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At the Races: Divided attention

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Republicans and Democrats have very different ideas about the top political stories they wanted voters to tune into this week. Republicans have new ads criticizing Democrats over the pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses across the country, while Democrats are focused on developments on the abortion restriction front.

Republican campaign operatives have been trying to tie the campus protests and unrest at places like Columbia University to the ongoing effort by President Joe Biden and his administration to forgive student loans, with several suggesting that the Education Department’s cancellation this week of $6.1 billion for attendees of the Art Institutes was not well timed. (The loans were forgiven after the department and several state attorneys general found the Art Institutes misled students about employment and other prospects.)

“For more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of hopeful students borrowed billions to attend The Art Institutes and got little but lies in return,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

The House tried to put its stamp on the controversy with a vote this week to define antisemitism in federal anti-discrimination law, and the NRCC released an ad saying Democrats were “cowering to the whim of dangerous antisemites.” The 320-91 House vote also included 21 Republicans voting “no,” however; among them were Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. In explaining her vote, Greene said it could lead to antisemitism charges against Christians who believe “the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews” — an explanation that critics said was itself antisemitic.

Ads from the NRSC used campus unrest to target incumbent Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Jon Tester of Montana, along with Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who’s running for the seat being vacated by the retirement of Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

“I think it’s a problem for the Democrats. And whether or not that still is going to be a major issue in the fall remains to be seen,” Montana Sen. Steve Daines, the NRSC chair, said Thursday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “This could be a big problem for Democrats in August in Chicago,” he added, referring to the party’s national convention. “But I’m guessing these same students that are pretty fired up right now on the campuses in May — remember that they’re going to be taking finals and going home here pretty soon, but they’re coming back in the fall.”

Biden delivered remarks on the protests Thursday morning, saying he didn’t see a need to call up the National Guard and noting at one point: “There’s a right to protest, but not the right to create chaos.”

Campus protests could also be a distant memory by November, however, while restrictions on abortion are not likely to be and Democrats showed once again this week that they expect voters, especially women, to make the issue a higher priority. A new law prohibiting most abortions in Florida after six weeks took effect Wednesday, and the White House dispatched Vice President Kamala Harris to Jacksonville to mark the occasion.

“Starting this morning, women in Florida became subject to an abortion ban so extreme it applies before many women even know they are pregnant — which, by the way, tells us the extremists who wrote this ban either don’t know how a woman’s body works or they simply don’t care,” Harris said.

Meanwhile, Arizona Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs is scheduled to sign on Thursday afternoon a repeal of her state’s near-total abortion ban from 1864, a long-dormant law that became relevant again after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago.

Starting gate

Maryland money: Early voting is getting underway and absentee ballots are already being returned ahead of Maryland’s May 14 primary. In the headline Democratic Senate primary, Rep. David Trone and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks are putting to the test how much money is worth. Trone is a self-funder with virtually unlimited resources from his Total Wine & More fortune — and that’s key to his pitch for taking on the expected GOP nominee, former Gov. Larry Hogan. Alsobrooks, meanwhile, has the bulk of statewide endorsements, recently adding former Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to the list in a race where neither candidate is from Baltimore.

Big unEasy: CQ Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone reports on the latest drama surrounding the congressional maps in Louisiana, where a three-judge panel decided, 2-1, that the redrawn maps that created a second Black-opportunity district violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The maps were redrawn to address a different federal judge’s holding that maps used in 2022 didn’t comply with the Voting Rights Act.

Seat filled: A state legislator who once worked in nursing homes as an occupational therapist is New York’s newest member of Congress, as Tim Kennedy easily won the special election Tuesday to fill former Rep. Brian Higgins’ seat, our colleague Paul V. Fontelo reports.

Utah convention bucks incumbents: It wasn’t a good weekend to be an incumbent at the Utah Republican convention, with Gov. Spencer Cox and three current House Republicans not winning support of the most delegates for the offices they’re seeking on Saturday — although all will advance to the primary.

Posey bows out: Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., has opted not to seek reelection despite having gotten former President Donald Trump’s endorsement for another term back in March. In his announcement last Friday, Posey backed former state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who filed to run in the GOP primary just ahead of the filing deadline, which was also last Friday.

