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.
● NC-09: The details emerging about the election fraud alleged to have taken place in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District just keep looking worse and worse. There are many pieces to this scandal, but at its core, it appears to involve, as Judd Legum writes, "a coordinated effort to take possession of absentee ballots" in Robeson and Bladen Counties, which would be illegal under North Carolina law.
How have analysts reached this conclusion? Absentee ballots in North Carolina must either be notarized or signed by two witnesses. Diligent reporting shows that a large number of absentee ballots were signed by a very small number of witnesses: One batch of 162 analyzed by Legum showed that just eight different people signed 130 of them. As Joe Bruno of WSOC observes, witnesses would normally be "a family member, neighbor, or coworker," making this low ratio of witnesses-to-voters a serious indicia of wrongdoing.
On top of that, we have affidavits from voters who say that strangers came to their homes to collect their ballots, and we even have reporting from Bruno, who caught up with one of these repeat witnesses, Ginger Eason. Eason says she was paid $75 to $100 a week by Leslie McCrae Dowless, a consultant for Republican Mark Harris, to pick up absentee ballots. Dowless was sentenced to two years in prison for felony insurance fraud in 1992.
Eason also says she doesn't know what happened to those ballots, but she definitely didn't mail them to the local elections board. Rather, she gave them to Dowless, who's refused to comment on what he did with them. That means we can only speculate, though there is one important piece of hard data that can guide us.
According to the Charlotte Observer, 40 percent of absentee ballots in Bladen County and 64 percent of those in Robeson County were never returned to election offices. District-wide, however, only 24 percent of ballots were not returned.
What's more, in Robeson County, 75 percent of ballots requested by African-Americans and 69 percent of those requested by Native Americans went unreturned, versus 40 and 60 percent, respectively, across the district. Furthermore, those district-wide numbers would likely be far lower when excluding the two suspect counties, since they contain a disproportionate share of the populations of both groups.
Dowless, then, may have intercepted votes for Democrat Dan McCready, particularly those of black voters, and simply refused to send them in. The possibility that ballots were altered also can't be ruled out, as some voters who signed affidavits said they left their return envelopes unsealed when they handed their ballots to collectors. But again, except for postal workers and close relatives, it is illegal for third parties to collect absentee ballots in North Carolina, so even in the absence of any evidence that Dowless altered or discarded ballots, the operation he apparently ran would still run afoul of the law.
As Vox's Dylan Scott observes, "Elections officials and Democrats have been careful not to allege any specific wrongdoing so far." That's because there are now at least three separate investigations ongoing: one by the state Board of Elections, one by the Wake County district attorney, and one by the FBI and local U.S. attorney. The elections board is due to hold an evidentiary hearing by Dec. 21, but Bruno is almost certainly right when he says that these investigations don't look like they'll conclude "any time soon."
So what happens next? Assuming the board once again refuses to certify the results, which currently have Harris leading by 905 votes, it could order a new election, but that would simply trigger a rematch between Harris and McCready. The other alternative would be for the U.S. House to not seat either Harris or McCready and declare a vacancy, which it's empowered to do under the Constitution. That would force a special election, which would include fresh primaries for both parties.
And that could very well happen. On Tuesday, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, told reporters, "If there is what appears to be a very substantial question on the integrity of the election, clearly we would oppose Mr. Harris being seated until that is resolved." Hoyer added that he planned to discuss the matter with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who in January will become chair of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over such disputes.
So far, meanwhile, congressional Republicans have remained quiet, though their counterparts in North Carolina have been hollering for the elections board to certify the results, fraud allegations be damned. If either the board or the House prompts a new election, we can expect Republicans to go absolutely hysterical—and we certainly know what Trump will tweet. But if, as appears likely, investigators continue to uncover more unlawful behavior, a do-over will be the only appropriate remedy.
● GA-Sen: Democrat Stacey Abrams has hinted she's interested in a 2020 bid against GOP Sen. David Perdue for a while, but it was only on Monday that she outright said she was considering getting in. Politico asked Abrams if she was thinking about running for the Senate or seeking a rematch with GOP Gov.-elect Brian Kemp in 2022 and she responded, "I am thinking about both." Abrams didn't give any indication which option she was leaning toward, though. A few Georgia Democrats are mulling a run against Perdue this cycle, but they mostly seem to be waiting to see what Abrams does before making any plans of their own.
● ME-Sen: GOP Sen. Susan Collins hasn't announced if she'll seek a fifth term in 2020, but it doesn't sound like she's seriously considering retirement. Collins told the Bangor Daily News that she would be prepared for a tough Democratic foe, adding she'd be ready "just as I've been ready for tough opponents in the past."
