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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.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and his wife have been indicted for misusing $250,000 in campaign funds and filing false campaign finance documents.
The indictment comes after a yearlong Justice Department investigation into whether the congressman and early supporter of President Trump illegally misused campaign funds for personal reasons. He and his wife Margaret, who also served as his campaign manager, are accused of routinely using campaign money to pay to fly his pet rabbit back and forth from his district, as well as for dental work, multiple vacations including one to Italy, and heavy spending at restaurants.
The charges: Conspiracy to enrich themselves by using campaign funds “for their own personal benefit,” even though campaign staffers warned them that they were violating the law.
Hunter has reimbursed his campaign more than $65,000 already, but maintained that he didn’t commit any crimes, and his lawyers had previously described the lavish spending of campaign funds as “inadvertent and unintentional.”
Hunter was the second House Republican to endorse President Trump, and this indictment means that Trump’s two earliest House backers have now been indicted following Rep. Chris Collins’ (R-NY) own, separate legal troubles.
The indictment could put Hunter’s normally safely Republican seat in jeopardy this fall. President Trump won the San Diego-area district, which is one of the most conservative in the state, by 15 percentage points. But Democrats are excited about their candidate, former Obama administration official Ammar Campa-Najjar, and believe that with the indictment the seat could be in play.
RACINE, WI — As he campaigned for GOP Senate candidate Leah Vukmir on Monday, retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) took a moment to bask in his party’s years-long streak of dominance.
“We have grown a lot. We have done really well here in Wisconsin. Remember when we didn’t have the assembly, or the Senate, or the Supreme Court, or a U.S. Senate seat, or the governor’s mansion, or the attorney general? We’ve won all those things since 2010,” he said, before turning to Vukmir. “We have one more hill to climb.”
But that hill’s looking much steeper this year in Ryan’s backyard than it has in nearly a decade. And Democrats, for the first time since President Obama ascended to the White House in 2008, are feeling like they’re running downhill in Wisconsin and other nearby Midwestern states that have shifted hard away from them in recent years.
Midwestern Democrats seem poised to roar back in the Midwest, riding a wave of suburban fury at President Trump, sky-high base enthusiasm, conservative-leaning and rural voters’ worry about Trump’s trade wars, and local dissatisfaction with GOP leadership over a number of bread-and-butter issues.
That’s especially true in the four Midwestern states where low Democratic enthusiasm helped Trump flip from Obama last election, handing him the White House: Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In all four states, Democrats see a real shot at winning back the governor’s mansions that have eluded them for the past two cycles. Their three senators who face the voters this year — Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) — appear likely to cruise to reelection. Four of the 27 House seats the Cook Political Report rates as GOP-held tossup races are in these states.
Voters in the very states that have moved right the hardest and powered Trump to the White House appear ready to punish his party, amidst signs that Democrats are getting off the mat and ready to make them look purple once more.
“This is the toughest election I’ve ever faced as governor,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) told TPM after a campaign stop Monday in Platteville, a small town in the state’s far southwest corner.
To take advantage of the national and regional mood, Democrats have nominated four gubernatorial candidates who inspire descriptions like “solid” and “steady” from various strategists and voters but don’t exactly light the world on fire. They’re focusing heavily on bread-and-butter issues like infrastructure, education and health care to go after their GOP foes.
Wisconsin state Superintendent of Education Tony Evers (D), who won his party’s nomination on Tuesday, has taken to calling the state’s many potholes “Scott-holes,” and has largely focused on Walker’s cuts to schools. Michigan gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign slogan is “Fix the damn roads.” The brand of economic populism Democrats’ Ohio gubernatorial nominee, former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray, sounds a lot less fierce coming from him than like-minded Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Iowa gubernatorial nominee Fred Hubbell (D), an older, white businessman, lists education as his top priority as a candidate.
They may not be the most fiery candidates — but Democratic primary voters, who turned out in droves for these candidates (many of them winning over more vocal populists), seem fine with that if it means they can win and stop the conservative onslaught that has led to gutted unions, voter access crackdowns, and other hardline policies in the once-purple states.
