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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.
It may take a crimson tide to keep former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore from coming to Washington.
The groups backing appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) successfully carpet-bombed Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) into third place in the primary with millions of dollars of ads highlighting the congressman’s previous criticism of President Trump. But they face a much more daunting challenge in figuring out how to handle Moore, a well-known figure who’s beloved on the hard right for his virulently social conservative views and who is unlikely to see his base abandon him.
Moore took first place in Tuesday’s GOP primary for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate with 39 percent of the vote, with Strange getting the second runoff spot with 33 percent after receiving huge financial support from groups aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
And while Moore has plenty of detractors in-state who see him as a fringe rabble-rouser, even Strange’s allies admit the race is an uphill battle — one where heavy attacks from Washington-based outside groups risk backfiring on their candidate in a state where voters detest being told what to do.
“Luther’s liabilities are how he got there and that the McConnell Washington crowd have been so heavy-handed in supporting him,” said one Alabama Republican strategist who supports Strange in the race.
“We’re a state full of folks who like to fight, who are defiant, we don’t like following rules, and that’s why Roy Moore is popular,” said David Azbell, a longtime Alabama GOP strategist. “A lot of folks think he can shoot off a lot of fireworks in D.C. while not doing a lot of harm.”
Alabama voters are also furious over a series of scandals that have rocked statehouse, and that taint got all over Strange with his appointment to the Senate. Strange had been the state attorney general in charge of the investigation into disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley (R) — until Bentley appointed him to fill Sessions’ seat shortly before Bentley was forced to resign over a sex scandal.
Some saw Bentley’s support as a quid-pro-quo to get Strange out of his business. That’s a problem when paired with the association with McConnell, who has become a bogeyman on the right.
“Any time you’re the incumbent and 70 percent of people voted against you it’s hard to bounce back,” said Alabama GOP strategist Chris Brown, who ran the campaign of the fourth-place finisher, state Sen. Trip Pittman (R), and is neutral in the runoff.
Azbell, who backed Pittman in the primary, dislikes Moore enough that he’s never voted for him, skipping his line on the ballot both times Moore was the GOP nominee and working against him in past primaries. But he’s ready to break with precedent.
“I really don’t want Mitch McConnell and Robert Bentley telling me who my senator is going to be,” he said.
Moore is already looking to jiu jitsu McConnell’s backing, blasting the “silk-stockinged Washington elitists” supporting Strange.
It’s not the first time that’s worked for him: Moore won back his judicial seat by running against, and handily defeating, another Bentley appointee in 2012.
Strange’s allies argue that Moore will struggle to grow his appeal outside of his intense core of loyal followers. But the combination of an off-year primary, voters’ intense dislike of the traditional GOP establishment both in-state and in D.C. create the perfect climate for a Moore insurgency.
“Roy Moore has the intensity,” said GOP strategist Jon Coley, a Strange supporter. “Roy will turn his people out. Luther’s got to turn his people out and find a bunch more.”
The big question is how to do that.
The appointed senator will need to boost his support in a big way in the state’s more urban business communities — especially in and around Huntsville, Brooks’ base — and his allies worry that a deeply negative race may just turn off voters and convince them to stay home, leaving Moore with his rabid but limited base of support with the upper hand.
The strategy from the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund of playing for a Strange runoff with Moore by destroying Brooks paid off. And while they’re off TV right now, they offered a glimpse of how they plan to attack Moore going forward, with ads attacking him for taking a $1 million salary from the Christian organization he runs and for flying on private airplanes with the organization’s money. A Washington Republican strategist said the group is now finalizing their strategy for the runoff.
Moore has deep support on the hard right for his repeated stands athwart the tide of social change — in a state whose official motto is “We dare defend our rights.”
Moore has twice been forced from the state Supreme Court bench for disobeying court orders, first for installing, then refusing to remove, a monument to the Ten Commandments outside his courthouse, then just a few years ago for ordering his state to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
And Strange faces another challenge, with one of his best surrogates sidelined and another being notoriously unpredictable.
Sessions is a close ally — Strange helped on his campaigns and followed him as state attorney general. But Sessions doesn’t plan to have any involvement in the race because of the ethical constraints of his current job.
And while President Trump’s endorsement was a huge boost for Strange in the first round, it’s unclear what he’ll do going forward.
Trump’s tweets and a late robocall backing Strange likely helped boost him to second place and kept alive his hopes of staying in Washington. But Trump hasn’t been unequivocal in his support. The president’s reaction to the runoff result was a pair of tweets congratulating both candidates — and himself.
