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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● MT-Sen: Democrats got some very welcome news Wednesday morning when Montana Sen. Jon Tester announced he would seek a fourth term in a state that Trump carried 57-41 in 2020. "Montanans need a fighter holding Washington accountable and I'm running to defend our Montana values," said the incumbent, who is the only Democrat who holds statewide office in the Treasure State.
Tester will be one of the Senate GOP's top targets next year, especially since fellow Montana Sen. Steve Daines is the chair of the NRSC. Tester, notes Politico, recruited then-Gov. Steve Bullock to take on Daines in 2020, a campaign that ended in a 55-45 victory for Daines and underscored just how tough it would be for anyone but Tester to win.
The Democratic senator, though, has long cultivated his own brand that's helped him survive in a difficult state for his party. Tester, who famously lost three fingers in a childhood accident, has emphasized during all of his campaigns that he's a third-generation farmer who still works his farm.
That background came in handy during his 2018 re-election fight against Republican Matt Rosendale, where Tester's team leapt on a report about how that the self-described "rancher" didn't own any cattle or actually ranch his property. Tester won 50-47 in a year where other red state colleagues were losing, and he's continued to emphasize what Politico called in 2021 a "folksy, profane authenticity." Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has his own challenging re-election fight next year, said in that article, "He's a real farmer and I'm, like, a politician … But the other thing is, his personality is bigger than life."
A few Republicans have made noises about running against Tester, but it remains to be seen who will step up. Most of the talk has centered around the state's two House members: Rosendale, who won a seat in the lower chamber two years after losing to Tester, and Ryan Zinke, who served a chaotic stint as Trump's first secretary of the interior. The National Journal reported earlier this month that Attorney General Austin Knudsen is considering as well, while Gov. Greg Gianforte's team didn't rule out the idea back in November.
Tester, who has long griped about his tough commute to D.C. (Politico last month said he needed to wake "before dawn on Mondays to get to the Capitol for 5:30 p.m. votes"), was one of the two red state senators that Democrats feared would retire, but we're likely going to need to wait still longer to learn about the other's plans. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin reiterated later in the day to radio host Hoppy Kercheval that he still was not sure if he'd seek re-election, though he once again made it clear he wouldn't try to reclaim his old job as governor.
Manchin added, "I'm not running for president. I can assure you of that today," though that last word keeps the door open to more speculation.
● You know about the DSCC and DCCC, but have you heard of DASS? You'll want to! We're talking with Kim Rogers, the executive director of the not-especially-well-known but crucially important Democratic Association of Secretaries of State on this week's edition of The Downballot. Rogers explains how her organization helps recruit candidates, deploy resources, and win races for secretary of state across the country—and why these elections operate so differently from many others. She also tells us about what Democratic secretaries are doing to fight disinformation and expand voting rights, and the most bonkers thing she heard come out of the mouth of a 2022 election denier.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard, meanwhile, recap an exciting series of elections that took place on Tuesday, starting with the race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where progressives ran up the score and landed their preferred opponent for the April 4 general election. There were also big Democratic overperformances in New Hampshire, Virginia, and Kentucky that augur well for the party. Finally, Daily Kos Elections editor Jeff Singer joins us to preview next week's first-round faceoff in the race for mayor of Chicago—a true tossup that could see any number of different winners.
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.
● IN-Sen, IN-Gov: State Attorney General Todd Rokita, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Senate in 2018 before winning his current post in 2020, says he will seek re-election next year rather than run in either of the open GOP primaries for Senate or governor.
● NY-Sen: The Daily Beast reports that former Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones hasn't ruled out a primary challenge against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, according to an unnamed source close to Jones. After redistricting scrambled New York's congressional map and fellow Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney chose to run (unsuccessfully) in the same Hudson Valley district that most of Jones' prior constituents wound up in, Jones unexpectedly moved several districts over to run in the open and deep-blue 10th District in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, but he took third place in the crowded Democratic primary with 18% against now-Rep. Dan Goldman, who won that contest with 26%.
Over on the GOP side, the Daily Beast mentions 11th District Rep. Nicole Malliotakis as a potential rival, but there's no sign of how interested the Staten Island-based congresswoman is.
● KY-Gov: Former Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft is up with her first TV ad for the May GOP primary for governor of Kentucky since she inexplicably went dark on Feb. 6, a move that comes after several tough weeks for her campaign. Craft, who trailed Attorney General Daniel Cameron 39-13 in a late January Mason-Dixon poll, aired a spot around that time saying the state's fentanyl crisis was "personal to me because I've experienced that empty chair at my table." Craft, though, soon acknowledged that the unnamed person she was alluding to hadn't actually died, a response that only seemed to make things worse for her.
