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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● IN-05, IN-Sen: In a surprise, Indiana Rep. Victoria Spartz announced Friday that she would not run for re-election or for any other office in 2024, a move that opens up the two-term Republican's newly gerrymandered 5th District in the northern Indianapolis suburbs. While five other House members had already declared that they're leaving the lower chamber to run for the Senate, Spartz is the first to decide to outright retire.
The congresswoman had expressed interest in a bid for the state's open Senate seat herself as recently as Tuesday, but she said days later, "[B]eing a working mom is tough and I need to spend more time with my two high school girls back home." Her decision also makes it more likely that her colleague, hardline Rep. Jim Banks, will win that Senate primary without any serious intra-party opposition.
Spartz's departure comes after Republican map makers did everything they could to make sure that she'd hold her seat against any Democratic comers. The last version of the 5th District started the last decade as safely red turf, but Donald Trump's toxicity in the suburbs made it considerably more competitive.
The legislature responded in 2021 by stripping out the bluer areas closest to Indianapolis and replacing them with rural red turf far from the city, a gerrymander that augmented Trump's margin of victory from just 50-48 all the way to 57-41 and all but ensures that the eventual Republican nominee won't need to go through the kind of tough 2020 general election that Spartz did.
Spartz's decision ends a fairly short but eventful career. The Ukraine-born politician earned elected office in 2017 without being elected after local Republicans chose her to fill a vacancy in the state Senate for a term that didn't expire until the end of 2020. Spartz was on the ballot for a different office that year, though, as she joined a packed GOP primary to succeed Rep. Susan Brooks, who herself had unexpectedly announced that she would retire from Congress.
Spartz had the backing of the deep-pocketed Club for Growth and enjoyed a financial edge over the rest of the field. One of her rivals, businesswoman Beth Henderson, tried to hobble the frontrunner late in the race with a xenophobic and misogynist ad that emphasized Spartz's thick Ukrainian accent and showed the dark outline of woman gazing at a large Soviet flag on a nearby building and the text "VICTORIA'S SECRET." It wasn't enough, though, to stop Spartz from beating Henderson 40-18.
Former state Rep. Christina Hale made a serious effort to flip this seat for the Democrats in the fall, and major outside groups on both sides poured millions into the general election. However, the area wasn't quite willing to shake off its longtime Republican loyalties, and Spartz prevailed 50-46.
The freshman made a name for herself after Russia invaded her homeland, an attack she castigated as a "genocide of the Ukrainian people." Spartz, though, enraged Ukraine's government when she accused President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of "playing politics with people's lives" and attacked one of his top officials: Ukraine's government said of the congresswoman's comments, "They are an undisclosed attempt to bring back into American politics classic narratives of Russian propaganda about Ukraine's leadership's seemingly ties to Russia and to drag our state into US domestic politics."
Spartz also attracted unfavorable attention after several of her former aides told Politico she verbally abused her staff. "That's the common theme: Staffers do their job, and then Victoria comes in saying that they have no idea what they're doing, that they are morons, calling them 'idiots," said one person about the congresswoman who experienced more personnel turnover in 2021 than any House member other than Devin Nunes. Spartz wasn't at all sorry and argued it was her staff that had to get tougher.
Spartz had no trouble winning re-election in 2022 to what was now a safely red seat, but she soon made trouble for her party's leadership when she switched her speaker vote from Kevin McCarthy to "present" during the fourth ballot. The congresswoman explained, "I'm still supporting him, but ultimately, he needs to be able to address the concerns of other people."
She eventually returned to the fold, though she caused more headaches weeks later when she initially said she opposed throwing Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar off the Foreign Affairs Committee. Spartz brought up her votes in the previous Congress against booting far-right Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar off their panels, saying, "As I spoke against it on the House floor two years ago, I will not support this charade again." Spartz, though fell in line just two days before she announced her retirement.
● AZ-Sen: Conspiracy theorist Kari Lake tells the New York Times she is indeed considering seeking the Republican nomination for Senate, an idea that seemed a remote possibility less than two months ago. Lake, who met with the NRSC days ago, said that she remains focused on trying to overturn her defeat against now-Gov. Katie Hobbs last year; the former TV anchor is also doing two events in Iowa this month even though she’s endorsed Trump’s newest White House quest.
