Cameron_joseph_profile2

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

Ex-con coal baron Don Blankenship has arguably hit a new low in his bid to face Sen. Joe Manchin (R-WV), going after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) “China family” in a new ad with just days to go until the GOP primary.

“Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people. While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars,” Blankenship says without providing evidence in what could be his final ad of the primary.

The racially charged remarks attacking McConnell’s Chinese-American wife,  Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and her family are the latest escalation in the war between the deeply controversial Blankenship and the Senate majority leader.

Blankenship, who’s still on parole for his role in failing to prevent a 2010 mine disaster that killed 29 of his workers, has been under attack from McConnell’s allies, who believe for good reason he’d be a disastrous nominee for the party in a winnable race.

He’s responded with a string of nasty attacks on McConnell, calling him “Cocaine Mitch” because of a 2014 story that said drugs had been found on a shipping vessel owned by McConnell’s in-laws and accusing him of a conflict of interest because his father-in-law is “a wealthy China person,” comments he’s since defended.

The self-funding Blankenship has trailed Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) in recent polls ahead of the May 8 primary, but still has an outside shot of actually winning the nomination.

McConnell’s office pointed TPM to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and former McConnell staff when asked for a comment. They didn’t immediately respond.

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Roy Moore refuses to go away.

The former Alabama judge and dumpster fire of a Senate candidate sent out a statement on Thursday saying that he might run for statewide office in Alabama once again.

“If the opportunity arises to make a difference, I will have no reluctance to again run for political office, including that of Governor,” he said in a statement.

Those remarks come after Moore’s Senate bid went down in flames last fall amidst accusations from multiple women of sexual misconduct — including many who said the incidents took place when they were teenagers.

It’s hard to see Moore even winning a primary in the ruby-red state — but his diehard supporters stuck with him through the last race, and might do so again in spite of his tremendous political baggage.

The statement comes as a clarification to his recent remarks that he had no plans to run for office, made at a press conference announcing a defamation lawsuit against some of his accusers.

Moore’s statement comes in the petulant tone familiar to those who covered the race that made Democrat Doug Jones a senator and gave his party an outside chance at winning back control of the upper chamber this fall.

Here’s Moore’s statement in full:

At a press conference on April 30, 2018 announcing the filing of a defamation lawsuit against my accusers, a reporter asked me if I had plans to run for public office again. ‘I have no plans at this time for running for anything,; I said. The reporter continued: ‘Not even Governor?’ I answered: ‘No.’

The Associated Press then sent out a story, picked up by Time Magazine, that misquoted me as saying I had ‘no plans to run for any office again, including that of Alabama governor.’

To clarify, as I said in my response, I have no plans at this time to run for office. Nevertheless, plans change. If the opportunity arises to make a difference, I will have no reluctance to again run for political office, including that of Governor.

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Republicans in competitive primaries have been racing all year to bear-hug President Trump, but on Wednesday we reached a new level of obsequiousness.

Five of the eight House Republicans who are running for Senate this year sent an open letter nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize on Wednesday. That means nearly one third of the 18 members who signed the letter are hoping to win a seat in Congress’ upper chamber.

The effort is led by Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN), a Senate candidate who’s been calling for weeks for Trump to get the prize for his work pushing for a denuclearized North Korea. Messer’s facing a tough primary against fellow Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) and businessman Mike Braun (R). Senate candidates who joined Messer on the letter include Reps. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Jim Renacci (R-OH) and Evan Jenkins (R-WV), as well as Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), who’s running for governor.

The signees write that they can “think of no one more deserving of the committee’s work in 2019 than President Trump for his tireless work to bring peace to our world.”

Setting aside whether Trump deserves it (or whether the prospect’s any sillier than President Obama actually winning the prize early in his own presidency), it’s notable that so many statewide candidates were on the list. And it shows that to win primaries in today’s Republican Party, candidates are going to new lengths to kowtow to the president.

Not to be outdone, Rokita released a new ad of his own on Wednesday promising to stop Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt” investigation into the possibility that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, while accusing his opponents of not being loyal enough to the president.

The only Senate candidates not on Messer’s letter are Rokita, who Messer undoubtedly didn’t invite to join him, and Reps. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Lou Barletta (R-PA). Barletta is a close ally of Trump’s and one of his earliest House backers, and McSally, a one-time fierce Trump critic, has sought to embrace the president as she looks to ward off a pair of right-wing challengers in her own race.

