Our race ratings: Senate | Governor | House
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.
● KS-02: Any candidate can lie, but it takes a certain Trumpesque brazenness to lie, sorta admit the truth after being confronted about it, then go right back to lying about the same topic like nothing ever happened. Well, Republican Steve Watkins is such a candidate. A few weeks ago, a Kansas City Star investigation led Watkins to admit that he'd never owned or built up the defense contracting company VIAP Inc, despite what he'd said on the campaign trail. That confession came as several senior company officials said they didn't even remember Watkins, who worked as a contractor. The paper also reported that Watkins had joined VIAP years after it started, so he certainly didn't help start it.
Watkins admitted to the paper that he "didn't own it, no ... when I say I helped start and grow, it was operational." But the paper now reports that on Wednesday, Watkins told a candidate forum that he'd "helped to start and grow an engineering security outfit from three people to 470 people." The campaign later stuck by Watkins' very dubious argument that he again meant he'd helped the company start operationally even though again, it existed years before he joined it.
Watkins went on to hustle out of the event without taking any questions from reporters, which even Wilson County GOP chairman Kris Marple admitted, "Kind of makes you wonder." However, Marple told the Star that he'd be voting for Watkins because "We're just talking two years," and "If we come to find out that stuff's true and he's really not what he says he is, we'll replace him in two years, I guess." With friends like that, who needs enemies?
Well, Watkins has got them, and the DCCC is out with a new spot that hits him on this fabrication. The narrator first tells the audience that, despite Watkins saying he built a company from scratch, "It was all a lie." The narrator also describes how the CEO of VIAP's parent company "didn't even know who Watkins was, saying, 'He's nobody that I've heard of.'" The commercial also highlights how Watkins' primary foes called him a "fraud and a liar."
On the other side, Democrat Paul Davis is up with a new ad that highlights his family's healthcare struggle. The candidate tells the audience that when his daughter Caroline was born she had to have a very costly invasive surgery, "And we had to also battle our insurance company." Davis declares that it's "wrong to say, 'You have this disease and we're not going to allow you to get affordable health insurance.'"
Race Ratings Changes
● ND-Sen (Tossup to Lean R): Heidi Heitkamp was always one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election this cycle, and recent polling confirms she's now the incumbent most likely to lose: Two public surveys had Heitkamp down double digits in the last week, and Democratic operatives have acknowledged that their internal polls show her trailing. Perhaps most concerning, the NRSC has reportedly started to cancel some ad reservations it had made for the final weeks of the election, a sign of confidence in GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer.
Still, Heitkamp's chances can't be written off, particularly after her miracle 1-point win in 2012. She also just received a big fundraising boost after announcing she'd vote against confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, though Republicans are convinced her stance will only hurt her in North Dakota. Indeed, the state may just be too red for Heitkamp to survive despite the favorable environment for Democrats, but a surprise remains possible.
● AZ-Gov (Lean R to Likely R): Republicans have spent heavily to protect Gov. Doug Ducey this year, and it seems to have worked. While some early polling indicated a competitive race between Ducey and Democrat David Garcia, a series of polls over the last several weeks have shown the incumbent with a wide lead, and usually over the 50 percent mark. Ducey and his allies are outspending Garcia 50-to-one on television, and with early voting about to start, it doesn't appear that any outside groups are planning to help the Democrat.
● MI-Gov (Lean D to Likely D): After eight years of Republican governors, it looks like Michigan is ready to return a Democrat to the job. Polls have shown Gretchen Whitmer with a wide and consistent lead over her GOP opponent, Bill Schuette, who celebrated the fact that a recent public survey showed him down "only" 8 points. Ominously, the RGA has cancelled millions in ad time it had reserved to help Schuette, and had reportedly threatened to cut him off entirely if he doesn't right his ailing ship. With so little time left, such a turnaround seems unlikely.
● OR-Gov (Likely D to Lean D): Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler still faces a tough campaign against Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, but an upset looks a bit more likely than it did a few months ago. The few polls we've seen have generally given Brown only a so-so approval rating, and the governor has also had to deal with high-profile problems with the state's foster care system, the state's low high-school graduation rate, and crime in the city of Portland.
Brown holds a hefty $3.5 million to $1.7 million cash-on-hand lead over her opponent, and we still think she's the favorite in this blue state in a tough year for the GOP. However, Buehler still has plenty of money to compete, and the self-described pro-choice Republican is more moderate than your typical GOP nominee. Democrats have also controlled the governor's mansion since 1987, and one-party fatigue could give Buehler an opening.
● SD-Gov (Likely R to Lean R): Republicans have won every election for South Dakota's governorship stretching back to 1978—the longest such streak in the nation—but state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton is one of the strongest candidates Team Blue has put forward for governor in a long time. Sutton has released two internal polls showing a tight race against GOP Rep. Kristi Noem, with his late September poll giving him a 45-42 lead.
