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

The Trump administration is looking to soften the blow of the impending government shutdown, a sign it’s worried its impact could hurt them politically.

“We’re going to manage a shutdown differently, we’re not going to weaponize it,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters late Friday morning, less than 13 hours before the government is set to shut down.

“The military will still go to work. They will not be paid. … folks will still be fighting the fire out west. They will not get paid,” he continued. “Parks will be open this time and they weren’t before. … The post office will be open, the TSA will be open.”

Those moves come as a clear sign that the Trump administration is trying to limit the shutdown’s impact on voters (and not screw up their vacation plans) so as to minimize the political fallout of a government shutdown in a city where the GOP has unified control of the government.

While it remains unclear who will take the brunt of the blame for a shutdown, early polls indicate the public will place the blame mostly on Trump and Republicans. A Quinnipiac survey released Thursday found that just 34 percent of Americans would blame Democrats for a shutdown, 32 would blame congressional Republicans and 21 percent would blame Trump.

Senate Democrats have dug in their heels in demanding support for a bipartisan compromise for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and it’s not even clear Senate Republicans have 50 votes to back the plan to keep the government open for another month that the House passed Thursday night, much less the 60 votes they need.

Mulvaney also accused Democrats of “hypocrisy” for demanding DACA as part of a funding deal after opposing the 2013 shutdown — though he himself was instrumental in pushing for that shutdown in an effort to gut Obamacare as a member of the House Freedom Caucus at the time.

“This is exactly what they accused the Republicans of doing in 2013,” he said.

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This story was updated at 1:25 p.m. EST.

President Trump and congressional Republicans are poised to mark the one-year anniversary of the GOP seizing unified control of Washington by shutting down the government.

Funds for the federal government run out at midnight, and without a last-minute breakthrough in negotiations it appears that the GOP doesn’t have the votes to keep the lights on as dawn breaks on the first anniversary of Trump’s Jan. 20th inauguration.

Senate Democrats have dug in their heels in opposing the GOP’s plan for a bill to fund the government for one more month after Trump rejected a bipartisan deal to protect recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that he ended late last year.

With Republicans holding a narrow Senate majority – and a handful of GOP senators voicing opposition to the plan as well – it appears the party is far short of the 60 votes it needs to avoid a shutdown.

“There’s near zero chance of this thing passing,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told TPM as he left for the night Thursday.

There’s no clear plan B, either. Some senators in both parties have suggested a bill to fund the government for a few days to leave room for more negotiations. But House members are already heading home — increasing the likelihood of at least a short-term shutdown.

Trump organized a last-minute meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) Friday afternoon to try to avert a shutdown. But it’s unclear whether there has been any change in the leaders’ positions, or whether congressional Republicans will go along if they do strike a new deal.

Trump dodged any talk of a shutdown during a Rose Garden rally with anti-abortion leaders on Friday afternoon, though he highlighted his looming anniversary.

“Tomorrow will mark exactly one year since I took the oath of office, and I must say the country is doing really well,” he said.

While it remains unclear who will take the brunt of the blame for a shutdown, early polls indicate the public will place the blame mostly on Trump and Republicans. An ABC News poll released Friday found 48 percent of Americans would blame Trump and Republicans for a shutdown, and just 28 percent would blame Democrats. A Quinnipiac survey released Thursday found that 34 percent of Americans would blame Democrats for a shutdown, 32 would blame congressional Republicans and 21 percent would blame Trump.

Trump had planned to leave D.C. for his Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida on Friday afternoon, and has a major campaign fundraiser scheduled for Saturday. The White House confirmed that he’d canceled his Friday departure ahead of the possible shutdown.

White House officials are bracing for a shutdown — while looking to lessen its impacts by keeping things like national parks and the post office open, a sign they’re wary of how the politics will play for the GOP.

“I’m handicapping [a shutdown] now at some place between 50 and 60 percent,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters Friday morning at the White House.

“I think it’s ratcheted up. We were operating under a sort of 30 percent shutdown up until yesterday, I think it’s ratcheted up now,” he said a bit earlier. “We’re working to make sure there is no shutdown but if the Senate or the House can’t get together to finalize a deal we’ll be ready.”

