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Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.
National Republicans are quietly making a major push to block controversial coal baron and ex-con Don Blankenship from becoming their party’s nominee in the West Virginia Senate race, amidst growing fears that he could cost them a shot at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
A newly minted super-PAC with national GOP ties, Mountain Families, has unleashed a TV campaign attacking Blankenship for poisoning local drinking water with “toxic coal slurry” even as he built a separate water system for his own mansion, the opening salvo in what will likely be a furious effort to keep him from winning the GOP nomination May 8.
The attacks come amidst building GOP panic that the self-funding Blankenship will spend his way to the nomination in spite of his massive political baggage, as his two main opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), haven’t laid a finger on him with just weeks to go until the election.
Blankenship would be a nightmare of a nominee for the GOP. He’s been out of prison for less than a year after serving a sentence for willfully violating safety regulations at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine, leading to an explosion that killed 29 employees — the worst mining accident in the U.S. in four decades. The incident was the latest in a string of Massey safety violations, leading Rolling Stone to dub him “the dark lord of coal country” in a 2010 story.
His shocking rise has Republicans in West Virginia and D.C. worrying he could triumph next month and cost them another winnable race in the fall while embarrassing the state.
“If the election was held today, Don would win,” one plugged-in West Virginia Republican told TPM late last week. “Alabama gave us Roy Moore. Now West Virginia’s saying ‘hold my beer.'”
Blankenship has sought to turn his conviction into a positive in the race, painting himself as a political prisoner and arguing that the conviction was a set-up by the Obama Justice Department, Hillary Clinton and Manchin, who was governor at the time of the 2010 accident and said Blankenship had “blood on his hands.” In Blankenship’s version of the story, the Mine Safety and Health Administration forced his company, Massey Energy, to use a defective ventilation system, then turned him into a convenient political scapegoat after the disaster.
There’s scant evidence that’s true. A jury trial found Blankenship and Massey systematically refused to follow safety regulations at the mine, leading to a buildup of methane gas and coal dust that caused the deadly explosion, and multiple independent investigations have found no evidence of Blankenship’s claims.
But Blankenship has pushed hard on that tale with $2 million in TV ad spending, a 67-page manifesto and regular speeches across the state in his affectless drawl. And he’s got a seasoned campaign staff around him — many of the same people who helped him flip the state from blue to red in the last 15 years as the state’s largest GOP donor, and essentially buy a state Supreme Court seat a decade ago.
His anti-Obama conspiracy theory plays well in a state where the former president is so hated that a convicted felon nearly beat him in the Democratic primary in 2012. And it’s compelling even to some who back his opponents.
“There’s a feeling among some in the state that he got a raw deal in being sent to jail, that the government was involved rather than Massey Energy,” former West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney told TPM.
McKinney, who backs Jenkins, nonetheless said he believed Blankenship.
“Don has stated unequivocally that they made them change the airflow in that mine and that’s what led to that tragedy. I’m not a coal miner, I’m a urologist, but he makes a very convincing argument about it,” he said.
Views like McKinney’s help explain how Blankenship has shocked local and national observers with a solid showing in the few public polls of the race.
In internal surveys Jenkins and Morrisey released more than a month ago, Blankenship was within striking distance of first place (though each candidate’s poll had him in the lead). No numbers have been released since, and most West Virginia Republicans believe he has the lead right now after vastly outspending his two opponents on the airwaves.
National Republicans have signaled they won’t lift a finger to help Blankenship if he wins, while imploring voters not to pick him.
“I’m not sure if he can even vote. Do they let ankle bracelets get out of the house?” quipped National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) when TPM asked about Blankenship’s chances. “West Virginia will do the right thing and send someone who can actually win.”
The White House has sent similar signals as to its preferences — President Trump recently had both Morissey and Jenkins sitting nearby at a recent official trip to the state, while Blankenship’s invitation was lost in the mail.
But Gardner told TPM that the NRSC wouldn’t get directly involved, conserving its own limited resources and looking to avoid another anti-establishment backlash like the one that helped Moore clinch the nomination in Alabama last fall.
“The last thing West Virginians want is the senatorial committee telling them what they should want,” he said.
In spite of Blankenship’s rise, neither of his opponents have leveled any real attacks against him, focusing instead on using their much more limited resources to tout their own credentials and tear each other down. That puzzling pattern comes in spite of his own ads attacking Jenkins for his Democratic past and Morrisey for being a carpetbagger with a D.C. lobbyist wife.
The pair seemed caught off-guard by Blankenship’s rise, but in recent weeks it’s been unclear why they were still holding their fire — whether they were worried that a shot at the deep-pocketed and ruthless Blankenship would trigger a heavy barrage of attacks in response, or whether they were simply waiting for outside help.
