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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● NY-04: New York Democrat Laura Gillen announced on Wednesday that she would seek a rematch with freshman Republican Rep. Anthony D'Esposito in the 4th Congressional District, a Long Island constituency that's the bluest seat held by a Republican according to Daily Kos Elections' calculations of the results of the 2020 presidential election by congressional district.
The move fills a hole for Democrats in a rare Biden district where, to date, there'd been zero chatter about potential challengers. Indeed, Gillen, a former Hempstead town supervisor, had not publicly expressed interest in another campaign for this southern Nassau County district in the months since her 52-48 defeat saw this seat flip to the GOP, prompting the Long Island Herald to call her launch a "surprise."
But Gillen had not been shy about going after the new congressman or in tying him to his far more infamous colleague right next door, Rep. George Santos: She's repeatedly tweeted out a picture of a smiling Santos and D'Esposito each giving a thumbs up inside the Capitol and reupped that photo Tuesday after news broke of the former's indictment. D'Esposito has repeatedly called for his fellow Nassau County Republican to resign, but Gillen has continued to remind her followers about the existence of the still-active "Santos D'Esposito Nassau Victory Committee."
The presidential numbers, however, don't tell the full story. Joe Biden carried the 4th District 57-42, but Democrats have struggled in Nassau in the years since that romp. In 2021, Republicans decisively flipped the district attorney's office and scored an upset in the race for county executive after caricaturing Democrats as weak on crime, a playbook they'd take statewide the following year. The GOP got some more welcome news a few months later when Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice decided to retire after four terms; soon after, the party consolidated behind D'Esposito, a Hempstead town councilman and former New York Police Department detective.
Several Democrats showed interest in running to succeed Rice, but Gillen soon emerged as the frontrunner. The candidate had shocked the GOP establishment in the town of Hempstead, a massive suburb with a population of just under 800,000, when she narrowly unseated a Republican incumbent in 2017 by just a single point to become its first Democratic supervisor in more than a century. Gillen lost reelection in a similarly tight race two years later but remained a prominent figure in local politics, and Rice endorsed her ahead of her lopsided primary victory.
The general election was a much tougher ordeal, however. Both D'Esposito and gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin, who represented neighboring Suffolk County in the House, worked to portray Democrats as unconcerned about crime—attacks that seem to have stuck. Gillen, for her part, focused on abortion, but while she ran slightly ahead of Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, it wasn't enough. Zeldin carried the 4th District 53-47, according to Bloomberg's Greg Giroux, while D'Esposito pulled off a 4-point victory.
Gillen kicked off her second House campaign Wednesday by once again emphasizing abortion rights and gun safety while also declaring that the incumbent "has aligned himself" with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green.
It remains to be seen whether she'll face any serious intraparty opposition this time, though one old critic seems fine with the idea of having her as the Democratic standard-bearer again. While Jay Jacobs, the controversial head of both the state and county parties, said last year he doubted Gillen could win a general election, he responded to her launch Wednesday by declaring she "proved herself a very hardworking candidate in the last election, and she certainly merits serious consideration for the next."
● How do you make a campaign ad that voters actually want to watch? We're discussing that critical question on this week's episode of "The Downballot" with leading Democratic ad-maker Mark Putnam, who's been responsible for some of the most memorable political spots in recent years. Putnam details his creative process, which starts with spending time with candidates to truly learn their story—and scouting locations in-depth. He then walks us through the production of the famous Jason Kander-assembles-a-gun-blindfolded ad that went viral and explains why, believe it or not, you always want footnotes in your attack ads.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also look ahead to next week's elections, headlined by the bitter GOP primary (is there any other kind?) in the Kentucky governor's race; the free-for-all Democratic primary to serve as Philadelphia's next mayor; and the special election in the Philly suburbs that could determine whether Democrats keep control of the state House. Plus: the ACLU's new effort to place an amendment on the ballot in Florida that would enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution.
Subscribe to "The Downballot" on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show—new episodes every Thursday! You'll find a transcript of this week's episode right here by noon Eastern Time.
