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.
Former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin is heading down to Alabama to help boost former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) in his primary against appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), joining forces with a pro-Trump super-PAC to try to knock out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) strongly preferred candidate.
Palin will join a bus tour run by Great America Alliance, a pro-Trump group that recently added former White House staffer Andy Surabian, who has close ties to recently ousted former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. The planned rally will occur late next week, according to a strategist close to the organization.
“Poll after poll has shown that the people of Alabama are rejecting big-time lobbyist Luther Strange in favor of conservative warrior judge Roy Moore,” that strategist told TPM. “We’re excited for Gov. Palin to barnstorm the state next week and put the final nail in the coffin of Mitch McConnell and [former Alabama Gov.] Robert Bentley’s hand-picked establishment puppet.”
Palin’s visit further heightens tensions in a race that has turned into a proxy war between McConnell and his allies and populist conservatives aligned with the White House, with Bannon at the helm. Though Trump himself endorsed Strange in the first round of the primary, he praised both candidates after they made the primary runoff and has been notably silent on his Strange support ever since.
Great America Alliance plans to spend in the low six figures to help the controversial Moore between now and the Sept. 26 primary election.
That includes an ad it plans to run during this weekend’s University of Alabama football — by far the most-watched event of the week in the state.
Moore is a controversial figure in the state best known for his hardline social conservative views and for twice being forced off the Supreme Court for refusing to follow higher court rulings. In the early 2000s he built, then refused to remove, a statue of the Ten Commandments at his courthouse, and more recently he ordered the state not to to issue same-sex marriage licenses after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
He’s led Strange in all public polls of the race in spite of millions of dollars of spending by a pro-McConnell super-PAC, though while some surveys have had him up comfortably by double-digit margins others have had Strange within striking distance.
Bannon’s crusading website Breitbart first wrote of Palin’s planned visit.
Following a rash of retirements, House Republican leaders are scrambling to get something done legislatively to convince other frustrated members not to toss in the towel in a tough political environment.
It’s not much fun to be a House Republican these days. President Trump has repeatedly taken potshots at their conference. Primary challenges burble on the right. Congress has been unable to pass much meaningful legislation in spite of unified control of Washington. Every trip home means an earful both from liberals furious at their support of the president and conservatives irate they’re not doing enough to support his agenda. And members who haven’t seen real competition for years face tough races due to Trump’s deep unpopularity.
That weighs heavily on Republicans who are on the fence about returning.
“The jury may be out for some folks. … Some days it feels discouraging,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), who told TPM he was likely to run for reelection but admitted his final decision in March was “a long ways away.”
“I can see where people would be discouraged as members of the majority when some days it seems like they’re fighting the Senate and sweeping generalizations even made by the administration that don’t even apply to the House,” he said, pointing to the failure of Obamacare repeal. “I don’t know of anybody who thinks that anything about election 2018 is going to be an easy walk. And Republicans love intramural [fighting], so there’s every reason to think there’s going to be a robust intramural period for some time.”
Four House Republicans from swing territories already announced they’ll leave Congress this year, including three in the past week: Reps. Dave Reichert (R-WA), Charlie Dent (R-PA) and Dave Trott (R-MI). Dent’s announcement lamented the “increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder and chaos” in the House. Republicans concede that the seat opened up by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s (R-FL) retirement is likely gone for their party. And while numerous strategists say this wave of retirements has already crested, they warn that the next one could be a doozy if they can’t get some big things done before the end of the year.
“There are a number of people, plenty of whom we don’t even know about yet, who are torn” about running again, said one national GOP strategist involved in House races. “Whether there’s measurable progress on tax reform the next 30 days will be determinative. If we get to November 1st and it looks like tax reform isn’t happening, I think there’ll be a mass exodus.”
