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Cameron Joseph

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.

Articles by Cameron

Longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is leaning towards retirement, two sources tell TPM, and has told former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney that he wants him to run if he does decide to step down.

Those comments come after five sources told The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, the best-sourced reporter on Mormon politicians, that Hatch is telling allies he’s planning to retire at the end of his term next year.

Two sources close to Hatch’s office tell TPM that he’s leaning towards retirement, though he hasn’t made a final decision, and that he’s told Mitt Romney that he wants him to step up for the seat if he does decide to retire.

“It is true, Hatch has told Romney ‘I want you to replace me if I don’t run again’ but the timing is crucial,” said one source, who said Hatch doesn’t want to be sidelined in the ongoing tax reform push or hurt the efforts. “If I were to buy futures I’d probably be buying futures on someone besides Hatch being senator.”

Another source concurred, saying Hatch hasn’t made a final decision and is waiting to make any announcement until the tax reform effort is done one way or the other.

“He’s just gone back and forth and my guess is he’s going to retire,” another source close to Hatch’s office told TPM. “Some people on his staff have said that [he’s retiring] but a couple have said he’s going to run again. He’s trying to keep himself in the mix for now but he’s almost 84.”

That would be a sea change in Utah politics as well as in the Senate, where Hatch has served since the 1980s.

But recent polls have shown most Utahns want Hatch to retire — and even his allies concede he’s likely to face a tough primary challenger that won’t be as easy to dispatch as the one he defeated six years ago.

That could open the door to a Trump ally in a state where even most Republicans don’t like the president.

“A really strong primary challenger could beat him and he’s got to know that,” TPM’s source said.

If Romney runs, he’d likely be the strong favorite in a state where the Mormon church still holds immense sway over state politics. Romney has been fiercely critical of Trump, and could fill a void that’s being left by the retirement of fellow Trump critic (and Mormon) Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) as well as Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN).

Hatch’s office pushed back on both TPM’s and The Atlantic’s reports.

“He has not made a final decision yet.  If you have seen Sen. Hatch, he always stands straight and tall.  He isn’t ‘leaning’ one way or the other,” Hatch spokesman Dave Hansen told TPM in an email.

“Nothing has changed since The Atlantic published a carbon copy of this same story in April, likely with the same anonymous sources who were no more informed on the Senator’s thinking than they seem to be now,” he told The Atlantic. “Senator Hatch is focused on leading the Senate’s efforts to pass historic tax reform, confirming strong judges to courts around the country, and continuing to fight through the gridlock to deliver results for Utah. He has not made a final decision about whether or not to seek reelection, but plans to by the end of the year.”

This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. EST.

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TYSONS, VA. – President Trump bear-hugged Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie (R) Thursday morning — and Gillespie didn’t seem so thrilled about the embrace.

Shortly before Gillespie was due to appear in tony Northern Virginia alongside moderate, Hispanic New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R), Trump sent a pair of tweets praising the GOP candidate for being “strong on crime” and supporting Confederate statues.

But Gillespie wasn’t keen to return the love — or talk about his own campaign advertisements accusing Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) of being soft on crime and wanting to “take our statues down.” He didn’t mention Trump or his own ads once during the event, and refused to answer TPM’s questions about either as he bolted for the elevator afterwards, avoiding eye contact.

At Gillespie’s Thursday morning event he sounded like the pro-immigrant, business-minded Ed of yesteryear. He talked up economic expansion and tax cuts while eschewing the culture wars that long have fueled some other GOP campaigns and powered President Trump to the White House last fall.

His campaign literature distributed at the event highlighted that he was a “son of an immigrant,” in a diverse part of the state that’s trended hard towards Democrats in the past decade as people from other parts of the country and world (including New Jersey native Gillespie) have poured in for well-paying jobs.

“My focus and my policies are about creating jobs and raising take home pay and helping people lift themselves out of poverty, improving our public schools, easing traffic congestion, addressing this awful opioid and heroin epidemic and a lot of other policies that we’ve got to get in place during the course of the next governorship,” Gillespie said during the event with the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “We really have to get Virginia growing again.”

But his campaign this time around has been far different. Gillespie, who nearly lost his primary to a poorly funded Trump backer, has pivoted hard right on immigration and hammered Northam for his call to take down Confederate monuments around the state following the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer.

Gillespie’s ads have focused heavily on that and slamming Northam for supporting “sanctuary cities” and being “weak on MS-13,” a violent gang, even though no such cities exist in Virginia and Gillespie’s statehouse allies forced a show vote on the matter to get Northam on record on the issue.

