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.
Democrat Conor Lamb has a 6-point lead over Republican Rick Saccone on the eve of a key House special election, according to a new survey from Monmouth University.
Lamb has a 51 percent to 45 percent edge over Saccone in the poll from the reputable pollster. That’s his largest lead in any public survey since the race’s start – though it’s not far off from other recent polling released in the race ahead of Tuesday’s election, both public and private.
Republicans are bracing for a possible loss in the heavily populist-conservative district near Pittsburgh, which President Trump won by 20 points last election and where he stumped for Saccone on Saturday. A loss there would further GOP alarm about its 2018 prospects, especially after Republican groups spent more than $10 million trying to drag Saccone over the finish line.
The poll also found that Trump’s new steel tariffs aren’t doing much to help in the steel-heavy district, possibly partly because Lamb also supports them: Just 3 percent of likely voters said they moved to Saccone in recent days because of the tariffs. It’s the latest sign that major Republican arguments for the election are struggling to gain a toehold even in conservative districts.
House Democrats are hopeful they can pull of their first major special election upset on Tuesday, steal a heavily Republican blue-collar seat and deepen the GOP’s sense of dread over the upcoming midterm elections.
Democrats and Republicans involved in the race agree on a few things. State Rep. Rick Saccone (R) has run a lackluster campaign. Democrat Conor Lamb has proven to be a stellar candidate. Liberals’ fury at President Trump is so strong that even in a blue-collar district he won by 20 points his support for Saccone is a two-edged sword. And the race couldn’t be tighter, a warning sign for the GOP no matter who wins given the deeply populist-conservative nature of Pittsburgh’s suburbs and exurbs.
“Conor Lamb has made it very close, and that’s rather remarkable when you consider the district,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) told TPM. “Conor’s been a great candidate and candidates matter, but this does indicate that we can be competitive in states and districts that maybe a year ago or 18 months ago we’d never considered.”
Republicans privately agree, even as they look to pin the blame mostly on Saccone and downplay what it would mean to lose a deep red, culturally conservative district after a brutal loss in an Alabama Senate race late last year, a beat-down in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, dozens of losses of state legislative seats and a number of close calls in House special elections.
“We’re very concerned about this race,” one national Republican involved in the campaign told TPM. “The enthusiasm’s certainly there for Democrats. We’ve seen that in pretty much every race. That said, this is more an issue of a mediocre candidate, and mediocre is a kind way to describe him, versus a very good candidate.”
Public and private polls from both parties have found a margin-of-error race with the wind behind Lamb, who was down a few points in multiple surveys late last month. As Democrats’ hopes build, Republicans have been increasingly vocal about their frustrations with Saccone, a deeply flawed candidate who has paled in comparison to Lamb both in retail political skill and fundraising ability.
While the telegenic young Lamb has impressed even Republicans with his disciplined campaign, and calculated splits with the national Democratic Party, Republicans have blasted Saccone for weak fundraising, an inability to tell his own story as a veteran, his deep hostility to unions in a union-heavy district, and past mistakes like telling a mother whose kid had died of opioid abuse that addiction was a “family responsibility” and it’s not taxpayers’ responsibility to help, a brutal remark in a district where opioids are a serious problem.
Lamb’s huge fundraising numbers have allowed him to spend more than $3 million on TV ads touting his impressive biography as a former Marine and prosecutor, tout his Second Amendment support (even as he backs universal background checks) and promise to support new Democratic leadership and not House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), diffusing millions of dollars of GOP attacks tying him to her. Saccone hasn’t reached $1 million in TV, leaving it to outside groups to define him, and while national Republicans realized early on Saccone would be a problem and have spent roughly $10 million to tear down Lamb and boost Saccone they admit not much has worked in the race.
In a sign of growing concern, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP’s main House super-PAC, have pivoted away from their early attacks tying Lamb to Pelosi and blasting him for opposing the Republican tax overhaul, key elements of their 2018 battle plan. Their closing spots have been culture war attacks on sanctuary cities and accusing him of being soft on crime based on misleading attacks on his record as a prosecutor, though Pelosi remains an element of their attacks.
“With all the millions the’ve spent, they’re not anywhere near where they thought they’d be. They’re just dumping in more money because they don’t know what else to do,” United Steelworkers Political Director Tim Waters, whose union backs Lamb, told TPM.
Waters was in Alabama for now-Sen. Doug Jones’ (D-AL) shocking win late last year, and said he’d rarely seen Democratic enthusiasm that strong for a down-ticket race — until Lamb came along.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH) refused to weigh in on whose fault it is that the race is so close.
