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At the Races: State of the campaigns

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.

President Joe Biden will head to the Capitol to deliver a carefully scripted State of the Union address Tuesday, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and against a backdrop of rough polling numbers for his party. “I think it’s fair to say that Tuesday night’s speech will be one of the most consequential that Joe Biden delivers in the near-term of his presidency,” GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said at a Harvard University event this week. “He’s not only facing a bunch of domestic problems at home, but now he has a major foreign policy problem.”

No matter Biden’s own assessment of the state of the country, battleground Democrats, in their ads and messaging, are offering their own sense of how things are going, and it’s not a particularly rosy portrait. “I know Arizona families are working hard to get by right now, and that’s why I won’t give up on getting our economy back on track and lowering everyday costs,” vulnerable Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly said in a new campaign ad

Some GOP candidates have seized on Russia’s military strikes to criticize Biden. “Russia’s aggression against our allies in Ukraine is the direct result of Joe Biden’s weakness and lack of leadership on the world stage,” said Walt Blackman, a GOP candidate in Arizona’s 2nd District. Ohio GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel tweeted that Russian leader Vladimir Putin favored Biden: “Having Biden as President is exactly what Putin wanted.”

The developing conflict in Ukraine is already highlighting divisions within the Republican Party, with some criticizing Putin and others reserving their harshest words for Biden and their own rivals. Republican Katie Arrington, who is challenging South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace in a primary, said Biden and “weak boned ‘Republicans’ like Nancy Mace” were to blame. We’ll watch to see what Republicans say at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicks off today and will feature a speech from former President Donald Trump on Saturday. 

Still, Democrats have their own divisions to worry about. Not only do Republicans plan a response to Biden’s SOTU (from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds), but so, too, does Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who plans to offer a response on behalf of the Working Families Party, according to the group. 

On Tuesday, we’re actually off to the races, with the nation’s first primary in the Lone Star state.  

Starting gate

Campaign security: An increase in the death threats that politicians say they face, along with loosening regulations on campaign spending, has driven up campaign expenditures for security by nearly 700 percent.

Internal affairs: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy endorsed Harriet Hageman, a primary challenger of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, a rare and significant move that is the latest Republican act of retribution toward Cheney for her criticism of Trump and her integral role on the Jan. 6 select committee, writes CQ Roll Call’s Chris Marquette. New York GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik, who replaced Cheney as conference chairwoman, also backed Hageman. 

Maps set: State courts in Pennsylvania and North Carolina selected congressional maps dictating this fall’s elections that favor Democrats in both states, CQ Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone reports. Pennsylvania’s map would split Republican Rep. Fred Keller’s district, and he decided to challenge fellow GOP Rep. Dan Meuser. North Carolina’s map, which will only be used in this year’s election, more closely reflects the state’s political divide. 

#TX28: Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar is the incumbent with the most to lose in next week’s primary, as the moderate opponent of abortion rights faces a rematch against progressive immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros. CQ Roll Call’s Suzanne Monyak writes the race will measure the political pulse of a Democratic-leaning Latino-majority district. 

Ratings twofer: Elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales sees GOP pickup opportunities in both Virginia and Michigan, but some Republicans are also vulnerable.


She’s not running: Former Florida Rep. Debbie Murcarsel-Powell announced she would not seek a rematch against GOP Rep. Carlos Giminez in one of two South Miami congressional seats that Republicans flipped in 2020. The decision comes as Democrats have struggled to recruit candidates for what they hope could be a competitive race. Murcarsel-Powell said she plans to oversee a new Hispanic outreach program for the Democratic-aligned advocacy group Future Majority, the Miami Herald reported. 

But she is: Former U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan said she would seek the GOP nomination to replace retiring Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, becoming the first major Republican to enter the race. Nolan was nominated as the first female U.S. attorney for Vermont by Trump with support from Leahy. Rep. Peter Welch is the favorite in the Democratic primary. 

First ad: Republican Rep. Fred Upton is airing a television ad, although a campaign spokesman told the Detroit Free Press that he hasn’t made a final decision about seeking reelection in Michigan’s 4th District. If he does officially enter the race, Upton would be running against fellow Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga and state Rep. Steve Carra, who Trump endorsed. Upton is one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021, and in the ad says he’s the “wrong guy” if people “want a rubber stamp as your congressman.”

#MN special: Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz officially set a special election for Aug. 9 to replace the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died last week, with a primary to be held May 24 if necessary. The winner of the special election would fill the rest of Hagedorn’s term. 