“What Trump does from here will be interesting to see. Luther must be holding his breath that Trump doesn’t have another post-Charlottesville and start flip-flopping on this. I’m holding my breath if I’m in his camp that this thing sticks for six weeks,” said the Alabama strategist supporting Strange.
It’s unclear how the next six weeks will shape up. But one thing’s for sure, according to Coley: “It’s going to be nasty.”
Anti-gay former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore will face Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) in a GOP primary runoff for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat in Alabama, setting up what’s likely to be a bloody contest.
Moore led the field with 41 percent of the GOP primary vote with more than 60 percent of precincts counted, with Strange at 32 percent and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) at 20 percent. The Associated Press has called the race.
Strange has received some huge outside help. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) allies spent millions to boost him and attack Brooks with ads highlighting Brooks’ earlier criticism of President Trump. The president’s own late endorsement of Strange may have played a key role in securing him a slot in the next round of voting.
Moore is a nationally known figure who has been railing against gays and Muslims for decades and has twice lost his job for refusing to follow higher court orders over religious issues.
In 2003, he was removed from Alabama’s Supreme Court after installing, then refusing to remove, a two-and-a-half-ton monument to the Ten Commandments outside his courthouse.
He won back his state Supreme Court seat in 2012 over a recently appointed judge after a pair of disappointing runs for governor, only to be suspended from the court once again after ordering state judges to disobey the U.S. Supreme Court and refuse to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Moore has doubled down on that rhetoric in this campaign: Earlier on Tuesday he declared that “There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country. Up in Illinois.”
Strange is the favorite of the GOP establishment and Alabama’s business community — whose support may hurt more than help in this race.
The senator was appointed to the seat by disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley (R) shortly before he was forced to resign from office. Strange, as state attorney general, had been in charge of the investigation into Bentley’s sex scandal before his appointment. His support from McConnell is also a double-edged sword, as the Kentucky Republican is far from popular with the base.
But Trump remains beloved by many Alabama Republicans, and could be a huge asset in the race — if he starts doing more than tweeting his support of Strange. The president cut a last-minute robocall to back his preferred candidate, and if he does more — like TV ads or an in-state visit — he could potentially help Strange overcome his disadvantage and catch Moore.
On the Democratic side, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones cruised to the nomination. Jones was the only real candidate in the race, with endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden, local leaders and civil rights icon and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). But a previously unknown guy named Robert Kennedy, Jr. (not the one you’re thinking of) had jumped into the race as well. Early polls actually showed him ahead in the race, but they proved wildly off the mark, as Jones had almost two-thirds of the Democratic vote with one third of precincts counted.
Democrats are hopeful that they have an outside shot at the seat in ruby red Alabama if Moore wins the nomination.
Polls have officially closed in the primary for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat in Alabama.
Appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) is fighting to stay in the GOP race against former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), ahead of what polls and strategists say is a likely primary runoff.
If no candidate wins an outright majority — as is likely — the top two vote-getters will square off in a late September runoff.
The controversial Brooks has a rabid following of hardline evangelical conservatives and is expected to finish at the top of the field. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) allies have spent millions to destroy Brooks in order to push Strange into second place, and public and private polls suggest they’ve succeeded, and while there’s no guarantee he’ll edge Brooks a late endorsement from President Trump has boosted him in a major way.
Brooks, in the meantime, spent his last day of the primary claiming that “There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country.”
First results are expected around 8:30 p.m. Eastern. Stay tuned, and click here for more background on the race and Moore’s controversial views.
In a few hours, we’ll see whether President Trump has knocked former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore off his high horse.
Moore, an inflammatory religious conservative who has twice been kicked off his state’s highest court for refusing to honor court orders regarding the separation of church and state, is the front-runner in a crowded GOP primary field to win Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat from Alabama.
But Trump’s late endorsement of appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) — as well as millions in ad spending from super PACs aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — have sought to boost Strange to second place ahead of Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), a firebrand from the economic conservative rather than social conservative wing of the party, ahead of what’s expected to be a primary runoff.
Moore spent election day riding a horse to the polls — an election-day tradition for the traditionalist — before delivering one of his trademark religious right quips in an interview with Vox.
“There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country. Up in Illinois,” Moore declared before backtracking some when asked exactly where there were American communities living under Muslim law.
“Well, there’s Sharia law, as I understand it, in Illinois, Indiana — up there. I don’t know,” he continued.
