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.
● VA-Gov: Virginia’s political turmoil grew even uglier on Wednesday when Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat who is second in line for the governorship, admitted to wearing blackface at a party when he was in college in 1980. Hours later, political science professor Vanessa Tyson, who has accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004, released a statement detailing her allegations.
The day began with Herring’s statement, in which he said that when he was 19, “some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song.” Herring added, “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes—and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others—we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.” The attorney general called the incident a “onetime occurrence” that “clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others.”
Herring’s admission came just days after a racist photograph from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced on Friday that showed one man dressed in a KKK robe and hood and another wearing blackface. Virtually every prominent Virginia Democrat, including Herring, called for Northam to resign that very day or soon afterwards. However, Northam has resisted, and the Washington Post reported Tuesday night that he has even considered leaving the Democratic Party and attempting to govern the state as an independent—though the notion of Northam successfully governing anything at this point is unimaginable.
Fairfax would become governor if Northam were to resign, but his own issues have escalated. Back in 2017, Tyson told the Washington Post that Fairfax had sexually assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, an encounter Fairfax claimed was consensual. The allegations were not public until a few days ago, when they appeared on the conservative site Big League Politics, the same site that first published Northam’s yearbook photo.
Fairfax then issued a statement denying the charges, at which point the Post published its own story explaining why it hadn’t reported on Tyson’s allegations at the time. The paper said it had chosen not to run this story after Tyson approached it following Fairfax's win in 2017 because it could not corroborate her account, nor could it find "similar complaints of sexual misconduct" against Fairfax. However, the Post also said that it had not found "significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations," as Fairfax had claimed.
Fairfax has continued to deny any wrongdoing, and so far, Virginia Democrats have adopted a wait-and-see attitude rather than call for his resignation. However, on Wednesday at around the same time the Herring story was breaking, NBC reported that Fairfax had angrily declared, “Fuck that bitch” during a private meeting on Monday regarding the story. Fairfax’s chief of staff immediately rejected the report, saying, "Absolutely not true. I was there."
Later on Wednesday, Tyson released a statement describing her allegations in painful detail. Tyson, who now works as a political science professor at Scripps College in California, said that she met Fairfax at the 2004 Democratic Nation Convention and the two struck up a friendship.
On the third day of the convention, Tyson says she accompanied Fairfax back to his hotel room to retrieve some documents when he proceeded to kiss her. While saying this advance was “not unwelcome” and that she kissed him back, Tyson says she “had no intention of taking my clothes off or engaging in sexual activity.” However, she says, Fairfax “put his hand behind my neck and forcefully pushed my head towards his crotch.” She continued by saying that the future lieutenant governor “forced his penis into my mouth.”
Tyson says that she then “tried to move my head away, but could not because his hand was holding down my neck and he was much stronger than me.” She went on, “As I cried and gagged, Mr. Fairfax forced me to perform oral sex on him.” Tyson says she cannot believe that “given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” adding that she had never given him any form of consent. Tyson says she avoided Fairfax at the convention afterwards and that she didn’t speak about what happened for years.
However, in October of 2017, when Fairfax was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor and Tyson was living in California, she says that she learned about his campaign and saw his image in the paper, explaining that the photo “hit me like a ton of bricks, triggering buried traumatic memories and the feelings of humiliation I’d felt so intensely back in 2004.” Tyson says that by December of 2017, after Fairfax had won the general election, she had told her friends about what had happened and spoken to the Washington Post. The paper ultimately did not run the story, which Tyson says made her feel “powerless, frustrated, and completely drained.”
Tyson says that after she learned over the weekend that Fairfax would become governor should Northam resign, she put a private Facebook post where, while not identifying Fairfax by name, she “stated that it seemed inevitable that the campaign staffer who assaulted me during the Democratic convention in 2004 was about to get a big promotion.” The post made its way to Big League Politics without her permission, at which point “Fairfax issued a statement further escalating this matter by calling me a liar and falsely characterizing the reasons the Washington Post decided not to run a story about my allegations.”
Tyson adds that Fairfax’s suggestion that the paper “found me not to be credible was deceitful, offensive, and profoundly upsetting” and says Fairfax “has continued a smear campaign by pointing reporters to a 2007 educational video in which I talked about being the victim of incest and molestation.” Tyson says she didn’t speak about being assaulted by Fairfax in the video, which of course is by no means proof that he did not do so, and excoriates his “reliance on this video” to suggest that no assault took place as “despicable and an offense to sexual assault survivors everywhere.”
● AL-Sen: GOP Rep. Mo Brooks still isn't ruling out a Senate bid against Democratic incumbent Doug Jones, but he doesn't sound at all excited to do it. Brooks said there was one way he could enter the race, rhetorically asking, "What percentage is there that President Trump is going to publicly ask me to run and endorse me." Considering that there's plenty of footage of Brooks speaking out against Trump during the 2016 presidential primary, including him saying "I don't think you can trust Donald Trump with anything he says" and calling out Trump for his "callous insults" and "belittling" rhetoric, we're guessing that percentage isn't high.
