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.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called on Congress to rein in major government programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in order to slow America’s spiraling national debt on Tuesday, ignoring the fact the tax plan he recently passed has further grown that number.
INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence strode to the stage Saturday morning with a clear message for his home-state GOP comrades.
“They keep talking about this blue wave across America,” Pence said during a rally for businessman Mike Braun, Sen. Joe Donnelly’s (D-IN) opponent. “But if Indiana does our part, the red wall starts here.”
Donnelly is one of a number of red-state Democrats whose personal likability and independent brands kept them ahead of their GOP Senate opponents for much of the summer and gave Democrats hope they could win enough red states to seize the Senate. But then came the unexpected confirmation saga of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. While surveys indicate a majority of Americans opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it seems to have sparked an intense level of polarization on both sides just as campaign season arrived in earnest.
That’s a problem for red-state Senate Democratic candidates who opposed Kavanaugh like Donnelly, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), the only one in the group who supported Kavanaugh. Democrats likely need to win three of these four races to win back the Senate, a prospect that looks increasingly difficult, and pick up seats in Nevada and Arizona that don’t look as much like slam dunks as they did weeks ago. If most lose, Democrats will lose ground in the Senate — a real possibility.
Standing athwart this polarization is Donnelly, a folksy Democrat who prides himself on his independence and “Hoosier values.”
Recent surrogate visits to the state show how important the race is. Pence’s return home came the same weekend that former Vice President Joe Biden rallied for Donnelly in northwest Indiana, a union-heavy region in suburban Chicago that’s one of Democrats’ few strongholds around the state.
Biden was careful to stress Donnelly’s bipartisan bona fides even as he revved up the partisan Democratic crowd.
“Joe understands that it’s not weakness to reach across the aisle and reach compromise without giving up on any of your principles. Joe understands our system cannot function without consensus,” Biden declared.
How Donnelly defends his vote against Kavanaugh is telling.
“I voted for Justice Gorsuch and I would vote for Justice Gorsuch today. But I was very concerned about the way [Kavanaugh] conducted himself,” the senator told TPM Sunday after rallying the troops at a local Democratic headquarters in Merrillville. “I stood strong with President Trump to say look, I would be more than happy to find you another nominee who can serve.”
Donnelly’s Kavanaugh vote was brought up unprompted by voters at both his rally and Braun’s.
Rhea Arthur attended the Pence-Braun rally in Indianapolis Saturday morning, and said she’d been leaning towards voting for Donnelly — until the Kavanaugh vote.
“I did like Donnelly. But he’s not thinking about Indiana people. He’s thinking about his [party] leaders,” she said.
Arthur voted for Republican Richard Mourdock in 2012 even after he made a major gaffe about rape and abortion. Donnelly won that race by a six-point margin.
Republicans think Kavanaugh has helped them in Indiana, where early voting started Oct. 10. One Braun ally said it was the “first mistake” the savvy Donnelly had made all campaign. But they don’t seem to see it as a silver bullet.
Pence went after Donnelly’s Kavanaugh vote in his speech at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis Saturday, but only as part of a litany of slights towards Trump including his votes against the GOP tax cuts and defunding Planned Parenthood.
“Joe voted no,” he intoned time after each example, a line he’s also used against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — and would likely use against any Democrat named Joe.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s latest ad, featuring Pence, hits Donnelly on the vote as well, as does a spot from the National Rifle Association.
Braun himself hasn’t been leaning that hard into Kavanaugh on the trail and in his paid advertising. He didn’t even mention the vote during a quick stump speech morning as he introduced Pence. His latest ad mentions Donnelly’s vote against confirming the justice only briefly, before pivoting into an attack on Donnelly’s past support for Hillary Clinton.
His campaign has focused less on specific policy issues and more on hammering home the point that he’ll be a stalwart supporter of Trump.
“Sleepin’ Joe has got a record, you know, that doesn’t line up with Hoosiers,” Braun said, using Trump’s nickname for Donnelly. “He calls himself the hired help. … He looks like the tired help. And with his performance, I think it ought to be the fired help.”
