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At the Races: It’s (still) Trump’s party

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.

If you still need proof of former President Donald Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party, look no further than the latest news from the Capitol and the campaign trail. House GOP leaders are moving to oust Conference Chair Liz Cheney after the Wyoming Republican repeatedly criticized Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and for falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen. 

Cheney, who’s also facing primary challengers back home, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that the GOP is at a “turning point,” warning her colleagues, “History is watching.” Republicans bent on replacing Cheney in leadership say she’s distracting from their message heading into the 2022 midterms, when they want to be unified against President Joe Biden’s agenda. 

But it may not be easy for Republicans to move past Trump’s election falsehoods, especially if Democrats have anything to say about it. 

“If the Big Lie is going to be McCarthy’s midterm message, then every single vulnerable House Republican owns it,” DCCC spokeswoman Helen Kalla said this week.  

And if recent primaries are any indication, loyalty to Trump will continue to define GOP contests in the midterms, with the former president wielding considerable influence over his passionate supporters. 

The most recent example came on Saturday, when Republicans shut out Democrats from the runoff in the special election for Texas’ 6th District. It’s difficult to draw broad conclusions from a low-turnout special election, but Trump’s decision to endorse Susan Wright appeared to drive her advantage in votes cast on Election Day. Wright took first place in the all-party race to replace her late husband, former GOP Rep. Ron Wright, who died from COVID-19 complications in February. The only vocally anti-Trump candidate, Marine veteran Michael Wood, finished in ninth place with just 3 percent of the vote. 

“It feels like in a lot of ways we’ve gone through a looking glass, and those of us in the party who are against insurrection and lying are finding ourselves turned into fringe candidates,” Wood told CNN after the election.

Starting gate

Friend request denied: Facebook’s oversight board upheld the company’s decision to suspend Trump’s account after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but as CQ Roll Call’s Dean DeChiaro reports, the decision came with a caveat: The company has six months to make a final decision on whether Trump should be permanently banned or reinstated. The decision drew criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. 

On the list: The NRCC added 10 House Democrats to its target list for the 2022 midterms, and all the members hail from states, such as California and New York, that are set to lose a House seat thanks to the 2020 census.

Bailing on the House: Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos, who led her party’s House campaign arm in the 2020 cycle, will not seek a sixth term to the chamber. And Florida Democrat Charlie Crist launched a bid for governor, a job he previously held as a Republican, rather than try to remain in the House.

Who’s in disarray? Bustos’ retirement, followed by the Democrats’ poor showing in Texas, wasn’t a great look for the party as it tries to protect its House majority next year. But Democratic strategists told us that, so far, they see no cause for concern

(Don’t?) call it a comeback: Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke formed a committee for a potential House run in Montana, which is gaining a second seat, according to the latest census results. Zinke won two terms representing the Treasure State’s current at-large district before getting tapped by Trump for his Cabinet in 2017. But it’s unclear whether Montana voters will want him back after his scandal-plagued two years at the Interior Department. 


Drug fight: Republican outside group American Action Network launched a $4 million TV, digital and phone campaign attacking House Democrats’ proposal, dubbed HR 3, to lower prescription drug costs. The ads, which refer to the bill as a “socialist drug takeover plan,” will run on TV in 12 districts — including those of Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas — with digital and phone buys in 31 more.

Taking sides: EMILY’s List made its first nonincumbent Senate endorsement of the cycle, backing former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley in North Carolina. The group is supporting Beasley over another woman in the race, progressive former state Sen. Erica Smith, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2020. EMILY’s List executive director Emily Cain said in a statement, “It is only fitting that [Beasley] is now running to be North Carolina’s first Black woman senator. Cheri has proven that she can win statewide in North Carolina, and we look forward to supporting her as she flips this seat from red to blue and expands the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.”  

No rush: Florida Republican governor and potential 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis set a Jan. 11 date for the special election to replace the late Democratic Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, with a Nov. 2 primary. That would leave the majority Black and heavily Democratic 20th District without representation for nine months — four months longer than it took to fill a seat the last time a Florida member of Congress died in office, the Tampa Bay Times reported. 

