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, and David Beard.
● AZ-Sen: GOP Sen. Jeff Flake certainly had an interesting Monday. Notorious former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who received a pardon days ago from Donald Trump, said he was interested in challenging Flake in the primary. A little while later, JMC Analytics released a poll showing Flake badly losing his primary to ex-state Sen. Kelli Ward, who is the only notable opponent who has entered the race so far, by a 47-21 margin.
We'll start with Arpaio, who told the Washington Examiner on Monday that "I could run for mayor [of Phoenix], I could run for legislator, I could run for Senate." Flake appears especially vulnerable to a primary challenge from the nativist right, since the more libertarian-minded senator has long been far more supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, angering this state's notoriously anti-immigration GOP base.
At 85 years old, an Arpaio candidacy doesn't seem particularly likely at first glance. Arpaio also has flirted with running for governor five times since 1998 but never gone for it, and this may go the same way. However, Arpaio lost re-election last year 56-44, so he has no other job to fall back on. Arpaio even told the Washington Examiner that "[t]he bottom line is there's no way I'm going to go fishing. I have no hobbies."
During his 24-year long reign of terror as sheriff of Arizona's largest county, Arpaio earned a notorious reputation for mistreating prisoners, including serving them discolored green and blue meat, forcing them to wear pink underwear, and sending them to live in tents, where he's bragged that temperatures could reach 145 degrees in the summer heat. Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court in July for defying a judicial order to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants in violation of their civil rights. Of course, these are only pluses in Donald Trump's book, and he pardoned him on Friday. The fact that Arpaio has also wasted taxpayer money on his quest to "investigate" Barack Obama's birth certificate, and still refused to accept its legitimacy last year, certainly weren't drawbacks with Trump.
Regardless of what Arpaio does, Flake already faces a challenge from former state Sen. Kelli Ward, and a new JMC Analytics poll finds Ward absolutely demolishing Flake by a 47-21 landslide. This survey follows a recent HighGround poll that also showed Ward trouncing Flake 43-28, which was a closer margin, but still awful for an incumbent who is an otherwise rock-solid conservative aside from on immigration.
Despite her reputation for extremism, engagement with conspiracy theories, and weak fundraising, Ward held longtime Sen. John McCain to just a 51-40 primary victory in 2016. Top Republicans, including Trump himself, have reportedly been eager to search for a stronger challenger to Flake, and ex-state party chair Robert Graham seems like the most likely taker. But if JMC's reading of his favorable rating at 22 percent and unfavorable at 67 percent is accurate, even Ward may be able to dispatch the despised one-term incumbent. Trump may even ultimately overlook Ward's flaws due to his hatred of Flake, since he nearly unwittingly endorsed her earlier this month. If Arpaio also runs, he would likely vacuum up most of Ward's voters, though she could still take enough anti-Flake support to help the senator win a close race.
Flake's struggles play right into Democratic hands, since the party would undoubtedly love to face someone as infamously unhinged as Ward. Even if he somehow wins renomination, Flake could stumble into the general election more badly damaged even beyond the tarnish he's acquired by supporting the unpopular Trumpcare bill. With Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema likely to jump into the Senate race, Flake's toxic image increasingly makes Arizona a top-tier pickup opportunity for Democrats next year.
● NV-Sen: Sen. Dean Heller is one of the few vulnerable Republican incumbents facing re-election next year, and pollster JMC Analytics' first released survey of the GOP primary shows he isn't just facing a dire threat in the general election, but in the primary too. JMC's recent poll finds Heller actually losing renomination to perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian by a 39-31 spread, while Heller's favorable rating is a pitiful 34 percent and lower than his 48 percent favorable rating among Republicans. The pollster did not appear to release any general election numbers if they surveyed them, but Heller's in terrible shape if this latest release is anywhere near accurate.
Seeking to stanch the bleeding, Heller's campaign pushed back with an internal poll of its own from the Republican firm the Tarrance Group, which has him winning by a more comfortable 55-33 spread over Tarkanian. However, for an incumbent with the steadfast support of the Senate leadership, a mere 22-point lead in a primary over a perennial-candidate foe isn't exactly intimidating to Heller's critics.
Tarkanian kicked off his campaign against Heller in early August over the latter's insufficient adherence to party orthodoxy, but the wealthy businessman has repeatedly lost general elections for congressional and state-level races. That includes last year, when he upset the party establishment's preferred candidate in the primary for the open 3rd Congressional District only to narrowly lose the general election 47-46 to Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen even as Trump won the suburban Las Vegas-area seat by 48-47. While his unrelenting conservatism has endeared him to the GOP base, it's a double-edged sword that helps turn off swing voters in the general election, especially when combined with attacks over his awful record in his business career, making him an ideal opponent for Democrats to face.
Heller may have just helped seal his own defeat with the way he played his cards during the recent health care debates. Heller publicly opposed key aspects of Trumpcare while ultimately voting both for and against several major variations of the proposed bill, angering both the hard-right base and swing voters. With Tarkanian challenging him from the right in the primary and Rosen running against him in the general, the incumbent can't afford any missteps if he hopes to become the only Republican senator to win re-election next year in a state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. There's still a long way to go until next year's primary and general election, however, meaning Heller may yet turn things around.
● AK-Gov: Independent Gov. Bill Walker recently confirmed that he would seek re-election on a unity ticket with Democratic Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, but some Democrats still aren't closing the door on a gubernatorial bid of their own. Former Sen. Mark Begich hadn't ruled out running back in May, and he recently emailed supporters to say he's considering running for governor next year after receiving encouragement to do so. Meanwhile, state Sen. Bill Wielechowski recently stated that he'll consider running if no candidate who shares his values runs, indicating his opposition to Walker on certain key issues, likely from the left.
