The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from Daniel Donner, David Jarman, Steve Singiser, James Lambert and David Beard.
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● AZ-06: Arizona Democrat Kirsten Engel announced Wednesday that she would seek a rematch against Republican Rep. Juan Ciscomani in the 6th Congressional District, a constituency in the Tucson area that she came unexpectedly close to winning in 2022 even after national Democratic groups canceled their planned spending. Engel, who is a former state senator and environmental lawyer, is the first serious candidate to challenge Ciscomani in a contest that could be key to a future Democratic majority.
Ciscomani and Engel competed last time to succeed Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who announced her retirement months before Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission drew up a new sprawling 6th District that Biden would have carried by a tiny 49.3-49.2 margin—a sizable drop from Biden's 55-44 win in Kirkpatrick's old 2nd District. Indeed, none of the nation's new 435 House districts hosted a tighter 2020 presidential contest than this.
National Republicans quickly identified Ciscomani, who was a former senior adviser to then-Gov. Doug Ducey, as a key recruit and rising star, and the Congressional Leadership Fund even spent $1 million to ensure he defeated a primary foe backed by far-right figures. And until Election Day, it looked like Ciscomani was on track to decisively win in what both parties expected would be a GOP wave year.
Pessimistic Democratic groups gradually canceled their TV reservations and redirected the money to what they believed were more competitive races, though their better-funded GOP counterparts still deployed millions to help their recruit. Ultimately, CLF and its allies at the NRCC threw down a total of $4.7 million to aid Ciscomani, while the Democratic House Majority PAC expended all of $73,000.
It was therefore a huge surprise when early tabulations showed Ciscomani with a slim edge, and he ended up prevailing just 51-49 when all the ballots were counted. That huge Republican resource advantage may have made all the difference in a year where Arizona's two leading Democrats ended up far outperforming Biden in this constituency. Sen. Mark Kelly, according to Bloomberg's Greg Giroux, took the 6th District 54-44, while Katie Hobbs won 52-48 here in her successful contest for governor.
That near-miss, though, didn't prevent Ciscomani from emerging as a GOP rising star. The new incumbent, who is the first Republican Latino to represent the Grand Canyon State in Congress, was mentioned as a possible Senate candidate even before he was sworn in. He went on to deliver the party's Spanish-language response to the State of the Union. The freshman hasn't outright ruled out a campaign for the upper chamber next year, though he sounds far more likely to defend his competitive House seat.
Engel, for her part, kicked off her rematch by trying to shred the pragmatic image Ciscomani built up during their 2022 matchup. "[W]hat we are seeing from the congressional Republicans—and Juan Ciscomani is in there supporting them—they are attacking access to abortion, they are rolling back our efforts to fight the climate crisis, and work which is fundamental to working on our water issues," the Democrat said. She added, "We need to take this seat back and put somebody in there, me, who will fight for our freedom to choose when, if, and how to start a family."
● It's never too early to start talking about the House! Joining us on this week's edition of The Downballot is Inside Elections' Jacob Rubashkin, who offers his thoughts on the overall playing field and a wide range of key contests. Jacob explains why Lauren Boebert might have an easier time of it in her likely rematch, how some candidates have a "special sauce" that allows them to keep winning difficult districts, and why he thinks Mary Peltola is favored for re-election despite Alaska's persistent red lean.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also marvel at how the Tennessee GOP scored a remarkable own-goal in booting state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who've now already returned to the chamber with dramatically enhanced profiles; dissect the very obvious ploy by Montana Republicans to tilt the 2024 Senate election their way by changing the primary rules for just that one race; and break down a new Daily Kos Elections analysis of the 23 states that could add protections for abortion rights to their constitutions.
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.
● CA-Sen: Attorney Eric Early, who pledged to "fight the evil woke" during his failed campaign for attorney general last year, this week became the first notable Republican to enter the top-two primary, and he could have a real impact even though he has almost no chance to win.
There's little question that at least one of the three Democratic House members in the race—Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff—will be in the general election, and the state could be in for an expensive second round should two of them advance. But the dynamics would be very different if the November 2024 contest in this dark blue state was instead a lopsided battle between one of these Democrats and Early or a different Republican.
● WI-Sen: Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin confirmed Wednesday she'd seek a third term in this swing state, an announcement that pretty much everyone in the political world expected since she'd shown no obvious interest in retiring. Baldwin, who remains the only lesbian to ever serve in the Senate, currently faces no serious Republican opposition, though the GOP very much wants to change that.
Two wealthy businessmen, Eric Hovde and Scott Mayer, have expressed interest in running, with the former saying he plans to decide in the fall. Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who was a far-right favorite early in the Trump era, also very much didn't dismiss the idea last month, while Reps. Mike Gallagher, Bryan Steil, and Tom Tiffany each haven't said no either. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported a few weeks ago that former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch hasn't dismissed the idea either, though she's yet to say anything publicly.
