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.
● Baltimore, MD Mayor: On Monday, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that she was taking an "indefinite leave of absence," a move that made City Council President Jack Young acting mayor. Pugh, a Democrat who is up for re-election next year, said she was taking some time off because of pneumonia. However, her move comes as scrutiny intensifies about her self-published children's book series "Healthy Holly," which the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) purchased from her for a total of $500,000 while she served on its board. On Tuesday, Pugh's attorney said that the State Prosecutor's Office was investigating the sale.
The Baltimore Sun has a rundown of this strange scandal. A little less than a decade ago, Pugh created a character named Healthy Holly who was intended to teach children about exercise and nutrition. After she showed other members of the UMMS board her prototype for her first book, which became "Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun!," they agreed to pay her $100,000 for 20,000 copies that were to be distributed in schools. Over the following years, UMMS paid her another $400,000 for the next four editions in the series, a total of 80,000 books and an absolutely massive amount of money in the children's book publishing industry.
They weren't the only ones who put down big money for this series. The healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente paid her $100,000 for 20,000 copies from 2015 to 2018 while the nonprofit Associated Black Charities raised $90,000 to buy Healthy Holly books, including from the citywide insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and most of that amount went to Pugh. Wealthy businessman and political donor J.P. Grant also revealed this month that he'd paid $100,000 to "Healthy Holly LLC" to aid the distribution an unknown number of copies.
All of this began to unravel last month when state Sen. Jill Carter filed a bill to prohibit business deals between UMMS and its board members, and the Sun began looking into board members' financial disclosures to see what agreements had already taken place. Pugh, a former state senator who was elected mayor in 2016, resigned from the board as more news came out about Healthy Holly, and she called the book deal with UMMS a "regrettable mistake." The board's CEO was also placed on leave as an outside firm investigates, and several other board members have resigned or gone on leave as well.
Pugh, who says she returned $100,000 to UMMS for the unpublished fifth book, claimed that, because of production and distribution costs, she had only kept $80,000 of the remaining $400,000 that they'd paid her. However, the Sun took a look at the estimated production and distribution costs and concluded that $200,000 of the money the mayor had received from UMMS was unaccounted for.
We also don't know how much Pugh profited from sales to Kaiser, Associated Black Charities, and Grant. It's also unclear how many copies of the Healthy Holly series were actually distributed in schools, especially since 8,700 books from a 19,500 shipment of the third part of the series, "Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow," were found in a warehouse.
This story comes to light about a year ahead of the April 2020 Democratic primary. Baltimore is a very Democratic city that hasn't elected a Republican mayor in over 50 years and, as anyone who has seen season four of "The Wire" can attest, whomever wins the Democratic primary has very little to worry about in the general election. It only takes a simple plurality to win the nomination, but if Pugh runs again, she'll need a lot to go right to take a second term.
Young said soon after taking over as acting mayor that he won't run next year and will instead seek re-election as council president, but it's far from clear at this point who actually will jump in. The Sun mentions plenty of potential candidates including Carter, the state legislator whose bill led to the unraveling of this scandal.
P.S. If you're wondering about the actual quality of the Healthy Holly books, the Washington Post's Carlos Lozada reviews the very first in the series, and let's just say neither he nor his three young children were impressed by the illustrations or the dialogue.
To take one example, a conversation between Healthy Holly's mother and Healthy Holly goes "Exercising is fun," "I will be healthy. I like having fun." Lozada's 11-year-old remarked, "The dialogue ... it doesn't sound so real," adding, "I mean the phrase 'I like having fun.' Isn't it obvious that one likes having fun? You don't just walk up and say: 'I like having fun! I like doing things that I like!'" The illustrations, which featured smiling trash bins and tennis balls, as well as a smiling "clock [that] doesn't have that many teeth," also did not go over well with their intended audience.
● AL-Sen, FL-01: On Friday, The Pensacola News Journal's Jim Little texted Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz to ask him if he would seek the GOP nod for Alabama's Senate seat, and Gaetz responded, "No." Just hours before, neither Gaetz nor his office would rule out the possibility that he was interested in crossing state lines to take on Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.
Meanwhile, about two weeks ago, an unnamed source close to Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth told Yellowhammer News that he had not ruled out seeking the GOP nod to challenge Jones, but that the chances he would run for the Senate are low. Ainsworth, who was elected to his first term last year, has been mentioned as a potential candidate but has never shown any public interest in this contest.
● GA-Sen: On Friday, former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson formed an exploratory committee for a possible bid against GOP Sen. David Perdue. Tomlinson acknowledged to the Ledger-Enquirer that national Democratic leaders are trying to recruit 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and "[w]e want to make sure we give her the space she needs to make the decision under these exciting circumstances."