“I’m focused on winning, I’m not going to talk about blame,” he told reporters last week. “I’m not going to do any Wednesday morning quarterbacking until Wednesday.”
The White House also recognizes the threat of losing a seat Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) won with ease for years until an embarrassing sex scandal forced him from office.
Trump stumped alongside Saccone on Saturday, blasting “Lamb the sham” and pushing for support of Saccone because “the world is watching.” But he barely mentioned the candidate he was ostensibly there to back, instead spending most of his speech attacking his own possible 2020 opponents and the media, discussing North Korea and unveiling his 2020 slogan (“Keep America great”) and touting his new steel tariffs, a policy that plays well in the district and both Lamb and Saccone support. The White House has also dispatched Vice President Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump Jr. to stump in the district.
While Lamb has intentionally kept the national party at arm’s length, he welcomed Vice President Joe Biden into the district last week, who compared Lamb’s call to serve to his own late son’s, Beau.
All this effort comes as the candidates battle for a district that almost certainly won’t exist after this year. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has struck down the map, and Lamb is likely to run next fall against Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-PA) in a much less conservative district than the gerrymandered one he’s currently trying to win.
“It’s just amazing that both people are running for a [district] that’s going to last for a few months and then they’ve got to run again and not even against each other,” Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) told TPM.
And while other national Republicans want to blame Saccone for most of the mess, they concede that the perfect storm has hit — and may blow over other candidates even in seemingly safe seats if they’re not prepared next fall.
“It’s no secret 2018 is going to be a challenging year and quality candidates and quality campaigns matter,” said Congressional Leadership Fund spokeswoman Courtney Alexander.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) is none too pleased that the White House brushed off his requests for information on who knew what when in regards to the allegations of domestic abuse against Rob Porter by two of his ex-wives.
White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short blew off Gowdy’s pointed questions as well as the deadline he’d given for answers, responding in a letter received by the committee yesterday and first reported by TPM by repeating what the White House had said more than three weeks ago.
Gowdy’s staff fired back at White House officials for ignoring the chairman’s questions on why Porter was allowed to continue to work and to keep his access to highly classified information long after they knew of the allegations of spousal abuse, and why they falsely claimed they didn’t know until shortly before he was fired in February and what procedures for allowing temporary security clearances had been in the White House at the time.
“The Committee is in receipt of Mr. Short’s letter to the Committee dated March 8, 2018, including the memo made public on February 16, 2018. The Chairman finds the White House’s response inadequate, and we have communicated to the White House that we expect full compliance,” Oversight Committee spokeswoman Amanda Gonzalez emailed to TPM Friday evening. “We are in the process of scheduling a meeting between Chairman Gowdy and the White House to discuss next steps.”
The response suggests Gowdy is not ready to give up on this endeavor after letting the White House skate on some other major areas of concern. But it falls far short of Democrats’ demands that he subpoena the information the White House is refusing to provide, as well as call in White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn to explain what they knew and when. It’s unclear whether Gowdy would be willing to do so if the White House continues to stonewall him.
In the wake of the White House’s breezy dismissal of House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy’s (R-SC) requests for information on why they let Staff Secretary Rob Porter keep working in spite of knowing about his alleged domestic abuse, House Democrats are demanding that he issue subpoenas and get to the bottom of the issue.
The White House sent a letter to Gowdy and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the committee’s ranking Democrat, refusing to answer Gowdy’s requests for more information. That polite brush-off was first reported by TPM Thursday night. The big question now is whether Gowdy decides to force the issue and hold the White House accountable, or decide to give President Trump and his team a pass as he’d done on a number of past issues.
Cummings points out that Gowdy has been less than tenacious in his earlier oversight of the White House. Even when he’s worked with Cummings to request information on issues including staffers’ use of private email (the same thing Gowdy hammered Hillary Clinton for) and administration officials’ use of private jets, he did nothing when the White House refused to comply.
“Unfortunately, by repeatedly backing down, the committee has now enabled and emboldened the White House to openly defy congressional oversight. In my opinion, the Trump White House — more than any other in recent memory — needs more congressional oversight, not less,” Cummings writes Gowdy in the open letter. “The response last night from the White House is an affront to our responsibilities under the Constitution, and it degrades the integrity of our Committee. It is now clear that the White House will not respond to this Committee unless it is compelled to do so. For these reasons, I ask that you issue a subpoena to obtain the documents requested on February 14 and 15.”
