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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● WI Supreme Court, WI Ballot: Both chambers of the GOP-dominated Wisconsin legislature voted this week to place an advisory referendum on the April 4 ballot asking if "able-bodied, childless adults" should have to "look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits," a non-binding measure aimed at helping the party in the crucial state Supreme Court race that will be taking place the same day. Badger State voters that day will now also get to decide the fate of a constitutional amendment to allow judges to consider additional factors for bail.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who does not have a veto over these matters, urged the state Senate on Tuesday to approve an advisory referendum asking voters if they wanted to repeal the state's 1849 abortion ban, an idea Republicans quickly shot down. "Today was about workforce," state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said mere days after he and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos first proposed their advisory referendum. The Associated Press' Harm Venhuizen notes that the state "already requires recipients of unemployment benefits to look for jobs."
LeMahieu said that the non-binding results could, in Venhuizen's words, "be used to back a push to require some Medicaid recipients to look for work," but no one is under any illusions that this is about anything other than boosting the GOP's prospects in the Supreme Court election. While that race will determine whether progressives will have a majority on the state's highest court for the first time in a long time, this advisory opinion could help Republicans turn out conservative voters who aren't already motivated by the massive stakes in front of them. (Voters in the 8th Senate District in the Milwaukee suburbs also have an important special election that day where the GOP's super majority is on the line.)
In addition, the legislature voted to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the April 4 ballot that, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains, "would allow judges to consider the totality of the circumstances of a defendant, including a person's past criminal record and the need to protect the public from 'serious harm,' when setting the monetary amount of bail."
State law requires two consecutive legislative sessions to approve the same version of amendments before they can go before voters, and it cleared this hurdle last year before advancing again this week. The measure got the support of 10 Democrats in the Assembly on Thursday two days after a pair of Democratic state senators also backed it: One of those senators, Brad Pfaff, was the one Democrat in either chamber to advance the advisory referendum.
Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow, who is one of the two conservatives running for the Supreme Court, quickly made it clear she was strongly in support of the amendment. Dorow, notably, presided over the high-profile trial where Darrell Brooks was sentenced to life in prison in November for killing six people at the 2021 Waukesha Christmas parade: The amendment, which was first proposed in 2017, became a GOP priority after that tragedy, with supporters highlighting how Brooks had posted a $1,000 bail for a different case two days before.
● AZ-Sen: Blake Masters, to the delight of Democrats, tells the Washington Post he’s “seriously” considering running for the Senate seat held by Democrat-turned-independent Kyrsten Sinema just months after he lost Arizona’s other seat to Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly 51-45. Masters, whom the University of Virginia’s J. Miles Coleman aptly said, “comes across as a 4chan guy,” stood out in a year full of awful Republican nominees.
Among many other things, Masters called Ted Kaczynski a "subversive thinker that's underrated" before belatedly acknowledging that it's "probably not great to be talking about the Unabomber while campaigning.” Politico even reported in September that internal GOP polls showed Masters with a worse favorable rating than “Roy Moore’s in 2017 as the Alabama Senate nominee imploded amid reports of past sexual misconduct, including romantic pursuit of minors.”
Masters isn’t the only far-right extremist eyeing this race, as a spokesperson for Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb reaffirms he’ll “make a decision in early 2023.” NBC reported last month that Lamb’s ally, 2022 gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, was encouraging him to run, though she’s showed interest in getting in herself since then.
Former state Board of Regents member Karrin Taylor Robson, who narrowly lost last year’s primary to Lake, also didn’t rule anything out. She told the Post, “I am keeping my options open and deciding how I can best serve the people of Arizona.”
On the Democratic side, Rep. Greg Stanton took his name out of contention on Thursday evening. Stanton had expressed interest in taking on Sinema right after she bolted the party, but he almost certainly would have needed to go through a tough primary against fellow Rep. Ruben Gallego.
● CA-Sen: Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee made her most direct public statement about California’s Senate in an email raising money for a potential bid to replace incumbent Dianne Feinstein. “I told my colleagues I'm exploring a run for Senate,” wrote Lee, who added, “If I’m going to become the only African American woman serving in the Senate, I’ll need the strongest possible grassroots team behind me.”
● IN-Sen: While former Gov. Mitch Daniels tells Howey Politics he’s “[n]ot in any rush” to decide if he’ll compete in the GOP primary for Senate, longtime Daniels confidant Mark Lubbers says the decision will likely be this month or early February. If Daniels gets in, Politico writes he should expect to be on the receiving end of Donald Trump’s abuse: Trump reportedly has been labeling the 5’7 Daniels a “midget," a word that's long been used to slur people with dwarfism.
● MI-Sen: The Washington Post's Colby Itkowitz takes a look at the potential Democratic field to succeed retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and relays some new details, including that unnamed party insiders anticipate that Rep. Elissa Slotkin will run "in the near future." A Slotkin campaign would mean an open seat race for her 7th Congressional District, a constituency in the Lansing area and northwestern Detroit exurbs that Biden took by a tiny 49.4-48.9 margin.
