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 State Senate: Despite Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' 3-point re-election victory last year, Wisconsin Republicans managed to win a two-thirds majority in the state Senate thanks to gerrymandered maps. But Democrats have a shot at rolling back that ill-gotten supermajority in a special election for a vacant GOP-held seat on April 4—and they know exactly which Republican they'd like to face.
- The lone Democrat just launched ads "attacking" state Rep. Janel Brandtjen. A series of women call Brandtjen "the most conservative you can be when it comes to abortion," telling viewers she "even sponsored a bill to defund Planned Parenthood" and was named "legislator of the year" by an anti-abortion group. Of course, that should be music to the ears of GOP primary voters.
- Even Republicans loathe Brandtjen. Sure, she's an election conspiracy theorist, but her real sin was supporting an unsuccessful primary challenge to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos last year. Following that, she was booted from the GOP caucus, which bluntly told her that her various "issues" had caused members "to lose trust" in her. Republican groups are spending big bucks to boost a different state representative instead.
- Pearl-clutchers, begone! Last year, many observers bemoaned similar efforts by Democrats to elevate more extreme Republicans, saying such efforts would harm democracy. But these gambits worked exceptionally well: Democrats went eight for eight in races where their preferred candidate won the GOP nod.
Read more about the race, and watch Jodi Habush Sinykin's ad.
● PA State House: Voters in a trio of Pittsburgh-area constituencies go to the polls Tuesday for special elections that give state House Democrats the chance to finally have an outright majority of members for the first time since the 2010 elections. Unless there's an unpleasant election night surprise for Democrats, though, the most suspense will come in the coming days as the state waits to see if Democratic leader Joanna McClinton will replace moderate Democrat Mark Rozzi as speaker.
● MI-Sen: Former Rep. Peter Meijer, who was one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump in 2021, tells The Dispatch's Audrey Fahlberg that he's considering running for Michigan's open U.S. Senate seat. "We need to look at who can win the general election in November of 2024," said Meijer, who narrowly lost renomination last year to Trump-backed foe John Gibbs, who in turn lost to Democrat Hillary Scholten.
Rep. Bill Huizenga, a fellow Republican who is far closer to the party base, also expressed interest in a Senate bid for the first time, saying, "I'm open to it." Huizenga told Fahlberg, "I think as we are going into arguably another tough election cycle, we've got to put our best team on the field." Trump last year endorsed Huizenga over fellow incumbent Fred Upton, who joined Meijer in voting for impeachment. Upton decided to retire rather than go ahead with what would have been a challenging primary campaign, though he also hasn't quite ruled out running for the Senate himself.
Someone who has ruled out a Senate bid is U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg … we think. The Democrat last month refused to say he wouldn't run even when repeatedly pressed, but Buttigieg on Sunday responded with a "no" when CNN's Jake Tapper asked, "Are you going to be seeking that Senate seat?"
Perhaps Tapper shares our uncertainty because he nevertheless pressed on and asked again, "'No.' You're not? Period?" Buttigieg answered, "I'm planning to vote in that election as a resident of Michigan, but look, the job that I have is, first of all, I think, the best job in the federal government … This job is taking 110% of my time, and obviously I serve at the pleasure of the president. But as long as he is willing to have me continue doing this work, I'm proud to be part of this team." That's still evasive language, but unless he gives some indication that he's at all interested in a bid for Senate, we're ready to move on.
● VA-Sen, VA-10: Republican Hung Cao tells The Dispatch that he's both considering challenging Sen. Tim Kaine or seeking a rematch against Kaine's fellow Democrat, Rep. Jennifer Wexton. Cao raised $3.3 million for a 2022 campaign to take back a once-competitive Northern Virginia constituency that supported Biden 58-40 and held Wexton to a 53-47 victory.
● NC-Gov, NC-??: Former Rep. Mark Walker, whose belief in his political skills seems undamaged by his weak third-place showing in last year's GOP Senate primary (or his infamous Waffle House order), tells The Assembly's Bryan Anderson that he's indeed considering running for governor. One of Walker's advisors also says he could instead choose to try to return to the House after his party redraws the congressional map or take up political consulting work.
● CA-13: Democrat Phil Arballo, a financial advisor who waged a pair of high profile but unsuccessful congressional bids in 2020 and 2022, has filed FEC paperwork for a potential campaign against freshman Republican Rep. John Duarte in a Central Valley seat Biden took 54-43. Arballo first challenged the infamous Rep. Devin Nunes in the old 22nd District and lost 54-46. The Democrat originally sought a rematch, but he changed plans after Nunes resigned and redistricting scrambled the map.
Arballo instead sought the new and open 13th even though it didn't overlap at all with the constituency he'd campaigned for last time, and he tried to position himself to the left of Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray in the all-party primary. That contest ended with Duarte taking first with 34% as Gray beat out Arballo 31-17 for second; Duarte went on to narrowly defeat Gray in the general.
