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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

After months of bashing away at Congress, President Trump finally had something nice to say about a senator facing a tough reelection. To Republicans’ chagrin, it was to praise one of their top 2018 targets.

After giving Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) the VIP treatment on Air Force One, Trump hauled her onstage in her home state alongside a number of Republicans to praise her for her openness to supporting his tax cut plan.

“Senator Heitkamp, senator, come on up,” Trump said. “Everyone’s saying, ‘what’s she doing up here?’ But I’ll tell you what, good woman, and I think we’ll have your support, I hope we’ll have your support. Thank you very much, senator.”

Trump then shook her hand — a moment that may be likely to appear in campaign ads next year for Heitkamp in a state that Trump won by 36 percentage points.

Trump has spent much of the last six weeks warring with Senate Republicans, feuding publicly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and repeatedly ripping into Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who’s facing a Trump-fueled primary challenge in his own tough reelection.

Republicans had been hopeful that Trump would use tax reform to begin attacking Democrats instead. And he did, for a minute, blasting Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in a recent visit to Missouri for opposing his plan.

Instead, he embraced one of their top 2018 targets just hours after siding with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) over the entirety of congressional GOP leadership in agreeing to a three-month extension of the debt ceiling rather than a longer one.

If Heitkamp ends up opposing the plan, Trump may well to turn on her like he has with many others in both parties he’d previously praised. But Republicans can’t be thrilled with Wednesday’s comments.

 

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Democrats are united in their fury over President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — but they haven’t reached agreement on what they’re willing to do to try to force Congress to reinstate it.

Congressional Democrats are demanding that their GOP counterparts allow a clean authorization of a program that has given legal status to nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children.

But Republicans are promising to tie any fix to more money for border security — including possibly $1.6 billion in funding for a border fence that many see as a down payment on Trump’s long-promised border wall — and don’t seem eager to take a vote anytime soon on any plan. So far, Democrats haven’t shown a willingness to threaten blocking must-pass legislation if they can’t get votes on a clean DACA bill, and vary in their commitment to oppose any compromise legislation.

While Democrats are mostly playing wait-and-see to find out what the GOP will propose, they’re making different noises about what they might be willing to accept — and whether they’re willing to vote against must-pass legislation unless Republicans allow a vote on a clean DACA bill.

“If a clean DREAM Act does not come to the floor in September, we’re prepared to attach it to other items this fall until it passes,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) declared on Wednesday.

“I’m not sure how you can say you’re going to compromise somebody’s life with money [for border security],” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) told TPM. “There’s no amount of compromise that I see that risks their lives.”

But demands for a clean bill won’t get them far unless they threaten to use what leverage they have — holding together to vote against a government shutdown or increasing the debt ceiling to force Republican leaders to include DACA in exchange for their votes. And if that fails, Democrats are split on whether they’re willing to give in and allow some more border security funds in exchange for protections for the 800,000 undocumented immigrants in the DACA program.

Democrats were handed more leverage on Wednesday, as Trump agreed to a three-month debt ceiling increase rather than a longer one congressional Republican leaders wanted. But it’s unclear how they’ll use it.

“I don’t think we should be paying ransom for hostages and that’s exactly what I believe [Republicans are] asking us to do,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) told TPM, repeating comments he made to cheers during a Wednesday morning caucus meeting. “They need our votes on the debt ceiling? Tell them we need 800,000 dreamers. They need our votes on an omnibus? We need 800,000 dreamers. We need to draw a line in the sand ourselves as we go in to negotiate.”

But Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) haven’t been willing to commit to that. Schumer dodged a direct question Wednesday afternoon about whether Democrats would withhold votes to keep the government open if they don’t get a DACA vote. Gutierrez admitted he didn’t think Democrats were ready to dig in their heels hard enough at this point.

“In the beginning it can look awfully lonely,” Gutierrez said, arguing party leadership will move his way.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) called money for a border wall a “non-starter,” and said that calling it a fence wouldn’t fix the issue — “If it looks like a wall and it acts like a wall it’s a wall.”

But he was one of a number of Democrats who didn’t rule out some form of increased funding for border security.

“We’ve consistently supported billions of dollars for strengthening our role in terms of technology and personnel on the borders. We’re always looking for cost-effective approaches on the security side,” he said.

“We all support border security but we don’t support billions of dollars on one end of Texas building a wall [in exchange for DACA],” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told TPM.

The devil is likely to be in the details on what Democrats might be able to support. But with a crowded fall schedule crammed with other major issues , it’s unclear at this point what hill they’ll be willing to die on to force a DACA vote, and what compromises they might be willing to make.

