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.
● ND-Sen: That escalated quickly. On Friday, GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer said he was "very mildly" reconsidering his plans not to challenge Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, but added that "not a lot has changed" since he said no a month ago. However, a lot seems to have changed on Tuesday.
The day began with a Washington Examiner story detailing how national Republicans badly wanted Cramer to run because they felt their current field was weak, and continued when former state party chair and Cramer friend Gary Emineth dropped out while claiming that the congressman had decided to get in. A few hours later, the Washington Post reported that Republicans were now optimistic that Cramer would run, though despite what Emineth said, they didn't think it was a done deal.
Cramer represents the entire state in the House, and he's starting with plenty of name recognition if he ran against Heitkamp. There are plenty of reasons that Republicans may want to be careful about getting what they wish for if Cramer actually runs (more on that later), but for now, Team Red seems pretty upset with their actual candidate. National Republicans never seemed to think much of Emineth, but they really seem to hate state Sen. Tom Campbell, a wealthy potato farmer who has been running for months. David Drucker at the Examiner writes that, while party officials seemed ready to accept Campbell after Cramer said no last month, they found some "glaring" red flags when they did some routine opposition research on him.
And Campbell's detractors seem so worried about having him as their nominee that they actually allowed Drucker to summarize what they found. A party operative forwarded him some highlights including "Campbell's bank has foreclosed on North Dakota farmers" and "Campbell was sued for fraud over the life insurance policy he obtained on his mother." State Republicans seem a bit less wary of the state senator, with state party chair Kelly Armstrong declaring, "We're comfortable moving forward with the guys we have." However, the White House, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and NRSC head Cory Gardner reportedly have been calling Cramer to get him to run, and their persistence may already be paying off.
While Emineth claimed he was exiting the race because of Cramer's "decision to enter the race," Cramer hasn't said he's in yet. Emineth later told the Associated Press that he'd spoken to his friend several times in the past week and expects him to run. But while the Washington Post's Sean Sullivan writes that national Republicans are "growing increasingly confident" that Cramer will run, they don't agree how likely it is he'll get in. Some think he'll announce this very week, while others remember how the congressman spent over a year flirting with a bid only to say no.
At this point, Cramer may just be the best candidate the GOP can land against Heitkamp in what should be a top target for the party, but that doesn't mean he's the fantastic candidate they want him to be. As we noted back in January after he said he'd stay out, Cramer made a series of offensive remarks throughout 2017. Most infamously, Cramer declared during the winter that female Democratic members of Congress who wore white to Trump's address lawmakers were donning "bad-looking white pantsuits in solidarity with Hillary Clinton to celebrate her loss."
When Cramer was told they were wearing white in recognition of women's suffrage, he dug in and said not only did he not "buy their argument," but they "should be celebrating the fact that there were women members of Congress sitting in a joint session." Heitkamp had pulled off her 2012 upset in part because of how clumsily Republican Rick Berg's campaign tried to win over women, so Cramer's foot-in-mouth routine certainly gave Team Red a bad case of déjà vu.
Some Republicans reportedly began trying to find an alternative to Cramer early in 2017 because of his big mouth, and in April, CNN wrote that there was a "growing GOP push to woo" none other than Tom Campbell, who is now the guy they want to go away. Politico also wrote in January that national Republicans spent much of the year talking to other prospective candidates, only to circle back to Cramer when they all said no. But for better or worse, Republican leaders seem to have decided that they want Cramer, warts and all, and they won't stop begging him to run until he says yes.
● IN-Sen: Candidate filing closed last week in Indiana for the May 8 primary, and the state has a list of candidates here. There are all sorts of caveats to watch out for as each state's filing deadline passes, which we round up here.
The biggest race to watch will be the Senate contest, where Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly is seeking a second term in a state that favored Trump 57-37. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita and wealthy former state Rep. Mike Braun are facing off in the May GOP primary to face him. Messer and Rokita have a long and personal rivalry, and they hail from different factions in the GOP.
