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At the Races: Debt the halls

This is the last At the Races of the year, so if you were planning to give someone a subscription for Christmas, you can add their email address here. Our roundup of campaign news and analysis from the CQ Roll Call team will return on Jan. 6.

As the week began, Capitol Hill Democrats might have been feeling good that they got Republicans to blink on their demand that Democrats go it alone and use the budget reconciliation process to raise the debt limit. But both sides quickly seized on that small victory for Democrats as a way to seek bigger returns at the ballot box in November.  

As CQ Roll Call’s Jennifer Shutt reports, Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer worked together to hatch a special parliamentary maneuver for the debt limit to get around the rule requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster and advance legislation, and that maneuver passed with the votes of 14 Republicans.

The deal allowed President Joe Biden and his party to avoid a potential economic collapse from a government default and move on to other issues, while also leading to some attacks on McConnell from his fellow Republicans for giving in. The maneuver was also tied to a bill preventing Medicare cuts, so votes against it by the majority of Republicans will be fodder for the midterms as well. 

But in the end, once the filibuster was bypassed, the final debt limit increase was approved almost exclusively with Democratic votes, and that led the GOP to try to hang the extra $2.5 trillion in debt around Democrats’ necks on the campaign trail as one more sign of reckless spending fueling economic malaise.

And the deal is also causing grief in Democratic circles. Activists and lawmakers who want action on other priorities bottled up by the 60-vote filibuster rule, especially measures to address voting rights, now want the same special treatment.

“Let me be very clear: if the Senate can change its rules to fix the debt ceiling, it must do the same to save our democracy,” Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock tweeted Wednesday. “We need to protect the right to vote nationwide.”

Starting gate

Double whammy: Partisan legislatures and independent commissions both are playing a role in a decline in the number of competitive House seats, CQ Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone reports. 

Priority shuffling: Senate Democrats are inching closer to pushing floor action on their sweeping safety net and climate package into 2022 in favor of a last-ditch attempt to pass voting rights legislation before the end of the year, though it’s unlikely they have the votes.

Focused group: House members who won by narrow margins or in districts that went for the other party’s presidential candidate talked with CQ Roll Call’s Jim Saksa throughout the year, and this week he ran their advice past a group of campaign consultants.

Show them the taxes: Seeking to avoid a repeat of the scandal-plagued Trump presidency, House Democrats approved a bill recently, almost entirely along party lines, that would put new limits on executive branch power and subject presidential candidates to more disclosure.

Toon-ed in: As Roll Call cartoonist R.J. Matson saw it, 2021 was a year that started with a president named Gollum J. Trump and went on to include Joe Biden wearing Charlie Brown’s sweater.

Photoshop: CQ Roll Call photojournalists Bill Clark and Tom Williams joined Deputy Editor Jason Dick’s Political Theater podcast to talk about their favorites of the thousands of shots they took this year. 


So Long: California Democrat Alan Lowenthal announced Thursday he is retiring at the end of next year rather than seek another term in his Los Angeles-area 47th District.

Jackson’s out: North Carolina state Sen. Jeff Jackson dropped out of the Democratic primary for the open U.S. Senate seat, clearing the way for fellow Democrat and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, whom he then endorsed. “Cheri Beasley has served this state honorably for over two decades and has always fought for justice,” Jackson said in a statement.   

On the attack: Speaking of Democrats’ social spending and tax reconciliation package, the GOP outside group One Nation launched $4.2 million in opposition spots in the battleground states of Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire, part of a $10 million campaign against the measure. The group is an affiliate of the GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund. The Republican State Leadership Committee also put out holiday-themed digital ads titled “Grinches,” hitting Democrats for backing policies that have led to rising inflation.

Joining forces: AAPI Victory Fund, Latino Victory Fund, and The Collective PAC – Democratic groups focused on supporting Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Latino and Black candidates – released a “historic” memo of understanding announcing that they will work together through the midterms. The memo outlined areas of cooperation that include directing investments and raising money. 

Game on: The field is set for Texas’ March primaries after the candidate filing deadline Monday. Last-minute developments included the entrance of Republican Cassandra “Cassy” Garcia, a former staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz, in the 28th District, where Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar was already facing a primary challenge. And GOP Rep. Kay Granger’s 2020 primary challenger Chris Putnam opted out of his previously announced rematch in the 12th District.

Legislative watch: Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin introduced a bill this week that would curtail the political spending by foreign-owned corporations through their U.S. subsidiaries. Raskin has previously introduced the measure, which does not have any GOP co-sponsors.  

Cold shoulder: Kelly Tshibaka, an Alaska Republican who has Trump’s backing in her challenge of GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said she would not support McConnell as Republican leader if she wins. 

Uncoordinated: The liberal group Public Citizen issued a report this week examining the overlap between clients of political consulting firms. Even though candidates aren’t permitted to coordinate with super PACs and other outside groups, the report found that political consultants regularly work for both, to the tune of some $1.4 billion. Political consultants say they keep their work separate with “firewalls” between clients.

Will Maryland matter?: Maryland’s Democratic lawmakers approved new congressional maps that drew the primary residence of Rep. Andy Harris – the state’s lone Republican House member – out of the district he currently represents, which also became more Democratic. (Harris still has a beach house in his district.) Still, some Democrats were upset by the new plan, which could have given Harris even tougher terrain to defend in 2022. 

