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At the Races: SCOTUS focus

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Corrected Jan. 31 | Democrats got a gift this week, with the pending retirement of Justice Stephen G. Breyer coming at a time when they desperately needed to shift the narrative from the forces stacked up against them in the midterms. 

As we reported, Breyer’s decision, nine months before Election Day, gives Democrats plenty of time to appoint another liberal justice while they still control a Senate majority that — while exceedingly narrow — almost assures that Republicans won’t have any power to stop them

Republicans are already preparing to do whatever they can to tie Democrats — especially the four senators up for reelection in competitive seats — to the most liberal positions of an eventual nominee. 

The Republican National Committee issued a statement saying President Joe Biden’s still-unnamed pick was a “threat to … religious liberty, the Second Amendment, the right to life, and free speech” and the RNC would do everything it could to “hold Senate Democrats accountable in November for their votes.”

Strategists from both parties told us they see the upcoming confirmation battle as an opportunity to focus voters’ attention on issues before the court, such as abortion rights, where they see their opponents as out of touch with mainstream America, and to remind voters of the stakes of the election. 

It also offers a fundraising opportunity. The solicitations that have already hit our inboxes included one from the DCCC “begging” a rushed $3 donation to “DEFEND our Democratic Trifecta” and one from Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, noting that Breyer’s retirement is a “reminder of why holding onto our Senate majority is so important.”

But any number of things can — and surely will — distract voters from the court between now and November. And with the potential deployment of troops to head off a Russian invasion of Ukraine, pending interest rate hikes that could either rein in inflation or stifle the economic recovery from the pandemic, and some health experts warning that other coronavirus variants could be lurking even as the Omicron surge subsides, there are plenty of looming crises competing for attention.

Starting gate

Political representation: Even as Democrats attack Republicans with “Jim Crow 2.0” rhetoric for opposition to voting rights legislation, some of the GOP’s rising-star fundraisers, such as Texan Wesley Hunt, who hauled in $1 million in the fourth quarter, are people of color who say they take issue with Democrats’ messaging.

See you in ’32: After Democrat Kendra Horn somehow managed to win an Oklahoma seat in 2018 (which she lost to Stephanie Bice in 2020), the state’s Republicans drew a map that could give their party a lock on the House delegation for the coming decade.

Ain’t no place I’d rather be: Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper is headed back to Tennessee rather than seeking a 17th term because the GOP-controlled state legislature carved up his Nashville-based district into three pieces.

No labels: Ken Gross, who built Skadden Arps’ political law practice over 35 years and once represented the campaigns of Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republican Bob Dole at the same time, hit the firm’s mandatory retirement age but plans to stay engaged in campaign and voting rights causes from his perch in the firm’s “detox unit.”

Not done yet: Along with throwing out Alabama’s new congressional map because of the way the state packed most Black voters into one district, a federal court this week delayed the deadline that was going to be Friday for candidates to run in the May 24 primary, CQ Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone reports.


Stu says: Analyzing the analysis of Biden’s first year in office, Stu Rothenberg says Republican critics are right that he didn’t come in with a mandate to craft his own New Deal. But he did beat an incumbent president by 7 million votes and had to try to do something about Democratic priorities, Rothenberg says.

Sparring: Seeing his once and possibly future rival on the ropes, former President Donald Trump is keeping up his attacks on Biden, but Scranton Joe emerged a bit in recent appearances looking to fight back, CQ Roll Call’s John T. Bennett writes.

Fight continues: Along with pledging to continue to fight for voting rights legislation, White House senior adviser and former Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond told Mary C. Curtis on the Equal Time podcast that Black voters have a right to be frustrated, “but what we should not do is allow people to discourage us from exercising our right to vote.”

Out front: The DCCC updated its list of Frontline House incumbents who will receive the bulk of the party’s support, as more states release completed congressional maps for the midterms. The committee added Arizona Rep. Greg Stanton, Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop, Illinois Rep. Bill Foster, Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton. It removed Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens, bringing the total number of members in the program to 32. It also added open and Republican-held seats to its list of offensive targets, bringing the number of “Districts in Play” to 38. 