Messer has always been close to the local GOP establishment, and he has a better relationship to the House leadership than Rokita. By contrast, Rokita has always been a bit more of a loner, and he infuriated Republican state legislators when he was secretary of state during the last decade when he unsuccessfully fought to make it a felony for the legislature to take into account partisan considerations during redistricting.
Both congressmen have drawn some bad headlines already during the campaign, but Messer may have gotten the worst of it in November after news broke that he co-owns his Indiana residence with his mother while his family now lives in the D.C. area. Both of them also turned in underwhelming fundraising quarters during the final three months of 2017.
All of this could give Braun, who has primarily been self-funding his campaign, an opening in the May primary. Braun began the race with minimal name recognition, but he's been airing ads for months. So far, Braun has stayed out of the Rokita-Messer feud, but he could become a target if one of his other rivals sees him as enough of a threat. The only poll we've seen here in months was a January Rokita internal that gave him the lead with 24 percent of the vote, while Braun and Messer each took 9.
● NJ-Sen: Bob Hugin, who recently stepped down as a top executive at the pharmaceutical company Celgene, announced on Tuesday that he'd seek the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. Hugin, who is an ally of the former and very unpopular Gov. Chris Christie, is wealthy, and Politico says he's expected to do self-fund millions of dollars. Hugin is unlikely to face much opposition in the June primary.
New Jersey is a very Democratic state that hasn't elected a Republican senator since 1972, but Team Red smells an opportunity to at least force Democrats to expend resources to defend Menendez. The senator was indicted in 2015 for corruption, and his trial ended last year in a hung jury. The trial damaged Menendez's approval rating quite a bit, and he was underwater with a 31-49 score in October. However, the Justice Department announced two weeks ago that they were dropping their case, which could give Menendez a chance to bounce back.
While Hugin wasted no time arguing that this campaign would be about how Menendez "violated the public trust," Democrats immediately began portraying Hugin as a greedy pharmaceutical executive. Celgene notably has "aggressively" raised prices for cancer drugs, though Hugin defended the company for saving lives and creating jobs. Celgene also paid $280 million to settle a lawsuit last year alleging it had filed false claims with Medicare and used a re-purposed leprosy drug for unapproved cancer treatments.
● TN-Sen: Retiring Sen. Bob Corker very much has not ruled out changing course and seeking the GOP nomination for a third term after all, and a few Tennessee Republicans like the idea. Politico's Burgess Everett reports that they're afraid that the very conservative Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is the favorite in the August primary, could cost them the seat in what's normally a very red state. They point to an unreleased late January poll from Glen Bolger of the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of an unnamed state business group that shows former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen leading Blackburn 47-45. They're also worried about losing Corker's place as a senior foreign policy figure in the party.
However, Blackburn and her allies are making it abundantly clear that they're not going anywhere. Blackburn's campaign put out a statement that began, "Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can't win a general election is just a plain sexist pig." The Koch brothers' political network also said they would back Blackburn to the hilt, while the Club for Growth said the same thing. And distaste for Blackburn is far from universal in establishment circles, either: Many Republicans want more women in their Senate caucus, and plenty of insiders think she'll be fine in a general election in a state that backed Trump 61-35.
Corker's friends also all seem aware the senator only would have a chance against Blackburn if he has Trump's support, which seems very unlikely to happen. While Corker has loyally voted with Trump, he spent months criticizing him after he retired, including calling his White House "an adult day care center." Trump has also done nothing to hide his dislike for the man he's dubbed "Liddle Bob Corker." But the two seem to have improved their relationship a bit in recent weeks, and Trump is known to change his opinion about people immediately when they start groveling before him. It was only in four months ago that Corker said that Trump's recklessness could put the country "on the path to World War III," but hey, maybe he can convince Trump he meant that as a compliment.
● WI-Sen: Much of the state GOP establishment has sided with state Sen. Leah Vukmir in the August primary, but while Vukmir has promoted herself as an ally of Gov. Scott Walker, he says he'll remain neutral. The same cannot be said for his family, though. Alex Walker, the governor's son and the former chair of the state college Republicans, works for Vukmir, and she just announced an endorsement from First Lady Tonette Walker.