That cavalry has finally arrived, though it’s unclear if it’ll be enough. Mountain Families, a shadowy group run by former RNC senior staffer Ben Ottenhoff, who last fall worked with a super-PAC associated with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to try to stop Moore, has dropped $650,000 in the initial ad buy, a heavy rotation for the next week-plus in the inexpensive state. Ottenhoff didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Blankenship moved to turn those attacks to his advantage.
“The Republican Party swampers in Washington have come to the surface to oppose my candidacy for the U.S. Senate. They are swamp creatures who pretend to be conservatives but are instead liberal big spenders. We welcome the fact that they are showing themselves to be what they truly are,” he said in a Monday statement.
Trump won the state by a whopping 42-point margin in 2016, his second-largest advantage of any state in the country. And while Manchin’s strong personal brand and the promise of a good year for Democrats make him a tough out, recent polls suggest he’s slipped some at home and could be vulnerable in a race against Jenkins or Morrisey.
Manchin refused to say who he’d prefer to face in the fall — “Whoever the Republicans put up is who we’re going to run against, I’m not getting involved in their primary at all,” he told TPM — but Democrats and Republicans agree that Blankenship and his baggage would obviously give Manchin a huge boost in what would otherwise be a tough race.
“It should be the easier race for Joe” if Blankenship emerges, former Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) told TPM. “We’re talking about people’s lives here in Blankenship’s case, people’s lives that were lost, for which he was convicted of being the guilty party.”
Morrisey has looked to position himself as the right-wing outsider in the campaign — his latest ad features a literal West Virginia mountain dropping on the U.S. capitol.
I’m running for U.S. Senate not to just change Washington, but to blow it up and reinvent it.
“When you look at Don Blankenship’s record there’s the obvious prison record. When you look at Evan Jenkins you can see his years as a Democrat,” said Morrisey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. “And when you look at Patrick Morrisey you can look at his six years as attorney general. … He’s really been there on the front lines of every major conservative battle.”
Jenkins has also on bear-hugged Trump, while touting his social conservatism and blasting Morrisey as a carpet-bagger.
Jenkins spokesman Andy Sere said his boss still leads, arguing he’s “the only person in this race who has supported President Trump since day one, and is actually working with the President to drain the swamp and protect our West Virginia values.”
He’s expected to do particularly well in his congressional district in the southern part of the state, the heart of coal country — and the site of the UBB accident. Observers say that that Morrisey and Blankenship share an anti-establishment base, and if one drops the other will benefit, and could win. If they stay roughly equal, Jenkins could pull off a victory with more moderate votes.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told TPM it was a “very competitive race” that any of the candidates could win.
And that could lead to disaster for the GOP.
Former Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie (R), a Jenkins supporter, told TPM he’d gladly vote for Morrisey if he prevails — but would vote for Manchin if Blankenship is the nominee. And he thinks many others would follow suit.
“He has a checkered past, at best,” he said. “The race is over if he wins the primary. The Republicans can basically concede to the Democrats.”
A group of heavy-hitting Democratic former lawmakers are banding together to help their party try to recover a foothold in the rural areas they once represented.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), former Agriculture Secretary and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and former Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) are launching Rural Forward, an organization to advocate progressive ideas in rural communities and rebuild Democrats’ standing in parts of the country where they’ve been decimated over the last decade.
The organization, first unveiled to TPM, will be helmed by Etheridge, with the others serving as honorary co-chairs. Brad Woodhouse, a former Etheridge staffer who went on to serve as communications director of the Democratic National Committee and run American Bridge, will serve as senior adviser, with former Iowa state Rep. John Whitaker (D) as executive director and John Davis, a veteran of a number of Iowa races as well as the John Edwards presidential campaign, pitching in as well.
Those involved recognize it’s a steep challenge for Democrats to recover in rural areas – and that the group’s launch is a small first step towards meeting it.
“A lot of the states that have gone bright red used to be bright purple, and we want to make them purple again and we think there’s an opportunity to do that. But we need an agenda, we need candidates, we need just about everything to rejuvenate the party in these places,” Daschle told TPM. “This isn’t going to happen overnight, although Mr. Trump may be helping us more than we realize.”
The group’s initial goals are fairly modest, in keeping with their limited resources: organize town halls, help communicate how Democratic priorities like infrastructure investment and rural broadband expansion help rural communities, partner with local advocates to provide them with organizing tools. Its early efforts will be focused in states where the organizers have personal ties, like North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota.
