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

Democrats face their biggest electoral test of 2017 on Tuesday in Virginia — a must-win if they hope to show they can bounce back in the Trump era.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) appears to be clinging to a narrow lead against former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie in the race for governor, a key test of whether the wind is really at Democrats’ backs heading into the 2018 midterms and how well they can handle Donald Trump-style GOP race-baiting.

If Northam wins, Democrats can claim their first big election victory since President Trump’s win almost a year ago after coming up short in a number of uphill battle special elections. But if Gillespie wins after running a deeply divisive campaign focused on racially charged topics like sanctuary cities and Confederate monuments in a state Hillary Clinton won last year, Democrats are likely to have a collective meltdown — one that’s already been building after a rough final week on the campaign trail for Northam and progressive-establishment infighting over the Democratic National Committee’s role in the 2016 primaries.

“Obviously a win is important here. I’m not going to even contemplate the other options at this point in time,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told TPM Monday afternoon.

Most public and private polls from both Democrats and Republicans indicate a close race, with Northam holding a slight lead.

A Northam win would help quell the nerves that have been building with some Democratic operatives over the past two weeks as they’ve watched this race tighten up due to some missteps from the Democrat and his allies.

Progressives have been hammering Northam for his centrist tendencies, while creating some hurdles for him in the last week that he’s failed to clear smoothly.

Those screw-ups have included Northam allowing a union to print a mailer that left off Democrats’ African American candidate for lieutenant governor (he opposed a gas pipeline the union likes), Northam flipping to say he’d sign a bill banning sanctuary cities after months of beating back Gillespie’s attacks on the topic as ridiculous because Virginia doesn’t have any sanctuary cities, and a number of unhelpful controversies stirred up by liberal outside groups.

Democrats admit it wasn’t a pretty final week on the campaign trail — but are feeling confident that Northam will eke out a win.

“Last week’s Beltway tempest doesn’t change the fact that Democrats are more engaged and excited than Republicans this election cycle, and it hasn’t distracted voters from the fact that Ed Gillespie has deployed the most racist and divisive campaign tactics in modern Virginia political history,” Carolyn Fiddler, a Democratic strategist with deep ties in Virginia who works for the liberal Daily Kos, told TPM. 

The optics aren’t all that matters. Besides the obvious important policy role a governor plays in a large swing state, whoever wins will be the governor the next time Virginia draws its electoral maps. A Northam victory would force a compromise map or one drawn by the courts, likely undoing Republicans’ seven-to-four edge in the Congressional delegation. If Gillespie wins, Republicans would likely be able to gerrymander statehouse maps to lock in unified control for another decade, as well as protect their current members.

And while Gillespie has decided to keep President Trump at arm’s length (even as he’s adopted many of the president’s tactics), the Trump hasn’t stayed quiet about the race.

Republicans are feeling better by the day that Gillespie might be able to grind out a win — a result that would be stunning given Trump’s terrible numbers in the state, Virginia’s Democratic trend and Clinton’s five-point win there last year.

“We feel like the momentum’s with us, and love the complete and utter disaster that is Democrat morale right now, the circular firing squad is out for Ralph Northam,” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck told TPM. “Democrats have tried to nationalize this and the danger to them is what happens if we win it. … It’ll be devastating to them.”

But Northam’s team says they’re feeling good about where things stand — and that there are lessons to be learned for other Democrats about how to run in the age of Trump if they win.

“You have to run as an authentic candidate authentic to who you are, you have to be willing to counter Republican fear-mongering, and you have to build a turnout organization that is going to aggressively outperform what you’ve seen in the past,” Northam spokesman David Turner told TPM.

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Democrats are nervous about how they’re concluding the biggest election of 2017, with some growing increasingly concerned that missteps and internal feuds are hurting their chances of winning Virginia’s crucial gubernatorial election Tuesday.

The last week of the race has thrown Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) campaign on the defensive, as he’s struggled to grapple with blowback from a charged ad from an allied outside group, overreacted with a promise to ban sanctuary cities if needed and took a beating from some progressives.

Democrats still think they’re likely to hang on and win the race. But the back-biting and finger-pointing has distracted Northam and helped unite Republicans as he looks to grind out a win against GOP nominee Ed Gillespie’s racially charged campaign in the biggest test so far of Democratic organizing ability and electoral strength since Trump’s 2016 victory.