Trump, in between tweeting attacks on the CEOs dropping out of his business council and taking impromptu questions where he defended the alt-right and blamed the left for the Neo Nazi-triggered violence in Charlottesville, VA last weekend, heaped praise on Strange in a Tuesday morning tweet. The president remains immensely popular with Alabama Republicans, and his last-minute boost could push Strange into a runoff and could help him stop Moore down the line.
Big day in Alabama. Vote for Luther Strange, he will be great!
No candidate is expected to win an outright majority to avoid a primary runoff, though Moore might have a slim outside shot of pulling off an outright win. McConnell’s allies have turned some of their fire on Moore in recent weeks after concentrating on tearing down Brooks, though they say that was designed to start softening him up for the next round of votes rather than because they were worried he might surge to a majority of the vote.
Democrats are quietly hopeful that if Moore wins the primary they might be able to put the race in play — but admit they have a big hurdle in their own primary.
The Democratic establishment has rallied around former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who has endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden and civil rights icon and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). But he’s facing a challenge from a random dude named Robert Kennedy, Jr. (no, not that one), who on name recognition alone is polling strong. If Jones can beat Kennedy he has an outside chance at defeating Moore, but that’s no sure thing. With other candidates in the race, Democrats may be looking at a primary runoff as well.
Polls close at 8 p.m. ET. If no candidate wins a majority, runoff elections will occur on Sept. 26.
Next year’s midterm elections could help answer a major question dividing Democrats: Should they focus more on winning back Obama-Trump voters, or lean hard into traditional Republican voters who went for Clinton last election?
The Trump era has injected new urgency in the years-old party fight about whether Democrats should focus on regaining the ground they’ve lost in older, whiter, less educated and more rural areas or push to boost their numbers in the diversifying, largely suburban areas that have been trending their way.
The bad news for Democrats: They need to improve significantly in both places to win back any real power in Washington. The good news: The next election will test both theories, with House and Senate strategists facing nearly opposite approaches.
‘Weird Accident Of History’
The competitive Senate map is tilted heavily towards more rural, less educated, poorer, whiter states this election cycle, where Democrats were a dying breed through the Obama era. On the flip side, many of House Democrats’ best targets are in traditionally Republican districts where well-educated white voters abandoned Trump in droves, and where fast-growing minority communities are quickly changing the landscape.
“We’re just in this weird accident of history,” said Democratic strategist John Hagner, who is working on both House and Senate races this cycle. “The party isn’t choosing to fight these type of seats, the map is giving them to us. We have no choice.”
The underlying ideological question that drives much of the current party split is whether Democrats should stress cultural or economic liberalism to get back to power — and how much to stomach moderates on those issues.
The Bernie Sanders wing of the party wants a much heavier emphasis on a populist economic agenda, and many downscale Democrats agree, with an emphasis on trade and other pocketbook issues and avoiding the hot-button social fault lines that have hurt them in those places for decades.
Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), all facing reelection, sound more like their party when they’re talking about Social Security and health care than the NRA or immigration.
But people in wealthier, better educated, more diverse and urban parts of the country are especially livid at Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, his hesitance to condemn white supremacists, his ditching the Paris climate accords, his threats to pull transgender soldiers out of the military, and the GOP’s attempts to defund Planned Parenthood — not to mention Russia.
Senate Democrats need to run up their numbers with the former group, while House Democrats plan to emphasize the latter, largely out of necessity.
Even with Trump’s plunging numbers, Democrats still need a lot of things to break the right way to overcome a maxed-out Senate map with few targets and a heavily gerrymandered House map.
House Dems Can Sprawl Into Suburbia On Social Issues
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has ranked 29 Republican-held House seats that Democrats have at least a decent chance of winning — either pure tossups or races that lean Republican.
In more than two-thirds of those seats (20 of 29), a higher percentage of people have a college degree than the national average of 30.6 percent, with many of the targeted districts well above that figure, according to Census data analyzed by TPM. Many are in the Sun Belt suburbs, like Reps. Darrel Issa (R-CA), Pete Sessions (R-TX) and the retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
Republicans only hold 41 seats that are more diverse than the national average, a tiny fraction of their 240-seat majority. Ten of those are top Democratic targets, including 6 of the 17 GOP-held seats that are at least one-third Hispanic.
Eighteen of these 29 districts have fewer people 65 or older than the national average of 15.2 percent.
The most important driver of all: Clinton carried 18 of these 29 seats last fall, and Trump was held below 50 percent in all but three of them. Democrats need to net 24 seats next fall to take back the House.