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Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) announced on Wednesday that he’ll retire at the end of his term next year, creating a prime pick-up opportunity for Democrats in his Democratic-leaning district.

“After spending time during the August work period with family and friends, reflecting on the past, discussing the future, and celebrating another birthday, I have decided this will be my last term and I will not run for reelection in November, 2018,” Reichert said in a Wednesday statement.

Reichert, a moderate seven-term congressman and popular former sheriff, had kept his suburban Seattle district in GOP hands for years in spite of some tough challenges early in his career. He did so partly by splitting with his party on some key issues — he was one of just eight Republicans to vote for cap-and-trade climate legislation in 2009. His district also became more rural and Republican after the last round of redistricting, but has trended back the other way with Seattle’s suburban growth.

With the popular incumbent gone the seat will be a tough hold for Republicans, especially in a year that looks promising for Democrats. Hillary Clinton won Reichert’s district with 48 percent to President Trump’s 45 percent last fall, and President Obama won it by a similar margin in 2012.

Reichert’s retirement makes him the second Republican in a Democratic-leaning seat to opt for the exits rather than a tough reelection battle next fall, following Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). It will be interesting whether more Republicans decide to retire rather than fight the headwinds of an unpopular president in a midterm in the coming months, as most congressional retirements tend to be announced during and after the winter holidays. Every Republican retirement in a swing district makes Democrats’ quest to retake the House that much easier.

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Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) has long had a reputation around Indiana and the U.S. Capitol for sharp elbows and a short temper. Now, some his own former staffers are going (semi)-public to criticize his temperament as he looks for a big promotion.

Rokita is running in the GOP primary against fellow Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) and others for the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) next year. But 10 of his former staffers talked to the Associated Press about what a difficult boss he was, with examples that make him appear more than a little petty and vindictive.

“Todd’s a hard boss to work for. He’s got some staff turnover issues,” Tony Will, who was a constituent service representative for Rokita for nearly three years and the only one who went on record to talk about his old boss for the story, told the AP. “But he is a very hard worker.”

Examples of why Rokita was “a hard boss to work for” include his decision to dock workers’ pay for minor errors, forcing a staffer to leave a meeting to clean his car and scrub its carpets because a volunteer with B.O. problems had been in the car the night before, and his repeated outbursts of fury and belittling of staff for minor decisions like what route to take to an event — or even where to park. He fired at least two staffers when they told him they were quitting, and multiple staffers were reduced to tears, they told the AP on background.

Rokita, unsurprisingly, has been known to have rapid staff turnover in D.C. — and an AP analysis confirms this, finding twice as much staff turnover in his office as the average Indiana congressman’s.

The lawmaker didn’t save his wrath for just his staff (or the numerous Republicans in the state who’ve long viewed him as a prideful hothead and have long looked to sandbag his political aspirations).

He blew up in front of a class of high schoolers because they hadn’t been taught about “American Exceptionalism” and berated their teacher for not including it in the curriculum, according to the report.

“Mr. Rokita got very angry and said, ’You have an American congressman in your class, what are you doing?’” Marcus Kidwell, 19, a Donald Trump supporter who was a senior at the time, told the AP. “He seems like a pretty hot-headed guy. That disappointed me because he’s a Republican and I was pretty excited to meet him.”

Rokita’s treatment of staff had already made embarrassing headlines recently when an eight-page memo describing in meticulous detail what to do when chauffeuring him around the district leaked to Politico. That memo included emptying the trash and always having coffee ready for him, as well as not interrupting him with “unnecessary conversation.”

Rokita’s response to the AP: “I have a lot of great employees, and I demand excellence and hard work of them, and myself … Hoosiers who break their backs putting in 12 and 14 hour days to provide for their families should expect the elected officials and public servants they are paying to work just as hard.”

Early polls have found a tight race between Rokita and Messer.

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Katie Porter and Dave Min are the type of candidates House Democrats dreamed of recruiting in past cycles. Both are Harvard-educated law professors with impressive biographies, connections to powerful lawmakers and strong fundraising capabilities.

The only problem? The colleagues at the University of California-Irvine are battling one another for the right to face Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) next fall.

“On some level it’s bizarre,” Min told TPM. “It’s unusual, obviously, that two members of a small faculty are doing this.”

Their race is emblematic of the double-edged sword it is for a party to have a glut of candidates eager to run for office.

In nearly every top-targeted race across the country, Democrats face competitive primaries that could complicate their party’s chances of winning the majority.

