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

After coast-to-coast victories Tuesday and a romp in a key swing state, Democrats smell blood in the water for a 2018 election that could deal a body blow to President Donald Trump and the GOP.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) blowout victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race — the biggest election since Trump’s victory one year ago today — was the capstone of an impressive night that showed Democrats’ burning hot hatred of Trump can translate into sweeping electoral victories across the country.

“It was a rejection of Donald Trump and his bigoted, hateful and divisive rhetoric,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) told reporters Tuesday night. “All Republicans are in trouble. Look at the sweep.”

He paused when TPM asked if he thought Democrats had a shot at retaking the U.S. Senate next year. Democrats haven’t seriously considered that possibility before last night, as they’re defending 10 seats in states Trump won.

“Now I do,” he said. “I think this changes the whole dynamic of electoral politics.”

Northam defeated former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie by 9 points — a far larger spread than even the most optimistic Democrats predicted, more than the five-point win Hillary Clinton managed in the state and the widest margin for any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in decades.

His sweeping win was coupled with a Democratic sweep of statewide offices and huge gains by Democrats in the statehouse no one thought possible that have put the House of Delegates teetering on the edge of their control. Democrats have picked up at least 15 seats in the chamber, double the number most of them thought likely, and turned a two-to-one GOP edge in the chamber into a virtual tie. Control of the chamber hangs in the balance, with recounts still pending in some races.

But Virginia wasn’t the only state where Democrats were crushing their foes. The party won a state Senate seat in Washington long held by the GOP, giving them an edge in the chamber and unified control of the state government. New Jersey Gov.-elect Phil Murphy (D) beat his GOP opponent by double digits, flipping a gubernatorial seat to his party. Democrats won a mayoral race in Manchester, N.H., for the first time in more than a decade, won a statewide referendum in Maine to expand Medicaid, and picked up two deep red state senate seats in Georgia long held by Republicans. They also beat a Trump-aligned county executive in Westchester County, N.Y.

“You have sent a message across the globe to South Korea: Donald Trump, you don’t stand for our values! The America that Donald Trump comes back to in a few days is far different than the America he left. It’s an America where we are regaining our values,” an ebullient Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez declared from the stage at Northam’s victory rally.

Republicans are as alarmed as Democrats are delighted after a bruising election night in which Republicans got swept.

Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck told TPM Tuesday night that he was still getting his head around the GOP’s shellacking in the state.

“Six months is an eternity in politics, but boy, we’ve got a lot of work to do in Virginia,” he said. “It’s looking like the urban areas are just a huge problem for us and I don’t know what the answer is yet.”

Rep. Scott Taylor (R-VA) agreed, saying Trump and the Trump-like ads from Gillespie helped drive the results.

“Last night was a referendum. I don’t think there’s any way you can look at it any different way, to be honest with you,” he said on CNN Wednesday morning.

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said he wasn’t surprised Northam won, but the lopsided numbers worried him.

“What surprised me was the margin — Gillespie got crushed in suburbs and with millennials,” he said. “Democrats are fired up and Republicans are facing some tough headwinds and how they try to hold on to House will vary from district to district.”

As Republicans fret, Democrats are gleefully looking ahead to next year.

“Based on the rejection we saw from voters tonight, one things is clear about President Trump for Republicans in 2018,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told TPM after midnight early Wednesday morning. “Can’t live with him and can’t live without him.”

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Alice Ollstein contributed reporting to this story.

Happy anniversary, President Trump.

It’s one year to the day since Trump pulled off his shocking election win last November. And while he may not have any major legislative achievements under his belt, that hasn’t stopped him and Republicans from dramatically changing the direction of the country in ways that will be hard to undo.

TPM surveyed dozens of administration officials, lawmakers, congressional staff, interest groups and strategists in both parties to see what moves will have the largest long-term impact. Here are the main areas where they say Trump hasn’t been just bluster — they’ll have a lasting impact.

Stacking The Courts

If Trump had achieved nothing else in his first year in office, his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court alone would reverberate through the generations, keeping the highest court leaning to the right for years and maybe decades to come. But Gorsuch’s seat isn’t the only spoil of Trump’s victory.