“Out of necessity we are competing hard in the 23 districts that Hillary Clinton carried as well as districts where President Trump did well,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law told TPM. “Clearly, there are many highly educated suburban areas that have become more diverse, more Democratic, and where voters are disillusioned with today’s Republican Party.”
Senate Dems Stake Their Fate On Populism
The Senate, where Democrats are mostly playing defense, is a very different picture.
There are a dozen Senate seats in play at this point: A pair of GOP-held seats in Arizona and Nevada and 10 Democrat-held seats in states Trump won.
Those states are mostly less diverse, less educated and older than the nation as a whole.
In all 12 of those states, fewer people have a college degree than the national average.
Nine of the 12 are whiter than the national average — and in all nine of those at least 75 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white, compared to the national share of 61.3 percent. Nine of the twelve states also have more than the average number of senior citizens.
In 11 of the 12 states, Clinton underperformed Obama, and in five (Indiana, Missouri, Montana North Dakota and West Virginia) she won less than 40 percent of the vote.
On issues like trade and Social Security, Democrats often sound more like Trump than Clinton in those places.
“Taking a populist view of the issues and making sure you’re sticking up for Main Street, that works,” said one Senate Democratic strategist. “Trump joined the fight that Senate Democrats on many issues had been working on for a long time. The way he talks about trade and outsourcing is the cleanest cut example of that.”
‘All Of The Above’
Democratic strategists all argue they need to push hard to win both types of places — and that issues like Obamacare repeal help them across the country. Democrats are already up with ads hammering Republicans for trying to charge people more for insurance while giving tax cuts to the rich.
But they say party loyalists and major donors must embrace diversity of opinions, especially after heated intra-party fights about whether the Democratic establishment should back candidates who oppose abortion rights.
“Anyone who says we can focus only on Romney-Clinton seats or only on Obama-Trump seats hasn’t looked at the 2018 landscape. We have to push on both,” said Jesse Ferguson, an alum of the Clinton campaign and House race veteran. “An all-of-the-above approach is going to mean that there will be candidates on both economic issues and on social issues who may not agree with the party platform all the time. And we have to be comfortable with that.”
Democrats are cautiously optimistic about early returns.
While they’re still smarting over an expensive loss in an upscale open Georgia House seat and a missed opportunity to seriously contest an open seat in populist Montana, there have been signs of a shift towards Democrats, especially in more rural populist areas — like a big special election win in an Iowa statehouse seat last week that Trump had carried by 20 points.
For now, Democrats are taking an all-of-the-above approach. But if money gets tight near next year’s election, it will be telling to see which type of terrain they spend more heavily on.
“There’s been this huge bounce back in some of the battleground rural areas,” said Hagner. “Right now the answer is invest in all of them, get the best candidates you get in all of them. Next year it’ll be an interesting question of which of them are better targets.”
The biggest thing in between controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) and the U.S. Senate is Donald Trump.
Heading into election day on Tuesday, the question is whether the president and the GOP establishment have been able to do enough to push their favored candidate, appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), into a runoff where they think they can defeat a man best known for his anti-gay and religious right stances.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his donor network have gone all-in for Strange, a former state attorney general and lobbyist who was appointed to the Senate after Jeff Sessions left to become attorney general.
With $4 million in negative ads attacking Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) for his earlier criticism of Trump and the president’s last-minute support in a state where he’s immensely popular with the GOP base, they’re feeling confident that they’ve put their man into the top two in the race ahead of a likely runoff on Sept. 28.
But public and private polling indicates Moore is likely to finish in first place in Tuesday’s election. If Strange does manage to edge Brooks on Tuesday — a likelihood but no guarantee, as some polls show a tight race between them — his allies are ready to spend at least as much for him in what they expect to be a competitive runoff.
“I’m not inclined to believe Moore can’t win this race,” said Ford O’Connell, a national GOP strategist who did some work on Strange’s 2010 race for attorney general. “A lot of folks in Alabama are looking for someone who’s a lot more fiery. They’re looking beyond the usual business conservative wing, they’re looking for ideologues who represent them.”
Strategists involved in the race say Trump has been a huge boon to Strange as he looks to push past Brooks in the first round. The president tweeted his support last week, did so again on Monday, and according to Strange allies he recorded a last-minute robocall ahead of the primary.
Moore has built a base of ardent evangelical Christian support in his two decades of attacking gay people and refusing to follow other court rulings. Strange allies think Moore has a hard ceiling of support, as evidenced by his poor showing in a pair of past gubernatorial runs. But they’re not taking any chances: The Senate Leadership Fund, the super-PAC aligned with McConnell, has already begun airing ads tearing apart Moore for taking a $1 million salary from the Christian non-profit he runs.