“I haven’t seen this much enthusiasm to run this early in a cycle,” said Dave Wasserman, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s House race guru. “It’s a good problem to have.”

“It does seem like there’s a primary in every single race,” said John Lapp, a top Democratic ad-maker.

Lapp said that some primaries will “get bloody and ugly” and flawed nominees might win in some places — but on balance he’d rather have too many than too few candidates running.

“The days of attempting to clear primaries are over but to be honest I’d much rather have the abundance of energy than the problem we’ve had before, begging one candidate to get in. What you want is surfboards all over if the wave comes,” he said.

Ian Russell was a top staffer at Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee the last few election cycles — and spent a lot of time begging.  The Obama years weren’t an easy time for House Democratic candidate recruitment.

This year, he’s a consultant working with a number of candidates, including Min, who face the opposite problem: Tough primaries against other top-tier Democrats.

“There’s just less control from the party headquarters when you have these freewheeling primaries,”Russell said. He argued that while some will help promising candidates “get in shape, learn the ropes and become a better candidate,” in more places it’s not helpful.

“You’re spending money earlier than you want to, you’re campaigning to a different audience than you need for the general election — and most stressful for the DCCC, you can’t guarantee the outcome of the primary,” Russell said.

Five different Democratic candidates running against Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) in a Democratic-leaning district outside of Washington, D.C. already have more than $200,000 banked apiece for the race, with the establishment’s favorite, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D), trailing the four others in cash on hand.

A whopping nine Democratic candidates have filed to run against Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) in suburban Chicago.

At least two serious candidates are squaring off to face Walters and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Ed Royce (R-CA) — and that’s just around Orange County.

Even in reach seats, like against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), there are two legitimate Democrats in the race.

But in few places is a primary more awkward than in Irvine.

Porter helped recruit Min to come teach at UC-Irvine’s law school a few years back. When each heard last spring that the other one was looking to challenge Walters in a Democratic-trending seat that Hillary Clinton won by 5 points last fall, they got together to discuss (he said he came away believing she wouldn’t to run; she said she made it clear she would).

While they say they don’t see each other much these days, on Porter’s first day of the semester, “The first guy in the classroom after me was Dave,” getting ready to teach the next period, she said.

“It’s fine. Dave lives in my neighborhood. It is what it is,” she told TPM.

Porter has the backing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who taught her at Harvard, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), with whom she worked investigating home foreclosures in California, and EMILY’s List. She’s spent decades investigating banks as a consumer advocate, and has positioned herself to the left in the primary.

Min, who worked for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the liberal Center for American Progress on banking and housing issues, is the only Democrat in the race who isn’t calling for single-payer health insurance. Both have testified in front of Congress on several occasions, and raised more than $300,000 in their first three months in the race.

Kia Hamadanchy, a former staffer to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), tops a list of four other Democrats who have declared for the race.

Waiting for the winner is Walters, who already has $1.1 million stashed away.

The results of having so many primaries will likely be a mixed bag for Democrats.

Some contests will make the eventual nominee stronger, helping them build name I.D. and winnowing the field of candidates who look better on paper than on the stump. In others, a crowded field will force a race to the left, waste valuable resources and potentially lead to flawed nominees.

That’s a risk in places like downstate Illinois, where Democrats’ chances of beating Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) likely depend on whether they can keep hard-left repeat candidate David Gill from winning the Democratic primary again.

Republican pros are delighted by the prospect of packed Democratic primaries.

“These crowded primaries are going to pull the entire field left, whether it’s on supporting single payer or other far left issues favored by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,”said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Matt Gorman. “Even if the DCCC gets their favored candidates through, they’re going to be unelectable in a general election — and that’s a big if.”

According to data pulled together by the NRCC, there are six or more declared Democrats in 10 of their top 43 defensive seats, while just four have only one Democratic candidate. The average competitive race has four declared Democrats, though some are much more serious than others.

And while the DCCC is reserving the right to get involved in primaries to boost their preferred candidates, party officials say they’re not worried about what the crowded primaries will yield.

“No side has ever lost an election because of too much energy, that much is clear. Ultimately the Democrats are the side with the energy while Republicans are stuck on defense deep into the map,” said DCCC spokesman Tyler Law.

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Senate Democrats are living on a prayer that things don’t go wrong for them in New Jersey.

Jury selection concluded Wednesday in the corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), only the 12th sitting senator in U.S. history to face indictment. If he’s found guilty and forced to leave office before the end of the year that likely would hand Republicans his Senate seat until the 2018 elections, giving them a crucial extra vote as they try to salvage what they can of their and President Trump’s agenda and possibly resurrect their efforts to repeal Obamacare.