In early February several protesters, whom LEX 18 characterized as "mostly grieving mothers," showed up at one of her events with a purple empty chair. Craft, who told the media an empty chair could mean many different things, said days later, "I have a child that's called to addiction. She's now an adult."
The candidate's new message is devoted to China bashing, though that doesn't mean she's done emphasizing fentanyl in her ads. After the narrator commends Craft for having stood up to China while at the U.N., the spot plays footage of her saying, "This is a real issue with the fentanyl that China is producing." The narrator jumps back in and says that in office she'll "launch a full-court press to stop China in its tracks," though he doesn't explain how the governor of Kentucky can do this. Craft's campaign says this commercial is "backed by a six-figure television buy" for the contest to take on Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear.
● WA-Gov, WA-03: The Dispatch reports that former GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler is considering running for governor next year rather than trying to reclaim her House seat following her loss in last year's top-two primary, though the news comes via unnamed donors rather than directly from Herrera Beutler herself. The field to challenge Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who has yet to confirm whether he'll seek an unprecedented fourth term, has been very slow to take shape in this blue-leaning state.
● CA-12: Assemblywoman Mia Bonta has not ruled out a potential bid to succeed newly minted Senate candidate Barbara Lee in this dark blue seat, but colleague and fellow Democrat Buffy Wicks took her own name out of contention on Wednesday. Former Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who endorsed Lee upon the latter's campaign kickoff on Tuesday, also said regarding the House that she is "not at this time planning to run for Congress," which isn't quite a firm no.
● CA-18, CA-16: Rep. Zoe Lofgren tells San Jose Spotlight's Jana Kadah that her fellow Democrat, former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, called her last week and said that he was considering running for her 18th District or colleague Anna Eshoo's neighboring 16th. Lofgren recounts, "(Liccardo) said he was assessing his options. He wants to be in Congress… And I told him it's a free country. He can run if he wants." She added, "But I plan to run and I don't usually run to lose." Joe Biden won over 70% of the vote in both Lofgren and Eshoo's constituencies.
Liccardo himself told Spotlight in December just before leaving office that when it comes to a House bid, "I've considered different options, but right now that's not an option because San Jose's got four districts and we've got four members of Congress there." (The other two constituencies are the 17th and 19th Districts, which are respectively held by Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna and Jimmy Panetta.) Liccardo said back then, "If one of those folks suddenly decides they're not there, well then that's a conversation."
That calculus appears to have now changed, though Liccardo hasn't said anything publicly yet. The 75-year-old Lofgren, who adds that Liccardo told her he'd paid for an unreleased poll testing a possible matchup between the two, said she'd retire in what Kadah calls "the near future," but that she doesn't plan to go anywhere yet. Eshoo, who is five years older than Lofgren, has yet to confirm that she'll run again, though.
● CA-27: Former Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides on Wednesday became the first notable Democrat to announce a campaign against Republican Rep. Mike Garcia in California's 27th Congressional District, a seat in northern Los Angeles County where plenty of voters still favor the GOP downballot. Biden would have carried this constituency, which is home to the communities of Santa Clarita, Lancaster, and Palmdale, 55-43 in 2020, but Garcia has proven to be a difficult opponent for Democrats.
Whitesides, who was NASA's chief of staff before he joined billionaire Richard Branson's commercial spaceflight company, entered the top-two primary with endorsements from three-time nominee Christy Smith as well as local Assemblymembers Juan Carrillo and Pilar Schiavo. Politico's Ally Mutnick adds that some Democrats attempted to recruit Whitesides for the 2020 special election to succeed freshman Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned after being victimized by revenge porn: Mutnick writes, "His aerospace credentials could play well in a big defense industry region."
Then-Assemblywoman Smith ran instead but went on to badly lose that special to Garcia, an Air Force veteran who was waging his first campaign, in what was at the time numbered the 25th District. Garcia months later held Smith off by 333 votes as Biden was carrying the 25th by a 54-44 margin, and he voted months later to overturn Biden's win hours after the Jan. 6 attack. Smith hoped that this decision would doom him for 2022, especially after the new congressional map left him with a tougher seat, and she sought another try.
However, D.C. Democrats seemed to have little faith in Smith for her third bout despite her close call, and the DCCC and House Majority PAC barely spent anything here. That decision did not sit well with her, and she wrote after the election, "When it comes to paid comms on TV, digital, and mail, without DC help to define Garcia and elevate our positive agenda we didn't stand a chance. Especially, since Garcia largely hid from debates and mainstream media limiting our opportunity for earned media contrast."
