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At the Races: Under new management?

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.

Happy new election cycle to you, our dear At the Races readers, as the 2024 Michigan Senate contest just got a lot more uncertain (read more on that below). The House reconvened this afternoon to take up, for the third day in a row, its first order of business: electing a speaker, and the stalemate already has spilled into House races, with potentially more consequences to come. 

How much this troubled opening of the 118th Congress may affect House races remains a big unknown, but the drama this week seems to portend possible trouble for big-profile items, like raising the debt limit and keeping the government funded. The financial markets and most persuadable voters aren’t big fans of that type of brinkmanship and chaos. 

We’ve seen a lot of jokes, memes and Democrats sharing their popcorn emojis, but the matter could hold serious consequences. What if we were waiting on the House to certify a presidential election, as communications consultant David Lapan suggests. House Republicans’ public speaker squabble may well fade into obscurity by Election Day 2024, but that’s no sure bet. And GOP members in perennially competitive districts — California’s Mike Garcia, Nebraska’s Don Bacon — are among those with the least patience for the intransigence of a small group of their colleagues.  

Among a litany of concessions aimed at wooing the 20 Republican holdouts to wannabe speaker Kevin McCarthy was a pledge from the Congressional Leadership Fund — the leading House GOP leadership-aligned super PAC — not to put its money into open seat primaries in Republican districts. CLF, along with the Club for Growth, issued a joint statement Wednesday night saying that, under those conditions, both groups were backing McCarthy for the job. CLF definitely plays in primaries but mostly in districts that are competitive, boosting candidates — such as Reps.-elect Jen Kiggans of Virginia and Tom Kean Jr. of New Jersey — who flipped Democratic-held seats in 2022. 

The two groups tangled in a few primaries this past cycle, most notably in the GOP contest for Texas’ 8th District, where Morgan Luttrell, CLF’s favored candidate, prevailed against the Club’s pick, Christian Collins. CLF sent money to another group, American Patriots PAC, to boost Luttrell. “CLF will not spend in any open-seat primaries in safe Republican districts and CLF will not grant resources” to other super PACs to do so, CLF President Dan Conston said in a news release. The Club’s David McIntosh added that the agreement “fulfills a major concern we have pressed for.”

Our Niels Lesniewski noted on Twitter on Wednesday night, however, that a safe GOP district can theoretically become competitive if a problematic candidate wins the primary. We’re thinking of Washington’s 3rd District, for example, where nominating Joe Kent let an otherwise safe Republican seat slip away. So it’s possible that “safe” may be open for interpretation. We’ll see.  

Starting gate

Motoring: Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow won’t be running for another term next year, but she is going to try to finish one more farm bill.

Challenging ethics: Advocacy groups say the rules package proposed by House Republican leaders would effectively gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, which already has gotten a request for an investigation of New York Republican Rep.-elect George Santos.

ICYMI

Raising money on speaker squabble: Party leaders and outside groups have seized on House Republicans’ speaker squabble to raise political money. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York sent multiple appeals. “This changes everything for Democrats. We now have a huge opportunity to step in and show what we can do — but only if we move quickly to prove our numbers,” he wrote in an email soliciting donations for fellow House Democrat Eric Swalwell of California. In another appeal, for the DCCC, Jeffries wrote: “So we can either let extreme MAGA Republicans govern by mayhem and attack our freedoms … Or we can take advantage of this one-in-a-generation moment and start building the grassroots foundation that will retake the House. So I’m asking urgently: Will you help me prove that grassroots Democrats can get more support than Republicans in these first hours of the new Republican House?” Meanwhile, the new American Firearms Association sent out a pitch that included a link to a poll on preferred speaker candidates, including one option, Lee Zeldin, who isn’t in Congress anymore but did get one vote for speaker Tuesday.

No coffee?: Along with keeping incoming members from taking their oaths, the standoff in picking a speaker is blocking some of their aides from doing some routine things, CQ Roll Call’s Justin Papp reports.

Seeking greener pastures?: The Latino Victory Fund this week endorsed Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García in his bid to become mayor of Chicago. García told CQ Roll Call’s Caitlin Reilly, who caught up with the congressman in the halls this week, that he planned to remain in the House unless elected mayor, in which case he’d vacate his seat, allowing for a special election. The nonpartisan general election is planned for Feb. 28, and he’s running in a crowded field of 10 that includes incumbent Lori Lightfoot. A runoff is set for April 4, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.  

GOP layoffs: The GOP firm Targeted Victory is laying off “nearly” one-third of its staff, according to Politico. The firm’s CEO, Zac Moffatt, told the outlet that it was part of an “end-of-cycle adjustment.”