The Senate returns at 11 a.m., with no clear path forward. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has indicated he plans to hold a vote on the House-passed plan for a one-month extension of funding and a six-year extension of funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan at some point on Friday, but it’s not even clear if he has 50 votes for the plan, much less the 60 needed for passage.

One year ago Saturday, Trump declared a sea change in how government would work, promising an improvement for the people.

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” he said during his inaugural address.

But Democrats say his decision to scuttle a DACA deal has led to the current situation — and many congressional Republicans privately agree. The pending shutdown raises questions about what changes Trump has wrought.

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This story was updated at 4:15 p.m to include new developments in the House. Alice Ollstein contributed.

The threat of a government shutdown seems to be growing by the minute — and Republicans are bracing to get blamed if it happens.

A raft of Senate Democrats announced Thursday they won’t back a one-month extension of government spending. Meanwhile, Speaker Paul Ryan’s promise that he can pass the plan in his chamber looks increasingly uncertain.

The GOP plan to push through a one-month continuing resolution for government funding paired with a six-year extension of funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program was met with hostility from a number of Senate Democrats who’d voted for the last continuing resolution. As Thursday wore on, the math in the Senate looked increasingly tough for those aiming to keep the government running.

“It’s one more instance in which the American people look at Congress and say ‘Why can’t these people get something done?” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) told TPM. “With Republicans in the majority, that’s a knock on us. … The reality is the Republicans have the majority in the House and Senate, and the White House.”

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of GOP leadership, admitted the numbers don’t look good.

“I’m concerned that we, yeah, we may not have 60 votes in the Senate,” he told Politico. “And I think that’s obviously problematic.”

Because of GOP defections and health-related absences, at least 14 Democrats will likely need to back the plan for it to pass. But of the 18 Democrats who backed the last continuing resolution in December, a growing number said they almost certainly would not vote for the new bill unless President Trump supported a bipartisan plan to provide protections from deportation for undocumented immigrants brought here as children. Trump last year ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year, calling the status of those undocumented immigrants into doubt.

That group included Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

“Republican leadership – led by President Trump – has brought us to the brink of a government shutdown.  The House bill does not have my support.  It leaves too much undone, and it is woefully inadequate,” Leahy said in a statement.

“They want to give us another punt for a month? It makes no sense,” Kaine told TPM.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Jon Tester (D-MT) also voiced serious concerns with the plan while leaving the door open a crack to change their minds.

“I’d be leaning no on that baby,” Carper told TPM with a laugh after sarcastically describing himself as a “cosponsor” of the bill.

Tester said the short-term bill is “not what we’re looking for.”

Republicans need 60 votes to pass the plan in the Senate, and with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) out due to cancer treatments they have only 50 viable votes (Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) has been in and out with health problems too, and it’s not clear if he’s around as a needed vote either).

Several Republicans are defecting. Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Rand Paul (R-KY) joined Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in promising to vote against the latest plan on Thursday, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) voted against the last continuing resolution, a sign he’d do so again.

Other Democrats facing potentially tough reelections weren’t as eager to discuss the bill. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) told TPM he wouldn’t take a position unless the House passes it, and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) said “call my office” when asked what his position was. But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was the only Democrat TPM talked to who said he’d definitely support it, and it doesn’t appear there are enough Democrats that might waver to get the bill through the Senate.

House leaders projected more confidence. Ryan said late Thursday morning that he’d be able to get the votes.

I feel we’re making really good progress with our members,” he said. “Our members are understanding the gravitas for the situation.”

But almost no House Democrats seem ready to help Ryan out — including the 14 who voted for the last continuing resolution, many of whom told TPM they would not back the bill. And members of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus indicated Thursday afternoon that they weren’t ready to get onboard, while saying the GOP is still short on votes.

“It’s still our belief that there’s not the votes to pass it with Republicans only,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) told reporters Thursday afternoon. “I promise you, he doesn’t have the votes.”

That raises the chances it might fail on the House floor ahead of a scheduled Thursday night vote.

The government will shut down at midnight Friday night if Congress can’t pass a bill, less than 36 hours from the time this story was published.


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Hours after President Trump seemed to slam congressional Republicans’ plan to pass a short-term extension for government funding, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said he’d talked to Trump and the president “fully supports” his bill.

“I am sure where he stands. He fully supports passing this legislation. I just talked to him an hour and a half ago,” Ryan told reporters during a press conference late Thursday morning.

