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At the Races: Primary pipe dreams

Welcome to At the Races! Each week we’ll bring you news and analysis from the CQ Roll Call campaign team. Know someone who’d like to get this newsletter? They can subscribe here.

A lot of words have been expended in the past couple of weeks on the primary challenges cropping up against the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump. We’re here to say: Take a deep breath, everybody. 

As anyone who lived through the former president’s last impeachment trial would remember, a lot can happen in the long months between this flurry of political threats and the actual elections. 

The candidates now entering the ring face a number of very real hurdles. They will have to raise money and develop the name recognition to go up against incumbents. 

While the NRCC doesn’t get involved in primaries, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has defended Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who has attracted the most friendly fire as the highest-ranking Republican to vote for impeachment. 

Asked whether McCarthy also supported the other nine, spokesman Drew Florio told At the Races that McCarthy’s stance “remains unchanged.” “He supports all House Republican incumbents,” Florio said.

McCarthy’s backing would likely come with the substantial weight of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC affiliated with him. 

And it is far from clear whether Trump supporters would be eager to go to the polls for a primary election when Trump himself isn’t on the ballot. 

Some insiders say that so far there isn’t any evidence that these challenges are anything other than a pipe dream of the far left and the far right so soon after Trump has left office. 

GOP consultants we talked to this week predicted that, in the coming months, there will be a shift from Republicans being judged for how much they embraced Trump to how much they have fought President Joe Biden’s policies.

Meanwhile, the party’s campaign apparatus has started seizing on Biden’s early policy moves — such as a raft of measures focused on climate change and the push to raise the federal minimum wage — that it thinks Republicans could ride to the majority on, just as they did with the health care law and cap and trade under the Obama administration in 2010.

Starting gate

Going with Gary: Fresh off his own competitive reelection race, Michigan’s Gary Peters was selected to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2022 cycle.

O-BYE-O: Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman made a surprise announcement this week that he isn’t running for reelection. His exit leaves a void in the Senate and on the 2022 map.

That’s three: Portman’s retirement means the GOP is defending at least three open Senate seats this cycle, and there could be more retirements to come. But Republicans aren’t worried about these retirements upending their fight for the majority.  

Climate Clash: The NRCC is seizing on Biden’s early climate change initiatives as an opportunity to topple moderate House Democrats in districts dependent on oil and gas industry jobs, reviving one of their favorite attacks from the 2020 cycle. Not coincidentally, four Texas Democrats are urging Biden to rescind an executive order pausing new leases on public lands.

More elections! March special elections in Louisiana’s 2nd and 5th districts have drawn crowded fields that could lead to April runoffs. Twelve candidates qualified last week for the race in the deep-red 5th District, where GOP Rep.-elect Luke J. Letlow died of coronavirus-related complications weeks after winning a December runoff. And 15 candidates filed for a chance to replace Democrat Cedric L. Richmond in the deep-blue 2nd. Richmond resigned this month for a post in the Biden administration. 

Political powerhouses: K Street’s 10 biggest federal lobbying players, rocked by COVID-19 and the politics of 2020, disclosed shelling out more than $300 million on influence campaigns last year. Two big political powers swapped places, as the National Association of Realtors outspent the long-dominant U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


Still counting: Last week, we highlighted how the Justice Department had disclosed that census numbers needed to apportion 435 House seats among 50 states, which had been due Dec. 31, would be delayed until March. Turns out that was an optimistic estimate, CQ Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone reports.

#NCSEN: State Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat who serves in the Army National Guard, announced this week that he’s running for Senate in North Carolina. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because Jackson considered running in 2020, and at the time he said Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer wanted him to “spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money.” Jackson’s campaign announced this morning that he had raised $500,000 in less than 48 hours. Former state Sen. Erica Smith, who lost to Cal Cunningham in the 2020 Democratic Senate primary, is also running for the open seat. 

That’s gonna be a no from me, Doug: Term-limited Arizona GOP Gov. Doug Ducey has been mentioned as a potential 2022 Senate candidate, but he ruled out a run in an interview with The New York Times. His statement came shortly before the state GOP censured him, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain.

