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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● Los Angeles County, CA District Attorney: Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has been a favorite target of conservatives ever since he was elected the top prosecutor for America's most populous county in 2020. He now faces a trio of his deputies in next year's race to keep his job, all of whom are running to his right.
The first to announce back in January was Maria Ramirez, who is one of about a dozen people who've filed lawsuits alleging that Gascón retaliated against them for opposing his criminal justice reforms; a judge this month awarded $1.5 million to a plaintiff in another suit, though Ramirez's has not yet been resolved. A colleague of hers, John McKinney, went on to enter the race earlier this month by declaring, "It's just chaos on our streets and chaos in the district attorney's office." Finally, Jonathan Hatami, who just successfully concluded a high-profile murder trial, also accused the incumbent of being anti-cop just ahead of his own Wednesday launch.
Gascón, who spent years serving as the chief prosecutor in San Francisco, returned to his hometown of L.A. just ahead of the 2020 election, in which he campaigned as a reformer and unseated two-term District Attorney Jackie Lacey by a 54-46 margin. The new incumbent, though, took over at a time when crime was on the rise nationally. Opponents of his reforms didn't hesitate to blame him for the spike and even tried to recall him from office early.
All three of Gascón's declared foes have spent the last few years as some of his most vocal critics, and Hatami even raised money to support one of those recall efforts last year. That $8 million campaign, however, ultimately fell about 47,000 signatures short of the 567,000 it needed to make the ballot. (Last week, local officials asked the state attorney general to investigate why more than 300 petitions ostensibly came from dead people.)
California's filing deadline isn't until December of this year, so there's still time for even more critics to enter the race, though a large field won't necessarily help Gascon, since winning with a plurality isn't possible. Rather, Los Angeles County will hold an officially nonpartisan primary that coincides with the state's March presidential primary, and unless one contender wins a majority of the vote, the top-two vote-getters will advance to the November general election.
● State supreme court races are a favorite topic of ours, and there are literally dozens more on the ballot in 2024, so we're previewing the top battles with Carah Ong Whaley of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics on this week's episode of The Downballot podcast. Carah tells us how and why so much money has come to be spent on supreme court elections in recent decades before diving into next year's key contests, including several states where control is on the line, like Ohio, Michigan, and Montana. With the stakes high for redistricting reform, abortion rights, and democracy, progressives everywhere will want to stay up-to-date on all of these races.
Of course, there's a pivotal Supreme Court showdown on the ballot next week in Wisconsin, so co-hosts David Nir and David Beard kick things off with a preview of that matchup, as well as a crucial special election for the Wisconsin Senate and the mayoral runoff in Chicago. The Davids also dig into veteran Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's decision to run for mayor of Houston, a major move that seriously shakes up the contest for America's fourth-largest city.
We also want to say a special thanks to our producer, Cara Zelaya, whose final show is this week. Cara was instrumental in the creation and launch of The Downballot and we couldn't have done any of this without her. She'll be missed, but we wish her the absolute best in her future endeavors.
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.
● ND-Gov: Gov. Doug Burgum's main adviser isn’t ruling out the idea that he could seek the Republican nomination for president this cycle, telling conservative columnist Rob Port that “Doug and his family will focus on what’s next” after the legislative session finishes on April 25.
Burgum's apparent flirtation with the White House, which so far has consisted of a swing through several Iowa communities and a reported poll testing someone with Burgum's background, could mean that he’s not inclined to seek a third term next year, though he wouldn’t necessarily need to decide between the two anytime soon. North Dakota’s candidate filing deadline usually takes place in April, well after the presidential primary season is underway.
Legislative Republicans, though, may not be too sad if Potomac Fever keeps Burgum off the ballot at home. The wealthy governor financed well-funded efforts in 2020 and 2022 to deny renomination to members he’d clashed with, including some hardliners, though the results were mixed. Burgum went on to support a successful ballot measure to put term limits in place for governors and state legislators, a drive that GOP legislative leaders opposed. The new law prevents governors from seeking a third consecutive term, though it doesn’t count against the two terms Burgum won in 2016 and 2020.
No matter what, Republicans would be favored to keep the top job in a state where no Democrat has won the governorship since the late George Sinner in 1988. There are no shortage of Republicans who could run for an open seat, though so far there’s no sign any serious contenders are interested in challenging Burgum should he seek re-election.
● WA-Gov: A consultant for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee told the Seattle Times earlier this month that the incumbent would decide whether to seek a historic fourth term sometime after the legislative session adjourns on April 23.
● WV-Gov, WV-Sen: Attorney General Patrick Morrisey says he will make a "BIG Announcement" on April 4, a move that comes as he's kept people guessing if he'll compete in next year's Republican primary for governor, seek a rematch with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, or run for re-election. Morrissey's allies at Black Bear PAC, a group funded in part by megadonor Dick Uihlein, certainly hope he'll go for governor: The PAC earlier this month released a poll showing the attorney general ahead in that primary, while it conspicuously did not allude to the possibility he could run for something else.