“It’s a disaster if it doesn’t happen,” conservative Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) warned, referring to a failure to make meaningful progress on tax reform. “That has an effect. People like me who are here for the cause, if we see no hope for the cause, which in my case will never happen, that would have a terribly damning effect on our stamina here.”
Other conservatives offer similar warnings.
“If we don’t perform, sure, you’re going to see more resignations just because they don’t want to see the wrath of the voter. It’s real. If we don’t get it done, having the majority can no longer be taken for granted,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) told TPM on Wednesday. “There’s more talk about the frustration of not getting things done than I’ve heard in a long time. … If you can’t get something done, why stay in the fight?”
Strategists say that frustration is as least as big a driver for members considering retirement as the threat of a tough race next year. As one put it, “Most people who are looking at retiring aren’t retiring because they’re scared. It’s because Congress sucks and they wanted to get stuff done.”
Those in charge of keeping Congress in GOP hands insist they’re not worried about the recent spate of retirements, pointing out fewer members have quit than in past years (though it’s still very early).
“Retirement numbers are still well below the historical average and we’re confident the recently opened seats will remain in the Republican column,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt told TPM.
A number of members in targeted districts whose names were mentioned as possible retirement targets guaranteed that they’re running again. Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Pete Roskam (R-IL), and Pete Sessions (R-TX) were among the members who told TPM they were definitely going to run. Most of the swing-seat Republicans who pot-stirring Democratic operatives suggest might leave, including that trio, have hired campaign staff and are raising big money for reelection.
The one Republican strategists agree should be on retirement watch is Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who was term-limited out of his committee chairmanship and is weighing both a Senate bid and an outright retirement. Upton’s spokesman has been telling reporters that “At this point retirement is not in the cards,” far from a hard-and-fast denial.
Retirements often come as surprises, and tend to cluster after holiday breaks. The first round usually happens right around now after members get back from their month-long August recess. A larger number tend to bow out after the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. A final wave comes in early spring of the election year, as members have to decide before campaign filing deadlines whether or not to run. Once a member makes up his or her mind it’s not easy to dissuade them, say the people whose job it has been to do just that.
“I’ve been there. There’s not much you can do to persuade somebody to stick around in a brutal environment other than to appeal to their sense of patriotism and commitment to their caucus,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012 and the brutal 2014 election.
Israel, a former Democratic rising star, left Congress early partly because he was sick of fundraising and the toxic political environment.
“Every month I get at least a handful of emails from former colleagues on both sides of the aisle asking questions about my process in deciding to retire, and I think that’s very telling. That suggests potentially a much higher number of retirements in this environment as opposed to others,” he said.
Former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-NY) said there’s “a caution light on” for Republican leaders bracing for more retirements — and said Washington’s toxicity has shortened political careers much like higher injury rates have shortened NFL players’.
“I like incumbents to run for reelection in most instances, not open seats. But there’s going to be attrition,” he said. “And in today’s era in the astroturf of politics people are wearing out faster than they did in the grass era.”
Democrats won a pair of state legislative seats in special elections Tuesday night in districts that President Trump carried by comfortable margins last fall, the latest in a string of down-ballot wins the party has pulled off in the Trump era.
Democrats won a Oklahoma statehouse seat that Trump won by an 11-point margin last fall by 60 percent to 40 percent last night, and picked up a New Hampshire statehouse seat by a 12-point margin in a district that Trump had won by 56 percent to 39 percent of the vote. Those mark 31- and 28-point swings towards Democrats, respectively.
Those wins bring the total number of Democratic pickups in the Trump era to six seats – they’d already won another seat in New Hampshire, two others in Oklahoma and one in New York. And as the Daily Kos points out, in more than two-thirds of the 36 state legislative special elections held this year Democrats have over-performed Hillary Clinton’s numbers in those districts.
That trend has carried over to Congress as well, where Democrats have consistently out-performed Clinton’s numbers in House special elections this year, though they’ve failed to win a race yet (Georgia’s 6th district was the only one they spent heavily to win, and they came up short there).