“We’re doing this right now with duct tape and baling wire. We’ve raised thousands of dollars, this isn’t going to be in the millions, it’s going to be earned media and educational as opposed to ads,” said Woodhouse. “We want to get the ball rolling. We’re taking the long view of this work.”
They’re betting that a renewed focus on pocketbook issues can help lead a Democratic recovery in rural areas across the country, even as culture wars burn as hot as ever in the political sphere due to Trump.
The organization is a 501(C)4, so can’t directly focus on elections. But whether they can have some success is critical for 2018, as well as going forward. Democrats will need to pick up some rural House seats to capture control of the lower chamber, and are defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won that have large rural populations, including Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and Ohio.
“These members from Montana or North Dakota, they’re flying by themselves, there’s very little infrastructure to help them trumpet their values. We want to help provide whatever it is, talking points and fact sheets, policy material and analysis,” said Woodhouse.
The group’s leaders share one thing in common: They’ve all won tough races in rural-heavy states and districts. But with the exception of Vilsack, the rest eventually lost reelection as their party brand was too much to overcome in tough Democratic years.
Democrats’ rural erosion has been happening for decades, but accelerated in the Obama era. Etheridge, a former part-time farmer, was one of many rural House Democrats to get wiped out in the 2010 wave. Landrieu was one of many rural-state Democratic senators who faced a similar fate in 2014. Trump’s election marked a new low for rural Democrats, who got shellacked in parts of the country like the Upper Mississippi River Valley in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin where they’d long had strong support, as well as rural areas across the nation.
As Democrats have been washed out of those areas, the party has become increasingly dominated by coastal, urban and suburban leaders who haven’t tried as hard to work the heartland for support.
“It’s going to be hard. The trend is the other way, the party committees have really gone in the other direction too, in some places by necessity,” said Woodhouse.
But with Trump’s numbers sagging across the board (even though they’re not nearly as bad in less populated areas), Democrats see an opportunity to bounce back. And they think he’s giving them opportunities with things like his trade war with China, which risks badly hurting farmers who would face the brunt of retaliatory tariffs, or the GOP push to end Obamacare, which would have put rural hospitals in a bind.
“We think the longer he has the opportunity to show his true priorities, the more likely it is that we’re going to one again demonstrate a resurgence and a real opportunity to develop a strong two-party system,” Daschle said.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said he won’t run against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to become House speaker, lowering the likelihood for a direct conflict between the House’s top two remaining Republicans for the top slot.
“I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” Scalise said when asked on Fox News Thursday afternoon. “He and I are good friends.”
Those remarks suggest there won’t be all-out war between the two powerful Republicans in the wake of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) sudden decision to announce his retirement on Wednesday.
The comments don’t necessarily take Scalise out of the running to lead the party, however. McCarthy, if he takes another shot at becoming speaker, still needs to lock in the votes of the vast majority of his conference – and if he falls short, Scalise could be the backup option for a number of lawmakers. Both have been quietly working hard to see where they stand with the conference, and shore up support in case of a leadership battle.
It appears at this point as though the next leader won’t be chosen until after the November election. At that point, the calculus would be quite different depending on how things go for the GOP this fall. If Republicans lose the majority, that likely means many of the moderate members who would be more likely to back McCarthy will be gone. On the other hand, winning the position of minority leader only needs the support of more than half the conference, rather than the near-unified party support needed to become speaker that McCarthy failed to garner when he tried to take that job when Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) retired.
Scalise clears the way for McCarthy to become speaker. “I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” he tells @FoxNews. “He and I are good friends.” https://t.co/Cqeteb1F0w
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is leaving. Former state chairman Reince Priebus is gone. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), the big cheese, stands alone — and may face an expiration date in November.
Ryan’s sudden retirement announcement removes the second of Wisconsin’s hulking conservative figures of the last decade from the political battlefield in a period of months after Priebus’ ignominious ouster from the White House. That, coupled with signs of a building Democratic wave in Wisconsin and nationally, has some in the state party worried they’re seeing the end of a period of conservative dominance in the swing state that covered the Obama era.
“It definitely feels like this era is coming to an end,” one Wisconsin Republican strategist told TPM. “Losing Paul Ryan knocks out one of the legs of the tripod that’s held Wisconsin Republicans up for so long, after the loss of Priebus knocked out another. … There’s probably going to be a blue wave.”
The developments have long-demoralized Democrats feeling chipper for the first time in years.
“Going, going, gone! Reince is gone, Ryan’s going and Mr. Walker knows he’s in for a dogfight,” Joe Zepecki, a top Democratic strategist in the state, giddily told TPM on Wednesday.