“If you look across the map, what you’re seeing in the upper Midwest, with Cordray in Ohio, Whitmer in Michigan, Evers in Wisconsin, you’re going to see a lot of these states nominating relatively tame contenders,” said John Nichols, a Madison-based progressive journalist who writes for The Nation. “People really do feel beaten down by these last eight years in most of these states, and they didn’t just get beat by the other party, they faced what felt to an awful lot of them like structural assaults.”
Eight Years In The Desert
It’s hard to understate how bad the Obama years were for down-ballot Democrats in the Midwest — and how much of a psychic toll that took on his party. When Obama was elected in 2008, Democrats held the governor’s mansions in all four states. That ended in 2010, when Republicans flipped all four. They held them in 2014.
Heading into the 2010 midterms, Democrats held 26 House seats in the four states to just 20 for the GOP — 56 percent of the seats in the region. Today, they have just 13 seats to 29 for the GOP, 31 percent.
That’s partly because Republicans, suddenly in control of the states after 2010, gerrymandered all of those states but Iowa to make sure they’d hold lopsided margins in their congressional delegations and state legislatures. But that’s not the only reason: Most Democrats simply haven’t connected well with voters in these states, or have gotten caught up in bad national waves.
Iowa Democrats can’t blame gerrymandering: When the nonpartisan commission drew its congressional map, many predicted they had a strong chance at winning three of the state’s four House seats. Today, they hold just one.
Democrats had six of the states’ eight Senate seats after the 2008 elections. Now they have four. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) is the only Democrat who won a Senate race during this stretch without Obama’s coattails.
The final blow came in 2016, when Trump carried all four states, pulling off surprises in Michigan and Wisconsin to put him in the White House. His late surge helped carry Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) to a surprise reelection over former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI).
Those ghosts still haunt local Democrats, who warn against getting too complacent.
That includes Baldwin, who worries that national Democrats will assume she’ll be fine and not invest the resources necessary to help her survive an onslaught of outside money, much like what happened to Feingold.
“We’ve banned the phrase ‘blue wave’ in our campaign. I feel like people begin to take things for granted,” Baldwin told TPM during a primary-day campaign stop in northwest Milwaukee on Tuesday.
She instead warned of the “green wave” of cash from the conservative billionaires who’ve long fueled Wisconsin’s GOP operation.
The Pendulum Swings Back
Other Democrats who saw how hard it is not to drown in a wave are feeling confident that the undertow will claim their opponents this time.
All four states have a long history that predates Obama of backing whichever party doesn’t hold the White House. Democrats hope that longstanding pattern will continue.
Former Rep. Mark Schauer (D-MI) lost in the GOP wave in 2010, then fell short in his bid to defeat Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in 2014, another Republican wave year.
He joked that he had “cycle envy.”
“It’s a significantly different political environment,” Schauer said, pointing to a huge Democratic surge in primary voters, a sign of lopsided base enthusiasm that also played out in Ohio and Wisconsin this year.
Democrats have seen plenty of other encouraging signs in those states. They flipped a pair of state Senate seats in Wisconsin special elections, and won a state Supreme Court race in a rout. In Iowa, they held onto a state legislative seat that Trump had won by a 21-point margin in 2016. Last week in Ohio, they just missed flipping a heavily Republican open House seat outside of Columbus.
“We know this is tough,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, who warned there was a good chance his party would lose the governorship and two of their three House seats in the state. “There’s going to be a reaction to the Trump presidency and it makes life much more difficult.”
These aren’t the only Midwestern states that matter this year where Democrats are hoping a strong environment can help them hold their current seats and pick up some new ones. In a similar vein is nearby Minnesota, which Trump almost carried in 2016. Democrats look like they’ll hold the governor’s seat and both Senate seats, and are defending two House seats and looking to pick up three more. In Illinois, Democrats expect to retake the governor’s mansion and seriously contest three or four GOP-held House seats. In GOP-leaning Missouri and Indiana, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) are staying competitive in tough races that the party likely must win to keep alive Democrats’ slim hopes of capturing the Senate.
