● AL-Gov, AL-Sen: On Wednesday, we learned two things that we long suspected: GOP Gov. Robert Bentley is still under investigation, and new Sen. Luther Strange may be even less ethical than the governor who just appointed him. On Monday, Bentley appointed prosecutor Steve Marshall to replace Strange as Alabama attorney general; two days later, Marshall announced that he was recusing himself from investigating Bentley for allegedly using state resources to cover up an affair with a staffer, Rebekah Mason. Just the day before, Marshall had refused to say if there even was an investigation; now we know there is.
Bentley has been in hot water since March of last year, when audio recordings emerged of him engaged in explicit conversations with Mason, all but confirming the existence of an affair that had shockingly prompted Bentley's wife of 50 years to file for divorce in 2015. Those recordings in turn prompted some lawmakers, including fellow Republicans, to call for Bentley's impeachment. Those impeachment proceedings were moving slowly, but in November, they ground to a halt—thanks to Strange.
Just before Election Day, Strange, who was still attorney general at the time, sent a letter to the state legislature, asking it to halt its inquiry into Bentley's activities "until I am able to report to you that the necessary related work of my office has been completed." Lawmakers did as Strange asked, explaining at the time that the attorney general was conducting "a separate investigation of the governor."
But things began to change after Donald Trump won and soon announced that he would nominate Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to serve as U.S. attorney general. It was up to Bentley to appoint Sessions' replacement, and Strange was one of the many Republicans who coveted the seat. In late November, Strange publicly said that he'd accept the position if Bentley offered it. But how could Strange take a job from the man he was investigating, especially since it would mean that Bentley would get to appoint a new attorney general? By pretending he might not really be investigating him!
In late December, Strange belatedly insisted that he never actually said he was investigating the governor, and claimed he had only asked the legislature to suspend its impeachment proceedings because there were "some common players involved." That made it all okay, right? Well, okay enough for top Alabama Republicans: Last week, Bentley did indeed name Strange to the Senate and soon picked Marshall to replace him as Alabama's top prosecutor.
But Marshall's announcement that his office is in fact probing the Bentley matter confirms that, despite all his games, Strange really did take a promotion from the guy he was supposed to be investigating. His ethics will fit in perfectly in Trump's Washington swamp.
It's unclear, though, what will happen next to Bentley, who cannot run again next year due to term limits. A few days ago, two GOP members of Alabama's Republican-dominated legislature began circulating a petition to reboot the legislature's impeachment investigation. However, the proceedings were moving very slowly even before Strange got involved in November, and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon doesn't seem to be in a huge hurry to jump-start things.
But also on Wednesday, House Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Jones said he expects the impeachment proceedings to restart in time for the legislature to complete its investigation before it adjourns in mid-to-late May. Jones also said he's waiting for the attorney general's office to give them permission before they restart their own investigation. That still means the process could get stretched out for a long time if Marshall stands in the way, but Bentley may not be able to just run out the clock and leave office in two years as planned.
If matters do indeed come to a head and Bentley were to depart early, he would be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey. However, Ivey is one of many Republicans who've already been looking at running to succeed Bentley in 2018, and legislators who back another candidate (or may even want the job themselves) won't be keen to give her a big advantage over the rest of the field. Ivey also isn't particularly respected in Republican circles after presiding over the collapse of the state's Prepaid Affordable College Tuition program during her tenure as state treasurer, and some legislators may decide it's better to just wait Bentley out.
As for Strange, he'll be able to run for the final two years of Sessions' term in 2018. This whole mess may encourage someone to challenge him in the primary, and state Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh didn't rule out the idea last week. But Marsh also interviewed for the open Senate seat, so he may not be well-positioned to run an anti-Bentley campaign against the incumbent. Strange will also have about a year and a half in office before he needs to face primary voters, and he'll have plenty of time to raise money and get his name out. Strange may get dragged back into the muck with Bentley, but being ensconced in D.C.—far away from all the action—may help him survive all this.
● FL-Sen: Law professor Tim Canova, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in last year's Democratic primary, now says that "a number of folks [are] trying to convince me to run" against Sen. Bill Nelson in next year's Democratic primary. Canova raised a boatload of money from Bernie Sanders supporters who were angry with Wasserman Schultz over the alleged favoritism she showed toward Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential primaries, but it wasn't nearly enough, and the incumbent won 57-43. It's hard to see how Canova would fare any better against a well-respected statewide figure who doesn't exactly inspire the kind of antipathy Wasserman Schultz does.
● GA-06: Filing closed on Wednesday afternoon for the special election to fill Republican Tom Price's suburban Atlanta House seat, and the leading Democrat in the contest, investigative filmmaker Jon Ossoff, got some good news. Just before the deadline, Ossoff's most serious Democrat opponent, former state Rep. Sally Harrell, dropped out of the race, citing Ossoff's superior fundraising. That's huge because, as we've noted, all candidates from all parties will run together on a single ballot on April 18, and in the likely event no one takes a majority, the top two vote-getters regardless of party will advance to a June 20 runoff.
