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At the Races: Border checks vs. COVID checks

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.

Even as a mostly arcane Senate rule becomes a signature fight in Democrats’ agenda and may determine the future of election laws, much of the political messaging this week is happening far from the Capitol. Republicans went to the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats are on the road to sell their latest COVID-19 response measure. 

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will travel tomorrow to Georgia, where  a planned political rally to tout $1,400 relief checks was postponed and replaced with a meeting with Asian American leaders in reaction to a gunman killing eight people, mostly women of Asian descent, on Tuesday. Biden will head next week to Ohio, a state with a closely watched open Senate race. 

The GOP border trip included members such as Rep. John Katko, who hails from a competitive district in New York, indicating that the party’s immigration messaging isn’t limited to hard-line conservatives. With an uptick in unaccompanied minor migrants at the border, Republicans see a political opportunity. The Senate GOP campaign arm found that 62 percent of respondents to a poll conducted in late February opposed efforts to relax security at the southern border.  

Meanwhile, as esoteric as it may seem, the fight over the filibuster in the Senate seems to be going mainstream as it gets tied to the passage of legislation Democrats have pitched as a major advancement for voting rights. Senate Democrats on Wednesday introduced their version of the House-passed voting, elections, campaign finance and ethics measure. Christened as HR 1 and S 1, both have top symbolic priority in their respective chambers. And vulnerable Democrats, such as Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, aren’t shying away from the view that a procedural precedent shouldn’t stand in the way. In his first floor speech Wednesday, he said the legislation “is too important to be held hostage by a Senate rule, especially one historically used to restrict expansion of voting rights.” Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren called the filibuster racist.

Still, Democrats aren’t close yet to ending the 60-vote threshold, our colleague Niels Lesniewski reports.

Starting gate

DC to ATL: Although Biden and Harris won’t be touting the COVID-19 relief package during their trip to Georgia tomorrow, their original plans underscored the state’s importance in the 2022 midterms. Pandemic relief could once again be an issue as Warnock runs for a full term next year.

PAC crash: Corporate PAC donations plummeted dramatically after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis. Corporate PAC representatives say they know the scrutiny on their donations is not going away.

Political cost: Some Native American tribal leaders, and lobbyists who represent them, say they may withhold campaign contributions to senators who worked against the nomination of Deb Haaland, the first-ever Native American Interior secretary. And in this week’s Political Theater podcast, Jason Dick explores the significance of Haaland leading an agency that holds vast sway over land use, energy and Native American issues.

Sprint for the nomination: The eight Democrats running to replace Haaland in New Mexico’s heavily Democratic 1st District have less than two weeks to make their case to their party’s state central committee members who will select the nominee after the state set a June 1 date for the special election. Democrats will nominate their candidate on March 30.

Kirkpatrick out: Arizona Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick announced she won’t seek reelection in 2022 in a Tucson-area district Republicans are already targeting.


Thinking about it: Senate race watchers have more names to add to the lists of potential candidates: GOP Rep. Drew Ferguson is reportedly considering running in Georgia; Democratic former state Rep. Charles Booker is thinking about another run in Kentucky; and GOP Reps. Vicki Hartzler and Billy Long are thinking about running for the open seat in Missouri. Another potential candidate to watch in Ohio is author J.D. Vance, who, as of this week, has a new super PAC behind him as he weighs a Senate run. And it appears one potential Senate candidate may be getting ready to run: Alabama GOP Rep. Mo Brooks announced a campaign rally next week with former Trump aide Stephen Miller, where he will make “an exciting announcement.” 

Thanks, but no thanks: And there are some names you can cross off your Senate race watch lists. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said he isn’t running for Senate in North Carolina. Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera decided not to run in Ohio. And Georgia Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said he isn’t running for Senate either. 

Education dollars: The conservative Club for Growth is launching a new TV ad campaign targeting four Democratic senators, who are up in 2022, over the school reopening debate. The TV ads will begin Sunday with a $45,000 buy aimed at Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Warnock in Georgia. It’s the first round of what the club’s president, David McIntosh, says will be a $2 million to $2.5 million state and federal effort over the next two years in support of sending taxpayer dollars, earmarked for public education, to parents amid COVID-19 school closures.