“Everyone’s just scrambling to shit the bed at once,” one longtime Virginia Democratic strategist told TPM, slamming the chirping from left-wing groups while calling Northam’s waffling on sanctuary cities “bizarre.”

“It’s difficult to watch as a Virginian who really doesn’t want Ed Gillespie as governor.”

The Democrat strategist — and most Democrats — still think Northam will hold on to win the race in a state Hillary Clinton carried last fall. But many are frustrated at the infighting that’s taken place in the race’s last week, with progressives furious at Northam’s caution and moderation and Northam allies maddened by unhelpful liberal bedwetting.

“People are screwing up,” said another Democrat who’s working on Virginia races, warning a Northam loss would “signal that the wave is not what we think it is, it cool a lot of fundraising and enthusiasm and really force people to reevaluate 2018.”

There has been grumbling on the left for months that Northam wasn’t doing enough to boost minority and progressive turnout. But it came to a head in recent days when the Latino Victory Fund, a Hispanic outside group worried that Northam hadn’t done enough to gin up Latino turnout, launched a controversial ad tying Gillespie’s racially charged ads to Donald Trump and the Charlottesville white supremacist violence. Conservatives jumped on the ad, in which a white man driving a pickup with a Confederate flag and Gillespie sticker chases down minority children, saying it implies all Gillespie supporters are racists.

The spot was quickly pulled down, but not before it triggered a backlash on the right that Republicans say has helped galvanize their supporters behind Gillespie. Northam didn’t help himself any as he sought to clean up the mess, declaring for the first time that he’d sign a bill to ban sanctuary cities in the commonwealth if any were established.

“If that bill comes to my desk, Andy, I sure will,” he told a local news anchor on Wednesday. “I have always been opposed to sanctuary cities.”

That’s a new position for Northam after months of him dismissing Gillespie’s attacks on the topic as racially charged scare-mongering since no sanctuary cities exist in the commonwealth — and after he cast the deciding vote to block a sanctuary cities bill in the legislature that Gillespie’s allies had cooked up to force him to vote on it.

Many liberals were apoplectic. And to make things worse, the national liberal group Democracy for America responded by un-endorsing Northam while calling him a “racist” for his stance.

“After seeing Northam play directly into the hands of Republicans’ racist anti-immigrant rhetoric on sanctuary cities, we refuse to be silent any longer and even remotely complicit in the disastrous, racist, and voter-turnout-depressing campaign Ralph Northam appears intent on running,” DFA Chairman Charles Chamberlain said in a statement Thursday.

Democrats say DFA is more bark than bite, and rarely helps in big ways in close races. Even the group’s founder, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), blasted the move:

Democrats are concerned that a Gillespie win or even a close finish will encourage Republicans to replicate Gillespie’s dog-whistle campaign across the country next fall and pour fuel on the fire of the establishment-progressive battle within the Democratic Party. That battle is already raging once again in the wake of former Democratic National Committee interim chair Donna Brazile’s recent charges of “unethical” interactions between the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the primary.

“I watch Virginia with great worry in part because of [Gillespie’s] dog-whistle politics … but also because the Democrats, the top of the ticket … are not able to run on big political and economic change,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, a Clinton campaign veteran who says Democrats must embrace left-wing populism more, told TPM during a Thursday conference call. “It doesn’t feel like they have learned the lessons from ’16.”

Northam pushed back on that characterization Friday afternoon.

“I have fire in the belly, too, to bring civility and leadership to Virginia,” he said on MSNBC.

Democrats admit it’s a tight race.

“I think it’s going to be close,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) told TPM last week before the Democratic infighting broke fully into the open.

Scott said Gillespie’s attack ads on removing Confederate monuments and accusing Northam, a pediatrician, of protecting a child predator were “despicable” — but worried they might be working.

“They wouldn’t have done it if they hadn’t taken a poll,” he said.

It almost worked for Gillespie three years ago, when he surged to almost upset Sen. Mark Warner (R-VA) with late-in-the-race culture warrior ads defending the Washington Redskins’ team name.