A Slotkin Senate bid could make it considerably less likely that state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who is close to the congresswoman, gets in as well: McMorrow herself didn't rule anything out when asked by the Michigan Advance's Andrew Roth, but she said of her current role, "I am right where I need to be right now." Another Democratic congresswoman, Haley Stevens, also spoke about the race for the first time and told the Post that her allies want her to run but "I'm not ready to say anything right now."
A source, meanwhile, tells Itkowitz that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson "is taking a serious look" at the Senate race even though she didn't seem particularly interested less than two weeks ago. Benson, when asked about the contest then, said, "My eyes are focused actually on 2024, not as a candidate, but as someone who will be working to protect the voice and the vote of every citizen in our state." That statement, however, was not a definitive no.
Former Rep. Brenda Lawrence, who decided to retire last year, also said for the first time she may try to return to Congress by campaigning for the Senate. Lawrence said she wanted a "strong African American to run," and may do it herself if a serious contender doesn't emerge. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who like Lawrence is Black, is considering, but he hasn't announced a decision yet.
However, while 2018 gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed didn't quite say no last week, the incoming Wayne County health department director made it clear to Roth he would pass on the race by saying, "This isn't my race." On the GOP side, former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley gave an indisputable no when he said, "There's a 0.0% chance that I will even entertain running–for any office, actually, but especially one in Washington, D.C."
● PA-Sen: While Republican insiders tell the Philadelphia Inquirer that self-funder Dave McCormick is making moves to prepare for a potential bid against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, including interviewing media firms, it may be a while before he decides if he'll go for it. Reporter Jonathan Tamari writes that "even those optimistic about a McCormick run say they expect he'll wait until summer, at least, to make any formal decisions." McCormick lost last year's primary for Pennsylvania's other Senate seat to Mehmet Oz by 950 votes.
● VA-Sen: Multiple media outlets say that Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine will announce Friday if he'll seek a third term.
● MS-Gov: Siena College, working on behalf of Mississippi Today, gives us our first poll of this year's contest for governor, and it shows Republican incumbent Tate Reeves starting with a small 43-39 edge over his likely Democratic opponent, Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. The survey was completed days before Presley announced he would campaign for the state's top job.
The school also finds Reeves with a stronger 52-29 edge in a hypothetical primary rematch against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., whom he defeated 54-46 in 2019. Waller is one of a few notable Republicans who are talking about taking on Reeves, but no one has decided on anything ahead of the Feb. 1 filing deadline.
● AZ-04: Republican Kelly Cooper announced this week that he would seek a rematch against Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton, who fended him off 56-44 two years after Biden took this suburban Phoenix seat 54-44.
Cooper last year won the nomination despite $1.5 million in spending from the Congressional Leadership Fund and other groups that attacked him or promoted establishment favorite Tanya Wheeless. Democrats quickly went on the offensive and ran ads declaring that the Republican "supported defunding the FBI and compared federal law enforcement agents to Nazis and the Gestapo." Roll Call also wrote during that campaign that Cooper's "assets and salary on required disclosure forms did not appear to identify where he got that much money, even after he amended the report," and the mystery remains unsolved.
● CA-30: Actor Ben Savage, who is best known as the lead on "Boy Meets World," filed FEC paperwork this week for a potential campaign to succeed Rep. Adam Schiff, a fellow Democrat who is considering a Senate bid. Savage's spokesperson said that "he is focused on his upcoming wedding. Ben is still making decisions and always looking for opportunities to give back and serve the community." Savage ran for the West Hollywood City Council last year in a race where he needed to take one of the top three spots to earn a seat, but he finished seventh.
● FL-17: Republican Rep. Greg Steube was hospitalized Wednesday after suffering an injury that his staff says occurred when he was "knocked approximately 25 feet down off a ladder while cutting tree limbs on his Sarasota property." Steube's Twitter account said Thursday morning his injuries were "not life threatening at this time." Later in the day his team posted, "Rep. Steube was moved out of the ICU this afternoon. He remains hospitalized under the care of a great team … We will have more to say as details become clear about the timeline for his recovery."
● IN-03: Republican Rep. Jim Banks' decision to run for the Senate means there will be an open seat race to replace him in northeastern Indiana's 3rd District, a Fort Wayne-based constituency that Trump took 64-34, and GOP state Sen. Andy Zay has already formed an exploratory committee for a potential campaign. Zay hasn't committed to anything, though, instead telling Howey Politics that "a decision such as this cannot be made lightly and will require time, prayer, and reflection."
● NY-03: Every day seems to bring reports of a brand new scandal for Rep. George Santos, and the Daily Beast's Ursula Perano adds Assemblyman Mike Durso to the list of Republicans who could run to hold this seat the next time it's on the ballot: Durso himself did not comment when asked.
On the Democratic side, 2022 nominee Robert Zimmerman merely responded to Perano's inquiries about another campaign by replying, "My only focus is building a strong bipartisan coalition to remove George Santos from office." That's more than former Rep. Tom Suozzi said, though, as Perano writes that he "declined to comment to The Daily Beast on whether he'd be interested in hopping into any upcoming races."