The only allusions to those controversial themes came not from Gillespie, but Martinez.

“Safety is number one for Ed of every single person that lives in this state and so for that reason he feels that then allows for economic growth. If you don’t have public safety people don’t want to come to a place that’s not safe,” Martinez said before pivoting back to taxes.

Gillespie is walking a tightrope in the state. He badly needs huge turnout from more culturally conservative Trump backers to have a shot in Virginia. But the state has trended from red to swing to blue-leaning in the past decade, and his hard-hitting ads risk alienating moderate and suburban and urban voters in places like Tysons.

That helps explain that while Northam was happy to campaign with President Obama last week, Gillespie has so far declined to stump with Trump — even as he had Vice President Mike Pence (R) to the state.

Public polls have been all over the place in the race, but the consensus from public and private surveys is Northam has maintained a small lead in the race, the biggest campaign of 2017.

The election is less than two weeks away.

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Congressional Democrats are whipping their GOP counterparts in fundraising heading into the 2018 elections, a key sign that a wave election may be building.

In both the Senate and House, Democrats are pulling money hand-over-fist in many of their most important races, according to campaign finance reports recently filed with the Federal Election Commission. Many Republicans are struggling to keep up — including some key incumbents in both chambers.

That trend is causing heartburn for many Republicans, who worry their chances of losing the House are growing due to President Trump’s unpopularity and Republican voters’ frustration with their failure to pass major legislation.

“It’s a serious problem,” former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) told TPM. “It’s a very rough cycle coming up. Nobody’s had a good off year since 2002 and anybody that thinks the majority is not at risk or that they can’t be beaten is kidding themselves.”

The chances they could lose the Senate too are looking less like an impossibility even though Democrats are defending many more vulnerable seats. Republican senators warn that they better get tax reform done to please their donors and base or face an even bleaker scenario following their failure to repeal Obamacare.

“There is a warning that comes from lack of fundraising success, and it indicates that your agenda or your lack of accomplishment is something people are deciding is a problem as they make a decision about contributing to a campaign,” former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS) told TPM. “The fact that the fundraising is what it is is certainly not a positive, but it doesn’t mean that it’s ultimately a problem. There’s time to recover from the circumstance of low numbers now.”

Nine of the 10 Democratic senators from states President Trump won raised more than $1 million in the last fundraising quarter, easily outpacing most of their rivals. All 10 have at least $3 million stashed away, and seven of them have more than $5 million cash on hand.

On the flip side, the few Senate Republicans who might face real challenges posted less-than impressive hauls. Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) was out-raised by his likely Democratic opponent, Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV). Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) decision to retire came after he was out-raised by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who begins the Arizona Senate race with a big cash advantage over any of her likely opponents with $4.2 million in the bank.

Senate GOP challengers also struggled with fundraising. Only two Senate Republican candidates raised even half as much as the Democratic senator they’re hoping to take out next fall — Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey (R). Like many other Republican Senate candidates, they’ll have to spend much of that money to win primaries.

Democrats even raised more than their GOP opponents in long-shot races. Democrat Doug Jones brought in more and had more money in the bank than former Judge Roy Moore (R) in Alabama ahead of their Dec. 12 special election, and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) out-raised Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), though Cruz still has much more cash on hand.

Democrats aren’t counting their chickens yet — but they admit things seem to be going their way.

“This has been an amazing year. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who raised $2.7 million and has $7.1 million in the bank, told TPM.

“Our members are putting themselves in a strong position and we’re really seeing an increase in grassroots support and fundraising, lots of small-dollar contributions, which is a sign of increased political energy around the country,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told TPM. “If this becomes part of a larger wave that’d be great, but we’re not banking on a wave. … We’re feeling like things are going as well as they can politically for our senators.”

The House side is even more promising for Democrats in their uphill fight to win back a chamber of Congress next year.

More than 30 incumbent Republicans raised less money than their Democratic challengers from July through September — an occurrence that’s almost unheard of this early in the election cycle — including vulnerable members like Reps. John Culberson (R-TX), Mimi Walters (R-CA) and Steve Knight (R-CA).

Some incumbent Republicans in tough seats posted huge fundraising numbers — Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) all had solid hauls — and many of the top-performing Democrats are going to have to spend big chunks of their war chests to win primaries, draining resources.

“It will be fun watching Democratic candidates bleed their campaigns dry on futile a mission to bolster their progressive bona fides,” said NRCC spokesman Jesse Hunt.

But it’s clear whose side has the energy — and big early fundraising is often an early sign of a party’s success in future elections.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also out-raised their GOP counterparts once again, a pattern that’s held for most of this year, though the DSCC and NRSC have about the same cash on hand and the NRCC has more in the bank than the DCCC.

