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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Trump took to Twitter to question that plan.

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

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

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

Trump’s latest move left other Republicans seething.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans have reason for concern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Florida, man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Democrats were thrilled that a pair of senior California Republicans decided to retire this week, seeing new opportunity in a pair of must-win districts in their quest to retake the House majority.

But while Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ed Royce’s (R-CA) decisions to head home take two tough incumbents with huge war chests out of the picture, their retirements leave Democrats facing a new worry: Whether they might fail to get a candidate into the general election in either district due to California’s unusual “jungle primary” system.

The state, by law, holds all-party June primaries where the top two candidates to receive votes face off in the general election, regardless of what party they align with. That’s cost Democrats a chance at contesting open swing seats in the past — and could be especially problematic this year with the glut of candidates running for these seats.

Democrats are very aware of the problem, and the DCCC isn’t ruling out getting involved to try to push its favored candidates and freeze others out. But there’s only so much the party can do, especially when candidates have plenty of money and aren’t scared of party elders.

“The top two [primary] is absolutely an issue. It’s happened before. It’s also very difficult to get candidates to not run, it’s just a fact of life,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), a vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told TPM Wednesday afternoon.

Democrats know from experience how problematic the top-two primary system can be. In 2012, then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D), a top Democratic recruit, split the Democratic vote with three other candidates in that year’s primary, finishing behind then-Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA) and a Republican state senator. He was boxed out of the general election as two Republicans squared off in a district that President Obama ended up winning by a 16-point margin, costing the party the seat until he won it in a second try in 2014.

“Nobody has the scar tissue of the top-two primary like I do. We need to be mindful of that as we move forward in both the 39th and 49th,” Aguilar told TPM, referencing the two newly open Southern California seats. “The DCCC is aware of what happened to me in 2012, and we’re all going into this with our eyes wide open.”

Aguilar isn’t the only one worried about Democrats potentially getting boxed out of the general election, costing the party prime pickup opportunities. Nor is his experience the only time it’s happened to the party. Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) won his seat by defeating another Republican in 2014 in a competitive district after Democrats failed to get a candidate through to the general election.

The issue was brought up by several members at California Democrats’ weekly caucus luncheon on Wednesday, Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) told TPM.

“People are aware of the Aguilar event in 2012,” he said. “People are aware that it’s an issue and we’ll have to pay particular attention to California.”

The Royce seat is the one Democrats are most concerned about.

Five different Democrats running for the Orange County-based seat had already raised at least $100,000 as of the beginning of October, the last time they had to report their campaign finance numbers.

That includes two self-funders and a candidate who has the support of the big-spending Emily’s List. Self-funding Andy Thorburn gave his campaign $2 million out of the gate, while Gil Cisneros, a Navy veteran and self-funding lottery winner, and Mai-Khanh Tran, a physician with Emily’s List’s support, both had almost a half million dollars in the bank as of three months ago.

That dynamic creates the likelihood of multiple Democrats vying for the Democratic slice of the electoral pie. If Republicans can get two viable candidates to split the GOP primary vote in June, they could luck out and guarantee a win in a seat they should by all rights lose this fall given the district’s slight Democratic lean and a favorable national environment for Democrats.

It’s unclear how many Republicans will run for the seat Royce is leaving. Possible GOP candidates include Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, former state assemblywomen Young Kim and Ling Ling Chang, and former Orange County Republican Party chair Scott Baugh.

Issa’s district is also a concern. Three Democrats running there had raised at least $200,000 as of three months ago: Issa’s 2016 opponent, former Marine Doug Applegate, self-funding candidate Paul Kerr, and environmental lawyer Mike Levin, who has the support of some environmental groups. While the math is easier for Democrats with just three candidates in the race and the GOP field is far from settled, Republicans could end up with two candidates in the district and screw up Democrats’ hopes of picking off the Democratic-leaning district, which stretches from San Diego’s northern suburbs up to Orange County. State Rep. is Rocky Chavez (R) also seriously considering a run, sources tell TPM, while California State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey (R) announced her bid on Wednesday.

Open swings seats usually pose the biggest risk for this scenario, as incumbents tend to unite their party’s base. But this year that may not be the case everywhere — posing other potentially unpredictable scenarios.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA) coziness with Russia has promoted one serious primary challenger who’s raising real money. With seven Democrats in that race, including four who’d raised more than $100,000 already, two Republicans could potentially sneak through in that district as well — especially if Rohrabacher decides to retire and Baugh decides to run for that seat instead of Royce’s, as has been rumored locally.