Endorsement Envy: Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts endorsed state Rep. Mike Flood in his primary bid against sitting GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who is accused of lying to federal officials about a 2016 campaign contribution. Fortenberry, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is set to go to trial next month, called endorsements of Flood “particularly disappointing.” The primary is May 24.

Censured: The Arizona Democratic Party censured home state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema for her vote against changing filibuster rules for a voting rights overhaul that failed in the Senate. Sinema is not up for reelection this year, but her colleague, fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, is, and he said he did not support the party’s rebuke. Meanwhile, the group Voto Latino said it had launched a new six-figure campaign dubbed “¡Adios, Sinema!”

Ethics report: CQ Roll Call’s Chris Marquette shares the recently released details about ethics probes of Colorado GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn’s alleged use of staff for personal and campaign-related tasks and Illinois Democratic Rep. Marie Newman’s job offer to potential 2020 opponent Iymen Chehade. Newman, who ousted Rep. Dan Lipinski in the 2020 primary, faces a primary this year against fellow incumbent Rep. Sean Casten in the 6th District. Chehade, meanwhile, is running in the newly redrawn 3rd District.  

New super PAC: Protect Our Future, a new Democratic super PAC, plans to invest $10 million in Democratic primaries, the group said. Its first endorsements were for Reps. Lucy McBath, who faces fellow incumbent Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux in Georgia’s 7th District; candidate Nikki Budzinski, a contender in Illinois’ 13th District; and New York Rep. Ritchie Torres.

They’re running: Embattled Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, who faces a primary challenge on his left from Jessica Cisneros, said he is still running for reelection after FBI agents searched his home and campaign office. “Let me be clear, I’m running for reelection, and I intend to win,” Cuellar said in a video. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week that she is running for an 18th full term in her San Francisco district. Ohio Democrat Nina Turner, who lost a primary last year to Rep. Shontel Brown, made it official that she would seek a rematch this year against Brown, who won the 11th District seat formerly held by Marcia Fudge. Turner, a co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, is a progressive favorite.  

More Cuellar: The Texas Tribune looks at the potential legal and political fallout for Cuellar amid the FBI probe, as more details emerged this week.  Cisneros, meanwhile, posted a video on Twitter calling the investigation “alarming” and released an ad attacking Cuellar for taking campaign donations from drug and insurance companies and highlighting her support for Medicare for All. 

Rhode Island scramble: The Boston Globe reports that the retirement of longtime Rep. Jim Langevin has Rhode Island Democrats scrambling to recruit a replacement and worried that the opening could give Republicans a chance to pick up one of the state’s two House seats.

Ready for ’24: Reps. Richard Hudson of North Carolina and Darin LaHood of Illinois began laying the groundwork for bids to chair the NRCC next cycle, Axios reports. 

Scam PAC proposal: Democratic Reps. Katie Porter of California and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey introduced legislation aimed at stopping scam PACs, which raise money but do not distribute much, if any, to candidates or causes. “Time and again, we’ve seen scam artists rake in millions by cheating Americans who thought they were participating in our democracy,” Porter said in a news release. The bill would prohibit PACs from sending money to entities owned or controlled by PAC officials or their relatives. 

Outside influences: The Republican super PAC Senate Leadership Fund and its affiliated nonprofit organization One Nation raised $94.4 million in 2021, according to a Fox News report. The super PAC, which is run by a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, supports GOP Senate contenders, usually by running attack ads against their opponents. Those ads will be coming soon to a TV near you.  