One big exception to this pattern: The Republican National Committee is wiping the floor with the Democratic National Committee, a major concern for Democrats as they head into a crucial midterm year. The RNC has $44 million in the bank to the DNC’s paltry $7 million.

The DNC is still recovering from a longterm fracture driven by years of neglect, information exposed by the Russian hacks, and distrust between the Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wings of the party. That could be a big problem heading forward. The RNC, in the meantime, is more closely affiliated with President Trump, who remains popular with the GOP base and helps the national party raise cash. Super-PAC spending also tends to favor Republicans.

Cole said that some members needed to wake up and realize they face tough reelection fights and that he expected GOP leaders to try to push them to get moving.

“I don’t have sympathy with people who don’t go raise money,” he said. “I expect there’ll be a lot of kicks in the rear going forward.”

This story was updated to correctly identify Rep. Steve Knight’s (R-CA) home state.

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Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) shocking decision to retire is the latest blow to Republicans willing to stand up to President Donald Trump — and leaves the Senate reeling and the race to replace him in utter chaos.

Flake, the GOP’s loudest critic of the president, admitted he couldn’t win the Republican primary in an emotional speech on the Senate floor before warning his Republican colleagues that they were being “complicit” in allowing Trump’s “reckless, undignified and outrageous behavior” to continue.

But his decision to leave rather than stay and fight, coupled with the retirement of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), another top Trump GOP critic, and Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) ongoing serious health problems, mean the Senate is likely to see a dwindling of Republicans willing to stand up to Trump after the 2018 elections — and it’s unclear whether it improves Democrats’ slim prospects of winning back Senate control next election.

The mood for many senators was one of shock and sorrow, almost as if a member had died, with members of both parties visibly upset at the news.

“It’s just tragic. Flake is a completely honest broker,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told TPM as he exited the Senate floor after Flake’s retirement speech. “When somebody who’s as good and decent a person as Jeff Flake does not feel like he can continue on it’s a very tragic day for the institution, and I felt the same way with the Corker announcement [last month]. … It’s a very depressing, very depressing day.”

“I’m surprised and I’m very saddened,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told TPM.

Corker lamented Flake’s decision as well.

“Flake is one of the best people in the United States Senate, no question, and the Senate will be less well off without him,” he said, saying Flake stood up to the “demagogues” and for American values.

But with the pair gone and McCain’s future in the Senate uncertain, it’s not clear who will fill that role. Corker didn’t have an answer when a reporter asked him who will be left to stand up when the “people who stand up against the demagogues” head for the exits.

“I’ll answer that question later,” he said after a pause.

If a Republican wins the seat, it’s almost certain to be one that’s more friendly to the president than the antagonistic Flake. Unless Democrats win this race and pull off an upset in the race to replace Corker, the 2018 elections might end up further weakening the Senate as a brake on Trump’s worst impulses with the few principled Republicans heading for the exits. That’s true even if every one of the 10 Democratic incumbents in states Trump carried wins reelection next year.

Flake’s decision also throws the race for his seat into utter chaos. Flake had been trailing hardline conservative former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) by huge margins in primary polls due to his ongoing war with Trump, and Republicans, including his own strategists, were greatly worried he’d either lose to a fatally flawed nominee or come out of the primary so wounded that he couldn’t defeat Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) in the general election.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) said Flake will be “severely missed.” And while he said Arizona was a “Republican state” that voted for Trump, he conceded the race would be “a focus” of his committee heading into 2018.

Arizona Republicans admit Flake’s decision scrambles the race, though they’re divided about whether it helps or hurts their chances to hold the seat. One said Flake was “pretty much doomed” in a head-to-head against Ward who strategists think would be a disaster as the nominee, and argued the move “gives us a better chance of holding the seat.”

But he said there’s no predicting what will happen now, with a number of politicians from former Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to Reps. Martha McSally (R-AZ), Trent Franks and Dave Schweikert (R-AZ) seriously eying bids of their own. Former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio isn’t ruling out a run of his own.

“It throws the whole thing upside down. The dominoes will be far and wide. I think you have potentially half of the congressional delegation jump in the race,” said the strategist. “It could be a very crowded field with a lot of big names. … This changes the trajectory entirely.”

While Republicans are likely to duke it out in a costly, possibly nasty August primary, Sinema is likely to have the field to herself — and time to build upon the $4.2 million war chest she already has.

Sinema refused to discuss the dynamics of the race, while calling Flake “a man of great integrity and great character” in a brief statement to reporters.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) told TPM it “helps” because “the struggle for control” between pro- and anti-Trump forces within the GOP is “only going to get more intense” in an open GOP primary.

