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At the Races: Train wreck — it’s not just a metaphor

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was in East Palestine, Ohio, where the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals is raising health and environmental concerns. He’s the second high-profile political visitor to make the trek to the village near the Pennsylvania border this week.

Former President Donald Trump arrived Wednesday and told residents that the federal government has betrayed them. That’s a message that resonates in rural Ohio, a state that Trump won in both 2016 and 2020.

“There certainly is a populist element to this, and it manifests itself in the reaction of ordinary people: They don’t trust the government,” said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. “There are politicians, Trump being one of them, who are going to try to capitalize on that.”

While Republicans stoked populist anger at the government, Democrats blasted Trump and Republicans in Congress for loosening rail industry safety standards and rolling back environmental regulations. 

They also promoted a different brand of populism, a left-wing version that targets big corporations and the power they exert over working-class voters.

“You think about just the whole idea of [having] to flee your home … because a railroad failed to do its job, as the executives and their lobbyists get richer and richer and richer,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told CNN’s Pamela Brown. “And there’s something very wrong with that.”

Brown is among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats on the ballot in 2024, and the catastrophe in East Palestine will undoubtedly reverberate on the campaign trail as Democrats seek to shore up support among the white, working-class voters who have largely abandoned the party in Ohio.  

Meanwhile, Sen. J.D. Vance, the Ohio freshman who joined Trump in East Palestine, said the Biden administration has not done enough in response to the crisis. But he also offered a critique of the railroad. The train derailment “stands at the intersection of corporate power and government power,” Vance told Axios, and the working-class voters who make up his “wing of the party are very skeptical of each.”

Starting gate

PAC money drop: Donations from corporate and trade association PACs declined in the 2022 cycle by 10 percent to Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 election for President Joe Biden, according to an analysis of campaign reports by Accountable.us, which seeks to curb corporate influence in politics.

Big Sky Senate showdown: Montana Sen. Jon Tester will seek a fourth term, a relief to Democrats who otherwise would have had to find a new candidate in a state that voted twice for Trump. Republicans could have a competitive primary, but that’s not stopping National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines from setting his sights on ousting his fellow Montanan.

Mulling 2024: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said the country shouldn’t be as divided on political lines as it historically has been on race at a county GOP dinner in his home state last week. This week he was in Iowa, another early voting state, as he weighs a 2024 presidential run. 

Third member is the charm: Rep. Barbara Lee has entered the California Senate race, joining fellow Democratic Reps. Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter. If elected, Lee would be the third Black woman ever in the Senate.  

Rhode Island report: In a surprise announcement, Rep. David Cicilline said he’s leaving Congress in June to lead the Rhode Island Foundation. The Democrat has represented the Ocean State in the House for seven terms, and the race to replace him is expected to draw a crowd. In other political news from the Ocean State, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has told WPRI 12 in Providence that he will definitely seek reelection in 2024. 

D.C.-bound: Democrat Jennifer McClellan won a special election in Virginia’s 4th District and will become the state’s first Black woman in Congress. She told CQ Roll Call’s Jackie Wang that she learned to work across the aisle when she first joined the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and had “to understand where these white, male Republicans over 50 are coming from and why they believe what they believe, and I have to not be afraid to share my perspective.”

ICYMI

Medicare politics: Republicans and the health insurance industry are using two new regulations related to the popular Medicare Advantage program to argue that Biden is cutting Medicare funding, which is a top issue in the debt ceiling fight, CQ Roll Call’s Jessie Hellmann reports. 

If they can make it there: House Majority PAC, a super PAC affiliated with House Democrats, plans to invest $45 million to try to oust the six New York Republicans who won in November in districts that Biden won in 2020. 

Fundraising for a cause: Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman’s campaign is using his email list to raise money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association after he was hospitalized last week for clinical depression. 

Will he or won’t he: Sen. Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat whose term is up next year, ruled out a run for governor Wednesday during an appearance on the Mountain State’s Metro News Talkline program. But he flat-out said he hadn’t decided whether to seek reelection and left open the possibility that he might consider a presidential run in the future. “I’m going to do whatever I can to help my state and my country,” Manchin told host Hoppy Kercheval. Manchin added that he was “right now, making that decision. … Now, you can’t go too far left and too far right. There’s nobody fighting for the middle. So where can I best fight for the middle?” 

Will he or won’t he II: Democratic Rep. Colin Allred is discussing a potential Senate run against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz next year, The Dallas Morning News reports. If he runs, Allred would face a long-standing question for Texas Democrats: Can you be the one to win statewide?

Will he or won’t he III:  New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, weighing a presidential run, tries to “be normal,” although it’s not clear whether that’s what Republican voters are looking for, The New York Times reports. 

Luria’s new PAC: Former Rep. Elaine Luria, the Virginia Democrat who lost in November, has launched a new Defend Democracy PAC, which aims to bolster state and local candidates across Virginia with an emphasis on competitive races in the Hampton Roads region.

Looking ahead: A collection of political consultants — including Kyle Reliford, who has served as a senior research consultant at the NRSC — started a new firm called Look Ahead Strategies. The shop will focus on research and communications. Reliford serves as managing director, while Chris Martin, a longtime GOP campaign strategist, will be vice president of communications. “I’m incredibly proud to be surrounded by such a talented and experienced team as we launch this new venture,” Martin said in a news release. 

What we’re reading

Getting the boot: He was Montana’s popular two-term Republican governor, but the state Republican Party now wants nothing to do with Marc Racicot. The Montana GOP formally rebuked Racicot, citing his support of Democrats in several recent elections, according to The Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell, Mont.

