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At the Races: What pushing for voting rights accomplished

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Nearly two years into all-Democratic control of Congress and the White House, the party has not passed sweeping legislation for one of its stated top priorities: an overhaul of voting rights, campaign finance and elections law. It’s a failure, yes, but one entirely expected — and not necessarily wholly unwelcome. 

Democrats went for big, bold (read: partisan messaging) measures. While they got nothing enacted, even with members of the Congressional Black Caucus trying unsuccessfully to attach voting rights to the defense authorization bill this week, they aren’t departing the 117th Congress empty-handed. Even some skeptics of Democrats’ strategy say the party got something that may not have been possible even a few years ago:

  • Democratic unanimity for a downsized but still mega bill in the Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin III’s Freedom to Vote Act, for which he tried to get Republican support.  
  • Lots of floor time and attention for voting rights and election reforms and a clear demarcation between Democrats and Republicans on these matters.
  • Public support for “protecting democracy,” according to some recent polling showing that 59 percent of voters said it was a top issue in the midterms.  

Even as Democrats and their outside allies knew they couldn’t get the legislation through the Senate, it provided the party a rallying cry on the campaign trail.

Tina Olechowski, communications director for the overhaul groups End Citizens United and Let America Vote, which commissioned the poll, said success came in Democratic lawmakers “elevating this issue,” something that voters “obviously responded to.” Added her colleague Adam Smith: “We had full control of Congress, and when that happens you try to make change. It was absolutely the right thing to do.”

Christine Wood, a leader of a coalition pushing for the overhauls, said that of course the groups wanted sweeping legislation to pass, but she believes there was no chance of getting even modest voting rights legislation through the Senate because only one Republican (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) was on board. 

Heading into the 118th Congress with a Republican-controlled House, overhaul advocates will face even tougher odds of getting anything done and are looking to President Joe Biden’s administration to move on executive orders, including one that would require federal contractors to disclose more about their trade association dues and payments to political nonprofits, which then send donations to super PACs. 

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island spearheaded a letter pushing for that EO this week. “During this Congress, the GOP has stonewalled Democrats’ efforts to shine a light on secretive special interest political spending,” Whitehouse said in a statement to At the Races.

Overhaul advocates don’t view the past two years as wasted time. 

“A lot of us have done some soul-searching about whether or not we should have reached for the stars as much, but once we could tell Republicans were never going to pass anything, then we aimed to put together the best bill that would protect democracy and fight for it,” said Michael Sozan of the Center for American Progress. “These things take a while, and are all about building momentum. We built a lot of momentum.”

Starting gate

Werewolf caucus canceled: Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s defeat of Republican former running back Herschel Walker in Georgia gives Democrats an actual Senate majority instead of the upper hand in a 50-50 sharing agreement, which affects nominations, investigations and the schedule of Vice President Kamala Harris. While condemning the way Republicans viewed Black voters in that election, columnist Mary C. Curtis heard something in Walker’s concession speech that wasn’t evident on the campaign trail. Columnist David Winston, meanwhile, examined why GOP House candidates outperformed Senate nominees in Georgia and other battleground states.

Money problems: A growing contingent of lawmakers in the next Congress is telling corporate PACs: We don’t want your cash. Two Democrats who swore off corporate PAC donations initially but then changed their minds lost reelection this year: Elaine Luria of Virginia and Iowa’s Cindy Axne

You’ve got mail: Rep. Elise Stefanik’s campaign is accusing postal workers or contractors of opening mail and stealing nearly $20,000 in campaign donations. 

Early-state shake-up: The Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee adopted a resolution that would have South Carolina hold the first presidential primary in 2024. But New Hampshire Democrats insist they’ll abide by a state law requiring the state to hold the first primary, while other officials are angling for Nevada to go first. 

Sasse successor: Outgoing Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is seeking to fill the seat Sen. Ben Sasse is giving up on Jan. 8 — three days after Ricketts’ term ends. Sasse’s departure for the University of Florida president’s office means both Nebraska seats will be on the ballot in 2024.

ICYMI

Spanberger at the table: Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger will have a role in House Democrats’ leadership next year as the battleground representative, a new position selected by Democrats in competitive districts. CQ Roll Call’s Lindsey McPherson writes that Spanberger said her goal is to “bring the voices in swing districts and things we’re hearing on the ground to the leadership table on a regular basis.”

SCOTUS on voting: A majority of Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical of a theory from North Carolina state legislators that the state Supreme Court could not overrule state rules for congressional elections, CQ Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone reports. The case, Moore v. Harper, focused on the “independent state legislature theory.”

Latino vote: A seven-page memo from the DCCC outlines how the next Congress will have a record number of Latino members and how the party engaged with Latino voters. “Latino voters still overwhelmingly support Democrats because Democrats are the only ones fighting for our families, finances, freedoms, and futures,” the memo states. 

Tuning out: The Georgia Senate race was the most expensive of the cycle, and much of that cash funded a torrent of TV ads. But in the run-up to the runoff, some swing voters were apparently tuning out. At Sunday’s SEC championship game, The Washington Post interviewed Rico Hutchinson, 39, who doesn’t identify with a party and told the paper he voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Warnock in November. “I don’t have time to follow all the news,” said Hutchinson, who didn’t realize there was a second election.

Tiring of Trump: Just two years ago, Trump won Utah with more than 58 percent of the vote. But a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll suggests some Utah voters, even Republicans, are growing weary of the former president.