Then there were two: The California race to succeed retiring Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, which looked like it would have three candidates despite the state’s top-two primary system after an apparent tie for second place, now looks to have only two competitors after all. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian conceded the second-place spot in the March 5 primary after a lengthy recount showed him five votes behind state Assemblymember Evan Low, who will face former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo in November.

ICYMI

Biden vs. Trump? In an interview on Sirius XM that wasn’t on his advance schedule, Biden told Howard Stern last Friday that he intends to debate Trump “somewhere. I don’t know when.” Trump had previously said he wanted to debate Biden, and his team appeared to accept moments later, with campaign aide Chris LaCivita, the Republican National Committee’s chief of staff, writing on X: “Ok. Let’s set it up!” By week’s end, however, the Trump campaign was criticizing a schedule announced by the presidential debate commission, saying the first meetup would happen after people started voting in some states.

Meijer checks out: Former Rep. Peter Meijer dropped out of the race for the GOP Senate nomination in Michigan last Friday. “The hard reality is the fundamentals of the race have changed significantly since we launched this campaign,” Meijer said in a statement.

Elsewhere in #MISEN: Another Michigan GOP Senate candidate, Sandy Pensler, was going up on air, this week releasing an ad criticizing Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, her party’s front-runner for the seat. Pensler, a wealthy investor, says he’ll be on air regularly until the August primary, in which he’ll face former Rep. Mike Rogers, the favored pick of Washington Republicans for the seat.

Primaried: Gaetz, who led the effort to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speaker’s office last year, drew a primary challenger in Aaron Dimmock, a former naval aviator.

Voting rights bills: Sen. Laphonza Butler, the appointed California Democrat who isn’t seeking election to a full term, has led the Senate in unveiling two voting rights-themed measures this week. One seeks to promote voter registration among high schoolers, while the other is focused on the voting rights of people released from prison under the bipartisan 2018 overhaul of federal prison sentencing.

Ooops: Election workers in Fulton County, Ga., failed to count 1,326 votes in the 2022 primary because they weren’t loaded from memory cards on election night, according to an investigative report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. One precinct showing zero votes was a “red flag,” the report noted.

Benchmark: Rep. Jared Golden, R-Maine, said in a news release Tuesday that he had introduced six new bills “to strengthen government integrity and fight corruption.” As one of the Democrats in a district Trump won in 2020, Golden is not foreign to this newsletter, but the reason for this posting is that when his release was scraped and fed into our system, it was document No. 8,000,000 in CQ’s repository.  

What we’re reading

Stu says: There was a lot of debating this week about presidential debates, but Stu Rothenberg asks if either candidate would really benefit from a face-off.

Opinion roundup: Walter Shapiro looks at why TV ads from super PACs may not hit the intended audience. Mary Curtis asks what happened to playing by the rules. And David Winston warns about what would happen if Biden did what he says he’ll do with taxes.

Trump in Time: In a far-ranging set of interviews with Time magazine, Trump said he would use the National Guard against protesters, expressed support for pardoning Jan. 6 defendants and left open the possibility of political violence should he lose the election. And asked whether states should monitor pregnancies to determine if abortion bans are violated, Trump said it would be up to individual states to decide. Biden told donors Wednesday that the interviews were a “must read,” according to a pool report.  

And the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: In addition, the former president on Wednesday refused to commit to accepting the results of the Wisconsin election if he loses the state. In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Trump also repeated the falsehood that he won Wisconsin in 2020.

“Driving a steamroller”: What would Congress look like if the GOP wins the White House and controls both chambers? Conservatives will drive a steamroller over “the weak-kneed individuals” in Congress, Rep. Chip Roy told those gathered at a Heritage Foundation event on Tuesday. “The Texas Republican and House Freedom Caucus policy director said hard-liners will have to roll over fellow Republicans who want to scale back their agenda because of the 60-vote requirement for most legislation in the Senate,” CQ Roll Call’s Paul M. Krawzak reports.

Senate map: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tells Politico he’s primarily focused on Senate races in four states this year: Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. That doesn’t include West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin III opted not to run for reelection and Republicans are heavily favored to win. Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Daines said he’s focused on winning 51 seats but also sees races in Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona as competitive. 