Bad behavior: Abby Broyles, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Oklahoma Rep. Stephanie Bice, apologized after allegedly berating pre-teen girls after drinking and vomiting into a hamper at a party hosted by a friend. Broyles said she had an adverse reaction to drinking wine and taking sleep medication. Republican candidate Martin Hyde, who is challenging Florida GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan, apologized after threatening a police officer who pulled him over at a traffic stop. 

Agenda matters: Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott, who happens to chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee, issued a policy platform that he billed as “ideas to Rescue America.” Among the controversial proposals, Scott called for term limits for elected officials and bureaucrats and for building a wall (a la Trump) on the U.S.-Mexico border. He also recommended that all Americans pay some amount of income tax “to have skin in the game.” Even some Republicans took issue with that one.

Agenda Ads: Scott announced a seven-figure national TV and digital ad buy to tout the plan. “Official Washington won’t like this plan, but you will,” he says. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also launched a five-figure radio ad buy opposing Scott’s plan, saying it would “raise taxes on over 50 percent of Americans, including many seniors and working families.”

New endorsements from NewDems: The New Democrat Coalition Action Fund recently endorsed a trio of candidates: Quaye Quartey in California’s 27th District; Eddie Rodriguez in Texas’ 35th District; and Christina Bohannan in Iowa’s 1st District. “Quaye, Eddie, and Christina are exceptional candidates who share NewDems’ commitment to good governance and tangible results,” said Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider, who chairs the fund, in a news release. The NewDems also added three candidates to its “watch list” — Rudy Salas in California’s 22nd District, Heather Mizeur in Maryland’s 1st District and Greg Landsman in Ohio’s 1st District. 

Ad roundup: The House GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund forked over $600,000 for broadcast and cable spots to boost Morgan Luttrell in Texas’ 8th District primary set for March 1. Luttrell faces a crowded GOP field in the district of retiring GOP Rep. Kevin Brady. Ohio Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel said he released his first ad of the campaign, highlighting his service in the Marine Corps. And in an ad that isn’t fit for broadcast (and instead seems tailor-made for clicks), Colorado Democrat Alex Walker, who is apparently challenging controversial conservative GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert, issued a spot featuring giant, um, turds and closed by saying he approved “the sh** out of this message.”  

Getting schooled? Mike Bloomberg, who briefly ran a losing bid for president in 2020 as a Democrat, issued a dire warning in a Bloomberg Opinion piece that the party may be “headed for a wipeout in November, up and down the ballot,” particularly on education matters. 

Who is Q? Deploying some high-tech artificial intelligence, teams of forensic linguists have been sleuthing who might be the original Q from the debunked online conspiracy. And one of two possibilities is Ron Watkins, a House candidate in Arizona, according to the New York Times.  

Serving soup: Jennifer Strahan, a Republican challenging Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, served gazpacho at a fundraiser after her opponent criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “gazpacho police” earlier this month. 

What we’re reading

Stu says: Ohio was once a swing state, but as white, blue-collar voters broke from the Democrats, it got redder, Stu Rothenberg writes. While that was happening, Republican candidates began appealing to the more extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Divided district: New York’s redrawn 11th District merges the conservative Staten Island and liberal Park Slope neighborhoods into the same congressional district, combining areas with starkly different political philosophies and making a more difficult reelection race for GOP Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, the New York Times reports. 

Ready for battle: The seven House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and haven’t announced their retirement are gearing up for what will be tough reelection bids, with most of them facing Trump-backed primary opponents, Politico reports. 

Endorsement test: Mace said she was confident she would win reelection in South Carolina’s 1st District after Trump endorsed her primary opponent, Katie Arrington, who lost a 2018 race for the seat.

#ALSen: With three months to go before a primary that essentially will determine Alabama’s next senator, the three Republican candidates pitched themselves as the one to replace retiring Sen. Richard Shelby.

Profile in politics: Politico profiles Ohio Senate GOP candidate Mandel and examines his shift from moderate Republican to “MAGA warrior.” 

Crime and punishment: Democratic candidates may find themselves politically vulnerable on the issue of crime, writes National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar.

The count: $15 million

That’s how much Larry Ellison, the executive chairman of Oracle Corp., donated in January to the Opportunity Matters Fund, a super PAC that describes itself as inspired by South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott. That $15 million was on top of more than $5 million Ellison donated to the fund last year. Opportunity Matters Fund has spent nearly $500,000 in support of GOP candidate Wesley Hunt, who is running in a crowded Tuesday primary for Texas’ 38th District. Politico has more on Ellison’s big donation.  

