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At the Races: Shades of blue

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.

House Democrats’ campaign arm updated the party’s battlefield this week, adding incumbents and candidates in what would typically appear to be relatively secure seats for the party. Moments after our story posted online, Republicans responded, noting that several of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 11 additions to its Red to Blue program included candidates in districts that were already blue. Their take on the situation: “Republicans and Democrats agree: No Democrat is safe in this environment,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

While hyperbolic (most Democrats, like most Republicans, are in safe seats), the point is real. House Democrats face peril heading into the midterms, and a Republican flipping Texas’ 34th District this week made that reality all the more clear.

Democrats hope that two separate things happening this afternoon — another installment of the Jan. 6 committee’s public hearings and ongoing bipartisan negotiations among senators over a bill to curb mass shootings — may help them mitigate some of the difficulties ahead. The Jan. 6 committee seeks to make a case that former President Donald Trump and others conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, but whether or how this may resonate in competitive congressional races remains uncertain.   

The potential for agreement on a package of gun-control and mental health measures may buoy Democratic voters and donors, who have toiled for years to break the stalemate on Capitol Hill that has only begun to loosen after recent massacres, including of elementary students in Uvalde, Texas. Though senators said they had agreed to a legislative framework and wanted to move a bill before the July 4 recess, they had not settled on text and were continuing negotiations this afternoon over such sticking points as red flag laws and a so-called boyfriend loophole. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has given his blessing to the outline, and it seems an actual bill is likely to emerge. But the November elections loom over the negotiations, and, for some Republicans, the policy proposals are a nonstarter. “I think we’re more interested in the red wave than we are in red flags, quite honestly, as Republicans, and we have a pretty good opportunity to do that,” North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer told reporters.

Starting gate

What happened in Vegas: And the rest of Nevada, and South Carolina, and Texas (and Maine and North Dakota for that matter) on Tuesday is highlighted here. Republicans spent big to help the daughter of migrant workers flip a Texas seat that led to a rating change for the November race. The other big news was the loss by Rep. Tom Rice while GOP colleague and fellow Trump critic Rep. Nancy Mace was able to grab a win in a comparably red South Carolina district. Their differing reactions to Trump’s attacks helped seal their fates. 

Didn’t pass the SALT: Time’s running out for several Democrats who ran on a promise to restore the deduction for state and local taxes to deliver, but a tax package in a reconciliation bill that can bypass the filibuster “is seeing new life after a half-year hiatus,” CQ Roll Call’s Laura Weiss reports.

Message testing: The Democratic group Unrig Our Economy launched a $4.5 million ad campaign targeting GOP Reps. Nicole Malliotakis of New York, David Valadao of California, Don Bacon of Nebraska and Ashley Hinson of Iowa in an effort to test ways Democrats can go on offense on the economy. The group is testing whether the message could carry into the 2024 cycle and if Democrats “can actually build back credibility for our side on the economy.”


Endorsement watch: Trump, who last year endorsed GOP Rep. Mo Brooks for Alabama’s open Senate seat and then revoked that endorsement, has now endorsed Brooks’ opponent, Katie Britt, in next week’s runoff for the Republican nomination. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise endorsed emergency room physician Rich McCormick against Trump-endorsed former state ethics commission Chairman Jake Evans in next week’s Republican primary runoff for Georgia’s 6th District. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorsed New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who faces Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney in an August primary for the 12th District. 

Member vs. member: Florida Rep. Al Lawson, whose 5th District was dismantled in a new congressional map passed by state Republicans, announced he would run in the redrawn 2nd District, which includes his home in Tallahassee. That could put him up against Republican colleague Neal Dunn, Politico reported. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the new 2nd District Solid Republican.  

Fuel to the fire: The deep-pocketed Club for Growth PAC announced it will support Trump-backed attorney Harriet Hegeman in her primary against Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach the former president and is one of two Republicans on the select committee investigating Jan. 6. The group also released a $300,000 ad touting Hegeman’s endorsement from Trump, who has recently clashed with the Club for Growth over some of its endorsements. 

Payback: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who won his May primary against Trump-endorsed former Sen. David Perdue, is backing Mike Collins in next week’s runoff for the state’s 10th District against Vernon Jones, a former Democrat who has Trump’s endorsement and has attacked Kemp as a fake Republican. 

Isn’t that special: Sarah Palin, the former Republican governor of Alaska who was her party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee and was an early darling of the conservative tea party movement, was the top finisher in Saturday’s all-party special primary for the remainder of the late GOP Rep. Don Young’s term. Palin had 28.2 percent of the votes with an estimated 81 percent counted as of noon, according to The Associated Press. The AP had also called two other top finishers: Republican Nick Begich came in second with 19.2 percent, while independent Al Gross nabbed third with 12.7 percent. The AP still had not yet called the fourth finisher, though Democrat Mary Peltola was in the lead for the final slot. The top four candidates will face off in a ranked-choice election in August. 