Thinking about it: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is eyeing a run for the open Senate seat, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. In Colorado, former state Rep. Joe Salazar, who backed Bernie Sanders for president, is considering challenging Sen. Michael Bennet in a Democratic primary. And The New York Times reported that former GOP Rep. Doug Collins is eyeing another run for Senate in Georgia. Politico reported that Democratic Reps. Val B. Demings and Stephanie Murphy are still thinking about running against Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, while former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson “has begun making calls to gauge interest” in a bid.

Looking to next ski season, in Vermont: After being briefly hospitalized this week, Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday that he is confident he can serve the rest of his term. He hasn’t decided whether to run for reelection in 2022, noting, “I never make up my mind until November or December the year before, and I’m not going to now. Usually when we start skiing and snowshoeing, then we talk about it.” 

It’s still 2020 in Iowa: Iowa Democrat Rita Hart’s legal team hasn’t lost hope that she will prove to be the ultimate winner of the November contest for the 2nd District, even though her Republican opponent Mariannette Miller-Meeks was sworn in almost a month ago for the seat she won by six votes. On a press call Monday, Hart’s attorney Marc Elias criticized Miller-Meeks’ request that the House Administration Committee dismiss Hart’s election challenge, saying Miller-Meeks should want all votes to be counted. Alan Ostergren, Miller-Meeks’ attorney, countered that Hart “cannot accept the fact that she lost.”

The blowback continues: House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump are still facing opposition at home and from Trump loyalists in other states. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz planned a rally in Wyoming today to call on “patriots” to oust Cheney, while her state’s Republican State Central Committee mulled a February censure vote. In Michigan, the executive committee of the GOP in Allegan County, one of the most conservative counties in Rep. Fred Upton’s district, voted to censure him. And California Rep. David Valadao, who flipped his district in November, was among the latest in the group to get a a primary challenge from his right this week.

Meadows’ new pasture: Former Rep.-turned-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows won’t have to file for unemployment now that his administration job has ended. He’s joining the Conservative Partnership Institute, Axios scooped. Ex-South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a hard-line conservative ousted in 2017 from the top job at the Heritage Foundation, chairs the institute. Meadows, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus while representing North Carolina in the chamber, will serve as a senior partner with the group. 

What we’re reading

Low expectations: Stu Rothenberg writes that voters in upcoming elections will be asking themselves, “Are you better off now than you were two — or four — years ago, when Donald Trump was president?” Given the current state of the country, the bar may be lower for Biden.  

It’s his party: Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have dives into Trump’s influence over the GOP now that he’s left office, with both noting his desire to punish Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach him. (The Times also notes that Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara, is less likely to run for Senate in North Carolina.) The former president had toyed with starting his own party, but Politico reported that an aide told Republican senators that Trump is sticking with the GOP. 

ALVIIIN!: The New York Times examines Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s campaign ads featuring a beagle puppy named Alvin, which sought to combat racial stereotypes and neutralize GOP attacks in the special election runoff. Spoiler alert: Alvin isn’t even Warnock’s dog.

Betting on Texas: House Republicans, looking for the majority in the 2022 elections, are eager to invest in the Rio Grande Valley, Politico explores.

Fear, guilt, anguish: Congressional staffers are still struggling in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, whether they hid from the violent mob in their workplace or watched in terror from home, writes CQ Roll Call’s Katherine Tully-McManus. 

The count: 5

The vast majority of Senate Republicans signaled this week that they believe Trump’s second impeachment trial is unconstitutional. But five GOP senators broke with their party and voted to table Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s point of order. The five were Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Utah’s Mitt Romney, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and Pennsylvania’s Patrick J. Toomey, who is retiring. Murkowski is the only senator in the group who’s running for reelection in 2022. 

Following the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol, Murkowski said she could leave the GOP, but she recently told Politico she would not be switching parties. She could get a pro-Trump primary challenger (Trump carried her state by 10 points in November). But Alaska voters recently approved a new ranked-choice voting system that could benefit Murkowski. Under the system, candidates from all parties will compete in one primary, and the top four vote-getters will advance to the general election where voters will rank them in order of preference.