● FL-Gov: Florida will not have a Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera after all. GOP Gov. Rick Scott's team announced Tuesday that he would stay in office until his term ends on Jan. 8 and just miss the first five days of his Senate term. If Scott had resigned as governor before his term expired, Lt. Gov. Lopez-Cantera would have served as Florida's chief executive until fellow Republican Ron DeSantis took office on Jan. 8, and Lopez-Cantera would have become the state's first Cuban-American governor.
Scott's decision to be sworn into the Senate late will have consequences, since he'll now rank dead last when it comes to seniority. It's not clear why he's choosing this route, though it's probably not just to spite Lopez-Cantera. Still, this isn't even the first time that Scott has undermined his lieutenant governor's political ambitions.
In 2015, when Lopez-Cantera was preparing to run for what was an open Senate seat, he took plenty of heat from both his soon-to-be primary rivals (including DeSantis) and Democrats for collecting a hefty $125,000 tax-payer funded yearly salary while seeming to do little to earn it. This wasn't really Lopez-Cantera's fault, though, since Scott's office was the one with the power to give him something to do beyond checking each day to make sure that the governor hadn't accidentally been crushed by a mountain of his own money. There were even rumors at the time that Scott's chief of staff was keeping Lopez-Cantera's schedule light to embarrass him and help another potential candidate.
Ultimately, both Lopez-Cantera and DeSantis dropped out of the Senate race when Sen. Marco Rubio turned around and ran for re-election, but only DeSantis gets to be governor for any amount of time now. Still, we may not have heard the last of Lopez-Cantera, who has reportedly been preparing a 2020 bid for mayor of Miami-Dade County. We'll see if Scott decides to screw with his running mate one more time from D.C.
● LA-Gov: Sen. John Kennedy surprised a lot of people when he announced on Monday that he wouldn't challenge Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards next year, and at least one high-profile Louisiana Republican now seems to be reconsidering his own 2019 plans. Attorney General Jeff Landry had been flirting with running for governor until mid-November, when he announced he would seek re-election instead. But on Monday evening, Landry posted a cryptic tweet saying, "No matter who runs for governor, there is no question our economy must be a priority with Louisiana ranking as one of the four worst states in unemployment."
USA Today's Greg Hilburn wondered if that was a hint that Landry was considering running against Edwards after all, and he writes that journalists "requesting interviews were referred to Landry's political consultant, who wouldn't specifically address whether or not Landry was reconsidering." That seems to be a pretty big sign that Landry is at least keeping his options open now that Kennedy is out of the picture.
However, Rep. Garret Graves, who just won his third term representing much of the Baton Rouge area, seems a lot less interested. Graves put out a statement saying that, while he was surprised by Kennedy's decision, "his decision wasn't a factor for us." Graves went on to say he wasn't looking to immediately run for his next elected office and instead wanted to use his skills to help Louisiana and "[r]ight now, that's in Congress." Graves didn't quite declare that he wasn't going to seek the governorship in that statement, but Hilburn writes that Graves is thought to be looking at running in a different year.
For now, at least, wealthy businessman Eddie Rispone has the GOP field to himself. Local conservative megadonor Lane Grigsby would like to keep it that way, and he's publicly encouraging other would-be candidates to support Rispone. However, it remains to be seen if Grigsby will be successful. Rep. Ralph Abraham says he'll decide by Jan. 1, and Hilburn writes that he may announce as soon as this week to try to deter others from joining the race.
State Treasurer John Schroder and state Sen. Sharon Hewitt also both expressed interest in running after Kennedy declined to join the race, but they didn't provide a timeline for when they expect to decide. Louisiana's filing deadline isn't until August.
● MS-Gov: Attorney General Jim Hood won't be easy to beat in a Democratic primary, but he'll have some competition after all. Former Metro Jackson Community Prevention Coalition Director Velesha Williams, whose Jackson State University-funded organization is focused on preventing substance abuse, announced she was in this week. Meanwhile, Magnolia Mayor Anthony Witherspoon, who serves as president of the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors, says he's also considering.
Both Williams and Witherspoon will likely start out with little name recognition, and it's unclear if they'd have the resources to mount a serious campaign against Hood. However, they could have an opening if race plays a role in the primary. Both Williams and Witherspoon are black while Hood is white, and African Americans make up a huge majority of the Mississippi Democratic primary electorate.
● CA-50: GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter's trial has been set for Sept. 10. Both Hunter and his wife, Margaret Hunter, were indicted in August for allegedly misusing $250,000 in campaign money for their personal use. Prosecutors argue that some of these purchases include, but are not limited to, family vacations, video games, and transporting their pet rabbit on an airplane flight. The congressman's reaction to this was to go on TV and declare that his wife "was also the campaign manager, so whatever she did that'll be looked at too, I'm sure. But I didn't do it. I didn't spend any money illegally." The two Hunters are being represented by different legal teams.