These states and their neighbors play an obvious role in Democrats’ push for congressional control, and seizing at least one lever of power is crucial for Democrats to be able to block more policies that are anathema to their views. They might even be able to push through Medicaid expansion in Wisconsin if they do well enough in state legislative races.
The governor’s mansions make a big difference for congressional control as well: If Democrats win them, they’ll be able to block GOP House gerrymanders for the next decade.
And of course, these are the states Democrats need to figure out how to win again if they’re going to keep Trump from getting reelected.
“For the blue wave to catch, it needs to wash across the Great Lakes states, not just the coasts,” longtime Michigan Democratic strategist Jill Alper told TPM.
MADISON, WI — Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his Democratic detractors have been in a no-holds-barred brawl for eight years now. But there’s one thing the two sides can agree on: This election is Democrats’ best chance to beat him.
Walker’s popularity isn’t what it once was — public polls show he’s never fully recovered from his aborted presidential run, and the polarizing figure’s numbers are underwater for the first time heading into an election. President Trump, who barely carried the state in 2016 and has started trade wars that are hurting some major local industries, isn’t helping him any.
Unlike his last elections, Walker is hoping to survive a political wave rather than surfing one.
Democrats, scarred from three failed efforts to defeat Walker in the state, are feeling an unusual feeling of optimism as they look ahead to the fall with newly minted nominee Tony Evers (D), the head of the state’s Department of Public Instruction and a former teacher.
The battle-tested Walker is the first to admit he’s facing the most challenging in-state campaign of his career.
“This is the toughest election I’ve ever faced as governor,” he told TPM after a campaign stop Monday in Platteville, a small town in the state’s far southwest corner across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa.
Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R) has defeated former Marine Kevin Nicholson (R) for the right to face Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) in an uphill battle this fall.
Vukmir led Nicholson by 54 percent to 40 percent with 56 percent of the vote counted. The Associated Press has called the race.
Vukmir was heavily favored by Wisconsin’s powerful GOP establishment, winning the state party endorsement early on, getting strong support from many of the state’s powerful right-wing talk radio hosts, and winning backing from many elected officials including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). While Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) stayed officially neutral in the race, his son works on Vukmir’s campaign and his wife backed her.
But Nicholson, a former head of the College Democrats of America, had one valuable supporter: Deep-pocketed hard right-wing donor Dick Uihlein spent more than $10 million through super-PACs to back him and knock her down.
She starts her race as a heavy underdog against Baldwin, who has led her by high single digits in most recent private and public polls. Republicans hope that if Walker is winning comfortably this fall this race could become competitive — especially if Uihlein can be convinced to open up his wallet for her, and other wealthy Republicans decide to come in. Right now it looks like a long shot — and national Republicans are unlikely to prioritize the race given how many others appear like better shots for them this fall — but Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) looked like a dead man running at this point in the 2016 campaign before winning reelection.
Vukmir and Baldwin were quick out the gate to attack one another.
“Wisconsin needs a senator who represents and will work for the people who make our state great — not the far left or out-of-touch elites,” Vukmir said in a statement. “Sen. Tammy Baldwin has been a disaster our state.”
Baldwin fired back.
“Wisconsinites want someone who will be in their corner and stand up to powerful special interests in Washington, not a bought-and-paid-for Senator,” Baldwin said in a statement. “Leah Vukmir has a long record of putting her corporate special interest backers ahead of hardworking Wisconsin families, making the choice clear this November.”
MADISON, WI — Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers (D) has won his crowded primary, setting up a major clash with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in the fall.
Evers led an eight-candidate field with 41 percent of the vote, with state firefighters union head Mahlon Mitchell in second place at 22 percent of the vote and 44 percent of precincts reporting as of 10:30 p.m. EST. The Associated Press called the race shortly after 9 p.m.
His victory sets up what Democrats hope is their best chance at defeating Walker since he ascended to the governor’s office in 2010.