Ryan claimed he hadn’t seen Trump’s tweet indicating exactly the opposite, however.

Soon after Ryan’s press conference the White House issued a statement indicating the President did in fact support the House GOP plan for a short term spending bill.

Just hours earlier, Trump had strongly signaled he wasn’t happy with Republicans’ plan to include a six-year funding extension for the Children’s Health Insurance Program as part of a bill to keep the government funded for another month. That’s crucial, as CHIP funding is Republicans’ best hope to leverage some Democratic votes, which they may need to pass the bill through the House and definitely will need on the Senate side.

That dealt a blow to Ryan’s attempts to paint Democrats as obstructionists for demanding a renewal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for undocumented immigrants who arrived to the U.S. as children. Trump earlier lambasted a bipartisan compromise to give those immigrants permanent legal status in exchange for some border security funding and minor changes to other immigration programs.

Ryan insisted he would have the votes to pass his plan, though that’s far from clear — and the Senate looks like an even tougher lift.

I have confidence we’ll pass this because members will understand why on earth would we have a government shutdown, hurt the military… It’s unconscionable that Democrats would walk away from CHIP, from funding our military,” he said, later claiming the hardline House GOP members who aren’t happy with a continuing resolution and could torpedo the deal “are understanding the gravitas for the situation.”

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President Trump torched Republican leaders’ plans to avoid a government shutdown on Thursday morning with a new demand that funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program not be included in any government funding bill, increasing the chances of a government shutdown in less than 48 hours.

GOP leaders had planned to include a six-year extension of funding for the CHIP program as a way to pressure moderate Democrats to vote for a one-month extension of government funding as they scramble for enough votes to avoid a shutdown.

But Trump took to Twitter to question that plan.

The comments left top GOP negotiators scratching their heads — and boosting the risk of a government shutdown after Friday.

“I’m not sure what the President means,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said on Fox News Thursday morning when asked about the President’s new stance — before making the case that CHIP funds should remain in the bill in spite of Trump’s new position.

“What this would do though is it would reauthorize the CHIP program for, I believe, five years. So it’s not just a 30-day extension. But Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy have to figure a way to cobble together the 218 votes. Apparently, they feel like adding this will help them get to that 218 votes,” he said.

Trump’s latest move left other Republicans seething.

House leaders had planned on a vote on that bill as early as Thursday afternoon to try to ram one month of government funding through. They were banking that they could get enough hardline Republican Freedom Caucus members onboard, while pressuring enough Democrats with the CHIP funds to ram the bill through the House and force the Senate to back the plan as the only option in town.

This is far from Trump’s only major shift during these negotiations — he’d reportedly privately given positive signals a bipartisan group of senators on their plan to give more permanent legal status to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in exchange for some border security funding and immigration law changes, before sandbagging those efforts in a hostile meeting where he allegedly made his now-infamous “shithole” comments.

And he issued a new demand for funding for “the wall” in his Thursday morning tweetstorm as well:

But even without Trump’s latest goalpost-moving, the GOP leaders’ plan didn’t look foolproof.

Senators in both parties have increasingly warned they might vote against another short-term extension, with Democrats furious that GOP leaders won’t include the bipartisan DACA compromise and some Republicans warning that they wouldn’t back a short-term plan because it puts the squeeze on military funding.

Shortly before Trump’s latest shift, a pair of key moderates — Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with Democrats, and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) — announced they would vote against the short-term continuing resolution.

“I’m opposing the CR in its current form as well. And it’s not because immigration isn’t included,” Rounds said on CNN Thursday morning. “For me, it’s a matter of defense.”

Congress has until midnight Friday to figure out a way to avoid a government shutdown — a possibility that’s looking more likely by the hour as of Thursday morning. And Trump’s continued shifts aren’t making it any easier for GOP leaders as they try to avoid the first shutdown when one party has unified control of government in recent memory.

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After a shocking win in a rural Wisconsin senate race Tuesday, Democrats are feeling increasingly bullish they can win another target deep in Trump territory, flip their first House seat since Trump’s 2016 victory and strike fear into the hearts of Republicans across the country.

Their target: a blue-collar southwestern Pennsylvania House seat recently vacated by disgraced former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) in territory national Democrats haven’t seriously contested this decade.

