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: We're a little more than halfway through the six-week general election that will decide control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the New York Times' Reid Epstein reports that progressive Janet Protasiewicz has outspent her conservative foe, former Justice Dan Kelly, on TV by a margin of $9.1 million to $0.00.
Outside groups are helping Kelly's side avoid getting infinitely outspent ahead of the April 4 general election: The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has deployed $3.4 million so far, while Fair Courts America has spent another $2.3 million on television. These commercials have accused Protasiewicz of not issuing harsh enough sentences, though they haven't mentioned Kelly.
But not only is Protasiewicz decisively outspending both those organizations, Epstein writes that she's run more than three times as many TV ads because as a candidate, she's entitled to far cheaper rates than PACs. Note that this 3-1 figure does not even factor in the $2.03 million that A Better Wisconsin Together and other progressive groups have spent.
Kelly, unsurprisingly, played down his deficit Sunday when he predicted to supporters, "I'm told the cavalry is on the way. And so hopefully, they'll have some good and smart and true ads." So far, though, his allies aren't saying anything about their plans for the remaining three weeks of the race, while it remains to be seen if another conservative group arrives to help him out. Kelly himself also said that he believed he'd raise somewhere between $2 million and $2.5 million, which is less than a third of what Protasiewicz has already spent, while spokesperson Ben Voelkel also said the campaign was filming its very first spot Tuesday.
For now, though, he doesn't have anyone to help defend him from a pair of new Protasiewicz ads arguing he's both an extremist and corrupt. One commercial attacks Kelly over his 2013 blog post comparing Social Security to slavery and writing that people on Social Security have "chosen to retire without sufficient assets to support themselves." Protasiewicz's other spot once again accuses the former justice of ruling in favor of plaintiffs he had ties to.
An angry Kelly responded by accusing Protasiewicz of lying about him, though his team didn't seem especially concerned that he was failing to get his own narrative on TV. "They are spending millions of dollars for an election that's not going to have a big turnout," Voelkel said of Protasiewicz before adding, "We've taken a slightly different approach." Voelkel did not reveal what that "slightly different," though unquestionably significantly cheaper, approach is.
● Everyone is beyond tired of sucky fundraising emails foretelling DOOM, but there's a better way. Joshua Karp and Jane Hughes join us on this week's episode of The Downballot to tell us how their new firm, Liftoff Campaigns, is breaking down the traditional silo between communications and digital outreach so that donors are treated like people, not piggybanks. Our guests explain why it's important for every candidate to establish their brand and earn the trust of their supporters rather than pummel them straight away with requests for money, and how best to do so.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also discuss a new effort in Ohio to qualify an amendment for the November ballot that would guarantee abortion rights; the astonishing spending ratio between the two candidates running in Wisconsin's April 4 election for state Supreme Court; why GOP donors in Louisiana are desperately trying to boost an alternative candidate for governor to nutbar Attorney General Jeff Landry; and a brand-new data set from Daily Kos Elections that lets you see how every congressional and legislative district overlaps with one another and with every county in the country.
New episodes of The Downballot come out every Thursday morning. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show, and you'll find a transcript of this week's episode right here by noon Eastern Time.
● PA-Sen: Election denier Kathy Barnette told Politico Wednesday that she'd decided not challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, an announcement that came just a day after she said she hadn't ruled the idea out. But Barnette, who took third in last year's primary for Pennsylvania's other Senate seat, declared, "Instead of playing coy, I wanted to come out and say I am not interested."
● WI-Sen: Businessman Scott Mayer, who runs a staffing services company, tells WisPolitics that he's considering seeking the Republican nod to take on Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and hopes to decide by Labor Day.
