The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, Carolyn Fiddler, and Matt Booker, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.
● KS-Sen: Republican Sen. Pat Roberts announced Friday that he would not seek a fifth term in 2020, setting off an open-seat race to replace him. Roberts's departure wasn't a big surprise, especially after his chaotic 2014 re-election campaign, but the GOP will be favored to keep this seat. In fact, Kansas hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932, at the height of the Great Depression—by far the longest such streak of any state in the nation.
Team Red of course has a deep bench in the Sunflower State, and a number of Republicans quickly expressed interest in running. Perhaps most prominently, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost last year's gubernatorial contest 48-43 to Democrat Laura Kelly, confirmed to the New York Times that he was indeed considering jumping in.
Kobach, who is best known nationally for spearheading Trump's voter fraud witch hunt, ran a truly miserable campaign last year, and just as he did in the governor's race, he likely would give Democrats their best chance to win this seat. After his failed bid, one GOP operative called Kobach's effort "the most dysfunctional thing I've ever seen in my life." Another snarked, "The joke was, you'd say 'the Kobach campaign' and (then) you'd say, 'what campaign?'"
Among many other things, Republican strategists complained that Kobach barely raised money and instead relied on the loans from his wealthy running mate, oil businessman Wink Hartman, to finance the campaign. Unfortunately for Kobach, he can't pull that stunt again since the position of vice senator hasn't been invented yet. But speaking of Hartman, he's also expressed interest, telling KWCH there was a "good possibility" he'd run.
It's unclear if Hartman and Kobach would be willing to run against each other, though it wouldn't be the first time they've faced off. Both men originally ran for governor in 2017, with Hartman at one point slamming Kobach aggressively, saying he's "not doing his current job, he's not going to do his next job, and he keeps auditioning for new positions wherever he can find them." But Hartman wound up dropping out, and he soon joined Kobach's campaign as his number two.
Outgoing Gov. Jeff Colyer, another veteran of last year's GOP primary, could also run. Colyer's spokesperson said late last year that he hadn't ruled out running if Roberts were to retire, and on Friday, Colyer's statement praising Roberts' service cryptically declared, "It is essential that our next U.S. senator bring these same qualities to the job." The Kansas City Star has also listed Colyer as one of the Republicans who had "already begun lining up to launch campaigns" in the event of a Roberts departure.
Colyer was unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback's running mate and then lieutenant governor until the Senate finally confirmed Brownback to an ambassadorship in early 2018. Consequently, he only had about half a year as governor before the GOP primary, and he found himself in a tight race against Kobach. Trump endorsed Kobach one day before the primary, and Colyer narrowly wound up losing the GOP nod 40.6-40.5―a margin of 343 votes. However, if Colyer ran again, he might have some hope of earning a coveted Trump tweet this time. Trump uncharacteristically praised Colyer after the primary, and even suggested in October that he could join his administration.
But this being Kansas, there are still plenty more Republicans to discuss. Rep. Roger Marshall, who represents a seat in the western part of the state that takes up much of the turf Roberts held while he was in the House, acknowledged he was considering on Friday but added he was "in no hurry to decide on anything." Marshall's team also suggested there would be no announcement until "we get border security funding to the president's desk first."
Attorney General Derek Schmidt also sounds interested. Schmidt's team said he would "talk with family, friends and supporters about what Sen. Roberts' retirement means for Kansas's voice in Washington going forward."
We're still not done, though. The Star lists Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb, who is a Trump ally, as considering, though he hasn't said anything publicly yet. Meanwhile, the conservative Washington Examiner writes that Conservative Political Action Conference chair Matt Schlapp, another Trump pal, has been fielding calls about a possible bid, but he also hasn't said anything publicly yet.
Multiple media organizations also report that senior Republicans are trying to recruit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who represented a Wichita-area seat until joining Trump's cabinet in 2017. However, unnamed sources close to Pompeo say it's unlikely he'll go for it. State GOP chair Kelly Arnold also says that FCC Chair Ajit Pai is one of the names floating around, but there's no word he's interested. Former Rep. Kevin Yoder has also been mentioned, but an unnamed Republican strategist said the chances the defeated congressman would run are "slim."