Senate Republicans have taken major advantage of a rule change instituted by Democrats that eliminated the 60-vote filibuster for lifetime judicial appointments, and further destroyed Senate norms by eliminating a super-majority requirement for Supreme Court picks.

The result: Gorsuch, who was confirmed after Republicans refused to allow President Obama to fill the open seat in his final year in office, and a rapid-fire confirmation of judges for other key positions.

Senate Republicans have confirmed eight appeals court judges — Obama only had one confirmed at this point in his presidency — and four district court judges to three for Obama.

Trump himself bragged about that during a press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) last month.

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch acknowledges the applauses as he beings to speak at the 50th anniversary of the Fund for America Studies luncheon at the Trump Hotel in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch acknowledges the applauses as he beings to speak at the 50th anniversary of the Fund for America Studies luncheon at the Trump Hotel in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

“Yes, we got a great justice, Justice Gorsuch, into the United States Supreme Court. He is going to be outstanding, hopefully for many, many years. But something that people aren’t talking about is how many judges we’ve had approved, whether it be the court of appeals, circuit judges, whether it be district judges,” Trump said, later adding “that has consequences 40 years out.”

“The single-most significant thing this President has done to change America is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But it’s not just the Supreme Court. There are a lot of vacancies at both the circuit court and district court level,” McConnell said.

Or as one Senate Republican source put it: “GOP is transforming the courts!”

Democrats agree.

“There were four circuit court judges confirmed last week which is as many as were confirmed in the first year under the Obama administration,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told TPM. “I’m concerned we’re getting more and more extreme judicial nominees … over time it degrades the respect with which our federal judiciary is held. … I did not expect to have so many nominees brought forward so quickly with whom I had difference about if they possessed a judicial temperament.”

“Gorsuch and judges are the number one thing. Even the most ardent Hillary Clinton critics on either side would say that the judiciary would look very different with her as president,” former Bernie Sanders adviser and Iowa congressional candidate Pete D’Alessandro told TPM.

Undoing Obama’s Environmental Legacy

Both Democrats and Republicans say perhaps the biggest shift in the country’s direction has been on environmental issues. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement means America will soon be the only country in the world not onboard with the push to curb global warming.

Domestically, the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt has made a concerted push to undo most of the Obama administration’s biggest regulatory achievements.

That includes steps to repeal the Clean Power Plan to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants by one-third by 2030, especially from coal plants; roll back vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency standards that have helped make U.S. vehicles significantly more efficient in the last few years; rescind the Clean Water Rule, which was finalized in 2015 and would have clarified and expanded the definition of what waterways’ pollution falls under federal jurisdiction; reverse a ban on a type of insecticide that causes memory loss; eliminate a rule to limit coal-mining pollution into streams and rivers; and many other steps that have enraged environmentalists.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency of United States (EPA), during the G7 Ministerial Meeting on Environment ongioing in Bologna, Italy, 11 June 2017. The meeting runs until tomorrow, 12 June. ANSA/ GIORGIO BENVENUTI
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt during the G7 Ministerial Meeting in Italy on June 11, 2017. (ANSA/ GIORGIO BENVENUTI)

“The long-term damage from the Trump Administration’s relentless attacks on public health and environmental protection will be felt in our communities for years to come,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told TPM. “Trump has made an embarrassing and dangerous mark on history already by targeting environmental progress ranging from global to local in scale.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement to TPM that under Trump, his department was “providing regulatory certainty that did not exist under the previous administration.”

Grover Norquist of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform was more blunt.

“We will always have Paris moved to we will never, ever have Paris,” he told TPM.

Undercutting Obamacare

Republicans may have failed to repeal Obamacare, but President Trump has done as much as he can to break it.

The Trump administration has cut in half the open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act’s individual market and spent just 10 percent as much as in previous years to encourage people to sign up. Trump also ended cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers that help keep down insurance rates bought on the exchanges, a move seemingly designed to cause premiums to jump.

Just this week, Trump and Republicans moved to loosen Medicaid program requirements, making it easier for states to throw people off the program in a move that experts say could lead to hundreds of thousands of fewer people with coverage, and toyed with removing the individual mandate.