Cummings also points out that while Gowdy initially demanded information from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn on why Porter was allowed to keep working and who in the White House knew what and when after the FBI said White House officials had misled the public by claiming they’d just found out about his alleged misconduct, the chairman has yet to schedule interviews with either man to discuss the issue.
The ball’s in Gowdy’s court on whether he’ll pursue this issue as doggedly as he went after Clinton, or once again drop it. Gowdy’s staff didn’t respond to a request for response to the initial letter from the White House, or follow-ups about Cummings’ requests.
Democrats are on the verge of a major upset victory deep in Trump country, according to a new bipartisan poll shared first with TPM.
Democrat Conor Lamb leads Republican Rick Saccone by 48 percent to 44 percent in a survey conducted by RABA Research, a bipartisan firm. That would mark a huge upset in a conservative district that stretches from Pittsburgh to the West Virginia border that President Trump won by 20 points in 2016. It would give Democrats their first House special election victory of the Trump era on Tuesday night.
That marks the largest lead for Lamb seen in any public polling so far — but it’s not far from what other public and private polls have found in recent days and weeks on the race, most of which have found a margin-of-error race with Lamb having the momentum. Two other public polls of the race found each candidate with a three-point lead, and Republicans are privately sounding more than a little gloomy about Saccone’s chances on Tuesday.
Trump plans to campaign there on Saturday to try to goose GOP base turnout for Saccone, who has mightily struggled with fundraising and getting his name out there as GOP outside groups have had to pick up the slack with millions of dollars worth of TV ads. But according to the survey, the president is currently unpopular with the district’s most likely voters, with 48 percent of those saying they definitely or probably plan to vote in the race disapproving of his job performance to just 44 percent who approve. Similarly, the poll suggests a lopsided edge for Democratic enthusiasm: Though the district is fairly solidly Republican, 41 percent of those surveyed said they were Democratic and 40 percent identified as Republican.
That could be a sign that the survey’s sample is a touch too Democratic, and that its likely voter screen might be a bit too tight. But it could also be capturing the very real signs of a Democratic wave — a huge disparity in voter enthusiasm from one party to the other.
The poll of 707 interviews was conducted via an automated phone survey and an internet supplement for those who only have cell phones from March 6-8. Its margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
The White House is refusing to comply with a request from House Oversight Committee’s Republican chairman for information on how top staffer Rob Porter was allowed to work with an interim security clearance in spite of accusations of domestic abuse.
White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short sent a letter to House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) politely neglecting to cooperate with their demands for information on how and why Porter was allowed to continue to work as White House staff secretary, a senior position, for months after the FBI had informed senior White House staff of allegations of spousal abuse. The letter was obtained by TPM Thursday evening, shortly after the committee received it.
“Consistent with your letters’ requests, we would be pleased to update you and others on the progress of the working group at the appropriate time,” Short writes to Gowdy at the end of the letter after detailing what the White House is doing differently now on security clearance procedures, a courteous way of ignoring Gowdy’s specific requests on what the White House’s procedures were at the time and who knew what when about Porter.
The letter, included below, comes in response to a Feb. 14 letter from Gowdy demanding information on when exactly the White House was informed by the FBI about the “potential derogatory or disqualifying information” found in Porter’s background check. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders falsely claimed that the White House didn’t know of the domestic abuse allegations against Porter until just days before he was fired in February, but FBI Director Christopher Wray testified shortly afterward that the White House had been informed of the allegations multiple times last year. Officials from President Trump and Kelly on down had defended him as allegations from two ex-wives against Porter went public.
Gowdy had demanded in that letter to know when exactly the White House was informed of Porter’s problematic background, which opened him up to potential blackmail. Gowdy also asked who knew of it at what time, and why Porter was allowed to keep his interim security clearance and view highly classified information in spite of the problem. Gowdy also asked for specifics on the White House’s since-overhauled security clearance procedures and whether those procedures had been followed with Porter.
Instead of responding to those requests, Short reiterated what the White House has already publicly said about the new procedures, while ignoring Gowdy’s questions. Gowdy gave the White House two weeks to respond. The non-response comes more than a week after his deadline.
In the wake of the Porter scandal the White House revised its procedures, stripping temporary security clearances from some of the more than 100 White House staff who’d been given them, including Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and firing or reassigning some staff because of those changes.
White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah told TPM that “the letter speaks for itself” and encouraged TPM to read Kelly’s public memo outlining the new procedures, declining to explain why the White House had decided against answering Gowdy’s questions and had instead referred Gowdy to the same already-public document.
Gowdy’s letter was the most aggressive he’s been towards the White House since Trump’s inauguration.
