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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.
ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) strode to the stage to raucous applause in pivotal Orange County on Saturday, just days ahead of California’s crucial primaries — and lit into Big Mickey Mouse while ignoring the looming elections.
“If a corporation like Disney has enough money to pay its CEO over $400 million in a four year period, it damn well has enough money to pay its workers at least fifteen bucks,” thundered the once and likely future presidential candidate, using his significant soapbox to tear into the Walt Disney Company on worker compensation to the delight of the thousands of union members gathered at a megachurch a short jaunt from Disneyland.
The appearance was vintage Bernie. He raged against the machine and championed workers and small-d democracy while largely ignoring the big-D Democratic Party. It was just one of three events across the Los Angeles area that day where he focused on movement politics and ignored Tuesday’s big primaries in nearby districts while barely mentioning President Trump — even though groups like the Service Employees International Union used the events to corral volunteers to knock on doors for the primary immediately afterwards.
Sanders has stayed out of most Democratic primary races, doing little to support a number of candidates who’ve embraced his populist calls for Medicare for all, free college and a $15 national minimum wage. When he has gotten involved in competitive primaries, his candidates have lost more races than they’ve won.
Sanders has endorsed in just nine competitive federal or statewide primary campaigns so far this election cycle, even as hordes of candidates have rushed to paint themselves as mini-Bernies across the country. Of those, just one Sanders-backed candidate has won a competitive House primary this year – and that was former Chicago mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia, who has a solid political base of his own in the city’s Hispanic community following his 2015 run for mayor and would have won without Sanders’ help.
Many other Bernie-backed candidates have gone down. Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA) lost his primary to now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) last year after Sanders held a rally for him. Former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer (D) finished in third place in his bid for an open congressional seat in the city’s inner suburbs a few weeks ago after Sanders endorsed him. So did pastor Greg Edwards in a nearby House race, even though Sanders came into the district to hold a rally for him. Democrat Heath Mello lost the general election for Omaha mayor in spite of Sanders’ support. Marie Newman lost her primary challenge to moderate Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) after Sanders endorsed her as well, though her bigger boosters were groups like EMILY’s List, and Sanders wasn’t as involved.
Sanders can also count Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams (D) and Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor nominee John Fetterman (D) as candidates he endorsed that won their contested primaries. But both of them had statewide name recognition beforehand, and Abrams especially had broad-based backing from much of the Democratic establishment and other big-name endorsers.
On Tuesday, the House candidate who is arguably the closest to Sanders both personally and ideologically is expected to lose his race. Pete D’Alessandro, who ran Sanders’ Iowa efforts in the 2016 presidential primaries and was a senior staffer on his presidential campaign, is running in competitive primary in a swing Iowa House district. He badly trailed two other better-funded candidates in a recent public survey from a respected pollster. That comes even though Sanders held a rally for him earlier this years and cut a TV commercial for him, a rarity for Sanders.
D’Alessandro argued that the mere fact that he’s even a factor in the race is due to Sanders, whose backing helped him raise nearly half the $300,000 he’s brought in for the campaign.
“People like me and a lot of people around the country like me wouldn’t even be in the race if not for Bernie Sanders, and if we’re not in the race there would never have been a discussion for Medicare for all or a $15 minimum wage,” he told TPM Monday, saying he would never have been able to compete with one self-funding candidate and another with heavy establishment backing.
Beyond that, D’Alessandro said Sanders’ focus on movement-building rather than focusing primarily on the races needed to seize congressional control would pay more dividends in the long run.
“It’s a long game to him, it’s about the process, it’s about people being involved in the process, and that might explain why he’d much rather be talking to 12 union organizers who are actually organizing than the 30,000 foot view of ‘how many seats do we need to flip the House,'” he said.
Sanders is also backing Randy Bryce in his bid to win House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) seat, former NAACP Chairman Ben Jealous in his uphill bid for Maryland governor, and Colorado state Rep. Joe Salazar (D) in his bid to be the state’s attorney general, as well as some down-ticket candidates, and is expected to endorse some like-minded incumbents in tough races this year.
It’s undeniable that Sanders’ populist progressivism matches the mood of much of the party base — and that his 2016 campaign played a major role in mainstreaming ideas once considered fringe. His views on health care, taxes and the minimum wage have become positions of many candidates. He’s long had an uneasy relationship with a party he’s never officially joined. But while Sanders hasn’t moderated his positions, he’s done more in recent years to support broad party causes than in the past, including his barnstorming the country to defend Obamacare when Republicans tried to repeal it even though he was one of the Senate Democrats who was most vocal in criticizing the bill from the left during negotiations over its passage before he eventually backed it.
During his California trip, while he didn’t vocally push for Democrats to turn out, he did agree to record a video for California state Sen. Josh Newman (D), who is facing a recall effort from GOP groups that has major implications for whether Democrats will have a supermajority in the state legislature.
Sanders’ team argued that his win-loss record in these primaries is an overly simplistic way to look at his impact on politics — and it is.
“When you go to Southern California, where the biggest concern right now is animating Democratic voters so they turn out and we don’t have two Republicans on the ballot, when you go there and you talk issues like the fact that Disney workers are grossly underpaid … That’s the conversation you want to be in the political ether,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ top political strategist, told TPM on Monday. “Everybody in California knows there’s an election Tuesday. But I don’t think people know why it’s important to vote in that election.”