Mayer adds that he's been told he'd need to self-fund anywhere between $10 million to $20 million, something he says he's not sure he wants to do even though he can afford it. "I don't like it. I'm not comfortable with it," he said before adding, "But if I do, it's the reality of what I have to do." WisPolitics also notes that the would-be candidate sits on the board of the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which is one of the most powerful players in statewide GOP politics, as well as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
● IN-03: Republican Wendy Davis (no, not that Wendy Davis) announced Tuesday that she was stepping down as an Allen County Circuit Court judge to join the race to succeed Senate candidate Jim Banks in this safely red seat. Davis' only major intra-party foe so far is state Sen. Andy Zay, though several other Republicans are also eyeing this contest.
● TX-28: A former spokesperson for Jessica Cisneros did not rule out the possibility that she could seek a third bout with conservative Rep. Henry Cuellar after narrowly losing their 2020 and 2022 primaries in this Larado-based seat. "She's been busy working as an immigration attorney again, so that's been her focus now," Alejandro Garcia told the Texas Tribune, adding of Cisneros, "I think she'll let people know if/when she's ready."
It also remains to be seen if the GOP will again seriously target this constituency, which backed Joe Biden 53-46, after a disappointing 2022. Both parties believed Cuellar, who had a long history of easily turning back unheralded GOP opponents, was in for a tough fight against Republican Cassy Garcia last cycle, and the four largest outside groups on the House side dropped $15.9 million here. But Cuellar prevailed by a convincing 57-43, running well ahead of what the Texas Tribune says was a 5-point win here for fellow Democrat Beto O'Rourke in the race for governor.
● TX-34: The Texas Tribune's Patrick Svitek writes that while former Republican Rep. Mayra Flores "repeatedly teased a comeback campaign in the weeks after" her 2022 loss to Democratic colleague Vicente Gonzalez, she's "been less vocal recently." The only declared Republican so far is businessman Mauro Garza, a self-funding perennial candidate who most recently lost last year's GOP primary for the neighboring 15th District to now-Rep. Monica De La Cruz 57-15.
The 34th District, which is based in the eastern Rio Grande Valley, backed Joe Biden 57-42, but Republicans hoped that Flores' win in a June special election for the last version of the seat would set them up for another win. The four largest House groups ended up spending $11.1 million, but Gonzalez prevailed by a clear 53-44; according to Svitek, Democrat Beto O'Rourke carried this district by 13 points in his unsuccessful campaign for governor.
● OH Ballot: Protect Women Ohio, a group that was created last month by a trio of conservative organizations, announced Wednesday it was launching a $5 million TV and digital ad buy aimed at sinking a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee abortion rights in the state before it can even get off the ground. This four-week offensive comes immediately after the amendment's backers were given the official go-ahead to begin gathering signatures to qualify for November's ballot.
The new group's opening spot avoids directly attacking the idea of abortion rights, which has proven to be an unpopular position even in conservative states. Instead, a narrator resorts to fear-mongering by claiming that young women are being "pushed to change her sex or to get an abortion," and goes on to insist that the amendment measure would somehow endanger parental rights.
But as NBC notes, the measure "does not actually reference a person's decision to medically transition. Meanwhile, the head of Ohio Physicians For Reproductive Rights, a group backing the amendment, called the ad "intentionally deceptive" and noted, "There is absolutely nothing in the amendment that mentions or supersedes Ohio's parental consent laws."
● WI State Senate: Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin is debuting what appears to be her first TV ad against Republican Dan Knodl ahead of an April 4 special election that will determine if the GOP gets to keep their new supermajority in the upper chamber. The spot stars an OBGYN warning, "Knodl wants to ban abortion with no exceptions even when a woman's health is on the line, and he wants to put doctors like me in jail." She continues, "Knodl will give extremists total control of the state Senate and women's rights in Wisconsin. The threat is real."
Mayors and County Leaders
● Chicago, IL Mayor: Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas is making use of his financial advantage to go up with another commercial accusing Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, his rival in the April 4 general election, of "promising to defund the police by $150 million." The narrator goes on to argue that Johnson is "editing decade-old video to mislead Chicagoans" about Vallas' support for abortion rights, a reference 2009 footage of Vallas saying, "Fundamentally, I oppose abortion."