● OH-Sen: While Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose is publicly saying he's still making up his mind about running against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, NBC reports he sounds pretty sure he'll make the race in voicemails he's left for donors. "I am preparing to, hopefully soon, announce my candidacy for this office," LaRose said in one message last week. The secretary of state, though, still told reporter Henry Gomez he hasn’t reached a final decision, declaring, "This is something that I've been carefully looking at and studying and even starting to take steps towards seeing if it's possible."
● TX-Sen: The Washington Post reports that state Sen. Roland Gutierrez still "intends" to challenge GOP Sen. Ted Cruz even though he'd now need to get past Rep. Colin Allred in the Democratic primary. Gutierrez, who became a prominent gun safety advocate after the Robb Elementary School shooting happened in his district, himself reiterated, "The only thing that matters for the next three weeks is fighting for those families." He added he'd make "decisions on other things" after the legislative session ends May 29.
● WI-Sen: While Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany initially told Punchbowl News Tuesday that he planned to announce a bid against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in the summer, his spokesperson quickly followed up by declaring that the congressman only "plans to make a decision this summer on whether or not he's running." Tiffany said last month that he'd prefer it if fellow Rep. Mike Gallagher campaigns for Senate instead of himself, and Gallagher has yet to rule anything out.
● WA-Gov: Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz launched her long-anticipated campaign on Wednesday to succeed her fellow Democrat, retiring Gov. Jay Inslee. The commissioner focused on global warming in her kickoff, warning, "[W]hile our planet changes, our laws don't keep up. On climate and across the board, we are paying the price."
Franz is the first major candidate from either party to join the 2024 top-two primary, though Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson said last week he'd formed an exploratory committee ahead of his own all-but-certain launch. (State law does not distinguish between exploratory committees and full-fledged campaigns.) On the GOP side, former Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler has confirmed she hasn't "closed any doors" about a possible campaign for a post her party last won in 1980, though she doesn't seem to be in any hurry to decide. "I just put in my raspberry bushes," she told KUOW, "and I need to make sure that they go up before I turn my attention to what I'm doing next."
Franz is a former city council member in Bainbridge Island, the Puget Sound community where Inslee also resides, as well as the one-time head of the state conservation group Futurewise. She first sought statewide office in 2016 when the post of public lands commissioner opened up, and she quickly secured the backing of prominent Democrats like Rep. Adam Smith and King County Executive Dow Constantine. Franz took second in the top-two primary by convincingly defeating her fellow Democrat, King County Councilman Dave Upthegrove, 23-14, and she went on to win the general 53-47 over Republican Steve McLaughlin.
Franz, Ferguson, and Constantine all prepared to run for governor in 2020 in case Inslee, who was waging a long-shot bid for the White House, decided not to seek reelection, but they all deferred to the incumbent when he ended up seeking a third term. (Constantine joked afterwards, "Bob and I are starting a book club, along with Hilary, it's going to be awesome.") Franz held her current post in 2020 57-43 that year as Ferguson was turning in a similar performance statewide; Constantine also held his office the following year, though he's since announced he won't run for governor.
● PA-Sen: Susquehanna Polling & Research (R): Bob Casey (D-inc): 53, Dave McCormick (R): 41
● MD-06: Republicans may have to worry about the return of yet another 2022 electoral disaster because Dan Cox, the election denier who cost his party any chance it had to hold Maryland's governorship last year, tells Maryland Matters he's interested in campaigning for the open 6th Congressional District. Joe Biden carried this constituency, which Democrat David Trone is now giving up to run for the Senate, 54-44, while Cox lost it to Democrat Wes Moore by a similar 53-44 margin last year.
A few other Republicans are also mulling entering the race for a seat that includes western Maryland and the northwestern D.C. exurbs. Neil Parrott, a former state delegate who was the party's nominee in 2020 and 2022, says he will "have an event in the next month where I'll be making an announcement." Parrott lost his last campaign to Trone 55-45 after the wealthy congressman ran ads blasting him for once proposing that HIV positive people should be denied medicine unless they got a tattoo "in a spot covered by a bathing suit" in order to warn potential sex partners about their status.
