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.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is leaving. Former state chairman Reince Priebus is gone. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), the big cheese, stands alone — and may face an expiration date in November.
Ryan’s sudden retirement announcement removes the second of Wisconsin’s hulking conservative figures of the last decade from the political battlefield in a period of months after Priebus’ ignominious ouster from the White House. That, coupled with signs of a building Democratic wave in Wisconsin and nationally, has some in the state party worried they’re seeing the end of a period of conservative dominance in the swing state that covered the Obama era.
“It definitely feels like this era is coming to an end,” one Wisconsin Republican strategist told TPM. “Losing Paul Ryan knocks out one of the legs of the tripod that’s held Wisconsin Republicans up for so long, after the loss of Priebus knocked out another. … There’s probably going to be a blue wave.”
The developments have long-demoralized Democrats feeling chipper for the first time in years.
“Going, going, gone! Reince is gone, Ryan’s going and Mr. Walker knows he’s in for a dogfight,” Joe Zepecki, a top Democratic strategist in the state, giddily told TPM on Wednesday.
Ryan was a key player in the conservative revolution in Wisconsin, turning a swing state with a powerful union presence and long history of populist politicians from both parties into a right-wing policy bastion over the last eight years. He did so alongside then-state Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus – and Scott Walker, who rose from Milwaukee County executive to become one of the nation’s most polarizing and well-known governors of the last decade.
Walker captured the governorship in a close 2010 race, and with unified control of the state legislature proceeded to gut public unions in the state, a deeply polarizing act that led to a failed attempt to recall him from office. Demoralized Democrats failed to defeat him again in 2014, and saw their power fade across the state, with President Obama’s 2o12 win in the state the sole bright spot in a decade of misery. Last election cycle was the roughest blow to date, as President Trump became the first GOP nominee to carry the state in 32 years after Hillary Clinton failed to campaign in the state, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pulled off a surprising reelection victory after being left for dead by his own party earlier in the year.
Priebus moved on to an impressive reign heading the Republican National Committee, became President Trump’s first chief of staff – and was unceremoniously pushed aside last year. Now Ryan has decided to follow his old ally out of politics.
Walker’s the last man standing – and there are signs that the Democratic resurgence simmering across the country will give him the toughest fight of his career.
Just weeks ago, a liberal candidate won a seat on the state Supreme Court by a double-digit electoral margin, prompting Walker to warn of a “Blue wave” building in the state. The victory was the first time a non-incumbent liberal justice had won a seat in more than two decades in the state.
Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.
“The Supreme Court race was the canary in the cave, a signal, and the canary died, so now we have to figure things out,” Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin Republican strategist with ties to Walker and Ryan, told TPM. “That was a big wakeup call.”
And it came on the heels of a big Democratic upset in a northwestern Wisconsin state senate seat that Democrats hadn’t held in 17 years.
Those results rattled Republicans across the state, who worry the tide may be turning on them after an impressive eight-year run.
Republicans admit that with Ryan gone, his GOP-leaning seat could be competitive this fall. They’re even more worried about Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI), a polarizing figure in a swing district who has less campaign cash than his Democratic challenger. They say even Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) could be in for a real fight, and are worried about losing the state senate as well, while many aren’t too bullish about defeating Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the state’s lone statewide Democratic office-holder, this fall.
But Walker is the big prize. He saw his standing plummet in the state after his failed presidential run, and while his numbers have bounced back he’s still upside down in most recent polling of the state.
Democrats have a late and crowded primary, the eventual winner will face a major cash deficit heading into the election against Walker, and Republicans at least aren’t too scared of any of the people running to face Walker — “A blue wave doesn’t make a C-level candidate an A-level candidate,” said Scholz. But for the first time in years, Democrats are feeling bullish about their chances to seize back control of the key swing state.
“It is certainly an exciting time to be a Wisconsin Democrat,” said Zepecki.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) had her second child on Monday, becoming the first senator to give birth while in office.
Maile (pronounced Miley) Pearl Bowlsbey is Duckworth’s second child; she and her husband, Bryan Bowslbey, had Abigail in late 2014, when she was in the House. Duckworth is only the 10th member of Congress to have a child while serving, and the first in the upper chamber.
“Bryan, Abigail and I couldn’t be happier to welcome little Maile Pearl as the newest addition to our family,” Duckworth said in a statement, before saying she was “deeply honored” that retired Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), a mentor of hers who died last week, blessed her child’s name before passing on.