That may not be fully accurate — many average people not at political events seemed surprised when TPM mentioned there was a primary, and early turnout numbers show that while Democratic enthusiasm is up from recent midterm primaries, Republicans are still outvoting Democrats by comfortable margins in the state.
It also overlooks all the candidates who embraced his policies who he hasn’t endorsed, including a handful in those same crucial California House races just down the road from his Saturday stops.
Many of those have been backed by Our Revolution, a group created by some top 2016 Sanders backers that has been much more eager to endorse but has struggled to push its candidates amidst ongoing internal turmoil. Our Revolution head Nina Turner did not return a call requesting comment on this story.
That includes candidates like Laura Moser, who is married to a top strategist from Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Sanders called it “outrageous” when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leveled attacks against her in her House primary, but never endorsed even after Our Revolution did. Moser badly lost her primary runoff a few weeks ago to a more moderate candidate.
Nor did he endorse some others who have won — like Kara Eastman, a progressive who beat moderate former Rep. Brad Ashford (D-NE) in a primary upset last month. Sanders’ allies argue that shows how much his presence is felt even in races he hasn’t endorsed, which may be true — but ignores other close races where he might have made a difference.
Others who’ve embraced Bernie and gotten Our Revolution’s backing but not Sanders’ say while they’d love his support, they’re not surprised he’s avoided some messy competitive primaries.
“If you try to put yourself in his shoes there’s not a lot for him to gain by supporting someone in this primary,” Andy Thorburn, one of two self-funding Democrats running to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (D-CA), told TPM on Wednesday at an event in nearby Fullerton. “If he starts endorsing a lot of people, how far do you go? I didn’t expect him to be particularly active in the primary season.”
Weaver said Sanders’ limited endorsements are partly a result of a political team that’s shrunk from his 2016 campaign — and promised he’ll continue to ramp up his 2018 efforts as the election hits full swing a few months down the line.
“He does care about the issues. You do have to vet the people you endorse, and the people who’ve asked for endorsements is way longer than we could accommodate,” he said. “You’re going to see him all over the place in the general elections.”
After hearing heartbreaking stories from Disney workers who’d been left homeless and had to skip meals because of meager pay, Sanders offered a positive note on Saturday.
“They’ve got the money and they’ve got the power. But there is something we have that they don’t have. We have morality on our side and we have the people on our side,” he said. “When you have people in Washington, Trump and others, who are trying to divide us up… we know when we stand together we’re going to win here in Anaheim, we’re going to win all over the country.”
FULLERTON, CALIF. — Speaking to a gathering of Orange County Democratic activists last week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) described the upcoming California elections in dire terms.
“The very idea of America is at stake” in the next elections, he warned.
President Trump is an existential threat to American democracy, and the GOP-controlled Congress is “utterly complicit.” The only solution is “to throw the bums out, to restore some semblance of our system of checks and balances,” and “the road to flipping the House may very well run through California and in particular Orange County.”
Then the man who hopes become the House Intelligence Committee’s next chairman — and get subpoena power in the majority to go after Trump — admitted how nerve-wracking that made this Tuesday’s all-party primaries in his backyard, which Democrats fear could leave them without candidates in as many as four competitive seats.
“We are all pulling our hair out, obviously, with this cockamamie jungle primary we have,” he said to nervous laughs from the dozens in attendance.
Schiff’s comments encapsulate the gnawing anxiety Democrats across the Golden State feel as the June 5 primary looms. They see huge opportunities in California, viewing the state as central of their battle plan to take back the House, with five crucial pickup opportunities and four more seats that could be competitive. But to get there they first have to avoid getting shut out in the state’s top-two primary — and in four of the nine seats that’s a real possibility.
His speech was meant as a rallying cry. But his audience included a number of the candidates divvying up the Democratic vote in one of those key races: Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros, businessman Andy Thorburn and former Obama administration official Sam Jammal were all in attendance, hoping to woo any late-breaking voters milling about the Fullerton Arboretum in their quest to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA).
Royce’s seat and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA), both Orange County-centered districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, are the ones where most Democrats are the most concerned about getting locked out. They’re also keeping a close eye on the race to replace retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) in another Democratic-trending district that stretches from the county’s southern reaches along the coast to San Diego’s northern suburbs.
The trio of seats are top pickup opportunities for the party, Democratic-trending suburban districts in what was once was one of the most solidly Republican corners of the country. Orange County launched the careers of both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon — Nixon’s presidential museum is in Royce’s district — and its politics have long been dominated by Republicans. But the county is fast-growing and fast-changing, with a burgeoning Latino population and numerous younger Asian Americans, especially Vietnamese- and Korean-Americans, who are breaking with their Republican parents and voting Democratic, as well as college-educated voters repelled by President Trump. Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the county since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.
That’s created great promise — and great peril — for Democrats as they seek to navigate the state’s unusual “jungle primary” system and make major inroads into a county that was once so uniformly upscale and heavily white and conservative that locals referred to it “Orange Curtain” for its GOP dominance, but in recent years has become a polyglot mix of diverse suburbs.