Strategists in both parties see a surprisingly close race developing in the district ahead of the March 13 special election. After some major investments, Republicans are pulling out the big guns on Thursday: A visit from President Trump himself, who will hold an official event on the district’s edges where he’s expected to boost the Republican candidate.

“Clearly there’s a lot of intensity and energy on the Democratic side and they’ve outperformed their recent numbers in other special elections. We’ve got to take this very, very seriously,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) told TPM. “I do think we are taking this seriously and I think we’re going to win, but we’re not going to be asleep at the switch.”

Republicans know a loss in this deep-red, blue-collar district after blowing an Alabama Senate race, getting crushed in Virginia’s gubernatorial race and losing more than 30 statehouse seats in the past year would further alarm their party — and be a sign that the 2018 Democratic wave might be large enough to drown some members who never thought they’d even need to swim.

“If we lost that race, it’d be quite an earthquake. I don’t know if I’d say on the scale of Alabama, but it’d be close,” one Pennsylvania Republican congressman told TPM.

Republicans have reason for concern.

Democrats have landed a top-notch recruit in Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor whose family is a Democratic powerhouse in the Pittsburgh area. Republicans have by their own account nominated a somewhat lackluster candidate, dubbed “not Jack Kennedy” by one national Republican. State Rep. Rick Saccone (R) is a conservative firebrand who’s known as a weak fundraiser.

That matchup, paired with white-hot opposition to the president from the left, has created a single-digit race, according to private polling from both sides. And while Democrats admit it’s an uphill battle in the GOP-friendly district, they’re feeling bullish that they can pull off an upset that would prove they can win in rural, populist terrain.

“I think he’s going to win,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) told TPM Monday night, calling it “a very strong indicator of a good year” for Democrats that the race is competitive.

The district stretches from suburban Pittsburgh deep into rural territory along the West Virginia border — Coal Country meets the Rust Belt, what one GOP congressman described to TPM as “The Deer Hunter district” (the film was based on the region).

Trump won it by a lopsided 20-point margin, improving on Mitt Romney’s 17-point victory there. And while it contains some of Pittsburgh’s tonier southern suburbs, much of the district is blue-collar populist — the type of ancestrally Democratic area that’s been moving gradually towards the GOP for decades where Trump’s right-wing populist nationalism sold particularly well.

Saccone is bear-hugging Trump in his campaign — the president remains relatively popular there, though his numbers have slipped — and is touting the GOP’s recent tax cuts and his own military experience on the trail (he’s an Air Force vet).

“Rick will work tirelessly to continue advancing President Trump’s bold agenda in Congress,” Saccone adviser Bob Branstetter said.

But Lamb isn’t looking to make the race about Trump.

“The President coming to campaign for Conor’s opponent doesn’t change what Conor or the campaign are doing,” Lamb campaign manager Abby Murphy said.

Lamb is positioning himself as an independent voice that fits the district. He’s pledged not to support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for speaker, talks up his support for gun rights and qualifies his support of legal abortion with the caveat that as a Catholic, he personally opposes it.

That makes it harder for Republicans to paint him as a Pelosi foot-soldier, though they say they’ll do so anyways. And while many Democrats want to run against Trump, he’s going harder after House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who polls show is almost as unpopular as Pelosi in the district, attacking Ryan for his plans to shrink Medicare and Social Security.

“Connor’s independent, he’s made that very clear that the interest is going to be his district, whereas Rick Saccone has hitched his wagon to Paul Ryan,” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), whose district abuts the 18th, told TPM.

On the other hand, Saccone is running hard to the right — unlike his predecessor Murphy, who easily held onto the district until it was revealed late last year he’d had an affair and encouraged the woman to have an abortion. Murphy long defended labor rights and had a good working relationship with many local unions, while Saccone has sponsored right-to-work legislation, fought against public employee unions and is best known for religious conservative pushes in the statehouse.

If Democrats can win in this district, they think they can win almost anywhere — and the building 2018 wave might be big enough to help them win the more rural areas they need for House control and defend tough populist states like nearby West Virginia as well as Indiana and Missouri.

“It will show if rural voters are still convinced Donald Trump is still going to make their lives better, and I’m wondering if some are realizing that may not be the case,” a national GOP strategist told TPM, warning a Saccone loss would be “a five-alarm fire” for the party.

