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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● Senate: Conservative megadonor Peter Thiel has informed his personal network that he doesn't plan to contribute to any candidates this cycle, according to a new report from Reuters—a development that may actually come as a relief to Senate Republicans who've watched in frustration as his money has gone to prop up some truly toxic candidates. Thiel's apparent withdrawal comes at a time when, according to Reuters, he's grown alienated from Donald Trump and angry with the GOP's "focus on hot-button U.S. cultural issues'' like abortion and anti-trans policies, though Thiel and Trump very much were on the same side in two crucial 2022 contests.
In a speech on the floor of the 2016 Republican National Convention, Thiel famously declared, "I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican," but just four years later, he ardently backed a Senate candidate who had very different priorities. The billionaire not only hosted a fundraiser for former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who had written the plank condemning same-sex marriage in the most recent GOP platform, he also contributed over $2 million to a pro-Kobach super PAC.
Thiel was one of Kobach's few fans in the upper echelons of the party, though. Mitch McConnell and his allies at the Senate Leadership Fund feared that Kobach, who had just lost the 2018 gubernatorial contest to Laura Kelly, was so weak that his nomination would give Democrats the chance to win their first Senate race in the Sunflower State since 1932; Democrats agreed, as they aired ads to help Kobach secure the nod. But Rep. Roger Marshall, with the aid of millions in support from an SLF front group, decisively beat Kobach in the primary and held the seat in the fall.
Thiel responded to this setback by pouring even more money into his efforts to boost two of his proteges, Ohio's J.D. Vance and Arizona's Blake Masters, in their respective Senate primaries in 2022. The $15 million that Thiel devoted to his pro-Vance super PAC, as Politico later reported, allowed the group to essentially carry out all the operations that normally would have been the campaign's own responsibility. This included, but was not limited to, a secret website where Vance's own "bare-bones" operation could find opposition research, polls, and ideas for how to secure Trump's endorsement.
These machinations worked, as the "Hillbilly Elegy" author won Trump's backing just ahead of his own victory in the GOP primary. But Vance proved to be an exceptionally weak candidate without Thiel to prop him up in the general election, with one conservative radio host griping, "I think he's running the worst campaign that you could possibly run." SLF ended up diverting $32 million to rescue Vance against Democrat Tim Ryan in a race where it likely expected to spend $0, while Thiel kept his wallet firmly closed. Vance ended up winning in November, though few Republicans were happy about how much money they'd needed to divert from more winnable races.
But what happened in Arizona proved to be a much worse debacle for the GOP. There, prior to the primary, Thiel directed another $15 million to back Masters, who continued to serve as an executive at Thiel Capital well into his campaign to unseat Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly. Masters, who also had Trump's backing, decisively won the nomination, but Senate Republicans soon despaired over getting stuck with a nominee who had called Ted Kaczynski a "subversive thinker that's underrated" before belatedly acknowledging that it's "probably not great to be talking about the Unabomber while campaigning."
While Republicans had expected Arizona to be one of their top pickup targets, major GOP outside groups began canceling millions in planned ad spending a few weeks after the primary thanks to Masters' ineptitude. Politico went on to report that internal GOP polls showed Masters with a worse favorable rating than Roy Moore experienced during his 2017 run for Senate in Alabama after he was unmasked as a sexual predator who'd pursued minor girls.
SLF was one of the outfits that pulled out of the state, and while there were reports that it could return if Thiel agreed to help finance renewed efforts, that never happened. Thiel, who has an estimated net worth of $4.2 billion, wound up throwing down only $5 million in the general election―just a third of the amount he'd devoted to help Masters win the primary.
Kelly won reelection 51-45, though that drubbing hasn't stopped Masters from mulling a 2024 bid for Arizona's other Senate seat. Of course, it’s possible that Reuters’ sources mean to say that Thiel only intends to forgo direct contributions to candidates, rather than cut off his multi-million dollar super PAC support. If so, that would be very small potatoes, given the $3,300 limit on individual campaign donations. But Democrats, who would be delighted if the GOP picked Masters again, certainly wouldn’t mind if that turns out to be the case.
● Can we have fairer, more representative elections in the U.S.? Absolutely, says Deb Otis on this week's episode of "The Downballot." Otis, the director of research at FairVote, tells us about her organization's efforts to advocate for two major reforms—ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—and the prospects for both. RCV, which is growing in popularity, not only helps ensure candidates win with majorities but can lower the temperature by encouraging cross-endorsements. PR, meanwhile, would give voters a stronger voice, especially when they're a minority in a dark red or dark blue area.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also discuss the entrance of a truly miserable GOP candidate into the North Carolina governor's race: the unrepentant homophobic bigot Mark Robinson, currently the state's lieutenant governor. Then they dive into a new report that conservative megadonor Peter Thiel, who was responsible for two of the very worst Republican Senate hopefuls in 2022, plans to keep his wallet shut for 2024—very probably to Mitch McConnell's relief.
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.
● MI-Sen: Former Attorney General Bill Schuette, who was the GOP's 2018 nominee for governor, has said nothing publicly about his interest in another Senate bid decades after his 1990 loss to the late Democratic incumbent Carl Levin, but one of his former consultants is keeping his name in circulation.
"I think the desire for him to run is there all the time," John Sellek told WLNS' Tim Skubick, adding, "Maybe he needs to be recruited a little bit more and what the outside forces are willing to do to back him up." Sellek, though, did not indicate who might want Schuette on the ballot again following his 53-44 defeat to now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Skubick adds that other people close to Schuette "suggest that right now, the U.S. Senate race is not his top priority."
● KY-Gov: State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles has launched his very first ad with just three weeks to go before the May 16 Republican primary, which comes after former Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft and her allies have devoted millions to attacking Attorney General Daniel Cameron while ignoring the rest of the field. Quarles talks himself up as an ardent conservative with local roots while avoiding mentioning any of his intra-party foes or Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear, declaring, "If you're ready for a governor that thinks like you, because they were raised like you, I'd be honored to have your vote."
Quarles is likely hoping that, by waiting until the final weeks to go on the air, he'll be able to pitch himself as a viable alternative to Republicans who have soured on both Craft and Cameron. The agriculture commissioner's late start may indeed give him the resources to get his message out at crunch time, as the $900,000 he had to spend on April 16 left him with a larger war chest than any of his primary foes. But Quarles, unlike his two main rivals, has no super PAC running TV ads to help him, nor does he share Craft's ability to self-fund.
● NC-13: Army veteran Josh McConkey has announced he'll seek the GOP nod to take on Democratic Rep. Wiley Nickel in a constituency the GOP will have the chance to gerrymander when it draws up new maps this summer.
Mayors and County Leaders
● Philadelphia, PA Mayor: Former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker earned the backing of Rep. Brendan Boyle on Friday, news that comes about a month after she secured the backing of fellow Rep. Dwight Evans for the May 16 Democratic primary. Boyle and Evans are both longtime Philadelphia political figures who together represent almost all of the city: The remaining 5% is served by Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, who has not taken sides.
Former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart days later unveiled an endorsement from former Gov. Ed Rendell, who previously served as mayor from 1992-2000. Rhynhart also has Rendell's two immediate successors as Philadelphia's chief executive, John Street and Michael Nutter, in her corner, and the Philadelphia Inquirer says this is the first time in "recent memory" that three former mayors have lined up behind the same contender.
Termed-out incumbent Jim Kenney hasn't thrown his support behind anyone, though it's not clear if any of his would-be replacements would want his backing. The candidates were asked to grade Kenney's time in office at a debate earlier this month, and the C from Parker was the most positive score anyone would offer.