The results set off a whoop and chants of “Tony, Tony” at Evers’ victory party, held across the street from Madison’s capitol building — one that’s been at the epicenter of protests and heartbreak for Democrats for the last decade.
Walker took a hit in-state with his presidential run, with numbers that had held steadily at 50-50 for the deeply polarizing figure sliding underwater. Most recent public polling suggests he’s never fully recovered — and in a swing state where President Trump will likely prove a drag.
Evers quickly turned to the general election, flaying Walker for his deep cuts to the state education budget — an area of strength for the state education head and public school teacher — before turning to healthcare and the state’s roads.
“I’ve seen, on the faces of our kids the devastation of Scott Walker’s cuts to public education,” he said. “I’ve watched has Scott Walker has made decision after decision that benefits himself and his wealthy donors, and not what benefits us, the people of Wisconsin.”
Evers’ solid statewide win sets him up well for the general election, and some public and private polls have already shown him ahead — a remarkable position for a challenger to be in before he even secured the primary. But the battle-tested and politically savvy Walker will be a tough out in a state he’s carried three times. And the governor has been preparing for months for what he recognizes will be his toughest statewide race in his career, with $5 million in the bank for the general election, while Evers emerges from the crowded primary with almost no money in the bank.
National Democrats have already committed $4 million to help Evers, but his allies acknowledge that the cash deficit needs to be closed for him to have a shot — and that his shoestring campaign will need to grow rapidly from his current three full-time staffers to compete with Walker’s vaunted machine.
“He needs a big infusion of cash right now. This is the reality. This is our reality. Tonight, we’re the launchpad for a winning gubernatorial race in Wisconsin,” former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton (D) told supporters at Evers’ party.
Evers isn’t exactly the most charismatic candidate — he still sounds like the local school superintendent he once was on the stump, occasionally stumbling over his words, and the most unusual thing about him may be the way his name is pronounced (it rhymes with believers). But Walker isn’t the most telegenic candidate either — and Democrats are banking that their base is so fired up this year that running even-keeled candidates who can appeal to centrists turned off by Trump the GOP to win in big swing states.
PLATTEVILLE, WI — Mike North, the head of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, is enough of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican to spend his Monday morning at a campaign stop for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). But when asked about how President Trump’s standing might effect his party this year, he immediately expressed concern over Trump’s ongoing trade wars.
“The reality is a change in our marketplace has been discomforting for sure, to say the least. There’s a lot of heartburn about where prices are at right now. So that will be something that we’ll have to work through as we come through fall,” North told TPM at a Walker campaign event at Digman Construction, a small company outside small-town Platteville in the state’s rural southwestern corner.
North’s group is nonpartisan, and has endorsed candidates from both parties in the past. He said he thought most Republican-leaning voters are willing to deal with some short-term economic pain to give Trump some time to figure things out, and doesn’t think it’s fair that others who voted for Trump are now unhappy with him doing what he promised to do.
“You don’t send a bull into a china shop and hope for a whole plate at the end,” North said.
But North admitted that plunging dairy prices, which have dropped 4 percent this year partly because of Mexico’s retaliatory tariffs on dairy in the trade wars Trump has kicked off, have put farmers in a tough position.
“Are we seeing things that we like in the short term? Obviously, lower prices aren’t anything any farmer wants to see. But we’re all looking at this with a very long-term mindset,” he said.
Wisconsin is one of many midwestern states where Trump’s trade war is roiling local industries, and could boost Democrats’ prospects this fall.
And dairy isn’t the only GOP-leaning industry in the state that’s been shaken by Trump’s trade wars. Wisconsin’s corn and soybean farmers aren’t thrilled either, and one iconic Wisconsin company has taken a hit as well. Harley Davidson’s bottom line risks major damage from Trump’s steel tariffs. When the Milwaukee-based company said it will start making its motorcycles for the European market over there to sidestep fallout from Trump’s trade war, the president responded with a call to boycott:
Many @harleydavidson owners plan to boycott the company if manufacturing moves overseas. Great! Most other companies are coming in our direction, including Harley competitors. A really bad move! U.S. will soon have a level playing field, or better.