● IN-03: Army veteran Mike Felker, who appears to be a first-time candidate, announced over the weekend that he'd run to succeed his fellow Republican, Senate contender Jim Banks. Felker is the first Republican to launch a bid for this safely red seat in the Fort Wayne area.
● IN-05: Both Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings and former state Sen. John Ruckelshaus have expressed interest in running to replace their fellow Republican, retiring Rep. Victoria Spartz, in a constituency the GOP legislature aggressively gerrymandered.
Ruckelshaus is the nephew of the late William Ruckelshaus, who resigned as deputy U.S. attorney general in 1973 during the Watergate scandal as part of the "Saturday Night Massacre." The younger Ruckelshaus mulled running for the last version of the 5th in 2020 but ultimately decided to seek re-election: Ruckelshaus ended up losing to Democrat Fady Qaddoura 53-47, an outcome that made Qaddoura the first Muslim to be elected to the Indiana legislature.
● PA Supreme Court: The state Republican Party on Saturday endorsed Montgomery County President Judge Carolyn Carluccio ahead of the May partisan primary for a state Supreme Court seat that's been vacant since Democrat Max Baer died last year.
Two other Republicans, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick and Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough, sought the endorsement even though neither has announced they're running, but Carluccio fended off both would-be rivals. This development comes a week after the Pennsylvania Democratic Party backed Daniel McCaffery over his fellow Superior Court judge, Deborah Kunselman.
● WI Supreme Court: The progressive group A Better Wisconsin Together has submitted filings indicating it will spend $830,000 on television and online ads attacking Judge Jennifer Dorow, one of two conservatives running for an open seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, reports the Washington Post's Patrick Marley.
It's likely that the organization is seeking to elevate the other conservative in the race, former Justice Dan Kelly, ahead of the Feb. 21 primary in this officially nonpartisan contest, but we haven't seen copies of any ads yet. The top two vote-getters in that primary will advance to an April 4 general election. Two liberal judges are also running, Janet Protasiewicz and Everett Mitchell.
Mayors and County Leaders
● Chicago, IL Mayor: Our newest poll of the Feb. 28 nonpartisan primary comes from IZQ Strategies, a Democratic firm that says it conducted this survey independent of anyone, and it shows former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas well ahead with 25% as four opponents fight for the second runoff spot.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson is at 15%, which makes this the first poll we've seen to show him advancing to the likely second round, while Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Rep. Chuy Garcia take 12% each. Wealthy perennial candidate Willie Wilson is just behind with 11%, while none of the other contenders register much support. However, there's little agreement among pollsters about the state of the race, so we may be in complete suspense for the next three weeks.
● Memphis, TN Mayor: City Councilman Frank Colvett on Thursday became both the first Republican and first white candidate to launch a bid for mayor of Memphis, and the city's election rules could give him an opening to prevail in this October's contest to lead this majority Black and heavily Democratic community. Colvett's declaration came days before former Mayor Willie Herenton, whose 1991 victory made him the city's first African American chief executive, also entered the race to reclaim his old job.
While Republicans are usually a minor force in local elections, Colvett may have a shot to succeed termed-out Mayor Jim Strickland because all the candidates must run on one nonpartisan ballot without any sort of primary or runoff. Indeed, Strickland himself fell well short of a majority during his 2015 campaign when he unseated Mayor A C Wharton 41-22, but that was enough to make him the city's first white mayor in 24 years. Strickland did better in 2019, though, when he beat none other than Herenton in a 62-29 landslide.
Voters tried to change the electoral laws when they backed a 2018 referendum to introduce an instant-runoff system, but Tennessee election officials soon ruled that it could not be implemented; last year, the GOP-dominated state legislature made sure it couldn't come into force by banning ranked choice voting in the state. Local activists responded by proposing another ballot measure that would require a runoff for a later date in races where no one earned a majority, but the City Council last summer voted against placing it on the 2022 ballot.
Six notable contenders were running before Colvett and Herenton started their campaigns:
- Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner
- State Rep. Karen Camper
- Businessman J.W. Gibson II
- Memphis-Shelby County School Board member Michelle McKissack
- former Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner
- Downtown Memphis Commission CEO Paul Young
The field may yet shrink before Election Day, though, as Turner and Young last year both pledged to drop out if they believed their continuing presence would divide Black voters.
Colvett and Herenton are the first prominent candidates who have entered the race since Memphis police officers beat Tyre Nichols to death last month. Colvett asked just ahead of his launch, "How do we make sure that people like that don't get anywhere near a Memphis Police officer's badge?" though he doesn't appear to have emphasized Nichols' killing in his subsequent announcement. Colvett said, "Crime is too high, and we need leaders with actual solutions. We need more good cops on the street, but also, we need to work with groups like the Boys and Girls Club to intervene with our at-risk kids before they turn to crime."
Herenton himself alluded to the fallout from Nichols' death in his announcement, saying, "Today, it saddens me to see my hometown in a deep and embarrassing crisis." The 82-year-old Herenton, who resigned in 2009 ahead of what would prove to be a disastrous Democratic primary bid against Rep. Steve Cohen, also argued, "Our city is in need of proven leadership. This is not the time for on-the-job training." The six candidates who were already running each put out statements last month expressing their anger and sadness at what happened to Nichols.