Small numbers, big focus: Transgender student-athletes have been a focus of GOP lawmakers in Ohio and other states. But their numbers are small: Six transgender girls play scholastic sports in Ohio — out of more than 400,000 student-athletes. News 5 Cleveland interviews one of the six, who says she feels as though there’s a target on her back.

Cracks in the gray wall? The Guardian takes stock of the gerontocracy that dominates America’s political class, including 80-year-old Joe Biden and 81-year-old Mitch McConnell, and found signs of a generational shift, starting with the departure of 82-year-old Sen. Patrick J. Leahy and the impending retirement of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89. 

“I fell straight to the ground”: In his first public remarks since suffering serious injuries after falling 25 feet from a ladder at his Sarasota home, Florida Rep. Greg Steube thanked the medical professionals who treated him and said he hopes to be back at work by March 22. Steube, who broke his pelvis, punctured a lung and suffered other injuries, revealed that he has another goal: to be well enough to play in the Congressional Baseball Game in June, according to the Bradenton Herald.

Picking sides: In the competitive Democratic Senate race in California, Rep. Doris Matsui is the latest member of the House delegation to back Schiff. In the looks-like-no-contest Republican Senate race in Indiana, former Rep. Susan Brooks endorsed Rep. Jim Banks, while Attorney General Todd Rokita passed on the race and will run for reelection.  

The count: $1 million

That’s how much three top executives from failed cryptocurrency exchange FTX donated in the six weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 elections, which came three days before the company’s bankruptcy filing, CQ Roll Call’s Caitlin Reilly reports. More than 10 percent of that — a $121,100 check from Ryan Salame, former co-CEO of FTX Digital Markets — went to Team McConnell, a joint fundraising committee supporting Senate Minority Leader McConnell, the NRSC and the 15 incumbent Republican senators up for reelection last year.

Nathan’s notes

Come for his insights into voters over age 50 in the next elections and some nuggets on this year’s gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. But absolutely stay for the outtakes. Our own Nathan L. Gonzales dishes out some wisdom in a new video from the Public Affairs Council’s recent advocacy conference in Fort Lauderdale, where the weather was almost as warm as today in D.C. “We learned from Virginia a couple of years ago that these off-year elections don’t necessarily tell us what’s going to happen next year,” Nathan says. “So these are big races, but also we have a long time before we get to 2024.”

Candidate confessions

Barbara Lee has had a history of fighting for progressive causes. It didn’t just start when Donald Trump was elected president. I’ve been resisting so much,” Lee told ABC News 7, a San Francisco news station, this week when asked what makes her different from other Democrats seeking California’s open Senate seat next year. Lee also defended her age, 76, saying, “I am glad to talk about my age because with age comes experience.”

Shop talk: Holly Harris

As president and executive director of the Justice Action Network, which advocates criminal justice reform, Harris decided she wanted to foster bipartisanship in other policy issues. So the longtime Republican pitched an idea to some financial backers to start what has become The Network, a new group that will help raise money for lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, she said. She serves as president.

Starting out: “I was born and raised a conservative Republican, and there weren’t very many of us — maybe a handful of us in Hardin County, Ky., Elizabethtown, Ky., where I’m from,” she recalled. “Kentucky was a very blue state when I was a little girl. And I went door to door with my parents trying to register voters, and I had the hose turned on me many times. Had dogs run after me. They never caught me, but learned a lot of valuable lessons, humor being one of them. Got to keep good humor in politics, but you know, resilience, tenacity, being willing to stand up to a bully.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: “I got to sit in the gallery of the United States House of Representatives when the House passed the First Step Act,” she said, recalling the moment in December 2018 when a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted for a bill overhauling sentencing and other criminal justice laws. “I cried because we got to sit with a lot of families whose loved ones would be coming home, many loved ones who had spent years longer in prison than they should have.”

Biggest campaign regret: “I regret not spreading my wings earlier,” Harris admitted. “I was pretty Kentucky-centric for the first decade of my career. I think I was afraid to move beyond the borders of Kentucky a little bit. I kind of had to get shoved out of the nest, rather than fly. And I just wish I had traveled more, that I had worked in more states.” Now as a single mom to an 11-year-old, Harris said traveling around the country requires more logistics planning. “I wish I had been bolder sooner.”

Unconventional wisdom: “We focus so much in politics on the ability to persuade, and we never talk about the ability to be persuaded,” Harris said. “I think voters will and do appreciate honesty and authenticity from their leaders. And I think the ability to admit, and the courage to admit, that you’re wrong, and that you were going down the wrong path, and then, you know, turning toward a policy that will lead to better outcomes, you know, shows strength, not weakness. So I think the ability to listen and be persuaded is something that we’re missing.”

Coming up

The Conservative Political Action Conference on Wednesday will kick off its first D.C.-area gathering since March 2020. (The 2021 and 2022 conferences were held in Orlando.) Among the announced speakers at the four-day event in National Harbor, Md., are Sens. Rick Scott, Eric Schmitt, Marsha Blackburn, Mike Braun and Ted Cruz. House members on the agenda include Reps. Ryan Zinke, Greg Steube, James R. Comer, Wesley Hunt, Elise Stefanik, Byron Donalds and Jim Jordan.

Photo finish

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner standing on mobile hay bales at a September rally in Woodbridge, Va., for Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a fellow Democrat, was one of six photos by CQ Roll Call’s Bill Clark that grabbed awards from the White House News Photographers Association.

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