Ryan was a key player in the conservative revolution in Wisconsin, turning a swing state with a powerful union presence and long history of populist politicians from both parties into a right-wing policy bastion over the last eight years. He did so alongside then-state Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus – and Scott Walker, who rose from Milwaukee County executive to become one of the nation’s most polarizing and well-known governors of the last decade.
Walker captured the governorship in a close 2010 race, and with unified control of the state legislature proceeded to gut public unions in the state, a deeply polarizing act that led to a failed attempt to recall him from office. Demoralized Democrats failed to defeat him again in 2014, and saw their power fade across the state, with President Obama’s 2o12 win in the state the sole bright spot in a decade of misery. Last election cycle was the roughest blow to date, as President Trump became the first GOP nominee to carry the state in 32 years after Hillary Clinton failed to campaign in the state, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pulled off a surprising reelection victory after being left for dead by his own party earlier in the year.
Priebus moved on to an impressive reign heading the Republican National Committee, became President Trump’s first chief of staff – and was unceremoniously pushed aside last year. Now Ryan has decided to follow his old ally out of politics.
Walker’s the last man standing – and there are signs that the Democratic resurgence simmering across the country will give him the toughest fight of his career.
Just weeks ago, a liberal candidate won a seat on the state Supreme Court by a double-digit electoral margin, prompting Walker to warn of a “Blue wave” building in the state. The victory was the first time a non-incumbent liberal justice had won a seat in more than two decades in the state.
Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.
“The Supreme Court race was the canary in the cave, a signal, and the canary died, so now we have to figure things out,” Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin Republican strategist with ties to Walker and Ryan, told TPM. “That was a big wakeup call.”
And it came on the heels of a big Democratic upset in a northwestern Wisconsin state senate seat that Democrats hadn’t held in 17 years.
Those results rattled Republicans across the state, who worry the tide may be turning on them after an impressive eight-year run.
Republicans admit that with Ryan gone, his GOP-leaning seat could be competitive this fall. They’re even more worried about Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI), a polarizing figure in a swing district who has less campaign cash than his Democratic challenger. They say even Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) could be in for a real fight, and are worried about losing the state senate as well, while many aren’t too bullish about defeating Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the state’s lone statewide Democratic office-holder, this fall.
But Walker is the big prize. He saw his standing plummet in the state after his failed presidential run, and while his numbers have bounced back he’s still upside down in most recent polling of the state.
Democrats have a late and crowded primary, the eventual winner will face a major cash deficit heading into the election against Walker, and Republicans at least aren’t too scared of any of the people running to face Walker — “A blue wave doesn’t make a C-level candidate an A-level candidate,” said Scholz. But for the first time in years, Democrats are feeling bullish about their chances to seize back control of the key swing state.
“It is certainly an exciting time to be a Wisconsin Democrat,” said Zepecki.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) had her second child on Monday, becoming the first senator to give birth while in office.
Maile (pronounced Miley) Pearl Bowlsbey is Duckworth’s second child; she and her husband, Bryan Bowslbey, had Abigail in late 2014, when she was in the House. Duckworth is only the 10th member of Congress to have a child while serving, and the first in the upper chamber.
“Bryan, Abigail and I couldn’t be happier to welcome little Maile Pearl as the newest addition to our family,” Duckworth said in a statement, before saying she was “deeply honored” that retired Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), a mentor of hers who died last week, blessed her child’s name before passing on.
Duckworth, a 50-year-old Iraq War veteran, said that the baby’s middle name is from her husband’s great aunt, who served during World War II as an Army officer and nurse.
The birth is the latest in a series of firsts for Duckworth. She’s the first Thai-American ever to serve in Congress, and was one of the first women to fly an Army helicopter in Iraq.
Duckworth has made both military and family issues priorities during her congressional career, sponsoring legislation requiring the military to extend maternity leave for soldiers, make sure student parents have on-campus child care, and require major airports to provide spaces for breastfeeding and milk pumping, as well as bill for paid family leave and laws to help lower the number of veteran suicides.
“Parenthood isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s an economic issue and one that affects all parents—men and women alike,” she continued in her statement. “As tough as juggling the demands of motherhood and being a Senator can be, I’m hardly alone or unique as a working parent, and my children only make me more committed to doing my job and standing up for hardworking families everywhere.”
Indiana Republicans are bracing for a three-car pileup in a key primary next month that will have major implications for the balance of the Senate.
Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN), Luke Messer (R-IN) and businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun (R) are battling for the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), arguably the country’s most vulnerable incumbent.
Strategists say each of the three could conceivably win the nomination —and beat Donnelly. But the primary has grown increasingly heated as the candidates approach the May 8 election, worrying some Republicans that it could leave the eventual nominee short on cash and wounded from a bruising race as they prepare for a tough general election fight that gives Republicans one of their best chances at a pickup this fall.