Democrats were decimated at the statehouse level during President Obama’s years in office — Republicans currently hold unified control of 25 state legislatures and governor’s offices, while Democrats have one-party control of just seven states. But if recent trends continue, they could be looking at a major bounce-back at the state legislative level, as well as having a real shot at winning back control of the House.
That could prove especially crucial, as the next round of redistricting will occur in 2021. Statehouse Republicans used their big 2010 wins to lock in control of many of these states for the last decade.
Steve Bannon is looking to Alabama’s upcoming Senate primary as the opening salvo in his war against establishment Republicans — one whose results could be a major factor in determining just how scared GOP incumbents are of his political power.
Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, is using his rabble-rousing website Breitbart as a megaphone to promote controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) over appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), who Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is backing with all his might.
Two sources close to Bannon say with Moore leading the race just two weeks out from primary election day, Bannon sees an opportunity to take credit for an early scalp and scare Republican incumbents into ending their burbling criticism of the President.
“Steve views this as the flashpoint in his national war against McConnell,” said one source close to Bannon. “We’re sick and tired of these Senate and House Republicans thinking they can get away with a free shot at the President without facing any consequences.”
With two weeks to go until the Sept. 26 election, both Bannon and McConnell have a lot riding on the race.
A Moore win would send shockwaves through Washington, spooking Republicans and showing that McConnell’s money can’t save them from a wrathful populist base even when President Trump isn’t fueling that fury (he’s given Strange a tepid endorsement). A come-from-behind Strange victory, on the other hand, would show Republican lawmakers that McConnell’s deep pockets may matter more than Bannon’s pugilistic ability to turn Trump’s core voters against incumbents—and they might grow more willing to publicly criticize the President as a result, leaving both him and Bannon increasingly isolated.
“If Strange pulls this race off in Alabama that carries some good ramifications. If he doesn’t all these guys are going go back in their corners, scared of being the next Luther Strange,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), an establishment Republican who helmed the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“It’s a canary in the coal mine for Senate and House Republicans that the mood in Washington is broken and needs to be fixed, and anything different than that means you’re going to be running into a headwind,” said another Bannon ally.
Bannon and a close ally working for a pro-Trump outside group, former White House staffer Andy Surabian, sat down with Moore and his campaign staff at Bannon’s mansion late last week in a series of meetings with potential primary challengers, two sources confirmed to TPM. It’s unclear whether or not they’ll come in with any money to help the underfunded Moore in the campaign’s home stretch, but helping amplify his message on the far right could pay dividends for both sides.
McConnell hasn’t been as loud about his Strange support, but he’s put a lot of money where his mouth is. He recently headlined a D.C. fundraiser for Strange, and a super-PAC run by his allies has spent millions of dollars to knock down Moore.
Bannon made it clear in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes” exactly what he thinks of McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).
“The Republican establishment is trying to nullify the 2016 election. That’s a brutal fact we have to face,” he said, calling out McConnell and Ryan by name and saying they “do not want Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented.”
Breitbart-led campaigns against sitting incumbents are nothing new, and more often than not have come up short. Ryan easily dispatched a Bannon-backed primary foe last year, and McConnell-backed candidates managed a perfect winning record against a bevy of ring-wing challengers in 2014 and 2016. But Bannon never before had the ear of the sitting President. Trump remains immensely popular with the base and is already causing some big-league problems for incumbents who’ve dared cross him, including Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Dean Heller (R-NV), both of whom are in Bannon’s crosshairs and face tough Trump-fueled primary challengers. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) also said Monday he’s mulling retirement, though he insisted a Bannon-backed primary challenger wasn’t playing in his reasoning. Sources close to Bannon say he may back a number of challengers to House Republicans.
“McConnell ran the table against conservatives running against incumbents, but he didn’t have a Republican President. And now Donald Trump is at the top of the organizational chart, not Mitch McConnell,” said the second Bannon ally.