But other Democrats aren’t so sure.

“It changes the dynamic and we’re going to have to wait until the scenario shakes out.” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) told reporters Tuesday night. “Everything’s up in the air.”

Trump’s team and allies celebrated Flake’s decision. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was “probably a good move,” while former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s website was more blunt:

But they were about the only ones celebrating.

“These are times when we need Republican colleagues particularly who are willing to do the difficult things of standing up to a president who clearly is violating basic tenants of the Constitution every day,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told TPM, saying she was concerned things would get worse and not better after the 2018 elections. “I’m worried about the country.”

This story was updated at 6:35 p.m.

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Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) will introduce a bill to close gun background check loopholes on Wednesday, less than four weeks after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history in Las Vegas — even though he knows it has almost no chance to pass.

Murphy, a leading champion of gun law reform ever since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in his old congressional district, told TPM in an interview that the new bill is a way to try to “strike fear” into Republican lawmakers opposing popular gun reforms and the National Rifle Association, even if chances of passing it are “slim.”

“I wish it didn’t feel like Groundhog Day — but one day it won’t,” he told TPM, arguing that the tide of public pressure was beginning to turn against the NRA. “Our movement is getting stronger and stronger. By introducing this bill we give Republicans a choice: They can sign on, they can introduce an alternative, or they can stand on the sidelines… and make this an issue in their 2018 reelection

“There’s no great social change movement in this country that didn’t have failures before it had success,” he said. “Putting this bill in the hopper and using it as a pressure point for the movement is part of what grows our strength.”

The bill, which would make background checks nearly universal on commercial gun sales, is almost identical to a section of the gun control bill Democrats introduced that went nowhere last year. And it’s a more restrictive version than the bill introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) that failed by a wide margin back in 2013 — when Democrats had control of the Senate and the White House.

Murphy admitted this legislation wouldn’t have stopped Las Vegas — but said the point was to stop future gun crime, not try to react every time a large-scale shooting spree hits the U.S.

“The NRA wants the anti-gun violence movement to only focus on the policy change that would have addressed the last shooting of victims numbering over 20. You cannot build a political movement if you change the issue you care about every three months and the gun industry knows that. That’s why the gun industry said after Sandy Hook, background checks wouldn’t have stopped the Sandy Hook murders,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is pass legislation that is prospective. I can’t pass anything that would reverse time and stop Las Vegas.”

But Murphy is convinced that things are starting to turn in favor of gun control, citing polling that 90 percent of Americans want to expand background checks, that three out of the four major statewide gun control referendums passed last year, and that the movement won all three Senate races it focused on last fall, in Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Hampshire. He also pointed to the NRA’s recent openness to a change in the rules to ban “bump stocks” that allowed the Las Vegas shooter to turn guns into automatic weapons during his murder spree that left 58 people dead and 546 injured.

“Just three weeks ago the gun lobby since the first time I’ve been in Congress suggested a willingness to change gun laws,” he told TPM. “The ground is shifting but you need legislation like this to rally people to the side of those who wants change and against those who don’t want change.”

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Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore said late last year that the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage was “even worse” than the notorious 1857 Dred Scott ruling that upheld slavery.

Moore, a hard-right former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, has twice been removed from office for refusing to follow the rule of law — the second time for ordering probate judges in his state to disobey the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling legalizing gay marriage. Last November he said that decision was even worse than one that scholars widely consider the worst Supreme Court decision in U.S. history.

“In 1857 the United States Supreme Court did rule that black people were property. Of course that contradicted the Constitution, and it took a civil war to overturn it. But this ruling in Obergefell is even worse in a sense because it forces not only people to recognize marriage other than the institution ordained of God and recognized by nearly every state in the union, it says that you now must do away with the definition of marriage and make it between two persons of the same gender or leading on, as one of the dissenting justices said, to polygamy, to multi-partner marriages,” Moore said  in a podcast interview last November, shortly after he was suspended without pay from the court.

“We’ve got to go back and recognize that what they did in Obergefell was not only to take and create a right that does not exist under the Constitution but then to mandate that that right compels Christians to give up their religious freedom and liberty,” he continued.

In Dred Scott the court denied citizenship to African Americans and found the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, triggering a backlash that helped lead to the Civil War.

Moore’s comments were made in an interview with Here I Stand, a podcast run by the religious conservative Christian Emergency League, and shared with TPM by the Democratic group American Bridge.