Noem hasn't released better numbers, and her decision to go up with a negative ad is another sign that this contest is closer than it should be. Sutton is a compelling candidate: He's a former rodeo star—in a state that loves the sport—who was left paralyzed from the waist down after a rodeo accident a decade ago, and he has experience winning dark-red turf in the legislature. Noem still has an advantage simply because of South Dakota's strong red lean, but she's in a much tougher position than she ought to be.
● IL-14 (Likely R to Lean R): Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren holds a seat that Democrats had drawn to pack Republican voters together and make nearby seats bluer, but it turns out they might be the sort of Republicans that Democrats can actually win with nowadays. This well-educated suburban district west of Chicago backed Trump by a relatively small 49-45 margin, and Hultgren looks increasingly vulnerable as Republicans are struggling in demographically similar districts across much of the country.
The Democratic group House Majority PAC recently jumped into the race with a sizable ad buy to help boost Democrat Lauren Underwood, a first-time candidate who's run a strong campaign, and the deep unpopularity of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner could compound the issues Republicans face in the Chicago area.
● KS-03 (Tossup to Lean D): Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder looked like a formidable foe after he won re-election in 2016 by double digits even as his highly educated suburban seat flipped from supporting Mitt Romney in 2012 to backing Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin. However, 2018 is shaping up very differently for him.
Multiple polls have found Yoder losing to Democrat Sharice Davids, and even in his own internal poll, he only took 43 percent of the vote. What's more, these results come after Davids faced down a barrage of negative ads, and she has ample resources to get her message out. Voters here seem to be taking out their frustration with Trump on congressional Republicans, and both the NRCC and DCCC have canceled or pared back their ad buys, indicating that they believe Yoder is indeed an underdog.
● NY-21 (Safe R to Likely R): The 21st District, based in far upstate New York, lurched hard to the right in 2016, flipping from 52-46 Obama to 54-40 Trump, and Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik has won two convincing landslides both times she has run. However, Democrat Tedra Cobb raised a very strong $715,000 in the third quarter, giving her the kind of resources to get her message out that prior challengers have lacked.
Neither national party has taken any interest in this seat, but both candidates have been running ads, including one where Stefanik even went negative on Cobb. It's possible that Stefanik is just being cautious, but if Obama-Trump districts like this one snap back to Democrats (who held this seat for several years until 2014), it would give Cobb an opening.
● NY-23 (Safe R to Likely R): Republican Rep. Tom Reed had long appeared safe in his decidedly Trump-friendly western New York seat after Democrats failed to land a prominent candidate, but with Democrat Tracy Mitrano raising a strong $950,000 in the third quarter, she'll have enough cash to run a real race here. In 2012, this district only narrowly backed Mitt Romney as Reed won by a surprisingly slim margin in what wasn't expected to be a close race, and if Trump-voting Democrats return to their roots, and voters in college towns like Ithaca are fired up, there's an outside chance at an upset.
● PA-10 (Likely R to Lean R): Pennsylvania's court-ordered redistricting made this Harrisburg-area seat much more competitive, and there are multiple signs Republican Rep. Scott Perry is more vulnerable than he initially appeared now that he has to run his first-ever seriously contested race. Democrat George Scott has released multiple polls showing him just narrowly behind, and Perry and Republicans haven't offered up any contradictory numbers. Perhaps most importantly, the DCCC recently jumped into the contest.
Perry retains the edge (his district voted for Trump 52-43), but he's a Freedom Caucus member unaccustomed to communicating with voters in the middle and could get swept up in a wave.
● PA-16 (Likely R to Lean R): Like the 10th District, the Erie-based 16th became several points bluer thanks to court-ordered redistricting, and Republican Rep. Mike Kelly is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Ron DiNicola in a seat that is ancestrally Democratic. Two unanswered Democratic polls from shortly after the May primary found Kelly with only a modest advantage, and the DCCC has also started spending here. This seat still voted for Trump by a hefty 58-38, so Kelly still is favored, but the district was closely divided during the Obama years. If it snaps back, DiNicola could pull off an upset.
You can keep track of all the $1 million-plus House fundraising quarters announced so far right here.
● FL-Sen: The Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity has announced a "seven-figure" ad buy for digital and direct mail, with a digital ad that hits Democratic Sen. BIll Nelson for supporting Obamacare.
● NJ-Sen: The DSCC and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez have spent another $520,000 on coordinated TV ads. There is no copy available yet.