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Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) is closing his heated primary race for the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) with an attack on Special Counsel Robert Mueller — and a promise to end his “witch hunt” into President Trump.

The congressman’s newest TV ad ahead — and possibly his final spot ahead of the May 8 primary — lumps together Mueller, Donnelly and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and argues Rokita is the only one who will truly defend Trump.

 

“Mueller, Pelosi, Donnelly. They’re using fake news to destroy our president. Who’s tough enough to stop the witch hunt?” the ad’s narrator says before knocking Rokita’s primary rivals, painting Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) as a “Never Trumper” and pointing out businessman Mike Braun (R) is a former Democrat.

The three candidates have been vying hard for the Trumpier-than-thou mantle in the race, much like Republicans in other hotly contested primaries, and Rokita even donned a MAGA hat in an earlier spot. But this may be the first time in the 2018 cycle that a candidate has explicitly asked for GOP voters’ support in order to halt the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. Keep an eye out for whether that becomes a theme in GOP primaries going forward.

Most Indiana Republicans think Braun is the favorite to win next week’s primary, but think Rokita has a chance to catch him.

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When a top Republican candidate for governor was confronted over his family company’s illegally underpaying workers earlier this week, he responded with a familiar refrain in modern GOP politics: Thanks, Obama.

Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a top candidate for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in the key swing state, responded to questions about his family company’s failure to pay four workers minimum wage by blaming it on the previous president.

“After three days of Obama regulators crawling around our lower intestine, they came up with a $250 fine, which was later dismissed,” he told local reporters — even though that Department of Labor investigation into his family’s company, which forced them to pay $1,672 in back wages, began a year before Obama was even in office.

Putnam’s strategy of blaming a politicized government and sowing doubts about the integrity of federal officials is just the latest example of a Trump-era GOP candidate with legal problems attacking the former administration. That borrows from the president’s own playbook of attacking the intelligence community, the FBI and anyone else who’s investigating his team for possible wrongdoing as being politically motivated members of the “deep state” loyal to the former president, even if they’re career civil servants or Republicans.

“You look at the corruption at the top of the FBI — it’s a disgrace,” Trump ranted during a recent appearance on Fox & Friends, his latest broadside against the agency. “And our Justice Department — which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t — our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia.”

Some Republicans warn that Trump’s attacks have deepened the conservative base’s distrust of all government that helped him win the presidency in the first place, and given an opening to candidates that in past years never would have stood a chance.

“Law enforcement is now under question, maybe for political reasons, with the same fervor we’ve traditionally held for other government entities, whether it’s the IRS or the Bureau of Land Management or generic government,” Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman, told TPM.

Heye warned that those attacks have signaled to candidates that “it’s not just okay” to attack law enforcement to score political points and avoid dealing with their own legal issues, “it’s beneficial to do so.”

Putnam’s relatively minor offense pales in comparison to some of the other Republicans’ who are currently making bids for federal office. A trio of actual convicted criminals are running serious races for Congress this year, shrugging off their pasts by capitalizing on the GOP base’s distrust of government institutions and the press that has been both fueled by and a strong source of support for Trump himself.

Former coal baron Don Blankenship is running for the right to face Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) this fall even though he’s still on parole after a year in prison for his role in failing to prevent a mine accident that killed 29 workers. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) only avoided jail time for criminal contempt because Trump pardoned him — and now he’s running for the Senate in Arizona. Former Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) is seeking a comeback in his old congressional district after a stint behind bars for tax fraud, challenging Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY) by complaining/bragging “the entire Obama Justice Department [was] weaponized against me.” All three have largely blamed Obama for their past troubles rather than take responsibility for their actions, even when the courts have found them all guilty.

And that’s not to mention other GOP candidates who’ve been in legal trouble turning on both law enforcement officials and the press, and claiming politicized “witch hunts.” That was the strategy Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore took after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct during his Senate campaign, after he’d already secured the Republican nomination. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) has made similar attacks against Republicans in his state as he seeks to fend off calls for his resignation over accusations of sexually and fiscally illegal behavior. Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) lied about body-slamming a reporter on his way to winning office, and while he’s since apologized for his actions he’s also fundraised off claims that the “leftist media” is unfairly out to get him.

Republicans warn that they must stop those candidates in the primaries before they win their nominations and destroy their party’s chances of winning their races. But they admit that’s easier said than done.