Trial balloon?: Some Democrats began trying out responses to Republican attacks over inflation. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland told Politico that he sees it as a major problem but that a Democratic bill already passed in the Senate, the U.S. Competition and Investment Act, would help address supply-side problems. Vulnerable Sen. Mark Kelly acknowledged that it is “really hurting” Arizona families but placed the blame on price-gouging companies. Republicans worked to burst their bubble. “Nowhere in Kelly’s comments is any self-awareness about who’s to blame for rampant inflation. The answer is clear. Joe Biden, the Democrat Party and their enablers like Mark Kelly are to blame,” Ben Petersen, Arizona communications director of the Republican National Committee, said in an email blast. 

Ethics test: New Hampshire Senate hopeful Kevin Smith, who announced last week he would seek the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Maggie Hassan, faces an ethics complaint from two Londonderry residents who say he posted campaign messages to Twitter while on the job as town manager. 

Seeing blue: The Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue said it had processed $1.3 billion in contributions to candidates and organizations in 2021. ActBlue said those donations came from 4.5 million people and represented the largest off-cycle year to date. 

What we’re reading

Whodathunk?: A new election law signed in September is causing confusion as Texas voters apply for absentee ballots in the March 1 primary. The Texas Tribune highlights rejected applications and says public officials are wary of reaching out to explain to people what they have to do because the law made it a felony for them to solicit someone to vote absentee.

Turf wars: looks at the six House races in four states where incumbents are facing each other in primaries, and how much of each member’s current district is in the new one where they’re running.

Midterm messaging: McConnell downplayed fissures between him and Trump when it comes to the midterms, but did offer something of a warning for Senate GOP candidates, CNN reports. “It’s important for candidates to remember we need to respect the results of our democratic process,” he said. 

Shrinking precincts: The Center for Public Integrity takes a deep look at a voting rights battleground in Lincoln County, Ga., where efforts to consolidate polling places have sparked controversy.

Pandemic peril: Ruy Teixeira, who co-wrote the book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” tells the New York Times On Politics that Democrats should do “whatever you haven’t done to try to get the country back to normal.”

Amateur Hour: analyses show why more inexperienced candidates from both parties are running and winning elections. 

Surf’s up: Lobbyist Bruce Mehlman is out with his latest slide deck. He is now predicting a bigger Republican wave in the midterm elections. 

The count: 21 percent

That’s the percentage of the U.S. public that is satisfied with the way things are going in the country, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. Biden started his second year in office with diminished job approval, with 41 percent saying they approve, according to the survey. Pew also found that just 28 percent of the public had a favorable opinion of Congress. 

Nathan’s notes

It’s not too late, Democrats say, for Biden to turn around his poll numbers and stop being what Nathan calls “cement around the feet of the Democratic majorities in Congress.” But history going back to Harry Truman’s 1950 midterms shows why Biden’s job rating isn’t likely to improve, and more likely will deteriorate, before Election Day.

Candidate confessions

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland says he knows a little something about a so-called election fraud squad, which GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis plans to start to protect the polls in the November elections. 

“I think that’s an intimidation squad, which I faced the first time I ran for Congress in 1981,” Hoyer said during a CQ Roll Call webinar about House Democrats’ efforts to put an extra $500 million into grants to improve how elections are run. “There were people … hired by or from the [Republican National Committee] who had black armbands, and they had voter security on there. They weren’t voter security people. They were trying to intimidate people who came to the polls from voting. … They work, you know, coats and ties and look very official, but they were intimidation squads, not voter security squads.”

Shop talk: Emma Thomas

Thomas is a health policy specialist who recently joined the progressive communications firm Feldman Strategies as a director. Before that, she was an account director at BerlinRosen, where her work included helping Democratic House and Senate candidates develop their messaging on abortion and voting rights. 