Those machinations led to an unusual truce between Thorburn and Cisneros, orchestrated by the California Democratic Party, to stop attacking one another and stay positive. Both candidates told TPM has been helpful in averting a skirmish that had grown increasingly nasty in the race’s closing weeks.
“It was kind of getting out of hand … it was the right thing to do,” Cisneros said.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest that we reached that agreement,’ Thorburn said.
But party elders weren’t able to accomplish the same thing between businessman Harley Rouda and scientist Hans Keirstead, who have been ripping into one another in Rohrabacher’s district — the place where Democrats are most worried about getting locked out. The controversial Rohrabacher is bleeding votes to his former protege, heightening the risk that both Republicans will finish at the top in Tuesday’s primary and cost Democrats a golden opportunity.
Democrats managed to convince a number of second-tier Democratic candidates to drop out, helping the rest of their candidates consolidate the field in both the Rohrabacher and Royce districts.
“My decision to drop out of the race happened immediately after Scott Baugh entered the race hours before the filing deadline. Suddenly, it was a completely different race,” former candidate Laura Oatman, who now backs Rouda, told TPM at a protest hosted by the liberal group Indivisible outside Rohrabacher’s office last Tuesday. “Obviously I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if this was about ego or personality or anything else. This has to do with flipping the seat.”
But for every Oatman, there are plenty of others who refused, like Jammal and Dr. Mai Khan Tran in Royce’s seat, who are likely to peel away votes from the front-runners. And that’s not to mention the impossibility of convincing a self-funding candidate to bow out for the good of the party. In all three races, there are at least two wealthy Democrats that are at least partly funding their campaigns and are mostly impervious to pressure from local and national Democrats — Keirstead, Rouda and Omar Siddiqui, another spoiler candidate, in Rohrabacher’s district, Cisneros, Thorburn and Tran in the Royce seat, and businessman Paul Kerr and Sara Jacobs, a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer and a heir to the Qualcomm fortune, in the Issa seat.
“In this set of races, where you have these people who one way or the other have all made millions of dollars … these guys have a type of arrogance that overrides that we see from any other type of candidate,” one top California Democrat told TPM.
Issa’s district is particularly crowded, with a number of Republicans, 2016 Democratic nominee Doug Applegate and businessman Mike Levin all pulling chunks of the vote and all four Democrats bunched closely in most public and private polling. Most Democrats think they’ll end up with one of their own against California State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey (R), a hardline conservative, in the November runoff.
At least in Royce’s district, the GOP side doesn’t look much more settled: former Royce staffer and state assemblywoman Young Kim is the GOP frontrunner, while Shawn Nelson and Bob Huff are serious enough threats to make the runoff with her that national Democrats have spent millions trying to knock the pair down and boost a fourth Republican, hardliner Phil Liberatore (R), to help him siphon votes from them.
Democrats are hopeful their voters’ hair-on-fire enthusiasm as well as a competitive gubernatorial primary with two Democrats spending heavily will help them boost turnout significantly in a state where Democratic voters typically vote at much worse rates than Republicans, especially in midterms and primaries and most especially in midterm primaries.
And there were signs of enthusiasm all over the county. The Indivisible rally at Rohrabacher’s office, a weekly tradition, drew roughly 50 people in the middle of the day, as cars rolled by honking their approval. An Indivisible candidate forum in Rep. Mimi Walters’ (R-CA) nearby district, one of the races in which Democrats are sure to get a candidate in the general election, packed in several hundred activists at Portola High School in Irvine that same night.
But it’s unclear how much that enthusiasm will translate. Based on the early vote, Democrats appear to be in the best shape in Issa’s district based on excitement alone, where Democrats have been out-voting Republicans. But the opposite is true in Royce’s district, where many more Republicans have returned their ballots by mail as of Friday, and in Rohrabacher’s seat, where the two are about at parity in the GOP-leaning district.
Democratic activists are clearly fired up to help whoever is the nominee in most of these districts.
Jon Bauman, an actor and longtime Democratic activist best known as Bowzer from Sha Na Na, made a point of promising Orange County Democratic Chairwoman Fran Sdao he’d do events to help whoever emerges as the nominee — “as long as we have a candidate.”
Or as his nephew, California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman, told TPM: “There’s definitely a serious potential change [in seats long held by Republicans] that happens here — assuming the perfect storm doesn’t happen.”
California has arguably the most important primaries in the country this year — races that will play a crucial role in determining control of the House this November.
But the candidates and strategists who have lost countless hours of sleep over the fights for these seats aren’t likely to get much of a respite on June 5.
California is notoriously slow at counting ballots, and has changed its laws for this election in some ways that may be good for voting access, but will be rough on those who are waiting to find out what candidates will survive the state’s convoluted all-party primaries.
The state relies heavily on vote-by-mail, an option that more than 70 percent of voters are expected to choose. And this year, California for the first time will count any ballots that are postmarked by election day, rather than requiring all ballots to be received by election day.
That means that ballots are likely to be trickling in as late as Friday, making close contests even more difficult to call — and forcing candidates in tight places to brace for a long process.
“We’re going to have a long week,” California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman told TPM on Friday.