While many things need to break against Democrats for this to happen, the September trial has them nervous.

“The fate of a lot of important issues hang in the balance of what happens with this trial. Just look at the health care vote,” said Jeff Tittel, a top New Jersey Democrat who heads the state’s Sierra Club branch. “What happens if he’s convicted? Can he hold out long enough for the next governor? The shift in one seat in New Jersey could have huge ramifications on a lot of issues nationally.”

Menendez faces federal charges of bribery, conspiracy and making false statements. He’s accused of intervening with senior federal officials to help a major donor and benefactor, Salomon Melgen, in a multimillion dollar Medicare billing dispute, of stepping in to protect Melgen’s half-million-dollar port security contract, and of helping him secure visas for a trio of young girlfriends from other countries in exchange for campaign donations and expensive trips.

Melgen, his co-defendant, has already been convicted in a separate case of Medicare fraud, and there’s been rampant speculation that he hasn’t been sentenced yet because federal prosecutors are looking to leverage jail time against him to try to make him flip on his old friend.

The nightmare scenario for Democrats is Menendez is found guilty and relinquishes his seat before Gov. Chris Christie (R) completes his term in January, allowing Christie to appoint Menendez’s replacement and handing Republicans a crucial extra vote in the Senate. That appointee could also run for reelection in 2018, giving the GOP an outside chance in Democratic-leaning New Jersey.

It’s far too early to predict how long the trial will last, though educated guesses put it at around two months, concluding before Thanksgiving (there’s no sign that Menendez is preparing to take a plea deal). If Menendez were to be convicted before Christie leaves office next January, Democrats will be put in the awkward position of hoping he can hang on to his seat long enough to wait out Christie and have a Democratic governor appoint the replacement.

New Jersey state assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) called it “way premature” to speculate what will happen, but admitted it’s not a pretty situation for the state or national party.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it. It’s certainly a very difficult situation,” he said.

Democrats point out that Menendez can’t be forced to resign his seat, even if he loses at trial, and that the last New Jersey senator to be convicted of a crime, Harrison Williams, stayed in office for months after his conviction in the early 1980s.

It would take 67 senators to vote for Menendez’s removal to force him out, a high bar to clear that would allow every one of the 10 Democrats facing reelection in states Trump won next year to vote for removal so long as no more than four other Democrats split with their party and vote to kick their colleague to the curb.

If the Democratic candidate for governor, Phil Murphy, wins the November election to replace the deeply unpopular Christie, as is widely expected, Democrats can argue that they’re only protecting the will of the people of New Jersey by dragging their feet on a Senate vote on expulsion until the new governor can name a replacement through 2018.

But it’s not an easy political position to be in for Democrats — and that has Republicans salivating.

“I don’t think it’d be possible to defend keeping a felon in the Senate if he is convicted. It’s a huge opportunity,” said Scott Sloofman, a New Jersey native who works for the GOP outside group America Rising.

Sloofman promised to use Menendez against vulnerable Democrats if he’s found guilty, highlighting that Menendez is a top Democratic fundraiser who has given to a number of colleagues facing tough reelection battles, like Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

Even if Menendez beats the charges, he may not be completely out of the woods. His lawyers have repeatedly argued that the case doesn’t have merit because of last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning corruption convictions against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), which drastically narrowed the reading of federal bribery laws. That could let him off the hook legally without removing the stench of corruption, and as he’s still planning to run for reelection, that could create an opening for a Republican to challenge him in the Democratic-leaning state. Even then he might be the favorite, but any money wasted in New Jersey is money that can’t be spent defending the 10 vulnerable Democrats up in 2018.

Menendez has publicly and vociferously declared his innocence. His office declined to talk about the trial and its political implications, and Senate Democrats aren’t any more eager to talk about what-ifs — “Where we are is believing he’ll be acquitted and reelected next fall,” one national Democrat told TPM. But they privately admit that it’s not a great situation for the party.

And while New Jersey Democrats aren’t ready to abandon Menendez, who remains a powerful figure in the state, they’re already privately jostling for his seat in case he’s forced to step aside. One of those who’s been most public about his interest in running if Menendez has to leave is former Sen. Bob Torricelli (D-NJ), who left office under an ethics cloud of his own more than a decade ago.

“We all hope for the best for Sen. Menendez, but if things go the wrong way we are prepared. It’s critical we hold this seat,”said Torricelli spokesman Sean Jackson. “Health insurance coverage for millions of Americans hangs by just a single Senate vote.”