It’s unclear how he’ll react. If he so chooses, he could subpoena the information. Gowdy’s office didn’t immediately respond to questions about what his next steps would be or what he thought of the White House’s response.
When he sent the original letter in mid-February, Gowdy took the White House to task for its handling of the situation.
“I would want to know from [White House Counsel] Don McGahn and General Kelly and anyone else: What did you know, from whom did you hear it, to what extent did you hear it and then what actions, if any, did you take? The chronology is not favorable from the White House,” he told CNN at the time.
“How do you have any job if you have credible allegations of domestic abuse?” he asked, after saying he was “troubled by almost every aspect” of how the White House had responded.
The original letter Gowdy sent White House Chief of Staff John Kelly:
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) endorsed Marie Newman in her bid to unseat Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) Thursday morning, making him the latest big-name liberal to oppose the conservative Lipinski’s reelection.
“Marie Newman has made it clear that she will be a champion for working families in Illinois, which is why I am proud to support her campaign,” Sanders said in a statement released by Newman’s campaign, touting her support for universal Medicare, a $15 minimum wage, legal abortion, gay rights and undocumented immigrant rights. “I am proud to stand with Marie and look forward to continuing to fight alongside her on these and other critical issues once she’s elected to Congress.”
Sanders joins Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) in backing Newman, who is giving Lipinski his toughest challenge of his 14-year career and looks like she has a good shot at defeating him in their March 20 primary.
She’s also had huge help from an array of national liberal groups irate at Lipinski for bucking Democrats on key issues from Obamacare to immigration to abortion to gay rights in his decade-plus in Congress, even though he represents a safely Democratic district. NARAL Pro-Choice America, EMILY’s List, the SEIU, the Human Rights Campaign and MoveOn.org are all supporting Newman in the race.
Sanders won Lipinski’s district, which stretches from Chicago’s South Side into its southwestern suburbs, by 8 points in the 2016 Democratic primary. Lipinksi actually endorsed him afterwards and backed him at the Democratic National Convention, but their voting records have little in common except for a shared opposition to big trade deals.
A poll released by NARAL earlier this week found Lipinski clinging to a two-point lead over Newman in a race where he’d started out with a huge advantage.
Firebrand Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) officially launched his uphill campaign against Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) on Wednesday, blasting the senator as a fake conservative as he unveiled his second Senate bid.
The controversial lawmaker nearly defeated Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) four years ago in a Tea Party-fueled primary, and still maintains the was stolen from him — “It was four years ago but we still remember Mississippi, don’t we?” he said almost immediately after taking the stage on Wednesday.
Ever since then he’s been biding his time for another run, and for months debated whether to challenge Wicker or wait and see if Cochran resigns from office because of his declining health. He’d also mulled a run for lieutenant governor.
But Wicker is no Cochran – and 2018 isn’t 2014. The senator is much sharper than his aging colleague, has a huge campaign war chest, is fresh off helming the National Republican Senatorial Committee last election cycle, and doesn’t have as many policy openings for McDaniel to attack him on as Cochran did.
And unlike in 2014, when McDaniel could claim mostly unified support from the hard right, Wicker has an endorsement from President Trump — and can easily point to McDaniel’s multiple criticisms of Trump as “thin skinned” and not a “constitutional conservative” during the 2016 primary.
McDaniel peppered his speech with right-wing grievance politics, warning that Washington elites “look down on us, and they mock us,” excoriating Wicker for calling for Mississippi to remove the Confederate battle flag from its state flag, and accusing him of voting to fund Planned Parenthood (he’s long voted against federal funding for the organization).
And he nodded to Trump’s endorsement, pointing out the president also recently backed Mitt Romney and one of Jeb Bush’s sons while arguing that he needed more conservatives so he wouldn’t have to cut as many deals.
“Thank god for President Trump, he’s made Roger Wicker a conservative for about three weeks,” he joked.
But while Trump’s endorsement may not be enough alone to boost Wicker to a win — it certainly wasn’t for Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) — McDaniel’s earlier criticisms of the president could do him much as they did in Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who also lost that Alabama primary.
“Well, it’s all downhill from there,” McDaniel joked as he took the stage in Ellisville, Mississippi on Wednesday to roars from his die-hard supporters.
Democrat Conor Lamb has raised an impressive $3.2 million since the beginning of 2018 in his upstart bid to win a heavily Republican House seat outside of Pittsburgh, he announced Tuesday.
That’s the type of fundraising haul House Democratic candidates could only dream about in past years, and explains how he’s been able to keep close in his bid to win a seat left vacant when scandal-plagued Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) resigned last year.
