At the Races: If Democrats can make it there

Posted August 25, 2022 at 2:30pm

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President Joe Biden’s appearance at a rally kicking off the midterm campaigns in Maryland later today comes as Democrats are riding high after Pat Ryan’s win in upstate New York’s 19th District special election. 

The unexpected win in a Toss-Up race against a top GOP recruit has Democrats increasingly confident that they could escape a so-called “Red Wave” this November. Ryan’s focus on abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade further underscores Democrats’ belief that protecting reproductive rights is a message that resonates with voters.

But Democrats could avoid a wave and still lose the majority in the House or Senate. And Biden’s announcement Wednesday that the administration would cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for certain borrowers is yet another reminder that the policy contours of the midterms are still taking shape. 

Republicans pushed back on the student loan announcement as “unfair” to many Americans. Former NRSC Chair John Cornyn called it an “election year stunt.”

While some Democrats surely hope the decision to forgive some student loan debt will further encourage their base to turn out and vote this fall, many who are defending vulnerable seats this fall distanced themselves from the announcement and criticized it for not addressing the high cost of higher education directly. 

“This announcement by President Biden is no way to make policy and sidesteps Congress and our oversight and fiscal responsibilities,” New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas said in a statement. “Any plan to address student debt should go through the legislative process, and it should be more targeted and paid for so it doesn’t add to the deficit.”

Starting gate

Executive suite: Ryan, the Ulster County executive, beat Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, by 2 points. The Democrat told supporters at his watch party Tuesday that initial polls had him losing by 14 points, and that he initially struggled with whether to run because county executives get to do a lot, CQ Roll Call’s Jackie Wang reports. But the state’s new congressional maps that will be in place in November complicate interpretations that the race was a bellwether. 

Maloney loses: Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, suffered a bruising Democratic primary defeat to Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler after both were drawn into the 12th District. But as CQ Roll Call's Niels Lesniewski reports, she offered an appraisal over the weekend of what she’d accomplished in 15 terms in Congress and work she would still like to see done. 

Another incumbent loss: Current 17th District Rep. Mondaire Jones, who moved to Brooklyn to run in the 10th District, lost his Democratic primary bid Tuesday to Dan Goldman, who served as counsel for House Democrats during President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. Jones moved rather than challenge another Democrat near where he used to live in White Plains, but several progressive candidates battled for votes in a 13-person race. 

Short-term Rep.: Republican Joe Sempolinski will join the House for the remainder of this year to complete former Rep. Tom Reed’s term in New York’s 23rd District, CQ Roll Call’s Nick Eskow reports. A former campaign manager and legislative director for Reed, Sempolinski opted not to run for the full term after redistricting realigned seats in western New York. 

Primary night rundown: Here are some other highlights from Tuesday’s contests in Florida, New York and Oklahoma.   

Seeing red: Most of the winners of Tuesday’s House primaries in Florida are likely to go to Congress under a new congressional map that drastically reduced the state’s competitiveness and advantaged Republicans. 

Pa. pulse check: Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz is stepping up attacks on opponent John Fetterman’s largely virtual campaign as the Democratic nominee continues to recover from a stroke and use social media to taunt the Republican, Lesniewski reports.

ICYMI

Worth 3,000 words: CQ Roll Call photojournalists Bill Clark and Tom Williams posted some of their best takes from travels in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Interior investigation: Republican Ryan Zinke, the former Interior secretary who is seeking a return to the House in Montana, lied about conversations he had about an effort by two Indian tribes to operate a casino in New England, according to the department’s investigators, CQ Roll Call’s Valerie Yurk reports.

Ad watch: Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP leadership-aligned super PAC, is up with new ads in Washington’s 8th District and Virginia’s 2nd District, attacking Democratic Reps. Kim Schrier and Elaine Luria, respectively, for voting with Biden’s agenda. 

Update, Alaska: The new ranked voting system that Alaska put into practice this year is taking another unexpected turn. Republican candidate Tara Sweeney, who ran in the Aug. 16 all-party primary for the state’s lone House seat in the next Congress, said she would end her campaign. She was on pace to finish fourth, which would have put her on the November ballot where voters may then order candidates. “I don’t see a path to victory,” Sweeney said, according to local news reporting. Her departure may open the fourth slot to Libertarian candidate Chris Bye, who is currently in fifth place. The Associated Press has already called the top three: Democrat Mary Peltola and Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III. Those three are also in a three-way race, which will go to ranked voting next week, to fill out the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term. The fourth candidate, Independent Al Gross, dropped out and was not replaced on the special election ballot.  

Indiana special: Indiana Republicans picked Rudy Yakym, a former campaign finance director for the late GOP Rep. Jackie Walorski, to run in the Nov. 8 special election to fill the remainder of her term in the Solid Republican 2nd District, and to replace her on the ballot in the simultaneous general election. Yakym was endorsed by Walorski’s husband, Dean Swihart, after Walorski died in a car crash with two aides early this month. 

Abortion ads: The DCCC announced a six-figure, Latino-focused digital ad campaign in English and Spanish that will run in battleground districts, focusing on Republican-led efforts to restrict abortion access. The ads reflect polling that Latino voters are increasingly concerned about abortion rights, contrary to presumptions that Latinos’ conservative views on abortion have driven some to vote for Republicans in recent cycles. 

Campaign allegations: A lawyer for the campaign of Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski sent a letter recently alleging Federal Election Commission and Federal Communications Commission “infractions” by her opponent Kelly Tshibaka’s campaign. Murkowski and fellow Republican Tshibaka, who has the backing of Donald Trump, will face off along with two other candidates, including Democrat Patricia Chesbro, in a ranked choice general election in November. 

