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.
● MN-Sen-B: On Thursday, Democratic Sen. Al Franken announced he would resigning "in the coming weeks." Franken's decision came a day after two more women accused him of sexual harassment, and most of the Democratic caucus called for him to leave. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton will appoint a new senator who will serve at least until a special election is held in November of 2018, and the seat will be up again for a full six-year term in 2020. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar is also up for a regularly-scheduled election next fall as well. From now on, any updates about Klobuchar's race will be designated with the tag MN-Sen-A (though we don't expect her to have much trouble winning a third term), while stories about this special election will be filed under MN-Sen-B.
It's not clear when exactly Franken will officially leave, but it sounds like we won't need to wait long to find out who will be succeeding him. Just after Franken made his announcement, Dayton said that he had "not yet decided on my appointment to fill this upcoming vacancy," but added, "I expect to make and announce my decision in the next couple of days." Politico reported on Wednesday night that Dayton was "expected" to appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who would likely not run in the special election.
Many potential Democratic candidates will be waiting to see whom Dayton picks and whether that person runs in 2018 before making a decision, but the GOP doesn't need to be so cautious. Minnesota Democrats have done well in statewide races for a long time, but the state can be quite volatile. Notably, Barack Obama's comfortable 53-45 win in 2012 shrunk to just a 46-45 edge for Hillary Clinton last year, the GOP's best showing in a presidential race since Ronald Reagan lost to native son Walter Mondale by fewer than 4,000 votes in his 1984 landslide. 2018 is shaping up to be a good year for Democrats, but national Republicans will be happy to give Team Blue another seat to defend.
So who might go for it? Former Sen. Norm Coleman, who narrowly lost to Franken in a famous 2008 recount, said he wouldn't run on Thursday, and attention quickly turned to ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty, who waged a failed presidential bid in 2012 after leaving the governor's office, has reportedly shown lots of interest behind the scenes in running for his old job next year to replace the retiring Dayton, but Republican strategists openly hope that he'll run the Senate instead. Notably, Pawlenty wanted to run for this seat all the way back in 2002. However, the Bush White House preferred Coleman as their nominee, and Pawlenty decided to switch to the governor's race after Vice President Dick Cheney called him and urged him to stay out of the Senate contest.
Pawlenty narrowly won re-election during the 2006 Democratic wave, so he has experience with tough contests. However, as we've noted before, Pawlenty currently heads a D.C.-based group that lobbies on behalf of Wall Street. While his political and financial connections would give him access to plenty of money, Democrats wouldn't need to work hard to portray Pawlenty as a tool of greedy Washington interests who has abandoned his Midwestern home.
While we have yet to hear from T-Paw, a few other Republicans have already expressed interest. Wealthy businessman Stewart Mills said Wednesday that he'd "more than kick the tires" if this seat opened up. Mills ran twice against Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan in the rural 8th District and narrowly lost despite very favorable political conditions in 2014 and 2016. Mills considered a third House bid until November, when he authored a long Facebook note not only announcing he wouldn't run but also railing on the NRCC for supposedly abandoning him last year in his hour of need. So yeah, we bet the NRSC is really excited to work with this dude. State Sen. Karin Housley also said Thursday she was "seriously considering," and we're likely to see plenty of other names pop up here soon as well.
● CT-Sen: Back in April, state Republicans seemed interested in the idea of former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson running a long shot campaign against Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy. While Carlson recently told CNN that she wasn't ruling out a bid for office someday, they initially reported that she wasn't ruling out a bid for this seat. In response, Carlson tweeted, "No, I said I wouldn't rule out politics in general in my life. I'm not running for Senate in CT."
● ME-Sen: Apparently, GOP Gov. Paul LePage will always be a potential 2018 Senate candidate in someone's eyes. Over the last year, LePage has definitively said he won't challenge incumbent Angus King, only to backtrack before once again saying he won't run. Just a month ago, LePage said, "If I run for U.S. Senate, I will be a single man," which would be definitive coming from almost anyone else. However, Donald Trump seems to want to end LePage's marriage, since the Washington Post reports he's pushing LePage to run against King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. LePage soon blasted the Post's report as "fake news" and reiterated he wouldn't run. Maine's filing deadline is March 15.