“The nastier this gets and the more money these guys have to spend, the better this looks for Donnelly,” Ed Feigenbaum, the longtime editor of the nonpartisan Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter, told TPM.
Strategists in both parties think this will likely be a close general election no matter who wins the nomination, with Indiana’s natural GOP advantage balanced against Donnelly’s talents as a candidate and Trump’s unpopularity.
Donnelly won his seat in 2012 in large part because of his opponent’s flaws. After then-Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) beat longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) in a tough primary, Republicans spent months trying to pull the party back together, only to see Mourdock blow it by declaring during a debate that pregnancy caused by rape “is something that God intended to happen.” Donnelly is unlikely to get that lucky this time, but has worked assiduously to raise his profile as a moderate Democrat with a populist streak and is better-positioned this time around.
“You have to call it a jump-ball in the general election,” said Indiana-based GOP strategist Kurt Luidhardt. “Donnelly’s just a good candidate. … A lot of the old Republican donor community maintain good ties with him, and he does a really good job in Indiana appearing like he’s a moderate.”
Most Democrats would be happiest to face off against Rokita given his hard right views, tensions between him and many of the state’s GOP establishment, and his occasional penchant for tin-eared comments (like telling a female CNN anchor on-air in 2013 that she was “beautiful, but you have to be honest as well” and in a 2007 speech asking “Who’s the master and who’s the slave” in African Americans’ relationship with the Democratic Party).
“We feel confident Joe can beat any of them, but Rokita lends himself most closely to Richard Mourdock part two,” said one source close to Donnelly.
Rokita also has a strained relationship with many other Republicans in the state going back years that many blame on his difficult personality as well as a push opposed by most others in the party to end gerrymandering in Indiana.
“He does have a reputation for being prickly,” said Luidhardt, who worked on earlier races for Rokita and Messer and called both friends.
The race has been a relatively sleepy one so far. Strategists say voters are just starting to tune in, and Braun is the only one who’s had much in the way of paid advertising until now. But things are beginning to heat up.
Braun has spent the most by far on the race, almost $3 million on TV ads since the end of last year. That helped boost his name ID around the state, and has pushed him into the lead in private polling of the race. But curiously, the wealthy and largely self-funding candidate took his foot off the gas in ad spending after an early burst, and has cycled through a number of ads rather than focusing on one particular message.
Braun is the man to beat at this point. But Messer and Rokita are just starting to spend in earnest, and hope that once they reach relative parity on the airwaves they’ll be able to catch up. Polling of the race shows a relatively close contest between all three, though most Republicans think Messer is in third and risks becoming a non-factor if he doesn’t make a move soon.
Braun has hammered his opponents as career politicians, including in this memorable spot that unaligned Republicans say could help him draw the contrast he needs to stay ahead:
All three Republicans have bear-hugged President Trump in the race, attacking one another for not being sufficiently pro-Trump. But the sharp-elbowed Rokita has gone the farthest in this regard, donning a “Make America Great Again” hat in his latest ad as he attacked Braun for his Democratic past and Messer for criticizing Trump during the 2016 campaign.
“Mike Braun is nothing more than a series of TV ads trying to cover up for his record of voting for Democrats and hiking taxes. Meanwhile, Never-Trumper Luke Messer is the most underwhelming GOP Senate candidate in the country,” Rokita spokesman Nathan Brand told TPM.
Messer, in contrast with the other two, has mostly focused on positive TV spots showcasing his family and promising to promote the Trump agenda.
A number of GOP strategists questioned whether his message was aggressive enough for a GOP primary, and wondered why Messer hadn’t been able to out-raise Rokita given his close ties to the GOP establishment including Pence’s network and House Republican leadership. But Messer’s team dismissed those concerns.
“Luke’s path to victory is people feeling like they know Luke better by the end of this race, that the other two guys are all talk and Luke’s action,” Messer campaign adviser Brad Todd told TPM. “Primary voters are frustrated that we control everything and not enough is getting done, and Luke has by far the biggest track record of someone who can get something done.”
Embracing Trump and Vice President Mike Pence won’t be as big a problem in Pence’s home state as elsewhere in the country. Even in deep-red Indiana, though, fealty to Trump may not be an asset in the general election. The president won the state by a 19-point margin, but recentpolls have found about the same amount of voters approve and disapprove of the job he’s done as president.
Rokita, Braun and Messer have all had to grapple with some harsh news cycles. Messer has faced months of attacks for not living in the state (he moved his family out to D.C., selling his Indiana house while keeping a vacation spot in Tennessee, and co-owns a home with his mom that he stays at when in town). That’s a serious problem in a state where politicians including Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and former Rep. Dave McIntosh (R-IN) have lost races for similar transgressions.