Ironically, Trump endorsed Strange during the first round of the primary, a move sources close to the White House have told TPM was more about getting revenge on Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who was in the race and had criticized Trump, than about doing a favor for McConnell.
Trump and McConnell are on even worse terms now than they were back then, and the President’s only public comment on the race since the first round of voting was a tweet congratulating both Moore and Strange on making the runoff.
A source close to the White House tells TPM the White House recently conducted a poll showing Moore comfortably ahead in the race, dissuading Trump from doing anything more for Strange. Politico also reported Monday that Trump had promised Strange an in-state rally that he’s no longer planning to do.
Strange’s team said given the ongoing hurricane fallout, they’re not pressing the White House for more help at this time. But they’re milking Trump’s endorsement for all it’s worth. Strange debuted a new campaign ad Monday touting Trump’s support, a shift from a bevy of attack ads he’s been leveling against Moore:
Moore has led all public polls, and while some have shown a double-digit blowout for him, others have found Strange within striking distance. Moore’s Trumpian anti-establishment career and loyal fanbase among hardline evangelicals are why he’s leading the race, not Bannon’s backing.
“What do you think Breitbart’s name ID is in this state, five percent?” asked Tom Young, a former Shelby chief of staff who’s backing Strange.
Strange has struggled thanks to the one-two combo of having been appointed by a corrupt former governor he’d been investigating and the support of the deeply unpopular McConnell. But Strange’s allies insist it’s going to be a photo finish.
“Let’s see who turns out. I think it’ll be a close race,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told TPM.
But perceptions of power sometimes matter more than reality in scaring politicians. And Bannon’s anti-Strange attacks are just a sign of what’s to come. In future races, he’s more likely to be able to count on Trump and big money from Trump super-donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer to make more noise, forcing incumbents to spend scarce resources on nasty primaries.
“I wouldn’t be afraid of Bannon. But what they do is bring outside money with these super-PACs. I don’t think you cower to them but they have to use a lot of resources,” said Davis, warning that if Moore wins, “members will look over their right shoulder. It probably has that effect.”
TPM composite via Christine Frapech. Images via AP.
Rep. Dave Trott (R-MI) is leaving Congress at the end of his term, he announced Monday morning, making him the third swing-district House Republican to declare his retirement in the past week alone.
Trott’s decision to leave is the latest sign that House Republicans are bracing for a brutal 2018 election — one that some of them aren’t so eager to face. And it opens up a competitive seat Democrats hope they can capture in a wave election.
President Trump won Trott’s suburban Detroit seat by 50% to 45%, about the same margin Mitt Romney carried it in 2008. But President Obama won it in 2008, and Democrats were already looking at Trott as a potential 2018 target.
“I have decided not to seek reelection in 2018. This was not an easy decision, but after careful consideration, I have decided that the best course for me is to spend more time with my family and return to the private sector,” Trott said in a statement.
Trott is already the fourth Republican from a competitive district to announce he’ll retire this year, and the third in just a week. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) announced earlier this year that she was done with Congress, and last week moderate Reps. Dave Reichert (R-WA) and Charlie Dent (R-PA) announced their retirements as well.
Republican strategists are bracing for more retirements in tough swing districts. Members tend to announce retirement plans either in early September, after they return from the August recess, or after the winter holidays after they have time to spend at home with their families.
“The [National Republican Congressional Committee] is looking forward to keeping his seat red in 2018. We will not let his hard work go to waste, and are confident this seat will remain under Republican control,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH) said in a statement.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called his retirement “a tell-tale sign that running for re-election in Paul Ryan’s do-nothing Congress would have been an uphill climb not worth the effort” in a statement that promised to target the district next fall.