“The White House clearly doesn’t want this to succeed. I can’t imagine — somebody who takes the oath of office and then undercuts a public health, a federal law that has served millions of people and just doesn’t seem to care,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told TPM Tuesday. “I just can’t believe that there isn’t more of an outcry.”

The rate of uninsured Americans climbed this year for the first time in years, which Democrat say is a result of Trump undercutting the program.

Cracking Down On Immigrants

“The wall” ain’t getting built — but that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from radically departing from how previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have handled both legal and undocumented immigrants.

Trump’s biggest move was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which had allowed 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children to legally work and attend school in the United States. Congress has so far failed to re-create the program, and hundreds of thousands of people are facing the risk of losing their jobs and scholarships, facing possible deportation and having to go into hiding if Congress doesn’t act by March.

Crews work on a border wall prototype near the border with Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, in San Diego. Companies are nearing an Oct. 26 deadline to finish building eight prototypes of President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. The models, which cost the government up to about $500,000 each, should be able to take an hour of punishment from a sledgehammer, pickaxe, torch, chisel and battery-operated tools and be “aesthetically pleasing” from the U.S. side. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Crews work on a border wall prototype near the border with Tijuana, Mexico, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, in San Diego. Companies are nearing an Oct. 26 deadline to finish building eight prototypes of President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

On top of that, the Department of Justice has moved to crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities” by pulling federal law enforcement grants from them — including regular terror targets like New York City. That move is facing a legal battle.

The Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency has also ramped up detentions and arrests in a huge way — a 43 percent increase over last year — in a move that’s instilled terror in immigrant communities.

And earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security moved to end the temporary protected status of 2,500 Nicaraguan immigrants, possibly the first move in a effort to force as many as 300,000 immigrants, many of them who came here as refugees decades ago, to leave the country.

“One of the most lasting, and hurtful, impacts Trump has had in the last year is mainlining a white supremacist immigration policy through the veins of the Republican Party and the White House. From repealing DACA, to ending TPS, to arresting pregnant women and kids with epilepsy, everything he has done is cruel and against everything that America is supposed to stand for,” Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist with ties to labor and immigrant groups, told TPM.

Rolling back consumer protection rules and other regulations

Trump and congressional Republicans haven’t had many big-ticket achievements, but they undid a slew of regulations that had been drawn up under President Obama.

Among the moves: undoing a regulation aimed at making it harder for mentally ill people to buy guns; rolling back regulations on for-profit colleges, many of whom acted predatorily in the past; undoing a pending rule that would have allowed consumers to band together to sue their banks; allowing internet service providers to sell consumers’ personal data without their permission; and many other instances of loosening regulations.

The Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed Obama-era policies and pushed for much harsher sentencing for nonviolent drug crimes.

The DOJ and Department of Education rescinded Obama-era guidance looking to lessen campus rape and sexual assault, causing an uproar on campus.

Trump’s campaign helped end any hopes for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though that huge trade bill was dead long before he was ever sworn into office, and has started renegotiating NAFTA.

Damaging government, the rule of law and undercutting democratic norms

Trump has taken a significantly more divisive approach to the presidency than almost any other president of either party.

His constant attacks on the press, judges, and critics in both parties, routine lying and moves to fire those who’d seek to check or investigate him (including former FBI head James Comey and U.S. attorneys like Preet Bharara) and efforts to protect his allies even when they’ve broken the law (his pardon of former Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio) have alarmed people in both parties. His comments blaming “both sides” for the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va. and half-jokes about police brutality (while his administration was cutting funds to programs to crack down on right-wing terrorism) also raised alarms.

Former FBI Director James Comey speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Former FBI Director James Comey speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

His push to massively defund whole parts of the federal government, including massive cuts to the EPA, State Department, Department of Education and Internal Revenue Service have also drawn ire from some members in both parties, though the “public castration” of the State Department and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) words, has alarmed foreign policy experts the most.

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FAIRFAX, VA. — Democrat Ralph Northam has won the Virginia governor’s race, scoring the first big electoral victory of the Donald Trump era by defeating a candidate who ran hard on Trump-like culture war issues.

Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, led former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie by 54 percent to 45 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The Associated Press called the race shortly after 8 p.m. ET.