The list is far shorter on the Democratic side. Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom has been talking about running for a while, and he reiterated his interest last month. Labor attorney Brent Welder, who lost last year's primary to take on Yoder 37-34 to now-Rep. Sharice Davids, also seems to be considering. A spokesperson told Roll Call Friday that while Welder "has not made any decisions at this point, he is always looking for an opportunity to defend working families against the billionaires and giant corporations that are ruining the middle-class economy and corrupting our government."
Roberts's announcement caps off a long congressional career that began in 1980, when he first won a heavily Republican House seat in western Kansas. Roberts easily won re-election until he decided to run for the Senate in 1996 to succeed retiring Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, a moderate Republican. He took the nomination that year with little opposition and defeated Democratic state Treasurer Sally Thompson 62-34.
Roberts likewise had no trouble winning re-election in 2002 and 2008, and he seemed to expect that his 2014 campaign would be just as easy. However, the senator badly underestimated how tired the GOP base was with longtime establishment figures like himself, an exasperation that earned him a primary challenge from tea partying radiologist Milton Wolf, a distant cousin of Barack Obama and therefore a favorite of the right-wing media circuit. (Wolf was also a bizarre figure who posted leering comments about gruesome X-rays of his patients on Facebook.)
One of the first signs that Roberts was in trouble was when the news broke in early 2014 that he had no full-time home in Kansas but rather was registered to vote at a home alongside a country club golf course owned by two supporters. Roberts joked he had "full access to the recliner" at this address, but the joke was almost on him, as he only held off Wolf by a 48-41 margin. Afterward, Roberts's campaign manager announced that the senator had gone home to rest—that home, of course, being in Virginia.
Roberts then faced a competitive general election against a well-funded independent, Greg Orman, who became the de facto Democratic candidate after Team Blue's nominee dropped out of the race to give Orman a clear shot. National Republicans airlifted a new campaign staff in to save Roberts, and outside groups spent heavily to save him. Polls showed a tight race, but Roberts ended up winning 53-43—still by far the closest race of his career, and not a good performance for such a red state in such a red year. Given how badly that campaign went for Roberts, national Republicans are probably better off with him retiring this cycle.
● AZ-Sen: On Thursday, Republican Martha McSally was sworn in as Arizona's junior senator, making her just the ninth member of a rare club: senators who were appointed to the chamber after previously losing an election to join it. McSally earns a special distinction, though, as the 55 days between her loss to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and her appointment to the seat left vacant by Jon Kyl's resignation represents by far the shortest time in the wilderness. Many others in this select group, as carefully catalogued by the University of Minnesota's Eric Ostermeier, had to wait years for their second chance.
And while Sinema gets to enjoy a full six-year term, McSally will have to go before voters again in 2020—and then again in 2022, should she be lucky enough to win the special election for the final two years of Kyl's (previously John McCain's) term. But of this group, only four went on to win their subsequent elections, the most recent of whom was the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who lost his first bid for Senate in 1962 but eventually secured an appointment in 1968. Three others lost, and one, Minnesota independent Dean Barkley, was appointed after Election Day, following the death of Paul Wellstone.
● KY-Gov: Kentucky Republicans are openly wondering if Gov. Matt Bevin will abandon his re-election campaign ahead of the Jan. 29 filing deadline, and Rep. James Comer is making it very clear he wants to run if there's an opening.
Comer said that he wouldn't run in a primary against Bevin, but he'd have "significant interest in the race" if Bevin bailed. Comer also indicated that he wouldn't wait long if Bevin did retire, noting that it's easy to get on the ballot and saying that he's already talked to potential running mates. If Comer ran, he wouldn't need to give up his safely red western Kentucky House seat unless he won in November.
Comer, who was state agriculture commissioner at the time, faced Bevin in the 2015 primary, a contest Bevin won by all of 83 votes. Comer says the two have not spoken since then, and the congressman has publicly criticized Bevin during his stint as governor.
Bevin is very unpopular, and Team Red would probably benefit if Comer were the GOP nominee instead of him. Comer's 2015 bid for governor, however, was overshadowed by accusations from an ex-girlfriend who said that, over two decades ago when they were in college, Comer had physically and emotionally abused her and took her to get an abortion. Her former roommates confirmed parts of her story, but Comer denied everything and in turn accused another primary rival, Hal Heiner, of paying her to lie. The story never came up during Comer's successful House bid the following year, but it likely will resurface if he runs for governor again.
