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.
● CA-50: Margaret Hunter, the wife of Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, pleaded guilty on Thursday to conspiring with her husband to "knowingly and willingly convert campaign funds for personal use." The congressman, who represents California's 50th Congressional District in the San Diego suburbs, responded to the news by declaring it was "sad that they were able to bludgeon her into submission." He added, "We've got some Hillary lawyers there in San Diego. I look forward to going to trial," which is scheduled for September.
The couple was indicted over the summer for allegedly misusing $250,000 in campaign funds. Each pleaded not guilty at the time, and it's no small deal that Margaret Hunter has changed course: As the San Diego Union-Tribune explained Wednesday, "Experts say a change-of-plea hearing almost certainly means Margaret Hunter is now working with prosecutors."
Those prosecutors allege that the couple used campaign money on purchases that included family vacations, video games, and transporting their pet rabbit on an airplane flight. The congressman's reaction to the charges 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."
There were other signs of friction between the Hunters well ahead of this week. The Union-Tribune notes that while the couple appeared in court together last year, they've more recently arrived separately and sat far from each other, and have even avoided making eye contact.
Hunter's congressional district backed Donald Trump by a solid 55-40 margin, but his scandal has already endangered his prospects at home. Last year, Hunter faced a serious challenge from Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who made the indictment a focus of his attacks. Hunter responded with a xenophobic campaign against Campa-Najjar, who is of Mexican and Palestinian descent, in which the incumbent and his allies smeared the Democrat as a "national security risk." Hunter ended up pulling off a tight 52-48 win against Campa-Najjar, who is running again this cycle.
Hunter has continued to draw ugly headlines since then for reasons that have nothing to do with his upcoming trial. The congressman has been a loud defender of Eddie Gallagher, a former Marine who was charged with shooting noncombatants, stabbing a wounded person, and posing for a photo with a corpse. Trump has considered granting Gallagher clemency, which Hunter, who served in the Marines in Iraq, is all for. A few weeks ago, the congressman spoke in support of Gallagher by revealing that he'd also himself taken photos with an enemy's corpse.
Hunter went further a few days later and all but admitted to committing war crimes. "I was an artillery officer, and we fired hundreds of rounds into Fallujah, killed probably hundreds of civilians, if not scores, if not hundreds of civilians," he said, adding, "Probably killed women and children, if there were any left in the city when we invaded. So do I get judged, too?" Very probably yes—if not by the military's courts then in all likelihood by the civilian justice system.
● AL-Sen: Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville is out with a GOP primary poll from Moore Information giving him an early lead against four potential opponents. Tuberville edges 2017 nominee Roy Moore 23-18, while Rep. Bradley Byrne is just behind at 16. Secretary of State John Merrill takes 7, while state Rep. Arnold Mooney brings up the rear with 2. If no one takes a majority, there would be a primary runoff.
Of these five candidates only Tuberville, Byrne, and Mooney have announced that they're in. Merrill has said that he'll decide by the end of the month, and he recently added that this announcement would come sometime between June 24 and June 28.
● NC-Sen: On Thursday, Rep. Mark Walker again announced that he would not challenge Sen. Thom Tillis in the GOP primary. Walker had said back in late April that he wouldn't run for the Senate, but he soon began to reconsider. The anti-tax Club for Growth tried to recruit the congressman, and he said just days ago that he was thinking about it.
However, Politico reports that Senate GOP leaders told Donald Trump that a competitive primary was not in the party's interest. They add that Walker tried to get Trump's "blessing" for a bid, but while the two met at the White House last month, it doesn't seem that the congressman got the reception he was looking for. It doesn't help that Walker has been linked to a scandal involving powerful North Carolina Republicans, though he has not been charged with anything. Tillis still faces a primary challenge next year from wealthy businessman Garland Tucker, who has already been running TV ads.
● VT-Gov: GOP Gov. Phil Scott said this week that he would decide on his re-election plans after the 2020 legislative session ends next spring. Scott stuck to this timeline last cycle and only announced that he would run again in May of 2018, though there was no serious chatter about him retiring then. VTDigger writes that many Democrats also expect the governor to seek re-election this time as well.
● WV-Gov, WV-Sen: While Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin implied a few months ago that his increasing clout in Washington might keep him from running for his old job as governor in 2020, it sounds like he's once again tired of the Senate. Manchin told The Hill this week, "I haven't been happy since I've been here."
Manchin seems to be even more frustrated in private, and unnamed senators tell reporter Alexander Bolton that he's only committed to staying in the Senate through 2020, even though his term lasts for an additional four years. One senator even said that just before the Memorial Day recess, Manchin was so angry with how slow it took to pass a disaster aid bill that he "said, 'I'm out of here.' He was all pissed off and said, 'I'm going to be out of here.'"This isn't the first time Manchin has shown an interest in leaving the Senate.
In 2015, Manchin looked likely to run for governor the following year, but he decided to stay put. In early 2018, just after Manchin announced that he'd seek re-election, the New York Times reported that in the days before that pronouncement, Senate Democrats were panicked that the senator was about to change his mind and leave them without a candidate mere days before the filing deadline. That nightmare situation didn't happen, though, and Manchin won another term 50-46. Manchin said in April that he'd decide in the fall whether or not he'd challenge GOP Gov. Jim Justice.