Donnelly has highlighted his work across the aisle with Trump, while hammering Braun over health care and his business record. His latest ad spotlights his vote to confirm Gorsuch, his support for Trump’s border wall, and Trump praising him for his work on a bipartisan “right to try” bill that allows terminally ill people to try experimental drug treatments.
There’s still plenty of time until the election for voters’ focus to shift. Less than a month ago, headlines were focused on Paul Manafort’s guilty plea.
“The Kavanaugh matter has energized people. I’ve certainly heard that. What I’ve said to several people is we’re still 24 days away,” Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) told TPM at the Pence-Braun rally. “We still have light years to go in many ways before this election’s over.”
And Brooks conceded that Donnelly’s folksy appeal is giving him a shot.
“Everyone acknowledges that he is a nice man and he is an incredibly hard worker,” she said, after highlighting areas where she thought Donnelly was out of step with the state’s voters.
The one policy area where Donnelly has been aggressive is health care. He’s hammered Braun for having high health insurance premiums for his workers and for supporting a lawsuit that would end the ban on preexisting conditions. Donnelly routinely highlights his vote against repealing Obamacare.
“We were able to win [in 2012] because of your hard work, all of you. And because of that we were able to save health care by one vote,” he told volunteers at the Merrillville event.
Donnelly will need a strong showing both with the blue-collar, populist voters who fled his party last election and with GOP-leaning suburban women turned off by Trump.
“What Joe’s doing is painting himself as someone who’ll work with Trump when he can and be an independent voice from Trump when he thinks it’s necessary. Braun has done the exact opposite, he’s attached Trump to his hip and is trying to ride him across the finish line,” said former Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN). “And I think that’s a mistake here, people want an independent voice as opposed to a lapdog for Trump.”
When Obama pulled off an improbable victory in the state in 2008, he carried 15 of the state’s 92 counties. Donnelly won 26 when he upset Mourdock in 2012, posting huge margins in the counties near Chicago. He over-performed in the donut counties around Indianapolis, and carried chunks of suburban and exurban territory near Louisville, Cincinnati and Evansville. Clinton carried just four counties statewide last election.
Jerome Davidson, who works for the United Steelworkers, said the difference between Clinton’s approach and Donnelly’s was night and day.
“The reason why he won is what he’s doing right there,” he said, pointing to Donnelly as the senator greeted local supporters with hearty handshakes at one of his whistle-stop events in Northwest Indiana Saturday. “She didn’t come to the Rust Belt and do that, right there — talking to people and shaking hands. This is why he’ll win again.”
Even as the GOP base appears to be shaking awake, it’s clear that Democrats’ white-hot fury hasn’t dimmed. That includes in red states like Indiana that still have plenty of pockets of blue voters. And there are plenty of moderate Republicans and independents who remain open to backing someone who’s split with the president.
Bob Roach, an electrical engineer at a Northwest Indiana steel plant who attended the Donnelly-Biden rally, had been so turned off by both Trump and Hillary Clinton that he skipped the top of the ticket in 2016.
He said he’d “never, ever voted straight-party” in his life.
But Roach said this year was different — that voting down the line for Democrats will be “the easiest vote I ever made.” Backing Donnelly was a no-brainer for him.
It remains to be seen whether there are enough Bob Roaches out there to send Donnelly back to the Senate.
We’ve got less than four weeks until Election Day — but while the broad parameters of the midterm battlefield are set, how these races break are still anyone’s guess.
Republicans in red states and districts are clearly feeling better about their chances following the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and Democrats are seeing numbers in those places that are making them sweat. But it’s unclear if the GOP’s Kavanaugh bump is helping anyone in swing states — polling has been conflicted on this. And there’s no way to tell right now whether this fight will prove an ephemeral boost for red-state Republican candidates that feels like a long-forgotten memory by Election Day, or whether the moment helped them nationalize races against tough opponents and turn the tide in key Senate battles.
The impossible question to answer right now: What will we be talking about the last week of the election?