“Our goal has always been to make the runoff. We’ve been playing for second place all along, to get Luther Strange into the runoff and take it from there,” said Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Chris Pack.
Trump’s endorsement is huge, as his favorable numbers remain in the 80s among Alabama Republican primary voters.
“The fact that the president endorsed him I think is a huge game-changer. Going into this election tomorrow the whole goal was to get into the runoff with Roy Moore, he has this solid base of support,” Perry Hooper Jr., a Strange backer who was the Alabama chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign, told TPM.
Moore, a former judge, is best known for his pair of high-profile stances against “activist judges” — both of which cost him his own robes.
In 2003, he was removed from Alabama’s Supreme Court after installing, then refusing to remove, a two-and-a-half-ton monument to the Ten Commandments outside his courthouse. After a pair of disappointing runs for governor, he won back his state Supreme Court seat in 2012 over a recently appointed judge.
He was soon suspended from court once again after ordering state judges to disobey the U.S. Supreme Court and refuse to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“Is there such a thing as morality anymore?” Moore said at the time. “Sodomy for centuries was declared to be against the laws of nature and nature’s God. And now if you say that in public, and I guess I am, am I violating somebody’s civil rights? Have we elevated morality to immorality? Do we call good, bad?”
In between, he said Congress should bar Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) from office because he’s a Muslim, and declared that when the Founding Fathers talked about God-given rights of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they were talking about a Christian God. “Buddha didn’t create us, Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures,” he said.
He’s hardly softened his tone in this race. In a recent op-ed, he pledged to stop “Obama-era policies of using our troops as social experiments and keep them focused on what they do best” and called liberal judges “the single largest threat to our country’s existence.”
In an interview just last week, he defended Russian strongman Vladimir Putin while criticizing the U.S. for allowing same-sex marriage.
Republicans quietly say that if Moore wins the nomination it might actually put the seat in jeopardy, though they’re skeptical any Republican could lose statewide in Alabama. A Moore win, however, might not be any more pleasant for McConnell over the next few years.
Strange is no moderate squish himself. As state attorney general, he was involved in many lawsuits against the federal government, including a push to overturn federal rules protecting transgender students in the classroom and battles against Obama-era EPA standards. But Republicans acknowledge his ties to McConnell aren’t helpful — nor are his longstanding connections to the country club wing of the Alabama GOP, including disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who appointed him to the seat shortly before resigning.
And it’s no guarantee that the voters who back Brooks in the first round will gravitate towards Strange over Moore. Many supporters of Brooks, a hardline fiscal conservative, are just as anti-establishment as Moore’s. And it remains to be seen whether Brooks’ high-profile right-wing pundit backers including Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham decide to fall in line or back Trump’s pick in the second round.
“I think it doesn’t matter if Roy Moore gets caught shooting someone tomorrow, he’s still going to get that base support of 30 to 35 percent. I’m not sure where the Mo Brooks supporters will go,” said Hooper. “But I do think Donald Trump is a major part of this.”
Democrats have landed their top recruit to challenge Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), according to a local report, with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) planning to jump into the race in the coming weeks.
Phoenix’s NBC affiliate reports that Sinema, a centrist congresswoman who Democrats have been courting for a statewide run for years, will indeed take the plunge against Flake, one of the two incumbent Republicans that Democrats think they can beat this election cycle besides Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV).
Sinema is doing little to push back on that report.
“I’ve heard from many Arizonans encouraging me to run for the United States Senate. It is something I am seriously considering. When I make any decisions, Arizonans will be the first to know,” she said in a Friday statement.
Sinema has an interesting background. She’s the first openly bisexual member of Congress in history, and in the Arizona statehouse was known as a fiery liberal. But she’s shifted to the center in recent years, joining the moderate Blue Dog coalition, and is one of only a handful of Democrats who the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed in recent years.
She has managed to lock down a Democratic-trending suburban Phoenix, winning the once-competitive seat in 2012 and holding off a tough challenge in the 2014 GOP wave before cruising in 2016. The district was drawn to be a tossup, and President Obama would have won it by just 4 percentage points in 2008, but it’s trended strongly Democratic and President Trump lost it by almost 15 points last fall.
That trend has helped move the state from a GOP lock towards competitiveness — Trump carried Arizona by less than 4 points. And Flake faces the double-whammy of a potentially tough primary campaign where he’ll face a pro-Trump candidate before a general election that’s shaping up to be a real challenge.