Two more Republicans who expressed interest are state House Minority Leader Jason Buckel, who informed Maryland Matters he likely won't decide before July or August, and former state budget director David Brinkley. The article also mentions Kelly Schulz and Matthew Foldi, who respectively lost their 2022 primaries to Cox and Parrott, as possibilities, but neither responded to requests for comment. Former state Sen. Michael Hough, however, made it clear he wasn't interested.
The only notable Democrat in the race so far is Del. Joe Vogel, but two more local politicians have now expressed interest. State Sen. Brian Feldman tells Inside Elections' Jacob Rubashkin he's interested, while Krish Vignarajah, a former policy director to Michelle Obama who took 8% in the 2018 primary for governor, also said the same to Maryland Matters.
Del. Leslie Lopez is also considering, though it's not clear when she'll make up her mind: While she told Rubashkin Monday she'd "likely make a decision soon," she informed Maryland Matters that same week she'd be taking her time. That story also names Del. Lily Qi as a possibility, but she hasn't said anything publicly. In the no column, however, are former Montgomery Councilmember Craig Rice, Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, and former Hagerstown Mayor Emily Keller.
● MI-07: Democratic state Rep. Angela Witwer says she won't run for this open seat unless, in the words of Gongwer Michigan's Zach Gorchow, her party "really needed a candidate." Witwer, though, predicted this wouldn't come to pass.
● MI-10: Democratic state Sen. Kevin Hertel tells Gongwer Michigan he won't challenge Republican Rep. John James.
● NY-03: George Santos pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to 13 counts of money laundering, fraud, theft, and making false statements brought by federal prosecutors in an indictment before a Long Island court. He was released on a $500,000 bond and claimed he has been cooperating with investigators while also calling the prosecution a "witch hunt."
The charges against the freshman Republican concern three separate purported schemes. In the first, Santos allegedly encouraged donors to give to an entity that he claimed was a super PAC that would run TV ads on his behalf. The vehicle was, however, a limited-liability corporation, which transferred $50,000 in donor money to Santos' personal bank account that he in turn spent on himself, including on "luxury designer clothing," credit card bills, and car payments, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors also say Santos fraudulently sought and received unemployment benefits provided by the aid bill Congress passed at the start of the pandemic despite being employed at an investment firm at a salary of $120,000 a year. Finally, the indictment alleges that Santos made false statements on mandatory financial disclosure forms required of all congressional candidates, both inflating his assets by claiming he'd received millions of dollars in salary and dividends from a company he'd founded, the Devolder Organization, and failing to include other sources of income, such as the unemployment benefits he'd collected.
After his court appearance, Santos insisted he would not resign from office early or abandon his plans to seek reelection to New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which he unexpectedly wrested from Democratic control last year. According to prosecutors, Santos could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. He also remains the target of several other investigations by other law enforcement agencies.
● OH Ballot: Ohio Republicans passed a constitutional amendment on Wednesday that would make it harder for voters to amend the state constitution in the future—but the amendment itself must go before voters for their approval before it can become law.
- 60% support to pass new amendments. Amendments currently need just a simple majority to pass in Ohio and all but a few other states. Republicans want to raise that threshold in order to make it easier to defeat progressive policies in this red-leaning state.
- The GOP's aim: preserve their abortion ban and gerrymanders. A top sponsor was caught telling his colleagues that the purpose of the higher threshold is to thwart voter-backed efforts to enshrine abortion rights into the constitution and to create a new independent redistricting commission.
- Republicans have set an August election—when turnout will be low. Just months ago, Republicans eliminated regular August elections, but now they want a one-time election this summer for voters to weigh in on their amendment. The goal: pass the new amendment so that it can take effect before a potential November vote on abortion.
Read more about how the GOP's proposal would also make it tougher for voters to place amendments on the ballot—and why voters might reject it.