On top of that, the obvious fact that California is on the West Coast and its final ballots will be counted at 1:30 a.m. PST, 4:30 a.m. EST, means that even if the election-day returns are enough to determine a winner, they won’t be released until late into the night.
California also tends to have a higher number of provisional ballots than other states, partly to ensure people who voted by mail don’t vote again on election day — a tedious process to check.
That’s led to a number of long, drawn out election counts, even in races that ended up not being that close. In 2014, Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) had to wait almost a week to know he’d won reelection. It took weeks before now-Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) was officially declared a runoff candidate that same year. And it took almost a month for now-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) to be declared the winner of her 2010 race for Attorney General.
All that has California politicos bracing for a rough stretch.
“I’d be very happy if we know that night. I think it might drag on a little bit… it could be a long count,” Democratic congressional candidate Andy Thorburn told TPM with a rueful laugh Wednesday. “We should probably start a [betting] pool!”
FOUNTAIN VALLEY, CALIF. — As Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) delivered a somber tribute to fallen soldiers at a local Memorial Day event Monday, his old political ally turned primary foe fidgeted in his seat just 20 feet away, applauding as appropriate for the troops. Rohrabacher and former Orange County Chairman Scott Baugh (R), a onetime Rohrabacher acolyte, failed to greet one another at the small gathering, ignoring each other like estranged brothers at a family funeral.
Baugh’s late entrance into the “jungle primary,” where the top two primary candidates face off in the general election regardless of party, upended both Rohrabacher’s reelection plans and Democrats’ hopes to take Rohrabacher down. If Baugh makes it to the general election runoff against Rohrabacher, that ends Democrats’ hopes of flipping a seat that’s key to seizing a House majority — and puts Rohrabacher in even more danger of losing reelection. Both sides are pulling out all the stops to block Baugh, and things have grown steadily more acrimonious ahead of next week’s June 5 primary.
“Ambition beat out gratitude in terms of Scott Baugh’s decision-making,” Rohrabacher groused to TPM as he exited the VFW event, attacking Baugh as a lobbyist who holds “skewed values where gratitude means nothing.”
The bad blood comes after decades of coziness between the two men. Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and surfing-loving right-wing hardliner, played a role in helping Baugh win his state assembly seat in the mid-1990s. They also worked closely together for the decade that Baugh spent as the Orange County GOP chairman.
Baugh downplays their friendship. “It’s probably more accurate to say Dana and I were political allies in the same political family … we were never close friends,” he told TPM during a Wednesday interview at his Newport Beach law office.
But others who know the two men well say that’s an understatement.
“They were very, very close friends,” former Huntington Beach Mayor Joe Carchio (R), who’s backing Baugh, told TPM at Huntington Beach’s Memorial Day ceremony.
Baugh insists that Rohrabacher told him in early 2016 that he wouldn’t run in 2018 in a meeting at that same office to hash out both of their future plans — claims that two other local Republicans who attended and now back Baugh corroborate, including one who published an account of that meeting long before the two men came into conflict. Rohrabacher said he was much less definitive during the meeting and told Baugh soon after that he had plans to run again, something Baugh denies.
Whatever the case may be, Baugh’s last-minute entrance into the race in early March scrambled both Rohrabacher’s and Democrats’ plans. A number of Democrats were already months into campaigns for the seat, seeing an opening in a historically conservative upscale district of beach communities that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried in 2016 given Rohrabacher’s ties to Russia (they run so deep that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) famously joked behind closed doors that “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump”).
Because of California’s unusual jungle primary system, Baugh is a real threat to push past the crowded field of Democrats and face Rohrabacher in the fall.
If he does so, Democrats are already down one district in their fight for 218 House seats — and Rohrabacher likely faces an even stiffer uphill battle for reelection since Baugh likely has more appeal to independents than the idiosyncratic three-decade incumbent. The district is one of four potentially winnable California seats where Democrats have serious fears they won’t get a single candidate in the general election — and the one they’re most worried about heading into Tuesday.
“It is a concern. The jungle primary here has so many machinations that go into the calculus,” Harley Rouda, one of the three Democrats in the race and the one most strategists think has the best chance of getting through to the general election, told TPM. “The challenge is, the more Baugh takes from Rohrabacher the more we need to consolidate the Democratic vote behind us.”
Polling from the campaigns show Baugh and Rouda are neck-and-neck, with medical scientist Hans Keirstead (D) not too far behind. Rohrabacher is well ahead of the field — but bleeding significant support from Republicans, a rarity for an incumbent that shows potential weakness for the general election.
Democrats know how much of a threat a Rohrabacher-Baugh matchup is. Two candidates dropped out shortly after Baugh jumped in and threw their support to Rouda to try to avoid that exact scenario. The local Indivisible group and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have backed him as well, though Keirstead got the California Democratic Party’s endorsement early on in the race.
Republicans would obviously love to see Democrats get shut out in the key district. But they worry that the nasty ongoing fight between the two men could hurt Rohrabacher this fall if a Democrat does get through.
“Baugh’s challenge to a Republican Party-endorsed candidate … has damaged the incumbent, and I’m very disappointed,” California state Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R), a Rohrabacher supporter, told TPM.