That’s cold: The Alaska Republican Party censured GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski last weekend for her vote to convict former President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial last month. The censure resolution also declares that the state party “will hereby recruit a Republican Party challenger to oppose and prohibit Senator Murkowski from being a candidate in any Republican primary to the extent legally permissible,” according to the Anchorage Daily News. Arkansas Republican John Boozman also picked up a primary challenger, who took issue with the senator’s decision not to object to the Electoral College results.

Direct deposit: The Congressional Leadership Fund, an outside group that boosts House GOP candidates, has started a separate fund that will allow it to send donations directly to candidates. As a super PAC, CLF can run ads in support of, or in opposition to, candidates but can’t supply them with hard-money donations — until now. The new affiliate, dubbed the CLF Trailblazers Fund, will do just that, as first reported by Politico. It will also endorse specific candidates, starting with its first: Julia Letlow — the widow of Rep.-elect Luke J. Letlow, who died of COVID-19 complications before taking office — in Louisiana’s 5th District. CLF President Dan Conston wrote in a recent memo that insufficient fundraising by GOP candidates was the “single biggest threat to Republicans taking back the majority.”

That was fast: Colorado Democrat Gregg Smith dropped his six-week-old bid to challenge GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert in the 3rd District, telling The Colorado Sun that he was confident there are other progressives in the race who can beat the populist firebrand.

Open for business: Former Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, a onetime chairman of the NRCC, has a new role with Fox Corp., according to The Hill. No, it’s not an on-camera gig — he signed the company as a new lobbying client, even though he’s still subject to a one-year ban on actually lobbying. 

Got her back: Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s Stand For America PAC announced that Iowa Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks was its first endorsement of the 2022 cycle. But Miller-Meeks remains embroiled in a fight over her six-vote win last fall against Democrat Rita Hart in the 2nd District. Hart has petitioned the House to count ballots she says were wrongly omitted, in what Republicans say is an attempt to steal the seat. This morning, Haley’s PAC announced it was also backing Letlow.

What we’re reading

What 2020 meant: After liberal data scientist David Shor’s interview in New York magazine painted a dire picture for Democrats veering further to the left, The Dispatch responds that gains by the GOP would only be a game-ender if Democrats “were up against a coherent and stable opposition. … But they aren’t.” 

Senate battle: Politico reports that Warnock’s Georgia victory has inspired other Black candidates to run for Senate.

Not going anywhere: Axios delves into Trump’s 2022 endorsements, reporting that he’s expected to endorse Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul soon, while Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford and Indiana Sen. Todd Young (last cycle’s NRSC chairman) are “under consideration.” Politico also reports that Trump has been calling GOP senators and he is eager to be involved in the midterms. 

Unfettered: The Atlantic profiles Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate hopeful who “wears shorts in February.”

Taking friendly fire for the team: Washington GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Buetler told Politico in this profile that she was thinking about her party’s best interests when she publicly revealed details of a phone call between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy during the Jan. 6 riots. 

Sacrificial Lamb? The political future of Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb, who pulled out a big win in a March 2018 House special election, is surprisingly murky, The Associated Press reports. His district may all but vanish, or at least become more hostile, amid redistricting, and he’d face tough odds in an already crowded Senate primary contest. 

Sshh, it’s a secret: Dark-money groups, organizations that shield their donors, injected more than $1 billion into the 2020 elections, according to a new report by the Center for Responsive Politics. Even as Democrats publicly rail against such secret sources of political spending, the majority of the money went to liberal organizations, the center found.  

What a relief? The passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill prompted thousands of words of analysis of what it will mean for both parties in 2022. The New York Times took a look at Democrats’ hopes that it will help them defy the historical odds during off-cycle midterms against the party that controls the White House. And The Washington Post looked ahead to other items on Biden’s wish list that could put moderate Democrats at risk.