Big checks: The Federal Election Commission is questioning three contributions of $25,000 each received by a joint fundraising committee tied to Santos’ campaign in New York. “The amounts … appear greater than the total amount the … Joint Fundraising Committee can accept. … If any contribution you received exceeds the limits, you may have to refund the excessive amount,” a letter to the group’s treasurer states.

What we’re reading

Looking at Donalds: After becoming the favorite alternative speaker candidate Wednesday to a small group of House Republican holdouts, The Associated Press profiled Florida Rep. Byron Donalds.

PA drama: A bitter leadership fight dissolves into chaos in the House chamber. No, it’s not Congress, but rather the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Spotlight PA looks at the power struggle in Harrisburg, which — unlike the power struggle in Washington — was resolved Tuesday with a surprise pick for speaker.

The count: 0

That’s how many votes against Kevin McCarthy were changed on Wednesday after former President Donald Trump issued a social media call (with liberal use of capital letters) urging House Republicans to get behind him.

Nathan’s notes

The numbers have been crunched, and Nathan L. Gonzales has updated “vote above replacement” stats showing which Senate candidates in 2022 really shone, and which did worse than a generic member of their party.

Candidate confessions

Along with references to Cincinnatus, Caesar and “civic pluralism” fit for the halls of higher education, the farewell speech this week of Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse — who is resigning to become president of the University of Florida — also offered some middle-school-themed analysis of the Senate and of his at-times strained relationship with his home state. 

Our wrestling together — Nebraskans and me — over the last eight years has had some marked ups and downs, as you gave me victories in all 93 counties when I ran for office the very first time in my life in 2014 and then made me the most censured public official in the history of Nebraska over the next six years; but then proceeded, two years ago, to reelect me again, again winning all 93 counties and securing the most votes of anyone in the history of our state. Many times it felt like a noogie and a slap and a head butt and a hug all at once,” Sasse said.

And the senator, who voted to impeach Trump and was taunted again this week in an email blast from Mar-a-Lago, had this assessment on the election of 2016 that Trump won against Hillary Clinton: “What happened in 2016 was a race to the bottom by statistically the two most unpopular majority party candidates in the history of polling. One guy won simply because he was the second-most unpopular person in the history of polling. Go to any corner bar, and a supermajority of Americans already know this.”

Shop talk: Nathalie Rayes

Rayes is the president and CEO of Latino Victory, a progressive organization dedicated to building Latino political power at every level of government and developing a base of Latino donors. 

Starting out: She graduated from UCLA with a sociology degree in 1996 and initially planned to attend law school. While studying for the LSATs, she took an entry-level job with Mike Feuer, who was then a member of the Los Angeles City Council. The experience led her to forgo a law degree and instead pursue a master’s degree in public policy. She became Feuer’s senior policy adviser and later worked for former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn. “My work in the mayor’s and city councilor’s office showed me how important our government is in the daily lives of our community,’’ she said. 

Most unforgettable campaign moment: Rayes cited a number of recent victories notched by Latino Victory candidates. “When we elected the first Latina senator from Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, that was pretty amazing,” she said. “When we helped Alex Padilla become the first Mexican American to be a senator from California, that was unbelievable. When I see Latinas in this past cycle — Andrea Salinas from Oregon and Yadira Caraveo from Colorado — become the first Latinas elected to Congress from those states, those are memorable moments for me.” Those wins are important, she said, because Latinos hold just 1 percent of political power in the U.S., despite making up 20 percent of the population. “For us, that’s simply unacceptable,’’ she said.

Biggest campaign regret: “I’m an optimist,” Rayes said. “I don’t think in terms of regrets, I think in terms of opportunity.” She says she’s learned that failures often present opportunities to grow and change direction. “Campaigns operate in terms of winning and losing, but I think even when the candidate doesn’t make it across the finish line, there was an opportunity that that person took and that in itself is an accomplishment.”
Unconventional wisdom: “As Latinas, we’re always told ‘Wait your turn’ [and] ‘Only speak when you’re spoken to,’’’ she said. “We’ve got to switch that around … don’t wait until they call on you. Take that chance and speak up.” She cautions would-be candidates not to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome. “We have to recognize that we are powerful, and we deserve to have our voices in politics heard. If you’re the only Latino in the room working on a political campaign, your point of view has power. You have to claim that power and take up that space.”

Coming up

Resignation watch: Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse’s resignation is effective on Saturday, meaning we should know soon the identity of his successor. It is widely expected that outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts (whose official last day in office is today) will get the appointment.

Photo finish

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Wednesday during a vote in which he did not receive enough votes to become speaker. Republicans Tom Emmer of Minnesota, right; Dan Newhouse of Washington, left; and Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri are nearby.

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