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Things just keep getting trickier for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

On Wednesday, just a day after President Trump took pot shots at him from the stage in Phoenix, Fox News star Sean Hannity endorsed Flake’s primary opponent in a race that’s likely to get ugly.

Former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), who’s running hard at Flake from the right and has drawn praise from Trump, got the high-wattage conservative’s endorsement on his radio show.

“I warmly offer you my endorsement and my support,” Hannity told Ward during an interview, according to CNN. “I’m supporting her candidacy and I hope you will too.”

Ward lost to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) by a double-digit margin in a primary last year, but Flake is viewed as even more vulnerable, partly because he’s not as well known in the state and partly because of his ongoing public feud with Trump.

And she’s rallying hardline conservative stars — Laura Ingraham also endorsed her this week.

The president himself attacked Flake during a Tuesday night rally, and then went after him by name on Twitter Wednesday morning.

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The front-runner to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat in Alabama still doesn’t think President Obama was born in the U.S., in spite of proof that he was.

Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore said last December that he didn’t think Obama was a natural-born U.S. citizen, comments that came months after even original birther Donald Trump had admitted that he accepted the proof of Obama’s birthplace.

“My opinion is, there is a big question about that,” Moore said when asked at a December 2016 Constitution Party event about Obama’s birthplace in footage obtained by CNN. “My personal belief is that he wasn’t, but that’s probably over and done in a few days, unless we get something else to come along.”

As CNN points out, Moore has long backed the racially charged birther conspiracy that Obama may not have been born in the U.S.

Moore, a controversial figure known for his hard-right religious views and stances, finished in first place with 39 percent of the vote in last week’s GOP primary to fill Sessions’ old seat, with appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) pulling 33 percent of the vote.

The two will square off in a primary runoff in late September that promises to be a brutal race, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his allies doing all they can to boost Strange.

That appears to be an uphill battle, however. The first public poll of the race, released earlier this week, showed Moore leading Strange by 51 percent to 32 percent.

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So much for being “very presidential.”

Less than 12 hours after patting himself on the back for avoiding the use of Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) name as he attacked the senator during a big rally in Arizona, President Trump took to twitter to make his complaints about Flake even more explicit.

That tweet comes after Trump congratulated himself for being “very presidential” for only alluding to his hostility towards Flake and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during a Tuesday night rally in Phoenix.

“I will not mention any names. Very presidential,” he said after attacking McCain for casting the vote that stymied Senate Republicans’ Obamacare repeal push. “And nobody wants me to mention your other senator, who’s weak on border, weak on crime. Nobody knows who the hell he is! See, I haven’t mentioned any names, so now everybody’s happy.”

Trump has signaled for weeks that he’s likely to endorse a primary challenger to Flake, a move that would be unprecedented in modern history — it’s unheard of for a president to endorse a primary opponent of a sitting senator of his own party.

That hostility towards Flake, who already faces a tough path to reelection next year, is contributing to his building tension with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who he has been increasingly publicly feuding with in recent weeks even though he needs McConnell to pass anything in his legislative agenda.

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A super-PAC closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is firing a warning shot at President Trump ahead of his Tuesday trip to Arizona.

The Senate Leadership Fund is out with a new digital ad slamming a candidate the president has touted against Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), for being “crazy” — and borrows a favorite Trump phrase to point out she lost “big league” to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) last year.

“Chemtrail Kelli’s got her head in the clouds with crazy ideas,” the digital ad says after highlighting her hosting a taxpayer-funded town hall to look into conspiracy theories about chemtrails. “Now after losing big-league to John McCain, Chemtrail Kelli says he should resign so she can be senator.”

The ad is set to run for the next three days, bracketing a trip Trump is making to the state where he’s likely to take potshots at Flake.

As TPM wrote this morning, Trump has increasingly been fired up about taking out the sitting senator due to his criticism of the president, tweeting attacks against Flake and touting Ward’s candidacy. Senate Republicans have rallied around Flake, looking to defend him as they worry a divisive and nasty primary could hurt their chances at holding the seat.

The race sets up an almost unheard-of public grudge match between a president and Senate leaders from his own party, as Trump looks to take out one of the Republicans who’s been most critical of him.

Ward may not be the only candidate who runs against Flake, however, as a pair of more serious GOP contenders with close trump ties — Arizona state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state party chairman Robert Graham — are also eying bids, with the quiet encouragement of some White House staff.

The ad buy is relatively small — $10,000 for three days of digital spots — but is likely only the opening salvo in what promises to be an expensive and brutal primary.

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