● NE-02: Freshman Democrat Brad Ashford is defending an Omaha district that backed Mitt Romney by a 53-46 margin, so in a seat that red, he should be the GOP's top House target. However, Ashford has only drawn two weak Republican opponents in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District. The GOP establishment has consolidated behind retired Brig. General Don Bacon, but while his meager $162,000 warchest is very bad for what should be a top-tier race, it's still a whole lot better than the feeble $34,000 that ex-state Sen. Chip Maxwell has at his disposal.
Republicans aren't exactly fond of Maxwell, who briefly threatened to run for this seat as an independent last cycle even though it would have cost then-Rep. Lee Terry conservative votes. (In the end, it didn't matter, since Maxwell never followed through and Terry improbably lost to Ashford anyway, despite the GOP wave.) But Democrats like Maxwell just fine. In fact, given how weak a candidate he is, they'd prefer to run against him rather than Bacon, which is why the DCCC is spending $437,000 on an ad campaign aiming to help Maxwell win the May 10 primary.
No, Democrats aren't running commercials that explicitly say, "Vote for Chip Maxwell." Instead, the DCCC is out with a spot that's "attacking" Maxwell in just the sort of way that ought to make him more appealing to GOP primary voters. The narrator implores voters to look up the facts about both Bacon and Maxwell, warning that Bacon was "the hand-picked candidate of the Washington political establishment." But Maxwell is characterized as "a self-professed tea party conservative," and the narrator continues by noting he wants to repeal Obamacare and wouldn't raise the federal debt limit.
If this strategy sounds familiar, it's because it's exactly what Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill did in the 2012 GOP primary in Missouri. McCaskill wanted to face then-Rep. Todd Akin, who already had a reputation as a far-right candidate even though he had yet to utter his infamous "legitimate rape" comments, but Akin needed help getting past two other more electable opponents in the GOP primary. So McCaskill ran ads "blasting" Akin as "pro-family" and "too conservative for Missouri"—"attacks" that of course only endeared Akin to Republican primary voters. Without knowing it, Republicans did exactly what McCaskill wanted and handed her the perfect opponent. The rest was history.
Plenty of political observers knew exactly what McCaskill was doing at the time, just as anyone paying attention knows exactly what the DCCC is trying now. However, this strategy relies on one simple fact: Most voters just don't care enough about downballot primaries to realize that they're being manipulated. If someone tried this in a presidential primary, such tactics would be incredibly obvious. But since so few voters follow House races, most of what they'll learn will be from TV ads like this one, and the DCCC's message may very well get through without there being any backlash. And with a $437,000 price tag only a few weeks ahead of Election Day, plenty of people will see this ad.
We'll find out soon if Bacon spends his meager funds promoting his own conservative credentials on the airwaves or trying to inform voters that his opponent is Team Blue's choice—or if, perhaps, national Republicans show up to counter the DCCC. If not, the DCCC's ads may wind up as the dominant message primary voters see between now and May 10. And even if it doesn't work and Ashford has to face Bacon, he should have a good shot to hold on. While Ashford initially was reluctant to raise money to defend his seat, he's since changed his approach and now has $897,000 in the bank for a race Daily Kos Elections rates as a Tossup.
● FL-Sen: Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued one of those irritating non-endorsement endorsements, saying in a speech on Thursday that he wishes businessman Carlos Beruff, who was in the audience, "unbelievable success" in his bid for the Republican Senate nomination. Beruff is known to be close to Scott, but what makes the governor's warm words particularly notable is that his own lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, is running in the very same primary.
In fact, as the Bradenton Herald's Jeremy Wallace notes, two nights earlier, Scott gave a different speech where his praise for Lopez-Cantera, who was in attendance, was decidedly lower-key. Said Scott, "I know if something happens to me Carlos can do the job." So if Scott gets eaten by a manatee, Lopez-Cantera meets the minimum requirements to fill in for him. What a guy!
Of course, Scott then had to say he's "not going to endorse in the race," as though there's some kind of formal, legal definition of the word "endorsement" that somehow wasn't triggered when he hoped for Beruff's "unbelievable success." That's not how it works, though: Voters will make of these remarks whatever they wish to make of them, regardless of how Scott tries to qualify them. And if Beruff finds a way to use Scott's words to his own benefit, there's nothing Scott can do to stop him—which is exactly the point of this entire bit of kabuki.
● KY-Sen: Democrat Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, is out with his first TV ad in his longshot effort to unseat GOP Sen. Rand Paul. The spot is co-narrated by Gray and his brother, Howard, who says, "When Dad died, Jim came home from college to help save the family business." The brothers then explain that they grew Gray Construction into a business with over $1 billion in annual sales that has created "over 20,000 jobs in Kentucky." It's exactly the sort of non-partisan, economics-focused message that Democrats have used for years in red states, but can it still work in these polarized times? It's going to be a difficult sell.