I often said heading into 2016 that whichever candidate we were talking about the last week was going to lose. Today, that may be true again: If President Trump is once again dominating the headlines with a bad news cycle, that could spell doom for his party.
Reporters and voters tend to overreact to whatever’s in the headlines at the moment, expecting a lasting effect. But especially now, with Trump turning over the news cycle with whirlwind-like speed, a month remains an eternity in politics. We’re not even a month removed from Paul Manafort turning state’s evidence, and folks can barely remember that happened.
So I honestly doubt that Kavanaugh will be the main fuel in most races. But the fight over his nomination did coincide with Republicans evening the spending in some key races and their base starting to come home. It’s hard to untangle the three things from one another, but my guess is some if not all of that will have some staying power.
The Kavanaugh impact has been most pronounced in the red states that Democrats must win to have any shot at Senate control: North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Tennessee. If they get wiped out in those states, they will head into 2019 with fewer Senate seats than they have today.
But the key thing to remember is the Senate map is vastly different than the House map, which is vastly different from the governors’ map.
Control of the Senate is mostly being fought out in deep red territory that’s much more rural than the nation as a whole, so anything that riles up both sides is helpful to the GOP. Trump is most focused on the Senate, it seems, or at least is inadvertently helping his party the most in those races.
The House field of battle is GOP-leaning overall but is much more suburban — that means, in House races, Trump’s antics hurt his incumbents more than they help them.
And the governors’ map this year most closely mirrors where the 2020 presidential battlefield will be. It includes many midwestern battlegrounds — Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio — where Trump did much better than previous GOP nominees but which are swingy and where Dems hope to do very well this fall. There are also a lot of close battles in the Sun Belt: Florida, Georgia and Nevada.
Republicans hold almost all of these governor seats in both the midwestern battlegrounds and the Sun Belt right now.
State-level issues obviously matter more in governors’ races — that’s why Oregon, Connecticut, Oklahoma and South Dakota all look somewhat competitive. But governors’ races will provide the best test of what a true swing state looks like this year.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s (R) office is blocking 53,000 people from registering to vote, according to records obtained by the Associated Press, a huge number that could sway his gubernatorial race against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
As TPM laid out this morning, Kemp has used a controversial “exact match” program to approve or block voter registrations that disproportionately impacts minority voters.
Now we know exactly how many people that might affect this election. According to the AP, fully 70 percent of the voter applications that are being held up by Kemp’s office are from black people.
It’s unclear how many of these voters will be able to get on the rolls by Election Day.
People whose registrations are still pending have 26 months to correct the problem, and get one notice by mail advising them of the issue. They can still vote in-person provided they present a driver’s license or other form of photo ID, something that minorities are less likely to have, or cast a provisional vote and return within three days with valid proof of identification.
The secretary of state has waged a years-long battle against voting rights groups in the state, regularly going after minority voter registration efforts, while purging voting rolls and making it harder for many people to vote.
This figure shows how much impact that could have. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s (R) 8-point reelection margin in 2014 was just 200,000 votes total. Abrams and Kemp have been statistically tied in most public and private polls. Whether or not these voters get on the rolls could determine who wins the election.
This story was updated at 9:20 p.m. to more fully explain the state’s exact match law.
Voters in three key states can officially cast their ballots as of Wednesday, a key moment in the battle for Congress.
Arizona, Indiana and Ohio all began early voting on Wednesday. All three feature marquee statewide elections.
In Arizona, Reps. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Kirsten Sinema (D-AZ) are locked in a tight Senate battle. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) is working hard to hold off businessman Mike Braun (R) in Indiana. And Ohio features a very close gubernatorial race, as well as a pair of potentially competitive races for GOP-held House seats (Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is expected to cruise to reelection.)
Montana, which has another competitive Senate race, started earlier this week. Nebraska’s early voting started Tuesday as well, where Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) is looking to hang onto his seat.
Minnesota and New Jersey, which have eight close House races between them, began all the way back on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22. Illinois and Iowa, which each have a handful of competitive House races, have also begun early voting.
Tennessee begins in a week, and Texas is just a few days later, beginning the fight for arguably Democrats’ two best chances to open up a real path to win Senate control.