Last month, Rep. Hunter was re-elected 52-48 in a San Diego County district that Trump had carried 55-40. To keep his seat, Hunter ran a xenophobic campaign against Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, where he argued without the slightest shred of evidence that Campa-Najjar was a "national security risk."
● FL-15: On Saturday, GOP Rep.-elect Ross Spano admitted to the Federal Elections Commission that he’d borrowed $180,000 from two individuals he described as close friends around the same time that he loaned his campaign $167,000, a move he admitted “may have been in violation” of federal campaign finance law. Several election law experts who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times agreed, pointing out that loans made to candidates with the intention of helping a campaign need to adhere to campaign finance limits, which allow donors to give just $2,700 each for the primary and general elections.
Spano told the FEC in a letter prepared by his lawyer that both he and his friends, Karen Hunt and Cary Carreno, believed at the time that, “based on the consultations they had at the time,” they thought they were “acting in full compliance with the law” but “now recognize that some of the proceeds from the personal loans … may have been in violation of the Federal Campaign Finance Act.” Spano added that he expects to repay Hunt and Carreno by the end of the week.
This story didn’t get much attention during the competitive general election because Spano failed to file the required personal financial disclosure forms that were due all the way back in May, then blew past a July extension. Democrat Kristen Carlson pressured Spano to follow the law, leading him to belatedly file just three days before Election Day. The Times published a story the day before the election reporting that Spano’s friends appeared to be the source of large loan the candidate had made to his bid, but it came too late for this to impact the race.
Spano wound up beating Carlson 53-47, but his loans only began to attract real notice after his victory. Carlson asked the FBI to investigate whether Spano had illegally funded his campaign, and while Spano’s team dismissed the request as a political stunt, Spano wrote to the FEC days later admitting he’d made what looks like, at best, a huge mistake.
Spano is certainly hoping that this story will quickly go away, but he may be in for a rude awakening. Back in 2015, New Hampshire Republican Rep. Frank Guinta found himself in a world of pain after he admitted that he’d received an illegal six-figure donation from his parents during his initial 2010 race, which he, too, unsuccessfully tried to characterize as a loan.
Guinta paid an FEC fine, but that didn’t appease state Republicans, who demanded that he resign or at least not run for re-election. Guinta didn’t listen and his fundraising dried up, never to recover. The incumbent only narrowly won his primary in 2016 and ended up getting abandoned by national Republicans in the general, and he lost his seat that November.
Spano may get luckier, but he shouldn’t count on a smooth path through 2020, especially after this. Indeed, Carlson and a few other Democrats have already expressed interest in challenging him.
Spano could also have problems with his own party. Former state Rep. Neil Combee, who lost the August primary to Spano 44-34, hasn’t yet brought up the possibility of a rematch, but he sounds pissed. Combee recounted to Florida Politics that he had a financial edge over Spano, but then an unexpected barrage of attack mailers came his way during the primary. Combee says, “We were blindsided in broad daylight. Now it all makes sense.”
Combee also didn’t buy his old rival’s excuse that he’d gotten bad legal advice, asking how Spano, who had been running for state attorney general before he jumped into this race, could have so little understanding of the law. Combee added, “If you commit a crime, then you are a criminal.”
● IA-03, IL-16, MO-02, IN-05: In a new piece, the New York Times' Jonathan Martin reports on the congressional GOP's fearful refusal to reckon with their massive election night loss, an abdication of responsibility largely fomented by Donald Trump, whom no Republican wants to publicly criticize in any truthful post-mortem. This cult of personality is not only making it impossible for Republicans to correct their course, but it also seems to be dissuading comeback attempts and might even send some members into early retirement.
Rep. David Young offers one such example. Young was narrowly turfed out of his seat in Iowa's 3rd District last month by Democrat Cindy Axne, who beat him by a 49-47 margin. In theory, he'd be a pretty decent candidate to try again in 2020, but he doesn't sound keen. In talking to Martin, Young bemoaned the "Trump effect" on his race and explained, "That's why you see a lot of people, myself included—who are asked: 'Are you going to do it again?'—saying: 'I'm just going to wait and watch.'"
It's not clear which other soon-to-be-former representatives Young has in mind, but Martin spoke with one sitting Republican who didn't lose in 2018 who might nevertheless call it quits over his exhaustion with Trump. That's Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who represents his state's conservative 16th District, which supported Trump by a wide 56-38 margin. Kinzinger called Trump's refusal to acknowledge his party's defeat "disgusting," and even compared his reaction unfavorably to Obama's after Democrats lost the House in 2010.