● TN-Sen: On Thursday, former Gov. Phil Bredesen announced he would run for Tennessee's open Senate seat, giving D.C. Democrats a star recruit with a famous name and a history winning statewide. Indeed, Bredesen is the last Democrat to win statewide in Tennessee, period, when he carried all 95 of the state's counties in his 2006 re-election bid.
But that was also the last time that Bredesen, now 74, appeared on a ballot, and Tennessee, which even then was quite red, has shifted even further to the right since then. In fact, Republican presidential candidates have done better in each successive election dating back to 1996, culminating in Donald Trump's giant 61-35 victory last year. Even if 2018 continues to shape up as a good year for Democrats, that's a lot of cushion for the GOP.
And it's reasonable to wonder whether someone who's been out of the game as long as Bredesen has will be able to run an effective campaign. Last cycle, we saw three Democrats who'd been elected statewide fail in comeback bids for the Senate: Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, Ted Strickland in Ohio, and Evan Bayh in Indiana. All were hailed as top recruits when they entered their respective races, and many pundits saw Bayh as a "game-changer" who was uniquely capable of putting the race in play for Democrats, if not the outright favorite. We were cautious about Bayh, though, and we're taking the same approach with Bredesen.
That same caution means we also have to take note of former statewide elected officials who faced long layoffs but then did successfully return to the fray. In 2012, for instance, former Maine Gov. Angus King won a seat in the Senate despite having last run for office in 1998. And in North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp pulled off a much more remarkable Senate victory, 12 years after losing a bid for governor and 16 years after winning a second term as state attorney general, so we know return engagements like this can in fact work out.
But first, Bredesen will have to deal with a primary, much as Strickland did. Army veteran James Mackler has been running here for much of the year, long before GOP Sen. Bob Corker's retirement turned this into an open-seat race, and he immediately made it clear that he's not leaving on account of Bredesen's entry: Mackler said the best way for Democrats to win this contest is to present "a clear contrast between an Iraq war combat veteran that volunteers to serve his country against a career politician who only serves special interests." (That's a reference to the eventual GOP nominee, not a jab at Bredesen.) However, one other potential rival did clear out of the way: While Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke had also considered running, he endorsed Bredesen instead.
The former governor starts off with near-universal name recognition and will have vastly more money, so he's the heavy favorite to win the nomination, but a primary should be a good thing: If he wins, it'll hopefully help him shake off any rust, and if he loses, well, then this definitely wasn't meant to be. (Then again, we said the same thing about Strickland.) As for the GOP, they have a primary of their own, with the central players being Rep. Marsha Blackburn (a Club for Growth favorite), ex-Rep. Stephen Fincher (more of an establishment type), and wealthy ophthalmologist Rolando Toyos, who could prove to be a self-funding wildcard.
But whoever earns the Republican nomination will still have the upper hand even if they wind up facing Bredesen. It's certainly possible he could put this seat in play, but we're going to reserve our judgment for now.
● WV-Sen: If you can make sense of Don Blankeship's latest TV ad, you are a lot crazier than we are.
● CT-Gov: Just before Thanksgiving, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin expressed interest in seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, and he formed an exploratory committee this week. Because of Connecticut's complicated finance laws, it's common for politicians to spend months raising money for a bid while only officially exploring. While a number of other Democrats have formed exploratory committees to run to succeed retiring Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy, only Middletown Mayor Dan Drew has announced he's in.