● MT-Sen: The National Journal's Matt Holt reports that Attorney General Austin Knudsen is considering seeking the GOP nod to take on Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who has not yet decided if he'll seek re-election, but that "Knudsen is not expected in the near future." The attorney general's team didn't rule anything out, saying, "Attorney General Knudsen is committed to doing the job Montanans elected him to do … Any announcements regarding future plans will come at a later date."
Montana's two Republican House members don't seem to be in any hurry to decide what they'll do, either. Ryan Zinke told Holt, "I'm going to do my job this year, without distractions," while fellow Rep. Matt Rosendale in turn said, "I think we've got a lot of time before we start making those considerations." Tester, for his part, has pledged to make up his mind by the end of March: He joked Wednesday he's "gotta go to the mountains and smoke some sagebrush" with New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez before committing to anything.
● Senate: Fundraising reports covering the fourth quarter of 2022 were recently due at the FEC, offering us some clues about which Senate incumbents are raising the kinds of money that signal that they plan to run for re-election and which ones aren't. We've gathered all that data in a new chart, along with figures for five members of the House who've already announced Senate bids. (Note that for this quintet, the reporting period ran from Nov. 29 to Dec. 31; because the lower chamber was up for election last year, House candidates filed multiple reports during the quarter.)
However, a weak haul hardly guarantees retirement: Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson hauled in just $130,000 in the final months of 2020, but while he kept everyone guessing about his re-election plans for another year, he ultimately decided to run again and went on to claim a third term.
Most of the chatter about potential departures so far has concerned the Democrats' two most vulnerable senators, Montana's Jon Tester, who'd be seeking a fourth term, and West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who'd be looking for a third full one. Tester took in $470,000 for the quarter compared to $160,000 for Manchin, which includes a five-week period when they were competing for dollars with candidates who were actually on the ballot last year.
During the same timeframe six years ago, both raised much less: Tester about $240,000 and Manchin less than $60,000. The cash picture is even more starkly different. At the end of 2016, Tester had $1.6 million in the bank compared to $2.9 million now; Manchin, meanwhile, was sitting on $1.7 million but now enjoys a far vaster $9.5 million hoard. Optimistic Democrats (should such creatures exist) might therefore read these particular tea leaves positively.
Below we'll take a look at what other senators, as well as their possible successors, have available:
● CA-Sen: Almost everyone in California politics was already assuming Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein would retire even before they learned she finished December with less than $10,000 on hand, and while the incumbent says she won't reveal her plans until the spring, almost all of the chatter has turned to the race to succeed her.
Two House Democrats, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, announced they were running in January, while their colleagues Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna may also join in. Schiff ended last year with a $20.9 million to $7.4 million cash-on-hand lead over Porter, who won a tight re-election fight in November. Lee, who reportedly has told people she'll run, had just over $50,000 available, though the longtime progressive favorite is betting she'd be able to quickly haul in far more.
Khanna, meanwhile, had $5.3 million to spend, though it's not clear whether he'd use it against Lee. The congressman told CBS Thursday that he'd "most likely" defer to her, though in classic Khanna fashion, he's still trying to have it both ways. "There have not been many Asian Americans in the United States Senate, so that is on the mind of a lot of leaders that have asked me to look at the race," said Khanna, who added that his decision would come by early April.
● DE-Sen: Sen. Tom Carper finished the year with about $560,000 banked as the 76-year-old Democrat mulls whether to run for a fifth term. Carper, who raised $180,000 for the quarter, told Politico he was "doing what I need to do to be able to run," though he didn't say when he expected to decide. The incumbent raised only $50,000 and had less than a quarter-million in his campaign kitty in the final quarter of 2016.
● MD-Sen: Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin had $1 million saved up, though observers noted he'd raised only $29,000 of that during the final three months of the year. Cardin, who is 79 and has served three terms, told Politico he would stick with his plans to make up his mind about his future by the end of March; he also addressed potential successors who were raising money in case he retired by joking, "If they raise money now, they can turn it over to me, can't they?" Cardin also had a slow finish to 2016, bringing in just $40,000 and ending with $700,000 in the bank.
● ME-Sen: Sen. Angus King outright tells Politico he's seeking a third term, though the story notes that not everyone is convinced. The Democratic-aligned independent had just over $310,000 on hand after bringing in $60,000 for the quarter, but he said of his skeptics, "I could be struck by lightning. But I am running." In the quarter before his first re-election campaign six years ago, King took in about $110,000 but had a much smaller $130,000 in his war chest.