Walker seemed well aware of the impact Trump’s trade wars might have on his own campaign. He quickly brought up the issue unprompted when talking to TPM after a meet-and-greet with supporters on the final day of his 21-stop bus tour through the state.
“As you can imagine, you can hear in particular in rural parts still some concerns about agriculture, obviously more aimed at the national level in terms of where prices are, whether it’s for dairy or for commodities,” he said when asked about where the state’s mood was.
And the avowed Harley rider later brought up the company, while sidestepping a question about whether he was happy with Trump’s attacks on his hometown’s pride.
“For me, I want Harley Davidson to succeed here in the state of Wisconsin. And one of the best ways for them to do that … is for the president to succeed in getting no tariffs,” he said. “There’s no tariffs, I’ve talked to Harley before. They want to make not only the bikes they make and sell in America, they want to make as many if not all their bikes here. But they need to have the help to do that.”
Walker said he supported Trump’s end goal of no tariffs between the U.S. and other G-7 countries — but implored the president that it needs to happen “sooner, rather than later.”
At least Walker addressed the question.
“We’ve got to go, we’ve got to go,” Senate candidate Leah Vukmir (R), who appears to be the slight favorite to win her Tuesday primary to face Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), said abruptly as soon as TPM mentioned Harley Davidson during a very brief interview after a rally in Racine with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) Monday afternoon. She hustled away across the parking lot, ignoring the repeated question.
Her primary opponent, former Marine Kevin Nicholson (R), has bear-hugged Trump all campaign as he sought to make hay out of Vukmir’s 2016 criticism of the then-nominee. But even he broke with Trump on this issue on the eve of their primary.
“No, I don’t want to see Harley-Davidson boycotted because I want to see them succeeding and selling into new markets without tariffs and that’s going to be the goal,” Nicholson said Monday on a local radio show.
Baldwin has joined many other Democrats to condemn Trump’s latest volley in the trade war, an issue that could split the GOP-leaning voters from their party this fall and give Democrats a chance for their first good midterm election in the state in a decade.
It’s unclear as of now how much Trump’s trade war will end up impacting GOP-leaning voters in the state. But polls and special elections in the state suggest that Democrats are positioned to bounce back after a rough decade in the state that culminated with Trump carrying Wisconsin by less than 23,000 votes in 2016. And there are signs that even some of the state’s most conservative Republicans aren’t thrilled with what the president has wrought.
“A lot of people are still in support of what Trump did,” said North. “But maybe they disagree with the tactics he’s taken of late.”
For a man who has fully embraced President Trump’s “America First” slogan, Rep. Kevin Cramer’s (R-ND) Senate campaign is using a surprising array of international images to sell his campaign.
The top Senate candidate’s website is replete with Getty stock images from around the globe, from Serbia to Indonesia, Hungary to the United Kingdom, to illustrate his made-in-America political views.
One notable shot: Cramer, a staunch ally of Trump who has campaigned heavily on a border-security crackdown, uses a stock image to illustrate the “Illegal immigration and sanctuary cities” section of his website.
The problem? It was taken by Hungarian photographer David Balogh, who has extensively photographed the Hungary-Serbia border crisis, where Hungary’s hard-right anti-immigrant government has erected a fence in response to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.
That’s far from the only odd image choice.
The photo illustrating Cramer’s opposition to the “Waters of the U.S. rule” (shown below) is actually waters of Indonesia. That Getty Stock image is of Lake Sentani, near Jayapura City, Indonesia — and far from Fargo.
His campaign’s latest press release on Medicare and Social Security featured an image of old man with a boy in a field. That happens to be a Getty Images photo taken in Serbia and titled “Cute grandfather and grandson going for a walk.”