Businessman Kevin Nicholson, who is Vukmir's primary foe, is happy to portray this as a battle between a conservative outsider and a creature of the dreaded establishment, and he probably won't be displeased not to have the Walker family behind him. But Nicholson can't count on members of his own family being behind him, either. CNN reports that Nicholson's parents have each contributed $2,700, the maximum they're allowed to give, to none other than Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the Democrat their son wants to unseat in November. The two are frequent Democratic donors, and the candidate responded by declaring, "My parents have a different worldview than I do, and it is not surprising that they would support a candidate like Tammy Baldwin who shares their perspective."
● AL-Gov: On Friday, GOP state Sen. Slade Blackwell launched a last-second primary bid against Gov. Kay Ivey, but he dropped out on Monday. Blackwell never said publicly why he was running, nor has he said why he suddenly stopped. In any case, it's too late for him to seek re-nomination to the state legislature. A few other Republicans are challenging Ivey in the June primary.
● MN-Gov: On Monday, former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman announced that he was suspending his bid for the Democratic nomination, and it doesn't sound like he's leaving himself any room to get back in.
Coleman's move came a week after he took a disappointing fourth place with just 12 percent of the vote in a straw poll at precinct-level party caucuses. While the results of the straw poll are not binding, they do give an early indication about each candidate's support ahead of the June state convention, where the party endorsement will be awarded. Winning the party endorsement isn't the same thing as winning the party nomination, but many voters and activists take it seriously, and candidates will often drop out of the primary if they lose at the convention. Another Democrat, former state House Speaker Paul Thissen, also dropped out last week after a poor straw poll showing.
It's not clear what candidates will benefit from Coleman's departure. However, some Democratic insiders hope that his decision will make it more likely that there won't be a competitive primary in August. Neither Coleman, Rep. Tim Walz, or state Rep. Tina Liebling had ruled out continuing on to the primary if someone else got the party endorsement in June, while former state House Majority Leader Erin Murphy and state Auditor Rebecca Otto said they would drop out of the race if they were passed over. Walz took first place in the straw poll with 31 percent, while Otto and Murphy were behind with 20 and 12 percent, respectively. While nothing's assured, Walz looks like the early favorite to win the endorsement and clear away much of the field. Liebling doesn't have much money or influential support, so she would probably not be much of a factor in a primary.
● NH-Gov: The University of New Hampshire's polls are usually infamous for showing wild, unexplainable swings, but they've consistently given GOP Gov. Chris Sununu strong favorable ratings over his first year in office. UNH's newest survey gives Sununu a 56-15 favorable score, and they find him leading three prospective Democratic opponents by double digits as he seeks a second two-year term, though he's a bit below 50 percent:
41-31 vs. 2016 Democratic nominee Colin Van Ostern
41-29 vs. former state securities regulator Mark Connolly
42-28 vs. former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand
Of this trio, only Marchand is running. Van Ostern, who lost 49-46 last cycle, is talking about jumping in, while we haven't heard anything from Connolly in close to a year.
A few other Democrats are considering joining the race, and WMUR's John DiStaso reports that former state Sen. Molly Kelly is expected to decide in the next few weeks. We hadn't heard about Kelly's interest before, but EMILY's List reportedly encouraging her to get in. Kelly, who retired in 2016, spent her years in the legislature focused on education.
● OH-Gov: On Tuesday, Politico reported that former state Rep. Connie Pillich was preparing to drop out of the Democratic primary. Former state Attorney General Richard Cordray's campaign soon said that he would have an announcement with Pillich and her running mate on Wednesday.
● OK-Gov: Wealthy businessman Kevin Stitt, who ended 2017 with a $1.59 million war chest, is going up with his first TV spot ahead of the June GOP primary. Stitt's ad begins with him declaring that the state is going through some hard times, and talks about how awful the budget situation is and how several schools have needed to cut back to four days a week. The candidate argues that career politicians can't rescue the state, while he describes himself as a religious family man and successful businessman.