● AZ-06: On Wednesday, the Office of Congressional Ethics released a report Wednesday detailing its investigation into alleged ethics violations by Republican Rep. David Schweikert’s former chief of staff, Oliver Schwab, and it does not paint a pretty picture of Schweikert’s office. The congressman is currently under investigation by another body, the House Ethics Committee, and the Arizona Republic writes that the committee’s probe “is believed to overlap significantly with the matters outlined in the report on Schwab.”
First, some background on both investigations. Last June, the Ethics Committee announced that the OCE was looking into both Schweikert and Schwab over allegations that Schweikert's campaign paid Schwab considerably more than congressional staffers are allowed to earn in outside income; Schwab resigned as chief of staff the following month.
In December, the Ethics Committee voted to expand its inquiry into Schweikert as it examined separate allegations that the congressman had used government resources to benefit his campaigns. Roll Call wrote at the time that the committee was investigating whether the congressman had pressured his congressional staff to perform political activities for him. Additionally, they were looking into whether he’d “authorized compensation to an employee who did not perform duties commensurate with his House employment,” which reporter Katherine Tully-McManus described as code for “off-the-books settlements” paid out to staffers.
It doesn't end there, though: The committee has also been looking into whether a congressional employee gave Schweikert or his campaign improper loans or gifts. In April, the committee publicly said that its investigation came about because the panel had "substantial reason" to believe Schweikert had misused congressional resources for his campaign, in violation of House ethics rules.
Wednesday’s report was issued by the OCE, an independent, nonpartisan agency that can refer matters to the House Ethics Committee, and while it focused on the charges against Schwab, it did not paint Schweikert in a favorable light.
The OCE’s report argues that Schweikert has shown little interest in his office’s affairs, letting Schwab do essentially whatever he wanted. Among other things, Schwab collected more than $60,000 in outside income than what House rules allowed, including paychecks from Schweikert’s re-election committee. The report also repeatedly noted the “non-cooperation from Mr. Schwab, Rep. Schweikert, Rep. Schweikert’s campaign and political action committees, and Mr. Schwab’s family” and recommended that the congressman and Schwab be subpoenaed. (The OCE lacks the power to issue subpoenas but the Ethics Committee can do so.)
That’s not all. The OCE further found that there is “substantial reason to believe” Schwab contributed more money to his employer’s campaign than he was allowed to, and that he “made expenditures or received reimbursements” using taxpayer funds “that were not for official expenses.” This last bit refers to a 2015 trip back to Arizona where, in addition to doing congressional business, Schwab apparently attended a number of events, including the Super Bowl.
OCE investigators also quoted unnamed staffers saying that Schweikert’s office blurred the lines between congressional duties and campaign activities. One former legislative director said some staffers spent as much as 20% of their official work time during election years briefing the congressman on issues ahead of his meetings with potential contributors.
This same aide also told investigators that, after one organization made a donation, Schwab “asked me to set up a meeting with him to discuss their issues. Then following that meeting, we subsequently submitted letters in support of their initiatives.” The staffer continued, “What I was told is that the gentleman … donated to the campaign and that we want to be as friendly as we can and as helpful as we can because of those contributions,” and added, “I don’t think there was a direct quid pro quo, but Oliver clearly made it certain that we wanted to be helpful because he was a donor.”
The report also shed a light into a previously opaque chapter in Schweikert’s career. Throughout 2015, Schweikert professed to have little interest in challenging Sen. John McCain in the GOP primary that cycle, but he declined to rule the idea out. In January of 2016 he told a group of Republicans, “The polling was amazing, but we came to the conclusion that we're just not seeing the money to do it.”
According to this report, though, Schweikert very much wanted the money to be there. One former staffer said, “David was putting increasing pressure on (Schwab) to raise money because David wanted to run for the Senate,” adding, “David was basically telling him, 'I need a million dollars if I'm going to run for the Senate.' I think that was weighing on him.” This aide recounted that Schwab was angry at Schweikert’s demands and declared, “I hate David and I hate this job.” Schweikert campaign consultant Chris Baker said in response to the OCE report, “We did not give anywhere near the level of consideration for running for the Senate as that unnamed staffer claims.”
This wasn’t the only time Schwab was documented as expressing his anger with his boss. A deputy chief of staff said that Schwab “was showing signs of severe stress and anger at the member and was lashing out at me.” That deputy added, “Basically through the entire year of 2016 he would go through these tirades against the member ... about how awful David was and how he hated it and how he was going to quit.” This former staffer said that the office was “unstable” under Schwab, who had planned to leave at one point in 2016. But after Schwab decided to stay, “he became somewhat abusive to me and another senior staffer.”
Schweikert, who said Wednesday that he had yet to read the report, argued to Roll Call that he knew little about what was going on under his nose. Trying to excuse his absenteeism, he said, “I was marching along thinking things were just fine and you wake up one day and hear this inbound information on your chief of staff and you start trying to understand if you’ve made mistakes. Or your chief of staff made mistakes, that’s a better way of phrasing it.”