Moore wasn’t the only one on the religious right who compared Obergefell to Dred Scott. It became a talking point from Christian conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum two years ago. But Moore clearly went a step further by saying the decision was worse, not just listing it as another decision from the court he thought was terrible.

Moore’s remark isn’t the only time he’s waded into murky racial waters in his political and judicial career. As TPM has reported, Moore successfully led the charge against removing segregationist language from the Alabama state constitution, his biggest backer is a neo-Confederate who wants the South to secede again, and Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law hosted the neo-Confederate, pro-secession League of the South’s annual “Secession Day” events in 2009 and 2010, though Moore’s staff claim he didn’t know about the events.

He’s also continued to question whether President Obama was born in the U.S., and his campaign has recently shared racially charged memes during this Senate run.

“The Dred Scott decision ranks as the worst Supreme Court decision in American history and it’s appalling that Moore doesn’t understand that, though sadly not surprising considering his history of embracing white supremacists and pro-Confederate groups,”  American Bridge spokesperson Allison Teixeira Sulier told TPM. “Roy Moore is not fit to serve in any capacity, and his hateful views are un-American.”

Moore’s campaign declined to respond to requests for comment or clarification about his remarks.

In spite of his controversies, Moore remains the favorite against former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones ahead of the Dec. 12 election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat. He hass held a lead in the mid- to high-single digits in most public and private polling of the race.

The full interview can be heard here.

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Former Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) has jumped into the race to replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), setting up a likely race to the right against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that could benefit Democrats.

“We’re going to get in this race, and we’re going to get in it to win it, and go up there and try to get something done,” Fincher told The Tennesseean. “Let’s stand up with the president on his policies.”

The race has the potential to get nasty — and potentially give Democrats an opening in a solidly Republican state, especially if former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) decides to run, which he’s considering. Attorney and Iraq War veteran James Mackler is Democrats’ current front-runner for the nomination.

In his opening interview as a candidate, Fincher hit Blackburn for helping push through a bill that hamstrung the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to crack down on bad actor pharmaceutical companies in a state where the opioid crisis has been especially severe.

“This is an issue that shows Tennesseans want someone to stand up against special interests,” he said. “We’re losing lives. Our jails, little towns and communities are broken. People, they go to Washington, and have stayed up there too long and are out of touch with what’s really happening all over this great state.”

Fincher, a gospel singer and seventh-generation farmer, was a political neophyte when he won his House seat in the 2010 GOP wave. He served three terms before retiring from the House at the end of last term.

It’s unclear whether Fincher will be able to raise the money to compete against the deep-pocketed Blackburn, who already has locked in an endorsement from former White House chief adviser Steve Bannon. But the race has a chance to become a hard-fought one — a result that could crack the door for Democrats.

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Doug Jones is doing something rather surprising in his underdog Senate campaign to defeat former Judge Roy Moore (R) in Alabama: Running like an actual Democrat.

Jones’ core message and paid advertising are all about unity, working across the aisle and pocketbook issues. But he’s proclaimed liberal positions in a way that’s almost unheard of for Democrats running statewide in the Deep South, especially with the conservative Democrats who used to win in Alabama. It’s also a marked contrast to how Jon Ossoff finished his campaign in a hotly contested House race in Georgia, carefully emphasizing centrism and cutting government waste. Jones’ approach is even less cautious than that of Virginia gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam (D), who took heat from the base for saying he’d “work with Trump” on occasion (though both Ossoff and Northam took mostly liberal positions).

A former U.S. attorney, Jones is avowedly pro-choice, even in the third trimester of pregnancy. He says climate change is real because he “believe[s] in science” and thinks President Trump shouldn’t have pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords. He wants to fix Obamacare, not dismantle it. He supports the DREAM Act, and wants undocumented immigrants brought here as children to stay in the U.S. He already campaigned with former Vice President Joe Biden, and has the endorsement of a number of national liberal groups like MoveOn.org that wouldn’t get within a mile of most southern white Democrats.

Those stances would be the kiss of death in deep-red Alabama under normal circumstances. But an off-year special election between Thanksgiving and Christmas means whoever can turn out their base best may win, and Jones badly needs the state’s African Americans and few liberals to come out in droves — without alienating the right-leaning voters he needs as part of his coalition.

National Republicans say Jones’ views already have blown his slim path to victory.

“Unless Alabama is the new California it’s going to be very difficult for him to win,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) told TPM.

Some local Republicans agree.

“He’s taking a seat that could be in play and putting it firmly in the Republican camp. If he’d just shut up on abortion and take some more moderate stances I think he’d be in a position to win,” said Alabama GOP strategist Chris Brown.