Republicans still think they have the edge, a view most Democrats agree with. But Trump’s visit is the latest in a flurry of GOP activity as they look to stave off what would be a crushing loss in a district they shouldn’t need to spend to keep. The main House GOP super-PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has 50 field staff working the ground with an aim for 250,000 voter contacts. Ending Spending, a right-wing super-PAC funded by the Ricketts family, is already on the air with $1 million in positive spots touting Saccone’s record, as is another Ricketts group that backs Trump.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH) held a D.C. fundraiser for Saccone on Wednesday. Trump’s political operation is gearing up for more involvement, including likely campaign stops from Vice President Mike Pence and help from Trump-aligned outside groups.

Neither candidate has reported fundraising yet, but Doyle said Lamb had brought in more than a half-million dollars by the end of the year — an impressive figure — while a source close to Saccone’s campaign would only say that he’d raised at least $100,000 by the end of 2017. Lamb’s first campaign ad debuts Thursday.

“This is a Republican district, but when you have you have an A candidate on the D side and certainly not an A candidate on the Republican side, Jack Kennedy reincarnated on the Democratic side and not Jack Kennedy on ours, that is a concern,” said one national Republican involved in the race.

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Democrats pulled off a shocking upset to win a rural Wisconsin state Senate seat Tuesday night, triggering alarm bells for Republicans across the state and nation.

Democrat Patty Schachtner defeated a well-known local Republican in a district that President Trump had carried by a whopping 55 percent to 38 percent just over a year ago.

Wisconsin Republicans sounded the alarm about what the results could mean, including that Gov. Scott Walker (R), who faces reelection next fall, suddenly looks considerably more vulnerable than he did one day ago.

This special election is the latest sign that Democrats are poised to have a huge 2018 midterm election — and one of the first concrete examples that they’re well-positioned not just in suburban territory but in rural areas as well. That’s crucial, as many of the U.S. senators they’re defending this year represent heavily blue collar, populist states like Missouri, West Virginia (and Wisconsin), and if they’re going to win back the House they need to pick up at least some GOP-leaning seats in more rural areas.

The district where Democrats triumphed last night covers the western sliver of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, encompassing some Minneapolis exurbs as well as a good swath of rural territory. Trump won it big after Romney carried it by a six-point margin in 2012, and it’s long been one of Republicans’ best-performing parts of the state. No Democrat has held this state senate seat in nearly two decades.

But Schachtner won by a nine-point margin despite the district’s strong GOP lean and her allies being outspent by GOP outside groups by a comfortable margin.

It’s not the first Democratic pickup in rural territory in the last 12 months, and they’ve shown big gains in other more rural, populist areas. But this result is scaring Republicans — and it should.

“The greater takeaway from the Wisconsin SD-10 special election is an alarm klaxon for Republicans at every level of the ballot, even those running in gerrymandered districts and drastically outspending their Democratic challengers,” Daily Kos Political Editor Carolyn Fiddler, an expert in state legislative elections, said in a statement. “The reckoning has arrived, and no one is safe.”

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Florida, man.

President Trump’s comments about “shithole countries” like Haiti could hurt him most severely in his winter home of Florida, a state that’s also home to a large Haitian community. And it’s just the latest time he’s singled out a key voting bloc to antagonize in the state.

His racially charged comments add insult to injury to the community, just weeks after his administration ended temporary status protection for 60,000 Haitian refugees living in the U.S.

And that’s nothing compared to how much he’s infuriated the state’s fast-growing Puerto Rican community with his administration’s shoddy response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island.

“It’s certainly making it tougher to be a Republican in Florida,” Alex Conant, a former senior strategist for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), told TPM. “The extent that he’s pissing off Haitians and Puerto Ricans is a part of his larger problem of poking the opposition which does nothing but guarantee extraordinary Democratic turnout.”

There are more than 300,000 Haitian-born people living in Florida, including roughly 100,000 American citizens who are registered voters. Trump actively courted Haitian voters in 2016, even promising to be their “champion” while campaigning in Miami’s Little Haiti that September.

