The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, and Carolyn Fiddler, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.
● TX-21: For the second time this week, a senior Republican from Texas has announced he would retire from the House. The Texas Tribune's Abby Livingston obtained an email from Lamar Smith, who heads the Science, Space and Technology Committee, in which he declared, "For several reasons, this seems like a good time to pass on the privilege of representing the 21st District to someone else," and he soon confirmed he is indeed departing. But while fellow Texan Jeb Hensarling is leaving behind a safely red seat, Smith's 21st Congressional District is a bit more interesting.
Smith's very gerrymandered district, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio and takes up part of the Texas Hill Country, backed Mitt Romney 60-38 in 2012, but it supported Donald Trump by a considerably smaller 52-42 margin last year. That's still a lot for Democrats to overcome, but this seat could be a viable target in a good year for Team Blue, especially without an incumbent to defend it.
A few Democrats were already running before Smith hit the eject button, but only one has raised a notable amount of money. Joseph Kopser, an aerospace engineer and Army veteran who earned a Bronze Star in Iraq, raised $213,000 in the third quarter and had a similar amount in his campaign account at the end of September. He or any other Democratic hopeful will need a whole lot more to flip this seat, but it's a promising start.
As for Smith, Democrats won't miss him too much. Like so many other members of the GOP caucus, Smith is a global warming skeptic, but as the chair of the Science Committee, he was able to do real damage to climate research. Smith is also infamous for once declaring of midnight basketball in the 1990s, "This vague social spending goes by the theory that the person who stole your car, robbed your house and assaulted your family is no more than a would-be NBA star."
Like Hensarling, Smith had plenty of power thanks to his seniority in Congress, and while he was likewise set to be termed out of his chairmanship thanks to internal GOP caucus rules, he still could have stuck around and continued to exert his influence. But there's the question of Trump. Smith and Hensarling are just the latest in a long string of prominent Republicans to bail on Congress after working with Trump for less than a year. Is it because they've had enough? Neither Smith nor his colleagues have said as much publicly, but it's not hard to believe that these retirees are just done.
Still, plenty of folks want to take their place, and the names of potential Republican successors began surfacing immediately after the Smith news broke. Jenifer Sarver, who runs an Austin-based communications firm, told Livingston that she was "taking a serious look" at running, while a spokesperson for state Sen. Donna Campbell said she "will carefully and prayerfully consider what is best for her and the district." Before she was elected to the legislature, Campbell challenged Rep. Lloyd Doggett in an Austin seat in 2010 and lost 53-45.
GOP insiders also name-dropped state Reps. Jason Isaac and Lyle Larson and Austin City Councilwoman Ellen Troxclair. Back in 2008, before he was in the state House, Larson lost to then-Rep. Ciro Rodriguez 56-42 in the nearby 23rd District in the San Antonio area. However, while some operatives speculated that state House Speaker Joe Straus, who just recently announced his own retirement, might want to run, unnamed sources close to Strauss tell Livingston he isn't interested. The filing deadline is Dec. 11, so potential candidates don't have long to decide.
● AZ-Sen: Ex-state Sen. Kelli Ward, who remains the only notable Republican who has announced a bid for Senate, is out with a poll from Revily arguing that even with Sen. Jeff Flake retiring, she's still the favorite in the primary. The poll gives Ward a 34-23 lead over Rep. Martha McSally, who is reportedly the GOP establishment's preferred candidate, while ex-Rep. Matt Salmon languishes at 9. The only other poll we've seen of a post-Flake primary came from the GOP firm Data Orbital, which gave Ward a 29-19 lead over McSally and had Salmon at 10. But even if both polls are on target, Ward's advantage is far from imposing, and her poor fundraising will make it hard for her to hold on to her current spot.
Ward also released general matchups against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. The poll gives Ward a 34-33 edge, while McSally and Salmon trail 33-29 and 32-30, respectively. Those are all very small differences this early in the race, but the memo dubiously claims that "Kelli Ward is the only republican [sic] challenger with an advantage over Democrat Kyrsten Sinema." (And yes, just to be clear, Revily's writeup spells "republican" in lowercase.)
Sinema, meanwhile, currently faces no credible primary opposition, and she'd like to keep it that way. To that end, Sinema, who already has the support of the DSCC, rolled out endorsements this week from Reps. Ruben Gallego and Tom O'Halleran; Dennis DeConcini, the last Democrat to represent Arizona in the Senate; and ex-Reps. Ron Barber, Ed Pastor, and Harry Mitchell.