Other Alabama strategists on both sides of the aisle aren’t sure whether Jones’s refusal to moderate his positions, even as he emphasizes bipartisanship in his ads, will help or hurt his uphill campaign.

“If you were to make a list of litmus test issues for progressives, Doug Jones checks them all,” Richard Allen Smith, an Alabama native who’s worked on a number of Democratic races in the state, told TPM. “It’s helpful in this race because of the timing of the election and the nature of the opponent. It’s going to be entirely about turnout, whoever turns out their base in this low-turnout race is going to win.”

“You’ve got to motivate your base in a special election and that’s what he’s doing,” said one Republican strategist in Alabama.

The race to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat is an unusual one in many ways. Moore, a hardline social conservative who has twice been thrown off the Alabama Supreme Court for violating the rule of law and refusing to enforce higher court rulings, is detested by many in the state, including a number of moderate Republicans — the only reason this is a real race in the first place. He’s fresh off a divisive primary where President Trump endorsed the man he defeated, Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL).

Jones, on the other hand, has an impressive biography. He’s best known in the state for successfully prosecuting Ku Klux Klansmen who bombed a black church in Birmingham and killed four girls, decades after other prosecutors had failed. And the Dec. 12 election means the race will almost definitely have low turnout, making exciting the base all the more important.

But it’s still Alabama, a state Trump won by almost a two-to-one margin and where he has his third-highest job approval rating of any state, comfortably above 55 percent, according to Morning Consult polls.

The few public and private polls out there largely have found Moore with a lead in the mid- to high-single digits, hovering at or right below 50 percent.

The most controversial of Jones’s stances in the state—and the one that strategists in both parties say may have been a major error—was his unabashed support of legal abortion in a place where no one could remember a single pro-choice candidate who’d ever won a statewide election.

“I am a firm believer that a woman should have the freedom to choose what happens to her own body and I’m going to stand up for that and I’m going to make sure that continues to happen,” Jones said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the day after Moore won the Republican primary.

“Once a baby is born I’m going to be there for that child, that’s where I become a right-to-lifer,” he continued.

“I wouldn’t have done that if I were Doug,” one senior Alabama Democratic strategist told TPM. “Alabama is a very conservative state. If the focus becomes the nationalized issues that probably hurts Doug.”

“I’ve seen a lot of candidates lose because they’re labeled [pro-choice] in this state whether it’s true or not,” said former Alabama Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Spearman, who described Jones as an old friend.

Those comments have already made their way onto the airwaves. The Great America Alliance, an outside group that supports Moore and is aligned with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, is out with TV and digital ads slamming Jones for being pro-choice “even in the most extreme circumstances, including gruesome late-term and partial-birth abortions.”

Nevertheless, many credit Jones for running an authentic, strong campaign. They say while the abortion comments will likely hurt him, it would have been worse to try to focus-group his way to a victory.

“You may run some people off, granted, who are one-issue voters. But I think it shows integrity. He’s standing there ‘saying ‘this is who I am, this is how I’ve lived my life,'” said Spearman. “Overall I think the people of Alabama want to see somebody who has that integrity and they can be proud of in Washington.”

It’s clear Jones’s campaign doesn’t want to emphasize some of his more liberal views, instead focusing on how divisive Moore is.

“He’s running on kitchen table issues. If you look at the ads we have up it’s jobs, healthcare, and education,” said Jones adviser Joe Trippi. “We view this as an election of division and controversy versus unity and working together, listening to people and knowing there are good people on both sides of the issues and it’s time someone started to actually try to work across both sides rather than send another divisive extremist to Washington. We have plenty of them.”

In Jones’ own ads, he says he’ll “work across party lines” and “can work with Republicans better than Roy Moore can work with anyone.”

And it seems Jones’ comments weren’t politically calculated — for better or worse.

“I’ve known him for a very long time, and I wouldn’t expect Doug would be trying to fuzz up his positions on any issue. That’s just not who he is, he’s going to tell you what he thinks. I don’t know if that’s a particular political calculation,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who has known Jones for two decades, told TPM. “He’ll be more likely to win if they think ‘hey, this is an authentic guy, this is the Doug Jones we’ve always known.'”

Only time will tell whether Jones’ showing his true colors will help or hurt him in this race.

“We’ll have to see how these issues are framed as things go on. Roy Moore should win that race based on recent history — but you have to win them on the battlefield,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told TPM.

This story has been updated to more accurately represent Ossoff and Northam’s positions.

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RICHMOND, VA. — Former President Barack Obama took some veiled shots at President Donald Trump Thursday night, warning against the “politics of division and distraction” in his first day back on the campaign trail since Trump’s victory last November.