The haul isn’t much compared to the whopping $23.6 million John Ossoff raised in his failed bid for Georgia’s Sixth District, the most ever raised by a House candidate by a wide margin, or the $22 million Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) brought in during his eight-month campaign to defeat former Judge Roy Moore. But it’s more than enough to keep him in the game even as GOP outside groups deluge the district with ads and national Democrats mostly steer clear of public help for his bid.
Lamb has been almost even with Pennsylvania state Rep. Rick Saccone (R) in most recent public and private polls shared with TPM, and has a real shot at pulling off Democrats’ first big House special election upset of the Trump era in two weeks.
While the biggest problem for Republicans is how revved up the Democratic base is right now, Republicans also privately admit that Democrats simply have the better candidate. Lamb has an impressive personal biography, and Saccone has badly struggled to raise enough money for the campaign. President Trump’s own numbers aren’t that bad in a district he carried by 20 points — which is why Saccone has been bear-hugging the president in the race. But a loss in this race would be a blow to Republicans, and a sign that their somewhat revived hopes of avoiding a 2018 campaign bloodbath based on some marginally better poll numbers since the new year may not be so well-founded.
While Republican outside groups have spent millions to tear down Lamb, because candidates get TV advertising at much lower cost the candidates’ own fundraising matters greatly. As the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter points out, even though Lamb and his allies have been badly outspent by Saccone and his allies, Lamb’s own ads have been on the air a lot more than Saccone’s — and he’s been able to hang in there in total fundraising.
Looking at @CMAGAdFacts data on total # of ads run in PA-18: Connor Lamb has aired 1,985 ads to just 345 for Saccone. Overall, thanks to outside groups & NRCC, the Pro-Saccone forces have run 743 more ads than Lamb + allies. (2,963 to 2,220)
Both candidates are expected to get a big boost in the coming days from outside support. Trump is looking to reschedule a campaign rally for Saccone before the election that he canceled in the wake of the recent Florida school shooting, while former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to be in town for Lamb next week.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) has ended his Hamlet act and decided once and for all not to run for reelection, his chief of staff said in a statement, a move that eliminates the possibility of a brutal primary between him and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and likely boosts Republicans’ chances of holding the seat.
Corker had announced his retirement last fall, leading to swift announcements from Blackburn and former Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) that they’d run for his seat. But earlier this month he pulled a surprising about-face, floating the idea that he might run again after all as his allies questioned whether Blackburn’s flaws might put the seat at risk for the GOP.
But his backtrack didn’t play particularly well with many GOP voters in the state. Corker’s past criticism of President Trump had hurt him with the party base, and a number of polls conducted by Blackburn allies made it clear she’d have a solid edge over the two-term senator should he decide to run again. While Fincher dropped out of the race to make room for Corker, Blackburn made it clear she wasn’t going anywhere as her team blasted away at the senator for his indecisiveness.
Corker’s team argued he could have won, but decided against a bid.
“Over the past several months, Senator Corker has been encouraged by people across Tennessee and in the Senate to reconsider his decision not to seek re-election. Based on the outpouring of support, we spent the last few days doing our due diligence and a clear path for re-election was laid out,”Corker Chief of Staff Todd Womack said a statement emailed to TPM. “However, at the end of the day, the senator believes he made the right decision in September and will be leaving the Senate when his term expires at the end of 2018.”
Corker’s latest decision was first reported by Politico.
Corker likely would have needed a hearty endorsement from President Trump to have a real shot at defeating Blackburn — and he made efforts to cozy up to the president in recent months after publicly worrying about Trump’s leadership last summer. But that endorsement didn’t seem forthcoming, and while Senate GOP leaders like Corker they had already moved on to backing Blackburn after his initial retirement, leading to frustration about his back-and-forth.
Even some of Corker’s closest allies were quick to tout Blackburn in the wake of his decision.
“Bob Corker is a terrific United States senator and a good friend. I was disappointed in his decision not to run for reelection but respect that decision. I invited Marsha Blackburn to breakfast this morning. We had a good discussion about a variety of issues that we both care about and how we might work together to make the Senate a more effective institution,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is close to both Corker and GOP Senate leaders, said in a statement.
Some Republicans continue to worry Blackburn’s hardline conservatism and her backing of a deal that helped the pharmaceutical industry and critics say hurt efforts to fight opioid addiction make her a risky choice for the nomination, especially since Democrats landed a strong recruit in former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) for the race in the conservative state. But Corker’s dithering and eventual decision may have helped her in the race by clearing the primary field for Blackburn and eliminating the chance that a tough primary would hurt her chances at victory.