The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, Daniel Donner, and Cara Zelaya, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.
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● NC-Gov: Attorney General Josh Stein on Wednesday launched his long-anticipated 2024 campaign to succeed his fellow North Carolina Democrat, termed-out Gov. Roy Cooper, with a message largely focused on the likely Republican frontrunner: Far-right Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.
After recounting in his launch video how his father's civil rights law firm was firebombed in 1971, Stein tells the audience, "Today there's a different set of bomb throwers, who threaten our freedoms and our future while some politicians spark division, ignite hate and fan the flames of bigotry." That statement is accompanied by footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and the Jan. 6 riot before a reporter is heard saying, "Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson suggested that God calls men, not women, to leadership."
The video goes on to play clips of Robinson first proclaiming that God "sent David, not Davita, David" to go up against Goliath before he's shown saying, "homosexuality, any of that filth, and yes, I called it filth," and "abortion is a scourge that needs to be run out of this land." Stein reappears and says, "Robinson wants to tell you who you can marry, when you'll be pregnant and who you should hate. I'm running for governor because I believe in a very different North Carolina, one rooted in our shared values of freedom, justice and opportunity for everyone."
Stein is the first major candidate from either party to enter what will arguably be the most prominent governor's race of 2024. The attorney general is hoping to ward off potential primary foes, and he entered the contest with endorsements from two people who had been talked about as contenders, Rep. Jeff Jackson and state House Minority Leader Robert Reives. Also in Stein's corner are Reps. Wiley Nickel and Deborah Ross, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, and former Gov. Jim Hunt, who completed his second stint leading the state in early 2001.
Robinson himself said in 2021 that he was "95% sure" he'd run for the top job, and while he's not yet set to commit to anything, Stein is far from the only Tar Heel State politico who is anticipating he'll run. The lieutenant governor may have some primary opposition, as state Treasurer Dale Folwell reiterated his interest Wednesday when he predicted that GOP voters "will have an option."
Former Rep. Mark Walker is also reportedly considering even though he took just 9% in last year's primary for Senate. A December survey from Differentiators Data, a new Republican pollster run by two former state Senate aides, showed Robinson destroying Folwell and Walker 60-6 and 58-6, respectively.
If a Stein-Robinson matchup does come to pass as the attorney general expects, it will pit two prominent statewide figures against one another. Stein himself sought a promotion in 2016 from the state Senate when he ran for attorney general to replace Cooper, a four-term incumbent who left to successfully challenge Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Stein defeated Republican colleague Buck Newton 50.3-49.7 that year even as Donald Trump was carrying the state 50-46, a result that gave Democrats another bright spot on a terrible night and made Stein the first Jewish person elected statewide.
Stein sought re-election four years later at the same time that Robinson, who had become a conservative celebrity for his 2018 speech protesting the cancellation of a gun show in Greensboro, was campaigning for lieutenant governor. While Trump prevailed 50-49, Stein won another very close race 50.1-49.9 against Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill after a race where the incumbent ran an ad accusing the Republican of failing to test thousands of rape kits.
That win came as Robinson, who stood by his old antisemitic, Islamophobic, and transphobic screeds, beat state Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley 52-48 in a contest where either candidate would have been the first African American elected to the post. Robinson went on to make news over the following years with more bigoted comments, including some of the ones Stein used in his video.
The lieutenant governor just days ago also declared that "abortion is not compatible with this nation, the same way slavery was not compatible with this nation." This statement came months after Robinson confirmed that his wife underwent the procedure in 1989 just prior to their marriage, saying, "It's because of this experience and our spiritual journey that we are so adamantly pro-life."
Stein has had a far less turbulent tenure, though O'Neill has continued to cause him trouble even in defeat. The district attorney filed a complaint that cited an obscure 1931 law that makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly run false election ads against an opponent: Stein, who says he stands by that ad's accuracy, has also defended himself on free speech grounds. A federal appeals court halted the investigation into Stein in August, but the matter remains unresolved.
● We've got a special double-barreled, two-guest show for you on this week's episode of The Downballot! First up is Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, who discusses her group's efforts to roll back the corrupting effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision as we hit the ruling's 13th anniversary. Muller tells us about ECU's short- and long-term plans to enact serious campaign finance reform; how the organization has expanded into the broader voting rights arena in recent years; and research showing the surprising connection many voters drew between the GOP's attacks on democracy and their war against abortion rights.
Then we're joined by law professor Quinn Yeargain to gape slack-jawed at the astonishing setback Gov. Kathy Hochul experienced in the state capitol on Wednesday when a Democratic-led Senate committee rejected her conservative pick to lead New York's top court. Yeargain explains why Hochul's threatened lawsuit to force the legislature to hold a full floor vote on Hector LaSalle defies 250 years of precedent and what will happen if she eventually retreats—as she manifestly should.