● KY-Gov: While Attorney General Daniel Cameron has debuted his opening ad for the May 16 GOP primary, his main intra-party foe, former Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, is hoping to upstage him with her own spot depicting "woke bureaucrats" literally parachuting into schools. Craft's offering goes on to show children being instructed in critical race theory, which is not taught in Kentucky schools, before it veers into transphobia.
A young student gives her name before a teacher, who sports purple hair and a fake nose ring, disapprovingly grunts; the pupil nervously responds, "I'm a she/her?" Craft is not happy with this scenario her ad makers have crafted and pledges to "dismantle the Department of Education and start fresh," a power the governor doesn't have. Craft resists any urge to mention that her running mate, state Sen. Max Wise, was the sponsor of the infamous bill that bans gender-affirming care for young trans people, legislation that passed over Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's veto.
Cameron, by contrast, delivers his ultra-conservative message in a more low-key way in his debut spot, which AdImpact says is running for $431,000. The attorney general declares that the governor "ignored the Constitution and shut churches down," though of course Cameron doesn't mention that these were part of the public health measures Beshear took early in the pandemic. The Republican continues by calling for a governor who recognizes that "only liberty creates prosperity, and only faith can keep us strong."
● LA-Gov, LA-SoS: State House Speaker Clay Schexnayder announced Wednesday that he'd campaign in this year's all-party primary to succeed his fellow Republican, retiring Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, rather than run for governor. While the termed-out Schexnayder didn't seem especially interested in seeking the top job (LaPolitics wrote last month that "there are a handful of folks close to the speaker who feel like he's having fun with reporters on the way out the door"), he was the last notable politician who seemed to be at least thinking about it.
Louisiana's candidate filing deadline isn't until August so it's possible a new name will emerge in the next few months, but right now the field to replace Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards appears to have firmed up. Far-right Attorney General Jeff Landry has been the frontrunner since the start, while four other Republicans are trying to challenge him for that title: Treasurer John Schroder; state Sen. Sharon Hewitt; state Rep. Richard Nelson; and Stephen Waguespack, the former head of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Former state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson is the only serious Democrat in the all-party primary, while wealthy independent Hunter Lundy is also running.
● AZ-01: Kurt Kroemer, who recently stepped down after a seven year stint as CEO of the Red Cross in Arizona, on Wednesday entered the Democratic primary to face GOP Rep. David Schweikert. Kroemer joins a nomination contest that includes state Rep. Amish Shah, businessman Andrei Cherny, and orthodontist Andrew Horne.
● OH-09: Ohio Republican J.R. Majewski, who was one of his party's very worst nominees for any office in 2022 even before the Associated Press reported that he'd lied about serving in Afghanistan, announced Wednesday he'd seek a rematch against Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur. Former state Rep. Craig Riedel, who is also trying again following his upset primary loss to the QAnon ally, greeted the entry of his once and future foe by alluding to his 57-43 landslide loss to the congresswoman, declaring, "This primary is going to be a clear choice between someone who can't win and a principled conservative that can."
The GOP contest to take on Kaptur, a 21-term incumbent who is one of just five House Democrats who represent a district carried by Donald Trump, also features two other candidates, both of whom once served as mayors of small communities: Steve Lankenau of Napoleon and Dan Wilczynski of Walbridge. The current version of the 9th District, which is based in the Toledo area and northwestern Ohio, backed Trump 51-48, but the GOP will have the chance to gerrymander the map all over again.
Buckeye State Republicans last cycle thought they had Kaptur on the ropes after they utterly transformed her formerly safe seat, but all that changed after Majewski unexpectedly beat Riedel 36-31 in the primary. Kaptur and her allies, as we recently detailed, soon launched a series of commercials highlighting the nominee's presence at the Jan. 6 Trump rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol (Majewski claims he never actually entered the Capitol building) to argue he was a danger to law enforcement. Democrats also ran ads highlighting Majewski's ties to QAnon, his pro-secession comments, and him rapping in a video titled "Let's Go Brandon Save America."
National Republicans still stuck with the badly funded Majewski until September, when the AP reported that military documents showed that their nominee, an Air Force veteran who had previously said he "lost my grandmother when I was in Afghanistan," had never been stationed in the country. The NRCC quickly canceled its planned TV spending and left the self-described "combat veteran," who was beset by more unflattering stories about his actual military career, to fend for himself.
Majewski continued to insist that he'd been honest about being in Afghanistan despite all available evidence to the contrary, and he was hardly deterred by his double-digit loss in November. "Last cycle we started a movement," he stubbornly declared Wednesday, adding, "This cycle we win."
● PA-17: Republicans got their first candidate this week when Jim Nelson, a pastor and retired local law enforcement official, declared that he'd take on freshman Democratic Rep. Chris Deluzio in this 52-46 Biden seat in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
Nelson, who would be the first Black Republican to represent Pennsylvania in D.C., appears to be a first-time contender, though he's not quite a stranger to GOP politics. Inside Elections' Erin Covey reminds us that Nelson last year starred in a Congressional Leadership Fund ad where the former cop tried to tie DeLuzio to "radicals" who want to defund the police. Nelson went on to urge the audience to support Jeremy Shaffer, who'd lose to DeLuzio 53-47: Covey recently reported that Shaffer is mulling another try despite that setback.