Fixing what ain’t broke: DeSantis also signed a “voter integrity” package during a live broadcast of “Fox & Friends” even as he and other Republicans acknowledged, as The Associated Press put it, that “there were no serious signs of voting irregularities last November.” A lawsuit quickly followed.

NM-01: Mark Moores, the GOP nominee in the June 1 special election for New Mexico’s 1st District, attacked Democratic opponent Melanie Stansbury as a “radical” for her support for a criminal justice bill backed by the Black Lives Matter movement during a televised debate Tuesday. Democrats, meanwhile, bashed Moores, a businessman who is primarily self-funding his campaign, for missing a Monday deadline to file his personal financial disclosure. 

Alternative energy: Jim Lamon, a solar power company executive, launched a Senate campaign in Arizona this week, becoming the first Republican to challenge Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly. Trump ally Jeff DeWit, who works for Lamon’s company, is the campaign’s chairman, according to The Arizona Republic. Lamon launched a “six figure” TV and digital ad campaign with a 30-second ad cut from his intro video.

Thinking about it: Florida Democrat Aramis Ayala announced this week that she is considering running against GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. While in office as the first Black state attorney in Florida, Ayala clashed with then-Gov. Rick Scott after she refused to seek the death penalty in capital cases. Also this week, Florida Democratic Rep. Val B. Demings, who has been weighing a run for Senate or for governor, released a splashy bio video on the same day that Crist announced his gubernatorial campaign. And in Pennsylvania, Politico reported that Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb and his 2020 opponent, Republican Sean Parnell, are both leaning toward running for the state’s open Senate seat.

Generation Politics: A new political action committee has popped up, in time for the 2022 midterms, to support Democrats who are under the age of 45, CNN reported. The PAC’s co-founder, Zak Malamed, said his group will try to ease the financial burden of launching a campaign, often a roadblock, especially for younger candidates.

House rules: New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who is tasked with leading House Democrats’ campaign arm this election cycle, waded into Senate territory this week. He called on Senate Democrats to eliminate the legislative filibuster “so that we can secure the right to vote and fulfill our promises to the American people.”  

Rematch: Alek Skarlotos, a former Oregon National Guardsman who launched a political career in the GOP after he and two other men stopped a terror attack on a Paris-bound train in 2015, announced a rematch campaign against longtime Democratic Rep. Peter A. DeFazio in Oregon’s 4th District.

What we’re reading

Hey, big spender: Some Democratic strategists are worried that Biden’s trillion-dollar proposals will hurt the party in the midterms, The Hill reports. 

California dreamin’: The Los Angeles Times sits down with California’s new Democratic senator, Alex Padilla, who is working to build up his progressive bonafides as he seeks a full term in 2022. 

Lawyering up: National Journal looks at how Democratic super lawyer Marc Elias is about to get even busier thanks to redistricting. Want to learn more about Elias? Here’s a profile of the attorney from the Roll Call archives.  

Turning right: Hispanic Republicans, especially women, have become something of political rock stars in South Texas, writes The New York Times. The conservative surge there has buoyed GOP hopes of attracting more Hispanic voters across the country.

Culture wars: With Republican lawmakers in a number of states moving to impose bans on racial equity curricula in schools, The Washington Post provides this primer on the conservative backlash on “critical race theory.”

Home field advantage: FiveThirtyEight takes a deep look at why the GOP holds electoral advantages at every level of state and national politics — and the repercussions for democracy.

The count: $1.4 million

That’s how much more Rep. Liz Cheney gave to Republican candidates and committees than Rep. Elise Stefanik from the start of 2017 through the end of March. Cheney, who could be supplanted by Stefanik as House GOP Conference chair next week, gave nearly $2.4 million from her campaign account and Cowboy PAC, a leadership PAC. Stefanik gave $949,000 from her campaign account, a joint fundraising committee and E-PAC, her leadership PAC. A big part of the difference: Cheney gave nearly $1.8 million to the NRCC, Stefanik just $46,000, according to disclosures available from the FEC. So far this cycle, Stefanik has given $42,500 to six colleagues; Cheney’s given $75,000 to 11. The one candidate on both lists: Julia Letlow, the victor in a March special election for the seat won by her late husband in Louisiana’s 5th District.

