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At the Races: Summer’s last surprise

Welcome to At the Races! Each week we 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.

Democrat Mary Peltola’s win Wednesday night in the Alaska special election to replace the late GOP Rep. Don Young gave her party yet another data point to show that momentum is building in its favor in the final months before the midterm elections. 

Peltola’s victory, aided by Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, was the second time in two weeks — after Democrat Pat Ryan’s victory in New York’s 19th District — that a Democrat defied expectations to win a special election. Not only did she flip a seat in a state that favors Republicans, Peltola also continued Democrats’ streak of overperforming in the five special elections since the June Supreme Court ruling that overturned Americans’ longstanding right to an abortion. 

Democrats have responded to the trend with renewed optimism.

The DCCC announced this morning that it is adding Ryan to its incumbent protection program for his reelection bid in the newly redrawn 18th District and adding three candidates — Kirsten Engel in Arizona’s 6th District, Robert Zimmerman in New York’s 3rd District and Josh Riley in New York’s 19th District — to its Red-to-Blue program, even though those seats are technically blue now. The move signals that the committee is prepared to invest in districts that President Joe Biden carried by narrow margins in 2020. That’s notable because Republicans are targeting seats that Biden would have carried by as many as 20.9 points.

In the Senate, where Democrats are feeling even more confident thanks to the foibles of Republican nominees in several key races, Democrats are also expanding their sights. Our friend Jacob Rubashkin at Inside Elections noticed on Tuesday that Duty and Honor PAC, an affiliate of the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, is “dipping the slightest of toes” into the Solid Republican Iowa Senate race, with a $58,000 ad buy attacking GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley

Republican strategists assured us this week that they are not concerned. They said the left-leaning media has exaggerated the importance of some recent developments, like the number of GOP nominees who have removed references to abortion and former President Donald Trump on their websites — while underplaying issues that are more important to outside-the-Beltway voters, such as increases in the violent crime rates. Accordingly, Republicans on the campaign trail remain focused on crime and economic messages. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for example, was preparing to deliver a speech at a Pennsylvania rally this afternoon with 8th District GOP candidate Jim Bognet about “rising crime, record high inflation and other hardships brought on by the Democrats’ harmful policies,” according to a media announcement in advance of the event. 

In just a few days we will be entering a new, post-Labor Day phase of the cycle, when historical trends suggest that the terrain gets harder for the party in control of Washington and fall ad buys suggest that Republican outside groups have invested more than their Democratic counterparts and are poised to hit Democrats with a barrage of attacks.

Starting gate

All about Peltola: Democrat Peltola, who will be the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, is heading for Capitol Hill after winning a special ranked choice election. We have more details about what her win might mean for ranked voting, the race in November and facts about Peltola (who has seven children). 

MAGA messaging: Biden argued against Trump’s “Make America Great Again” politics in a speech in Maryland last week, and while he may echo a similar message in a prime-time address tonight in Philadelphia, that may not be the message Democrats make in battleground races that could determine which party controls Congress.  

Campaign environment: As Democrats seek to promote their climate plan to voters, the national environmental advocacy group LCV Victory Fund is launching its first investment in House races of the 2022 cycle in six battleground House districts. However, the first ad launched in the campaign, targeting Republican Lisa Scheller, who is challenging Rep. Susan Wild in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, was taken off the air this week after Scheller’s campaign argued its claims were misleading. LCV Victory Fund said it would release a new ad. 


Gavel gambling?: If you can bet on the price of pork bellies, why not on the party of the next Senate majority leader? That’s what a New York firm is asking the federal agency that regulates commodities future contracts, CQ Roll Call’s Peter Feltman reports.

Primary post-parting: Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist resigned his seat representing Florida’s 13th District, CQ Roll Call’s Chris Cioffi reports.

Spanglish: BOLD PAC, the congressional Hispanic caucus’ campaign arm, is releasing a series of videos on a bilingual YouTube channel to combat misinformation targeting Latino voters and to mobilize young voters. The latest highlights Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt. 