● IN-02: GOP Rep. Jackie Walorski pulled off a surprisingly tight 49-48 win in 2012 as Romney was carrying this northern Indiana seat 56-42. However, Walorski worked to shed her old far-right image (her nickname when she served in the legislature during the last decade was "Wacky Jackie"), and she won her next two terms decisively. Despite Trump's convincing 59-36 win here, though, Democrats think that this district, which includes South Bend and Elkhart, could be in play in a good year.
Healthcare executive Mel Hall entered the race in the fall, and he raised a noteworthy $260,000 from donors in his opening quarter and self-funded another $232,000. Businessman Yatish Joshi is also competing for the Democratic nod, and he has the support of Joe Kernan, a former South Bend mayor and Indiana's most recent Democratic governor. Joshi, who barely raised anything from donors, self-funded $200,000, but he burned through much of that. At the end of December, Hall led Joshi $432,000 to $58,000 in cash-on-hand. Walorski took in $260,000 during the last quarter, and she ended 2017 with $829,000 in the bank. A few other Democrats are also in, but none of them look like they'll have much of an impact here.
● IN-03: One thing we've seen this cycle is Democratic House candidates raising a surprisingly strong amount of money in seats that the party hasn't made a play for in a very, very long time, and this is a good example. Trump carried this Fort Wayne-based seat 65-30 and freshman GOP Rep. Jim Banks is hardly at the top of any target lists. Still, Democrat Courtney Tritch, a former executive at a marketing group, raised $100,000 during the final three months of 2017, and she only trailed Banks in cash-on-hand $306,000 to $140,000.
There's no getting around how tough this seat is for Democrats even under the best of circumstances. In 2012, Democrat Joe Donnelly beat disastrous GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock 50-44 statewide, but Mourdock carried this seat 54-40. Still, it's always good to field strong candidates in tough races to be prepared for the unexpected.
● IN-04: GOP Rep. Todd Rokita is leaving to run for the Senate, and several Republicans are competing to succeed him. This seat, which includes Lafayette and some of Indianapolis' western suburbs, backed Trump 64-30, and the GOP should have little trouble holding it.
There's no clear frontrunner, but one Republican is clearly winning the money race so far. Diego Morales, who served as a senior advisor to then-Gov. Mike Pence, ended December with $355,000 in the bank after raising $201,000 for the quarter. State Rep. Jim Baird took in just $5,000 from donors, but thanks to $200,000 in self-funding, he ended the year with $203,000 on-hand.
Steve Braun, who resigned as state Department of Workforce Development director to run here, took in $158,000 for his opening quarter and had $154,000 on-hand. Braun's brother, former state Rep. Mike Braun, is running in the primary for U.S. Senate against Rokita, but Steve Braun donated to Rokita instead. A few other Republicans, including Army veteran Jared Thomas, are in, but they've each brought in little money so far.
● IN-06: GOP Rep. Luke Messer is leaving to run for the Senate, and there's one very clear frontrunner in the primary to succeed him in this very red seat. Businessman Greg Pence, an older brother of Vice President Mike Pence and a close Messer ally, has benefited from his family's name recognition and connections. Several other Republicans are seeking this seat, which includes Muncie, Columbus, and Indianapolis' eastern suburbs, but only one of them looks like he'll have the resources to get his name out. But while businessman Jonathan Lamb has used his personal wealth to start airing ads, one of those commercials, which ran during the Superbowl, left us wondering what planet he's from.
● IN-09: This southern Indiana seat went from a tough 57-41 Romney to a brutal 61-34, but Democrats hope that freshman Republican Rep. Trey Hollingsworth could be vulnerable. Hollingsworth only moved to Indiana last cycle as he was readying his campaign, and his weak ties to the state helped convince both parties to spend here late in the cycle. Hollingsworth prevailed 54-40, not close, but well behind Trump's margin.
A few Democrats are running, and two of them look like they'll have the resources to compete. Indiana University Professor Liz Watson, who previously served as a senior Democratic staffer on the U.S. House's Committee on Education and the Workforce, raised $151,000 during the final quarter of 2017 and self-funded another $20,000, while civil rights attorney Dan Canon took in $101,000 during this time. At the end of December, Watson led Cannon $276,000 to $112,000 in cash-on-hand.