Baugh and Rohrabacher have been closely linked ever since Baugh’s first foray into politics, which Rohrabacher strongly encouraged. Baugh was accused of recruiting a dummy Democratic candidate to split the Democratic vote with a better-liked opponent in that 1995 race. Top local GOP activist Rhonda Carmony pleaded guilty to two felony counts in relation to that scandal (they were immediately downgraded to misdemeanors) — shortly after marrying Rohrabacher (she’s currently her husband’s campaign manager as well). Baugh eventually agreed to pay a civil fine of almost $50,000 for nine violations of the state Political Reform Act, after a four-year investigation into a political misconduct case (earlier perjury and campaign finance reporting charges against him were dismissed).
Democrats have jumped on that scandal. The House Majority PAC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have made a huge investment in the race’s closing weeks. Panicked about being shut out in the general election, they have spent nearly $3 million combined against Baugh, including TV ads and mailers using the scandal to paint him as a crook.
Baugh pushed back against those ads, calling them “smear attacks that lack any kind of context” and saying he’d been the victim of a “witch hunt.”
Rohrabacher’s team has also gone hard after Baugh in campaign mailers, painting him as soft on immigration and slamming his work advising a chain of sober living facilities, potentially effective attacks in a district where anti-immigration sentiment and NIMBYism are potent forces with GOP voters (the types parodied in Arrested Development — the original banana stands are in the district on Balboa Island, not far from a statue of Ronald Reagan that sits on private property).
Baugh has responded with attacks on Rohrabacher, painting him as an absentee congressman. And while he’s questioned Rohrabacher’s focus on Russia, he argued it’s more because Rohrabacher has chosen to focus on those issues than those important to the district.
“It’s not so much his views of Russia, it’s his preoccupation of it to the exclusion of the issues that matter in the district. He’s taken 172 trips in his 30 years, that’s 5-6 trips a year for each year in office,” he said. “The people may or may not care about Russia. They do care about the airplane noise, they do care about the sober living homes.”
For his part, Rohrabacher dismissed questions about his Russia views as “fake news.”
“Even my detractors in this race don’t mention Russia too much. Scott said ‘Moscow and marijuana’ in one of his ads. But my people know I’m a patriot and they know everything I do is based on what’s good for the United States of America and while we face radical Islam my advocacy that we could cooperate with Russia to defeat radical Islam is very well understood by these people,” he said.
Democrats are hopeful they can get through a candidate. But they admit they’re worried it might not happen.
“In regards to the jungle primary, I’m absolutely concerned,” Dennis Bress, a local Indivisible activist and early Rouda backer, told TPM. “I’m scared shitless.”
Correction: Rhonda Carmony was not Baugh’s campaign manager during his 1995 campaign, as the original version of this story mistakenly reported.
NEWPORT BEACH, CA — House Democrats’ main super-PAC is making a last-ditch effort to tear down a top Republican running in a key House district.
The House Majority PAC is out with a new ad, shared first with TPM, that attacks former California Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R) for past legal troubles.
“Baugh took illegal campaign cash and was fined nearly $50,000. Career politician Scott Baugh: A lawbreaker we should never send to Washington,” the ad says.
The attack, backed by $650,000 worth of reservations on cable and broadcast TV, looks to knock him down so Democrats can make sure to get a candidate through in next Tuesday’s all-party primary to face Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) in the fall.
To do so, Democrats are keying in on a fewoldscandals they believe could infuriate voters of all partisan stripes.
In 1999, Baugh agreed to pay a civil fine of almost $50,000 for nine violations of the state Political Reform Act, after a four-year investigation into a political misconduct case that began with his 1995 election, after earlier perjury and campaign finance reporting charges against him were dismissed.
Democrats are worried that Baugh’s strength with Republicans unhappy with Rohrabacher could mean the two Republicans could finish ahead of all the Democrats running and guarantee a GOP victory in the fall. That would put Democrats one seat further from winning the House majority. It’s the seat that Democrats are worried they might get locked out of, though they have varying degrees of worry about four other districts as well.
“With so much at stake, Southern Californians need to know the facts about Republican Scott Baugh,” House Majority PAC Executive Director Charlie Kelly said in a statement. “We’re working to ensure voters know about Baugh’s real record before going to the polls on June 5 and voting in such a critical election.”
When a local radio host asked Montana Senate candidate Matt Rosendale what differentiated him from the other GOP candidates earlier this year, he had a quick response.
“Piece of cake. Rancher,” he told radio host Aaron Flint in January. “I’m a businessman. I’m a former legislator, and I’m an executive. And I’ve been very effective in each one of those positions.”
But his rancher claim appears to be all hat, no cattle.
Rosendale, the 57-year-old GOP frontrunner to face Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), has made ranching a central part of his image as he looks to win his June 5 primary and unseat the two-term senator. He regularly peppers his campaign pitch with folksy references to his work on the ranch as a way to prove his authentic connections to the state and inoculate himself against attacks that the Maryland native is a carpetbagger.
But public records and his own past statements indicate the longtime real estate developer never actually ranched his land himself, instead renting it out for others to farm and run their cattle on. And the higher the office he’s run for, the more he’s talked up his supposed ranching experience.