Northam’s campaign insists everything’s fine, pointing to strong early vote numbers in Northern Virginia.

“We have seen historic levels of volunteer activity, small donor donations, and primary turnout,” Northam spokesman David Turner told TPM. “We are confident going into Election Day because the Democratic ticket is resonating with Virginians.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told TPM last Thursday that Northam had a “solid, steady lead” but not a “spectacular” one, and reiterated his longtime prediction that the race would be close.

Kaine said a Northam win “would send a good signal to Democrats going into 2018 that in a bellwether state people are embracing quality over demagoguery” and “bode well for the politics of 2018.”

But what if Gillespie wins?

“Ask me when it’s over.”

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Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) once brought an avowed neo-Confederate secessionist she’d known for decades to deliver the opening prayer for the House of Representatives.

Blackburn, who is currently running for the Senate, invited the Rev. David O. Jones, a Tennessee pastor and Christian home-school program head who says he’s known her since the late 1970s, to give the opening prayer for the House in 2004.

Jones, who has long advocated southern secession, told TPM this week that while slavery was abhorrent it was “basically cradle to grave security” for many southern blacks. His decade-old homeschooling curriculum includes a high school course on the South designed to refute “propaganda imposed from everywhere else” about slavery and the Civil War. Required reading:  “Myths of American Slavery” and “The South Was Right.”

When Blackburn invited him to Congress, Jones was in the middle of a long tenure heading the Tennessee chapter of the League of the South — an explicitly secessionist group that has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2000 because of leader Michael Hill’s racist comments as well as its ties to co-founder Jack Kershaw, best known for serving as the lawyer for Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin and erecting a statue outside Nashville of the Ku Klux Klan founder, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Rev. David O. Jones poses with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Courtesy of Rev. David O. Jones.

The League has grown increasingly militant and became explicitly white supremacist in recent years. It was a main organizer of the bloody Charlottesville protests in August and recent “White Lives Matter” rallies in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville, Tennessee, last weekend that spurred at least one violent confrontation in its wake.

Jones left the organization in 2015 because of its full embrace of white supremacism, he told TPM, though watchdogs said the League began making the turn towards hardline militancy as early as 2008.  He also continued to run a non-profit founded by Kershaw that funded both his homeschooling program and the League of the South (including for “self-defense” gun training classes). His involvement with the non-profit ended this summer after local TV news investigated its ties to the League of the South.

Blackburn praised Jones as an influential figure in the state’s homeschooling movement as she introduced him on the House floor in 2004.

“Reverend Jones has a long and distinguished history of dedication to his faith and to his community. He is a pioneer in the home-school movement who has made a real difference in the lives of thousands of Tennessee children and their families, and has worked to ensure that we protect the sanctity of life as an example to each and every one of us,” she said, according to a transcript on the House Clerk’s website.

He donated more than $1,000 to her in 2005 and 2006 — his only contribution to a federal candidate in the last three decades.

Jones’ prayer can be seen below (C-SPAN apparently cut to Jones after Blackburn’s introduction):

Blackburn’s campaign told TPM Thursday that she had no idea about Jones’ controversial views and ties and hasn’t seen him in a long time, but declined to say whether or not she plans to return his campaign donations or discuss their earlier relationship.

“Marsha is appalled by saddened by the actions and words of these hate-filled organizations. Marsha has not seen Rev. Jones in over a decade and was not aware he was affiliated with this organization,” Blackburn spokeswoman Andrea Bozek told TPM in an email.

Blackburn walked away and ignored TPM’s question about Jones after saying hello as she entered the House floor on Wednesday afternoon.

Jones agreed it was possible, even probable, that Blackburn wouldn’t have known about his views, and while he thought he had last seen her six or seven years he agreed  a decade might well have elapsed. But his description of their “moderately close” earlier relationship suggested closer ties than Blackburn wants to acknowledge now.

Jones said he and Blackburn had been “friends for a long time, since 1979,” when they were involved with the Williamson County Young Republicans. In the early 2000s, back when she was first a congresswoman, her district office was across the street from his, and they’d pop in to visit each other every few weeks — “I’d walk in on her, she’d walk in on me, that kind of thing.”

At one point, Jones said Blackburn called him with a favor to ask.