Hollingsworth ended the year with just shy of $300,000, not a great war chest for an incumbent. While Hollingsworth and his family are wealthy, the NRCC still felt they needed to spend to save him last cycle, so he may not be able to self-fund much of needed. This is a very uphill seat, but Hollingsworth's flaws may make it a race to watch again in a good year for Team Blue.
● MI-11: On Monday, Plymouth Township Supervisor Kurt Heise announced he was dropping out of the GOP primary for this open seat and endorsing state Sen. Mike Kowall. Several candidates from both parties are competing for this 50-45 Trump district in the Detroit suburbs, and there's no clear frontrunner on either side.
● MS-03: This week, education consultant Katherine Tate joined the GOP primary for this safely red central Mississippi seat. Tate, a self-described "advocate for educational choice," is a former state curriculum administrator and school auditor, and it's not clear if she has the connections to mount a serious bid. Several other Republicans are running in the June primary, including Morgan Dunn, whom we hadn't mentioned before: Dunn is the managing director of a rural healthcare provider.
● OH-10, CA-50: Oof. There's no way this ends happily. According to Politico, Ohio Rep. Mike Turner wants to depose California Rep. Darrell Issa in connection with Turner's divorce—and he gave notice to his fellow Republican by handing him a letter in the halls of Congress last week. There's no explanation given as to why Turner would want to draw his colleague into what looks like a messy divorce proceeding, but generally speaking, there's only one reason you want a third party to testify in such a case: You think they've been sleeping with your spouse.
Though both Issa (who is also married) and Majida Mourad, Turner's wife, have denied an affair, the two have apparently "been friends for decades." And last month, in an unsourced item, California political analyst Scott Lay wrote in his newsletter, that there are "significant double-confirmed stories" that Issa "has allegedly been sleeping with the wife of a colleague in the House."
Turner and Mourad only wed in December of 2015, but despite their brief marriage, Turner is seeking a $1.5 million settlement from Mourad, who is much wealthier than he is. Ohio's candidate filing deadline has passed, so if Turner's personal travails were to deter him from seeking another term, local Republican officials would have to select a replacement. Issa, meanwhile, has already announced his retirement from California's 49th District, though he's toyed with the idea of running in the neighboring 50th if GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter's own legal woes bring him down. If Issa gets tarred by the Turner drama, though, he wouldn't exactly look like a very appealing alternative to Hunter.
● PA Redistricting: On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf rejected the new congressional maps that the two Republican legislative leaders had sent him, even though the legislature itself was supposed to pass a map. Wolf argued that their proposed map, like the districts that were struck down by the state Supreme Court last month, were a gerrymander. While the GOP's new plan split fewer counties and municipalities than the old one, multiple analysts found that it was indeed another gerrymander. In the very likely event that Wolf and the legislature can't agree on a new map by Thursday, the court will draw one that will take effect for this year's House races.
● PA-07: While it's a good bet that court-ordered redistricting will make this 49-47 Clinton seat considerably more Democratic, no one has any idea what this suburban Philadelphia district will look like once the new map is out. Several new Republicans have announced that they're running for what we've coined a Schrödinger's seat, where candidates are seeking a constituency that may, or may not, wind up radically different than the one that exists now.
On the GOP side, former federal prosecutor Clare Putnam Pozos, who recently was a member of the local Narcotics and Organized Crime Unit, announced she was in. One Republican told Roll Call last month that the party wants to recruit "a woman with a prosecutorial background," and Pozos may fit the bill. However, several other Republicans, including a few new names, also recently appeared before a Delaware County GOP meeting and said they were in. Pearl Kim recently resigned as a deputy state attorney general to run here, and she said she could do some substantial self-funding.
