper” look.

What we’re reading

One more time: Stu Rothenberg knows he’s said it before, but less than a week before polls close, the presidential race is still a referendum on Trump, who never managed to broaden his appeal and whose campaign “never changed the trajectory of the race.”

Stu II: In a bonus column, Stu also looks at whether Trump’s closing message is the one he really should be sending.

Redistricting watch: FiveThirtyEight breaks down where battles over state legislatures could affect redistricting.

A Golden seat: Politico reports that Democrats have already begun privately jockeying for the appointment to California Sen. Kamala Harris’ seat if she becomes the next vice president.  

What Chuck Schumer’s reading: Speculation has swirled around New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s next political moves and whether she’ll consider running for higher office. She told Vanity Fair, “I don’t know if I’m really going to be staying in the House forever, or if I do stay in the House, what that would look like.”

Democrats in Trump country: The New York Times looks at how Democrats in Trump districts, once considered the most vulnerable House members, are in strong positions to win reelection. But Politico notes that some House Democrats in rural areas are still struggling.

Flooding the zone: House Democrats have been dominating the airwaves, spending nearly twice as much on ads as Republicans in the 94 most competitive districts, Politico reports

Front-line frontwoman: Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos, who chairs the DCCC, faces an “increasingly competitive reelection bid,” according to The Hill.   

Chip on his shoulder?: The Hill also delves into Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy’s hotly contested reelection race against former state Sen. Wendy Davis.

Battle for the Senate: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dives into how Democrats in Georgia are threatening the GOP “firewall” in both Senate races there. The New York Times looks at Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jonesuphill reelection fight. HuffPost delves into what’s happening in the South Carolina Senate race. Morning Consult examines how Maine voters seem to remember Sen. Susan Collins most for supporting Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and the GOP tax overhaul. And the Times has a big-picture look at how moderate Democratic Senate candidates are being painted as extreme

The count: $14 billion

That’s the latest estimate on the tab for the 2020 elections, making it the most expensive cycle ever, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The center revised its earlier estimate, of an $11 billion price tag, after the “extraordinary influx of political donations in the final months — driven by a Supreme Court battle and closely watched races for the White House and Senate.” House candidates haven’t been slouches either. Even in a pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, “everyone is giving more in 2020, from ordinary individuals making small donations to billionaires cutting eight-figure checks to super PACs,” the center concluded.

Nathan’s notes

In his latest column, Nathan breaks down Inside Elections’ new race ratings in the presidential contest as well Senate and House races. “The through line in each of those contests is that Republicans are on the defensive,” he writes.

Candidate confessions

Like most congressional candidates who limited in-person events during the coronavirus pandemic, Nebraska Democrat Kara Eastman told CQ Roll Call she misses talking to people face to face. But the work-arounds she adopted resulted in some surprisingly intimate interactions with voters in the Omaha-area 2nd District, where she is making her second run against Republican Rep. Don Bacon.

Eastman, a social worker by training, has invited voters to send a direct message on Twitter to her campaign if they want a call from her.

One voter opened the conversation with a warning that he didn’t agree with anything she said before launching into a story about his Finnish wife who had been deported. Eastman told him she would work to fix the immigration system and to help him personally.

“It was an amazing moment,” she said. “He started crying and couldn’t believe that someone running for office would even say that to him.”

Not every conversation has been so emotional, she said. But the calls have given her opportunities to make her case to undecided voters and people not inclined to vote for her.

“For some people, it is a little intimidating to have someone running for office or someone they have seen on TV over and over again call them, but I am finding that people are pretty receptive,” she said.

Reader’s race: AR-02

If Democrats are having a good night Tuesday, it will show in what happens in Arkansas’ 2nd District, which encompasses metropolitan Little Rock and its suburbs. Trump carried the seat by 10 points in 2016. But a series of polls in recent weeks have shown Biden with a lead and a neck-and-neck race between GOP incumbent French Hill and Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott. 

Elliott outraised Hill in the last two fundraising quarters. Democratic and Republican outside groups have been putting money in the district, a sign both sides think it could be competitive. And Inside Elections shifted the race ratings to Toss-up. Democrats also targeted the district in 2018, when Clarke Tucker lost to French by 6 points. 

This is Elliott’s second bid for the seat. (She lost by 20 points in the 2010 Republican wave.) She told CQ Roll Call last summer that a lot has changed since then, including some of the same demographic shifts that have turned once-Republican strongholds in other Southern states into 2020 battlegrounds. 

In her campaign, Elliott has highlighted personal experiences that could help her tap into constituencies that remained elusive for Tucker, who ran a health care-centric campaign pegged to his personal battle with cancer.  

The 2nd District is 22 percent Black. Its urban center is friendly turf for Democrats. But it also encompasses white, rural areas and suburbs that have been more consistently conservative.

Joyce, who is Black, grew up in a rural community a few miles from Hope — the town Bill Clinton made famous. She was a high school teacher for 30 years before becoming a fixture in state politics. In campaign appearances and literature, she has talked extensively about her experience, along with her sister, as the first Black students to graduate form an all-white high school. During the pandemic, she has campaigned from the bed of a pickup truck, a visual reminder of her own experience donating a kidney to her sister, which put her in a high-risk category for the virus. 

Hill, a former banker who has been in office since 2015, has pitched himself as a “commonsense” conservative and says Elliott supports higher taxes and is “too radical” for the district. 

Coming up

Put your Bic lighters down, we’ve got one more encore: On Monday, we’ll be updating our lists of the 10 most vulnerable lawmakers in the House and Senate. And you’ll get a special At the Races Election Day edition on Tuesday.

Photo finish

Washingtonians may not have had the Nats to root for this October, but they visited Nationals Park this week to participate in a different American pastime: voting. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

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