When her sister got married she called me to officiate the wedding,” recalled Jones, saying he’d wedded her sister Karen to Nashville news anchor Dan Miller. He said that years later he also performed the wedding ceremony for Miller’s daughter.

Around the same time, he recalled, he told Blackburn it was a dream of his to give the opening prayer to Congress, and she happily obliged.

“At the time I did the invocation, the time Ms. Marsha invited me to do that, the League was a whole different ballgame. It’s not what it is now,” he said, stating both he and the League of the South were “secessionist” but not racist and saying he’d long argued with Hill to stress the Christian rather than white roots of southern pride. 

Blackburn’s campaign didn’t push back on Jones’ description of their relationship.

Jones wrote a piece about his prayer in Congress for the Southern Patriot, The League of the South’s newsletter, saying he’d been asked not to mention Jesus on the House floor but ignored that request.

Jones’s article in Southern Patriot, courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League’s Mark Pitcavage.

Jones’ prayer was fairly innocuous, but many of his other views are considerably more controversial.

Jones told TPM Martin Luther King Jr. was a “devout womanizer” who “had no morality,” while Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were “good, righteous men” — why his homeschool program gives off a day for Lee-Jackson Day but not King’s birthday. He blamed the north for starting the Civil War — “Lincoln kind of set up the firing on Fort Sumter to make it look like the South fired the first shot” — and said while he opposed segregation, “resolving Jim Crow laws would have been a lot better if the individual states and localities had been encouraged to make the adjustments rather than forced to a one-solution-fits-all type adjustment” by the federal government.

His most controversial views are about slavery, which he said was an immoral practice but described as “basically cradle to grave security” for many southern blacks.

“You go to an antebellum historical site up in Nashville and they say, ‘The slaves lived in these little one-room cabins and all they had to play with was a hoop and a stick…’ They don’t mention the fact that the white sharecroppers lived exactly the same way, had exactly the same deprivation of substance,” he told TPM. “It’s like they’re trying to paint slavery as this wrong, this burden.”

Jones said most slave-owners treated their slaves well and provided them medical care.

I’m not going to to defend slavery. But I say look at the historical facts, don’t paint something with such a broad sweeping brush,” he said.

Jones says he feels “really bad” about the SPLC’s view that he was part of a “hate group” — “I am not a hater” — and talked about his efforts to create an integrated church and allowing non-Christian families to join his home-schooling program.

I realize my views aren’t necessarily in the mainstream but they’re not caused by any animosity or hatred towards anyone. They’re views I think can legitimately reconcile people with one another. Christ has called us to a ministry of conciliation and that’s what I hope to do with my life,” he said.

Blackburn, who in her Senate campaign launch video declares she’s “politically incorrect — and proud of it” — has long taken some controversial stances of her own on charged racial and religious issues, though nothing like Jones’ comments.

Her early Senate campaign has hit hard on attacking the NFL players who’ve knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black people. A member of the Trump presidential transition team executive committee, she says she believes in Trump’s “immigration ban” and wants to “build the wall.”

In 2015, she called a Tennessee state curriculum for seventh graders that includes a section in Islam “reprehensible” and warned of “indoctrination.” And in 2009, she helped lead the charge against President Obama’s openly gay safe-schools chief partially, signing a letter from House Republicans that claimed he was “pushing a pro-homosexual agenda in America’s schools.”

But those views aren’t nearly as controversial as Jones’.

Those who have long monitored the League of the South were split on whether Blackburn should have known about Jones’ ties.

“I have no idea how ignorant Marsha might be but there’s many public references to the League and what they stood for that predated her invitation,” The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich told TPM. “I don’t know why she brought him in but it’s abhorrent that she did.  … It’s completely unacceptable she’s showered him with this high honor. You have to wonder about Blackburn’s own views.”

Jones remains a leader of the Southern National Conference, a group that wants “Southern State governments creatively solving our own problems without interference or dictates from sources outside our respective States.”

While Jones said he doesn’t oppose a weak federal government, he wants the South to have significantly more sovereignty. “Let communities, let states figure out for themselves what will work for their community. That’s where secession comes in,” he told TPM.


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Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore (R) took aim at journalists during a Tuesday visit to Capitol Hill. After refusing to say if he stood by earlier comments that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress, Moore offered reporters a lesson in his view of religious liberty.