Flake may not have made things easier on himself by penning a book and op-ed excoriating Trump, a move that has infuriated the president and added fuel to the fire of the primary challenge against him. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), who was crushed by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a primary challenge last cycle, is already in the race against him, but Trump allies are working to recruit one of a pair of much more serious allies to challenge him as well, and the president himself is threatening to get involved.
Republicans have privately said for months that Flake faces a tough path to reelection, and private polling indicates that he has a tightrope to walk if he wants to return to office after 2018.
The ongoing public feud between President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threatens to spill over onto the 2018 elections, leaving Republicans with a series of nasty primaries that could hurt them in races across the country and damage their slim majority.
Trump is going full berserker on McConnell following the Kentucky Republican’s relatively muted Monday criticism that the president held “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process” and was hurting Republicans by setting artificial deadlines. Trump’s response has been to lash out with attacks on McConnell’s capabilities as leader and hint that he might ask McConnell to step down if he doesn’t speed up his work.
After a tense Thursday morning phone call to McConnell and a series of furious tweets, Trump told reporters Thursday afternoon that it was “a disgrace” that McConnell had failed to push Obamacare repeal through the Senate. He warned if the Senate can’t pass that legislation, tax reform and infrastructure soon, reporters “can ask me that question” of whether he’d want the Senate majority leader to step down.
McConnell seems to be looking to deescalate the fight. He’s been radio silent since Monday, and his office directed TPM to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which did not respond to calls and emails.
McConnell isn’t going anywhere anytime soon — he has strong support from his own conference. But the public spat with Trump threatens the size of his majority, complicating the elections of both incumbents and challengers as well as dividing an unhappy donor class. And the more they fight, the worse Republican strategists say things will go for the party next fall.
“Everybody knows we are going to have a tough cycle in the best of circumstances in 2018, the political winds are in your face when you’re the party in power,” said Republican strategist Rob Jesmer. “If [Trump] thinks the solution is to get his voters so mad that they stay home that could be a gigantic problem. Does he think this is going to be easier with oversight committees controlled by Democrats? That’d be an unmitigated disaster for us.”
When he worked at the NRSC in 2010 and 2012, Jesmer saw the party blow winnable races in a number of states because fatally flawed candidates won brutal primaries. While establishment outside groups and the NRSC’s decision to fight hard for its favorites in primaries have kept that from happening the last two election cycles, putting them in the majority, they’ve never faced a president of their own party undercutting their efforts.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to work together, including the president’s,” Jesmer said. “When he’s attacking members, all he’s doing is hurting himself in the long run. He’s not doing himself any favors at all.”
A friendly map likely insulates McConnell from a true threat to the majority — 10 Democrats in states Trump won face reelection, compared to only one Republican from a state he lost. But Democrats are starting to buzz that they might be able to fight the GOP to a draw, and even potentially gain a seat or two, though even the most optimistic say the majority is likely still out of reach.
Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Dean Heller (R-NV), by far the two most vulnerable Republicans facing reelection next fall, are both facing threats from the populist right by candidates who’ve slammed them for not showing enough loyalty to Trump. Flake has been particularly outspoken against Trump, penning a book and op-ed flaying the president, and Trump and his allies have responded with fury.
The president has privately threatened to spend $10 million to defeat Flake. While that’s likely bluster, White House aides have met with former state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham, both top Trump surrogates, to discuss primary challenges. They’ve also gotten together with Flake’s fringe-favorite primary opponent, former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R). One of Trump’s top donors, billionaire Robert Mercer, just cut a $300,000 check to Ward’s super-PAC this week (he spent even more to help Ward in her failed effort to beat Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) last cycle).
Heller, on the other hand, has awkwardly danced all over the place on Trump and his top priorities, trying to please everyone and infuriating voters left and right in the process. After saying he wouldn’t back the Obamacare repeal bill crafted by McConnell and demanded by Trump, Heller voted to move forward on that legislation, irritating just about everyone in his home state. Earlier this week, businessman Danny Tarkanian, who has run (and lost) many races in the state before, launched a bid against Heller, slamming him for not carrying more of the president’s water.
Both senators are still favorites to win their primaries — and both the NRSC and the Senate Leadership Fund, a well-funded super-PAC run by former McConnell staffers, are ready to go to war for them. But divisive, nasty primaries could wound them both as they head into already-tough general elections. Trump allies say he’s at least as angry at the pair as the Democrats who have so far thwarted his legislative agenda.