● ME-02: The Bangor Daily News' Michael Shepherd takes a look at the Republicans who could challenge Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, a Marine veteran who last year turned back an expensive GOP effort to deny him a third term in a northern Maine seat that Trump took 52-46.
The potential candidates who have publicly expressed interest in running are 2022 primary candidate Liz Caruso and Robert Cross, who lost a state Senate primary last year, while state Rep. Laurel Libby did not rule it out. State Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, who ran an aborted primary campaign here last cycle, meanwhile didn't comment when asked, though Shepherd relays he's "being watched by Republicans here and in Washington." Both the party primaries and general election will be conducted using instant-runoff voting.
Caruso, who is a member of the Board of Selectman for the tiny community of Caratunk, says she's not close to deciding on a second try. Last time she raised less than $50,000 before losing the nomination to former Rep. Bruce Poliquin only 60-40, which was a surprisingly underwhelming performance for someone as well known as Poliquin. That showing turned out to be a grim omen for Poliquin, who went on to lose the general to Golden 53-47 even as former GOP Gov. Paul LePage was carrying the 2nd 50-47.
However, Caruso herself may have also benefited from some important connections. Most notably, she was the spokesperson for the high-profile 2021 ballot initiative that succeeded in blocking the Central Maine Power hydropower corridor project. Caruso also spent the evening before the primary on the Fox News show hosted by Tucker Carlson, a part-time Maine resident and a fellow corridor foe. Carlson is hardly the only far-right figure Caruso wants to be associated with; she said just before the primary that one of the politicians she'd align with is Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Cross, for his part, says he'll make up his mind in June. Cross, who is the grandson of the founder of the large company Cross Insurance, ran for the state Senate last year but lost the primary 55-45 to state Rep. Peter Lyford.
Libby, finally, made a name for herself in 2019 before she won office when she threatened to leave Maine if Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill to end religious and personal vaccination exemptions for school children. But Libby did not make good on that threat even after voters rejected a statewide ballot measure to repeal the law in a 73-27 landslide, and she instead concentrated on a successful 2020 campaign to unseat a Democratic incumbent. The new state representative went on to attack Mills' requirement that healthcare workers get vaccinated for COVID, telling a rally, "To be clear, this is war!"
Libby's extremism has helped her make some useful connections, as the $62,000 she raised last cycle was nearly twice as much as what any other candidate for Maine's lower chamber took in. She also co-founded a PAC that attacked the state House GOP's main campaign arm as "pathetic," something party leaders did not appreciate. Shepherd writes that Libby is now "the nominal leader of a strident faction of House Republicans opposed to key items" in the legislature, including a successful home heating bill.
● OH-09: State Sen. Theresa Gavarone has announced that she'll seek re-election next year rather than once again pursue the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur. Gavarone unexpectedly took third in a 2022 primary that was won by J.R. Majewski, who proved to be one of the most disastrous Republican nominees in the nation.
● RI-01: While Rhode Island state law prevents election officials from formally scheduling the special to succeed Democratic Rep. David Cicilline until he officially resigns, Gov. Dan McKee and Secretary of State Gregg Amore on Wednesday unveiled a "tentative calendar" should Cicilline depart on June 1 as he's said he'll do. The party primaries for this 64-35 Biden constituency would be Sept. 5, which is one day after Labor Day, while the general election would be Nov. 7.
Anyone who wants to run would need to submit paperwork by June 30, though there's one other important step afterward. Candidates must submit 500 valid signatures to make the ballot, and it's not quite clear how long they'd have to get to work: The calendar says that this process would begin "[n]o later than July 6" and conclude July 14.
● PA State House: The field is set for the May 16 special election to succeed Democrat Mike Zabel, who resigned this month after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment, in the 163rd House District, a Delaware County constituency that backed Joe Biden 62-37.
Democrats, who need to keep this seat in order to preserve their 1-seat majority in the chamber, have nominated Upper Darby Democratic Committee Chair Heather Boyd, who is a former member of the local school board. Local Republican leaders, meanwhile, have opted for Army veteran Katie Ford, a first-time candidate who hasn't previously been professionally involved in politics. (There are no primaries for special elections to the Pennsylvania legislature.)
State House Democrats currently hold a 101-100 edge in the 203-member chamber. The other vacant seat is the 108th District in the rural central part of the state, a 65-33 Trump constituency that Republican Lynda Schlegel Culver gave up after she won a state Senate special in January. The GOP nominee for this special, which will also be May 16, is Shikellamy School Board director Mike Stender, while the Democrats are fielding Montour County Commissioner Trevor Finn.