“When I chaired the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committtee], what I conveyed to people in states across the country is if you nominate somebody who can only win a primary but cannot win a general election then you have not served the cause of winning a Republican majority, in this case keeping a Republican majority, so it matters,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) told TPM. “But I think it’s very difficult for a Republican Party, an NRSC or an organization to convince voters that that view is better than their view, so voters are going to decide this.”

Moran, like many other GOP senators, showed no interest in discussing the question of what these types of candidates were doing to Republican voters’ trust in the rule of law.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), one of the few Alabama Republicans who refused to back Moore even as he was facing growing legal problems last fall, told TPM, “It’s best for both parties to have good candidates, to have clean candidates — you’re going to be scrutinized, you’re going to be scrubbed and scrubbed again.”

But he argued Trump’s attacks on the legal system and voters’ distrust of institutions were valid, saying that while they were overall trustworthy there were plenty of bad apples.

“Look, you have rogue people in every agency,” he said. “You have that in the IRS, you’ve seen that. You see that in the FBI, you see that in prosecutors, in the courts.”

Grimm, Arpaio and Blankenship are all underdogs in their races. Moore lost after a large chunk of GOP voters abandoned him. Greitens is facing plenty of pressure from his fellow Republicans to step down. Gianforte may have a real race partly because of his past violence. But this phenomena of politicians behaving badly blaming the government and the media — while retaining cachet within their party — shows how Trump’s attacks on law enforcement have bled into the GOP base’s consciousness. It’s left plenty of right-wing media consumers just as skeptical of law enforcement as they long have been of other parts of government — distrust that has been built by years of right-wing faux and overblown scandals, from the IRS to Benghazi to Fast & Furious. And candidates who would have had zero chance of even winning a primary in past years see an opening.

Republicans don’t have a monopoly on candidates blaming conspiracies for their legal troubles — or even on blaming Obama. When the Justice Department indicted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on corruption charges, he and his allies suggested that it was payback for his refusal to support the administration’s positions on Cuba and Iran. Hillary Clinton had plenty of her own complaints about how the DOJ handled its investigation of her use of a private email server, some more valid than others. And during Rep. Jim Traficant’s (D-OH) legal scandal two decades ago, he vowed to expose the FBI for corruption. Others have had success attacking their investigators — Oliver North almost became senator years ago after being a central player in Iran-contra by doing the same.

And this is far from the first time a raft of unelectable GOP candidates has made real noise in primaries. But in the past, their problem was usually ideology, not illegality. In the Trump era, that’s changed.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) admitted he was concerned about that chunk of the party base that wouldn’t even accept legal verdicts as settled fact, but argued “gratefully I think it’s pretty small” in terms of the overall GOP electorate.

But he warned that those candidates becoming the nominee would be deeply damaging.

Usually, it works itself out in the primary,” he said. “But when a Roy Moore gets nominated, we see what happens.”

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Another day, another set of good polling numbers for Senate Democrats.

Democrats hold leads in the trio of their best chances to pick up Senate seats, according to new surveys released by Axios, the latest sign that they have a real shot at netting the two seats necessary to retake the Senate this fall.

The most eye-popping numbers come from Arizona, where Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) has a 51 percent to 42 percent lead over Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) in their hypothetical matchup to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). McSally, the GOP establishment favorite, is squaring off in a primary against former state Rep. Kelli Ward (R) and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R). Sinema leads Ward by 51 percent to 43 percent in the survey, and has a gaping 61 percent to 32 percent lead over the well-known and deeply polarizing Arpaio.

Those numbers come in the wake of a surprisingly narrow win for Rep.-elect Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) in a ruby-red House district west of Phoenix earlier this week. She won by less than 5 percentage points in a district Trump carried by 21, results that set off alarm bells in GOP circles.

The polls, from the online company SurveyMonkey, find similarly positive results for Democrats in two other states where they got good polling news earlier this week. In their Nevada survey, Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) leads Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) by 50 percent to 44 percent. In Tennessee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) has a 48 percent to 47 percent lead over Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

That’s a bit rosier than what Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster with a good track record in Nevada, found in a survey released earlier this week: In his poll, Heller led Rosen by 40 percent to 39 percent, a bad spot for an incumbent to be in but not as dire a situation as this other poll suggests. Another poll released earlier this week found Bredesen with a three-point lead over Blackburn.

Online polling still isn’t quite as trustworthy as live-caller polls, according to many experts, and one poll should never be taken as gospel. But these results are the latest to show Democrats in good position in all three states.