“The president spotlighting Heller and Flake is an example of why he came here to Washington, D.C.: To disrupt the status quo. He sees a culture of empty promises,” a strategist close to the White House told TPM. “He gets frustrated when he sees Republicans who have benefited from these promises break those promises. … The president’s going to hold them accountable.”
It remains unclear whether this is a temporary tantrum from Trump, a la his primary attacks against Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, or whether he’ll follow through on his threats. Shortly before he went on his McConnell meltdown, Trump tweeted his support for Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) in his hard-fought primary, giving a big boost to McConnell’s preferred candidate against two challengers. Republicans warn that Roy Moore, one of his opponents, could actually put the seat at risk if he wins the primary.
But the mercurial and unpredictable president is hurting in a lot more ways than he’s helping, and GOP strategists are pulling their hair out.
“If you’re someone who’s trying to expand the majority, you do that by defeating Democrats, not Republicans. It’s a pretty simple concept,” griped one top Senate Republican strategist. “We were one vote short of repealing Obamacare in the Senate last month. The best way to increase the number of votes is to increase the number of seats.”
Democrats are making an early push for older voters in their bid to take back the House, slamming congressional Republicans for voting for a plan to repeal Obamacare that included higher insurance premiums for older voters.
The House Majority PAC and Priorities USA, a pair of heavy-hitting Democratic outside groups, are launching a fleet of digital ads against 10 GOP congressmen who voted for the repeal bill and its “age tax that could devastate retirements.”
The message of the ads, first shared with TPM, is clearly aimed at older voters whose premiums could have spiked dramatically if congressional Republicans’ plans had become law. The House GOP plan would have loosened the current law’s limit on insurance companies only being able to charge older people three times what they charge younger people to a limit of five times as much.
House Majority PAC Executive Director Charlie Kelly said House Republicans “decided to throw their constituents under the bus by voting for a disastrous healthcare bill that imposes a devastating ‘Age Tax’ on older Americans,” while said Priorities USA Executive Director Patrick McHugh called it “simply unforgivable” that they backed a plan that does so while “cutting taxes for millionaires.”
Their target list is a mix of Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts, like Reps. David Valadao (R-CA) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), congressmen from older, heavily blue-collar areas like Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI), and some where both factors are at play, like Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who represents one of the more senior-heavy areas in the country and one of the most Democratic-friendly. One fifth of her district’s constituents are over the age of 65, and Trump lost the district by 5 percentage points.
The ad buy is part of a six-figure effort from Democratic outside groups to make Republicans pay for their Obamacare repeal votes.
Democrats are hopeful that the GOP’s deeply unpopular bills have given them an opening with older and blue-collar voters, groups that have moved away from them in recent election cycles and helped deliver President Trump to the White House last election, much as their fight against President George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security paid big dividends the last time they retook the House in 2006.
Jared Kushner owned a stake in his brother’s Obamacare-dependent health insurance company when it hired lobbyists to fight repeal of the law shortly before he divested from it earlier this year.
Kushner’s younger brother, Joshua Kushner, co-founded Oscar Health Insurance to capitalize on Obamacare’s individual insurance markets by offering a web-friendly insurance option aimed mostly at younger and urban consumers. The company is heavily dependent on Obamacare’s private insurance exchanges.
Joshua Kushner’s heavy involvement in the company has been widely reported. But his older brother’s partial ownership, through a stake in Joshua’s technology investment firm Thrive Capital, has been little noticed.
Jared Kushner did not list his holdings in Oscar Health Insurance on his personal financial disclosure form because he was not required to do so, as he included Thrive. But that company’s ownership, through a company called Mulberry Health, Inc., was highlighted by the White House’s own attorneys as a reason he needed to divest in Thrive around the time President Trump was sworn into the White House.
“One major holding of multiple Thrive Capital funds is Oscar Health Insurance. Mr. Kushner’s continuing interest in Oscar could require his recusal from a variety of particular matters that will have a direct and predictable effect on the health insurance industry,” White House Deputy Counsel Stefan Passantino wrote to the Office of Government Ethics in a letter explaining what Kushner would sell to avoid potential conflicts of interest and why. That letter is dated Jan. 25, 2017, less than a week after Trump’s inauguration.
Passantino’s letter was posted on the OGE’s website among documents that it has released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests.
It’s unclear exactly how much money Jared Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers, had tied up in Oscar Health. His personal financial disclosure doesn’t break out the individual investments held by Thrive Capital, which Kushner had between $6 million and $11 million tied up in.
But while that appears to be far from Kushner’s largest venture, he wasn’t just a minor investor in the company, which in early 2016 received a $2.7 billion valuation.