Nathan’s notes

As CPAC begins, Nathan notes that organizer Matt Schlapp is moving away from the word “conservative” — and what that means in the age of Trump.

Candidate confessions

Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, who chairs the House Select Committee on Modernization and is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, started his Capitol Hill career as an intern for the late Democratic Rep. Al Swift back in 1993. Kilmer, who says he now tries to engage with interns throughout their time in his office, didn’t interact much with Swift during his internship. But Swift did take him aside for what he considered one important Capitol Hill lesson.

“It was on the very last day where I got the longest exposure to him. He invited me into his office and asked about my experience. And then he said, ‘I’m now going to teach you the most important lesson of this internship.’ Then he opened up his desk drawer and said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to light and smoke a cigar,’ which was the first of only two times in my life,” Kilmer told CQ Roll Call’s Chris Cioffi.

Shop talk: Nick Maddux

Maddux, a vice president at Axiom Strategies, has served as a general consultant for Republican candidates across the country, including Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2018 reelection campaign and the 2020 campaigns of Illinois Rep. Mary Miller and Texas Rep. Troy Nehls, which set a record for the fourth-most-expensive House race ever. 

Starting out: “I always wanted to go to law school and be a lawyer and run for office. I accidentally fell into a campaign from a friend that I played competitive golf with. He said come volunteer in a gubernatorial race in 2008. I really liked it. It came natural to me. But I still wanted to go to law school. In fact, I ran a few races in 2010 then still decided to go law school. And it was only a year in the law school that I realized I wasn’t going to practice law. I was going to go back to politics. And so I already had my campaign gig lined up to run a governor’s race in Missouri…I never practiced and have been doing this ever since.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: “Moving to Houston, Texas, in the summer of 2018, getting to work alongside conservative warriors like Senator Cruz, with the entire media establishment, and a national small-dollar Democrat network working against you, and a large, high-profile race, and eventually seen that race all the way through to victory … The most unforgettable moment was knowing that we had won the race while the networks lagged in the results on TV … Everyone in the room was very concerned about whether they were going to win or lose. And on the national news, it looked very concerning. But everyone that had been on the campaign, throughout the whole fall, knew that victory was in hand and the numbers were only going to end up in his favor.”

Biggest campaign regret: “If you’re going to contrast your record with your opponent’s record, it does no good to do it in a half measure. You get nowhere near all the good, but you get all the bad that comes with it. And so if you’re going to contrast you have to go full-in on that contrast … When a race is super tight, within the margin of error, you’ve got to make a decision. When name ID on both sides is sky high, you make a decision to contrast, it has got to grow your vote share. And those messages can be a variety of messages, from contrasting experience to a difference in ideologies to difference in records from the standpoint of everything from who you take money from, do you take lobbyists gifts. …you’ve got to pick your top-performing issue that is believable. And it will get you the most votes going into the last couple weeks of the campaign. The biggest regret I have is being convinced once — it only took once — to not go with that issue that would win you the campaign. And to get the greatest amount of vote share, because the candidate was worried about the pushback … I didn’t push the candidate to get outside their comfort zone. Democracy and elections are not meant to be comfortable. They never have been in the history of America. And so if you’re not willing to push a candidate in a tough race, to talk about issues, and to talk about their opponents in ways that make them uncomfortable, you’re not serving them…. That may make you uncomfortable, but do you want to win? Let’s focus on winning, on using issues that are true and differentiate ourselves from our opponent. And being comfortable in their truth, thinking outside our comfort zone to make sure we can win this race.”

Unconventional wisdom: “Everybody understands the difference between cord-cutter audience, cable viewers, satellite viewers, broadcast television viewers, but I don’t think it’s appreciated any more why we actually have to run campaigns that way … It is because the way in which voters take your information is becoming more and more fragmented by election cycle. So, even think about the Republican primary electorate four years ago, during the Republican primary, Newsmax and OAN, you weren’t advertising to those people. Those weren’t, there wasn’t even a medium that voters took information in. Now you have to advertise to them. And there’s a Fox audience, there’s an OAN audience, there’s a Newsmax audience, and then there’s an audience that exists online, there are online activists. You have to consider all three of those. You have to go find those people. You have to find those voters and talk to them … There are only three unfragmented mediums to speak to a voter: knocking on their door, sending them a piece of mail and either calling or texting them. And then you have to build a campaign strategy around those basic concepts of how do you utilize each dollar to effectively reach each voter. Everything else is a supplement.”

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Coming up

Biden delivers his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, the same day as the Texas primaries.

Photo finish

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