None of these many Democrats have caught fire yet, and Bronin is hoping he can fill the void. Bronin, who served in Afghanistan, worked for the insurance giant The Hartford and was general counsel to Malloy before he ran for mayor in 2015. Bronin had little campaign experience but plenty of financial connections, and he raised a massive $1 million on his way to unseating incumbent Pedro Segarra in the Democratic primary 55-45. Hartford has been in bad financial shape for years, and Bronin has spent much of his energy dealing with the crisis.
Bronin's 2015 campaign impressed plenty of observers, and his financial connections could make him a candidate to watch if he gets in. However, Bronin has made some enemies at home. Notably, Bronin has a frosty relationship with local labor groups, and the head of the state AFL-CIO said union leaders "couldn't imagine how they could get their members to go out and knock on doors" for him.
The GOP has already attacked Bronin for the state of Hartford's economy, and his Democratic primary foes could follow suit if he runs. While Bronin inherited the city's problems and has managed to prevent it from going bankrupt this year, there are still plenty of issues with Hartford's finances. During his campaign for mayor, Bronin pledged to serve all four years of his term, but he gave himself some wiggle room a few months after being elected. While he'd hardly be the first politician to abandon that kind of promise, it could be awkward for him to change his mind while the situation at home is still so precarious. Republicans also likely would attack Bronin's ties to the very unpopular Malloy, though of course they'll try to connect any Democratic nominee to the governor.
Meanwhile, another Democrat sounds a bit less poised to run. Back in September, ex-Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz said that, while she'd been exploring a bid for the state Senate, she was considering running for the top job instead. Bysiewicz still says she's being encouraged to run to succeed Malloy and will address a local party town committee in early January about a possible bid. However, Bysiewicz also said she "remain[s] focused on exploring a run for the 13th state Senate district." Bysiewicz has sought higher office few times before but her last few campaigns have gone poorly. Most recently, Bysiewicz lost the 2012 primary for U.S. Senate to eventual winner Chris Murphy 67-33.
On the GOP side, attorney Peter Lumaj has been exploring a bid for months, and he announced recently that he was officially in. Lumaj ran for the Senate in 2012 and went nowhere, but he only lost to Democratic Secretary of State Denise Merrill 51-47 the next cycle. Lumaj, who is originally from Albania, attracted some attention at Wednesday's debate when he claimed that just after Donald Trump's 2016 win, Malloy called him and told Lumaj he hoped Trump would deport him.
● OH-Gov: Several of Richard Cordray's Democratic primary rivals have attacked the former state attorney general for resigning as head of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, arguing that he's made it easier for Trump to weaken or kill the agency. But Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a national progressive favorite who played a huge role in establishing the CFPB (and who successfully ran for the Senate after the GOP blocked her from leading it) is giving Cordray some potentially valuable support here. Warren quickly endorsed Cordray's bid for governor and sent out a fundraising email on his behalf arguing that the CFPB will be on the ballot along with him and, "There will be a lot of people who take shots at the agency to undermine Rich."
● WI-Gov: Ex-state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys has been considering joining the crowded Democratic primary, and she announced she was in this week… on her private Facebook page. Roys last was on the ballot in 2012, when she lost the primary for a safely blue Madison-area House seat to Mark Pocan 72-22.
● AZ-08: On Thursday, GOP Rep. Trent Franks unexpectedly announced he will resign from Congress, effective Jan. 31. Multiple media outlets said he was leaving because of "inappropriate behavior,” but Franks’ actual statement was just jaw-dropping. Franks wrote he had learned the House Ethics Committee was looking into “my discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates, making each feel uncomfortable.”
Franks has represented Arizona's conservative 8th District in suburban Phoenix since 2003, and he's been a pain for the GOP leadership the entire time. During his first year in office, Franks had to be begged by the Bush administration to vote for the GOP's Medicare overhaul; after that one reluctant tango with the establishment, he went over to the dark side and joined the nihilist Freedom Caucus.