That’s a big voting bloc — as many people as Trump’s margin of victory in the state in 2016. But it’s nothing compared to the more than 1 million Puerto Ricans living in the state, a population that has more than doubled since 2000. Trump’s handling of the hurricane that devastated (and continues to devastate) the island territory has caused a major uptick in the Puerto Rican exodus. As of November, a whopping 200,000 Puerto Ricans had moved to the state since the hurricane — a number that’s undoubtedly increased since then. All Democrats need to do is register those American citizens to further hurt Republicans’ chances in the state.

Florida Republicans were quick to note how problematic Trump’s latest comments were — including top state GOP strategist (and frequent Trump critic) Rick Wilson:

It was telling that one of the few Republicans who came out firing immediately against the comment was Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a potential Senate candidate.

“If this report is true, it is absolutely wrong to say or think this,” Scott said in a written statement. “I do not think this way, nor do I agree with this kind of sentiment. I represent Florida, and we are an amazing melting pot where over 250 languages are spoken.”

That’s the second time in as many weeks that Scott has split with his close ally — he also called out the Trump administration for threatening to open up drilling off Florida’s coast, another deeply unpopular move in the state (they’ve since backed off, exempting Florida while not giving other states the same courtesy as of yet).

It’s unlikely that Trump’s latest incendiary comments will be top-of-mind for voters in 2020, or even 2018. But if Trump wants to carry the state where he winters, he has a funny way of going about it.

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Amidst growing signs of a potentially huge Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections, a raft of key Republican would-be candidates are deciding to stay onshore rather than risk drowning in its undertow.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) dealt his party the latest in a series of rapid-fire blows to its hopes for holding on to control of Congress on Thursday, announcing that he won’t run against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Just one day earlier, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in a tough-to-hold swing district. The day before that, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) did the same.

Those decisions have Republicans growing even more worried about losing the House and possibly seeing the Senate flip as well.

“It’s a concern. The last thing you want is open seats in a bad year, particularly if they’re in competitive districts,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, told reporters Thursday. “We are going to have a very challenging cycle and there’s no question the majority’s at risk.”

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) opted against a Senate bid on Thursday. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Cramer’s decision after both President Trump and Senate GOP leaders pushed to run leaves them without a well-known candidate in a state Trump carried by more than a two-to-one margin. Issa and Royce were two well-known incumbents with huge war chests. One week ago Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) dropped his bid against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), leaving the GOP without a well-known candidate there as well, though Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) has since announced a bid of his own.

Even Republicans who’d previously dismissed the building narrative around their retirement and recruitment problems admitted that the latest news partly confirmed the pattern.

“Royce and Issa were the members retiring, to me, that started validating the narrative that with all due respect many of you have been pushing for some time,” Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), who’s facing a tough reelection battle of his own, told TPM. “My sense was some of that was looking at what the political environment was and making a calculation.”

<<enter caption here>> on November 9, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Darryll Issa (R-CA) decision to retire helped cement the narrative that 2018 is a potential wave election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

One Republican who broke the pattern of shying away from a challenging environment could damage their chances in another key race: Deeply controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) announced an Arizona Senate bid on Tuesday. (The GOP establishment’s favorite and their best chance to hold the seat, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), launched own bid on Friday).

“It’s concerning, it is,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told TPM about the Senate GOP’s recruiting failures — and Arpaio’s decision to run for his seat. “It’s going to be a tough environment.”

There are four concrete things to watch for in looking for a potential wave election.

The first is polling. Trump’s approval rating is mired in the high 30s, a historic low for a president this early in his term, and Democrats have held a lead in the upper single digits or low double digits in surveys of which party should control Congress (slightly above the seven- or eight-point lead they likely need to flip the House due to structural disadvantages).

The second is candidate fundraising, and Democratic candidates are essentially printing money while most Republicans are struggling.

The third is how off-year elections go. Democrats posted a record-setting margin in the Virginia governor’s race last November before pulling off a shocking upset to pick up an Alabama Senate seat last month that put Senate control up for grabs in a real way by narrowing the GOP majority to 51-49. While Democrats haven’t won any House special elections, their candidates have out-performed their historic numbers in almost every contest so far.

“If you look at Virginia, that’s a bellwether, that’s a scary one in terms of where young voters and women are. That ought to be sobering for Republicans,” Flake said.

The fourth big indicator is incumbent retirements and candidate recruitment.  The GOP’s latest setbacks in this category come after a long string of House Republicans in swing seats have announced retirements, and a number of top-tier recruits have passed on Senate bids.