A 2013 report to the New York State’s Department of Financial Services on Oscar’s corporate organization stated that the Kushner brothers were “deemed the ultimate controlling persons in Oscar’s holding company system because they are the only members of Thrive Partners III GP, LLC, which is the general partner in Thrive Capital Partners III, L.P.”
A flow chart of Oscar Insurance Corporation’s holding company system from the New York State Department of Financial Services’s 2013 report on the company’s corporate structure.
Three weeks before the White House wrote to the Office of Government Ethics outlining Kushner’s divestment plan, Oscar’s parent company hired lobbyists to prepare for the coming GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. It is unclear if Jared Kushner had any involvement in the parent company’s hiring of the lobbyists during the Trump transition, though a White House source said that he had no involvement in Mulberry Health hiring lobbyists and no dealings with those lobbyists.
Oscar’s founders have been upfront about the importance of Obamacare to the company’s creation — and ongoing success.
“I don’t think we could do this without Obamacare,” Mario Schlosser, one of the company’s co-founders and one of Joshua Kushner’s college friends, told the Washington Post in 2013.
In the election’s wake, Schlosser and Kushner co-wrote a blog post on the company’s website in November 2016 arguing for the law’s importance and calling for it to be tweaked, not dismantled.
“While the ACA has significant flaws, we believe the majority of this pain [from rising insurance rates] is a result of the preexisting faults of our healthcare system,” the pair wrote, mentioning some of the law’s “serious shortcomings in design” but calling for relatively minor changes in the program rather than a dramatic overhaul.
Oscar’s parent company hired lobbyists to help make sure that vision was put to practice — three weeks before the White House officially announced Kushner’s plans to divest from the company. On Jan. 3, Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, Inc. filed a lobbying disclosure form announcing their hiring by Mulberry Health, Oscar’s parent company. As of March, Mulberry had paid the lobbying firm $60,000 for its work, according to lobbyist disclosure filings.
Calls and emails to Oscar Health Insurance, Thrive Capital Partners and Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas were not returned. The White House declined to respond on the record for this story.
Jared Kushner seems to harbor similar views as his brother about Obamacare repeal. Sources confirm to TPM multipleoutlets‘ reports that he was deeply skeptical ofcongressional Republicans’ push for Obamacare repeal from the start and called the push for the repeal a mistake — criticism that led Trump at one point to blow up at Jared Kushner and say he fully understood his position, according to Politico.
Jared Kushner’s involvement in the internal Obamacare debate included an early spring meeting he attended with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Trump, senior White House officials and House members, and Zeke Emanuel, the Democratic architect of Obamacare who Kushner played a role in bringing in to discuss the law with his father-in-law. A source in the room told TPM that Jared Kushner was vocally critical of the House Republicans’ plan for replacing the law during the meeting.
Capitol Hill sources tell TPM that Jared Kushner wasn’t intimately involved in the congressional push to repeal Obamacare. Ryan has talked to him multiple times since the election but only once about health care, according to a source familiar with the conversations. Jared Kushner was skiing with his family in Aspen when the House had to cancel its first vote on the Obamacare repeal bill due to lack of support. Senate Republicans said they’d had little contact with him.
But he didn’t completely step away from the issue, according to sources. He was at the table during a White House meeting between Trump and top Congressional Republicans to discuss health care in early June, when Trump joked on-camera that his son-in-law had “become much more famous than me.”
A photo from Joshua Kushner’s Instagram account
Jared Kushner’s involvement on health care concerned some government ethics experts, who suggested it violated the spirit if not the letter of Trump’s own executive order barring people from working on issues “involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related” to former employers or former clients for two years. The OGE’s guidance on the matter says that broad topics like health care reform legislation don’t qualify because “it is not focused on the interests of specific persons, or a discrete and identifiable class of persons.” To further parse Trump’s order, Kushner may not fall under these circumstances since he was the owner and not an employee of the company.
“From a public interest perspective, the whole things reeks. From a black and white reading of the executive order it’s a little more gray. But it certainly goes against any claims to draining the swamp,” said Stephen Spaulding of the good government advocacy group Common Cause. “We shouldn’t be in a position where we have to be parsing the order, there should be a clear separation.”
While other insurers have scaled back on offerings on the individual health care exchange markets due to uncertainty around the law and Trump’s threats to stop making cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, Oscar has actually increased its offerings this year.
Photo illustration of Jared Kushner, left, and Joshua Kushner by Christine Frapech/TPM). Photo credits: picture alliance / Kai-Uwe Wärner via AP Images, Chris Kleponis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images.