Not running: Outgoing New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, who unsuccessfully ran for governor, said he won’t challenge Ronna McDaniel to lead the Republican National Committee, “with McDaniel’s reelection pre-baked by design.”

Crypto complaint: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said it filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday against Sam Bankman-Fried. CREW alleges the crypto billionaire turned big political donor may have violated campaign finance law after “admitting to making tens of millions of dollars in dark money contributions to hide his giving from the public.” CREW Senior Vice President and Chief Counsel Donald Sherman added, in a news release, that “Bankman-Fried said the quiet part out loud. He admitted that he violated federal laws designed to ensure Americans have transparency into those funding elections and now needs to be held accountable.”

Back to the Capitol?: Former West Virginia Delegate Derrick Evans said he was considering a primary against GOP Rep. Carol Miller. Evans served a three-month sentence after he pleaded guilty to a count of civil disorder after livestreaming his participation in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

Possible rematch: Democrat Rudy Salas filed to run again against California Rep. David Valadao, opening the door to a 2024 rematch in California’s 22nd District.

What we’re reading

Stu says: Stu Rothenberg picks his biggest winners and losers, including for the biggest upset of the year, the elected official(s) who put country over party and the worst congressional nominee.   

Post-mortem: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s look at why Walker lost is full of scenes like this one, about Walker not campaigning for five days around Thanksgiving: “One aide summed up the staffers’ morale after Walker’s extended break: ‘If he doesn’t care, why should we care?’”

Pushback: Faiz Shakir, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign manager, penned a New York Times op-ed to criticize Biden’s proposal to have South Carolina hold the first Democratic presidential primary.

Trump, unraveling: “While Trump has suffered setbacks on both the political and the legal front, no one I contacted suggested that he should be counted out in the 2024 nomination fight,” writes Thomas B. Edsall in The New York Times.

MTG: The Atlantic looks at Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s rise to power in this profile

The count: 96,613

That’s how many votes Warnock beat Walker by Tuesday out of more than 3.5 million cast, based on still-incomplete tallies by The Associated Press accessed Thursday morning. That’s up from the 37,675-vote edge Warnock had over Walker in November, when a Libertarian Party candidate took 81,365 votes. Warnock increased his winning margin from less than 1 point in November to nearly 3 points in the runoff.

Nathan’s notes

It may take a while for Democrats to come down from the high of Warnock’s win and having an actual Senate majority next year, but there are dark clouds over any blue sky on the 2024 horizon. In addition to having three Democratic seats up in states that backed Trump over Biden in 2020, Nathan notes the Democrats will be defending five more in states that went for Biden only narrowly, including some of this year’s biggest battlefields. 

Candidate confessions

“I’m never going to stop fighting for Georgia, I’m never going to stop fighting for you, because you’re my family,” Walker said during his concession speech Tuesday night. “We’re all winners, and that’s what I want to say. We’re all winners.”

Shop talk: Joe Sweeney

Sweeney, a New Hampshire state representative, this year managed state Senate President Chuck Morse’s unsuccessful GOP primary bid for the U.S. Senate. Sweeney recently launched Granite Solutions, a political advocacy organization meant to offer guidance to conservatives running in local races in the state. “There’s a real missing piece of the formula in our party federally where we’re not talking about why we want to run for office and we’re not really communicating that ‘why’ with the voters,” he said of the new venture. “That’s really the main focus, is focusing on the messaging and also just building up the support infrastructure for those local candidates … that really do build the bench for the party when it comes to future state representatives and future state senators.”

Starting out: “It was actually organizing for local school issues in my district, and then from there I just started attending local Republican meetings,” he said, referencing being a 16-year-old and getting involved in an effort to build a new high school. During the 2012 campaign cycle, he interned for then-Rep. Charlie Bass’ campaign and also ran for the New Hampshire state House as an 18-year-old. He was elected and served two terms before taking a four-year break and running again in 2020. He won a fourth term last month. 

Most unforgettable campaign moment: While working for Morse’s Senate campaign, Sweeney said the team organized “what we thought was a big crowd for the Londonderry Old Home Days Parade,” which was taking place on a 100-degree day. “We had about 50 people sign up with us and actually commit with us on the campaign that they would be there. So morning of, we were expecting like 25 people at the most to show up, just with the heat and everything,” he said. “We ended up having 75 people show up for the small Old Home Day parade. I just remember, too, it was one of the best days on the campaign because it just felt like, and it was at the start of everything, right at the beginning of our climb up in the polls in August before the primary. And it just felt great, and it was one of those great grassroots moments that I’m always going to remember … and think fondly of.”

Biggest campaign regret: “Not winning was one of them,” he said, referring to Morse’s loss to retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who went on to lose to Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. “I don’t know if I really have a big regret from any of the campaigns. Controlling outside forces isn’t really something we can regret.” 

Unconventional wisdom: “I don’t know if it’s unconventional, but just don’t be afraid to ask anyone their opinion, or ask anybody for a job or how to do it,” he said. “I would always say, make the phone call, don’t send the text message.” He added that people shouldn’t be afraid to send around their ideas to see what people think. “Politics is, some view it as very dog-eat-dog … but it is very much a collaborative business, and you want to build that network and utilize your network.”

Coming up

Louisiana voters will pick a variety of judges and municipal officials, including the mayor of Shreveport, on Saturday as part of the state’s unique system that uses the November election essentially as a primary and then holds runoffs in December for positions where no one got a majority.

Photo finish

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer holds up fingers at a news conference Wednesday indicating there will be 51 senators in his caucus next year after Warnock’s victory in Georgia. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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