Indeed, that footage was used in ads against Brooks by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who were supporting appointed Sen. Luther Strange during the 2017 special election primary. Trump also ended up backing Strange over Brooks, and the congressman said this week that he still feels that he lost because of this. Brooks even said that an unnamed conservative group promised him $1 million in contributions if he ran this cycle, but he said this was "not enough" for a Senate race.
● TX-Sen: While a spokesperson for 2018 Democratic Senate nominee Beto O'Rourke told the Texas Monthly's Eric Benson this week that the former congressman "hasn't ruled anything out" when it comes to a possible bid against GOP Sen. John Cornyn, there doesn't seem to be much reason to think another Senate campaign is in O'Rourke's near future.
On Tuesday, Oprah Winfrey interviewed O'Rourke in New York City's Times Square, and he said he would decide on whether or not to run for president by the end of the month. Benson also writes that most Texas political observers he's spoken to think a 2020 O'Rourke Senate campaign is increasingly unlikely.
However, it's far from clear who actually is interested in taking on Cornyn. The only Democrat we've heard express any interest so far is Kim Olson, who lost her race for state agriculture secretary 51-46 to Republican incumbent Sid Miller last year. Olson's spokesperson said just before Thanksgiving that she was "currently exploring all opportunities to determine the best way to continue serving Texas and Texans," but we haven't heard anything from her since then.
Benson plays Great Mentioner and names some other Texas Democrats, but points out that most seem uninterested. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro is running for president, and his identical twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, seems to be focused on aiding his White House bid.
Benson name-drops freshmen Reps. Colin Allred, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, Veronica Escobar, and Sylvia Garcia, but doesn't think it's likely any of them would sacrifice the posts they just won for an uphill Senate bid. We have yet to hear from any of them about their interest, or lack of it, in taking on Cornyn. Benson also names three House candidates who lost surprisingly competitive 2018 contests: M.J. Hegar, Joseph Kopser, and Sri Kulkarni. However, while all three have shown some interest in another House campaign, none of them have said anything about taking on Cornyn, either.
Benson also spoke to former Democratic strategist Jason Stanford, who named a few more people in the party's bench: state Rep. Rafael Anchia, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, 2014 gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis, and Mark Strama, a former state representative who now works as a Google Fiber executive. But like almost everyone else mentioned in the article, none of them appear to have shown any interest in a Senate campaign.
No matter who ultimately steps up will certainly be in for a tough race against Cornyn, who ended 2018 with $5.8 million in the bank and has the luxury of running for re-election in what is still a conservative state. However, it's worth remembering that, while O'Rourke ended up holding GOP incumbent Ted Cruz to a surprisingly slim 51-48 win last year and is now at the top of Texas Democrats' wish list, there was nothing inevitable about his rise, nor is there reason to think that he's the only candidate who could give Cornyn a tough race.
Indeed, when O'Rourke launched his bid in March 2017, he hardly looked like a particularly formidable Senate candidate. To begin with, O'Rourke had only run for office in reliably blue El Paso, so he didn't have much experience winning over the type of voters who'd usually favored Republicans in the past. Indeed, El Paso was hardly the ideal place from which to launch a statewide bid: As the Texas Tribune's Abby Livingston put it at the time, the city is "so remote it is in a separate time zone from the rest of the state. It is a shorter drive from his district to San Diego than to Beaumont," near the border with Louisiana.
O'Rourke didn't just begin his race with little statewide name recognition among voters, state and national Democrats also hardly knew him. Indeed, his fellow Democrats frequently mispronounced first name as "Bee-to," and the DSCC didn't even mention his kickoff in their weekly newsletter. O'Rourke himself didn't even seem to have a clear path to victory. When he was asked how he'd beat Cruz, he admitted, "Tactically, strategically, I don't know."
Ultimately, while O'Rourke still fell short, he did better statewide than any Texas Democrat had in a very long time. That doesn't mean that whoever Team Blue ends up fielding in 2020 will do as well, or better, against Cornyn, of course. Cruz was despised by progressive donors in a way that Cornyn isn't, and there's no guarantee that the Democratic nominee will have the personal charm that O'Rourke ultimately displayed during his campaign.
Still, O'Rourke's unlikely campaign gives us reasons to be optimistic that the eventual Democratic candidate, no matter who they end up being, can take advantage of the demographic and anti-Trump forces that are turning Texas into a competitive state and run a serious campaign.
● LA-Gov: Former GOP Rep. John Fleming, who currently serves in Trump's Department of Health and Human Services, reportedly has been considering challenging Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards this year, and LaPolitics reports that insiders close to Fleming say he'll decide "very soon." Last month, the White House resubmitted Fleming's nomination to the Senate for a post in the Commerce Department, which indicated that they didn't expect him to go anywhere.
● MS-Gov: Mason-Dixon is out with another poll of this fall's open seat race for governor of Mississippi, and they give Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood a 44-42 edge over GOP Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Back in April, they gave Hood a slightly wider 44-39 lead.