Starting out: Thomas helped her mother, a retired schoolteacher, distribute literature in support of school budgets and campaign for local office in their Connecticut town when Thomas was a child, she said. “Getting to meet a lot of constituents was always really exciting to me, and especially doing it with someone that I really looked up to,” she said. Later, as a student at American University, she spent a semester in Denmark, where she studied European policy toward sex workers. But her own experience trying to stock up on birth control pills for the trip brought home how politics affects Americans’ reproductive health. “To be able to get my own birth control prescriptions filled, it was basically impossible to get enough for a four-month supply,” she said. “So that was a really frustrating moment for me and it really kind of pushed me into understanding why different states had policies and restrictions around birth control, why it couldn’t just be over the counter. And that really led me into wanting to understand more about how politics play a role across the board, especially in health care decision making, and pushed me towards the career working on campaigns for candidates to support access to abortion care, access to reproductive health care services, quality, inclusive sex education.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: Thomas coordinated the communications strategy for the legal group defending a Louisana abortion clinic during the 2020 June Medical Services v. Russo Supreme Court case, which invalidated a state law requiring that physicians who perform abortions have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. “I had the opportunity to not only work with the lawyers who were going to be arguing the case … but I then was able to take that and bring the media strategy and approach to activists in the state of Louisiana, and to those state legislators who are more progressive, but then also bring them to different federal strategy tables to understand, OK, if the Supreme Court does not go in our favor on this case, based on a Louisiana abortion restriction, how can we make sure that we’re taking change [to] the federal level? … It was pretty unforgettable to be in front of the court with thousands of people gathered. Many, many more on the pro-abortion side, really coming together across the country to advocate for abortion rights, and share a lot of personal stories, from young people to older people, to providers, to clinic escorts to gender non-binary people sharing their abortion experiences, and see all of that come full circle, and then to have members of Congress, especially those who are part of the Reproductive Freedom Caucus, show up and hear all of those messages and speak in front of the large crowd. … It was really inspiring, especially since it was really our last big campaign moment, before everything locked down when the pandemic hit.”

Biggest campaign regret: Progressives saw “huge wins” in the 2020 elections, when Democrats gained control of Washington. But they also suffered major defeats at the state level, she said. For Thomas, the down-ballot loss was particularly profound in Louisiana, where a state ballot initiative put in place a “trigger” that would make abortion illegal in the state if Roe v. Wade is overturned. “For me, that was a big thing, because we had done all of this work to push and persuade the Supreme Court and get them to uphold precedent and do the right thing. And they did. But in the end, it kind of felt like a loss because then Louisiana went ahead anyway and passed this amendment to prepare to ban all abortion if Roe is overturned … a campaign regret there from the national level is kind of turning away from the state of Louisiana after that good Supreme Court decision came down in June and thinking, ‘Alright, we’re good. We can focus our attention now on the next fight.’”

Unconventional wisdom: “I have slowly been convinced that TikTok can be used as a really successful campaign technique, both for candidates and for advocacy issues. At the end of last year, I worked with one of my clients to run a TikTok campaign and experiment, like, ‘Does this work?’ And we were able to work with five or six or so young influencers on TikTok, who have tens of thousands of followers, to do a whole campaign educating similarly minded young people about what self-managed abortion is, and how to access abortion care without needing parental consent in a lot of states where those laws exist, the different types of abortion care, all the information to know about abortion pills. And we were able to pull together these short videos talking about how to access care, what the potential criminalization can look like, who to contact with questions. And we reached tens of thousands of young people, and it led to a lot of really important questions, and also really good content and conversation starters to then bring to candidates running for office and current elected officials to say, ‘Hey, you know, this is an issue that young people care about.’ And if you want to be successful in your election campaigns, and in the 2022 midterms, with young people voting for you, you really need to pay attention to this issue in particular.”

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Coming up

Not only is Monday the deadline for candidates to disclose their fourth-quarter fundraising and expenditures, it’s also a deadline for PAC filings, including those that haven’t made a disclosure since July because they file semiannually during non-election years.

Photo finish

The decision to retire after this term could mean Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., will get more golf games like the one he and Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., played in a 2014 tournament at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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This report was corrected to accurately reflect the name of the BerlinRosen firm.