Duckworth, a 50-year-old Iraq War veteran, said that the baby’s middle name is from her husband’s great aunt, who served during World War II as an Army officer and nurse.
The birth is the latest in a series of firsts for Duckworth. She’s the first Thai-American ever to serve in Congress, and was one of the first women to fly an Army helicopter in Iraq.
Duckworth has made both military and family issues priorities during her congressional career, sponsoring legislation requiring the military to extend maternity leave for soldiers, make sure student parents have on-campus child care, and require major airports to provide spaces for breastfeeding and milk pumping, as well as bill for paid family leave and laws to help lower the number of veteran suicides.
“Parenthood isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s an economic issue and one that affects all parents—men and women alike,” she continued in her statement. “As tough as juggling the demands of motherhood and being a Senator can be, I’m hardly alone or unique as a working parent, and my children only make me more committed to doing my job and standing up for hardworking families everywhere.”
Indiana Republicans are bracing for a three-car pileup in a key primary next month that will have major implications for the balance of the Senate.
Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN), Luke Messer (R-IN) and businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun (R) are battling for the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), arguably the country’s most vulnerable incumbent.
Strategists say each of the three could conceivably win the nomination —and beat Donnelly. But the primary has grown increasingly heated as the candidates approach the May 8 election, worrying some Republicans that it could leave the eventual nominee short on cash and wounded from a bruising race as they prepare for a tough general election fight that gives Republicans one of their best chances at a pickup this fall.
“The nastier this gets and the more money these guys have to spend, the better this looks for Donnelly,” Ed Feigenbaum, the longtime editor of the nonpartisan Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter, told TPM.
Strategists in both parties think this will likely be a close general election no matter who wins the nomination, with Indiana’s natural GOP advantage balanced against Donnelly’s talents as a candidate and Trump’s unpopularity.
Donnelly won his seat in 2012 in large part because of his opponent’s flaws. After then-Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) beat longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) in a tough primary, Republicans spent months trying to pull the party back together, only to see Mourdock blow it by declaring during a debate that pregnancy caused by rape “is something that God intended to happen.” Donnelly is unlikely to get that lucky this time, but has worked assiduously to raise his profile as a moderate Democrat with a populist streak and is better-positioned this time around.
“You have to call it a jump-ball in the general election,” said Indiana-based GOP strategist Kurt Luidhardt. “Donnelly’s just a good candidate. … A lot of the old Republican donor community maintain good ties with him, and he does a really good job in Indiana appearing like he’s a moderate.”
Most Democrats would be happiest to face off against Rokita given his hard right views, tensions between him and many of the state’s GOP establishment, and his occasional penchant for tin-eared comments (like telling a female CNN anchor on-air in 2013 that she was “beautiful, but you have to be honest as well” and in a 2007 speech asking “Who’s the master and who’s the slave” in African Americans’ relationship with the Democratic Party).
“We feel confident Joe can beat any of them, but Rokita lends himself most closely to Richard Mourdock part two,” said one source close to Donnelly.
Rokita also has a strained relationship with many other Republicans in the state going back years that many blame on his difficult personality as well as a push opposed by most others in the party to end gerrymandering in Indiana.
“He does have a reputation for being prickly,” said Luidhardt, who worked on earlier races for Rokita and Messer and called both friends.
The race has been a relatively sleepy one so far. Strategists say voters are just starting to tune in, and Braun is the only one who’s had much in the way of paid advertising until now. But things are beginning to heat up.
Braun has spent the most by far on the race, almost $3 million on TV ads since the end of last year. That helped boost his name ID around the state, and has pushed him into the lead in private polling of the race. But curiously, the wealthy and largely self-funding candidate took his foot off the gas in ad spending after an early burst, and has cycled through a number of ads rather than focusing on one particular message.
Braun is the man to beat at this point. But Messer and Rokita are just starting to spend in earnest, and hope that once they reach relative parity on the airwaves they’ll be able to catch up. Polling of the race shows a relatively close contest between all three, though most Republicans think Messer is in third and risks becoming a non-factor if he doesn’t make a move soon.
Braun has hammered his opponents as career politicians, including in this memorable spot that unaligned Republicans say could help him draw the contrast he needs to stay ahead:
All three Republicans have bear-hugged President Trump in the race, attacking one another for not being sufficiently pro-Trump. But the sharp-elbowed Rokita has gone the farthest in this regard, donning a “Make America Great Again” hat in his latest ad as he attacked Braun for his Democratic past and Messer for criticizing Trump during the 2016 campaign.