Reeves faces an August primary with state Rep. Robert Foster, but Mason-Dixon finds Reeves winning by a 62-9 margin. They did not test Hood, who is also the clear favorite to win his primary, against any intra-party opponents. If anyone else wants to join either primary, they need to make their plans clear by the March 1 filing deadline.
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. has shown some interest in running for governor as well, but it's not clear with what party, if any. Waller is the son of former Democratic Gov. Bill Waller, who served in the 1970s, and WLBT says that the younger Waller is a Republican. However, there has been speculation that Waller could instead run as an independent, and Mason-Dixon tests this three-way contest. They find Hood leading Reeves 40-38, while Waller takes 9.
However, while his presence doesn't impact Hood's 2-point lead in this race, Waller or another independent candidate could make it all the more difficult for anyone to win the majority of the vote. That's very important because, as we've noted before, Mississippi's 1890 state constitution contains a Jim Crow-era provision that requires gubernatorial candidates to win both a majority of the statewide vote and a majority of the 122 districts that make up the state House; if someone fails to hit both of these benchmarks, the state House picks the new governor from the top two finishers.
It's already going to be tough enough for Hood to clear both these hurdles as long as this law remains in effect, and it probably won't be any easier if a notable independent is also on the ballot.
● NH-Gov: Democrat Molly Kelly, who lost last year's contest to GOP Gov. Chris Sununu 53-46, isn't ruling out another try. Kelly, a former state senator, said this week that she was "leaving the door open."
● NJ-11: On Tuesday, former GOP Gov. Chris Christie suggested that his wife, former state first lady Mary Pat Christie, could challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill. The former governor said he was trying to convince his wife, a retired investment banker, to run, declaring she's "learned a heck of a lot watching all my mistakes and she wouldn't repeat them, which is really nice." Mary Pat Christie has yet to say anything about taking on Sherrill, who won this competitive North Jersey seat last year by a strong 57-42 margin.
● NM-02: This week, businessman Chris Mathys set up a fundraising committee with the FEC for a possible bid against freshman Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, though he hasn't announced anything publicly yet. (Hat-tip: CATargetBot.) Mathys ran for a seat on the state Public Regulation Commission last year and lost the GOP primary by all of 25 votes.
● OH-01: GOP Rep. Steve Chabot turned back Democrat Aftab Pureval last year in a close 51-47 contest, and national Democrats will want to put this Cincinnati-area seat back into play. The Cincinnati Enquirer mentions state Rep. Brigid Kelly and Hamilton County Board of Commissioners President Denise Driehaus as two of the names he's been hearing as potential Democratic candidates, but there's no word on if either of them is interested. Trump carried this seat 51-45.
● Michigan: Former Michigan Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat who holds the record for the longest service in Congress, was admitted into hospice care recently for cancer. His wife and successor, Rep. Debbie Dingell, tweeted on Wednesday that she was at "home with John and we have entered a new phase." The former congressman himself later tweeted:
The Lovely Deborah is insisting I rest and stay off here, but after long negotiations we've worked out a deal where she'll keep up with Twitter for me as I dictate the messages. I want to thank you all for your incredibly kind words and prayers. You're not done with me just yet.
● Special Elections: Tuesday brought us the first special election flip of the cycle, but it was a particularly dismaying one because it never had to happen in the first place. Republican state Rep. Jason Rarick defeated Democrat Stu Lourey, a former aide to Sens. Tina Smith and Al Franken, by a 52-46 margin in Minnesota's 11th State Senate District, increasing the GOP's caucus in the chamber to 35 and reducing Democrats to just 32 seats.
The outcome was foreseeable, though, and in fact was foreseen: We warned that it was a mistake for Democratic Gov. Tim Walz to tap the seat’s occupant as his health commissioner last month, on the very same day the appointment was announced. And it wasn’t hard to see why. This rural district, located just southwest of Duluth, swung sharply against Democrats at the presidential level in 2016: In 2012, it voted for Barack Obama 55-43, but four years later, Donald Trump carried it 53-40.
That incumbent, not coincidentally, was state Sen. Tony Lourey, the father of Stu. The elder Lourey's resignation triggered a primary that took place less than three weeks later, a tight timeframe that may have helped his son ride through on name recognition. (Becky Lourey, mother of Tony and grandmother of Stu, had also held this seat, from 1997 to 2007.) As it was, Stu Lourey only beat former TV anchor Michelle Lee, who'd had the official endorsement of the Democratic Party, 53-47.
But that family name wasn't enough to defy gravity in a general election in a district that, like so many other white working-class areas in the Midwest, has trended away from Democrats, and it was naïve to assume it would. Walz had any number of undoubtedly excellent options to head his health department, and he himself had every reason to know better, considering he only eked out a narrow 48-47 win in the 11th District last year even as he won a dominant 54-42 victory statewide.
Had Walz instead chosen someone else, Democrats would be facing just a 34-33 deficit in the Senate. Fortunately, there are other, better targets in 2020, when every seat will be up, and it's possible that Tony Lourey might have lost or retired anyway (though he's just 51). But now, Team Blue's task at retaking the chamber from the GOP just got that much harder—and it didn't have to.