Wood not: John Wood, a Republican-turned-independent former investigator for the Jan. 6 committee, ended his campaign to replace retiring Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt. He said in a statement that he no longer saw a path to victory after scandal-plagued former Gov. Eric Greitens lost the Republican primary. 

By the Horns: Political newcomer Madison Horn won the Democratic primary runoff to challenge GOP Sen. James Lankford in Oklahoma, a race that is rated Solid Republican in November. Horn’s victory means she will share the November ballot with another Democrat with the same last name – former Rep. Kendra Horn is running against Rep. Markwayne Mullin to replace retiring Sen. James Inhofe in the state’s other Senate race. The two Democrats aren’t related, although Madison Horn is a distant cousin of Mullin’s. 

Quirks: Republican Marc Molinaro’s loss in the New York’s 19th District special election this week was a “quirk,” according to a memo from NRCC Chair Tom Emmer obtained by Axios. He argued that Democrats typically turn out in higher numbers for New York’s closed-party primaries, which were held on the same day, discouraging Independents from voting. 

What we’re reading

Their bad: The Echelon Insights polling firm compiled a spreadsheet of polling errors in the 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020 Senate elections and found that across all 112 elections, Democrats were overestimated by 2.7 points, on average.

Colorado battleground: National Journal descended on Colorado’s new 8th District, a competitive race where Republican Barbara Kirkmeyer, a state senator, is running against Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo.

The taxman cometh: Texas 15th District Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez and his wife claimed homestead extensions for at least eight years on two properties they separately owned, a violation of state tax laws, the Texas Tribune reported. The couple fixed the issue last year and Gonzalez said it was an “inadvertent” oversight. Gonzalez is running in a competitive race in the 34th District. 

The count: $1.6 billion

That’s the amount of a windfall donated to Marble Freedom Trust, a conservative nonprofit, from Republican mega donor Barre Seid through the sale of a company, according to a New York Times report. 

Nathan's notes

With the bulk of the primaries now behind us, Nathan is updating his race ratings. Catch up on all the changes on Friday on rollcall.com.

Candidate confessions

Progressive activist Maxwell Frost, 25, is on track to become the first member of Generation Z elected to Congress after winning the Democratic primary Tuesday to replace Rep. Val Demings in Florida’s Solid Democrat 10th District. “This win shows the country: Don’t count us out. Don’t count out young people,” he said in an election night interview on "Meet the Press." Frost, who is Afro-Cuban, sometimes drives for Uber to pay his bills. He dropped out of college to concentrate on political activism and is the former organizing director for the gun control group March for Our Lives and an ACLU activist. He said he would take what he learned in those groups to Washington, where, as Chuck Todd pointed out, the oldest likely member of the House in the next Congress will be 86. “Yes, there is a young face that is doing that work, but we need a diversity of yes, race, yes opinion, but also age,” Frost said. 

Shop talk: Doug Thornell

Thornell is currently a partner at SKDK and will become the Democratic firm’s CEO at the end of this year. He’s worked on Capitol Hill, at the DCCC, DSCC and for presidential and down-ballot campaigns.

Starting out: After graduating from college in 1999, Thornell, along with his 70-pound dog, moved into his parents’ basement in the D.C. area. “My mom suggested that I look at doing a campaign,” Thornell said. He signed on as an intern for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, then got hired to work on the Iowa caucuses for the then-vice president. “So I drove out to Iowa, I lived in Des Moines, worked on the caucuses for about four and a half months and fell in love with politics,” he said. He stayed on with the campaign through the general election, working in various states. After Gore’s loss, Thornell went to work on Capitol Hill, first for Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, then for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings at the Congressional Black Caucus.

Most unforgettable campaign moment: “It’s a tie right now,” Thornell said. Between the 2008 election cycle, when he worked at the DCCC and the party expanded its majority — “that was an incredible moment,” he recalled — and this summer, when Maryland gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore won his primary. SKDK served as ad-makers and strategists for Moore’s campaign. “This was a race that was so complicated and hard,” Thornell said of the Maryland gubernatorial primary. 

He added that passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, when he served as an adviser to then-Rep., now Sen., Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, was another major moment in his career.

Biggest campaign regret: “I think anyone who was working on the 2016 race has a regret,” he said, referring to the presidential contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Thornell worked at the Democratic National Committee, which was rocked by the disclosure of emails and communications through WikiLeaks during the campaign. “Anyone who was involved in it would probably tell you that was their biggest regret, that there was something I didn’t do, or I didn't see, and obviously the end result was catastrophic.” 

Unconventional wisdom: “Challenge yourself,” Thornell said. “I always believe you should pursue a job and do the job that initially maybe makes you a bit nervous, and maybe a tiny bit scared. You should never do a job that you know you can do because you will ultimately get super bored by it. And I believe that all of the jobs that I’ve done over my career have been reaches for me. They were jobs that, at the time, I had doubts about whether I could actually do it. Now, luckily, I had people who believed in me, who said, ‘Look, Doug, you can do this.  ... You’re not going to be perfect in the beginning, but you're going to figure it out and you're going to learn and you're going to be very good at it.’” He added that people should put themselves in rooms “that maybe you’re not totally comfortable with” and should seek out friends and colleagues who don’t always agree with them: “Democrats should have Republican friends. Republicans should have Democratic friends.”

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

Coming up

There’s a primary Saturday in Guam for the territory’s delegate to Congress, and in the age of campaigns posting million-dollar fundraising quarters, the top fundraiser’s most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission shows $73,000 raised and $55,000 spent. Incumbent Democrat Michael F.Q. San Nicolas is running for governor instead of another term in Washington, and that led the House Ethics Committee to close its investigation into alleged misuse of campaign funds and refer the case to the Justice Department.

Photo finish

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., greets voters while campaigning on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on Saturday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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