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At the Races: Was that special?

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With Democrat Melanie Stansbury’s decisive win in a New Mexico special election this week, the partisan makeup of the House is pretty much set until the midterms — barring any deaths or resignations — because the upcoming special elections are either solidly Republican or solidly Democratic races.

The New Mexico contest was largely seen as a road test of whether the GOP’s 2020 “defund the police” attacks could be even more effective in 2022. 

The Albuquerque-area 1st District is safe Democratic territory, and national Republicans sat out the race. But GOP nominee Mark Moores saw an opportunity in the rising rates of violent crime in Albuquerque to attack Stansbury as dangerous and anti-cop.

But Stansbury, who had assists from Democrats at every level of the party hierarchy, not only outperformed President Joe Biden’s 23-point 2020 victory, she also beat Moores in his own state Senate district. 

Democratic strategists told CQ Roll Call that Democrats have learned how to respond to “defund the police” attacks since November. Stansbury shot back at Moores with her own ads highlighting her work as a state lawmaker to secure public safety money for the Albuquerque metro area. 

Though Democrats avoided a face-plant in New Mexico, the contest came on the heels of a special election in the right-leaning 6th District in Texas that saw Republicans outperform and shut the Democratic candidates out of the runoff that’s coming next month. 

That race and other upcoming special House elections in Ohio and Florida could tell us more about dynamics that will play out in 2022 primaries than what could happen in the general election, given the strong partisan leans of those districts.

Republicans have to make it through primaries that promise to, once again, become loyalty tests to former President Donald Trump, who is previewing a return to in-person rallies and still trying to find a presence on social media after shutting down his blog.

And Democrats have their own internal disputes and uncertainty to deal with. This week saw the launch of another progressive primary challenge against a longtime member in a deep-blue district in Illinois. The Associated Press reported that Democrats are struggling to recruit in marquee races in Iowa after their hopes there were dashed last cycle. And in Pennsylvania, former state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale started fundraising for a rematch against GOP Rep. Scott Perry but said he wouldn’t launch a campaign until he knows where the district lines will end up in the fall.

Starting gate

NM-01: Stansbury, 42, a former science educator and onetime Senate aide, called for increased federal spending for infrastructure and sponsored state laws to curb hunger and improve water management. She was leading Moores by about 30 points when the AP called the race Tuesday. Unofficial results put the final margin at 25 points.

Priority politics: Vice President Kamala Harris will serve as the administration’s lead official on voting rights matters, as Senate Democrats plan to put an elections and campaign finance package on the floor later this month. 

Intraparty divide: An August primary in the special election for Ohio’s 11th District offers an early test for the clout of pro-Israel groups within the Democratic Party heading into the midterms.  

Party planning: North Dakota GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer tells CQ Roll Call’s Jim Saksa he’d like to see the GOP “get the smile back,” while Michael Steele, the only Black person to chair the Republican National Committee, tells Equal Time podcast host Mary C. Curtis he can’t tell Black voters the party is a good place for them when Republicans “actively and continually pursue efforts to disenfranchise their vote.” 

ICYMI

Online messaging: Majority Forward, the nonprofit arm of the Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC, announced Wednesday it was spending $1.5 million on digital ads and “connected TV” ads (think: Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, etc.) thanking Democratic senators in Georgia, New Hampshire, Arizona and Nevada for passing the American Rescue Plan. And the NRCC launched a new round of radio, digital and billboard ads targeting five Democrats in the Northeast.

Battle for the Senate: Utah Sen. Mike Lee recently picked up a GOP primary challenger, with former state Rep. Becky Edwards appealing to centrists and arguing the senator “has failed to deliver for our state.” In Iowa, former Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer is gearing up for a Senate run, Politico reports. In Alabama, Katie Boyd Britt is also expected to jump into the race to replace her onetime boss, retiring GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby, according to CNN. On Tuesday, Britt resigned from her role as president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama. And in Missouri, GOP Rep. Vicky Hartzler is reportedly making a “special campaign announcement” next week (as a reminder, she told ATR back in April that she was “looking very positively” at a Senate run).

O-H-I-O: The Senate GOP primary continues to churn in Ohio, where three of Josh Mandel’s fundraisers have resigned, according to The Columbus Dispatch. One of Mandel’s chief opponents, former state party Chairwoman Jane Timken, released a poll that showed her gaining ground. Mandel and Timken led the pack of seven current and potential candidates, with 24 percent of likely GOP primary voters backing Mandel and 19 percent supporting Timken, a 14-point increase for Timken since February. The poll was conducted by Moore Information Group, according to a news release.