New Hampshire’s top Democrats are calling on their state’s (nominally) Democratic secretary of state to resign from President Trump’s voter fraud commission after its head made some wild claims that out-of-state voters tipped the state’s Senate race last fall and possibly cost Trump the state.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who heads the panel, repeated unfounded claims that Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) narrowly defeated then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) because out-of-state voters flocked into New Hampshire on election day, claiming in a Breitbart column that new “proof” exists to show that happened because of a flawed study.
That study showed thousands of people with out-of-state licenses voted in the state, and that new applications for licenses in-state didn’t cover those numbers. The problem: New Hampshire doesn’t require people to have in-state licenses to vote so long as they are residents of the state (like many college students).
Kobach’s fringe opinions are no shock. But the presence of New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (D) on the panel, giving Trump and Kobach bipartisan cover from the country’s longest-serving secretary of state, has infuriated local Democrats, as TPM wrote. And Kobach’s comments questioning the validity of the state’s elections ahead of a scheduled meeting of the panel in New Hampshire next week was the last straw for many of them.
“It has been clear since its inception that President Trump’s voting commission is an attempt to grossly mislead voters and lay the groundwork for broad-scale, politically motivated voter suppression. Now, the head of President Trump’s misguided commission is using deceiving and irrelevant data to rehash the same false claims that have been debunked time and again by independent analysis and members of both parties in New Hampshire,” Hassan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said in a joint statement. “Secretary Gardner’s association with this partisan commission risks tarnishing his long legacy of fighting for the New Hampshire Primary and promoting voter participation, and it would be in keeping with his distinguished record to immediately relinquish any role with this commission.”
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) joined the calls.
Asking all in #nhpolitics to join me in condemning these dangerous lies & calling on SoS Gardner to immediately resign his Commission seat.
There is growing sentiment among Democrats that Gardner, who is revered in both parties for fighting to keep New Hampshire’s primary first in the nation, is quickly running out of goodwill within the party. As TPM wrote, if Democrats retake the state legislature next election he may not be a lock to keep his job.
Members of Congress from both parties are furious at President Trump for ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) ain’t one of them.
Manchin, who’s facing a tough reelection fight in a state Trump carried by a whopping 41-point margin last fall, stayed silent for days on the sensitive issue even as his colleagues blasted Trump for his move to end the program that’s allowed 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children to work and attend school legally in the U.S.
On Thursday, he defended Trump’s move in a conversation with TPM while taking the Republican line in calling for a DACA reinstatement to be paired with border funds.
“I think it was reasonable what he did, what the president did, in saying it’s the legislature’s responsibility to fix this thing,” Manchin told TPM.
“DACA would be hard for me if there’s not border security. … As far as I’m concerned there has to be border security with it,” he said when asked how he wanted to see the program fixed, while saying the best move for Congress would be to take up comprehensive immigration reform like the bipartisan 2013 bill he supported.
“Border security’s the number one thing. Nothing’s going to pass without border security. So if they think they can pass DACA or anything without a tough border security bill, that won’t happen,” he continued, saying he wouldn’t be happy if a bill to deal with DACA created a pathway to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants.
Manchin isn’t the only red-state Democratic senator wrestling with DACA, but he’s the only Senate Democrat who has decided to bear-hug Trump on the issue show most of the public wants to see resolved with a way to keep the program alive. While three-quarters of voters and a majority of Republicans want to let undocumented immigrants stay in the country, something Trump himself says he wants to happen, that’s a lower figure in places like West Virginia.
Even his two Democratic colleagues who voted against the DREAM Act in 2010 took a stand against the president.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) was one of them — but he blasted Trump earlier this week for ending the program President Obama created after the DREAM Act failed to pass Congress.
He told TPM that Trump’s move was “inhumane” and “quite unnecessary,” and admitted he made a mistake seven years ago when he voted against a bill that would have created a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants. He said he wanted to see that bill come up now and would support it — “The best way to fix it would probably to get [Sen. Dick] Durbin’s (D-IL) bill passed” — and said he wanted to see a clean vote, letting border security measures stand on their own merits.