Nathan’s notes

Nathan delves into the high expectations for Republicans to retake the House in 2022, writing in his latest column, “There’s really no excuse for the GOP if it can’t pull this off.” Nathan and deputy editor Jason Dick discussed what’s ahead on this week’s Political Theater podcast.

Candidate confessions

Jaime Harrison came out on the losing side of the second-most-expensive Senate race in history, but he told CQ Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis on the Equal Time podcast that he “lived my American dream” because he “got the opportunity to provide hope to people who hadn’t had hope in a very, very long time.”

Now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Harrison noted that the 1.1 million votes he received were more than what President Barack Obama got in South Carolina. He said his race, combined with Stacey Abrams’ narrow loss for Georgia governor in 2018 and the victory by Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock in a runoff in January, could inspire Black candidates in the South. 

Harrison spent $130 million overall, and Kantar Media estimated that TV and digital ads totaled $80 million of that. And he told Curtis he saw the impact of all those TV commercial taglines while grocery shopping. 

“I went to Costco the other day and I saw this woman and her kids looking at me,” he said. “And I walked down an aisle and they continued to look at me. And then finally I went to the register, she came up to me and she said, ‘Are you Jaime Harrison?’ I had my mask on. And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And she went back to the kids, she said, ‘That’s him.’ And they all came over to me, and one little kid said, ‘I’m Jaime Harrison and I approve this message.’”

Shop talk: Dan Backer

Backer, founder of the GOP campaign finance firm PLLC, formerly located above Burrito Brothers of Capitol Hill, recently merged his shop into Chalmers & Adams, a Republican litigation outfit. Backer’s clients have included candidates and political groups as well as Alabama engineer Shaun McCutcheon, who won a 2014 Supreme Court case abolishing aggregate limits on individual donations to federal candidates.

Starting out: “It’s funny,” Backer said. “In law school, I didn’t want to do this at all.” He expected to go into trusts and estate work when he was a student at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. “And then I got to this one final class, and I realized, I hate this stuff. But I was doing some volunteer political work, and it just blossomed,” he recalled. The Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision in 2010, which paved the way for super PACs, happened just as Backer was starting his shop, and he saw an opportunity to carve out a niche focused on money in politics.  

Most unforgettable campaign moment: For Backer, it was the 2016 presidential election win for Donald Trump. After the pundits — and even his mom — had predicted Trump would lose, “that night, we had our internal data, which showed us winning,” he said. “I started drinking a little early.” 

Biggest campaign regret? Not surprisingly, he woke up the next morning a little out of sorts. “We had a PAC client, and we had to fire everybody because the election was over,” he recalled, referring to the pro-Trump Great America PAC. “We won, and I forgot to paste the nice language in, thanking everyone for their hard work. Campaigns end and people have contracts and you have to terminate them, but I meant to do it in a much nicer way.”  

Unconventional wisdom: “Trump is still the elephant in the room with the Republican Party,” Backer said, adding that he has clients who want Trump to run again in 2024 and others who don’t. “I think President Trump is going to realize he’s having a lot more fun. Running for office is awful. It’s a lot more fun to be able to just be the former president and everybody has to come and kiss the ring.” 

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

Coming up

Democratic Rep.-elect Troy Carter will be sworn in on Tuesday as Louisiana’s newest member of Congress after winning a special election to replace Democrat Cedric L. Richmond, who left the Houses to join the Biden administration. Although Carter probably won’t replace Richmond on the Democratic baseball team, he will give Democrats a boost by slightly increasing their majority. Once Carter is sworn in, the caucus will increase to 219 members, giving them a seven-seat advantage over Republicans.

Photo finish

Cheri Bustos will be packing her bags at the end of this Congress, so here’s a throwback to when the five-term congresswoman arrived in D.C. in 2013. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)

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