● LA-Gov: On Thursday, GOP Attorney General Jeff Landry reaffirmed that he would seek re-election this year rather than challenge Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Landry had said in November that he would run for a second term, but he briefly seemed to be open to changing his mind after Sen. John Kennedy announced last month that he wouldn't run for governor either. However, Landry said Thursday that he was still going to run for re-election, arguing that he saw the "worst-case scenario" as Edwards winning and there being no strong attorney general in office to counter him.
● MD Redistricting, NC Redistricting: On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two major cases concerning partisan gerrymandering in March, accepting appeals of 2018 rulings that struck down North Carolina's entire congressional map for GOP gerrymandering and deemed Maryland's 6th Congressional District unconstitutional as a result of Democratic gerrymandering. Unfortunately, the court's decision to hear these cases now—after it failed to curtail gerrymandering last year before Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced former swing Justice Anthony Kennedy—means it's highly likely to result in a landmark setback in the fight for fairer maps.
With Kennedy as the key vote in major cases last year, the court refused to resolve these same lawsuits, sending them back to the lower courts. These district courts affirmed their findings that both maps were unconstitutional, in part because officials in both Maryland and North Carolina actually admitted they'd engaged in partisan gerrymandering. However, Kennedy's departure from the bench means the five ultra-partisan Republican justices are unlikely to curtail gerrymandering.
Even a best-case scenario would probably only leave reformers with the ability to challenge the most egregious gerrymanders where partisan intent is as openly on display as it was in these cases. Such an outcome would be of limited value, though, as legislators would inevitably adapt to craft stealthier gerrymanders. Consequently, the best ways forward for fighting gerrymandering are breaking single-party grips on state governments, using ballot initiatives, establishing progressive state supreme courts that can use state constitutional protections to ban gerrymandering, and passing national reforms at the congressional level like House Democrats are proposing.
● VA-05: On Wednesday, the final day of the 115th Congress and of Virginia Republican Tom Garrett's congressional career, the House Ethics Committee issued a lengthy report determining that Garrett had violated House rules by directing his staff to run personal errands for him.
The report charged that Garrett had repeatedly asked staffers to, among other things, buy him cigarettes, carry his groceries, care for the family dog, and help his children apply to schools. Staffers also told the committee that the congressman's wife, Flanna Garrett, "would berate staff, often using profanity and other harsh language, for failing to prioritize her needs over their regular official duties." Additionally, two witnesses said that the congressman had used marijuana with staffers and inquired about buying more.
While Garrett blasted the report—after its release—as "based on half-truths and whole lies," he had told investigators that "stuff happened that probably shouldn't have happened," and that he believed it was fine for staffers to do personal tasks as long as his campaign paid for them. He had an even stranger response to the marijuana allegations, telling investigators that he'd "prosecuted for the better part of a decade," and, "If I wanted to buy marijuana, I could have it for you right quick like."
The report also accused the Garretts of deliberately dragging their feet during the investigation so that they could run out the clock and avoid censure before the congressman's term expired. It seems to have worked, since the now-former congressman will not need to repay the U.S. Treasury for his misuse of official resources.
Garrett, who was first elected in 2016, dropped his campaign last year after he had already won renomination, saying he wanted to focus on his fight with alcoholism. The move came after Garrett's chief of staff abruptly resigned and the congressman used a bizarre long and rambling press conference to say that, while he'd previously griped that he didn't "know if I want to do this anymore," he had decided, "There's no way in heck I won't be back here in 2019." Politico soon broke the news that Garrett and his wife had ordered his staff to perform menial tasks, and he announced he would indeed not be back in 2019 a few days later.
Luckily, Virginia's 5th District now has the chance to get a fresh start. There's just no way that new GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman can be any more embarrassing than Garrett … never mind.
● Votes: In its first substantive order of business after the new Congress was sworn in on Thursday, House Democrats passed two bills to re-open the federal government, which has been partially shut down for weeks because of Senate Republicans' acquiescence to Donald Trump's demand that any funding measures include $5 billion in funding for his alleged "wall" that he wants to build along the border with Mexico. One bill would fund a half-dozen currently shuttered federal agencies through Sept. 30; the other would pay for the Department of Homeland Security to operate through Feb. 8. Neither, of course, contained any wall money.
The legislation passed with support from all Democrats, and both bills also attracted a few Republicans. The broader measure won votes from seven Republicans: Fred Upton (MI-06), Pete King (NY-02), Elise Stefanik (NY-21), John Katko (NY-24), Greg Walden (OR-02), Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), and Will Hurd (TX-23). Stefanik, Katko, Fitzpatrick, and Hurd also voted for the Homeland Security bill, as did Chris Smith (NJ-04).