This isn’t the first time Cramer’s drawn some notice for his use of stock images — one local veteran was unhappy enough about his use of an “Authentic Vietnam Veteran” stock image in a campaign web ad to write a letter to the Bismarck Tribune last month, and Cramer’s campaign was forced to apologize earlier this year for using a photo of him with two local Democrats without seeking their permission to be used in campaign information.
Cramer is running against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) in a race strategists in both parties say is the GOP’s best chance at a Senate pickup this fall.
His campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) rode a late endorsement from President Trump to the slimmest of leads in his state’s gubernatorial primary, setting up a potentially drawn-out fight over who won and boosting Democrats’ chances at seriously contesting the seat this fall.
Kobach, a notorious immigration hardliner and fierce proponent of the unfounded theory that there’s widespread voting fraud, held a 191-vote lead over Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) after all election day votes were finally tallied Wednesday morning, out of more than 300,000 total votes counted. That’s a 40.6 percent to 40.5 percent edge, close enough that thousands of provisional and absentee votes could make the difference — and close enough that a recount appears likely.
Colyer had a slight edge for much of the race, according to public and private polls, and Trump’s Monday endorsement may have made the difference for Kobach, his ardent supporter. Kobach has authored a number of restrictive anti-immigration and voter identification bills for states around the country, and led Trump’s widely criticized Voter Fraud Panel, which failed to turn up any evidence supporting Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election.
A Kobach win would Democrats a shot at swiping a governor’s mansion in the heavily Republican state, given his lightning-rod positions. There’s been scant public polling of the race, but one semi-recent survey from a GOP firm found him and Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly (D) tied in the hypothetical race, while Colyer held a double-digit lead over her.
Kansas’ divide between moderate and conservative Republicans runs deep, and Democrats have won here before with a coalition of moderates and Democrats when the GOP has nominated hardliners — most recently with former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) in 2002 and 2006. The party also almost beat Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in 2014, riding voters’ fury over Brownback’s deep tax cuts and the ensuing budget chaos in the state and falling just four points short in the GOP wave year. Colyer was Brownback’s lieutenant governor, and ascended to the governor’s mansion when Brownback was picked for an ambassadorship in the Trump administration.
If Colyer pulls out this close primary, it would be good news for Republicans hoping to hold the seat, though it would be an embarrassment for the president.
This general election will be complicated by Greg Orman, a well-known and self-funding independent candidate who could siphon off votes from Kelly. But this race is one to watch heading into the fall.
If Kobach hangs on that could also help down-ticket Democrats, who are gunning to take down Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) in the state’s most moderate and suburban district (Hillary Clinton carried it last election) and want to seriously contest a rural seat held by retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS).
Republican Troy Balderson appears to have barely squeaked by Democrat Danny O’Connor in a heavily Republican Ohio congressional district Tuesday, the latest warning sign that the GOP is headed into a brutal fall election season.
Balderson led over O’Connor by 50.1 percent to 49.3 percent, a 1,766-vote lead, with all precincts reporting. That narrow edge came in a district anchored in suburban Columbus, Ohio that President Trump won by 11 percentage points in 2016 and hasn’t elected a Democrat in 35 years. While provisional ballots were still outstanding, that’s likely enough for him to avoid a recount.
That the election was close at all is the latest concerning sign for House Republicans as they look ahead to the fall midterm elections. Many top GOP strategists warned what the results suggest about the fall elections:
I’ve worked in Ohio presidential and senate races for Republicans and the idea of #oh12 being a close race is sort of like hearing gravity is a regional phenomena. It’s not how the world is suppose to work. https://t.co/waJPaiJb1S
The final House special election before the midterms became the latest to shift significantly in Democrats’ favor in the Trump era, after victories by Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) as well as numerous other wins in legislative special elections and moral victories in other congressional special elections. The combined shift toward Democrats suggest a big surge for the party this fall.
Strategists in both parties admit that both candidates were fairly mediocre, making the Ohio race essentially a test of a generic Democrat versus Republican that didn’t have as many local vagaries as some other special elections.
Midterm elections will have higher turnout and could have slightly different electorates than these special election contests, and Democrats will need to win at least a few seats like this one if they’re going to get to a House majority in November.