Nathan’s notes

Nathan has a reality check this week when it comes to Senate retirements: They “don’t tell us squat.”

Candidate confessions

It’s still early in the 2022 cycle, but already some challengers are pulling their bids together. Take Mike Detmer, a past and now current contender for the GOP nomination in Michigan’s 8th District, who indicated he would retool his losing operation for the cycle ahead. He came in second in the GOP primary in 2020 behind Paul Junge, who lost in the general election to Democratic incumbent Elissa Slotkin.

“As we begin this new campaign we face some unknowns with the most obvious one being the pending redistricting,” Detmer said in a statement this week. “But, we will have a much more robust and effective team in place for 2022 than we did in the 2020 campaign and we will be able to pivot our efforts as needed to win the seat no matter how the lines are redrawn, even if that means facing a different challenger or challengers.”

Shortly afterward, Slotkin’s team sent out a fundraising pitch urging her donors to send a “powerful message” and writing that the GOP candidate “is tied to the same movement” behind the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Shop talk: Chuck Rocha

Rocha and fellow Bernie Sanders alum Kara Turrentine have launched a new media, mail and digital firm. BlackBrown Partners aims to diversify the teams powering Democratic campaigns, which Rocha says are still overwhelmingly white. Rocha is also the author of “Tío Bernie: The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos Into the Political Revolution.”

Starting out: Rocha got his start in campaigns and organizing as a 19-year-old union officer in a rubber factory in East Texas. “It was around the NAFTA fight,” Rocha said. “I worked in a manufacturing plant that was constantly being threatened to be moved overseas for cheaper production if we didn’t give up something in collective bargaining, like more raises or more health care. They kept saying to us, ‘We’ll just move these jobs to Mexico or to China.’ That was the first time I saw public policy directly affecting my life.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: “The craziest thing that ever happened to me on the campaign is when your candidate has a heart attack in the middle of a presidential race,” said Rocha, referring to Sanders’ heart attack in Nevada in October 2019. “I can tell you one crazy story after another, but I don’t think anything tops … the morning that I got the call from Jeff Weaver that Bernie had just had an ‘episode,’ as he would say. And I quickly realized what it was. And it was the most scary and the craziest thing that ever happened to me in a campaign — shutting down a campaign and starting up a campaign probably three different times in the mix of three days.”

Biggest campaign regret: Rocha said he regretted not convincing Sanders to “deliver the death blow to Biden” after the Vermont senator won the Nevada caucuses last year. But in another setting, he regrets the decision made to go negative during the 2004 Iowa caucuses when he worked for Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (whose Iowa campaign launched many Democratic operatives’ careers). “We made the decision, working for Gephardt, to go after Howard Dean in a very negative way because he was catapulting through the polls,” Rocha recalled. “We were supposed to win Iowa, but the Iowans really didnt like that we were going after somebody in a very negative way on TV. And it became a murder-suicide.” 

Unconventional wisdom:  “Data is broken for Black and brown and Asian people,” Rocha said. “The way we do polling, the way we do persuasion modeling, is all built around the same system of: you do a poll, you do a focus group, you give everybody a persuasion score around an issue set, and then you turn them out. And that is just broken, because that whole entire system is built off of white, upper-class, persuadable Americans.” Rocha said there is less information about voters of color that determines whether they’re persuadable, such as income level, residency and past voting records. He said the voter file itself, which campaigns use to identify voters, is broken because it does not allow for nuances about race, country of origin or language. “You just are getting so much more incomplete data on people of color compared to white people,” he said.

Do you know someone who works in campaigns whom we should feature for Shop Talk? Email us at

Coming up

The 2020 elections are finally ending, at least as far as the FEC is concerned. Year-end fundraising reports are due Sunday that will show where some PACs that spent in the final months of the year got their money. For candidates who ran last year, the reports will cover Nov. 24 to Dec. 31.

Photo finish

NOT RUNNING: Ohio Sen. (and Cincinnati Reds fan) Rob Portman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

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