Katko, Fitzpatrick, and Hurd: That's a law-firm-esque trio you should get used to hearing, since they're the last three House Republicans who sit in districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. They all faced tough races last year, and they're all particularly vulnerable again in 2020. Upton's district is redder, but he falls into the same bucket, while King faced a closer-than-expected race, too (and is often smart about knowing when to buck his party).
The others are harder to figure. Walden is a firm member of the GOP establishment who not that long ago was NRCC chair and sits in a comfortably conservative district. After the 2018 blue wave, Smith is now the last Republican member of New Jersey's House delegation, but his district is also solidly red. The same is true of Stefanik's seat in upstate New York, but she's been publicly feuding with party leadership lately, so her dissent makes a little more sense. There might have been even more defectors, but Mike Pence reportedly lobbied individual members to implore them to vote "no."
Before the House got to work on new legislation, Democrats also passed a preliminary measure to establish the chamber's rules of operation for the next two years, something every new Congress starts with. These rules include a number of major changes to how Republicans conducted business over the last eight years, but regardless of their substance, it's customary for all members of the minority party to vote against the majority's rules package.
That didn't happen. For the first time in 18 years, there were three crossover votes: Katko, Fitzpatrick, and Tom Reed (NY-23). Once again, seeing Katko and Fitzpatrick on this roster isn't too surprising, but the presence of Reed's name is. Though he also represents a reliably red district in upstate New York, he seems to be dissatisfied with his party lately: In November, he suggested he might even vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker in the name of reform.
While he didn't do that, he did the next worst thing. It's the sort of behavior you typically only see from a Republican who either wants to court a primary challenge or wants to retire. Incidentally, the last person to vote for the other side's rules package was none other than Jim Traficant, the berserker Ohio Democrat who, the following year, also gained the distinction of being the last member of Congress to get expelled by his peers.
● Prediction Contest: This is it. After weeks of anticipation—and with the 116th Congress now sworn in—we're pleased to announce the winner of the 2018 Daily Kos Elections prediction contest, which was, once again, graciously sponsored by our friends at Green's Babka: Zmaz! Out of a possible 41 points, Zmaz scored the highest at 35, with an edge gained in the tiebreaker round. The top four also included MattTX, jpoisner2017, and jhagner, who scored 35, 34, and 33 points, respectively (jhagner broke an eight-way tie for fourth). See here for more details, including a full listing of all scores.
● Where Are They Now?: If you were worried about now-former GOP Rep. Dave Brat's financial state after his epic rant from his unsuccessful re-election campaign against Democrat Abigail Spanberger, we have some comforting news for you. On Wednesday, which was Brat's final day representing Virginia's 7th District, he took over as dean of the business school at Liberty University, the bastion for the religious right started by the late Jerry Falwell and now run by his Trump-devoted son, Jerry Falwell Jr.
This will be a relief to Brat, who visited a local jail in October and proceeded to loudly complain to a support group of inmates struggling with addiction about how hard his own life was. In addition to griping about the $5 million being spent against him, Brat told the inmates his sob story about how, because he left his professorship at Randolph–Macon College to serve in Congress—a decision he made freely, when he chose to challenge then-Rep. Eric Cantor—his children were no longer entitled to free tuition at his college, whining, "I didn't have any savings. All went away—oops! So, plans change." If you read that last bit and thought that this is exactly the kind of economic savvy you admire, there's a business school you can check out.
The appointment also comes even though last year, the news broke that during his time at Randolph–Macon, Brat had written a paper critiquing an essay co-written written by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that included large portions of Bernanke's article without quotes or attribution. Brat's 2005 paper was seven pages, and the Washington Post wrote that nearly every sentence from his first three was directly taken from Bernanke's essay. While one academic called this plagiarism, another said it was merely "so lazy as to be dishonest."
Unsurprisingly, Falwell doesn't care, saying that the "campaign allegations of plagiarism were determined to be unfounded months ago," and, "We did not see anything of significance in Dr. Brat's critique of prior writings, which … are fully consistent with academic traditions." Brat isn't even the only former Virginia Republican congressman to get scooped up by Liberty soon after leaving office. Robert Hurt, who represented the 5th District from 2011 until 2017, now runs their Center for Law & Government.