Ad watch: Republican Jen Kiggans, running in Virginia’s 2nd District, released an economy-focused ad, while John James, a Republican running in Michigan’s 10th District, called up his high school football coach for his own ad. In Colorado, Republican Joe O’Dea featured his wife in one ad, while Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet released one exclusively in Spanish. The DSCC released an ad highlighting Blake Masters’ opposition to exceptions to an abortion ban in cases of rape or incest. BOLD PAC said it was starting a $250,000 digital ad campaign today to support Democrat Rudy Salas in California’s 22nd District, where he is challenging Republican Rep. David Valadao

Outside ads: The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House Republican leadership, added $37 million to its fall ad reservations in 20 districts. It also launched new ads in Connecticut’s 5th District, attacking Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes and supporting GOP challenger George Logan; Michigan’s 8th District, attacking Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee; Michigan’s 7th District, attacking Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin; and Maine’s 2nd District, attacking Democratic Rep. Jared Golden

Granite State ad surge: Outside groups are flooding New Hampshire with television ads ahead of the Sept. 13 primary. The PAC Democrats Serve has booked about $100,000 in television and online ads to support Robert Burns, a Republican seeking to challenge Rep. Ann McLane Kuster in the 2nd District, in the latest example of Democrats boosting conservative candidates in GOP primaries. A separate newly created super PAC, White Mountain PAC, has spent $4 million on ads supporting Chuck Morse, the state Senate president, who is running for the state’s Republican Senate nomination, according to AdImpact. 

Debate on debates: Pennsylvania Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz went back and forth this week on plans to debate. Oz has criticized Fetterman for not agreeing to debates, including two that were scheduled for next week, and not explaining what conditions for a debate he would agree to. The Fetterman campaign has pushed back, arguing that Oz’s campaign is mocking his recovery from a May stroke. “When they want to get into a serious conversation and really talk about having a debate, I’d be happy to engage in that. But right now, the fact [is] that they have chosen to have a deeply unserious campaign to just ridicule somebody that is just recovering from a stroke,” Fetterman said Wednesday in an MSNBC interview, his first national interview since the stroke. 

What we’re reading

The new frontier: Priorities USA, one of the top Democratic super PACs, is using its largesse to push Democratic groups deeper into digital ads, NBC reports. 

Expensive: Puck and The Washington Post both wrote about the relationship between McConnell and Peter Thiel, who financed super PACs that helped Blake Masters and J.D. Vance win Senate primaries in Arizona and Ohio, respectively, but has rebuffed requests to continue supporting their campaigns this fall. 

On the trail: The 19th News checks in on the Nevada Senate race, where Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto faces a tough reelection. The economy and abortion rights, this election cycle’s dominant but potentially competing themes, are “front-and-center” there, writes former Roll Caller Amanda Becker

Last frontier: Rubashkin takes a deep dive into the Alaska special election for Inside Elections, with a rating change moving the race to Tilt Republican. 

Scott speaks: National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott writes in a Washington Examiner op-ed that Republicans shouldn’t criticize the party’s Senate candidates. “Ultimately, though, when you complain and lament that we have ‘bad candidates,’ what you are really saying is that you have contempt for the voters who chose them,” wrote the Florida Republican.  

The count: 50%

That’s how many Alaska voters who made Republican Nick Begich III their top choice in the Aug. 16 special election for the remainder of late Rep. Don Young’s term picked fellow Republican Sarah Palin as their second choice in the state’s new ranked choice system. But that also means 50 percent didn’t pick Palin. Some 21 percent didn’t pick anyone, and 29 percent picked Democrat Mary Peltola. So when Begich was eliminated on Wednesday and half of his votes were added to Palin’s total, it wasn’t enough to put her ahead of Peltola, who had led in the early counting. Peltola was declared the winner with 51.5 percent to Palin’s 48.5 percent.