Ever since, Franks has been a mouthpiece for some of the worst ideas of the far-right. Franks said in 2010 that "[f]ar more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by policies of slavery," declared the next year that same-sex marriage was "a threat to the nation's survival," and mused in 2013 that the instances of rape causing pregnancy are "very low." Franks also was very unbothered by the Russian government's meddling in the 2016 elections, saying, "The bottom line is if they succeeded, if Russia succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done," before claiming his comments were misconstrued.
Franks' seat includes a portion of the city of Phoenix as well as the nearby suburbs of Glendale, Peoria, and Surprise. The seat moved from 62-37 Romney to 58-37 Trump, so this won't be a Democratic pickup opportunity barring some extraordinary circumstances. (Then again, we've seen a lot of extraordinary things this year.) Both parties will choose their nominees though primaries ahead of the special election that will be necessary to fill this vacancy.
P.S. Trent Franks does hold one very important footnote in Daily Kos Elections history. In 2011, Franks' own consultant told reporter Dave Catanese that Franks would run for the Senate. But in a stunning turn of events, Franks reversed course at the last possible second and sought re-election instead. That's the source of the Franks Rule (which we only just formally named now), by which we don't regard someone as a candidate for higher office until they say they're a candidate for higher office, no matter how otherwise likely they seem to run. That's not the best legacy after 15 years in Congress, but Franks will need to take it.
● NH-01, NM-01, PA-18, TX-23: VoteVets, a group that backs Democratic military veterans, has made four new endorsements in House campaigns. In New Hampshire, they've endorsed former Department of Veterans Affairs official Maura Sullivan, who is one of several Democrats seeking to defend this open swing seat. In the very blue Albuquerque-based New Mexico's 1st District, they're supporting ex-U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, who also has a crowded field of opponents.
Over in Texas' 23rd District, they're backing former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, who is facing a few fellow Democrats for the right to face GOP Rep. Will Hurd. VoteVets is also supporting former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee for next year's special election to succeed scandal-tarred ex-GOP Rep. Tim Murphy in a conservative Western Pennsylvania seat.
● NV-04: Following a sexual harassment allegation from a former staffer, the DCCC axed Rep. Rubén Kihuen from the committee's "Frontline" program, which helps vulnerable incumbents facing potentially difficult re-election campaigns. Earlier this week, Kihuen went after Nancy Pelosi and DCCC chair Ben Ray Lujan after they called on him to resign, but according to The Hill, the D-Trip acted beforehand, removing Kihuen's name for its website "shortly after the allegations surfaced."
Meanwhile, the man Kihuen beat last year, former GOP Rep. Cresent Hardy, confirms he's now reconsidering his decision not to run for his old seat, which he announced back in July. In the likely event that Kihuen isn't on the general election ballot, Republican odds of winning an open seat ought to be better than they would have been had they had to face an undamaged incumbent. Still, Democrats should be favored to retain this suburban Las Vegas seat, given that it went for Hillary Clinton by a 50-45 margin and the simple fact that the political environment favors Team Blue.
● OH-12: Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi announced back in October that he would resign from this suburban Columbus seat by Jan. 31, and while plenty of Republicans expressed interest in running in the upcoming special for this 53-42 Trump district, the field has been slow to develop. Delaware County Prosecuting Attorney Carol O'Brien jumped in just after Tiberi made his announcement, and until this week, her only primary foe was retired Marine Brandon Grisez, who had been running a long shot bid against Tiberi. However, state Sen. Troy Balderson and real estate investor Jon Halverstadt both announced they were in recently, and a few other Republicans are making noises about joining them.
Halverstadt is a first-time candidate, and we'll see if he has the wealth or connections to run a serious bid. Balderson represents just a little less than 10 percent of the 12th in the state Senate; his Senate district overlaps with Muskingum County, which is home to Zanesville in the Appalachian portion of the district, but a ways away from the Columbus area where considerably more voters live.