However Schweikert also seemed to lay blame not only with Schwab but with another unnamed aide, saying, “We had a former staffer that was fired years ago and the rumor is that he spent a big chunk of his life trying to get vengeance on Schwab.” He added, “This has weighed really heavy on me, and I’m sorry there was a fired employee who was so angry, but I think as we go through this, if we’ve made a mistake we’ll fix it, but I can’t imagine there was anything that was intentional.”
Schweikert took the opportunity to once again say that he’d be running for re-election. He could, however, be in for a real fight. His suburban Phoenix seat has been becoming a lot more competitive in recent years: After voting 60-39 for Mitt Romney, Donald Trump carried it just 52-42. Even more alarming for Schweikert, Republican Martha McSally carried the seat by only a modest 51-47 margin in last year’s Senate race. And with a sprawling ethics mess now entangling him even further, Schweikert has put his own political future in deeper jeopardy.
● CA-48: GOP Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel doesn't face any prominent intra-party opposition yet in her quest to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda in this Orange County seat, and that's not going to change if the local GOP establishment has anything to say about it. Steel recently picked up the backing of every Republican state legislator in the county, as well as the county party. Steel already had the support of former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Sheriff Don Barnes, and three of her colleagues on the five-member board of supervisors.
The only other notable Republican who has publicly expressed interest in running here is former state Sen. Janet Nguyen, but she doesn't appear to have said anything since late March.
● NC-03: On Thursday, the NRA endorsed state Rep. Greg Murphy in the July 9 GOP primary runoff.
● TX-28: On Thursday, immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros announced that she would challenge conservative Rep. Henry Cuellar in the Democratic primary. Cisneros said that she first thought about taking on Cuellar all the way back in 2014, when she was an intern at his office. She told the Laredo Morning Times, “I saw firsthand how he was silent on certain issues,” adding, “He took the people of South Texas for granted.”Cisneros also blasted the incumbent as “Trump’s favorite Democrat,” and brought up his A rating from the NRA.
This Laredo-based seat has been safely blue turf for years, and that continued in 2016 when it supported Hillary Clinton by a strong 58-38 margin. However, none of that’s stopped Cuellar, who infamously backed George W. Bush in 2000, from spending his career as one of the most conservative Democrats in the caucus. In 2014, Cuellar joined with Republicans on legislation to make it easier to deport child migrants, and he’s the extremely rare Democrat who has been endorsed by the radical anti-tax Club for Growth.
Cuellar hasn’t changed in the Trump era, either. During the last Congress, FiveThirtyEight also found that Cuellar voted with Donald Trump nearly 70% of the time, more than any other Democrat in either chamber. Last year, he was the one Democrat who held off on signing a discharge petition to force a vote on a bill to protect Dreamers until the very last day to do so. Cuellar also took the time last year to attend and invite his supporters to a fundraiser for Republican Rep. John Carter, who was facing a vigorous, and ultimately unsuccessful, challenge from Democrat MJ Hegar in another Texas seat.
Cuellar doesn’t seem inclined to move to the left this year, either. In January he said, “I’ve been polling and my district is more moderate, conservative Democrats.” He also added, “LBJ, when he was also attacked by some liberal folks he said, ‘What’s the difference between a liberal and a cannibal?’ And the difference was, ‘Cannibals don’t eat their own.”
Cuellar first ran for Congress in 2002 and lost by a modest margin in a much more conservative district against then-Rep. Henry Bonilla, but in 2003, Republicans gerrymandered the map and made Bonilla safe by moving Cuellar's base into the same district as Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, who was considerably more aligned with progressives. Cuellar ran again in 2004 and narrowly beat Rodriguez in the Democratic primary, and he defeated him in a rematch two years later. Over the following 12 years Cuellar only had a primary challenge in 2016, and he won with 90% of the vote. That’s allowed Cuellar to conserve his money, and he ended March with $2.8 million in the bank.
● Kansas City, MO Mayor: City Councilor Jolie Justus is up with the first negative TV spot of the race days ahead of her general election showdown with colleague Quinton Lucas. Her ad declared that "Lucas ... gave no-bid contracts to old buddies" in a matter involving a new terminal at the local airport. The Kansas City Star's Dave Helling writes that Lucas co-sponsored an ordinance "that called for hiring two law firms to advise the City Council on the airport mess," and that he'd accepted donations from one firm and used to intern for the other. However, Justus also voted for that ordinance.
Justus, who has the support of termed-out Mayor Sly James, held a financial edge over Lucas throughout most of the race, but he has more money going into Election Day. Justus did outraise Lucas $384,000 to $252,000 from May 5 through June 6, and she dramatically outspent him $482,000 to $84,000 during that time. However, it was Lucas who had a $341,000 to $153,000 cash-on-hand lead. A recent poll from the GOP firm Remington Research for the Missouri Scout had Lucas ahead 42-39, which was a drop from the 38-30 edge he had in their May survey. No other firm has released numbers here.