Nathan’s notes

With most of the primaries behind us, Nathan L. Gonzales has updated his ratings of battleground House and Senate races. While some Democrats are facing tougher races, there is also a combination of factors making the environment worse for Republicans than it appeared to be earlier this year.

Candidate confessions

Peltola said Wednesday, after winning Alaska’s special election, that she hoped to continue Young’s legacy. Her family had close ties to the congressman, and she recalled that her parents campaigned for him even before she was born. “When my mom and dad campaigned for Don Young in 1973, my mom was pregnant with me,” Peltola told the local TV station KTUU. “Both of my parents are going to be really excited. Today happens to be my 49th birthday, so it’s just honestly the best birthday ever.” The Democrat added that she planned to work across party lines on Capitol Hill, a lesson she said she learned quickly in the state legislature after initially expecting to go there to “fight enemies.” 

“I have really spent my lifetime working with everyone and anyone to overcome our challenges, whether it be in the state legislature, or in salmon management, and I intend to use those skills in Congress,” she said. “I know it’s a much heavier lift. I know that there are a lot more people involved. I know that it is a very partisan atmosphere, but I think that this campaign shows that there is an appetite, at least among Alaskans, for a leader who is not partisan and does not tap into divisive language and really tries to work with everyone and anyone to overcome our challenges.”

Shop talk: David Cohen

Cohen is a founder and co-CEO of Forward Majority, a group that works to elect Democrats to state legislatures. 

Starting out: After college, Cohen began his career as a teacher with the expectation that he’d go into education policy work. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened during his second week of teaching. “Obviously, it was an incredibly difficult time for the country, and a lot of us, I think, were grappling with what it meant for every aspect of life in America going forward and what we were going to do about it,” he said. “So it was, for me, really important to get involved in politics, seeing how political decisions were being made. So in 2003, I went out to New Hampshire and drove around until someone gave me a job.” He ended up working as a field organizer for retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s short-lived presidential campaign. “I loved it and just had a blast,” he said. “I think for a lot of people they’re like, ‘OK, I got a taste of campaign life and that was enough.’ And then other folks sort of catch the bug and, you know, the only cure for finishing one campaign is to get on to another one.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: Cohen ran the direct mail program for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and was working out of the Chicago headquarters. “There was a countdown clock in the office, counting down to when polls closed on the West Coast on Election Day, and it had been going for months, years. Watching with other staff as the clock counted down to polls closing and then, literally running down Michigan Avenue to get into the staff area in Grant Park to watch Obama give his speech on election night. There was something so magical about that time and that campaign, but also, that particular moment, to me, kind of crystallized all of the amazing nature of that moment in American politics.”

Biggest campaign regret: “It sounds kind of silly, but, you know, in 2008, I always regretted not going back out to a state. Working in Chicago was great because it was a new experience. … But I always regretted not going back out to a state,” he said, noting that he’d managed Obama’s primary efforts in a few states, including Nevada and Connecticut. “It was great to get to know that environment and understand how a presidential [campaign] operates from the headquarters, but, at the same time, the action is in the states.” 

Unconventional wisdom: “The first thing that comes to mind is taking advantage of the opportunity to get to know the country,” he said. “There was nothing better for me as a New Englander than working in South Dakota, for example, or Nevada or Tennessee. And really starting to understand how America has so many things in common, but the politics is also so distinct and how things play out in such different ways in different places. So take every opportunity you can to get out and learn the country and the regional differences and the idiosyncrasies of states and cities. I found that stuff incredibly rewarding and exciting,” he said. “You get such an appreciation for the diversity of politics in America.”

Do you know someone who works in campaigns whom we should feature for Shop Talk? Email us at

Coming up

Massachusetts has primaries on Tuesday, but not only are each of the nine Democratic House incumbents running uncontested, there are only two Republican primaries in those nine districts. In fact, the GOP doesn’t even have anyone running against freshman Democratic Rep. Jake Auchincloss in the 4th District, according to The Associated Press.

Photo finish

A supporter attends a rally headlined by Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in Leesburg, Va., on Oct. 27, 2008. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

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