What we’re reading

Stu says: Looking at how the Senate of 2001 compares to the one in office today, Stu Rothenberg sees the biggest change happening on the GOP side of the aisle. 

Big spender: A GOP donor is alleged to have used embezzled money to lead a lavish lifestyle and to support Trump, according to Forbes.   

Heads en fuego: Democrats, eyeing recent polls, fear Hispanic voters may be trending away from their party. Ivan Zapien, a lobbyist and former executive director at the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Leadership Council, told The Hill: “Do I think that Democrats’ heads should be on fire over this issue? Yeah, I do. I think that their heads should be on fire over this issue every day regardless of what polls say.”  

Staying in the House: Speaker Nancy Pelosi will stay in her job though the midterm elections at least, “extending her nearly 20-year run as the House’s top Democrat after she turns 82 and, perhaps, beyond,” CNN reports, citing sources close to the speaker.

Democracy in danger: Thomas B. Edsall explores in the New York Times whether the political analysts, scholars and close observers of government could be right when they worry that the “polarized American electoral system” may have crossed a point of no return.

The count: $35 million

That’s how much has been spent this year by outside groups trying to influence next year’s House and Senate races — and $4.5 million of it came from one man’s pocket. Disclosures filed through Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission show the top spender was Club for Growth Action, which paid out more than $5.9 million. The group is supporting  GOP Rep. Ted Budd in his bid for North Carolina’s open Senate seat, and spent $4.3 million so far backing him or attacking former Gov. Pat McCrory. The group spent another $1.5 million on Ohio’s open Senate seat race attacking GOP candidate J.D. Vance, a primary opponent of preferred candidate Josh Mandel. The next two top spenders, Saving Arizona PAC ($2.4 million) and Protect Ohio Values PAC ($2.1 million), are drawing on $10 million donations they each got from California billionaire Peter Thiel, who is backing GOP candidates Blake Masters in Arizona and Vance in Ohio.

Nathan’s notes

Nevada’s Democrats had control of redistricting this year, but if the GOP sees a wave next year like the one that hit Virginia and New Jersey last month, all three Democratic House members could be washed out.

Candidate confessions

Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner lived all over the world before putting down roots in Oregon, where she is now waging a primary challenge to Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader in the state’s newly drawn 5th District. Her peripatetic early years served as a source of attacks when she ran in the 2nd District in 2018 against GOP Rep. Greg Walden (who retired rather than run again in 2020). McLeod-Skinner, who was born in Milwaukee and has also lived in East Africa, Wisconsin, New York, Bosnia and California — where she served two terms as a Bay Area councilwoman — pointed out that her wife Cassandra Skinner comes from a long line of eastern Oregon ranchers. But she also has her own local bona fides. In addition to her law degree from the University of Oregon, the municipal government positions she has held throughout the state and the tens of thousands of miles she logged in her Jeep and lightweight trailer during her 2018 campaign, she also holds the high school record for the 800-meter race in the southern Oregon city of Ashland. For anyone keeping track, her 1985 time of 2:13.3 is still short of the fastest-ever time logged by a member of Congress. That distinction belongs to former Kansas Republican Rep. Jim Ryun, who held the world record for several distances (his 800-meter record, 1:44.3, was an estimated time based on the 1:44.9 he logged in an 880-meter race in 1966 — according to Wikipedia). 

Shop talk: Michael McAdams

McAdams, a former Capitol Hill staffer, is the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee where, he says, he’s “focused on helping Republicans retake the House for the third time since 1954.”

Starting out: “My dad is a fireman and my mom is a nurse so politics was never at the forefront of our family conversations,” McAdams said. “But I was lucky enough to get a press internship post-college with the House Homeland Security Committee and enjoyed the reading, writing and current events aspect of the job. Eleven years later, here I am. Side note, I am very happy that internship derailed my plans to go to law school.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: “Election night 2020,” said McAdams, who at the time was national press secretary for the NRCC. “No one gave House Republicans a shot to pick up seats, but we did just that – flipping 15 seats and not losing a single incumbent for the first time since 1994.” He gave a “special shoutout” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who chaired House Democrats’ campaign arm that cycle, “for holding an Election Day press conference predicting House Democrats would pick-up double-digit seats,” making it clear that House Republicans had beat expectations.

Biggest campaign regret: “I wish I started working on campaigns sooner,” he said. “I spent the first half of my career working on the official side for several House Members and the House Homeland Security Committee, and while I am thankful for those experiences and the people I met along the way – the campaign side is what I enjoy most. Campaign politics is the most competitive work you can do outside of being a professional athlete. Nothing compares to the teams you build and the feeling on Election Day when you get to find out if two years of blood, sweat and tears has paid off.”

Unconventional wisdom: “Democrats have an enthusiasm problem and are trying to gin up their base by playing to its most extreme elements,” McAdams said. “Their messaging and policies are alienating the independent voters who will decide the majority. Republican and independent voters are currently focused on the same set of issues, which is a massive advantage heading into the midterm elections.” He added that Republicans “have a lot of momentum working in our favor because of Democrats’ complete incompetence, but there’s 11 months until Election Day and House Republicans haven’t won anything yet.”

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Coming up

We’re officially 16 days from an election year. Your At the Races team wishes everyone a happy holiday season and a little downtime before 2022. We’ll be back with all the latest in campaign news Jan. 6, 2022!

Photo finish

For 2021’s final print issue of Roll Call this week, our photojournalist team shared their 21 best pictures of the year. (Bill Clark/Tom Williams/Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

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