“I tried to think back what my thought process on that, and quite frankly it might have been we’d just gotten our… had a very bad election, let’s just put it that way,” Tester said.
While he suggested politics may have motivated him seven years ago, he called accusations that he’d flipped on the issue for political reasons “total bull.”
“I’m doing it because it’s just wrong fundamentally to pull families apart. Maybe that issue I didn’t fully understand in 2010, too,” he said, arguing a clean vote to give young undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship was the best way forward.
At the time, Tester took a ton of heat from liberals who’d worked hard to help get him elected — and felt betrayed by his vote. But they seem ready to let bygones be bygones.
“Tester has pulled a 180 since that terrible vote. At the time I called the it equivalent of taking a baseball bat to a bunch of children,” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas told TPM. “In the years since when immigration’s come up he’s voted the right way. … I don’t hold any grudges against Sen. Tester anymore.”
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), the only other Democrat currently in the Senate besides Tester who voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, was also critical of Trump’s move and signed onto a bill to give those in the program “clarity and stability,” while Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) long ago evolved on the issue, flipping from a no to a yes by 2010.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), another Democrat from a state that went hard for Trump who is facing reelection next fall, just flew home with Trump and received his praise for being open to tax reform.
She wasn’t in Washington in 2010. But she called it “critically important” to resolve the issue, and said it was “really unfair” that people who had come forward with their personal information and trusted the government to uphold its end of the bargain were now in jeopardy.
The public has clearly shifted in the last seven years — “Things have evolved,” as Tester said — and even a good number of Republicans seem eager to act to get the issue off the table and help young undocumented immigrants keep their legal status.
“Who will keep your family safe?” begins the attack ad, blasting the Democratic candidate for casting “the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants back on the street,” over the sound of police sirens.
That’s not an unusual tone for a GOP ad, especially in the Trump era. But the candidate it says will “get tough on illegal immigration” is surprising: Virginia gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, who for more than a decade has been one of the GOP’s loudest champions for immigration reform.
The spot, Gillespie’s first negative ad ahead of this November’s election, is part of his dramatic rightward tonal shift on immigration issues. And it shows how difficult a balancing act Republicans face in swing territory, torn between a furious base and suburban swing voters who detest President Trump.
Not long ago, Gillespie was a leading voice pushing his party to embrace immigrants.
He chaired the Republican National Committee under President George W. Bush, playing a key role in pushing Bush’s failed efforts at comprehensive immigration reform. He was one of the masterminds behind Bush’s 2004 campaign that actively wooed Latinos — including the “Viva Bush” yard signs that popped up across the nation — and helped Bush hit the high water mark of recent GOP nominees with more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls.
As chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group focused on state-level races, Gillespie laid out the goal of recruiting 100 Hispanic GOP candidates for the 2014 elections. And he was deeply involved in helping pro-immigration reform Republicans develop their message ahead of the failed 2013 push for comprehensive immigration reform, conducting message testing, polling and focus groups to figure out how to sell conservative voters on the issue.
“The more information about immigration reform [conservatives] get, the more likely they are to be supportive of it,” Gillespie said back in 2013.
Gillespie’s moderate tone on immigration (and a GOP wave election) helped nearly led him to a shocking upset against Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) in 2014 — he lost by just two points after trailing by double digits in late polls.
But things have shifted dramatically since then within the party. And while Republicans have moved right on immigration, Virginia has continued to drift left, driven by huge growth in Washington, D.C.’s diverse and well-educated suburbs, leaving Gillespie on unstable footing.
“The Ed Gillespie of 2014 had a wind at his back. The Ed Gillespie of 2017 has the wind at his face. It’s not over, but it’s getting pretty stratified pretty quick,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA).