“Mike Braun is nothing more than a series of TV ads trying to cover up for his record of voting for Democrats and hiking taxes. Meanwhile, Never-Trumper Luke Messer is the most underwhelming GOP Senate candidate in the country,” Rokita spokesman Nathan Brand told TPM.
Messer, in contrast with the other two, has mostly focused on positive TV spots showcasing his family and promising to promote the Trump agenda.
A number of GOP strategists questioned whether his message was aggressive enough for a GOP primary, and wondered why Messer hadn’t been able to out-raise Rokita given his close ties to the GOP establishment including Pence’s network and House Republican leadership. But Messer’s team dismissed those concerns.
“Luke’s path to victory is people feeling like they know Luke better by the end of this race, that the other two guys are all talk and Luke’s action,” Messer campaign adviser Brad Todd told TPM. “Primary voters are frustrated that we control everything and not enough is getting done, and Luke has by far the biggest track record of someone who can get something done.”
Embracing Trump and Vice President Mike Pence won’t be as big a problem in Pence’s home state as elsewhere in the country. Even in deep-red Indiana, though, fealty to Trump may not be an asset in the general election. The president won the state by a 19-point margin, but recentpolls have found about the same amount of voters approve and disapprove of the job he’s done as president.
Rokita, Braun and Messer have all had to grapple with some harsh news cycles. Messer has faced months of attacks for not living in the state (he moved his family out to D.C., selling his Indiana house while keeping a vacation spot in Tennessee, and co-owns a home with his mom that he stays at when in town). That’s a serious problem in a state where politicians including Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and former Rep. Dave McIntosh (R-IN) have lost races for similar transgressions.
Rokita faced embarrassing headlines early on for an internal staff memo that obsessively outlined how his employees must handle their interactions with him, and more recent ones questioning his use of $3 million in government funds to boost his name ID around the state.
Braun was the latest in the woodshed, facing rough headlines in recent days for pushing to cut taxes and regulations on the logging industry, changes he stood to profit from. He’s also taken heat in the primary for voting to raise the state gas tax to fund infrastructure projects.
Donnelly has also been dinged up, however – his family’s business has ties with Mexico, a problematic connection in the rust belt state.
The general election is likely to be driven heavily by outside groups. Donnelly had $5 million in the bank as of the end of last year, a decent sum but not enough to stay on the airwaves, and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity has already been on TV attacking him, with Democratic super-PACs rushing to his defense. Rokita and Messer are both likely to emerge from the primary with little cash left, and while Braun can self-fund to some degree few think he’ll put up the tens of millions he’ll need for the race.
Democrats think all three Republicans have enough problems that the race will be competitive. And they hope that as the primary crescendoes, those vulnerabilities will be drawn in sharper contrast.
“You hope you have an opponent that’s not just a generic Republican, it’s someone people will frown upon,” said the source close to Donnelly. “That’s the permission slip you need in Indiana.”
Dave Matthews apparently has so much to say about Ohio politics.
The ’90s rockstar will crash into Cleveland to help fellow throwback Dennis Kucinich with a campaign fundraiser later this month, Kucinich’s gubernatorial campaign announced Friday.
The event will take place on April 20 – a fitting date for a candidate who has campaigned for full marijuana legalization and a veteran of the jam band circuit.
The activist musician and left-wing candidate first connected more than a decade ago at Farm Aid, Kucinich’s campaign said, and have teamed up on a number of liberal causes since.
Kucinich is looking to topple former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray, the establishment Democratic favorite, in next month’s primary – a prospect that has many Democrats in the state worried could happen and hurt their chances at winning the general election. But Matthews, for one, hopes Democrats don’t drink the Cordray water.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) hauled in a whopping $6.7 million in the last three months for his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), O’Rourke’s campaign announced Tuesday,
That sum dwarfs his already-impressive earlier fundraising quarters, and puts him in a position to be able to go t0e-to-toe with Cruz financially in the expensive state, even if outside Democratic groups decide to spend elsewhere this fall.
And, as O’Rourke was quick to point out, it came in spite of his refusal to take any political action committee or lobbyist donations.