Mayors and County Leaders
● Houston, TX Mayor: New fundraising numbers confirm that Texas state Sen. John Whitmire holds a huge financial advantage over the other candidates competing in this November's nonpartisan race to succeed termed-out Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, though it remains to be seen just how much of his $10.1 million war chest he'll be able to spend.
That's because most of this money comes from the legislative war chest that Whitmire, a Democrat who was first elected to the state Senate in 1982, has been amassing for decades, and it's not clear how much he can transfer over. The Houston Chronicle's Dylan McGuinness explains that in 2005, the City Council passed a law capping donations to $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from political groups; the intention was that anyone who is now in Whitmire's position could send just $10,000 from his non-city account to his municipal campaign.
However, when then-state Rep. Turner ran for mayor a decade later, the city attorney determined that he could transfer any donations that fell within these amounts: For instance, if a donor gave Turner's legislative campaign $12,000, he would be able to use $5,000 of that on his mayoral bid. (There are no contribution limits for legislative campaigns in Texas.)
This allowed Turner to enter that race with $900,000 already available, and Houston's current city attorney, Arturo Michel, suggests that his predecessor's 2015 interpretation was correct. McGuinness writes this "would mean Whitmire can use up to the max from each individual donor, which can be hard to trace." He adds that it's possible that one of Whitmire's opponents could go to court to try to further restrict how much money he can transfer over, though no one has said they'll do this.
What we know for sure is that Whitmire, who has the support of several prominent Republican donors, hauled in $1.1 million last year specifically for mayor. The 2022 numbers for the other declared candidates are below:
- former Harris County interim clerk Chris Hollins: $1.7 million raised, $1.1 million on-hand
- former City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards: $1.4 million raised, $1 million on-hand
- attorney Lee Kaplan: $1.3 million raised, $1.2 million on-hand
All the candidates will compete in the November nonpartisan primary, and a runoff would take place later unless one contender won a majority.
Hollins, who attracted widespread attention in 2020 for implementing efforts to expand access to voting during the pandemic, has already called Whitmire's Democratic loyalties into question by reminding voters that he did not support Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during her competitive re-election fight last year. Edwards, who would be the first Black woman to lead Houston, previously took fifth in the 2020 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.
Kaplan, for his part, is a first-time candidate who says he's running because of the "maddening difficulty of dealing with the City bureaucracy." Houstonia Magazine writes that he wants to "create a more progressive Houston, by tackling issues that face the city head-on."
Prosecutors and Sheriffs
● Allegheny County, PA District Attorney: Allegheny County Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan announced Thursday that he would challenge District Attorney Stephen Zappala, who has turned off criminal justice reformers during his six terms as the top prosecutor for this populous Pennsylvania county, in the May Democratic primary. Whoever wins a plurality in the nomination contest will be the favorite in the November general election in Allegheny County, a dark blue community that's home to Pittsburgh and several of its suburbs.
Dugan launched his bid by arguing, "Our criminal justice system right now is stuck in neutral," continuing, "Police are looking for alternatives to arrest, prosecute, and punish." The challenger also declared that "you cannot deny that there has been a rise in violent crime" under Zappala, and that new approaches are needed that "allows us to go after and aggressively and competently prospect violent crime."
Dugan also took issue with the district attorney's bad relationship with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, a former state House member whom Zappala claimed had represented a district that is "routinely considered to be some of the most violent neighborhoods in Western Pennsylvania." Dugan said Thursday that Zappala's words were "extremely unhelpful [and] very uninformed. Mayor Gainey takes seriously the rise in crime. He wears it on his sleeve."
Zappala himself turned back a primary challenge from his left in 2019 by a 59-41 margin, but he's only attracted more criticism from progressives since then. In 2021, for instance, he earned national attention when he forbade his prosecutors from offering any plea deals to clients represented by a prominent Black attorney who called the district attorney's office "systematically racist."
Several local elected officials responded by calling for Zappala to leave office: Then-state Rep. Summer Lee, who now represents about half of the county in Congress, tweeted, "Stephen Zappala must be removed immediately. Pass it along." The district attorney did away with that policy after the backlash, but his critics have continued to fault his record.
Zappala himself launched his re-election campaign last month by declaring, "[W]hen other areas of the country are failing, this area has not stepped backward at all." He also said around that same time that progressive policing has "failed miserably," arguing, "We've been undermining the relationship the police need with the community."
● Lehigh County, PA District Attorney: While Republican District Attorney Jim Martin's Tuesday retirement announcement gives Democrats the chance this fall to take back an office that The Morning Call's Daniel Patrick Sheehan writes that the GOP has held since 1960, their top prospect says that he'd run as a Republican if he gets in. Sheehan relays that the county Democratic Party had hoped attorney Gavin Holihan would run under their banner until this month when he unexpectedly took a job as Martin's deputy.
Holihan, for his part, says he's been a Republican "for quite some time" and plans to declare Monday if he'll run in this year's election. Lehigh County Democratic Committee chair Lori McFarland predicted someone would step up for her party, but didn't have any names. "I'd like to see Gavin stay a Democrat and get him elected," she said, adding, "We hadn't really thought about anybody else."