He’s running … somewhere: Wesley Hunt, a retired Army helicopter pilot who was considered a top GOP recruit in 2020, said he is running again in the Houston area in 2022. But he’s going to wait to see how Texas draws its new district lines before he decides whether to seek a rematch against Democrat Lizzie Fletcher, who narrowly defeated him last fall, or run in one of two new seats the state will gain based on the latest census results. 

They said what? Biden, on a visit to Cleveland last week, chided 13 House Republicans for touting COVID-19 relief measures in their home districts after the entire GOP Conference voted against them, drawing attention to a line of criticism Democrats hope to wield on the campaign trail next year. 

To the right: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that the contest to replace retiring Republican Jody B. Hice in Georgia’s 10th District is becoming an increasingly crowded “race to the right.” Hice is stepping down to run for Georgia secretary of state.

To the left: The progressive group Justice Democrats endorsed anti-gun violence activist Kina Collins’ second primary challenge to 13-term Illinois Democratic Rep. Danny K. Davis. Collins launched her campaign Tuesday in front of a school she said was closed by Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and chief of staff to President Barack Obama. She said it served as an example of many establishment Democrats upholding a status quo that she said doesn’t work for marginalized voters in the Chicago-area 7th District. 

From the blotter: A former aide to Ohio GOP Rep. Steve Chabot pleaded guilty to embezzling $1.4 million from Chabot’s campaign from 2011 to 2019.

A secret no more: Two organizations that track political money and influence data, the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in Politics, said Wednesday they would merge, becoming OpenSecrets. The combined group will offer federal, state and local data on campaign finance and lobbying, among other topics. Sheila Krumholz, who previously led the CRP, will serve as executive director of OpenSecrets.

What we’re reading

In the shadows: Axios reports that new tax documents show Democrats were behind a dark money group that attacked Republican Senate candidates in 2018.

The Trump factor: Trump did energize so-called low-propensity voters, according to new data from the Democratic firm TargetSmart. The Wall Street Journal explores a key question for the midterms: Will these voters will turn out if Trump isn’t on the ballot?

Double trouble: Republicans and Democrats alike are abandoning one of their favorite fundraising gimmicks because a scammer’s guilty plea has them spooked, Insider reports.

To Trump or not to Trump: Some vulnerable Democrats are pushing for a midterm message that is heavy on policy, rather than litigating Trump’s influence on the GOP, Politico reports. But Democratic campaign operatives are also crafting a strategy that involves highlighting controversial comments by Trump acolyte Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, according to The Hill. 

Big. Huge. Democratic pollster David Shor joined the Slate Political Gabfest podcast to talk about how Trump changed the way people respond to polls, how things like trans rights and police reform are more popular than people think they are, and why it behooves Democrats for Biden to propose big, ambitious plans. Spoiler: It allows Democrats to talk about what they want to talk about and distracts the media from GOP lines of attack.

The count: 8

That’s how many Republican senators, out of the 15 running for reelection next year, have nabbed an official endorsement from Trump. (Five GOP senators are retiring.) This week, Trump reiterated his endorsement of Louisiana’s John Kennedy, who officially kicked off his campaign Tuesday with a video saying he’d “rather drink weed killer” than let down Louisianians. The senators who have not yet received Trump’s backing include Iowa’s Charles E. Grassley, who has not yet announced if he’s running; North Dakota’s John Hoeven; Oklahoma’s James Lankford; Utah’s Mike Lee; Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski; South Dakota’s John Thune; and Indiana’s Todd Young.  

Trump has vowed to support GOP challengers to Murkowski and Thune, who have pushed back on the former president’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. NRSC Chairman Rick Scott told reporters last week that he has told Trump the committee will back incumbents. While he could not recall a specific conversation with Trump about Thune, Scott said, “I think he’s supportive of Thune.” 

Nathan’s notes

Cicadas have officially taken over the nation’s capital, and a lot has changed in D.C. since they last emerged 17 years ago. Nathan L. Gonzales updates them on what they missed, writing that the change that’s taken place over the past 17 years “is also a prime example that there is no permanence in politics.”

Candidate confessions

Marco Rubio, who is up for reelection next year, recently praised Scott, his fellow Florida Republican senator, for learning to speak Spanish. “It surprised me one day. I was like, ‘Who’s that dude speaking Spanish up there?’ And people do appreciate that effort,” Rubio said last week during a press briefing on outreach to Hispanic voters at the NRSC.