Bite of the apple: Republicans mulling a run against embattled New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo governor include Reps. Elise Stefanik, Tom Reed and Lee Zeldin, according to National Journal.

The count: 47

That’s how many women “have been appointed or elected to fill vacancies in Congress created when their husbands died,” according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, CQ Roll Call’s Paul V. Fontelo reports. Letlow could join their ranks if she wins a special election in Louisiana’s 5th District on Saturday. (The race would head to a runoff if she does not win a majority of the vote in the first round.)

Nathan’s notes

Since people can forget after 10 years, Nathan L. Gonzales exhumed some ghosts from past campaigns caused by redistricting, and also reminded us that there are some members of the Senate who probably wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the way House maps were redrawn.

Candidate confessions

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson was the first Democrat to jump in the race against Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, who has not yet said whether he is running for a third term. Part of Nelson’s pitch involves his work to save a local paper mill, a saga detailed in his new book going on sale later this month, “One Day Stronger: How One Union Local Saved a Mill and Changed an Industry — and What It Means for American Manufacturing.” In his book, Nelson describes meeting Johnson at a regional planning meeting where he asked the senator about the paper mill. “His response was comparing the paper industry to the buggy whip. … I almost fell out of my chair,” Nelson recalled in a recent interview. He pressed Johnson on the issue and said Johnson did not appear pleased that Nelson asked two back-to-back questions.

Shop talk: Dan Sena

Sena helped mastermind the Democrats’ 2018 takeover of the House as executive director of the DCCC. He has also served as the political director for the Democratic Governors Association, as campaign manager for Tom Udall’s successful Senate reelection campaign and as the Latino get-out-the-vote and message director for Patriot Majority’s independent expenditure efforts in former Senate leader Harry Reid’s reelection campaign. He currently runs his own political strategy and media agency, Sena Kozar Strategies, with partner Scott Kozar. 

Starting out: Sena started his career as a canvasser in Albuquerque, N.M., where he grew up. “Originally, I thought that running for Congress would be the most amazing thing in the world to do,” he says. “Then, as I went through graduate school and started working in politics, I really got the campaign bug. I just loved the competition. I loved the back-and-forth. I loved how it was always different every cycle. I really fell in love with the prospect of working to win elections, and have really fallen in love with, now, the art of storytelling and giving candidates an authentic voice to run for office.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: In June 2018, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee sent out a tweet suggesting the DCCC was staffed by members of the M-13 street gang, which was founded in Los Angeles by Central American refugees in the 1980s. Sena, the first Latino to run the committee, saw an opportunity to make a point. He gathered all his Latino colleagues for a group picture. “We tweeted back to him, ‘Actually, no, you know, Mr. Huckabee, these are all the Hispanics who are helping take back the House,’” Sena said.  “It was a simple thing on Twitter, but to gather everybody together and push back, that was really cool, and something that I know my family, in particular, was really proud of.”

Biggest campaign regret: “I spent a long time nervous about running something, a lot of time nervous about being a manager,” he said. ”I was a field director for too long.” It took a “lot of faith and confidence” for him to see himself as a leader, but once he did, he loved the challenge of bringing teams together and directing campaigns. “That’s an amazing thing.” 

Unconventional wisdom: “The ability to tell authentic, real stories and connect with people in a real way is so critical to both parties,” he said. “Voters are looking for real, authentic things to connect to. In many ways, that’s more important than ideology. … It really is the first step in getting the electorate to listen to you and to connect with who you are as a person. It’s a big part of how you win elections.”

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

Coming up

What else is there to do on a weekend in March but vote? Louisiana is holding special elections on Saturday in two House districts with crowded fields that could end up in runoffs.

Photo finish

Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, left, takes a selfie with New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland on March 11, the day Haaland cast her last votes as a member of the House. In 2018, Davids and Haaland made history as the first Native American women elected to Congress, and this week, Haaland made history again when she was confirmed as the Interior secretary, and the first Native American in a presidential Cabinet. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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