“We have folks who are deliberately trying to get folks angry, to demonize people with different ideas, to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage,” Obama said at a rally for Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), less than thee weeks until Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election.

Obama never said Trump’s name during his mostly positive speech — but it was clear who he was talking about, taking shots at both Trump and Northam’s opponent, former Republican National Committee head Ed Gillespie.

“If you have to win a campaign by dividing people you’re not going to be able to govern them. You won’t be able to unite them if that’s how you start. Ralph Northam believes we should have an orderly immigration system, that we should crack down on criminals and gangs,” he said. “We don’t rise up by repeating the past, we rise up from learning from the past.”

Virginia’s election is being closely watched by strategists in both parties. The off-year gubernatorial elections are often telling of which party will have the edge in the next midterms. The added dynamic of GOP race-baiting and some close recent polls have especially heightened Democrats’ nerves, as they worry if they can’t win a race in a state Clinton carried their hopes of a big 2018 may be unrealistic.

Obama delivered a dire warning — one that sounded much less like a stretch than in earlier years.

“Our democracy is at stake and it’s at stake right here in Virginia,” he said. “You are going to send a message all across this great country and all around the world of just what it is America stands for,” he said.

Northam has had a small but durable lead in most public polls of Virginia, where Trump’s deep unpopularity is dragging down former Gillespie in a state Trump lost. Gillespie has danced around Trump even as he’s gone hardline on immigration. Virginia Gov. Terry MacAuliffe joked that he was treating Trump like “a communicable disease.”

Obama slammed Gillespie for his Trumpian ads, which have gone after Northam for voting against a bill for sanctuary cities that was manufactured by Republicans even though no such cities exist in Virginia.

“What he’s really trying to deliver is fear. What he believes is if you scare enough voters you just might score enough votes to win an election,” he said of Gillespie’s attacks. “It’s just as cynical as politics gets.”

Obama said Northam would deliver on law and order “without fanning anti-immigrant sentiment,” and invoked the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, an hour up the road, before ripping Gillespie’s “divisive” and “not true” attacks on Northam, a former army doctor.

“I don’t really think that somebody who spends his life operating on soldiers … is suddenly cozying up to street gangs,” he said.

Former President Barack Obama, right, gestures during a rally with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov., Ralph Northam, in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Former President Barack Obama, right, gestures during a rally with Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

While Obama didn’t mention Trump or Gillespie by name, Northam was happy to.

“My opponent, Ed Gillespie, is cut from the same cloth that Donald Trump is. He’s nothing more than a Washington lobbyist who’s become Donald Trump’s chief lobbyist,” he said after lamenting Trump’s campaign victory “based on hatred and bigotry and fear.”

It was clear that the crowd was there for the former president and not the Virginia Democratic ticket — the loudest applause of Northam’s whole speech was when he went to introduce Obama, having to pause after, “It is time.”

The biggest worry for Northam’s campaign is turning out base Democratic voters — especially the students and African Americans who appeared to make up a plurality of the crowd in Richmond. And it’s unclear how much Obama’s shine can wear off. The convention center had a solid crowd — the campaign said there were 6,250 people — but the room they’d booked was almost half-empty.

Obama specifically talked about the problem of turning out Democrats in off-year elections.

“Off-year elections, midterm elections, Democrats sometimes, y’all get a little sleepy, you get a little complacent,” he said. The stakes now don’t allow you to sleep. It’s going to come down to how bad you want it. I don’t want to hear folks complaining and not doing something about it. All the young people out here, you know, I think that it’s great that you hashtag and meme but I need you to vote.”

Obama’s speech was his second of the day, after stumping earlier for New Jersey gubernatorial front-runner Phil Murphy (D).

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Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial races have long been an early sign of the national political mood ahead of midterm elections. This year, the contest in the commonwealth is testing something even bigger: Whether Democrats can navigate charged racial issues and win key races in the age of Donald Trump.

Republican nominee Ed Gillespie has been deluging the airwaves with ads bashing Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for supporting sanctuary cities and accusing him of being “weak on MS-13” gang violence and wanting to tear down the state’s confederate monuments. Northam has held a slight lead in most public polls of the race, but strategists in both parties think the Nov. 5 election could still go either way.

That has some Democrats nervous 20 days out from the election.

“If something were to happen and we were to lose that governor’s race, shit, Republicans are going to want to make every race in the country a referendum on MS-13,” said one Democratic strategist working on a number of races around the country. “We’re getting full Donald Trump primal scream racism up on the air right now. We’d better be able to beat it. … We don’t want these guys to learn the way to win a race is to turn it into a white power argument.”