Ohio Republicans argued that the race should be taken as a warning, but not a reason to panic.
“Anyone who doesn’t understand there’s increased Democratic enthusiasm isn’t being honest with themselves. There is. The question is, will it be enough? So far the answer has been no. They can make it close, but they can’t get over the hump,” former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges texted TPM as the final results rolled in Tuesday night.
But it’s a bad sign for Republicans that they keep having to fight this hard to hold onto seats that are normally slam dunks for their party. And it’s worth remembering that while Democrats ground out wins in a number of hard-fought special elections in 2010, they lost 63 seats that fall.
Republican outside groups spent more than $6 million combined to salvage Balderson’s prospects in the race after he was vastly out-raised by O’Connor.
And even as they celebrated victory, one of those groups warned it can’t be duplicated across the map in three months if some Republicans don’t up their efforts.
“While we won tonight, this remains a very tough political environment and moving forward, we cannot expect to win tough races when our candidate is being outraised,” Corry Bliss, the head of the big-spending Congressional Leadership Fund, warned in a Tuesday night statement. “Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money.”
The CLF closed with an ad from Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) strongly endorsing the candidate, a move that may have helped shore him up just enough in the more upscale, country club Republican parts of the district (Kasich, a frequent Trump antagonist, plays much better in those parts of the state). Though Trump came in to campaign with Balderson on Saturday, the rural parts of the district didn’t turn out in near the numbers as the suburban areas.
And while Trump claimed credit for the tight victory in a Tuesday night tweet, it’s likely Kasich who deserves the game ball for helping Balderson hang on in enough suburban territory to pull out the win.
These results may not be as good a sign for Senate Democrats, who need to win many heavily rural, downscale states to increase their numbers in the upper chamber. The suburban-rural splits were huge, with O’Connor over-performing normal Democratic numbers near Columbus and Balderson racking up strong margins in the district’s smaller towns and rural areas.
The two candidates aren’t done with one another: They’ll face off once again in November.
If Kansas has a Democratic governor next year, it might be as much former Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) fault as anyone’s.
Brownback had some of the worst poll numbers in the country when he left office to become President Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom late last year, with just 24 percent of voters saying they approved of the job he did.
His policies were so unpopular in the state that, shortly before he left office, many members of his own party joined with Democrats to repeal his signature tax cuts, reversing them by a supermajority vote over his veto. That reversal came after his dramatic tax cuts and corresponding draconian cuts to state government had left the state’s coffers bare and hurt the local economy. He won reelection by just four points — a shocking result especially given how big a wave election 2014 turned out to be for Republicans nationwide.
Democrats are hopeful they can mount a serious effort to flip the seat this fall, especially if firebrand Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), an acolyte of President Trump who’s at least as hard-right as Brownback, wins his primary on Tuesday night. Kobach has pledged to try to reinstate those same tax cuts moderates in his own party repealed last year.
Kansas Democrats have had success pulling together coalitions of Democrats and moderate Republicans to oppose the hardliners — that’s how former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) won election and reelection in 2002 and 2006 — and a Kobach nomination would help them do so.
If current Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) prevails on Tuesday, Democrats admit their road gets much tougher, even though Colyer loyally served as Brownback’s lieutenant governor during the budget crises Brownback caused. There’s been scant public polling in the race. But one GOP survey found Colyer leading state Sen. Laura Kelly (D), the most likely Democratic nominee, by double digits, while she and Kobach were statistically tied.
Democrats are also bullish that they can pick up one and possibly two congressional seats. They think Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) is especially vulnerable in his district, anchored in Kansas City’s better educated suburbs, where both Trump and Brownback are unpopular. They’re also hopeful that Paul Davis, the man who almost beat Brownback in 2014, can win a more conservative, rural seat held by retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS).
Independent, self-funding candidate Greg Orman is polling in the double digits and could play a spoiler for Democrats in the gubernatorial contest. But if they can navigate this race and pull off an upset win — and pick up one or two House seats — they’ll partly have Brownback to thank.