Rokita faced embarrassing headlines early on for an internal staff memo that obsessively outlined how his employees must handle their interactions with him, and more recent ones questioning his use of $3 million in government funds to boost his name ID around the state.
Braun was the latest in the woodshed, facing rough headlines in recent days for pushing to cut taxes and regulations on the logging industry, changes he stood to profit from. He’s also taken heat in the primary for voting to raise the state gas tax to fund infrastructure projects.
Donnelly has also been dinged up, however – his family’s business has ties with Mexico, a problematic connection in the rust belt state.
The general election is likely to be driven heavily by outside groups. Donnelly had $5 million in the bank as of the end of last year, a decent sum but not enough to stay on the airwaves, and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity has already been on TV attacking him, with Democratic super-PACs rushing to his defense. Rokita and Messer are both likely to emerge from the primary with little cash left, and while Braun can self-fund to some degree few think he’ll put up the tens of millions he’ll need for the race.
Democrats think all three Republicans have enough problems that the race will be competitive. And they hope that as the primary crescendoes, those vulnerabilities will be drawn in sharper contrast.
“You hope you have an opponent that’s not just a generic Republican, it’s someone people will frown upon,” said the source close to Donnelly. “That’s the permission slip you need in Indiana.”
Dave Matthews apparently has so much to say about Ohio politics.
The ’90s rockstar will crash into Cleveland to help fellow throwback Dennis Kucinich with a campaign fundraiser later this month, Kucinich’s gubernatorial campaign announced Friday.
The event will take place on April 20 – a fitting date for a candidate who has campaigned for full marijuana legalization and a veteran of the jam band circuit.
The activist musician and left-wing candidate first connected more than a decade ago at Farm Aid, Kucinich’s campaign said, and have teamed up on a number of liberal causes since.
Kucinich is looking to topple former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray, the establishment Democratic favorite, in next month’s primary – a prospect that has many Democrats in the state worried could happen and hurt their chances at winning the general election. But Matthews, for one, hopes Democrats don’t drink the Cordray water.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) hauled in a whopping $6.7 million in the last three months for his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), O’Rourke’s campaign announced Tuesday,
That sum dwarfs his already-impressive earlier fundraising quarters, and puts him in a position to be able to go t0e-to-toe with Cruz financially in the expensive state, even if outside Democratic groups decide to spend elsewhere this fall.
And, as O’Rourke was quick to point out, it came in spite of his refusal to take any political action committee or lobbyist donations.
“Campaigning in a grassroots fashion while raising more than $6.7 million from 141,000 contributions, we are the story of a campaign powered by people who are standing up to special interests, proving that we are more than a match and making it clear that Texans are willing to do exactly what our state and country need of us at this critical time,” he said in a statement.
O’Rourke didn’t announce his cash on hand figures, and Cruz has yet to put out his quarterly numbers, which are due in a few weeks.
O’Rourke’s latest haul eclipses an already-impressive $2.4 million he raised in the final months of 2017, when he out-raised Cruz, and came during the ramp-up to Texas’s March primary.
Those primary numbers indicated O’Rourke and other Democrats may not be as ready to compete statewide in Texas as they’d hoped – roughly twice as many voters turned out to vote for Cruz in his noncompetitive primary race as for O’Rourke, who won less than two thirds of the Democratic primary vote against a pair of no-name challengers.
That was a sign to some national Democrats that Texas still may not be a fruitful place to compete, in spite of polling showing that President Trump is unpopular in the state and suggesting Cruz could be in trouble. But if O’Rourke keeps raising money like this it won’t matter what they think – he’ll have plenty of cash to keep Cruz looking over his shoulder for the rest of the year, even if his chances of actually winning don’t match the sky-high donor enthusiasm around his campaign.
Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has seized on gun control to propel his underdog gubernatorial campaign, worryingstate Democrats that he has a real chance to win the primary — and damage his party’s chances in a key race.
Kucinich, a former presidential gadfly candidate who’s been one of Russia’s more prominent left-wing apologists in recent years, is giving a spirited challenge to former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray (D), the candidate strongly preferred by most party leaders.
Kucinich has put Cordray on the defensive for his past “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and ongoing refusal to support an assault weapons ban.
While establishment Democrats think Cordray will likely prevail, they say not to count out Kucinich, who’s been running and often winning elections in the state’s biggest media market for more than four decades.
“There’s absolutely a chance Kucinich could win this,” state Rep. John Boccieri (D), a former congressman who served with Kucinich, told TPM.