New episodes of The Downballot come out every Thursday morning. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show. You'll find a transcript of this week's episode right here by noon Eastern Time.
● MT-Sen: Democratic Sen. Jon Tester says he's still making up his mind whether or not to run for re-election, but a decision could come as soon as February.
● LA-Gov: Republican state Rep. Richard Nelson on Wednesday joined the October all-party primary for governor of Louisiana by touting his "bipartisanship and working for sound policy rather than political party," a strategy that none of his intra-party Republicans have tried out yet.
But Nelson, who said in November a campaign would be aimed at "the middle," may be hoping that, by presenting himself as a pragmatic conservative, he'll be able to appeal to Democrats and independents who desperately want to keep far-right Attorney General Jeff Landry out of the governor's office in this red state. Indeed, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser signaled he'd be adopting this strategy before he unexpectedly decided to seek re-election last week.
Nelson, however, is entering the contest without the statewide name recognition and connections that Nungesser would have brought to the race. The state representative, who at 36 is the youngest declared contender, only won elected office in 2019 when he was elected to a seat in St. Tammany Parish, a longtime Republican bastion on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. He probably can't count on much regional loyalty helping him either because two of his intra-party rivals, state Treasurer John Schroder and state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, are also from St. Tammany Parish: Landry and independent Hunter Lundy, by contrast, are from Acadiana in southwestern Louisiana.
Nelson, writes NOLA.com's Sam Karlin, has generally been a conservative vote in the legislature, though he's occasionally broken from party orthodoxy by pushing for decriminalizing marijuana. The candidate's main cause in the legislature has been trying to eliminate the state income tax by reducing property tax breaks for corporations and the homestead exemption for homeowners.
Nelson's announcement comes as the state political world wonders if a more prominent Republican, Rep. Garret Graves, will run, a question the Baton Rouge area congressman himself is also wondering about. While Graves said last week his decision would come "very soon," he responded Wednesday with an "I don't know" when asked when an announcement might come. Several Democrats are also still mulling over a campaign.
● CA-47: Democratic state Sen. Dave Min launched his campaign on Wednesday with an endorsement from Rep. Katie Porter, a one-time opponent who is leaving this competitive Orange County district to run for the Senate. Min, who is the only Korean American in the legislature, kicked off his bid to succeed Porter by highlighting that this constituency is home to "one of the highest percentages of Asian and Pacific Islander voters in the country at 19%."
Min and Porter were the main challengers in the 2018 top-two primary to take on Republican incumbent Mimi Walters in the old 45th District, a contest that took place at a time when the two Democrats were also both UC Irvine law professors. Porter ended up edging out Min 20-18 for the second general election spot, and she went on to unseat Walters that fall.
In 2020, though, Min scored a 51-49 upset over Republican state Sen. John Moorlach in the 37th State Senate District, a historically red legislative seat where Moorlach had easily prevailed four years before. Min's current constituency is home to close to 85% of the denizens of the 47th Congressional District, which gives him a strong geographic base in the contest to succeed Porter.
Min joins a top-two primary that includes one fellow Democrat, former Rep. Harley Rouda, who won the old 48th District in 2018 but lost it to Republican Michelle Steel in 2020: About 60% of Porter's current constituents live within the boundaries of Rouda's old seat. The one major Republican in the running is Scott Baugh, a former county party chair who lost to Porter 52-48 last year.
Joe Biden carried this seat, which includes the longtime GOP bastions of coastal Orange County as well as Irvine, 54-43, but this historically red area contains plenty of voters who are open to backing Republicans who aren't named Donald Trump. Things could also get complicated if another prominent Republican runs in next year's top-two primary, a scenario that could leave both parties scrambling to make sure they have a candidate in the general election.
● NY Court of Appeals: On Wednesday, the state Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-9 against Hector LaSalle, whom Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul nominated to lead the state’s highest court despite his conservative record. All of the dissenting members were Democrats, while all six of the committee's Republicans joined the remaining three Democrats in voting to advance LaSalle.
Hochul herself has not ruled out suing to force a floor vote, arguing that, because the state constitution empowers the state Senate with the power to confirm judges, a Committee cannot block a nominee. However, law professor Quinn Yeargain recently wrote in Guaranteed Republics, “There is no plausible argument that the text of the New York Constitution itself requires the full Senate to vote on Judge LaSalle’s nomination—none. There’s no specific text that can be pointed to, no court decision that can be identified, and no real legislative-intent argument.”