“Campaigning in a grassroots fashion while raising more than $6.7 million from 141,000 contributions, we are the story of a campaign powered by people who are standing up to special interests, proving that we are more than a match and making it clear that Texans are willing to do exactly what our state and country need of us at this critical time,” he said in a statement.
O’Rourke didn’t announce his cash on hand figures, and Cruz has yet to put out his quarterly numbers, which are due in a few weeks.
O’Rourke’s latest haul eclipses an already-impressive $2.4 million he raised in the final months of 2017, when he out-raised Cruz, and came during the ramp-up to Texas’s March primary.
Those primary numbers indicated O’Rourke and other Democrats may not be as ready to compete statewide in Texas as they’d hoped – roughly twice as many voters turned out to vote for Cruz in his noncompetitive primary race as for O’Rourke, who won less than two thirds of the Democratic primary vote against a pair of no-name challengers.
That was a sign to some national Democrats that Texas still may not be a fruitful place to compete, in spite of polling showing that President Trump is unpopular in the state and suggesting Cruz could be in trouble. But if O’Rourke keeps raising money like this it won’t matter what they think – he’ll have plenty of cash to keep Cruz looking over his shoulder for the rest of the year, even if his chances of actually winning don’t match the sky-high donor enthusiasm around his campaign.
Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has seized on gun control to propel his underdog gubernatorial campaign, worryingstate Democrats that he has a real chance to win the primary — and damage his party’s chances in a key race.
Kucinich, a former presidential gadfly candidate who’s been one of Russia’s more prominent left-wing apologists in recent years, is giving a spirited challenge to former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray (D), the candidate strongly preferred by most party leaders.
Kucinich has put Cordray on the defensive for his past “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and ongoing refusal to support an assault weapons ban.
While establishment Democrats think Cordray will likely prevail, they say not to count out Kucinich, who’s been running and often winning elections in the state’s biggest media market for more than four decades.
“There’s absolutely a chance Kucinich could win this,” state Rep. John Boccieri (D), a former congressman who served with Kucinich, told TPM.
Others agree, warning that Kucinich’s decades-long pugilistic battle against “the mighty and powerful” dating back to his rocky tenure as Cleveland’s boy mayor in the late ’70s closely reflects the current populist anti-establishment mood of the Democratic base in the state, and that the gun issue could help further propel his uphill campaign in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
“It’s a mistake to take Dennis Kucinich lightly,” said former Rep. Dennis Eckart (D-OH). “At the end of the day because of the perfect match of Cordray’s message, his resume and his money it’s his to lose. But Dennis is going to surprise some people in a significant way because of the mood of some Ohio Democrats. He can’t be as easily dismissed now as he has in the past.”
Cordray remains the odds-on favorite: He’s got the money, support from most of the party as well as the powerful AFL-CIO, a strong resume on economic populism and taking on Wall Street both in Ohio and Washington, and support from party heavy-hitters like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Obama administration adviser Valerie Jarrett. That’ll help him as he reintroduces himself across a state where he hasn’t been on the ballot in eight years and lets voters know about some of Kucinich’s more outlandish statements and actions since he left office after losing a gerrymandering-fueled primary to Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) in 2012. Cordray is raising huge sums for the race, and is expected to have a significant edge in TV advertising and a robust field operation as the campaign kicks into high gear in the coming days.
But recent public and private polling has found a toss-up race, with a high number of undecided voters. The election is just over a month away, on May 8, with early voting beginning in one week.
Ohio Democrats say a Kucinich win is unlikely – but concerning in a race they see as a top pickup opportunity this fall.
“Kucinich has enough of a record and enough eccentricities that nominating him would be a gift to [GOP front-runner] Mike DeWine. Republicans are giddy about that prospect,” said one top Democrat in the state.
Kucinich is buoyed by high name ID in his home region around Cleveland, the largest media market in the state for Democratic primary voters, and progressives’ fond if hazy memories of his early and vocal stances for universal health care and against the war in Iraq. He has the support of the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution, headed by former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D). Cordray has some strong assets, including his fights for consumers both as state attorney general and treasurer and in the Obama administration, but remains largely undefined in a state where he hasn’t been on the ballot for eight years, when he lost reelection for state attorney general to DeWine.
On the one issue that’s been dominating the national and local Democratic conversation at the moment – gun control – Corday’s in a tough spot.