Two other Republicans also say they're considering getting in. State Sen. Kevin Bacon expressed interest back in October, and he says he'll likely decide by the end of the month. Bacon represents almost as many 12th District residents as Balderson, but his seat is in Columbus' Franklin County, so he may have some connections in the seat's largest county. (And yes, you can get from Kevin Bacon to Kevin Bacon in six degrees.) Businesswoman Cathy Lyttle, who serves as vice president of communications and investor relations for the manufacturing giant Worthington Industries, also says she's considering.
● PA-09: Last year, businessman Art Halvorson very narrowly lost the GOP primary to veteran Rep. Bill Shuster, then proceeded to get demolished in November as the Democratic nominee. (Oh, we'll explain.) Halvorson is encouraged by one of those two defeats, and he tells Public Opinion News' Jim Hook that he'll decide if he'll challenge Shuster in the primary again in the next two weeks.
Halvorson, a local tea partier, first ran against Shuster in the 2014 GOP primary for this safely red seat, which is home to the Altoona area. Shuster's long record of securing appropriations for his rural seat wasn't such an asset in the tea party era, but Halvorson and another local Republican both ran weak campaigns against him. Halvorson in particular infamously justified his negligible fundraising by saying, "We are out door-to-door and we are touching people and voters, and we are buying love with touches and Mr. Shuster's big money doesn't buy love." Shuster ended up beating Halvorson 53-35, not exactly close, but not at all a strong performance for an incumbent.
Halvorson decided to try again the next cycle, and this time, there was no one else to split the anti-Shuster vote. Shuster drew some bad attention in 2015 after it was reported that he had helped pass a bill favorable to the airline industry while dating an airline lobbyist. Shuster spent heavily in the primary while the American Action Network, which is close to House leadership, also ran ads for him. Halvorson was once again badly outspent and he didn't receive much outside help, so it was quite a shock when Shuster won by just 50.6-49.4, a margin of 1,227 votes.
However, that same day Halvorson unexpectedly won the Democratic primary. No Democrat had filed to run for this very red seat, and some 1,060 votes were cast for Halvorson as a write-in candidate. Halvorson said he hadn't solicited write-in votes, but he decided to accept the Democratic nomination anyway, saying he'd caucus with the GOP in Congress.
Halvorson's only path to victory was to forge an unlikely alliance between Democratic voters and tea partiers who hated Shuster and understood that Halvorson was only a Democrat due to the weird circumstances. However, his campaign went nowhere, and he was charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly grabbing a Shuster campaign worker's wrist, an incident that Halvorson denies ever happened. Shuster won the general election 63-37, running behind Trump's 70-27 win here, but not exactly another tight victory.
Shuster recently announced he would run again, even though intra-party term limits will force him to give up his chairmanship of the Transportation Committee. Halvorson argued he could be beaten, and released a mid-November poll giving Shuster just a 38-36 primary lead. However, that Halvorson poll was from Gravis Marketing, one of the very worst firms in the business, and a group that's notorious for showing insanely optimistic numbers for its clients.
Still, it's clear Shuster has alienated a significant number of primary voters, and his narrow 2016 win demonstrates that even a weak candidate like Halvorson can give him a scare. However, Halvorson will want the primary to himself again to get a clear shot at the incumbent, and there's no guarantee that will happen this time. Halvorson's misdemeanor and time as an accidental Democratic candidate may also not exactly help him.
● PA-16: Former Warwick superintendent John George's campaign for the Democratic nomination to face GOP Rep. Lloyd Smucker seemed to be going nowhere, and this week, he announced he was dropping out. Nonprofit consultant Christina Hartman, who lost to Smucker 54-43 last year, is running again, and nonprofit director Jess King is also in the mix. This seat, which includes Lancaster County and some of Philadelphia's suburbs, backed Trump 51-44, and a Democratic win would be truly historic. No Democrat has held a Lancaster-based seat ever, though it has elected its share of members of the Anti-Masonic Party and Whigs.
● Statehouse Action: This Week in Statehouse Action: 'Tis the Session edition features updates on sexual misconduct allegations from across the country, the latest on recounts from Virginia, special election wins, and more!
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