Gillespie was nearly upset in a primary earlier this summer against an underfunded and underestimated challenger, barely defeating former Trump state director Corey Stewart, who’d spent his campaign railing against illegal immigration and defending Confederate memorials. Gillespie currently trails Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) by single digits in most recent public and private polls.
Republican pollster John McLaughlin helped Gillespie conduct some of those 2013 immigration focus groups, and currently works for a number of down-ballot candidates in the state. He said there’s been a major shift within the GOP base after years of inaction during the Obama administration. He should know: He’s also a top pollster for Donald Trump.
“The base has gotten more polarized on this. To them, immigration is a component of national security,” said McLaughlin. “As the system remained broken for eight years and the situation got worse it got even more polarized where within the Republican Party they want to see the borders secured [and more limits on immigration].”
McLaughlin disagreed with other Republicans’ analysis that Gillespie was struggling to win back Stewart voters, saying his own data showed the GOP voters who always turn out for off-year elections had come home to Gillespie. But with Northam ahead in the polls and less than two months until election day, he said Gillespie is likely looking to woo 2016 Trump voters who don’t usually turn out for off-year elections to close the gap.
Opposition to sanctuary cities is a much better issue for Republicans than other immigration issues. Even Democrats admit that it’s a winning argument politically for Gillespie, though they point out that it’s a hollow attack since there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia and statehouse Republicans engineered a show vote on the issue to force Northam on the record.
And Gillespie hasn’t abandoned his commitment to strong GOP outreach to minority communities. He talked about his immigrant parents in his first campaign ad, and on Wednesday made a bold campaign promise to push for sentencing reform in the state, including a call to decriminalize minor marijuana possession until the third time a person is arrested.
But his hawkish statement after Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program shows that the sanctuary cities ad is no aberration.
Gillespie joined most Republicans to call on Congress to find a fix to allow the 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children to stay in the U.S. But he didn’t criticize Trump — and the Republican he singled out for praise, anti-immigration hardliner Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), wants to tie any fix for the DACA program to new limits on legal immigration. On top of that, Gillespie took the occasion to highlight his opposition to giving in-state tuition to those children.
“I’m encouraged that Senator Tom Cotton and others say they are going to find a legislative solution to DACA. I don’t believe that children should be punished for decisions that were not their own, but at the same time, it is important for us to enforce our laws. If an illegal immigrant commits a crime, he should be deported,” he said in a Tuesday statement. “And we should not allocate scarce tax dollars for in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and provide them scarce slots at our public colleges and universities over Virginia citizens.”
In recent weeks, Gillespie hired a controversial former Trump and Stewart staffer to help run his field operations in the state’s southwest and has sounded a more hardline tone on Confederate monuments in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, though he did criticize Trump for his failure to condemn white supremacists in its aftermath.
Northam’s campaign blasted Gillespie’s attacks.
“Ed’s resorting to fear-mongering because he can’t win on positive policy proposals. He knows the ad he put up is disingenuous and he’s turning his back on decades of what he’s tried to fight for within the Republican Party,” said Northam spokesman David Turner. “He’s completely abandoned his brand in favor of Trump-style tactics.”
Gillespie is far from done in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. But his own allies admit he’s playing from behind.
“It’s hard to reach out in the era of Trump for Republicans. The well has been poisoned,” said Davis.
After months of bashing away at Congress, President Trump finally had something nice to say about a senator facing a tough reelection. To Republicans’ chagrin, it was to praise one of their top 2018 targets.
After giving Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) the VIP treatment on Air Force One, Trump hauled her onstage in her home state alongside a number of Republicans to praise her for her openness to supporting his tax cut plan.
“Senator Heitkamp, senator, come on up,” Trump said. “Everyone’s saying, ‘what’s she doing up here?’ But I’ll tell you what, good woman, and I think we’ll have your support, I hope we’ll have your support. Thank you very much, senator.”
Trump then shook her hand — a moment that may be likely to appear in campaign ads next year for Heitkamp in a state that Trump won by 36 percentage points.