With Harrell out, Ossoff's odds of getting past the primary increase, though four other Democrats did file, so the chances for a first-round knockout are long. However, none of the others look especially serious. None of them are on ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising site, and only two have even submitted paperwork to the FEC. The most prominent of this batch is former state Sen. Ron Slotin, but he hasn't held office since 1996. In fact, that year, he left the legislature in order to challenge then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney in the Democratic primary and took all of 6 percent of the vote for his efforts.
Meanwhile, 11 Republicans have formally entered the race, though several are Some Dudes. The most prominent candidates are:
● former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who has twice unsuccessfully run statewide (once for governor, once for Senate);
● state Sen. Judson Hill, who was the first Republican to announce and whose district is contained almost entirely within Georgia's 6th
● businessman Bruce LeVell, who ran Trump's "diversity coalition" (we're still amused);
● former state Sen. Dan Moody, a possible self-funder; and
● businessman Bob Gray, another potential self-funder.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Greg Bluestein has a rundown with some more details on each of these candidates.
One very notable figured decided to stay out, though: state Rep. Betty Price, who is Tom Price's wife and had not ruled out a bid. But after her husband got shredded over insider trading allegations during his confirmation hearings to be Trump's Health and Human Services secretary and only secured his post on a strictly part-line vote, perhaps Price felt her name would no longer be an asset. A few others who had considered running also wound up saying no, including state Sen. Brandon Beach, immigration attorney Charles Kuck, and former Johns Creek Councilwoman Kelly Stewart.
This suburban Atlanta seat is usually reliably Republican, with Mitt Romney taking it 61-38. But this area did not react well to Trump at all, and he won this district by a bare 48-47 last year. It won't be easy for Ossoff to convince voters to reject Republicans who aren't named Donald Trump, but if Team Blue can successfully make this contest a referendum on the Orange One and his chaotic tenure, things could get interesting. Digest readers know we've been following this race closely, and we'll continue to do so right through the election, so stay tuned.
● Pres-by-LD, CT State Senate, CT State House: Our project to calculate the 2016 presidential results for every state legislative seat in the nation ventures to Connecticut, a blue state with two closely divided chambers. You can find our master list of states here, which we'll be updating as we add new states; you can also find all our data from 2016 and past cycles here.
The Nutmeg State backed Hillary Clinton 55-41, but the 2016 legislative elections were not particularly good for Team Blue. The GOP reduced the Democratic state House majority from 86-64 to 79-72, while they chipped their state Senate edge from 21-15 to an 18-18 tie. Democrats still control the upper chamber thanks to Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman's tie-breaking vote, but it's not a great place for Democrats to be in. All legislators serve two-year terms.
We'll start by looking at the state Senate. Clinton carried 27 of the 36 seats, trading six Obama districts for three Romney seats. The median point in the chamber backed Clinton 54-41, almost the same as her statewide win. No Democrats sit in Trump seats, though Clinton only carried two Democratic-held districts by a margin of less than 2 percent. However, nine Republicans represent Clinton turf. The bluest GOP-held seat is SD-26, which includes Ridgefield and part of Westport; Clinton won 59-36 here, a big improvement from Romney's 50-49 win in 2012, but Republican state Sen. Antonietta Boucher won a fifth term 60-40.
Two Democratic senators lost their seats to Republicans last year, while the GOP won one open seat. Democratic incumbent Joseph Crisco lost his bid for a 13th term in SD-17 50.6-49.4 to Republican George Logan even as Clinton was winning this seat 53-44, though that's a big drop from Obama's 60-39 victory. In SD-13, second-term Democrat Dante Bartolomeo lost 51-49 to Republican Len Suzio while Clinton was winning 54-41, though that was also a drop from Obama's 61-37 margin. SD-18 flipped from 56-42 Obama to a 67-vote Trump win, and Republican Heather Somers won the open seat 57-43.
Republicans relentlessly tied Democratic candidates to unpopular Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy, which helps explain why they ran ahead of the presidential ticket in these seats, but the districts' swings toward Trump didn't help things either. Currently, one Democratic and one Republican seat are vacant, but both parties should be able to hold on in the Feb. 28 special elections. SD-32 backed Trump 57-39, making it his best seat in the state. SD-02 supported Clinton 83-14.
Over in the state House, Clinton carried 105 of the 151 seats, trading 24 Obama districts for 10 Romney seats. The median district backed Clinton 54-42, very close to her statewide win. A whopping 33 Republicans represent Clinton seats, with HD-150 being the bluest. Clinton carried this Greenwich seat 61-35, a big swing from Romney's 51-48 win, but Republican Mike Bocchino won his second term without opposition. Seven Democrats hold Trump seats; the reddest is HD-51, which swung from 51-47 Obama all the way to 56-38 Trump. However, Democrat Daniel Rovero won a fourth term 58-42.