There were two notable omissions from that list, though. Rep. Raúl Grijalva said last week after Flake retired that there's "buzz among progressives and labor" about finding a more liberal candidate than Sinema, though he did not offer his own name for consideration. Ex-Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011, also hasn't taken sides. Perhaps not coincidently, the New York Times recently reported that some Democratic activists were trying to convince Gifford's husband, former NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly, to run, but there's no sign Kelly is interested.
● TN-Sen: This week, ophthalmologist Rolando Toyos announced that he was joining the GOP primary for Tennessee's open Senate seat. Toyos is the CEO of the Toyos Clinic, which has five locations in Tennessee and Mississippi, and he spent 10 years as the Memphis Grizzlies' official ophthalmologist. The Memphis Commercial Appeal says that he can self-fund, though it's not clear how much of his money he can or will put down. Toyos has run for office just once before, losing a 2010 race for the Shelby County Commission 65-35 to a Democratic incumbent. Toyos joins Rep. Marsha Blackburn, ex-Rep. Stephen Fincher, and former Koch brothers state director Andy Ogles in the primary.
● WY-Sen: Last week, zillionaire conservative mega-donor Foster Friess took Steve Bannon to task for going after Republicans in primaries, declaring, "I do not intend to raise money to defeat fellow Republicans." But while that may have sounded like a sign that Friess had ruled out a primary bid against Sen. John Barrasso, Friess has confirmed that he's still thinking about it, adding that he only started considering when he received a call from … Steve Bannon.
Friess actually praised Barrasso in an email to the Casper Star-Tribune, though he didn't bother to spell his would-be foe's name correctly. Friess wrote, "I am a huge fan of John Barrosso and if I do decide to run the people of Wyoming just need to decide if they would like to have Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers in the line up for them, figuratively speaking." Friess instead said that "several recent incidents" had made it more likely he'll run, citing what he calls the U.S. "betrayal" of the Kurds in Iraq, the new "Uranium One" right-wing conspiracy against the Clintons, and some alleged misuse of funds. Blackwater founder Erik Prince has also been talking about challenging Barrasso in this very red state.
● CO-Gov: It's time for another edition of "How to tell when your campaign is actually falling apart." Senior staffers, including campaign managers, come and go all the time for all sorts of reasons, and we usually don't note these personnel changes … unless. This week, suburban Denver District Attorney George Brauchler, who is one of several Republicans running for governor, not only lost his campaign manager, but his camp says that they won't have a new one for the rest of the year. That's not a sign of a campaign in good shape.
Brauchler's fundraising also hasn't exactly been wowing either. Brauchler raised just $100,000 for the third quarter of 2017, and he had only $174,000 left in the bank. Aside from self-funding businessman Victor Mitchell, that haul was comparable to the rest of the GOP field (though state Treasurer Walker Stapleton jumped in at the very end of the quarter and ex-Rep. Tom Tancredo only entered the race this week), so it wasn't an overt sign that something was wrong with Brauchler's operation. But the Denver Post's Craig F. Walker writes that "Brauchler's weak fundraising spurred questions about whether he can mount a successful campaign."
Walker also reports that there's been chatter that Brauchler could run for attorney general if GOP incumbent Cynthia Coffman runs for governor. Brauchler has repeatedly said he's only running for the state's top executive post, but he wouldn't be the first politician to change his tune if the opportunity opened up. Brauchler's campaign for the governorship seems to be in real trouble, though, and he's not acting as though he's in a hurry to right things, so even a less ambitious target might still be too much of a reach for him.
● ID-Gov: Democrats haven't won Idaho's governor's office since Cecil Andrus was re-elected in 1990, and Team Blue would need a whole lot to go right to have a shot in this red state. However, A.J. Balukoff, the 2014 nominee and a member of the Boise school board, sounds ready to try again. Balukoff set up a campaign fundraising account this week, and while he says he won't formally enter the race until after the December holidays, he wants to organize and start raising money now.
Balukoff, who is personally wealthy, lost 54-39 to Gov. Butch Otter, who is now retiring. However, that wasn't a bad showing in such a conservative state in such a terrible year. Balukoff notably did manage to get the national GOP's attention in October of that year when the Republican Governor's Association dropped six figures worth of ads on him, ads that continued into the final days of the race. Democrats have a very small bench here, and if Balukoff runs again, it's unlikely he'll face much primary opposition.