The current number of House GOP retirements — 29 and counting — is outpacing the retirement rate even in previous wave elections (22 Republicans retired ahead of the 2006 Democratic wave, 19 Democrats ahead of the 2010 GOP wave and 27 before the 1994 wave). That includes incumbents in swing or Democratic-leaning districts like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Charlie Dent (R-PA), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Dave Reichert (R-WA).

Senate Republicans are defending just one incumbent in a state Trump lost (Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV)) while Democrats are defending 10 of their own in states Trump won, including in five states he carried by 18 percentage points or more. That means in a neutral year they’d be on offense.

But the GOP has failed to land its initial favorites in states like Montana (state Attorney General Tim Fox), Wisconsin (Rep. Sean Duffy), Michigan (Rep. Fred Upton) and Missouri (Rep. Ann Wagner). Only in Missouri are they particularly bullish about their replacement, state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R). Republicans still hope that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) will jump in against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), but he’s dragged his feet on deciding — and if he doesn’t run they’re unlikely to get a serious candidate in another state Trump won last year.

“There are still some efforts underway to recruit in a few of the states, North Dakota being one of them,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-SD) told reporters Thursday after expressing “disappointment” about Cramer’s decision. “There’s going to be a question of whether the governor runs in Florida, there’s going to be a question of who the candidate is in Ohio … and Montana for that matter.”

On the other side, Democrats have so many House candidates running that their biggest concern in most races is crowded primaries, and they’ve landed top candidates in their few Senate targets — Arizona and Nevada — while putting Tennessee on the map by getting former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) into the race. Some are also bullish about Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) making things competitive against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, pictured in 2015, puts the open Tennessee seat in play for Democrats. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

And while some other Republicans tried to talk up North Dakota state Sen. Tom Campbell (R), the only announced candidate against Heitkamp, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) admitted he had no idea who that was after expressing disappointment over Cramer’s decision.

“I honestly have not met that state senator, him or her, whoever it is,” he told TPM.

National Republican Senatorial Committee deputy chairman Thom Tillis (R-NC) argued the party has “a pretty good bench of candidates.” And while he admitted disappointment about Cramer, he said it was still early in the recruiting process.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) agreed. But he paused for a full five seconds when TPM asked which candidates he was excited his party had landed.

“Man, now you’re going to ask me to pick and choose. I don’t think I want to go there,” he said.

Rounds later mentioned former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) as a potential top Senate candidate. But the other recruit he brought up unprompted was telling what type of year 2018 might shape up to be for his party.

“The one I think is going to be challenging for Republicans is actually going to be Phil Bredesen in Tennessee,” he said. “He’s going to be a very competitive challenger.”

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Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) has decided to pass on a Senate bid and will run for reelection, leaving Republicans without a top-tier challenger to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and boosting her chances in the heavily Republican state.

Cramer, a close ally of President Trump’s who was in the running for a cabinet nomination last year, is the latest North Dakota Republican to take a pass on challenging the popular Heitkamp in a state Trump won by a lopsided 63 percent to 27 percent in 2016. His office confirmed to TPM local reports that he’d passed on a Senate bid and will run for reelection.

He’d initially been Senate Republicans’ favored candidate before a series of gaffes early last year. After other potential candidates passed, he once again became their top choice. In recent weeks, both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had personally lobbied Cramer to run.

His decision greatly increases the chances that Heitkamp won’t face a top-tier opponent in this election — and boosts Democrats’ hopes of making gains in the Senate in the 2018 reelections, and potentially winning back control of the upper chamber.

It’s also the latest recruiting failure for Republicans, who didn’t get their top choices in races in Montana and Michigan. They recently lost their front-runner to face Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), though Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) has now declared a Senate bid as a result. Republicans are still waiting on Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) to decide if he’ll run for Senate, and the party has seen a raft of House retirements in recent days. Those, along with recent polling and fundraising figures, are the latest signs of a building Democratic wave for 2018.

North Dakota State Sen. Tom Campbell (R) is the only declared candidate against Heitkamp at this point, and he’s so far proven to be a weak fundraiser, leaving Republicans casting around for another option.

They still have a bit of time — the primary isn’t until June, and the filing deadline isn’t until April.

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