Trump has spent much of the last six weeks warring with Senate Republicans, feuding publicly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and repeatedly ripping into Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who’s facing a Trump-fueled primary challenge in his own tough reelection.
Republicans had been hopeful that Trump would use tax reform to begin attacking Democrats instead. And he did, for a minute, blasting Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in a recent visit to Missouri for opposing his plan.
Instead, he embraced one of their top 2018 targets just hours after siding with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) over the entirety of congressional GOP leadership in agreeing to a three-month extension of the debt ceiling rather than a longer one.
If Heitkamp ends up opposing the plan, Trump may well to turn on her like he has with many others in both parties he’d previously praised. But Republicans can’t be thrilled with Wednesday’s comments.
Democrats are united in their fury over President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — but they haven’t reached agreement on what they’re willing to do to try to force Congress to reinstate it.
Congressional Democrats are demanding that their GOP counterparts allow a clean authorization of a program that has given legal status to nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
But Republicans are promising to tie any fix to more money for border security — including possibly $1.6 billion in funding for a border fence that many see as a down payment on Trump’s long-promised border wall — and don’t seem eager to take a vote anytime soon on any plan. So far, Democrats haven’t shown a willingness to threaten blocking must-pass legislation if they can’t get votes on a clean DACA bill, and vary in their commitment to oppose any compromise legislation.
While Democrats are mostly playing wait-and-see to find out what the GOP will propose, they’re making different noises about what they might be willing to accept — and whether they’re willing to vote against must-pass legislation unless Republicans allow a vote on a clean DACA bill.
“If a clean DREAM Act does not come to the floor in September, we’re prepared to attach it to other items this fall until it passes,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) declared on Wednesday.
“I’m not sure how you can say you’re going to compromise somebody’s life with money [for border security],” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) told TPM. “There’s no amount of compromise that I see that risks their lives.”
But demands for a clean bill won’t get them far unless they threaten to use what leverage they have — holding together to vote against a government shutdown or increasing the debt ceiling to force Republican leaders to include DACA in exchange for their votes. And if that fails, Democrats are split on whether they’re willing to give in and allow some more border security funds in exchange for protections for the 800,000 undocumented immigrants in the DACA program.
Democrats were handed more leverage on Wednesday, as Trump agreed to a three-month debt ceiling increase rather than a longer one congressional Republican leaders wanted. But it’s unclear how they’ll use it.
“I don’t think we should be paying ransom for hostages and that’s exactly what I believe [Republicans are] asking us to do,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) told TPM, repeating comments he made to cheers during a Wednesday morning caucus meeting. “They need our votes on the debt ceiling? Tell them we need 800,000 dreamers. They need our votes on an omnibus? We need 800,000 dreamers. We need to draw a line in the sand ourselves as we go in to negotiate.”
But Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) haven’t been willing to commit to that. Schumer dodged a direct question Wednesday afternoon about whether Democrats would withhold votes to keep the government open if they don’t get a DACA vote. Gutierrez admitted he didn’t think Democrats were ready to dig in their heels hard enough at this point.
“In the beginning it can look awfully lonely,” Gutierrez said, arguing party leadership will move his way.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) called money for a border wall a “non-starter,” and said that calling it a fence wouldn’t fix the issue — “If it looks like a wall and it acts like a wall it’s a wall.”
But he was one of a number of Democrats who didn’t rule out some form of increased funding for border security.
“We’ve consistently supported billions of dollars for strengthening our role in terms of technology and personnel on the borders. We’re always looking for cost-effective approaches on the security side,” he said.
“We all support border security but we don’t support billions of dollars on one end of Texas building a wall [in exchange for DACA],” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told TPM.
The devil is likely to be in the details on what Democrats might be able to support. But with a crowded fall schedule crammed with other major issues , it’s unclear at this point what hill they’ll be willing to die on to force a DACA vote, and what compromises they might be willing to make.