● Polls: Two GOP internals:
● FL-Gov: The Florida Republican Party has debuted two TV ads (here and here) that attack Democrat Andrew Gillum for supposedly failing to handle the response to Hurricane Hermine when it struck Tallahassee in 2016. The ads each feature a woman criticizing Gillum, and they claim he "refused help from workers" who "could have restored our power" after many residents lost electricity. However, Gillum has argued he was never made aware of the offers of aid, and city utility officials said they didn't say yes to every offer of help right away because they were concerned about coordination and safety issues.
Gillum also went up with a digital response ad that features Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, a Democrat. He praises Gillum's leadership for handling Tallahassee's first hurricane in 30 years, noting that no lives were lost and arguing that power was restored quickly. McNeil calls out Republican Ron DeSantis for what he says are lies.
Meanwhile, the DGA has put another $1 million into Gillum's campaign. That brings their total investment to $4 million.
● IL-Gov: GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner has two arguments for why voters should give the unpopular incumbent a second term: state House Speaker Mike Madigan and toilets.
We'll start with the second one. Over the summer, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that in 2007, Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker purchased a second Chicago mansion right next to the one he lived in, though his family did not move into the new home. Instead, they let their new property fall into disrepair and disconnected and removed the toilets. The Pritzkers went on to argue that the second home was "vacant and uninhabitable," which allowed them to get a $230,000 property tax break after their attorneys convinced the Cook county's assessor's office to dramatically slash the property's value.
Rauner has been attacking Pritzker over this for months in ads and at debates, but if it's had any impact, it hasn't shown up in the polls, which consistently Pritzker with enormous leads. On Monday, however, the Sun-Times obtained a report from Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard that declared that Pritzker had taken part in a "scheme to defraud" the county of $330,000—$100,000 more than previously reported—and that he should be forced to repay that sum.
Pritzker initially declared that this report was "leaked for political purposes in this last month of a campaign," insisting that he'd "followed the rules." However, he reversed course the next day and said he'd repay the $330,000 to the county treasurer's office.
Rauner has also spent months trying to tie Pritzker to powerful state House Speaker Mike Madigan, who is the favorite punching bag of Illinois Republicans (and sometimes of Democrats). Rauner just released yet another ad to that effect, where he tells the audience that like them, he's frustrated not enough has changed in the state. He continues by declaring that change isn't easy, arguing, "We can give up and give total control to Madigan, Pritzker, and the machine that made this mess, or do the tough and honest things to save Illinois," adding ominously, "This may be our last chance."
● NM-Gov: Republican Steve Pearce is betting that voters don't have fond memories of former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson after he left office eight years ago, since he's putting $170,000 behind a TV ad that tries to tar Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham for having served in the cabinet of the former governor, claiming she's backed by the "Richardson gang." However, the ad fails to mention that Lujan Grisham was a cabinet secretary under both of Richardson's predecessors, including then-Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.
● OH-Gov: The RGA's newest ad uses an attack Republicans have been making for a while against Democrat Richard Cordray that charges he failed to test 12,000 rape kits as state attorney general, claiming he supposedly doesn't care about women. However, as we have previously noted, the backlog of rape kits predated Cordray's tenure as attorney general due to no standards being in place for how local law enforcement should process them, and Cordray had taken actions to speed up the testing process during his term.
Meanwhile, new campaign finance reports reveal the Cordray outraised Republican Mike DeWine $2.6 million to $2 million in September. Cordray's haul included $335,000 in in-kind spending from the state Democratic Party, while DeWine got no party money during the month.
The Columbus Dispatch says that Ohio candidates aren't required to report their expenditures, however, so we don't know how much either of them has in the bank for the final month of the campaign. All we know thanks to this absurd lack of transparency is that DeWine has outraised Cordray by a total of $24.3 million to $13.8 million.
The only other poll we've seen for the general election in South Carolina was an August internal for Smith that had him down 47-43. So far, major outside groups haven't been spending here on either side.
● FL-26: Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is out with a spot that features her in snorkel gear swimming underwater. The candidate does not speak (except to do the mandatory "I approve this message"), and instead holds up signs from the bottom of the sea floor declaring that, unlike the Republicans, she'll take action to protect the water and the environment.
● VA-07: House Freedom Action, which is the campaign arm of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, is making a $365,000 ad buy against Democrat Abigail Spanberger.
The DCCC's poll from GBA Strategies marks the third straight Democratic poll to find Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell with an ultra-tight lead over GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo in Florida over the last two weeks, following on the heels of recent surveys from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and PPP. Even the independent Siena poll on behalf of the New York Times had Curbelo up just 47-44 in mid-September, and all four of these surveys indicate that this is indeed a very close race.
The GQR poll for Kara Eastman is only the second survey we've seen in this contest, and it comes in response to a late-September independent poll from Siena for the New York Times, which had her trailing by a much wider 51-42. Outside groups from both parties are spending here, and it's possible they believe the race is closer than Siena's poll would indicate.