That could be a problem for Rosendale as he looks to hang on for a primary victory next week, as his top primary opponent, former Judge Russ Fagg (R), has repeatedly questioned his roots in the state.
“Matt Rosendale may describe himself as a rancher, but I haven’t met many ranchers who were wealthy east coast real-estate developers until they were 40 years old,” Fagg said in a statement to TPM when asked about Rosendale’s ranching credentials.
Rosendale is expected to win the race. He has big-name support from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), and he has had a lot of help in the race from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, which has been running ads for him and against Fagg.
But his ranching credentials could be an issue if he squares off against Tester in the fall. Tester has long banked on his own homespun credentials including his still-working farm and the fingers he lost in a childhood meat grinder accident to put distance between himself and national Democrats in the Republican-leaning state.
Parts of Montana have experienced rapid growth in recent years as people move in from other states, to the consternation of many native Montanans, and being a developer could prove problematic for some voters. Montana Democrats have already attacked “Maryland Matt” Rosendale as a carpet-bagger — charges similar to those Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and others leveled against him during their 2014 House primary.
Rosendale moved from Maryland to a Glendive, Montana ranch in 2002 after a successful career in real estate, and still speaks in a heavy Maryland accent. Not too long after he moved to the state he began running for office, winning a statehouse seat in 2010, moving up to the state Senate in 2013 and becoming state auditor and insurance commissioner at the beginning of 2017 after losing a 2014 primary for the U.S. House.
During that time and especially in his latest campaign, he’s leaned hard into his rancher persona — while at times avoiding mention of his years as an elected official or discussing his decades in real estate. That includes in his paid advertising, when his time in public office is almost never mentioned. His first Senate campaign ad and website both describe him as a “rancher, businessman, proven leader” — a verbal construction he’s used throughout the campaign.
Rosendale has always talked up his Montana ranch connections as a candidate, but he’s done so with increasing force as he’s run for higher office.
That includes his own job description on official campaign paperwork. In 2010 and 2012, Rosendale listed himself as “real estate developer” on his official candidate disclosure forms. In 2016, he listed “ranching and real estate development.”
According to an open records report from the Montana Department Of Revenue conducted for the liberal group American Bridge, Rosendale hasn’t registered ownership of any livestock since 2011 — and before then it was limited to a few horses. It appears that he’s never owned any cattle. He similarly received a registered livestock brand when he bought his $2.2 million ranch in 2002, but let that lapse when it expired in 2011, and it doesn’t appear that he ever used it.
That makes sense if Rosendale hasn’t worked the land much himself.
“Right now my neighbors are leasing the property,” he said in late 2017 when asked in a radio show interview how many cattle he had. “I don’t get back as often, nearly as often as I would like. Serving here in Helena for the state, that is six and a half hours away from where the ranch is.”
(In that same interview he complained that Tester “gets away with trying to pull off this ‘I’m a good old farmer’ act that he does and then he goes back to Washington, D.C. and he votes with the hard left.”)
It seems like leasing out his land been a longstanding arrangement.
“There’s a bunch of irrigated ground and I lease it to one of my neighbors and he grows crops on it, and then there’s dry farmland and I lease that to another neighbor, and then I’ve got all the native pasture and I lease that to another guy who runs cattle,” Rosendale told a local newspaper in his native Eastern Shore of Maryland originally founded by his parents in 2011. “I fix fence, I repair corrals, and I ride my horse and check things out and then when hunting season comes, I probably have 50 to 70 people that I allow to come through my property to hunt.”
“The Trump tax cuts mean business,” he says in the ad as his campaign slogan, “Matt means business,” is branded onto the screen.
Often, his campaign press releases simplydescribehim as a “Glendive rancher,” leaving out mention of his main jobs.
Rosendale has also repeatedly used an almost identical story to describe his work on the ranch.
“I’ve worked the ranch. I’ve hauled sugar beets from the field. I’ve PG’d cows in the fall. And I literally have driven T-Posts into the parched each to help my neighbors rebuild their fences after a prairie fire came through and destroyed everything that they had,” he said during the last GOP primary debate last month, an almost verbatim repetition of a line he’s used elsewhere on the stump including in all four of the Republican debates and candidate forums during the campaign.
It’s unclear whether Rosendale shot his latest ad on his property or elsewhere, or whose cows appear in the ad. His campaign refused to respond to a series of questions about that, whether he’s owned any livestock, why he started describing himself as a rancher in official paperwork after leaving that off in earlier years, and which cows he “PG’d,” an apparent reference to giving cows the hormone prostaglandin for breeding purposes.
“Your ridiculous questions make it pretty clear that you’ve never been to Matt’s ranch in Glendive and you don’t know a cow from a cantaloupe,” Rosendale campaign manager Kendall Cotton told TPM in an email.
On the stump, Rosendale hasn’t hid his work as a real estate developer — “I’ve made my career, made money in real estate and real estate development,” he said in one campaign speech last fall.
But time and again throughout his campaign, he refers to himself as a rancher first before mentioning his real estate background — or goes with the vaguer “rancher and businessman.”
This campaign isn’t the first time people have questioned whether he’s an authentic rancher:
Tester didn’t directly respond when TPM asked if he thought Rosendale was an authentic rancher.