● RI-01: State Rep. Marvin Abney and state Sen. Ana Quezada have each announced that they'll seek the Democratic nod in the special election primary, which is planned for September, while former GOP Attorney General Arlene Violet says she won't run as an independent.
Abney and Quezada, like several of their opponents, would each be the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress: Abney, who chairs the powerful Finance Committee, is Black, while Quezada is originally from the Dominican Republic. "I'm very happy to see so many Latina women running in this race," said Quezada of a field that also includes Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and state Sen. Sandra Cano.
● OH State House: It's been more than three months since the Democrats joined with a minority of GOP members to elect Jason Stephens as speaker over Derek Merrin, a fellow Republican who was his caucus' official choice to lead the chamber, but the two warring GOP factions have finally reached an agreement to give them joint custody over the party's campaign arm.
State Rep. Phil Plummer, who is a Merrin ally, tells cleveland.com that he'll approve any spending for the Ohio House Republican Alliance along with the speaker's pick, Jeff LaRe. However, when the paper asked Plummer if this meant the intra-party feud was coming to an end, he responded, "Unfortunately, no. But this just had to be done."
● TN State House: The Shelby County Commission restored Democrat Justin Pearson to his former seat in the state House on Wednesday, which passed unanimously after all GOP commissioners skipped the vote, just a week after his Republican colleagues expelled him over his participation in a gun reform protest on the chamber floor following a school shooting in Nashville that left three children and three adults dead. The development follows a similar move two days earlier by Nashville's Metropolitan Council, which reinstated a second Democrat involved in the demonstration, Justin Jones, after he too was ejected.
This was actually the second time Pearson, an environmental activist, was appointed to fill the same seat, which became vacant last year after state Rep. Barbara Cooper died in October (though she won re-election posthumously). Pearson ran in the ensuing special election for the Memphis-area 86th District and won January's Democratic primary in dominant fashion, with endorsements from Rep. Steve Cohen and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. Because he was unopposed in the March special, the county commission named him interim representative the day after the primary.
Now another special election will need to be held to choose a permanent replacement, both for Pearson's seat and for Jones' 52nd District, since both became vacant more than a year prior to the next general election. Both lawmakers have said they plan to run in those specials, which Republican Gov. Bill Lee has yet to set.
Mayors and County Leaders
● Allegheny County, PA Executive: Termed-out incumbent Rich Fitzgerald is set to host a fundraiser Monday for Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb, a move that counts as an endorsement in the May 16 Democratic primary whether or not the incumbent uses that word. As we've written before, while plenty of politicians like to insist that helping someone raise money is different than actually backing them (Fitzgerald declined to comment when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked him if he was for Lamb in the May 16 Democratic primary), that's a true distinction without a difference.
After all, it's not as though the concept of an "endorsement" has any legal significance. If anything, headlining a fundraising event is a much bigger deal than simply slapping your name on a press release announcing you're endorsing someone: One generates actual dollars, the other generates … a press release. If Fitzgerald later helped another of Lamb's intra-party rivals bring in some cash that would be a different story, but otherwise, we're going to call this an endorsement whether or not the incumbent is using that word right now.
In any case, Lamb could use the cash right now. The Post-Gazette, utilizing data from AdImpact, wrote Tuesday that county Treasurer John Weinstein has spent or booked $800,000 in advertising, compared to $292,000 for attorney Dave Fawcett. State Rep. Sara Innamorato, by contrast, has deployed $142,000, while Lamb's recent opening buy had a mere $19,000 behind it.
● Jacksonville, FL Mayor: While Democrats are hoping to score a historic win in the May 16 nonpartisan runoff, Republican Daniel Davis' side still maintains a big financial edge. Davis' allied PAC finished March with about a $690,000 to $282,000 cash on hand lead over Democrat Donna Deegan's supporters according to monthly campaign finance records. Deegan's campaign had a $92,000 to $3,000 edge on March 24, though in Florida most of the spending is done by PACs.
● Nashville, TN Mayor: First quarter campaign fundraising reports are in for the August nonpartisan primary to succeed Mayor John Cooper, who unexpectedly announced his retirement at the end of January, and the Nashville Post has rounded them out:
- former economic development chief Matt Wiltshire: $516,000 raised, $1.4 million cash on hand
- former AllianceBernstein executive Jim Gingrich: $163,000 raised, additional $2 million self-funded, $2 million cash on hand
- State Sen. Jeff Yarbro: $137,000 raised, additional $141,000 transferred, additional $50,000 self-funded, $324,000 cash on hand
- Council member Sharon Hurt: $115,000 raised, $97,000 cash on hand
- Council member Freddie O'Connell: $114,000 raised, $299,000 cash on hand
- GOP strategist Alice Rolli: $64,000 raised, additional $144,000 self-funded, $198,000 cash on hand
State Sen. Heidi Campbell launched her campaign last week after the start of the new quarter, while Davidson County Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite also filed paperwork this month but has yet to announce.