Johnson, for his part, was asked at a Wednesday debate about 2020 comments where he said of the movement to defund the police, "I don't look at it as a slogan. It's an actual real political goal." The commissioner said in response, "There are people who want to see the police budget defunded. I said it was a political goal, I never said it was mine." Johnson is also hoping to bolster his public safety credentials with an endorsement from Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who declared, "I am comfortable as a result of my direct conversations with him that he will take thoughtful and comprehensive approach to making Chicago a safer place to live."
All of this comes at a time when Vallas continues to hold a wide advertising lead in a race where almost all contribution limits disappeared after he self-funded over $100,000. AdImpact tells NBC that Vallas has outspent Johnson $1.7 million to $920,000 on general ads and has a $1.2 million to $570,000 edge in future reservations.
● Denver, CO Mayor: AdImpact takes a look at the ad spending in the leadup to the unpredictable 17-way April 4 nonpartisan primary and says that state Sen. Chris Hansen and his allies have outspent former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough's side $2.1 million to $932,000.
Businessman Andy Rougeout, a Republican who is self-funding his bid to lead this dark blue city, is a distant third with $215,000. In the all-but-certain event that no one takes a majority in the contest to succeed termed-out incumbent Michael Hancock, the top-two vote-getters would advance to a June 6 general election.
● Memphis, TN Mayor: The Shelby County Election Commission says it will enforce a law prohibiting anyone from serving as mayor of Memphis who hasn't lived in the city at least five years before the October election, a move that could keep three notable candidates off the ballot. Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, who was still living in the suburbs when he entered the race last year, responded by filing a lawsuit arguing that this rule went out of effect because of a 1996 ballot measure.
The referendum in question only directly eliminated residency rules for City Council members, but Bonner's team pointed to a 1966 charter change saying that the mayor and City Council members have the same residency requirements. Former Election Commission Chairman Robert Meyers, who issued the legal option the Election Commission is acting on, sees things differently, saying that voters 27 years ago didn't know they'd be voting to change the rules for the mayor.
Another impacted mayoral candidate, Memphis NAACP head Van Turner, also says he plans to go to court: Turner, who says he lived in an area that was supposed to be annexed to Memphis until the state blocked it, bought a home in the city last year. A third candidate, former Mayor Willie Herenton, sold a home in the suburbs last year, but his team says he's always maintained his residence in the city.
● Nashville, TN Mayor: While Tennessee's Republican-dominated state legislature may still not be done punishing Nashville's Metro Council for effectively killing its plan to land the 2024 Republican National Convention, a bill that would have eliminated municipal runoff elections no longer seems to be up for consideration. On Tuesday a key state Senate committee deferred consideration of this legislation, which Axios says means "it is likely dead for this year." Had this bill gone into effect, it could have made it easier for a Republican candidate to win this year's open seat mayor race with just a plurality.
The move comes a week after GOP Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that slashes the 40-member Metro Council in half; the legislation prevents any city or county from having a legislative body of more than 20 people without mentioning Nashville specifically, but no other municipality in the state goes over this limit. The Tennessee Lookout notes that Republican legislators are still mulling various plans to take power away from the city government.
● Philadelphia, PA Mayor: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday that the city's Board of Ethics is "investigating campaign finance activities related" to grocer Jeff Brown's bid for the Democratic nomination, though the paper added that "[i]t is so far unclear whether the board is looking into Brown's campaign, independent groups backing or connected to him, or both."
Meanwhile another candidate competing in the May primary, former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, has earned an endorsement from former Mayor Michael Nutter. Nutter, who served from 2008 through 2016, made his move weeks after his immediate predecessor, John Street, also backed Rhynhart. Neither termed-out incumbent Jim Kenney nor any of the city's other living former mayors have taken sides yet.
● Where Are They Now?: The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as ambassador to India in a 52-42 vote that took place nearly two years after President Joe Biden first nominated him in July of 2021. Garcetti faced questions about how much he knew about the sexual harassment allegations leveled at his former top aide, and three Democratic senators opposed him on the final vote. Seven Republicans, though, crossed party lines to support the former mayor.