“There’s a lot of retired ranchers that don’t farm anymore that are still ranchers,” he said when asked about Rosendale and if he considered someone is a rancher if they own the land but doesn’t work it. “I haven’t studied his business, but it’s tough to be a rancher when you’re insurance commissioner. But what the heck? I mean, I make this work because we make it work.”
Tester told TPM that he had about 100 acres left to plant on his farm as of Thursday because of the late spring — alfalfa, grains, peas, and safflower for oil.
Rosendale he opened a recent op-ed with a long anecdote about what Washington can learn from rancher values — while going the entire piece without mentioning his real estate work or that he grew up just hours from D.C.
“Like many Montana ranchers, I know the importance of having good neighbors,” he wrote. “When you’re ranching and people are counting on you, you don’t put up with nonsense. You have to get things done. It’s about time Washington D.C. work[s] that way.”
It will be interesting to see if Montana voters decide he’s authentically one of their own.
Just weeks ago, Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA) told TPM that he thought two Republicans would make it into the runoff election for his seat, locking out Democrats and costing them one of their top pickup opportunities. But this week, he said he thinks that isn’t going to happen.
“The Democratic turnout is exceeding Republican in the absentee [mail vote],” Issa, who is retiring at the end of this term, told TPM on Tuesday. “The Democrats have a machine turning out Democratic votes and that’s probably going to make a difference on June 5 … what they’re doing is designed to make what would otherwise be a failure into a success.”
According to new early vote numbers, Issa is right that that’s less likely to happen in his district. But the numbers suggest Democrats may be in a precarious spot in a few other California districts they’ve been worried about.
Those numbers are compiled by data guru Paul Mitchell, whose team reaches out to each county to get daily vote updates. He said the early data suggested that the electorate is looking a lot more like a normal midterm electorate in the state than one where Democrats are flocking to the polls — a sign that it might be harder to flip these traditionally Republican but Democratic-trending seats in the fall than some Democrats have hoped.
“It’s all bad signs,” he said. “I don’t think these early vote numbers suggest a big blue wave in the primary.”
California’s “jungle” primary system allows the top two vote-winners to advance to the general election, regardless of party. That’s led to concerns among Democrats that their candidates could split the Democratic vote, allowing Republicans to finish in the top two spots in some congressional races.
In Issa’s seat, where four serious Democratic candidates are vying against three Republicans, Democrats are outpacing Republicans in early mail ballots returned — a big factor in the race as California strategists say at least two thirds of the election’s votes will be cast by mail. Registered Democrats make up 32 percent of the district’s vote-by-mail population but have returned 36 percent of its votes, while Republicans’ returned ballots have matched their 37 percent share of the electorate.
That’s not the case in another key race where Democrats are concerned they might get shut out — a Democratic-leaning district held by retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) where three Democrats including two front-runners are squaring off against a trio of Republicans. And while Democratic strategists who have seen internal polling say this district isn’t at the top of their worry list, the numbers suggest there’s reason for concern here as well, as Republicans are voting at faster numbers than Democrats.
In Royce’s district, registered Democrats make up 34 percent of the vote-by-mail population, the same percentage that have returned ballots. But Republicans, who make up 37 percent of the vote-by-mail population, have returned 46 percent of the ballots received so far.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s GOP-leaning seat more closely mirrors the registered vote population. Democrats make up 30 percent of vote-by-mail registrants and 35 percent of those ballots returned, while Republicans make up for 42 percent of the district’s mail voters and 46 percent of those who have returned ballots.
It’s still relatively early in the election — ballots were sent out in early May, voters have until the June 5 primary to return them. Since there are more competitive Democratic than Republican primaries (including all-party races for governor and senator) Democrats may be more likely to sit on ballots for longer. Different campaigns have different vote-gathering strategies as well, so one shouldn’t over-read these results. But they can be instructive.
Mitchell is a Democrat but his clients include both the California Democratic and Republican parties. He thinks the likelihood of Democrats getting locked out in any particular district remains low — but says there’s a good chance they’ll blow one race, a costly mistake in a year where every seat counts as Democrats try to win back the House majority.
“I believe it’s an unlikely event for this to happen in any one district but if you take five unlikely events you end up with one fairly likely event,” he told TPM.
A Republican super PAC is launching a last-minute effort to boost a handful of House GOP candidates in southern California. The goal is to block Democrats from getting a candidate into the general election in some key House races.
The American Future Fund, an Iowa-based GOP group, has dropped almost $700,000 to boost four GOP candidates in three districts, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday.
Their goals are to elevate some flagging Republicans and try to help them make the November ballot in districts that are key to Democrats’ hopes of winning the House this fall.
California’s “jungle” primary system allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election, regardless of party. That’s led to concerns among Democrats that their candidates could split the Democratic vote, allowing Republicans to finish in the top two spots in some congressional races and immediately costing them chances at a handful of winnable seats in the state.
Republicans had been surprisingly quiet in their response, considering how with some effort now they could guarantee victory in a few key House battles — as well as save themselves a lot of money in November in the expensive districts. But this buy suggests things may be starting to shift.