We also have Jeremy Gonzales Ibrahim, another former federal prosecutor; attorney and investor Greg McCauley; real estate developer Walter Smerconish, who bragged he'd never been the defendant in a lawsuit; Radnor Township Commissioner Richard Booker; and attorney Sean Gale, the brother of a Montgomery County commissioner. A few other Republicans and several other Democrats were already running, but we won't know whose candidacies are really alive or dead until we see the new map. The filing deadline will be March 20.
● PA-18: Hrm. The DCCC's $300,000 TV ad buy on behalf of Democrat Conor Lamb had been running for the past two weeks, but now it's ended—and committee chair Ben Ray Lujan isn't commenting on whether his organization will make a further investment. It's possible, though, that the D-Trip is playing coy, since Lujan also added that Lamb has the "strongest voice" to communicate with voters.
That might be a reference to the fact that Lamb, as a candidate, is entitled to much more favorable advertising rates under FCC regulations (something that gave Jon Ossoff a big advantage over the outside groups attacking him); the DCCC, by contrast, might be better served by spending on other forms of voter contact where they don't face any sort of premium, such as field or mail.
According to the Washington Post, though, Lamb's campaign is "frustrated with the lack of air cover from Democrats" and just went up with two new ads of its own, part of a reported $400,000 buy. One slams Republicans negative ads, saying that they ignore the fact that Lamb supports a middle class tax cut while the GOP's tax bill would explode the deficit. The other attacks Republican Rick Saccone as a hypocrite who says he wants to cut spending but paid for "meals, per diems, and lease payments to a political donor, all from an expense account paid for by the taxpayers." The Post also notes that GOP ad spending in this race has now topped $4 million.
● WI-07: The DCCC recently added this northern Wisconsin seat to their target list, but it's not clear how serious national Democrats are about going after Rep. Sean Duffy. This district went from 51-48 Romney to 58-37 Trump, and Duffy ended 2017 with $2.1 million in the bank, so it would take a lot to beat him. Team Blue did get a candidate this week when Margaret Engebretson, an attorney and Navy veteran, jumped in, but we'll need to wait and see if she can run a serious campaign. The filing deadline is June 1.
● Special Elections: An important hold in a tricky district for Democrats on Tuesday night in Minnesota. Johnny Longtorso tells us what went down:
Minnesota SD-54: Democrats held onto this seat. Karla Bigham defeated Republican Denny McNamara by a 51-47 margin, with Libertarian Emily Mellingen picking up 2 percent.
Minnesota HD-23B: Republicans easily held this one. Jeremy Munson defeated Democrat Melissa Wagner by a 60-40 margin.
Trump carried the 54th District by a 46-45 margin, and Republicans had sought to pick it up. But because Democrats kept the seat, they also kept the GOP's margin in the chamber to just a 34-33 edge. What's more, the state senator whose resignation created this vacancy, Dan Schoen, had been accused of sexual harassment. The fact that he was replaced by a woman is a very welcome development.
● Deaths: Jeff Bell, a Republican who ended up playing a big part in New Jersey political history despite never coming close to winning a Senate race, died over the weekend at the age of 74. Bell is best known for defeating Sen. Clifford Case in the 1978 GOP primary in a huge upset. Case had a reputation as one of the last liberal Republicans, and Bell, who served as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign, challenged him from the right. Case had won re-nomination in 1972 with 70 percent of the vote and easily prevailed in the general election, but Bell beat him 51-49.
The GOP has yet to win a Senate race without Case. Bell lost the 1978 general election to Bill Bradley, a well-known former New York Knicks player, 55-43. After a stint with Reagan's 1980 campaign, Bell sought an open Senate seat in New Jersey in 1982. However, he lost the primary 54-46 to then-Rep. Millicent Fenwick, who narrowly lost the general to Frank Lautenberg. Bell soon moved to Virginia, got involved in conservative think tanks, and wrote conservative books.
Bell came back to the Garden State in 2014 to challenge Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, who had won his seat in a special election the previous year. However, there was no question that Booker would win a full term, and the only attention Bell attracted was from people who remembered his historic race 36 years before. (Even we only wrote about this race twice that cycle.) Bell lost his final Senate bid 56-42.