What conviction?: Former Florida Rep. Corrine Brown will run for Congress again in the Orlando-area 10th District for the Democratic nomination to replace Democratic Rep. Val B. Demings, who is running for Senate. Brown was convicted in 2017 of using a fake charity to fund a lavish lifestyle and served two years of her five-year sentence before she was released on humanitarian grounds during the coronavirus pandemic. She had petitioned for a retrial but instead pleaded guilty in May to one count of tax fraud as part of a plea deal.  Former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson also announced this week that he will abandon his Senate bid to run in the 10th District. 

With friends like these: Oregon Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, who lost his primary to Jamie McLeod-Skinner last month, said he thought Republicans now have a good chance of winning his district. “I think the red wave begins in Oregon, Oregon’s 5th District. That’s unfortunate,” he told KATU in an interview. Schrader said that redistricting and the Democratic Party’s shift leftward were the chief factors in his loss. McLeod-Skinner, meanwhile, has been hitting her opponent, Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, a former Happy Valley mayor, for not giving a “clear answer” about who won the 2020 presidential election.

Crowded field: None of the candidates in the Republican primary in Virginia’s 7th District has sought to fill the “moderate” lane, but several candidates are competitive ahead of the Tuesday contest. 

#OHSen: Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for his state’s open Senate seat, is out with two new ads, including one hitting his opponent, Republican J.D. Vance. The other spot highlights Ryan’s roots and his support for Trump on trade matters. “I don’t answer to any political party. I answer to the folks I grew up with and the families like yours all across Ohio,” Ryan says in the ad. 

#OH13: A new poll from GQR suggests a competitive matchup taking shape in Ohio’s newly drawn 13th District, an open seat currently held by Ryan, who is running for Senate. Democratic state lawmaker Emilia Sykes was essentially tied, 47-45 percent, with Republican Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, a Trump-endorsed lawyer who served as a 2016 surrogate for the Trump campaign, according to a memo shared with At the Races. Inside Elections rates the race Tilt Republican. 

What Chuck Schumer’s reading: A pair of polls released this week show the Democratic candidates running for open Senate seats in North Carolina and Pennsylvania leading their Republican rivals, a result that would flip both seats blue if things turn out that way in November. A WRAL News poll shows North Carolina Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley leading GOP Rep. Ted Budd by 4 percentage points, with 44 percent of likely general election voters saying they would support Beasley and 40 percent saying they would support Budd. A separate USA Today Network/Suffolk University poll in Pennsylvania found Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman leads Republican Mehmet Oz by 9 points.

On the attack: Iowa Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne, one of the House’s most vulnerable incumbents this year, is out with her first ad since Republican voters in the 3rd District picked state Sen. Zach Nunn to challenge her. It’s an attack spot accusing Nunn of sponsoring legislation to loosen amusement park regulations before a child died at Adventureland’s Raging River ride last year. Meanwhile, Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is out with another new ad, hitting her likely opponent, Republican Tiffany Smiley, as a “hand-picked candidate” of McConnell. 

Ginning up donors: Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton convened a group of political donors to discuss a possible presidential run in 2024. Two attendees told Politico that Cotton wouldn’t defer to other potential candidates, including Trump. 

EGAD: Even as Republicans are favored to win control of the House in November, the policy contours coming into focus spell out EGAD: the economy, guns, abortion and democracy, issues that may help Democrats, Walter Shapiro writes in Roll Call. 

It’s hard to keep track: GOP Georgia Senate nominee Herschel Walker, who has bragged about being a model dad to his 22-year-old son Christian and criticized Black “absentee dads,” acknowledged this week that he has a second 10-year old son after a Daily Beast report said Walker had played very little role in the child’s life. And on Thursday he admitted to having two more children that he had not publicly acknowledged. In a statement to the Daily Beast, Walker said he had never “denied” his children, but has chosen not to use them as “props to a political campaign.” The revelations are the latest of a series of controversial reports poking holes in Walker’s presentation of his biography during his campaign against Sen. Raphael Warnock, including false claims that he worked in law enforcement and graduated from college, exaggerations about his business successes and statements promoting a purported coronavirus cure.

Trump target: Freshman Rep. Peter Meijer  released his first ad ahead of an August GOP primary in Michigan. Meijer hasn’t made his vote to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 a focal point of his campaign and has a significant cash advantage over his opponent, John Gibbs, but that will be another test for both Meijer and Trump, according to Politico. If Meijer wins the primary, he also faces a difficult general election. 

Family donation: A super PAC supporting Bob Healey Jr., who won the Republican primary to challenge Democratic Rep. Andy Kim in New Jersey’s 3rd District, received a $2 million donation from a notable donor: Healey’s mother, Ellen Healey. 