● VA-Gov: The Virginia gubernatorial race, which had long been an ugly affair thanks to Republican Ed Gillespie's overtly racist, Trump-esque campaign, is slogging to a messy conclusion in its last days. Attempting to capitalize on right-wing backlash over an ad from the Latino Victory Fund, Gillespie is running a last-minute ad of his own that features nothing but clips of Fox News hosts and guests—including Gillespie himself—trashing the LVF spot. Says Gillespie, doing his best to stoke the politics of resentment, "Ralph Northam doesn't just disagree with millions of Virginians who don't share his, his liberal policy agenda—he disdains us."
Even though it put him in an awkward position, Northam had been very careful to not directly criticize the LVF ad, saying that Gillespie's campaign has been "very offensive" and that the targets of those ads (that is, Virginia Latinos) had a "right" to respond, though he did add that the spot was "certainly not a commercial I would have want to run." But Northam botched his efforts to avoid alienating Latinos and his progressive base by declaring in the same interview on Wednesday that he's "always been opposed to sanctuary cities"—the topic of Gillespie's nastiest attacks—and would sign a bill banning them if it came before him. Oy.
Northam has to be hoping the conversation in what little time is left won't be about him but rather Trump, who's the focus of Northam's presumably final ad. While Northam went after Trump hard during the primary, he mostly laid off him during the general election, but the tenor of his new attacks is different. Earlier this year, Northam himself was calling Trump a "narcissistic maniac" in his TV ads, but now he's highlighting policy differences. A narrator kicks off the new spot by saying there's "not much distance between" Gillespie and Trump," then explains that Gillespie supports Trump's "plan to take money out of Virginia's public schools, his plan to roll back our clean water and clean air protections," and his "plan to take healthcare away from thousands of Virginians."
There's no word on how much either candidate is spending on these final ads, though, and they could be small buys aimed chiefly at earning media coverage, or in Gillespie's case, targeted only to Fox News viewers. All Gillespie's campaign would say is that his spot "will air in media markets across Virginia." A Northam spokesperson was even more obfuscatory, saying, "As I've noted, President Trump does not disclose military strategy." (Of course, that's … not true. Also, Donald Trump should never be cited as an exemplar of strategic thinking, even as a joke.)
Finally, there's one more poll of the race. Suffolk University's latest survey finds Northam up 47-43, an improvement from their last poll (conducted in mid-September) that had the contest tied at 42 apiece. This latest margin, though, is right in line with the bulk of other polling.
● MN-08: After two very tight losses to Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, wealthy Minnesota Republican Stewart Mills published a lengthy Facebook note on Wednesday in which he announced that he would not run a third time in 2018. But oh boy, did Mills not stop there.
Mills accused the NRCC of pulling their ad buys two weeks ahead of the 2016 election, leaving him without the time to buy more commercials to make up for their absence. Mills continued, "The NRCC succeeded in doing something the Democrats were unable to do, leave us flat footed and unable to mount a commensurate campaign." While Mills praised another GOP outside group, Paul Ryan's allied Congressional Leadership Fund, for staying with him, he wrote, "It is inexcusable that the NRCC hung me out to dry and left me vulnerable to the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee's media attacks by shifting their planned ad buy to an incumbent, an incumbent who won by very solid double digits." We have no idea which incumbent he might be referring to, but Mills ended up losing by a painfully narrow 50.2-49.6 margin as this northeastern Minnesota seat swung all the way from 52-46 Obama to 54-39 Trump.
Mills went on to actually praise the Democrats for recruiting strong House candidates for 2018 and continued to trash his own party. "The Republicans, in my direct and personal experience, are recruiting folks without a strategy, polling, or an explainable path to victory," he said. "In my opinion, these candidates will be the sacrificial lambs the NRCC will build their incumbent protection strategy upon. If there is a meaningful change of leadership and priorities at the NRCC, I might be open to looking at another run in the 2020 cycle." Don't bet on it, bub.
The NRCC probably wouldn't have been too devastated to lose Mills as a candidate even before he pissed all over them, though. While Mills had access to plenty of money, Democrats successfully portrayed him as a rich guy out of touch with rural Minnesota. (Oh, and he's a Green Bay Packers fan.) Team Red seems a bit more psyched about their new candidate, St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, a Duluth police officer.
● TN-07: On Wednesday, Franklin Mayor Ken Moore announced that he would not run for this open and safely red Middle Tennessee seat. So far, state Sen. Mark Green, whose nomination for secretary of the Army collapsed earlier this year, has the GOP primary to himself.
● Statehouse Action: This Week in Statehouse Action: The Final Countdown edition chock full o' every statehouse thing you should be paying attention to in next Tuesday's elections, plus bonus Wisconsin shenanigans!
You can count on this weekly state political update arriving in your inbox each Thursday by signing up here for This Week in Statehouse Action delivery via electronic mail!