Mayors and County Leaders
● Allegheny County, PA Executive: Both county Treasurer John Weinstein and Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb are using the last week of the Democratic primary to air ads targeting state Rep. Sara Innamorato, who posted a clear lead in the only recent poll anyone's released. Weinstein's commercial labels the state representative, who was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America when she won her seat in 2018, "Socialist Sara," which is the type of messaging Republicans usually employ against Democrats.
"Voters should fear Sara Innamorato," says Weinstein's narrator, continuing, "Sarah is completely unqualified to be Allegheny County executive. Managing five people in her office doesn't qualify her to oversee 7,500 county employees." The spot then plays a clip of Innamorato saying, "My district is like, racist," before the narrator jumps back in, "We can't allow the failed progressive agenda that's destroying our city to destroy our county." Again, this spot is being aired in a Democratic primary.
Innamorato during her 2018 uncontested general election for state representative made news when she told a podcast, "My district, which I know is like white working class, poor folk, who are racist, because it's so much easier for them to look to their side and say, 'I'm going to blame that person.'" She soon put out a statement reading, "This was the topic of a nearly two-hour-long conversation about race and politics on the podcast, and in no way did I seek to imply that all of my neighbors are racist. Hate begets hate, understanding begets understanding."
Lamb, for his part, is running an ad that declares that Innamorato "didn't pass any bills" in her four years in the legislature, though this piece may not get seen by many voters. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said Tuesday that while Weinstein booked $220,000 in TV and radio time for the final eight days of the campaign, Lamb had only $16,000 reserved. Innamorato, by contrast, had $90,000 reserved for the final sprint, while her allies at the Working Families Party were deploying $110,000. A fourth contender, attorney Dave Fawcett, had $70,000 in planned media spending.
● Nashville, TN Mayor: The Republican firm Victory Phones has conducted the first survey we've seen of the Aug. 3 nonpartisan primary on behalf of Tennesseans for Student Success, a pro-charter schools group that doesn't appear to be supporting anyone. The results of the poll, which quizzed respondents about various issues, are below: In the likely event that no one earned a majority, a runoff would take place Sept. 14:
- State Sen. Heidi Campbell: 22
- State Sen. Jeff Yarbro: 17
- Council member Freddie O'Connell: 16
- Council member Sharon Hurt: 7
- former economic development chief Matt Wiltshire: 7
- former AllianceBernstein executive Jim Gingrich: 4
- GOP strategist Alice Rolli: 4
- Davidson County Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite: 3
- former school board member Fran Bush: 2
Rolli is the only contender who identifies as a Republican in this dark blue city. And while Wiltshire and Gingrich are far behind here, they finished March with far more money than the rest of the field: The pair are each working to get their names out by running ads well ahead of Election Day.
The contest to succeed retiring Democratic Mayor Jim Cooper comes at a time when Tennessee's GOP legislature is continuing to devise bills to dramatically weaken Nashville's city government, though they got some unwelcome news last month when a three-judge panel blocked a law slashing the 40-person Metro Council in half. Republicans are not appealing that preliminary injunction, so this year's elections for the city's legislative body will take place for all 40 seats while the litigation over future elections continues.
● West New York, NJ Mayor: Former Democratic Rep. Albio Sires is poised to reclaim his old job as mayor of West New York following his slate's sweep in Tuesday's elections to run this 52,000-person community. The candidates campaigned on one nonpartisan ballot for a spot on the five-person Town Commission, which picks one of its members to become mayor, and Sires and his four allies took a combined 61% compared to just 39% for Town Commissioner Cosmo Cirillo's side.
Sires served as mayor from 1995 until he was elected to the House in 2006 to replace Robert Menendez, a fellow Democrat who had been appointed to the Senate earlier in the year. Sires retired last cycle and was succeeded in the safely blue 8th District by the senator's son, Rob Menendez. Sires made it clear even before he left office that he was looking to return to West New York City politics, though, and his bid enjoyed the support of the elder Menendez as well as Gov. Phil Murphy and other state and local power players.