The count: ?? plus or minus

That’s probably as accurate a measurement as possible about where the presidential race stands. Fivethirtyeight.com released an updated poll tracker in the past week that now includes “uncertainty intervals” for the numbers that show Biden’s blue dot could be below Trump’s red one, or above it. Or, as ABC News reported on April 25, the results “show Trump leading in most swing states, though there is enough uncertainty that Biden could easily be ahead in enough to win the Electoral College.” Usually elections are between an incumbent whom voters know and a challenger who they have to decide to give a chance or not. This race pits two people nearly everyone knows and many do not like. A Monmouth University poll released Monday found 17 percent of registered voters had an unfavorable opinion about both Biden and Trump. Of that group, Monmouth found that “26% say they are definite or probable Biden voters and 19% are definite or probable Trump supporters. The majority (55%), though, say they are unlikely to vote for either candidate.” Do they vote for a third-party candidate and possibly tilt electors to Trump or Biden? Do they not vote at all and skew results of Senate and House races down the ballot? Or do they skip the presidential race and vote down the ballot, resulting in a drop-off in votes that someone casts as evidence of fraud, post-election?

Nathan’s notes

Tapping rich candidates who don’t have a record of voting on major issues could be a plus for Republicans trying to take over the Senate, but the strategy also comes with risks as their life stories come under scrutiny, Nathan writes.

Key race: #NE02

Candidates: The 2024 race between Republican Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who has served in the House since 2017, and Democrat Tony Vargas, a state lawmaker and former public school teacher, is one of the nation’s most competitive. It’s also a rematch of the 2022 race, which Bacon won by about 5,900 votes. But before Bacon takes on Vargas in November, he’ll have to get past businessman Dan Frei in the May 14 Republican primary.

Why it matters: Bacon has portrayed himself as a moderate: He’s a member of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a group dedicated to working across the aisle to get legislation passed, and last month voted in favor of the recent foreign aid bill that hard-liners in the House sought to defeat. Frei has derided him as “DC Don,” a creature of Washington who lacks conservative principles. The battle is indicative of a larger dispute between the GOP’s grassroots activists and its mainstream members, said Randall E. Adkins, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Frei has collected the support of some of those grassroots GOP activists. Still, “it’s a real tall hill for Frei to climb to try and beat Don Bacon,” Adkins said. 

Cash dash: Bacon had almost $1.9 million in his campaign account at the end of March, Vargas had $1.6 million and Frei had $54,000. New pre-primary disclosures covering funds received and spent between April 1 and 24 are due by the end of the day Thursday.

Backers: Bacon has benefited from $673,000 spent this year by Big Red Leadership PAC, which despite its name is a super PAC funded primarily by Sen. Pete Ricketts, the state’s former governor who was appointed by his successor to an open seat last year. Bacon also has endorsements from most of the state’s GOP political establishment, including Sen. Deb Fischer and Gov. Jim Pillen. Vargas, who would be the first Latino from Nebraska to serve in Congress, has the backing of BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the New Dem Action Fund, the Latino Victory Fund and End Citizens United, among other groups. Frei, a self-described MAGA Republican, was endorsed by Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, who chairs the House Freedom Caucus.

What they’re saying: While Bacon fights Frei on his right flank, he is also readying for a November battle with Vargas. Abortion access has been a key flash point: This week, Bacon touted his support from Nebraska Right to Life, but earlier this year he appeared to scrub some anti-abortion endorsements from his website, according to Rolling Stone. “Don Bacon will say anything to the press to make you forget that he wants to take away your right to make your own private medical decisions,” Vargas posted on X. The presidential campaign looms over this race, said Adkins, adding that he expects both Trump and Biden to campaign in the 2nd District.

Terrain: The district, which includes Omaha and its suburbs, is one of 16 held by a Republican that Biden would have won in 2020 had the current district boundaries been in place. Last month, Inside Elections shifted the race to Tilt Republican, a reflection of its increasingly competitive nature due to Bacon’s primary challenge.

Wild card: Registered Republicans — there are 153,422 in the district — have an edge over registered Democrats, who number 141,183. But the district’s 101,715 nonpartisan voters may ultimately determine who wins. 

Coming up

It’s Hoosiers’ turn on the primary calendar next Tuesday, as voters in Indiana will set nominees for the Senate seat opened up by Republican Mike Braun’s decision to run for governor and three open House seats, including the 3rd District vacancy created by Rep. Jim Banks’ run for Senate.

Photo finish

Archie, a pug, wears a scarf supporting Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry outside a campaign rally for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dave McCormick in Harrisburg, Pa., on April 25. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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