Cordray had a warm relationship with Ohio gun groups during his stint as the state’s attorney general, earning an “A” rating from the NRA and getting the endorsement of the Buckeye Firearms Association in his last two elections. Cordray successfully fought for Ohio’s right to overturn local gun control measures passed in Cleveland and Columbus, calling it “an important victory for every gun owner in Ohio.” He was one of just a handful of Democratic attorneys general to join Republicans in McDonald v. Chicago, a landmark Supreme Court case that expanded gun rights by finding the Second Amendment also applied to state and local governments. He also fought to help a local gun group hold an armed protest outside the state capitol.
In the wake of the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year and the subsequent renewal of national focus on gun control, Kucinich saw an opening.
“Parkland has changed everything. It really has brought about a shift in public awareness about the omnipresent danger of assault weapons,” Kucinich told TPM. “If you want to carry the Democratic banner in a statewide election, that banner should not have an ‘A’ from NRA on it.”
Cordray has moved dramatically on gun control in this campaign: He’s now calling for universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines and bump stocks. But he hasn’t been willing to call for an assault weapons ban, something Kucinich has hammered him for.
And Cordray’s own running mate hasn’t helped: Former Rep. Betty Sutton (D-OH), publicly broke with him over the issue last week.
“He created an opening for Kucinich because of where he is on the hot-button issue for Democrats right now: gun violence,” said one Ohio Democratic strategist who wants to see Cordray prevail in the race. “Rich doesn’t have much name ID. He hasn’t run statewide since 2010 and even then it was down-ticket. And this gun stuff is hurting him. Democrats are frustrated with him on it.”
Cordray’s campaign fired back against Kucinich, accusing him of playing politics with the issue.
“Democrats should come together to find workable solutions to a problem as important as this — not turn it into a political football. It’s telling that Kucinich spent five years as a paid contributor on Fox News and didn’t once call for an assault weapons ban, and at one point even told Bill O’Reilly that gun control measures wouldn’t reduce violence,” Cordray campaign spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement.
Kucinich told O’Reilly after the Sandy Hook massacre that Obama should put forth gun control proposals and Congress should “consider” them, but said that “All the gun laws you pass may not really reduce significantly the level of violence in our society.”
But those comments aren’t likely to be nearly as damning as some of his other remarks made on Fox and elsewhere over the past few years praising President Trump and dismissing any possibility of collusion between Trump and Russia during the 2016 election.
Kucinich called Trump’s inauguration speech “great” and a “message of unity,” and has been much less critical of Trump than most other Democrats – or than he’d been of President Obama, who he accused of committing a potentially “impeachable offense” for bombing Libya without congressional approval in 2011. He later called for a primary challenger against Obama in 2012.
He’s also repeatedly dismissed the Russia investigation.
“Enough of the BS about #Russia stealing the election. This is CIA & State Dept propaganda trying to legitimatize their increased hostilities towards Russia,” he wrote in a December 2016 Facebook post.
Kucinich hasn’t backed away from that view, accusing the “military-industrial intel axis” of unfairly targeting then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to damage the U.S.-Russia relationship, claiming the “deep state” is after the president, and calling Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian-American diplomat a “bunch of nothing.”
He repeatedly refused to tell TPM whether he thought the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election.
“The people I’ve talked to across Ohio, they’re more worried about Moscow, Ohio than Moscow, Russia,” he said dismissively.
Kucinich dodged one follow-up question: “We shouldn’t be meddling in any country’s elections and no country should be meddling in ours.”
When pressed further, he said he thought Russian citizens may have meddled, but refused to accept the widely held view of the U.S. intelligence community that the Russian government was behind attacks on the Democratic Party and American democracy.
“Um, did Russians, Russians, people of Russian nationality, attempt to meddle? That appears to be the case. Beyond that, the investigation is continuing. If I was working on this on a daily basis in Washington I’d probably be able to give you a better assessment. But I will say it’s not an issue in this election, and the Cordray campaign’s attempt to make this an issue just shows how stupidly out of touch they are,” he said.
That fits in with Kucinich’s overarching views for the past decade. A co-founder of the Congressional Russia Caucus, which sought closer relations with the country, Kucinich forcefully defended Russia’s 2013 invasion of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine in a series of interviews with Fox News and Russian state media outlet Sputnik, while blaming American and NATO meddling in the country for the situation. He’s also repeatedly met with and defended Russia-backed Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Cordray’s allies made it clear that he’ll go after Kucinich’s strange defense of Russia and Trump — with paid media, if necessary.