Georgia, with its marquee governor’s race, begins mail-in absentee voting next Monday.
That means in many key spots in the country, the battle for Congress is no longer an abstraction. Campaigns are pushing their voters to turn out and send in absentee ballots now. This stretch will likely prove crucial in a number of races.
When I pushed Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams a few weeks ago for information on what her campaign’s internal poll numbers were, she pushed back.
“The difference isn’t how closely we’re polling. It’s who turns out their voters,” she said.
That’s one of the biggest underlying questions facing Abrams as she dukes it out against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) in the state’s gubernatorial election.
Abrams and Kemp have been neck-and-neck in nearly every public poll of the race. Private polling from both parties have them just as close. And while the old saw “it all comes down to turnout” might predate the republic, in this hotly contested campaign it actually might be true.
Georgia’s minority population growth has been booming the last two decades. The state’s population is now just 53 percent non-Hispanic white, down nearly ten percentage points since 2000.
That leaves the big question: Will Abrams’ efforts to boost minority turnout actually work well enough to put her over the top?
Strategists from both parties say that if Georgia’s electorate ends up looking like it did during the 2014 midterms, she probably can’t win. But if she can get black turnout to Obama-like highs in terms of proportion of the overall vote, with the current larger population, she should pull off a victory.
That means if Georgia’s vote is 28 to 29 percent black, the low end of what campaign strategists are modeling, Abrams is in trouble. If it’s 32 to 33 percent black, she should win. A number in the middle: Outlook murky. Similar margins for the state’s small but fast-growing Hispanic and Asian-American populations could make big differences too.
If neither candidate wins an outright victory, they head to a December 4 runoff.
Abrams is hoping to capitalize on the state’s major demographic and cultural shift.
She has spent the last few years trying to expand the electorate by registering minority and young voters through her organization the New Georgia Project. Kemp, as my story today details, doesn’t seem as keen on expanding Georgia’s voting populace.
Abrams is also running as a true progressive, predicating her campaign on a huge turnout from minority and younger voters that scrambles what the old turnout model looks like.
That’s a different playbook than past Georgia Democrats, who’ve hugged the middle hoping they can win over enough GOP-leaning independents and trusting that black turnout would be enough to carry them across the finish line. That hasn’t worked statewide since 1998, the last time a Democrat won a gubernatorial or Senate race, and hasn’t worked for a Democrat in a tough district since Blue Dog Reps. John Barrow (D-GA) and Jim Marshall (D-GA) finally went down in conservative districts earlier this decade.
Conversely, Kemp ran hard to the right during the primary, and has done little to move back to the middle since.
Early signs are looking encouraging for Abrams: African American voters have requested early ballots already at almost double the rate they did in 2014. That’s a potential sign of a big enthusiasm jump — though it could partly be because of concerted efforts by Abrams’ campaign to boost early voting.
Both candidates are now making strong efforts to woo the state’s independent voters, especially white women in the Atlanta suburbs. But the campaign’s biggest question comes down to whether the electorate will look more like the new Georgia Abrams has dreamed of and worked for, or whether Georgia will continue to prove to be just out of reach for her and her party.
In early 2014, Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D) undertook an ambitious effort to make Georgia’s voter rolls look more like its population.
The New Georgia Project aimed to register 800,000 new minority and young voters within the decade, awakening the sleeping giant of the state’s fast-growing minority communities and giving Democrats like her a chance to compete statewide.
That seemed to alarm her current opponent for governor, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R).
“The Democrats are working hard. There have been these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines. If they can do that, they can win these elections in November,” Kemp warned his fellow Republicans during a closed-door event that July. “Well, we’ve got to do the exact same thing.”
But Kemp didn’t just try to match Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts. He used his office to go on the attack, investigating Abrams’ group for voter fraud while slow-walking adding the voters she’d registered to the rolls. Civil rights activists say Kemp has been one of the fiercest voter suppression proponents they’ve dealt with anywhere, and a key player in power consolidation efforts undertaken by Georgia Republicans since they seized control in 2004.