Garcia ended up prevailing 53-47 as statewide Democrats were struggling in this area: According to Bloomberg's Greg Giroux, Sen. Alex Padilla carried the 27th only 51.5-48.5, while Gov. Gavin Newsom actually lost it 51-49. Whitesides, though, is hoping that the political climate will look far more like it did in 2020 and Garcia will once again need win extensive crossover support to prevail.
● MI-07, MI-Sen: Former state Sen. Tom Barrett, who was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for the 7th District last year, says he's considering another campaign this cycle following his 52-46 loss to Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who is mulling her own bid for the open Senate seat next year. Barrett has also been mentioned as a potential Senate contender but has given no sign whether he's interested in that race, too.
● NJ-07: Former Democratic state Sen. Raymond Lesniak tells the New Jersey Globe that he isn't ruling out taking on GOP freshman Rep. Tom Kean Jr. next year, citing among other things the incumbent's failure to stand up to members of his party who oppose further Ukraine aid. Lesniak, who would be 78 on Election Day, previously served for four decades in the legislature before running for governor in 2017, but he failed to gain traction that year and finished with just 5% in the primary, far behind eventual winner and now-Gov. Phil Murphy.
No notable Democrat has formally joined the race against Kean so far in this 51-47 Biden district.
● RI-01: There’s a lot of uncertainty about how the upcoming special election will play out once Democratic Rep. David Cicilline resigns on June 1, especially since, as law professor Quinn Yeargain points out, Rhode Island hasn’t hosted such a contest for Congress since 1967. The state hasn’t made any major changes to its special election laws during the ensuing decades, which poses a big potential problem.
The issue is a federal law that requires officials to send mail ballots to overseas voters at least 45 days before an election. However, as Yeargain explains, state law instructs special election candidates to file after that deadline, on the 39th and 40th days prior to the primary. John Marion, who heads Common Cause Rhode Island, cited Yeargain’s analysis as he argued that state leaders need to change the law or risk the U.S. Department of Justice stepping in.
Secretary of State Gregg Amore says he’s discussed two different sets of dates with Gov. Dan McKee that would comply with federal law. One option would be to hold the primary Aug. 8, which he says is the earliest date possible, with the general on Oct. 3. The other schedule would see the primary take place Sept. 5 and the general on Nov. 7. The contest may take place another time, though, as an Amore spokesperson acknowledged, “These are only preliminary, possible dates. Later dates are possible. No dates have been set or confirmed.” It's not clear how Amore's plans would address the matter of the candidate filing deadline, however.
Meanwhile, former state official Nick Autiello and state Rep. Nathan Biah each say they’re considering joining the Democratic primary, whenever it may be. WPRI also adds energy consultant Joe Paolino, who is the son and namesake of a former Providence mayor, to the list of interested candidates, though there’s no direct quote from him. Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong, though, says he’ll stay out of the race.
Mayors and County Leaders
● Philadelphia, PA Mayor: Former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker on Wednesday publicized an endorsement from the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, which has long been one of the most influential endorsements in city politics, ahead of the May Democratic primary for mayor. The Trades Council, which is home to more than 30 individual unions, spent a serious amount of money in 2015 to help now-Mayor Jim Kenney win his primary, and it's deployed resources in other state and local contests.
However, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sean Walsh notes that the race to succeed the termed-out Kenney will be a test to see if the Trades Council has maintained its power following longtime leader John Dougherty's 2021 departure after his conviction for federal bribery charges. The article adds that Dougherty's old union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, was one of just two that abstained from endorsing Parker, which Walsh says "opened up the question of whether" it will "commit the same level of resources to her as it did Kenney."
The Trades Council's new president, Ryan Boyer, also said Wednesday that this endorsement comes at a time when Parker doesn't appear to be the favorite. "It'd be very easy for us to just take a poll, and we get on the so-called frontrunner," Boyer said, adding, "But these building trades have never been a thermometer, where we measure stuff. We're a thermostat, and we're going to turn it up."
Parker is one of nine candidates competing in a primary where it takes just a plurality to win the all-important Democratic nod, but former Lt. Gov. Mike Stack said Tuesday that he would not be candidate number 10. It's unlikely anyone serious will mount a last-minute campaign, either: Contenders have until March 7 to submit at least 1,000 valid signatures, and Billy Penn says they'll likely collect far more both to shield themselves from any challenges and "as a chest-beating display."