Others agree, warning that Kucinich’s decades-long pugilistic battle against “the mighty and powerful” dating back to his rocky tenure as Cleveland’s boy mayor in the late ’70s closely reflects the current populist anti-establishment mood of the Democratic base in the state, and that the gun issue could help further propel his uphill campaign in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
“It’s a mistake to take Dennis Kucinich lightly,” said former Rep. Dennis Eckart (D-OH). “At the end of the day because of the perfect match of Cordray’s message, his resume and his money it’s his to lose. But Dennis is going to surprise some people in a significant way because of the mood of some Ohio Democrats. He can’t be as easily dismissed now as he has in the past.”
Cordray remains the odds-on favorite: He’s got the money, support from most of the party as well as the powerful AFL-CIO, a strong resume on economic populism and taking on Wall Street both in Ohio and Washington, and support from party heavy-hitters like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Obama administration adviser Valerie Jarrett. That’ll help him as he reintroduces himself across a state where he hasn’t been on the ballot in eight years and lets voters know about some of Kucinich’s more outlandish statements and actions since he left office after losing a gerrymandering-fueled primary to Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) in 2012. Cordray is raising huge sums for the race, and is expected to have a significant edge in TV advertising and a robust field operation as the campaign kicks into high gear in the coming days.
But recent public and private polling has found a toss-up race, with a high number of undecided voters. The election is just over a month away, on May 8, with early voting beginning in one week.
Ohio Democrats say a Kucinich win is unlikely – but concerning in a race they see as a top pickup opportunity this fall.
“Kucinich has enough of a record and enough eccentricities that nominating him would be a gift to [GOP front-runner] Mike DeWine. Republicans are giddy about that prospect,” said one top Democrat in the state.
Kucinich is buoyed by high name ID in his home region around Cleveland, the largest media market in the state for Democratic primary voters, and progressives’ fond if hazy memories of his early and vocal stances for universal health care and against the war in Iraq. He has the support of the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution, headed by former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D). Cordray has some strong assets, including his fights for consumers both as state attorney general and treasurer and in the Obama administration, but remains largely undefined in a state where he hasn’t been on the ballot for eight years, when he lost reelection for state attorney general to DeWine.
On the one issue that’s been dominating the national and local Democratic conversation at the moment – gun control – Corday’s in a tough spot.
Cordray had a warm relationship with Ohio gun groups during his stint as the state’s attorney general, earning an “A” rating from the NRA and getting the endorsement of the Buckeye Firearms Association in his last two elections. Cordray successfully fought for Ohio’s right to overturn local gun control measures passed in Cleveland and Columbus, calling it “an important victory for every gun owner in Ohio.” He was one of just a handful of Democratic attorneys general to join Republicans in McDonald v. Chicago, a landmark Supreme Court case that expanded gun rights by finding the Second Amendment also applied to state and local governments. He also fought to help a local gun group hold an armed protest outside the state capitol.
In the wake of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year and the subsequent renewal of national focus on gun control, Kucinich saw an opening.
“Parkland has changed everything. It really has brought about a shift in public awareness about the omnipresent danger of assault weapons,” Kucinich told TPM. “If you want to carry the Democratic banner in a statewide election, that banner should not have an ‘A’ from NRA on it.”
Cordray has moved dramatically on gun control in this campaign: He’s now calling for universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines and bump stocks. But he hasn’t been willing to call for an assault weapons ban, something Kucinich has hammered him for.
And Cordray’s own running mate hasn’t helped: Former Rep. Betty Sutton (D-OH), publicly broke with him over the issue last week.
“He created an opening for Kucinich because of where he is on the hot-button issue for Democrats right now: gun violence,” said one Ohio Democratic strategist who wants to see Cordray prevail in the race. “Rich doesn’t have much name ID. He hasn’t run statewide since 2010 and even then it was down-ticket. And this gun stuff is hurting him. Democrats are frustrated with him on it.”
Cordray’s campaign fired back against Kucinich, accusing him of playing politics with the issue.
“Democrats should come together to find workable solutions to a problem as important as this — not turn it into a political football. It’s telling that Kucinich spent five years as a paid contributor on Fox News and didn’t once call for an assault weapons ban, and at one point even told Bill O’Reilly that gun control measures wouldn’t reduce violence,” Cordray campaign spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement.
Kucinich told O’Reilly after the Sandy Hook massacre that Obama should put forth gun control proposals and Congress should “consider” them, but said that “All the gun laws you pass may not really reduce significantly the level of violence in our society.”
But those comments aren’t likely to be nearly as damning as some of his other remarks made on Fox and elsewhere over the past few years praising President Trump and dismissing any possibility of collusion between Trump and Russia during the 2016 election.