“Reporters don’t understand religious liberty, where it comes from. It comes from God, not from the Constitution,” Moore declared as he entered an elevator in a Senate office building.

Those remarks came after he repeatedly told reporters he wouldn’t talk to them about his earlier op-ed that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress because he’s a Muslim.

“I’ll address that later. I didn’t say he couldn’t. You go read my World Net Daily article — it says ‘should,’ not ‘could,'” Moore said. “Read my article and you’ll find out what I believe.”

Moore was in the Capitol after joining the weekly GOP Senate luncheon. Republican leadership, after trying to defeat Moore in his primary, are now rallying to his cause — even if they say they disagree with some of his views.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) took issue with his party’s embrace of Moore, slamming them for hypocrisy for complaining about Democrats voting against a religious Catholic judge while embracing a man who doesn’t believe in religious liberty.

“When a judge expressed his personal belief that a practicing Muslim shouldn’t be a member of Congress because of his religious faith, it was wrong. That this same judge is now my party’s nominee for the Senate from Alabama should concern us all. Religious tests have no place in the U.S. Congress,” he said.

Moore said he’s “not commenting” when asked if he still believed homosexual conduct should be illegal — and declined to address earlier comments that the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage was worse than the Dred Scott decision that codified slavery.

Moore wrote in the World Net Daily article that “Islamic law is simply incompatible with our law.”

“Can a true believer in the Islamic doctrine found in the Quran swear allegiance to our Constitution? Those who profess a sincere belief in Allah say ‘no!'” he said.

Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who was twice forced from office, is currently the front-runner for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat.

He has a long history of controversial comments and actions on race and religion, as TPM has previously documented.

Before Moore’s comments, he had a meeting with a few aides in a Senate coffeeshop. Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), who Moore recently defeated in a bloody primary, happened to pop in for coffee — and breezed by Moore’s table without saying hi to his old foe.

Strange told TPM he hadn’t seen Moore as he exited — but didn’t go back in to say hi.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) isn’t eager to address the bombshell news on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and President Trump’s campaign — or steps to ensure the investigation is protected from possible meddling from the White House.

McConnell didn’t make a single remark addressing the news — or bipartisan legislation to keep Trump from firing Mueller — throughout the day on Monday, avoiding the topic during his daily Senate floor speech and ducking out early from a press conference on judicial nominees in order to avoid reporters’ questions.

Two bipartisan bills are being pushed to make sure Trump doesn’t meddle with the Russia investigation — one from Sens. Tom Tillis (R-NC) and Chris Coons (D-DE) and another from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ). Both, and an accompanying House bill, would attempt to block Trump from firing Mueller. McConnell has so far refused to say if he’d bring either bill to the floor.

A McConnell spokesman told TPM via email that he didn’t have “any information for you beyond what has been publicly reported” on the matter.

McConnell wasn’t the only Republican eager to avoid questions — none of the more than half-dozen GOP senators who gathered to accuse Democrats of anti-Catholic bias for opposing a Notre Dame professor’s judicial nomination wanted to talk on-camera about the huge news.

That included Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who nearly knocked over an American flag in his haste to flee the ongoing press conference through a back-door exit.

And Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) repeatedly ducked questions about the Russia probe and what the Senate should do to protect it.

“That’s why I said this topic,” Cornyn said with a smile as he ducked the first in a series of reporters’ questions on the matter.

“We’ll have plenty of time for that… in an individual one-on-one basis” he said later — then ended the press conference without addressing the question on-camera.

Cornyn told TPM as he walked out that “I’ve seen no evidence that the legislation is necessary at this point” when asked about the two bills.


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Alarmed by President Trump and the shrinking faction of Republicans willing and able to stand up to him, Mitt Romney is seriously considering one more run for public office.

Sources close to Romney tell TPM that he’s leaning toward a run if Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) decides to retire, a move that sources close to Hatch say is more likely than not. And they say that while Romney was initially not keen on running for the Senate, the retirements of Trump-critical Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) and John McCain’s (R-AZ) ongoing health problems have left a void he thinks desperately needs to be filled.