● PA-Sen: Democrat Katie McGinty is airing a last-minute TV spot just days ahead of Pennsylvania's primary that's notable for only one reason: It features an audio clip of Barack Obama praising McGinty as someone who will "stand up to special interests" and fight "to ensure that every family has a fair shot at getting ahead." Were it not for that unusual narration, the ad would be completely unmemorable: McGinty literally calls herself a "fighter" at one point, which is the most hackneyed, overused descriptor in politics.
● NC-Gov: The Democratic Governors Association and an allied super PAC, N.C. Families First, are spending a reported six figures to run the first TV ad attacking Republican Gov. Pat McCrory over HB2, the anti-LGBT law that has engulfed North Carolina in an extraordinary firestorm of controversy. The ad smartly sticks to a purely economic message, featuring clip after clip of news anchors talking about the business backlash against HB2, such as PayPal cancelling a planned expansion in the state.
Polls have shown that while a majority of voters, sadly, agree with law's requirement that people use bathrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity, even more of them acknowledge that HB2 has hurt the state's image and its "ability to attract and keep businesses." As a near-term strategy, Democrats will want to keep focusing on this aspect of laws like this, but as a long-term matter, they'll need to humanize transgender people so that bills like this never pass in the first place.
● OR-Gov: With a month to go before the May 17 GOP primary, businessman Allen Alley is running an ad for "six-figures." Alley speaks to the camera and bemoans how "the political class has let us down," and he pledges to "cut wasteful spending, fight for term limits, and make Salem accountable… to you." (And here we thought he'd say "make Salem accountable… to George R.R. Martin.") The narrator concludes by reading Alley's slogan, "Less Salem, more Oregon," which is a pretty big fuck you to the state's third-largest city.
Alley faces self-funding physician Bud Pierce for the GOP nod, but it doesn't look like that prize will be worth all that much. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown doesn't seem to have done anything to upset voters in this blue state and with presidential turnout, she'll be very tough to beat. Daily Kos Elections rates this as Likely Democratic.
● CA-24: Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, a Democrat, is out with her first ad of the race, and she earns points for creativity. Schneider, narrating the spot herself, says "I started my campaign for Congress in the garage, because I believe in going to the people to get things done." In the background, we see several campaign workers at tables, before Schneider jets off in her car, with a table strapped to the roof. She then visits other locations, setting up her office-on-the-go at each stop, saying she "stopped the sale of public parking lots to big corporations" (in front of a parking structure) and fought for safer highways (on the roadside).
Then, in the funniest segment, Schneider's staff literally sets up her table in the ocean, as she recounts how she fought to "restart the desalination plant" and will fight against tax breaks for oil companies cleaning up oil spills—as Schneider and her whole team get clobbered by a wave. We laughed for real at the sight, so we were unsurprised to learn that the spot was created by Mark Putnam, one of our favorite ad-makers and one of the most inventive in the business. While we usually don't think highly of ads that try to cram in too many issues, here Schneider has focused heavily on local topics (rather than just generic liberal messages), and delivered it all in a memorable way.
Schneider's chief rival is fellow Democrat Salud Carbajal, a Santa Barbara County supervisor, who has led the way in both money and endorsements. A trio of notable Republicans are running for this 54-43 Obama seat, but it's likely that we'll see a traditional D-vs.-R matchup in November once we get past June's top-two primary.
● FL-07: Ordinarily, when a Democrat drops out of a race in a 50-50 district, that's cause for consternation. But banker Bill Phillips had raised so little money—he literally had just $700 in the bank at the end of the first quarter of the year—that it's like he was barely running at all, so his departure will scarcely cause a ripple. In fact, it might actually be a good thing, since it gives Democrats a chance to find someone new to take on veteran GOP Rep. John Mica.
And indeed, it seems like the DCCC is still fishing around for an alternative, since the committee just launched a radio ad attacking Mica over his opposition to a Florida bill that would have outlawed marital rape (!), and to the Violence Against Women Act, too, for good measure. The ad itself isn't really designed to influence voters but rather to send a message that national Democrats are interested in competing here—and just might be willing to help whoever steps forward. That mystery someone has until the June 24 filing deadline to enter. Unseating Mica is a tough task, but in an unpredictable election year, it's not out of the question.