● WI Supreme Court: Fundraising reports are out covering the second half of 2022, and one of the two progressive candidates, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz, took in more money than the other three contenders combined. Protasiewicz hauled in $756,000 and finished Dec. 31 with $735,000 on-hand. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell, who is the other progressive competing in the Feb. 21 nonpartisan primary, raised $116,000 during this period and had $72,000 left.
Among the conservatives, former Justice Dan Kelly outpaced Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow, who announced just after Thanksgiving, by a small $312,000 to $307,000 margin, though it was Dorow who ended the year with a $283,000 to $277,000 cash-on-hand lead.
But Kelly may be getting some major help if Fair Courts America, the group funded by mega donors Dick and Liz Uihlein, makes good on its November pledge to spend millions on his behalf: So far, the Uihleins have donated $20,000 directly to the Kelly campaign. The two candidates with the most votes will advance to the April 4 general election, where control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court is on the line.
● AK State House: On Wednesday, the Republican leadership got one of its own as speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives for the first time in six years when the chamber voted 26-14 for GOP state Rep. Cathy Tilton on the second day of the session. Hardline Gov. Mike Dunleavy may still struggle to have his way, though, because the state Senate formed a bipartisan majority coalition shortly after Election Day.
Tilton’s win came after more than two months of uncertainty about whether the state House would continue to be controlled by a cross-party coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Republicans last November won 21 seats—theoretically enough for a bare majority. One of those, however, belongs to former House Speaker Louise Stutes, the leader of the last coalition, while another is represented by David Eastman, a member of the far-right Oath Keepers who many fellow Republicans don’t want to associate with. Democrats hold another 13 constituencies, while six independents represent the balance.
The impasse was broken Wednesday when Tilton prevailed with the support of all 21 Republicans as well as two Democrats and a trio of independents, but she says that this vote doesn’t precisely show who will or won’t be part of the new ruling coalition. The speaker declared that, while her group currently does not include either Stutes or Eastman, it contains the two Democrats and two independents from the Bush Caucus who represent the vast rural seats in the Bush regions that are home to large Alaska Native electorates.
Three Bush Caucus members, Democrat Neal Foster and independents Bryce Edgmon and Josiah Patkotak, backed Tilton along with independent Dan Ortiz, while Bush Caucus Democrat C.J. McCormick did not. Another Democrat, Andy Story, did support her, but Tilton said afterwards that McCormick rather than Story would be in the new GOP-led majority. Ortiz also said that, while he was interested in joining Tilton’s coalition, “it remains to be seen” what he’d end up doing. Edgmon also affirmed things were in flux and the new majority group was “a work in progress.”
Members of the Bush Caucus in the past have backed whichever majority existed in large part so they could secure state resources for their constituents. Indeed, Edgmon himself supported the GOP caucus as a Democrat before he himself became speaker of a new crossparty majority following the 2016 elections: Edgmon became an independent two years later as part of the very complex negotiations that secured him another term as speaker, though Stutes was in charge during the coalition’s final two years of existence.
Eastman, who was not invited to join the group, himself was unhappy with how things went down on Wednesday despite his vote for Tilton. The four-term member, who has never been part of a ruling majority, instead wondered, “How would it be a Republican caucus if it’s got Democrats in it?”
Mayors and County Leaders
● Denver, CO Mayor: State Rep. Alex Valdez said Tuesday that he was exiting the busy April 4 nonpartisan primary, a declaration that came just ahead of the Jan. 19 filing deadline.
● Philadelphia, PA Mayor: Former Mayor Michael Nutter said Tuesday evening that he was "not running for mayor of the city of Philadelphia in 2023 or in any other year into the future." The only other Democrat who is still reportedly considering whether to join the packed May primary is state Sen. Vincent Hughes, whom the Philadelphia Inquirer writes is expected to make up his mind "within a week."
Prosecutors and Sheriffs
● Lehigh County, PA District Attorney: Republican District Attorney Jim Martin announced Tuesday that he would not seek re-election this fall after 25 years as the top prosecutor in this Democratic-leaning community. Martin, who is Lehigh County's longest-serving district attorney, drew attention during last year's primary when he announced that ballot drop boxes would be monitored by detectives and video cameras, a move that acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman warned "may have the effect of intimidating eligible voters and deterring their authorized agents from legally casting votes."
Candidates looking to succeed Martin have until March 7 to file for the May party primaries, and the nominees will compete in the November general election. Lehigh County, which is home to Allentown and other Lehigh Valley communities, supported Joe Biden 53-45 four years after backing Hillary Clinton 50-45, while Democratic County Executive Phillips Armstrong won re-election 52-48 in 2021.