“The fact that he’s so closely associated with Fox News, has praised Donald Trump, that’s a problem for him in the Democratic Primary. The closer he’d get to being a serious threat, the more those things will become aware to more people,” Ohio state Rep. David Leland (D), a former state party chairman who supports Cordray, told TPM. “If it becomes something that needs to be talked about, I guarantee it will be.”
But Ohio Democrats say Kucinich shouldn’t be dismissed. And most say he’d be a disaster as the party’s standard-bearer.
“Everyone on the ticket would be concerned about Dennis as the nominee. He’d be a very problematic candidate,” said one unaligned Ohio Democrat. “People in Ohio, like other parts of the country, are feeling pretty good about our prospects for this November. But every candidate who’s been working for a year-plus to win this fall would be concerned Kucinich could risk all of that.”
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) announced Monday that she won’t run for reelection, bowing to pressure to vacate the seat after badly mishandling a case of sexual harassment, domestic assault and threats between two senior staffers in her congressional office.
“I have determined that it is in the best interest of my constituents and my family to end my time in Congress at the end of this year and not seek re-election,” she said in a Facebook post. “Too many women have been harmed by harassment in the workplace. In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better. To the survivor, I want to express my strongest apology for letting you down.”
From being a room parent in a first grade classroom to serving on the library board, town council, state house and U.S….
Esty’s decision against running for reelection caps a rapid fall from grace for a woman who’d been viewed as a rising star within the House Democratic Caucus, who had a good relationship with House Democratic leaders and was a top voice for increased gun control as the representative of Newtown.
But that career came crashing down in recent days after revelations that she’d coddled her former chief of staff when another senior staffer accused him of sexual harassment, domestic violence and threats. A senior staffer accused her chief of staff of punching her and sexually harassing her, as well as leaving threatening voicemails that included one where he threatened to kill her if she didn’t call him back. Esty’s response was to keep him on the payroll for three whole months, giving him $5,000 in severance and helping him land another job at a gun control group.
The pressure has been building on Esty to resign since the story became public last week, with her hometown paper calling for her to step down over the weekend.
Esty’s decision to retire likely makes the seat easier to hold for Democrats. President Trump only lost her fairly blue-collar northwestern Connecticut district by 4 points, and she had two close elections in 2012 and 2014. An open-seat election in this district isn’t a lock for Democrats, but Esty insisted on running again the party might have seriously worried about holding the seat even in a year that’s shaping up to be a good one for the party.
Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY) is being accused of using his official position to help his girlfriend’s adult son get out of jail after being busted for possession of heroin, in a complaint to the House Ethics Committee that could complicate his reelection chances.
In the complaint, first reported by the New York Post Saturday, Donovan allegedly used his stature as a congressman and former district attorney in Staten Island to help Timothy O’Connell, his longtime girlfriend’s adult son, get out of jail after he was arrested on a charge of criminal possession and sale of heroin in December 2015.
“Donovan, while serving in Congress and as a former district attorney, visited the 122 precinct and used his position to illegally request that officers issue O’Connell and [the friend] a ‘desk appearance ticket’ instead of proceeding with normal arrest protocols,” the allegation reportedly says. “This intervention allowed the detained to be immediately released from custody, as well as the records to be sealed.”
Donovan’s office strongly dismissed the allegations, saying Donovan never visited the precinct, and argued that the protocols followed during this arrest were in line with the NYPD’s standard written procedures on desk appearances.
“Like many families, Dan has been dealing with a loved one’s opioid addiction — in private until now. These allegations are not only 100 percent false, but Dan has a long history of recusing himself from matters involving close friends and family,” Donovan spokesman Pat Ryan told TPM. “This is a disgusting, vicious, and false attack on a young man’s struggle with addiction to score political points two months before an election. The young man, a high school grad who was gainfully employed, was arrested for the first time and charged with a misdemeanor, just like thousands of other people before and after him. To publicize his struggle with absurd and false allegations is a despicable new low.”
Donovan has been dating Serena Stonick, O’Connell’s mother, since 2011, and the two have a child together. According to the Post, a desk appearance ticket is usually reserved for minor crimes and is highly unusual for heroin possession.
Donovan is facing a tough reelection fight in his GOP-leaning district, both in the primary and the general. Former Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY), hot off a prison stint of his own, is running against him in the primary, and has some legitimate local support. Democrats also see a possible opening this fall in a district that President Trump won by 10 points in 2016 but President Obama carried in 2008.