The party still has very narrow path to retaking the Senate: They’re defending 10 seats in states President Trump won, including five in states he carried by at least 19 percentage points. They’d need to sweep the table in those races and win two of these three seats, or sweep these seats if they lose even one of those contests. If they lose two incumbents, they’d somehow need to win these seats and pull off a huge upset in a state like Texas, likely their next-best shot on the map.

But with polls like these, Democrats have to be feeling quietly confident that they might really have a shot to pull the inside straight they need to take back the Senate.

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Controversial West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship (R) is none too pleased with the New York Times’ recent story on his campaign.

Blankenship, a former coal baron who is currently out on parole after a one-year stint in prison for his role in failing to prevent a mine explosion that killed 29 of his workers, lit into the paper and its reporter, claiming with scant evidence that the story had major factual errors.

“The reporter is clearly a communist propagandist with no American values, whatsoever,” he says in the first paragraph of a 10-paragraph screed against reporter Trip Gabriel. “Much of what he says is filled with outright lies and nearly all of the rest is simply misrepresentation. It would be too kind to call his article fake news. It is communist propaganda.”

Blankenship then goes point-by-point in an attempt to dispute some of the more interesting details in Gabriel’s story. Among his complaints:

That the story says he’s challenging the “settled facts” of the case that found him guilty of failing to follow safety measures at the mine where the tragedy occurred (he was found guilty in that case, and while he’s blamed a witch hunt led by the Obama Justice Department his argument for what actually happened has been dismissed by experts).

That he really lives in Nevada (that’s where he said his principle residence was in court).

That he had expressed admiration for China’s state-run economy (Blankenship’s exact quote: “Americans confuse the words communism and dictatorship… The Chinese are running a dictatorial capitalism and it’s very effective. That’s the way corporations are run. Corporations are not a democracy.”)

Blankenship also accuses Gabriel, with zero evidence, of colluding with a GOP super-PAC that’s trying to keep him from the nomination.

And he whines in the statement that the story is “alarming” because the paper dares to investigate “the personal lives of private citizens” — suggesting that somehow Senate candidates shouldn’t get scrutiny.

Republicans were panicked a few weeks ago that Blankenship was in a strong position to win the nomination. But that super-PAC’s efforts have appeared to be effective — a trio of recent polls have found him in third place, with Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) duking it out for victory in the May 8 primary.

But this is the latest sign that the former coal baron isn’t going to go quietly.

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A recused attorney general. The appointment of a special counsel. Republicans furious with James Comey. A presidency under siege. Questions of whether a key aide in the inner circle might turn on the presidency. A get-out-of-jail-free card from the same bosses he’s protecting.

Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is starting to feel a lot like the Scooter Libby trial.

On Tuesday, TPM broke the news that Comey was using his old pal Patrick Fitzgerald as one of his attorneys.

That’s not the first time Comey has relied on his close buddy in a high-profile situation. And it’s the latest strange parallel between the ongoing investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election and the last special counsel probe, one that ended in a guilty verdict for Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide that would have sent him to jail if President George W. Bush hadn’t commuted his sentence. Just this month, Trump gave Libby a full pardon — a move many saw as a clear signal to his own lieutenants that if they don’t flip on him, he’ll protect them from jail time down the line, as well as a middle finger to Comey.

Both Comey and Fitzgerald were major players in the Libby drama, which centered around whether top Bush officials had intentionally leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame as vengeance for her husband’s public rebuke of the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq.

After Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the investigation, to the consternation of many on the right (though no public tirades from Bush, unlike Trump’s frequent tweetstorms against Attorney General Jeff Sessions), the job fell to then-Deputy Attorney General Comey to pick a special prosecutor for the investigation.

He turned to Fitzgerald, then the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois — and the godfather to one of his children.

Fitzgerald’s probe became the fixation of liberals hoping he’d take down the Bush White House, possibly indicting Karl Rove or even Cheney. That level of anticipation  earned his investigation the nickname of “Fitzmas” in left-wing media. But some progressives felt like they got coal when the only one to fall was Libby — and were furious when Bush decided to commute his sentence.

There are some parallels with those jail-time dynamics as well. Libby got caught in a lie, putting him behind bars. But he never turned on Cheney or Bush. And Bush was quick to commute his sentence, saving him from the worst of the punishment.