In each district, it’s still a relatively remote possibility that this scenario develops. But every seat matters for Democrats as they try to overcome structural issues and take back House control, and blowing relatively pickup opportunities in California is not the way back to a majority.

Democrats say there’s only so much they can do about the jungle primary situation — and convincing candidates to drop out, the simplest way to avoid their math problem, is almost impossible once they’ve been in the race a while.

“It is monumentally difficult to tell someone not to run, and the only thing more difficult than that is to tell someone not to run who’s been running for a year,” said Lieu. “At a very basic level there’s not much anyone can do. It will be what it will be.”

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The Trump administration has handed Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) a major political win as Republicans try to entice him to run for the Senate, promising to spare his state from its plan to massively expand offshore drilling.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke flew to Tallahassee to meet with Scott Tuesday night and pledged to exempt Florida from his plans to open nearly all coastal areas in the U.S. to offshore drilling, while heaping praise on the governor for his work.

Republicans from Trump on down have spent more than a year pushing Scott, a self-funding billionaire and close Trump ally, to run against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). The move was seen by many as a naked political ploy — a way to boost Scott’s standing in the state, where offshore drilling is deeply unpopular, while pushing ahead on the plan in states like California where there are fewer local Republicans to worry about helping.

Zinke called Scott a “straightforward leader that can be trusted” in his statement announcing the decision, giving Scott all the credit for the reversal.

“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,” he said. “As a result of discussion with [Scott] and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”

The move came after Scott came out blasting the plan when Zinke announced it last week, his first major break with the Trump administration.

That’s a departure for Scott. He supported more offshore drilling in his first gubernatorial run in 2010, though the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that damaged parts of Florida’s gulf coast made the politics even worse for him on that issue.

Democrats and environmental groups groused at how the decision came about.

“Nobody’s fooled by this publicity stunt. Florida is at risk for offshore drilling because the Trump administration chose to put it at risk. If Secretary Zinke has really turned over a new leaf and decided to listen to local voices, he should listen to the outpouring of opposition coming from communities, businesses, and elected officials from both parties up and down our coasts and promptly withdraw his radical offshore drilling plan,” League of Conservation Voters Deputy Legislative Director Alex Taurel said in a Tuesday night statement.

“Rick Scott has and always will be a self-serving con-man. It’s unfortunate that he and his friend President Trump would manufacture a crisis to try and help his political ambitions, but in doing so they’ve shone a bright spotlight on Scott’s long record of backing oil drilling off Florida’s shores and beaches,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said.

The fix was always in to help Scott, according to Politico, which reported that Zinke had told people when he first announced the plan last week that he planned to roll back the plan to open up Florida’s coasts in order to boost Scott politically.

Zinke’s plans to open up vast stretches of the U.S. coastline for oil drilling threaten to hurt Republicans in those areas, and could hurt the GOP’s chances of holding House seats up and down both coasts in 2018, as TPM has previously reported. But Florida was one of the two biggest problem areas for Republicans because of the plan, along with California — and the machinations seem intended to help, not hurt Scott, giving him a chance to break with the administration before scoring a political victory.

It’ll be interesting to see whether California House Republicans facing tough reelection races get the same treatment treatment from Zinke.

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Federal judges in North Carolina have struck down state Republicans’ highly gerrymandered North Carolina congressional map as unconstitutional. The ruling could cost the GOP House seats in November’s midterm elections if the Supreme Court doesn’t delay the decision  by the Supreme Court because of other redistricting cases it’s currently considering.

A three-judge panel ruled on Tuesday that Republicans had illegally gerrymandered the state’s map to their advantage.

This is not the first time courts have thrown out North Carolina’s congressional map. In May 2017, the Supreme Court declared it an illegal racial gerrymander, a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Tuesday’s ruling went much further, arguing that the congressional map violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, as well as the First Amendment and Elections Clauses.

The district court’s decision may be stayed by the Supreme Court, which is currently considering a pair of cases to determine whether or not extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.

According to Tuesday’s ruling, however, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled statehouse must redraw the map with weeks to spare before the 2018 elections, or the court will appoint a special master to do it for them. If the Supreme Court upholds that part of the ruling, Democrats could see a huge boost—they currently only hold three of the swing state’s 13 congressional seats.

More litigation is likely to come before it’s clear what will happen to North Carolina’s congressional map, but the ruling is the latest blow to gerrymandering—and potentially to Republican control of the House, which is built partly on a series of gerrymanders in large swing states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, as well as Wisconsin, whose maps are currently in front of the Supreme Court.

Read the latest editor’s brief (Prime access) on this story »


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