What we’re reading

A higher bar: The House Jan. 6 committee is making its case to the American people that Trump “ripped off donors with false fundraising pitches after the 2020 election,” but prosecutors would face higher hurdles if they were to pursue a criminal fraud case in court, CNN reports.

Progressive infighting: “It’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult,” The Intercept’s Ryan Grim writes in a deep dive on the divisions within the movement. 

Crossing the lines: Democrats have spent more than $20 million so far this cycle to boost deeply flawed and oftentimes far-right candidates in GOP primaries, and that meddling is paying political dividends, according to National Journal. The New York Times also looked at this “risky strategy” and the debate it’s prompted within the party.

The count : $44,110

That’s how much the National Association of Realtors PAC shelled out this week in support of Katie Britt in the Alabama Senate GOP primary runoff, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The group, one of the top spenders on federal lobbying, said in FEC filings that the money was for online ads and video production. The spots were aimed at NAR members in the state. The runoff between Britt, a former aide to retiring Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby, and Rep. Mo Brooks is Tuesday. It will essentially determine who assumes the seat in the deep-red state. 

Nathan’s notes

After the GOP did not follow through on its attempt to break up Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II’s Kansas City-based district, the closest competitive seat is Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids’ in the suburbs on the Kansas side of the border, according to Nathan L. Gonzales’ race ratings. Rep. Ann Wagner’s St. Louis-area 2nd District, which had been the only competitive district in Missouri, is now rated Solid Republican.   

Candidate confessions

Dan Sanchez, a Democrat who lost a special election Tuesday to Republican Mayra Flores in Texas’ 34th District, lamented a lack of support from national Democrats in a race that was the target of significant Republican resources.

“Based on the results, we came up short tonight despite being outspent by millions of dollars from out-of-state interests and the entire Republican machine,” he said. “Too many factors were against us, including little to no support from the national Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.”

Shop talk: Jesse Ferguson

Ferguson is a strategist who works for a variety of progressive issue groups and independent expenditure organizations. He previously served as director of independent expenditures and communications director for the DCCC and deputy national press secretary and senior spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Starting out: While Ferguson was a student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, he became concerned about budget cuts in the state Assembly that were driving up tuition costs and cutting financial aid. He began organizing college students across the state to support increased investment in higher education. That work led him to start a nonprofit after he graduated to support the proposed budget of the governor at the time, current Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. He then worked in the state legislature and statewide politics for about 10 years. 

Most unforgettable campaign moment: “Running the DCCC independent expenditures, they give you a large program to run and they firewall you off from the rest of the organization in order to do it,” he said. “We spent months building out really high-quality ads and smart media strategies. And the first time our operations director came into my office with an approval form for a $10 million wire was definitely a big kid moment where you know that you’ve done all the work to make sure that it’s the right thing to do. But you’re still, you know, in your early 30s, and signing a wire transfer for a sum of money that it’s rare you would ever be solely responsible for. And so, you take a big, deep breath, and even a little gulp, before signing that. Since then, I’ve probably done about $300 million in ad campaigns, but that first $10 million wire, and really checking yourself whether you had thought through the strategy, the message, the advertising and the media buy, that’s a definite take-a-deep-gulp kind of moment.” 

Biggest campaign regret: “I don’t know if you heard, but Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016,” he said. “I definitely went into Election Day 2016 with my party hat and my kazoo assuming that that trajectory of that race was going to lead to a Hillary Clinton victory, and not seeing the power, the effectiveness of Trump’s branding and message repetition. That was a blind spot. I did not see it until election night 2016. I would love to run around afterwards and say, ‘Oh, I saw it coming,’ but that would be horses—. So I remember, and this is probably more graphic than you necessarily need. But on election night 2016, I was at the Javits Center in our war room. And I went to use the bathroom, and I’m standing at the urinal. I’ve warned you this was a little graphic. I’m standing at the urinal. And in walks a longtime friend, colleague of mine who had been really looking at the data in depth. And he said he thought there was almost no chance we would win Michigan, and that would be the official break in the blue wall. So finding out that I had missed what was coming, and finding out about it while standing in the bathroom, feels like it fully encapsulates my regret from that election cycle.”
Unconventional wisdom: “The authenticity of your brand matters more than your policy agenda. Voters will respond, even if you disagree with them, if it is consistent with who they believe you are, and what they believe makes you tick. That doesn’t mean that the agenda doesn’t matter. It matters tremendously. But people who force themselves to act like contortionists in order to check policy boxes without consideration for what voters think drives them usually end up on the losing end.”

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Coming up

The country celebrates its newest federal holiday, Juneteenth, on Monday. Then, on Tuesday, there are primaries in Virginia and runoffs in Alabama and Georgia.

Photo finish

Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., shown last November, lost his GOP primary on Tuesday to a candidate who said Rice was a traitor for voting with nine other House Republicans to impeach President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. (File photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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