While Democrats see Gillespie’s decision to pivot hard right on hot-button cultural issues like immigration as one way to shore up his weak base, they admit that they better be able to defeat him in Virginia if they hope to hold Senate seats in even tougher territory next year and make a real play for winning back the House.

Virginia has long been a harbinger of future elections. Big wins by Govs. George Allen (R) in 1993, Tim Kaine (D) in 2005 and Bob McDonnell (R) in 2009 all were early signs that their parties would have huge success at the ballot box the next year. Even current Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) closer-than-expected 2013 win against hardline conservative Ken Cuccinelli (R) was an early sign that all was not well for the Democratic Party heading into a disastrous 2014 midterm cycle.

A trio of public polls released Tuesday found Gillespie within the margin of error, including one that showed Gillespie with a lead for the first time in the campaign.

A loss in a state President Obama and Hillary Clinton carried could also deal a major psychic blow to Democrats looking to bounce back in the age of Trump — especially after a disappointing loss in an open House seat in Georgia and near misses in a number of other heavily Republican House seats across the country.

“The history is really clear that Virginia is the early warning system,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, a Virginia native who’s a veteran of the Clinton campaign and dozens of others in the state and nationally. “No one should expect this to be anything but close and no one should downplay how important it is that Democrats win. You can write off a special election in a congressional district we had no business competing in in the first place as an aberration. Virginia will be not an aberration but an indication of where we are in our efforts to claw back from 2016.”

Gillespie’s hard-right charge on immigration is a major reversal of his previous, big-tent approach to politics, as TPM previously documented. He once warned racial demagoguery against immigrants was a “siren song” that Republicans must resist. But lately he’s been walking the tightrope on the issue, campaigning with Vice President Mike Pence while dancing around whether he’d invite President Trump to stump with him, and campaigning in immigrant-heavy communities in more liberal Northern Virginia even as he airs the charged ads in heavy rotation elsewhere in the state. That’s a contrast with Northam, who’s holding a rally with President Obama on Thursday.

“The Gillespie folks have found they have to get their base out and that means moving into some of these more social appeals,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), who said he thought Northam was better positioned to win but predicted a close finish. “These races are no longer going after the center, it’s all about getting your voters. You’re going after your base with a subtle dog whistle, but you’re not going over the top.”

Democrats nervously remember how things have played out in the state the last few years. While they’ve won most key statewide races this decade, McAuliffe’s narrow win after he led the polls by a comfortable margin in 2013 was followed by Gillespie almost upsetting popular Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) in 2014 — a one-point margin no one predicted heading into election night. Hillary Clinton had a solid lead over Trump in Virginia for the entirety of the campaign, and an early alarm bell for her campaign on election night was Trump leading in Virginia early in the night before the big cities came in (she ended up winning the state by five points, similar to public polls).

Still, those elections came with Obama in the White House. Now, Trump’s there — and is about as unpopular in the commonwealth as nationally.

The MS-13 ads are particularly salient in Northern Virginia, where the Salvadorian gang has committed some heinous crimes in recent years, while the fight over removing Confederate monuments reverberates most in the more southern parts of the state — and is particularly charged in the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.

Northam’s team says he has a small but steady lead — and Gillespie’s attacks are a sign of desperation. Northam’s response has been to outline his own law-and-order bona fides in ads while calling Gillespie’s attacks “a page from Donald Trump’s book.” His team recommends other Democrats do the same in highlighting their own candidates’ biographies to push back.

“He’s willing to do and say anything to get elected, principles be damned, and he’s getting desperate. He’s decided to go full Trump,” said Northam adviser Dave Turner. “People are seeing Ed Gillespie’s ads for what they are: Racially tinged Willie Horton style unmoored attacks.”

Gillespie’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story. His allies dispute that his attacks are racially charged.

“Democrats have tried to use this issue and call it racist but … why would you want to give quarter to a gang that as recently as three months ago brutalized its victims?” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck told TPM, pointing out that Northam did vote to protect sanctuary cities (even though none exist in Virginia). “I don’t know why Ralph Northam would put the rights of illegal immigrants over Virginians.”

Whitbeck said every election is now a base election — and predicted Gillespie’s move could send him to the governor’s mansion, demoralizing Democrats.

“In this particular era of polarization the turning out of your base is crucial to success. If you have the more enthusiastic voter side you’re likely to prevail,” Whitbeck said. “Democrats have tried to make every race a referendum on national politics, and they have lost every single one. If they lose this one, it will be a back-breaking blow to their narrative.”

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