● GA-03: While state Sen. Mike Crane turned in a disappointing opening fundraising quarter in his quest for this safely red seat, the Club for Growth was not deterred. On Thursday, the powerful anti-tax group endorsed Crane, which should give him access to more donors. The Club also usually airs ads for its candidates in competitive primaries, so Crane should get some useful air support. Crane faces rich guy Jim Pace and West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson in the May 24 primary; there will be a July runoff if no one takes a majority of the vote.
● IA-03: Investor Mike Sherzan is out with the first TV ad for the June Democratic primary to face freshman Republican David Young. The narrator praises Sherzan as a successful businessman who "shared his profits and company stock with employees," and says that he's selling his company to them rather than to Wall Street.
Sherzan will face veteran Jim Mowrer, who was Team Blue's nominee in the neighboring 4th District last cycle, in the primary. Sherzan has almost entirely been self-funding his campaign so far and at the end of March, he had $206,000 on-hand. Mowrer holds a stronger $438,000 warchest, though Sherzan may be able to overtake him in cash if he's willing to write himself a few more big checks. A third candidate, Desmund Adams, has less than $3,000 to spend.
Young himself has stockpiled $956,000 for the general. National Democrats are going to target this 51-47 Obama seat but so far, they DCCC doesn't seem to view it as a top-tier race: Back in February, they added this district to their "Emerging Districts" list (they did not designate a favored candidate) rather than to the more competitive "Red to Blue" program. Daily Kos Elections rates the general as Lean Republican.
● KY-01: Mike Pape, a former top aide to retiring Rep. Ed Whitfield, recently made national news with a racist ad featuring three "Mexican" men, complete with bogus mustaches and accents, cutting their way through a fence marked "U.S. Border Do Not Cross" in the middle of the night. Sadly, Pape's high-profile spot is likely to give him a boost in the May 17 primary for this safely red western Kentucky seat, but his main opponent, ex-Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, can't be counted out at all. (Though it's not like Comer is anything but an ardent conservative himself.)
Comer, who narrowly lost the 2015 gubernatorial primary but easily carried this seat, received the endorsement of the deep-pocketed U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Friday. The Chamber tends to spend big for their friends, so this should give Comer's campaign a good shot in the arm. Comer held a $582,000 to $312,000 cash-on-hand edge at the end of March, so he should already be able to air more spots than Pape, though he'll have a tough time getting any of them to capture as much attention as Pape's infamous ad. A third Republican, Hickman County Attorney Jason Batts, is in, but the odds are very much against him. Less than 1 percent of the 1st's residents live in Hickman, and Batts only has a small $113,000 warchest.
● MD-08: Rich guy David Trone has spent at least $12.4 million of his own money ahead of Tuesday's primary for this safely blue seat: Even after adjusting for inflation, no other candidate in American history has spent this much of his or her personal fortune on a House race. Trone has run ad after ad after ad and until now, he's stayed positive, but he's now hitting his main rivals.
The spot starts with a clip of state Sen. Jamie Raskin claiming he wasn't taking money from "people lobbying me," before the narrator accuses him of taking thousands from "people lobbying him." It then shows a clip of former hotel executive Kathleen Matthews denouncing the Citizens United decision, before the narrator says she "took over $300,000 from big money." It finally shows Trone saying he wasn't "taking a cent from PACS, lobbyists, or corporations," before the narrator confirms it's true.
● NV-04: Early polls showed ex-Assemblywoman Lucy Flores with the most support in the June Democratic primary to face Republican freshman Cresent Hardy, but she always had one huge problem. While Flores had some good name recognition from her unsuccessful 2014 bid for lieutenant governor she had little money, and she would have had a tough time holding on once state Sen. Ruben Kihuen and non-profit president Susie Lee started spending.
But that was before Bernie Sanders sent out a fundraising email on Flores' behalf to his massive list. Eight days later, Flores' campaign announced that she had taken in $428,000 in April. By contrast, Flores raised a grand total of $376,000 from May to the end of March. Flores didn't say how much cash she had available after the Sanders-fueled surge, but it's certainly a lot more than the $159,000 she had in the bank on March 31.
Flores still needs a lot to go right for her in June. Kihuen had $424,000 on-hand at the end of March, and he's backed by Sen. Harry Reid and labor, while Lee has $624,000 in the bank and the ability to do more self-funding. However, there's little doubt that Flores' chances are a whole lot better than they were just two weeks ago. Hardy himself has a tough task ahead of him if he wants to win re-election in this 54-44 Obama seat in the northern part of the Las Vegas area. Hardy had $761,000 in the bank, and he won't need to spend anything on a primary. Daily Kos Elections rates the general as a Tossup.
The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir and Jeff Singer, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, and Stephen Wolf.