That kind of apostasy alone could be enough to draw a primary challenge, but Kinzinger may not even let it get that far. All he'd say about his re-election plans was, "I fully intend to run again," which, as we'll never tire of pointing out, is an entirely different formulation than saying, "I will run again." Martin further notes that unnamed "colleagues" cite Kinzinger as a "potential retiree," even though he's only 40 years old and, with his service as an Air Force pilot in both Iraq and Afghanistan, had long looked like a rising star. But Trump, it seems, is causing a lot of these stars to dim.
Martin doesn't name any other "potential retirees" outright, but he does allude to a couple of possibilities: Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner and Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, both of whom were recently passed over for leadership positions in favor of male colleagues (Wagner had wanted to run the NRCC, while Brooks was booted off the influential Steering Committee, which is in charge of assignments to other committees.)
Martin cites these as examples of Republican leaders demonstrating continued cluelessness about their party's extraordinary lack of gender equity and concomitant loss of support among women voters, and both Wagner and Brooks sound frustrated about their own fates. If that's enough to send them to the exits, too, that could be a boon for Democrats: Wagner only beat Democrat Cort Van Ostran by a skinny 51-47 margin last month in Missouri's 2nd, and while Brooks held off an underfunded Some Dude 57-43 in Indiana's 5th, it looks like Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly narrowly carried the district even though he lost 51-45 statewide. We're only a month into the 2020 election cycle and yet it's already looking as though Trump may once again pay dividends for Democrats.
● NJ-03: GOP Rep. Tom MacArthur isn't ruling out a comeback bid a month after losing re-election to Democrat Andy Kim 50-49. MacArthur acknowledged that many local Republicans want him to run again but said he wasn't ready to decide yet, adding, "I'm not in a hurry to do anything right now."
● Governor-by-CD: Daily Kos Elections' project to calculate the results of the 2018 Senate and gubernatorial elections broken down by congressional district has Georgia on its mind. As with past cycles, we'll be releasing data after states certify their final results. You can find each state's certification deadlines at Ballotpedia, and you can also find our complete set of data from this and previous cycles at Daily Kos.
Georgia's race for governor saw Republican Brian Kemp narrowly edge Democrat Stacey Abrams 50-49 in an election marred by Kemp's aggressive efforts to suppress the vote in his role as secretary of state. But despite the taint left by Kemp, whom Abrams rightly berated for "eight years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment and incompetence," the results are still illuminating.
Abrams did better than both Barack Obama, who lost Georgia 53-46 in 2012, and Hillary Clinton, who lost the state 51-46. Abrams carried the same four safely blue congressional districts that both Democratic presidential nominees took as well as two suburban Atlanta seats, the 6th and 7th Districts. That same night, the 6th flipped from red to blue, while GOP Rep. Rob Woodall narrowly held on in the neighboring 7th. At the start of the decade, Republican mapmakers had drawn both seats to be safely red, but they weren't prepared for the big political changes the Trump era brought to these once-reliably red suburbs.
We'll start with a look at the 6th, a district that, shall we say, has gotten its share of attention over the last two years. Abrams carried the seat 51.0-47.5, while Democrat Lucy McBath unseated GOP Rep. Karen Handel 50.5-49.5. This was safely Republican turf just six years ago, and Mitt Romney beat Obama 61-37 here. But this well-educated seat did not react well to Donald Trump, and he carried it only 48-47.
The next year, the district hosted the most expensive House race in American history, but Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff 52-48. Some observers mockingly asked afterwards how Democrats could take the House in 2018 if they couldn't win Georgia's 6th in 2017, but Abrams and McBath proved that local Republicans still had further to fall here.
We'll turn next to the 7th District, which Abrams took 50.0-48.6. While the seat had moved from 60-38 Romney to just 51-45 Trump, Woodall never felt threatened by well-funded Democratic opponent Carolyn Bourdeaux. In fact, the incumbent barely campaigned and only went up with his first TV ad days before the election. Woodall ended up hanging on just 50.08-49.93, a margin of just 419 votes, making this the closest House race in the nation. A win is a win, but his weak showing and Abrams' victory here gives us plenty of reasons to think that, whether or not Woodall is ready, Team Blue will be on the offensive here in 2020.
Kemp had little trouble winning Georgia's other eight seats, all of which are held by Republican members of Congress. The closest Abrams came to carrying any of these seats was her 56-43 defeat in the 1st District, which includes Savannah as well as the rest of the Georgia coast. Trump took the 1st by a similar 56-41 margin, and GOP Rep. Buddy Carter won his third term 58-42. The closest Obama/Clinton seat was the 2nd District in the southwestern part of the state, which Abrams won 56-44 and Clinton took 55-43. Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop had no trouble winning a 14th term 60-40 here.