Tomlinson also said she had already made some hires for a Senate bid and was "actually planning on a launch when" national Democrats made it clear Abrams was their choice, continued by saying she's "had to stand down." The former mayor said her nascent campaign has "[incurred] some nominal expenses" that she's required to file with the FEC, she wants to "make sure that I remain in compliance, and remain a viable candidate" if Abrams doesn't run.
Tomlinson would not explicitly say she wouldn't run if Abrams gets in when the Ledger-Enquirer asked her, but she seems to recognize that she'd have little chance in a primary with Abrams even if she wanted to run against her. Tomlinson also told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a separate interview that "obviously, I support Stacey." Abrams, who is also mulling a 2020 presidential run or a 2022 campaign for governor, said Thursday that she would decide on the Senate "as soon as possible," but didn't give a specific date for when that would be.
● NM-Sen: A spokesperson for Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver confirmed to the Albuquerque Journal that she'd decide on a bid to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Udall this month.
Meanwhile, former Rep. Steve Pearce, who now serves as New Mexico Republican Party chair, told the paper he was indeed considering running for this open seat. However, Pearce said he was also "focused on identifying strong candidates for the Senate race and the other congressional races," so he seems open to having someone else run.
Indeed, Pearce's last two statewide campaigns very much indicate that he'd be anything but a strong candidate. Back in 2008, Pearce lost an open Senate seat to Udall 61-39. Pearce did better in last year's race for governor, but he still fell to Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham by a wide 57-43 margin.
● WV-Gov, WV-Sen: Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin didn't rule out challenging GOP Gov. Jim Justice back in January, and he told Politico on Thursday that he was very much thinking about it. Manchin, who served as governor until he was elected to the Senate in 2010, has often waxed nostalgic about his old gig, and he said he'd decide on a 2020 run "this fall sometime. I don't think there's any hurry at all."
Manchin also talked about running for governor again back in 2015 and seemed very likely to do it, but he decided to stay put in the end. Instead, the Democrat ran for re-election in 2018 and pulled off a 50-46 win in a state that Trump had carried 68-26 two years before. Manchin doesn't seem put off by the idea of having to go through another tough race this quickly, though. Instead, he said that he believes that campaigns are "the best part of politics," and that even with Trump at the top of the ballot, a gubernatorial race couldn't "be any tougher than what I came through, an off-year election when they concentrated all their money against you."
However, while Manchin has loudly complained in the past about how much "Washington sucks," he also acknowledged his rising seniority and place as the top Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee. The senator said he enjoyed his post and it "gives me a little bit more input," so he doesn't sound as eager to get out of D.C. as he did just a year ago when he reportedly came close to pulling the plug on his re-election campaign.
As we've noted before, while Manchin would almost certainly be Team Blue's strongest candidate, a gubernatorial run would be awful news for Senate Democrats. While West Virginia's current law would allow a Gov. Manchin to appoint a new Democratic senator (something he did in 2010 after legendary Sen. Robert Byrd died in office), Team Red likely wouldn't allow that law to remain intact. In 2015, when Manchin last flirted with a gubernatorial bid, the GOP legislature began working on a bill that would have required a vacant Senate seat remain open until a special election could be held.
The legislation never became law and Team Red didn't take any action during this legislative session, either. However, there's no reason to think Republicans wouldn't try to revive it when the legislature reconvenes in early 2020 if Manchin did run this time. And even if the GOP did absolutely nothing and Gov. Manchin got to appoint a new Democratic senator, that person would need to run in a fall 2022 special election for the final two years of Manchin's term. West Virginia is unlikely to be any less hostile to national Democrats in four years than it is now, and it's hard to see whom Manchin could pick who would be able to hold his Senate seat.
● AL-01: On Thursday, state Rep. Chris Pringle announced that he would seek the GOP nod for this reliably red open seat along the Gulf Coast. Pringle is a former state House minority leader who gave up his perch in 2002 to run for a previous version of this seat, but he took a distant firth place in the primary with just 8% of the vote. After losing a 2006 primary for the state Senate, Pringle won back a seat in the state House in 2014 and he now chairs the State Government Committee.
So far, the only other declared Republican candidate is Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl. Team Red has a large bench in this area, though, and Yellowhammer News mentioned businesswoman Christina Woerner McInnis as a potential candidate a few weeks ago. However, Alabama Republican Party Chairwoman Terry Lathan has ruled out running here, and the site also says that University of South Alabama official Michael Chambers is a no.
● NJ-11: On Thursday, financial industry executive Reinier Prijten became the first Republican to kick off a bid against freshman Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill, and it took almost no time at all for his anti-Muslim 2010 blog posts to surface.