● Philadelphia, PA Mayor: While businessman Jeff Brown and his allied super PAC have been running ads utilizing old footage of Michelle Obama praising him, the former first lady's team made it clear late last week that she's not happy about her involuntary insertion into May's nine-way Democratic primary for mayor in Philadelphia. "For any candidate looking to earn the public's trust, manipulating old appearances that are out of context to suggest an endorsement is disappointing," an Obama advisor told the Philadelphia Inquirer, adding, "Mrs. Obama does not get involved in Democratic primaries and is not supporting this candidate."
Reporter Anna Orso explains that Brown, who owns several locations of the ShopRite grocery store chain, has run commercials showing him with Obama in 2010 and 2011 as she praised his work opening stores in underserved communities. The viewer at the end of a Brown spot sees Obama speaking on a stage and saying, "I commend you for your leadership and for doing what's best for the people of this city," but Orso says this footage appears to have been edited in a small but crucial way. The first lady, according to the event's transcript, was addressing both Brown and another grocer when she really said, "I commend both of you for your leadership and for doing what's best for the people of this city." (Emphasis added.)
Obama's comments condemning the ads came about a week after Ernest Owens reported in The Daily Beast that she'd communicated her displeasure to Brown, though that article did not mention the edit Orso flags. The candidate's spokesperson defended the spots to Owens, saying, "The Jeff Brown ad featuring former First Lady Michelle Obama included content that was publicly available and in the public domain. It included comments that former First Lady Obama made about Jeff Brown's work on developing solutions to the national food desert crisis." Brown's team says the ad hasn't aired in weeks, though it remains online as of Monday.
Owens also pointed out that this isn't the first time that Brown's messaging has resulted in the wrong type of attention. The candidate, who is white, last month posted a video on Instagram showing Black Philadelphians extolling him, with one saying, "In our communities, we have people called grandmoms. We call them 'Big Ma,' where they can give you a hug or give you a meal. And that's the kind of energy that Mr. Brown gives off." That same speaker later appears with Brown and says, "One thing about God is, He's always going to have your back no matter how hard it gets, and so will Mr. Brown. And I thank you for being a like-image."
The video, which Brown later took down, did not mention that the speaker used to work at ShopRite, though the campaign insists, "No individuals who participated or are featured in our campaign social media posts were compensated. They are all volunteers who offered their candid comments." Owens, who is Black, had problems with the message that went well beyond its failure to disclose this, though. "As a city that's majority Black and brown, Philadelphia deserves better than this type of pandering and insulting politics," Owens wrote in Philadelphia Magazine, concluding, "For God's (or Big Ma's) sake: Kill the white savior routine, Jeff Brown."
Brown isn't the only candidate running for mayor who had a tough week, however. Former City Councilmember Helen Gym was one of the many Philadelphia Democrats who denounced the prominent Union League club for giving Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis its top award, but she herself had to apologize after she attended a different event at the Union League days later. She tweeted Tuesday night, "Earlier this evening, I made a stop at the annual meeting of an event that I have attended in the past. It was a mistake. I apologize for attending."
● Suffolk County, NY Executive: While former Rep. Lee Zeldin hasn't publicly ruled out running to succeed termed-out Democratic incumbent Steve Bellone this year, Newsday notes that he was not one of the potential Republican candidates who allowed local GOP and Conservative Party committees to vet them at separate events. The paper explains that insiders expect that the two parties will agree to endorse one person, and that their choice will not face any serious opposition in the June GOP primary: The county Republican chair says he expects the endorsement to take place sometime before Feb. 28.
Newsday does have a list of Republicans who did submit to the parties’ screening:
- County Legislator Trish Bergin
- former County Legislator Tom Cilmi
- Brookhaven Town Councilman Neil Foley
- County Comptroller John Kennedy
- Brookhaven Town Superintendent of Highways Daniel Losquadro
- County Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey
- Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine
The winner will likely face businessman Dave Calone, who has no serious Democratic opposition.
● Where Are They Now?: Former Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who abruptly resigned from the House in January of 2019, declared Sunday that he would campaign in this year's contest to retake his old job as Lycoming County district attorney―an announcement he made from his condominium in Vero Beach, Florida.
PennLive.com explains that Marino moved to the Sunshine State in October but still owns property back in Williamsport in the north-central part of Pennsylvania. "I don't like being retired" said the former congressman, whose 2017 nomination to serve as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy collapsed following a devastating report from the Washington Post and "60 Minutes" that revealed that Marino had pushed legislation through Congress at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry to deliberately hobble the DEA's ability to crack down on the black market flood of prescription narcotics.
Marino, who served as district attorney from 1992 until he left to become a U.S. attorney in 2002, is the only declared candidate running to succeed incumbent Ryan Gardner, a fellow Republican who is leaving to seek a local judgeship. The Republican primary will take place in May, and the winner should have no trouble in the November general election in a county that Donald Trump carried 70-29.