The GOP super-PAC’s buy includes almost $500,000 on advertising, direct mail and door-to-door voter outreach to boost Rocky Chavez and Diane Harkey, a pair of Republican candidates running for the seat currently held by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who is retiring. That race is one in which both parties worry they might get shut out and fail to get a candidate through to the November election, though Democrats are more alarmed at the prospect.
The group is also spending $100,000 to boost Scott Baugh, a Republican running against controversial Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). That district is the one where Democratic concerns about being shut out, given their own crowded field, are most acute.
The GOP group is also chipping in about $100,000 to boost Young Kim, the GOP front-runner in the crowded race to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA).
The efforts for Kim and Harkey began last week, but this is the first evidence that the group’s push is to block Democrats out in some of these districts, rather than help out particular GOP candidates. The group didn’t respond to requests for an explanation of their strategy.
Republicans had expressed growing frustration that their party wasn’t doing more to meddle in these primaries to ensure the best results. Democrats already have spent millions on the races.
Issa told TPM on Tuesday, before these ads had become public, that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats were doing a better job organizing in the state, even in traditionally conservative enclaves like his district.
“Pelosi naturally gets us better. That’s not to say anything against Steve,” Issa said, referring to National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH). “It’s just that the observation in my district is the Democrats are playing a game that could well get one of their candidates in that otherwise wouldn’t if both sides were playing.”
Other Republicans have also griped about the lack of national intervention to help them.
“You wish the party would recognize this opportunity and lift us up,” GOP strategist John Thomas, who’s working with candidate Shawn Nelson in Royce’s district, told TPM. “They just don’t understand the top-two dynamic.”
Democrats have been spending heavily against Nelson and Bob Huff to avoid them getting into the runoff with Kim, the GOP front-runner, and Republicans still have done little in response to help them.
But the American Future Fund’s late intervention could help move the ball back in Republicans’ direction in these key seats.
Democratic activist and writer Laura Moser has lost her primary runoff in a key House district in suburban Houston, Texas to attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (D). Fletcher led Moser by 68 percent to 32 percent with 63 percent of precincts reporting. The Associated Press has called the race.
Moser drew national headlines when she was the target of aggressive attacks from the DCCC, who before the March primary highlighted controversial statements she’d made about her home state.
The attack is the only time the committee has taken a public swipe at one of their own candidates this election cycle — and in any recent cycle — and it seemed to backfire, helping Moser pull in some big dollars from national Democratic groups and possibly cementing her position in the runoff.
Tuesday’s results let national Democrats breathe a sigh of relief; groups like the DCCC had made clear that they saw Moser as a fatally flawed candidate who would have taken a winnable race against Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) off the map. Culberson’s district is historically very Republican but Hillary Clinton narrowly won it last election cycle, and Democrats are hopeful they can beat him with the more moderate Fletcher as their nominee.
“Born and raised in Houston, Lizzie Fletcher has dedicated her life to service and protecting economic opportunity for the people of this community,” DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) said in a statement. “Lizzie is in a very strong position for the general election, and her inclusive message will strike a powerful contrast with her Republican opponent’s record of undermining investment in critical infrastructure and disaster preparedness, and raising the cost of health care for thousands of families across Texas.”
Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D) has won her state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, making her the first black woman to win a major-party gubernatorial nomination in U.S. history as she seeks to become the first black female governor in the U.S.
Abrams led former state Rep. Stacey Evans (D) by 74 percent to 26 percent of the vote with 31 percent of precincts reporting. The Associated Press has called the race.
Abrams, a Democratic rising star who’s long been talked up by party leaders, has spent years working to expand Georgia’s electorate by pushing to register more young and minority voters in the quickly diversifying state.
She easily bested Evans in this race after getting heavy support from the pro-choice EMILY’s List as well as a bevy of top surrogates including Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
“We proved that an unmuted voice can shake the foundations of an ‘immutable’ status quo. We showed the nation that there is power in our voices, and there is power in our feet,” Abrams said in a Facebook post after her victory was declared, nodding to the historic nature of her campaign. “Tonight’s victory was only the beginning. The road to November will be long and tough, but the next step is one we take together.”
The race pitted two competing visions for the future of the Democratic Party against each other; Abrams called for the Party to lean into a progressive vision and to excite new voters while Evans, who is white, stressed a more moderate message aimed at winning back the state’s long-dead Democratic coalition that was rooted in moderate white voters.
Abrams faces an uphill battle in her race for governor in the Republican-leaning state — but it’s one that national Democrats are excited to see take place.
Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) led the GOP field by a double-digit margin in the primary but won far below the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. He will face Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), a hardline Republican who’s run some controversial culture war ads and is a longtime foe of Abrams’ in her battle to expand the voting rolls in the state.
Georgia’s population has trended younger and more diverse in recent decades, and isn’t as solidly Republican as some might think — Hillary Clinton lost it by just five percentage points, the same margin President Obama lost the state by in 2008, and better than his eight-point loss in 2012. But those final five points have proven elusive for Democrats, whose most recent top statewide candidates have been white. It will be interesting to see if Abrams can combine what’s shaping up to be a good year for Democrats and her own appeal to base progressives to make this a tight race in the fall.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Abrams called for a progressive vision, while Evans pitched a more moderate message to voters.