Prijten declared back then that the Visa Waiver Program made the country more vulnerable because some European citizens might also hold passports from predominantly Muslim nations, and "Muslims in Europe are more radical than those in the U.S. due to its proximity to the Middle East and the generally liberal pro-Palestinian European media." Prijten's campaign says he stands by the posts.
There are other signs that Prijten is not a particularly strong contender. In New Jersey primaries on both sides of the aisle, it's important to try to secure county party endorsements because endorsed candidates appear in a separate column on the ballot along with other party endorsees, a big deal in a state where party machines are still powerful. However, Prijten doesn't seem to have done his homework before launching his bid, since Essex County Republican Chairman Al Barlas, who ironically is Muslim, said Thursday that he'd only spoken to the new candidate for the first time that very day.
● NM-03, NM-Sen: While Democrat Valerie Plame, the covert CIA agent whose identity was leaked by the Bush administration in 2003, said a few days ago she was eyeing runs for both the Senate and the U.S. House, she seems to be focusing almost entirely on a potential run for the 3rd District.
Plame told the Associated Press on Friday that she would "soon" decide on a bid to succeed Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is giving up this northern New Mexico seat to run for the Senate. The article doesn't say that Plame has closed the door on a Senate run, but she did say she was eyeing the House race in order to "continue Ben Ray's legacy," which would be a strange thing for her to say if she were thinking about challenging Luján.
We also have a few other new names of potential Democratic candidates in this reliably blue district. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that state Sen. John Sapien is telling people he's interested. Sapien is part of a coalition of moderate Democrats who hold plenty of power in the chamber. In a recent article, Sapien declared he represents a competitive district and so "vote[s] the values of my district and I vote my conscience."
The paper also mentions Paula Garcia, the executive director New Mexico Acequia Association, as a possible Democratic candidate. Garcia ran for an open seat in the state House last year and lost the primary 48-30 to Joseph Sanchez, who went on to win the general election. Sanchez, who voted against an attempt to repeal a law making abortion a felony in most cases, is currently running for this congressional seat.
● NY-01: On Friday, businessman Perry Gershon announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination for a rematch against GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin in this eastern Long Island seat. Last year, Gershon outspent the incumbent $5 million to $4.8 million (Gershon self-funded almost $2 million) and lost 51-47.
During that campaign, Zeldin made sure to portray Gershon, who has long had a summer home in the Hamptons but only changed his voter registration from Manhattan in 2017, as an outsider, and some local Democrats are making it clear they want a different nominee.
Newsday's Mark Chiusano says that venture capitalist Dave Calone is considering another bid, but there's no word from Calone about his plans. Calone ran here in 2016 and lost the primary to Anna Throne-Holst by 317 votes; in November, Zeldin beat Throne-Holst 58-42 as this seat was swinging from 50-49 Obama all the way to 55-42 Trump.
Chiusano further writes that some Gershon skeptics recently met to discuss potential alternative candidates, and they came up with three names: Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming; Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman; and attorney Jack Harrington.
Fleming said that her "current focus" in on her job, which isn't a no. However, Fleming is up for re-election this fall, so she may be busy for a while. Schneiderman, who is also seeking another term this year, said that a bid for Congress is "not something at the moment I'm considering." Newsday was unable to contact Harrington, who lost a 2017 bid for Brookhaven supervisor to Republican incumbent Edward Romaine 62-38. Instead, they got an out-of-office email reply saying that Harrington was "currently on military leave overseas without access to email. I will not return to the office until mid-2019."
Chiusano adds a few names he says have been "contacted by Democratic figures both locally and nationally." They include Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko; Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon; and retired first responder John Feal, a demolition supervisor who was seriously injured at the ruins of the World Trade Center the day after the Sept. 11 attacks and went on to form a group advocating for emergency personnel. Chiusano also adds that high school football coach Jack Martilotta's name has been "floated." There is no word if any of them are interested.
● TX-21, TX-Sen: On Thursday, 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis said she would not run for the U.S. Senate, but that she was "looking very seriously" at challenging freshman GOP Rep. Chip Roy in Texas' 21st Congressional District. Davis represented a state Senate seat in the Fort Worth area, which is a ways away from this House seat, until she ran for governor. After her 59-39 statewide defeat against Republican Greg Abbott (according to the Texas Legislative Council, she lost the 21st District by the same 59-39 spread), Davis relocated to the Austin area.
This district, which includes parts of the Austin and San Antonio areas as well as part of the Texas Hill Country, went from 60-38 Romney to 52-42 Trump. While this has been safely red turf for decades, 2018 was very different. Roy, a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz, won the general election last year against Democrat Joseph Kosper by a narrow 50-48 margin at the same time that Cruz was carrying the seat just 49.6-49.5. Kosper considered a second campaign, but he announced last month that he wouldn't run.