● WI State Senate: Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin once again whooped her Republican opponent, state Rep. Dan Knodl, in fundraising ahead of Tuesday's special election for Wisconsin's vacant 8th Senate District, according to new filings. Habush Sinkyin, an environmental attorney, raised $837,000 between Feb. 7 and March 20, spending $803,000 and ending the period with $92,000 in the bank. Knodl, meanwhile, took in just $261,000 during the same timeframe and spent $317,000, finishing with $51,000. Both received considerable help in both cash and in-kind contributions from state and local party organizations, with Democratic groups providing $233,000 to Habush Sinykin and Republican entities giving a $166,000 boost to Knodl.
Knodl also made news in the campaign's waning days for saying in a new interview that he'd "certainly consider" impeaching Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz, who still has yet to be elected. (Her race is also on Tuesday.) In targeting the progressive Protasiewicz, Knodl claimed that local judges in Milwaukee "have failed the community," but she was the only judge out of 47 in the county that he called out by name.
And if Knodl wins, Republicans could indeed impeach her, or any other liberal member of the high court: In November, the GOP won a new supermajority in the state Senate thanks to an extreme gerrymander, which Knodl is hoping to preserve. At the moment, Republicans are one seat short, thanks to the resignation that gave rise to this vacancy, but party leaders have expressed interest in using their impeachment powers to, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos put it, "take out people who aren't doing their job."
Mayors and County Leaders
● Chicago, IL Mayor: Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas is pushing back on Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson's attempts to portray him as a Republican in all but name with a new spot that features several prominent Democrats praising him. The ad, which opens with a narrator proclaiming, "Democrats for Democrat Paul Vallas," features a diverse cast made up of Sen. Dick Durbin, former Rep. Bobby Rush, former Secretary of State Jesse White, and Aldermen Sophia King and Silvana Tabares.
Another Vallas commercial for Tuesday's general, meanwhile, argues Johnson supports "a massive tax increase."
Prosecutors and Sheriffs
● Allegheny County, PA District Attorney: Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala faces a challenge from the left from county Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan in the May 16 Democratic primary, but some Pittsburgh-area Republicans are trying to give the six-term incumbent the chance to continue on to the November general as their nominee. Reporter Ryan Deto of Triblive.com reports that Bob Howard, the party's leader in the small community of Marshall, has been encouraging GOP voters to write down Zappala's name in a Republican primary where no candidates are actually running.
Democratic election law expert Chuck Pascal tells Deto that Zappala would need to secure at least 500 write-in votes, which is the number of signatures that would have been required to get on the Republican primary ballot, in order to win with a plurality of support. This is just what happened in 2019 when enough Republicans wrote down Zappala's name to award him their nod, though he also won the Democratic primary that year by a 59-41 margin.
There are no reports of any rival GOP write-in campaign for this spring, but it's not clear yet how much internal support Howard's effort will receive. Allegheny County GOP Chairman Sam DeMarco says that he approved Howard's drive but won't publicly back it because "[a]s a Republican chairman, I can't support Democrats." Zappala's team in turn says they didn't ask any GOP groups to support a write-in campaign, though the district attorney himself said in December he could again win the Republican nomination this way.
Zappala, as we've written before, has turned off criminal justice reformers during his 25 years as the top prosecutor for this dark blue Pennsylvania county. Bolts Magazine's Daniel Nichanian, in his overview of the state's 2023 district attorney races, notes that the incumbent declared during his last campaign he was "done with socialists and ACLU forums" and quipped he was "not running for public defender." Zappala, though, did speak to a Young Republican group during that contest even as he avoided several Democratic gatherings.
Since then, Zappala attracted 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." The district attorney did away with that policy after a backlash, but his critics have continued to fault his record. One of those critics is Dugan, who launched his effort in January by saying, "Police are looking for alternatives to arrest, prosecute, and punish." Dugan recently earned the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Party, though the powerful Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council is sticking with the incumbent.
P.S. This would not be the first recent race in Pennsylvania where a defeated primary candidate secured the other party's nomination thanks to write-in votes, though the dynamics were quite different in the 2016 contest for the dark red 9th Congressional District in the Altoona region. Businessman Art Halvorson failed to wrest the GOP nomination from longtime incumbent Bill Shuster by just a 50.6-49.4 margin, but about 1,060 Democrats put Halvorson's name down in a primary where no one was on the ballot.
The hard-right Halvorson said he hadn't solicited write-in votes but would accept the Democratic nomination anyway, declaring he'd caucus with the GOP in Congress should he win. The challenger, though, wasn't able to form the disparate alliance of Democrats and tea party types he needed: Shuster won the general election 63-37 as Trump was taking the district 70-27, and he went on to retire the next cycle.