One big difference: During Libby’s actual trial, Fitzgerald focused nearly exclusively on the perjury and obstruction of justice, setting aside the larger questions of whether Bush or Cheney had authorized the leak of Plame’s name to columnist Robert Novack. Mueller’s investigation seems to be much more wide-reaching. While it’s unclear whether Paul Manafort or Michael Cohen might flip, Mueller has already turned a number of key witnesses, including Michael Flynn and George Papadapoulos. And while the accusations against the Bush White House were serious, they pale in comparison to what Mueller seems to be investigating.

And once again, Comey and Fitzgerald will be in the thick of it — this time on the witness side rather than as prosecutors.

History may not repeat itself exactly. But right now it feels like it’s Fitzmas in April.

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Democrats are well-positioned to win two of their top Senate pickup opportunities, according to a pair of new polls.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) is in a dead heat with Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), with his reelection number below 40, in a new survey by the most reliable pollster in Nevada. And former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) has a narrow lead over Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) in another poll.

Heller has a 40 percent to 39 percent lead over Rosen in Nevada in a new survey conducted by Mark Mellman, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) longtime pollster and the man regarded by strategists in both parties as the one with the best numbers in the difficult-to-poll state. That’s a bad position to be in for an incumbent — especially as the poll shows Rosen still isn’t nearly as well-known and that President Trump’s approval rating is in the toilet in the swing state, with 39 percent of voters approving of the job he’s doing and 56 percent disapproving.

In Tennessee, Bredesen has a 46 percent to 43 percent lead over Blackburn in a new survey from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. That’s the latest survey to find Bredesen, a well-known former governor, in the lead in the heavily Republican state.

While the candidates have similar name recognition in the poll, Bredesen starts out the race better-liked: 43 percent of voters have a favorable view of him to just 18 percent with an unfavorable view, as opposed to Blackburn’s 35 percent to 26 percent split.

Democrats have a slim path to winning back the Senate, as they’re defending 10 seats in states Trump carried last election and Heller is the only Republican running in a seat Trump lost. But if they can hold serve in their states and win both these races — a tall order — that would give them enough for a narrow majority. They’re also bullish about picking up a seat in Arizona and have some slim hopes about Texas, though they’re playing defense in a number of tough races — Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, Montana and North Dakota — and losses in one or more of those elections would make it significantly harder for them to win a majority.

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Another Tuesday, another stronger-than-normal performance for Democrats in special elections.

Former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) defeated Democratic physician Hiral Tiperneni in a heavily Republican congressional district Tuesday night, with the Associated Press calling the race shortly after 11 p.m. eastern time.

But the margin was nowhere near Republicans’ normal performance in the ruby-red district: Lesko led Tiperneni by just 53 percent to 47 percent with early votes counted, a large majority of the votes expected to be cast in the election.

If those numbers hold up, that’s a massive swing towards Democrats — the latest major improvement over earlier performance for the party since Donald Trump became president. Trump carried the district by a 21-point margin in 2016, and Mitt Romney carried it by an even wider 25-point margin in 2012. The seat opened up with the resignation of disgraced Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ).

“There are no moral victories in politics, but I’m celebrating tonight,” Democratic strategist Andy Barr, who has deep Arizona ties, told TPM as the results rolled in. “The median age of early voters was 68 and that district is about the whitest in the state. If we’re losing by six in that scenario then the whole state opens up.”

Lesko’s rather narrow win in the west suburban Phoenix district came after national Republican groups spent more than $1 million to hang onto the district, and the result comes just weeks after Democrats overcame a big spending deficit to win another heavily Republican House seat in Pennsylvania last month.

Strategists in both parties had been doubtful that the seat was in real jeopardy in the race’s closing days. But Democrats were already casting a single-digit margin as a big victory for them in a part of the state where they haven’t even tried to compete for decades.

Republican leaders publicly tried to put a brave face on the narrow win.

“Congratulations to Debbie on her hard-fought victory,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said in a statement. “Her victory proves that Republicans have a positive record to run on this fall and we need to spend the next seven months aggressively selling our message to the American people.

Democrats also flipped a statehouse seat in New York they haven’t held in three decades Tuesday night — their 40th statehouse pickup of the Trump era. Their candidate’s margin of victory in the Long Island-based seat was considerably larger than its normally swing nature.

Special elections often magnify an enthusiasm gap between parties. But these results are a great sign for House Democrats as they look to win back the lower chamber — as well as Arizona Democrats who hope to seize retiring Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) seat and possibly defeat Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) this fall.

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