The win is a huge psychic boost for Democrats who had grown nervous heading into Election Day, worried that a rough final week might have given Gillespie a chance — and suggests that his hardline racially charged ads on Hispanic gang violence, sanctuary cities and Confederate monuments had blown up in his face.

“Virginia has spoken — to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, the politics that have torn this country apart. In Virginia it’s going to take a doctor to heal our differences, and I’m here to let you know that the doctor is in,” Northam declared to cheers.

Northam’s win was by a wider margin than Hillary Clinton’s five-point victory in the commonwealth last year, and larger than either of President Obama’s wins in Virginia, a sign both of Virginia’s continuing demographic trend towards Democrats and Trump’s toxic standing in fast-growing suburbs.

The big margin caught even Northam’s allies by surprise — many had expected a narrow win of three to four points and were still trickling into his election night party at George Mason University when the race was called. Many rushed into the room whooping when NBC announced Northam had won.

Northam’s long coattails appeared to be sweeping Democrats in across the state. Democrats swept the statewide races of lieutenant governor and attorney general, and make surprisingly strong pickups in the house of delegates, nearly retaking the chamber with some races still outstanding late Tuesday night. The prospect of winning that many seats was unthinkable heading into election night for even the most optimistic Democrats.

“Virginia showed the world something tonight,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said.

“Pitting people against people is not the Virginia way, it’s not the American way,” he continued.

“What it says is people don’t respond to the kind of lowest common denominator approach that too often comes out of this White House and came out of a lot of the [Virginia GOP] candidates this year,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told reporters.

Republicans admitted they got crushed.

“They won. We lost,” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck told TPM.

Whitbeck didn’t want to talk national implications, but admitted his party was in a deep hole after the results.

“Six months is an eternity in politics, but boy, we’ve got a lot of work to do in Virginia,” he said. “It’s looking like the urban areas are just a huge problem for us and I don’t know what the answer is yet.”

Josh Holmes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) former chief of staff, was more blunt:

“It’s pretty unprecedented, what’s happening here,” House of Delegates Democratic Leader David Toscano (D) told reporters shortly after the race was called for Northam.

A minute later, his eyebrows shot up in surprise as looked at a phone alert. Gleefully, he told aides that Kelly Fowler (D) had won a long-shot race — which one staffer repeated in grinning disbelief.

The new state delegates include the first transgender candidate ever to win a statehouse race, Danica Roem, who defeated hardline social conservative Bob Marshall.

“I’m hoping it puts an end to the politics of bigotry,” Virginia Delegate Charniele Herring (D) told TPM about Marshall’s defeat.

Another somewhat surprising winner: Former reporter Chris Hurst (D), whose girlfriend was gunned down on live TV in the state a few years back.

The results are the most concrete sign so far of a building Democratic resurgence in the Trump era. Northam’s margin and coattails — as well as other big Democratic wins Tuesday in New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maine, Georgia and New York  — show that Democratic voters are more energized and turning out in stronger numbers across the country right now. That’s a good sign heading into crucial 2018 midterms — and will help Democrats, many of whom spent the last week watching the campaign with increasing trepidation, begin to put their 2016 election PTSD behind them.

“This is pretty nice, I won’t lie,” Robby Mook, the former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), told TPM.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie pauses during a concession speech during an election party in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Gillespie lost to Democrat Ralph Northam. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Gillespie, who once pushed the GOP hard to embrace a big-tent philosophy, went hard the other direction in this election — running dark Trump-like ads accusing Northam of being soft on gangs and tying him to a child pornographer in a closing ad. Trump never campaigned for Gillespie in the state but tweeted repeatedly to tout his campaign and recorded a last-minute robocall for Gillespie. The GOP candidate tried to walk a tightrope between Trump-like ads and a moderate-sounding message on the economy and inclusiveness in Northern Virginia.

Trump was quick to distance himself from the results.

Other Republicans weren’t so quick to dismiss Trump’s dismal numbers in the state, however — including Virginia resident and former National Republican Senatorial Committee top strategist Brian Walsh.

Democrats are going to have to compete in much tougher territory than a Democratic-trending state Hillary Clinton won by more than 5 points last fall. But this is a big early sign that the wind is at their backs heading into the 2018 midterms.

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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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