Kucinich called Trump’s inauguration speech “great” and a “message of unity,” and has been much less critical of Trump than most other Democrats – or than he’d been of President Obama, who he accused of committing a potentially “impeachable offense” for bombing Libya without congressional approval in 2011. He later called for a primary challenger against Obama in 2012.
He’s also repeatedly dismissed the Russia investigation.
“Enough of the BS about #Russia stealing the election. This is CIA & State Dept propaganda trying to legitimatize their increased hostilities towards Russia,” he wrote in a December 2016 Facebook post.
Kucinich hasn’t backed away from that view, accusing the “military-industrial intel axis” of unfairly targeting then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to damage the U.S.-Russia relationship, claiming the “deep state” is after the president, and calling Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian-American diplomat a “bunch of nothing.”
He repeatedly refused to tell TPM whether he thought the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election.
“The people I’ve talked to across Ohio, they’re more worried about Moscow, Ohio than Moscow, Russia,” he said dismissively.
Kucinich dodged one follow-up question: “We shouldn’t be meddling in any country’s elections and no country should be meddling in ours.”
When pressed further, he said he thought Russian citizens may have meddled, but refused to accept the widely held view of the U.S. intelligence community that the Russian government was behind attacks on the Democratic Party and American democracy.
“Um, did Russians, Russians, people of Russian nationality, attempt to meddle? That appears to be the case. Beyond that, the investigation is continuing. If I was working on this on a daily basis in Washington I’d probably be able to give you a better assessment. But I will say it’s not an issue in this election, and the Cordray campaign’s attempt to make this an issue just shows how stupidly out of touch they are,” he said.
That fits in with Kucinich’s overarching views for the past decade. A co-founder of the Congressional Russia Caucus, which sought closer relations with the country, Kucinich forcefully defended Russia’s 2013 invasion of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine in a series of interviews with Fox News and Russian state media outlet Sputnik, while blaming American and NATO meddling in the country for the situation. He’s also repeatedly met with and defended Russia-backed Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Cordray’s allies made it clear that he’ll go after Kucinich’s strange defense of Russia and Trump — with paid media, if necessary.
“The fact that he’s so closely associated with Fox News, has praised Donald Trump, that’s a problem for him in the Democratic Primary. The closer he’d get to being a serious threat, the more those things will become aware to more people,” Ohio state Rep. David Leland (D), a former state party chairman who supports Cordray, told TPM. “If it becomes something that needs to be talked about, I guarantee it will be.”
But Ohio Democrats say Kucinich shouldn’t be dismissed. And most say he’d be a disaster as the party’s standard-bearer.
“Everyone on the ticket would be concerned about Dennis as the nominee. He’d be a very problematic candidate,” said one unaligned Ohio Democrat. “People in Ohio, like other parts of the country, are feeling pretty good about our prospects for this November. But every candidate who’s been working for a year-plus to win this fall would be concerned Kucinich could risk all of that.”
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) announced Monday that she won’t run for reelection, bowing to pressure to vacate the seat after badly mishandling a case of sexual harassment, domestic assault and threats between two senior staffers in her congressional office.
“I have determined that it is in the best interest of my constituents and my family to end my time in Congress at the end of this year and not seek re-election,” she said in a Facebook post. “Too many women have been harmed by harassment in the workplace. In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better. To the survivor, I want to express my strongest apology for letting you down.”
From being a room parent in a first grade classroom to serving on the library board, town council, state house and U.S….
Esty’s decision against running for reelection caps a rapid fall from grace for a woman who’d been viewed as a rising star within the House Democratic Caucus, who had a good relationship with House Democratic leaders and was a top voice for increased gun control as the representative of Newtown.
But that career came crashing down in recent days after revelations that she’d coddled her former chief of staff when another senior staffer accused him of sexual harassment, domestic violence and threats. A senior staffer accused her chief of staff of punching her and sexually harassing her, as well as leaving threatening voicemails that included one where he threatened to kill her if she didn’t call him back. Esty’s response was to keep him on the payroll for three whole months, giving him $5,000 in severance and helping him land another job at a gun control group.
The pressure has been building on Esty to resign since the story became public last week, with her hometown paper calling for her to step down over the weekend.
Esty’s decision to retire likely makes the seat easier to hold for Democrats. President Trump only lost her fairly blue-collar northwestern Connecticut district by 4 points, and she had two close elections in 2012 and 2014. An open-seat election in this district isn’t a lock for Democrats, but Esty insisted on running again the party might have seriously worried about holding the seat even in a year that’s shaping up to be a good one for the party.