Begich lost his bid for a second term by just a 48-46 margin in this red state during the 2014 GOP wave, and he could be a strong contender for Democrats in a state that typically leans decidedly to the right. However, if either he or Wielechowski takes the plunge for Democrats, it could help hand the election to Republicans by splitting the vote among Democrats and moderate independent voters. Walker and Mallott just barely threaded the needle in 2014 to overcome the Democratic Party's typical unpopularity in this conservative state. Either Walker or a mainstream Democratic nominee would need everything to go right to prevail here, likely meaning neither can afford to run against the other if they hope to block a Republican victory again.
● SC-Gov: Democratic state Reps. Justin Bamberg and James Smith have both recently said they're considering running for governor next year, but they won't have to worry about facing each other in a primary. Bamberg recently declared that he would support Smith "110 percent" if the latter decides to join the race, but Bamberg is still considering his own campaign and will decide by Oct. 1. For his part, Smith had previously relayed last week that he could make a decision in a few weeks, but he didn't set a firm timeline.
On the Republican side, Gov. Henry McMaster continues to do little to scare off intra-party opposition as he seeks to win the nomination for a full term. State Sen. Tom Davis, who was a former chief of staff to Rep. Mark Sanford, had previously said he was considering whether to join the GOP primary and would make a decision by the week of Labor Day. Davis recently confirmed to The State that he would indeed announce his plans next week and hoped to see a candidate with a more "limited government" viewpoint run, which could presage his becoming the latest of several noteworthy Republicans challenging the incumbent in the primary.
● WY-Gov: On Saturday, former state House Minority Leader Mary Throne kicked off her campaign for governor, becoming the most prominent Democrat to join the race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Matt Mead. Throne served a decade in the legislature representing a Republican-leaning district in Cheyenne until losing re-election 51-49 last year. Wyoming was Trump's single best state and is consistently one of the reddest in America even at the state level, but Democrats did win an open seat for governor in 2002. It'll take everything going right for Team Blue to pull off a shocking upset in 2018, but Throne at least gives the party a credible candidate if the stars align.
● IA-03: Political consultant Pete D'Alessandro upgraded his campaign from exploratory status to officially running after he announced he was in on Saturday. D'Alessandro is a longtime Democratic operative in Iowa politics and was the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign's state coordinator. D'Alessandro undoubtedly has connections and experience working for campaigns that will come in handy as he seeks the Democratic nomination.
Republican Rep. David Young comfortably won his second term in 2016 over a touted foe as this Des Moines-area 3rd District flipped from 51-47 Obama to 49-45 Trump, but D'Alessandro will first have to make it past a competitive primary to become Team Blue's nominee next year. Real estate company president Theresa Greenfield, business consultant Cindy Axne, and former U.S. Treasury Department economist Austin Frerick are already running in the Democratic primary. If no candidate exceeds 35 percent, the party will hold a convention to pick their standard-bearer.
● IL-17: Businessman Mark Kleine became the first noteworthy Republican to launch a campaign against Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos in northwestern Illinois' 17th District. Kleine is a political newcomer, but appears to be well-connected in the business world in Galesburg (population: 31,000), serving as the president of Kleine Companies and sitting on the board of several local civic and economic organizations. It's unclear if Kleine is wealthy enough to self-fund any substantial amount or if he has what it takes to run a strong campaign, but the DCCC at least thought he was notable enough of an opponent to issue a press release shortly after his entry into the race.
Bustos won a 60-40 landslide against an unheralded challenger last November, but this predominantly white working-class district lurched from 58-41 Obama to 47.4-46.7 Trump. While Bustos starts off as a heavy favorite to win a fourth term next year, Republicans could make a serious attempt to flip this seat given its favorable demographic composition.
● TX-16: Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke left his seat open back in late March to run for Senate next year, but the race to succeed him in this dark-blue El Paso seat has been slow to develop. Nevertheless, former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar and former El Paso city school board president Dori Fenenbock both recently became the first big-named Democratic candidates to join the race. Texas has a "resign to run" law, which forces county elected officials to resign if they want to seek higher office with more than one year and 30 days remaining in their current term, and both women resigned from their posts over the weekend.
Despite her title as county judge, Escobar's position in Texas functions somewhat more akin to a county executive or mayor in other jurisdictions. Escobar almost certainly starts out better known that Fenenbock, who is still planning a more official announcement on Sept. 9, and the former judge has O'Rourke's endorsement. However, Fenenbock has been raising money for months, and she had $329,000 in the bank at the end of June. This lopsidedly Latino district favored Clinton 68-27 and will almost certainly stay safely Democratic.
● UT-01: GOP Rep. Rob Bishop announced on Friday that he would seek a ninth term next year, but he said he would retire in 2020. It's quite common for House candidates to pledge to serve only a limited number of terms, only for them to disregard that promise later (Oklahoma Republican Markwayne Mullin is only the latest example.) It's much more rare for veteran House members, and especially ones in safe seats, to announce that they'll retire after their next term only to change their minds.
If the GOP keeps control of the House, Bishop's next term as head of the House Natural Resources Committee will also end in early 2021, which explains why he's announced when he's departing then. Utah's 1st District is usually reliably red, and Trump beat Clinton 50-22 here, with conservative independent Evan McMullin also taking 22 percent.