“You don’t have to be Cervantes,” Rubio added, referencing the famous author of “Don Quixote.” “The point is that you are trying to communicate to people. That matters. That takes work; that takes time. So I, too, am going to learn how to speak Spanish. Right now I speak Cuban.”

Scott told reporters that he views Florida as a red state, but in-cycle Rubio had a slightly different message. “Florida’s a highly competitive state that requires the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said to laughter from the press.

But his race does promise to become an expensive one. Democratic Rep. Val B. Demings, who represents the Orlando-area 10th District and rose to prominence as a manager in Trump’s first impeachment, plans to challenge Rubio. To win, Demings will need to court Hispanic voters, Newsweek reports.

Shop talk: Irene Lin

Lin is currently running the Senate campaign of Wisconsin Democrat Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County executive. A campaign veteran with a background in rural policy, Lin also served as Democrat J.D. Scholten’s campaign manager in 2018, when he came close to defeating Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King in the ruby-red 4th District. 

Starting out: As a Southern California native, Lin traces her political “awakening” to the riots that rocked Los Angeles in 1992 after Rodney King was beaten by the police. “Seeing your backyard burn down, I just didn’t understand. I was like, ‘How did the cops get off from beating that guy? Why is everyone rioting? Why is all this happening?’” she recalled. Lin went on to study the roots of racism and segregation in college, and worked as a reporter for a year in Zimbabwe. After returning to the U.S. for graduate school, she answered a Craigslist ad for “Democrats who can write.” She ended up working for Democratic opposition researcher Mike Rice, using her skills as a journalist to put together research books on gubernatorial candidates, including Janet Napolitano and Bill Richardson. Lin said she became fed up with much of the Democratic Party’s support for the Iraq War, so she decided to work as a researcher for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was against the war, when he ran for president in 2004.

Most unforgettable campaign moment: The night Dean lost the Iowa caucuses, Lin and some other Dean staffers drowned their sorrows with one too many drinks. They encountered a reporter who asked for their reactions to their candidate’s loss. “You’re not supposed to talk to the press if you’re a little low-level staffer, but I was just so upset. So I was like, ‘We are still going to win! We’re still going to beat John Kerry!’ And it ended up in the newspaper the next day,” Lin said, adding that the Dean campaign was not upset about it. Lin has a fond memory from Iowa though, when she was working on Obama’s campaign four years later. She saw that Hillary Clinton had appointed Joy Philippi, the former head of the National Pork Producers Council, as co-chairperson for “Rural Americans for Hillary.” Lin said picking someone tied to “Big Ag” was “like putting Grover Norquist to be in charge of Social Security. … I got The Des Moines Register to write a story with a farmer denouncing her choice of a rural American co-chair that appeared just a few days before the Iowa caucus. That’s probably my proudest opposition research hit. So when [Obama] won, I actually cried again, only this was tears of joy.” 

Biggest campaign regret: Lin worked on former Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s first Senate race in 2006 as the campaign’s research director. The campaign got a tip from a reliable source that McCaskill’s opponent, GOP Sen. Jim Talent, had cast a problematic vote related to wiretapping. “So we basically got this county prosecutor to go after Jim Talent. … Later, I got word that the vote wasn’t quite what we thought it was,” Lin recalled. “It just taught me a lesson that, as a researcher, even if the pope hands you a piece of research and says it’s true, you’ve still got to double, triple check it.”

Unconventional wisdom: “So what drives me insane, where I just want to throw things against the wall every time I read it because it seems like it’s conventional wisdom, is that somehow Dems have to choose between white working-class voters and communities of color. I don’t know when this became an ‘either/or,’” Lin said, later adding, “On all the campaigns I’ve been on, we do both.” She said Democrats make a mistake by not communicating with rural voters and not doing “culturally competent” outreach to communities of color. “You have to play everywhere,” Lin said.

Do you know someone who works in campaigns whom we should feature for Shop Talk? Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

Primaries for governor, legislature and other offices take place Tuesday in Virginia and in New Jersey. One Garden State candidate for state Senate is former GOP Rep. Mike Pappas, who lost a bid for reelection in 1998 after Democratic opponent Rush Holt repeatedly reminded voters he gave a singing tribute on the House floor to Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Some of us covered that campaign. And on Monday, our own Kate Ackley will moderate a Zoom panel discussion on campaign finance

Photo finish

Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy announced this week that he is officially running for a second term. He will likely have an advantage in the solidly Republican state, meaning his “Kennedyisms” could be here to stay. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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