● Special Elections, MN State House: So a funny thing happened on Tuesday night in Minnesota, which held a special election for a vacant seat in the state House. This district, known as 32B and located in the Minneapolis exurbs, voted for Donald Trump by an overwhelming 61-32 margin, but Republican Anne Neu beat Democrat Laurie Wagner just 53-47. Put another way, the GOP did 23 points worse on Tuesday than Trump did in November—and it's hard to see how that's a positive sign for them.
Now, a win's still a win, and yeah, we lost. But this isn't about "moral victories" or "narratives" or anything so gossamer. Rather, the results are interesting because they have us wondering whether we'll see this kind of turn against Trump in other districts in the near future. Needless to say, if a seat that Trump won by, say, 10 points were to also shift against Republicans by 23 points, they'd be screwed.
This, though, is where the cautious analyst steps in notes that this is just a single data point, and it may not mean much. But as it happens, we actually have more than one data point we can look at. So far, since Trump's Electoral College win on Nov. 8, there have been five legislative special elections around the country that have featured candidates from both major parties on the ballot (two in Iowa, two in Virginia, and the one in Minnesota). We've assembled them all here.
In four of those races, Democrats ran ahead of the 2016 presidential margin—by double digits in three cases. This is still a small sample size, but you'd rather be the party beating your benchmarks than the one falling behind them.
There are two potential explanations for these results, as Nathaniel Rakich explores, and they aren't mutually exclusive. The one we hope to be the case is that voters are reacting negatively to Trump. This could mean a lot of things: Democrats could be more fired up to strike a blow against Trump by turning out to vote, or Trump voters could be switching sides—or they could just be staying home.
The other possibility is that these districts, which all swung toward Trump in November compared to previous presidential elections (some heavily so), are now reverting to form. That could be, but it's critical to note that in three of these special elections (the Midwestern ones), Democrats also ran ahead of Barack Obama's margins, too.
The Minnesota case is instructive. This wasn't some blue district that shifted to Trump but is now snapping back. Rather, Mitt Romney carried it 55-43 back in 2012, a 12-point margin, yet Wagner, the Democrat, only lost by 6 points. A 6-point swing is not as dramatic as one that's 23 points, but there's a further reason to believe that the object in this mirror is indeed larger than it appears.
That's because Democratic turnout almost always drops in special elections, or really, any election where a presidential race isn't on the ballot. It's maddening, and it's a massive problem for Team Blue, but it's a fact of life. A rigorous analysis of 170 elections that took place in 2013 showed that Democrats, on average, ran about 12 points behind Obama. In other words, in a seat Romney won by 12 points, like Minnesota House District 32B, you'd typically expect a Democrat in a special election to lose by something like 24 points. Instead, we lost by just 6.
Now, we can't rule out the possibility that all of this means nothing. Careful observers know that special elections don't necessarily portend the future. Democrats, for instance, won a string of difficult special elections for the House in the 2010 cycle, only to get pounded in that year's midterms. On the other hand, they won a series of equally tough specials in 2008 and went on to romp that fall.
So we'll have to keep close watch on future races and a host of other indicators to see whether 2017 is shaping up like 2008 or 2010, or some other alternative. And as Rakich notes, we have yet to see what happens in a district that swung toward Clinton in 2016. But the good news is, we're about to get a perfect test in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, a seat Romney handily carried 61-37 but where Trump only scraped by with a 48-47 win.
● WA State Senate: Folks, we've got a big one here. In Washington's state Senate, there are 25 Democrats and 24 Republicans, but thanks to turncoat "Democrat" Tim Sheldon, Republicans have controlled the chamber since 2013. That ridiculous state of affairs—Washington is very blue, and both the governorship and state House are held by Democrats—might, however, finally be about to end.
Last October, Republican state Sen. Andy Hill, who represented a Democratic-leaning district northeast of Seattle, died of lung cancer; former state Sen. Dino Rossi, a fellow Republican who's unsuccessfully run for statewide office many times, was appointed in his stead. Democrats had vigorously challenged Hill in 2014, but his personal popularity (plus the GOP wave) allowed him to hang on by a 53-47 margin.
Now, though, there will be a special election this November, and Democrats have a very good chance at a pickup. This district, the 45th, voted for Hillary Clinton last year by an overwhelming 65-28 margin; four years earlier, it went for Barack Obama 58-40. When you add those numbers together with the intense progressive desire to strike back at Trump and the fact that control of the Senate—and with it, the entire state government—is at stake, you simply don't get a better opportunity.
What's more, Democrats just recruited a very strong candidate, prosecutor Manka Dhingra, while Republicans still haven't figured out who they're running. Rossi hasn't made up his mind, though it sounds like he's viewing the position as a placeholder job. But no matter who picks up the baton for the GOP, they're going to have a hell of a time hanging on to a seat where Trump got just 28 percent of the vote.
And if Democrats can win back the Senate, they'll be able to implement a host of progressive ideas that Republicans have stymied for years. It's no exaggeration to say that this race is going to be the top legislative contest of 2017, so strap in.
The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, and James Lambert.