Donovan’s squeaky-clean reputation as a local DA is a big asset in this race, and could take a hit with the allegations, though it depends on what the Ethics Committee finds (and whether it reaches any conclusions before the June primary).
When the corporate owners of the National Enquirer relented and tentatively allowed Karen McDougal to tell her story about her alleged 10-month affair with Donald Trump, they made an interesting choice for the person to initially handle any media inquiries about the alleged affair: Trump family associate and crisis communications powerhouse Matthew Hiltzik.
McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate, alleged in a lawsuit filed last Tuesday that she was duped into signing a legal agreement with American Media, Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company, giving it exclusive rights to the story of her alleged 2006 and 2007 affair with the now-president. The company then forced her to keep quiet during and after the presidential campaign to protect Trump while colluding with Trump’s team to bury the story, she claims.
Hiltzik was ostensibly brought in for the one-month period after the election to help McDougal handle press requests about her alleged affair. A veteran New York public relations executive, Hiltzik has worked in the past with Jared Kushner, and continued to work with Ivanka Trump, who he has called a “friend.” Those connections could strengthen McDougal’s argument that the AMI agreement existed solely to keep her quiet.
It’s not clear exactly how Hiltzik came to be chosen for the role. Both Hiltzik and AMI denied that he ultimately had any active involvement with McDougal’s PR, but neither answered questions about whether AMI was aware of Hiltzik’s ongoing work on Ivanka Trump’s brand and earlier ties to the Trump circle before referring him to McDougal.
“AMI’s use of Matthew Hiltzik and his firm further demonstrates the close relationship between AMI and President Trump,” said Paul S. Ryan of Common Cause, a good-government group that has filed complaints with the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission arguing AMI’s $150,000 payment to McDougal was an illegal in-kind campaign contribution to Trump. “AMI was protecting Trump’s interests, not McDougal’s.”
AMI’s chairman and CEO is David Pecker, a close friend of Trump’s who has admitted he agreed to buy McDougal’s life story and hire her as a fitness columnist on the condition that she not embarrass Trump. The company made sure that happened for a key stretch, first blocking her from telling the story at all during the campaign, and then pairing her with Hiltzik to handle any media requests for December 2016 after the Wall Street Journalpublished the story right before the election.
According to an amendment to the contract between McDougal and AMI that she filed as part of her lawsuit last week, the company hired Hiltzik for a one-month period at the end of 2016 to be in charge of any contacts she had with reporters relating to the alleged affair with Trump.
“McDougal may respond to legitimate press inquiries regarding the facts of her alleged relationship with Donald Trump. In connection therewith, AMI shall retain the services of Matthew Hiltzik at Hiltzik Strategies for a period of one month commencing on December 1, 2016, and Jon Hammond at Galvanized for a period of five months commencing on January 1, 2016 [sic.], to provide PR and reputation management services and to coordinate any such response(s) in consultation with AMI,” the amendment to the contract reads.
A spokesperson for AMI said that Hiltzik was referred to McDougal “for a brief engagement to potentially provide strategic counsel, but there were no issues that arose during that period.”
Hiltzik declined comment beyond reiterating that his firm was never called upon to provide any counsel to McDougal or AMI during that month or any time thereafter.
AMI maintains that after that amendment was added, McDougal was free to talk to the press. She and her attorneys disagree, claiming in the complaint filed last week that the company repeatedly ordered her to keep quiet about the affair or face “financial ruin” even after the contract was amended.
A source familiar with McDougal’s legal effort says Hiltzik and McDougal didn’t interact during the period where AMI officials were pressuring her to deflect press requests about the affair.
Still, Hiltzik’s close business and personal ties to the Trump family going back years make him an interesting personnel choice for AMI.
Hiltzik has long represented Ivanka Trump’s product line, and he previously represented Jared Kushner’s real estate company for a number of years. He also gave outgoing White House Communications Director Hope Hicks her first big break, hiring her at a young age and putting her on Ivanka’s brand (Ivanka Trump later poached her to be a full-time staffer for her company, before Donald Trump hired her for his campaign). Hiltzik is an early mentor to Hicks and has been a go-to quote praising her for a number of profiles of the woman who has spent more time with Trump than maybe anyone else over the past three years.
A White House official denied that Hicks, Ivanka Trump, or Kushner had any knowledge of Hiltzik’s work for McDougal.