● CA-30: The Los Angeles Times mentions West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne as a potential Democratic candidate in what's already a busy top-two primary.
● MN-02: Former Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor last year, has filed FEC paperwork for a potential campaign against Democratic Rep. Angie Craig even though the 2,500-person community he used to lead is located in GOP Rep. Tom Emmer's 6th District. Murphy played a crucial role in the race to take on Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, though not in a way that aided his party.
The mayor was one of the five Republicans competing for the important party endorsement, and he outlasted two of those rivals to reach the sixth round of convention balloting. Murphy, upon being eliminated from contention, threw his support behind second-place candidate Scott Jensen, who surged past healthcare executive Kendall Qualls and soon claimed the endorsement. But while Jensen's convention win deterred anyone from challenging him in the primary, he proved to be a terrible general election contender and badly lost to Walz.
● NY-22: DeWitt Town Board member Sarah Klee Hood said Tuesday that she was considering seeking the Democratic nod for a second bid for the seat that's now held by freshman Republican Rep. Brandon Williams. Another Democrat, Manlius Town Councilor Katelyn Kriesel, recently filed FEC paperwork for a potential campaign.
Klee Hood, who is an Air Force veteran, brought in only about $170,000 last cycle, but she held primary frontrunner Francis Conole to a 40-35 victory; Williams went on to narrowly defeat Conole in the fall.
Mayors and County Leaders
● Chicago, IL Mayor: With less than a month to go before the Feb. 28 nonpartisan primary for mayor of Chicago, Rep. Chuy Garcia is using his first negative first ad to argue former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas opposes abortion rights and aligns too closely with Republicans. Garcia’s camp tells Capitol Fax that the commercial, which does not mention incumbent Lori Lightfoot, will air on TV sometime in the future.
The spot features a narrator warning that Vallas won’t protect abortion access because “Vallas is a Republican.” That statement is followed up with a clip of the candidate saying, “I’m more of a Republican than a Democrat,” before it shows footage from that same interview of Vallas declaring, “Fundamentally, I oppose abortion.” The rest of the ad promotes Garcia as a trustworthy supporter of women’s rights.
Vallas quickly cried foul, telling Politico’s Shia Kapos that Garcia used clips from a 2009 interview with conservative host Jeff Berkowitz “out of context.” When Kapos asked him what the context was for the line “[f]undamentally, I oppose abortion,” a Vallas spokesperson said he was talking about his Greek Orthodox religion. His team also released another clip from that conversation where Berkowitz asked, “You think a woman has a right to choose, abortion shouldn’t be illegal?” to which Vallas responded, “I don’t think we should legislate against a woman’s right to choose.”
Vallas, who was Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate during their unsuccessful 2014 race, also took issue with attacks on his party affiliation. who also campaigned in the 2002 primary for governor (a contest he lost to the not-yet-infamous Rod Blagojevich), said, “I am a lifelong Democrat who has always been 100% pro-choice.” All of the candidates competing in this solidly blue city identify as Democrats including wealthy perennial candidate Willie Wilson, who voted for Trump in 2016 and ran for the Senate four years later as the candidate of the Willie Wilson Party.
Garcia isn’t the only candidate who has worked to portray Vallas as anti-abortion. Lightfoot recently told the crowd at a Planned Parenthood forum that Vallas had remained silent for months after the repeal of Roe V. Wade, arguing, “Shame on you, Paul, for not talking about women’s rights until today.” Lightfoot, though, hasn’t aired any ads attacking Vallas ahead of the nonpartisan primary, and she probably won’t: The mayor recently said, “[F]olks, I would love to have Paul Vallas as my runoff challenger.”
Lightfoot may get her wish, as a new survey from Cor Strategies, a Republican pollster that says it has no ties to any of the candidates, shows that very scenario taking place. The mayor takes first with 23%, while the firm has Vallas beating out Garcia 21-13 for the crucial second-place spot in the likely April 4 runoff; Wilson and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson take 8% and 7%, respectively, with 20% undecided and the balance split between four more candidates.
While this Cor poll is good news for Lightfoot and Vallas, though, it’s hard to know how on-target it is right now. Other surveys this year have shown several very different outcomes, including a fourth-place finish for Lightfoot and a tight five-way fight for the two general election spots.