“There’s a demand for people like him in the Senate. We’re losing people like Jeff Flake, who’s a conservative but an independent voice, we’re losing Bob Corker. Now more than ever we need statesmen and people with integrity in public office, and Mitt Romney fits that description,” former Romney spokesman Ryan Williams told TPM, after emphasizing he hasn’t talked to Romney about the race.

Flake’s decision to retire this week means the GOP senator most fiercely critical of Trump won’t be around for much longer. But the other Arizona senator’s status is likely weighing more on Romney’s mind.

McCain is the only Republican left in Washington who can truly stand up to Trump in an effective way at this point. He has the gravitas and celebrity of a former presidential nominee that gives him a huge platform, and he was just reelected and doesn’t need to worry about the GOP base. McCain can’t be dismissed as too moderate like Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), or as a conservative gadfly like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ben Sasse (R-NE).

McCain’s bleak cancer prognosis has left his political future uncertain. That paired with the loss of Flake and Corker, as TPM noted earlier this week, means barely anyone in the GOP worth noting could be left to buck the White House after 2018. That would change if the 70-year-old Romney, who led the anti-Trump GOP resistance throughout the 2016 campaign, steps out of retirement to run for Senate.

“If Mitt Romney runs for Senate in Utah, then we might see the beginnings of a counter-insurgency, but until then it does look like a mopping up operation,” National Review writer and Trump critic David French said on MSNBC Friday evening.

Romney took it upon himself to lead the anti-Trump charge throughout the GOP primary, with many of his deputies following him to battle Trumpism. After giving a nationally televised speech where he called Trump a “fraud,” Romney led the last-gasp efforts to stop him in the primary, campaigning from Utah to Ohio to try to deprive Trump of the nomination, slamming him even after he’d sown it up, and refusing to endorse him in the general election.

“Through the calculated statements of its leader, Trumpism has become associated with racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, vulgarity and, most recently, threats and violence. I am repulsed by each and every one of these,” he wrote in a March Facebook post.

“I don’t think you could have a bigger cultural clash, and Romney would give that point of view a very powerful and eloquent voice in Washington,” Alex Castellanos, a former Romney adviser who first fought Trump’s nomination then helped him in the general election, told TPM. “Donald Trump has unified the Republican Party, he’s purged it of the non-Trump Republicans. McCain may unfortunately leave because of his health, Corker and Flake are on their way out. There’s a vacuum of powerful establishment Republican voices.”

Hatch, who is 83, is publicly rejecting the idea that he’s decided not to run for reelection. But sources close to Hatch’s office tell TPM that he’s leaning that way — and wants Romney to step up if and when he decides to retire after tax reform efforts conclude.

“Hatch has told Romney ‘I want you to replace me if I don’t run again,'” a source close to Hatch’s office told TPM on Friday.

Romney would be a formidable candidate in Utah, where he has an immense reservoir of goodwill and where the Mormon Church holds sway, especially in GOP politics. But he’d likely face a primary challenge from a more conservative foe, likely with the backing of former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon.

“Mitt doesn’t have a clear shot. Utah politics are so convoluted right now. Obviously if he jumps in that’d clear the deck of a couple of mid-tier candidates in deference to the Thirteenth Apostle. But Mike Lee was on that third tier eight years ago and emerged out of nowhere,” a Utah GOP strategist, who declined to discuss the race on record until Hatch makes a formal decision, told TPM.

Sources who know Romney also say public service truly animates him — that’s why even after all his harsh criticism of Trump he was willing to be Trump’s secretary of state.

“To you or me, you’re sitting on a few hundred million dollars and 30-some grandkids … Why would you waste all that being in the Senate? But Romney, to his credit, he views his role as someone like John McCain. If John McCain, the conscience of the Senate, isn’t around much longer who fills that role? I think Romney thinks he can fill that role,” said the Utah Republican.

It’s far from certain that Mr. Romney will go to Washington. But if he does, that could shake up a city where anti-Trump Republicans are an endangered species. And it would put Romney directly back into the spotlight after years in the wilderness.

“I do think that Mitt’s career and political journey are unfinished,” said Castellanos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The election is less than two weeks away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corker lamented Flake’s decision as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But other Democrats aren’t so sure.

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

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

But they were about the only ones celebrating.

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

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

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