Hiltzik, a longtime crisis communications expert, began his career working in Democratic politics – previous stints include the New York Democratic Party, helping both Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) win statewide campaigns (Hiltzik headed Clinton’s Jewish outreach efforts). But he hit it big once he pivoted to crisis communications, and has developed a roster of big names, many of them badly in need of his help: Harvey Weinstein (he was head of corporate communications for Miramax), Justin Bieber, Alec Baldwin, Ryan Lochte, Don Imus and Glenn Beck, as well as less controversial stars like Katie Couric.
Some of those celebs have wound up in the pages of the Enquirer — but Hiltzik has been complimentary of the way the publication conducts business, telling the Philadelphia Daily News in 2011 that longtime Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine, who stepped down in 2016, has “always been straightforward and let me know when the truck is about to hit me.” (In that same story, Levine talked up a possible Trump White House run, saying the now-president told him that if he won, “the National Enquirer will have the run of the White House”). Hiltzik has also worked from time to time for AMI — occasional projects on their corporate work date back more than a decade.
And while the PR pro hasn’t embraced President Trump himself, he was active through the 2016 campaign in defending Ivanka and Jared — calling a reporter unprompted who was working on a rough story for them to “help out” his old friends and clients.
“Anybody who is a real friend is not going to abandon someone because of their father’s politics,” he toldNew York Magazine in July 2016, “even if they are among a group who may happen to disagree with thosepolitics.”
Hicks isn’t the only Hiltzik protege who wound up with a plum job in the White House. Josh Raffel, a close friend of Hicks’, worked at Hiltzik’s firm managing Kushner’s account. He left in 2015 before being brought back by Kushner and Trump in 2017 to work in the White House, where he quickly rose to become deputy communications director. Raffel, like Hicks, is on his way out of the White House.
It remains an open question how exactly Hiltzik’s hiring played out, and whether AMI made McDougal aware of his Trump ties.
But this much is clear: If AMI really wanted to help McDougal get her story out, Hiltzik seems like a curious choice given his other clients.
Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) has officially been named to replace retiring Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), setting up a tough election against hardline conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R).
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) announced his choice Wednesday, making her the first female senator in the state’s history. But she’ll have to fight hard to keep her new job, as McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite with a rabidly loyal base in the state, is already gunning for the seat.
Hyde-Smith, a former conservative Democrat who switched parties in 2010, sought to bolster her right-wing standing as she braced for a tough race.
“I’ve been a conservative all my life and I’m very proud of my conservative voting record,” Hyde-Smith said in her acceptance speech, talking up her pro-life and pro-gun views. “I have a record of conservatism, I have a record of accomplishments and getting things done for you.”
She also acknowledged her looming primary fight — one that’s almost guaranteed to turn nasty, as the Cochran-McDaniel 2014 primary was one of the strangest and darkest races in modern political memory. Cochran barely held on in that race, and McDaniel maintains it was stolen from him.
“We’re going to have some rough days ahead, but you know what? That’s okay,” she said.
But some Republicans aren’t so sure it will be okay. Establishment-friendly Republicans in both D.C. and Mississippi tell TPM that they’re worried her fairly recent party switch gives McDaniel serious fodder in the race and could endanger their hold on the seat given his controversial views and past statements. Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D) has already announced a bid. If no candidate wins a majority in the November non-partisan campaign, Espy could very well face McDaniel in a runoff that Republicans say could be competitive in the solidly Republican state.
Republicans including President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had encouraged the popular Bryant to appoint himself, but he opted against it. And the White House is reportedly unhappy with the pick, with Trump threatening to refuse to endorse or campaign for her.
Some Mississippi Republicans are already seeing ghosts of Alabama. Like failed candidate Roy Moore (R), McDaniel has a rabid following and views that are fringe enough to put what should be a safe seat in play. While he obviously doesn’t have the same baggage Moore did as an accused sexual predator, Mississippi has a larger African American population and isn’t quite as solidly Republican as its neighbor.
McDaniel was quick to blast Hyde-Smith’s relatively recent party change.
“She ran as a Democrat. She served as a Democrat. She voted like a Democrat. Although her reputation in Jackson was that of a moderate Democrat, the last thing the state of Mississippi needs in Washington is another moderate Democrat,” he said in a statement.
Cochran will resign on April 1 due to a long battle with health problems, and Hyde-Smith will be sworn in shortly after that.