Abrams’ and Kemp’s years-old fight has now hit a crescendo as they fight for the governor’s mansion.
“Kemp and Abrams had been plotting their runs for governor for nearly a decade by the time the 2018 elections rolled around.”
“Brian Kemp is the master of voter suppression, disengagement and democracy by subtraction,” said Francys Johnson, the former head of the state NAACP who’s now running for Congress. “The tension is as stark as it could have ever been in this race.”
This election, like past ones with Kemp, will be fought out in the courtroom as well as at the ballot box. Kemp is already battling a number of lawsuits.
“He has taken advantage of the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act,”Abrams told TPM. “He has used his office to undermine the right to vote for communities of color.”
Kemp’s campaign didn’t respond on-record to numerous requests for comment. The secretary of state’s office ignored multiple calls, but pointed TPM via email to a July statement from Kemp that gives a clear sense of his view of civil rights groups.
“November 6, 2018 is right around the corner, which means it’s high time for another frivolous lawsuit from liberal activist groups. They pulled the same stunt in 2014 and 2016, and it’s no surprise that they’re planning the same tactics this year,” Kemp said.
This fall, Abrams might become Georgia’s first black governor and the first black female governor in U.S. history — or Kemp could ride the wave of right-wing, racially charged populism that’s fueled his career and is animating much of the modern GOP.
Whoever wins will wield immense power, determining whether Georgia Republicans get to gerrymander themselves another decade of control in the state or whether they’ll have to compromise with Democrats on competitive maps. That will dictate whether Democrats can fairly compete in Georgia next decade — or if Republicans will keep their stranglehold on Georgia’s government.
“This is a huge election for Georgia,” said Sara Henderson, the Georgia head of the good government group Common Cause and a former Abrams staffer. “What happens this November will determine the next 20 years of policy here.”
Abrams grew up in rural Mississippi to civil rights activist parents. She describes her family as the “genteel poor” — highly educated but broke. The family moved to Atlanta when she was a teenager so her parents could attend Methodist seminary. After undergrad at Spelman College she went to Yale for law school, then returned to Atlanta to become a tax attorney for the city.
In 2006 she won a statehouse seat. She rose quickly through the ranks to become House minority leader in 2010, working across the aisle on education while leading other partisan battles.
In 2013, Abrams launched an officially nonpartisan organization to help people sign up for Obamacare. A year later, she shifted its goals to voter registration. The New Georgia Project helped her begin to rebuild Democrats’ base in the state — and build herself a national political and fundraising network.
She credits her family for her longtime focus on voting.
“I’m running a campaign that is engaging the franchise. I learned about this from my parents. My mom and dad were very involved in civil rights and voting rights,” she told TPM.
Kemp grew up down the road from the University of Georgia in Athens, stayed there for school, and married a woman whose father had been the local state senator — a conservative Democrat, back when they still ruled the South.
After making money in agribusiness and real estate, Kemp won a state Senate seat in 2002, defeating a Democratic incumbent in a swing district. Republicans won the governorship and Senate that year and the house two years later, giving them unified control of Georgia for the first time since reconstruction.
They quickly got to work to lock in that power. In 2005, Georgia Republicans passed one of the first, and strictest, voting identification laws in the country, an early salvo in the GOP’s nationwide effort to use false claims of widespread voting fraud to push for strict ID laws that disproportionately affect minority voters.
Kemp voted for that bill, and has aggressively enforced it as secretary of state.
He was more intimately involved in another power grab.
After campaigning against gerrymandering, Georgia Republicans moved to redraw the state’s districts in 2006 to lock in their majorities. Gerrymandering is a bipartisan if unseemly tradition, but this mid-decade redistricting was novel.
Kemp was leaving to run for Agriculture Commissioner, and his brother-in-law Bill Cowsert jumped in for his old seat.
Not coincidentally, the biggest change Republicans made to the state Senate map was to dramatically redraw Kemp’s swing district, carving up his Democrat-heavy hometown of Athens to create a reliably Republican district.
“Kemp and his friends in the state legislature decided to redraw the district,” said Jason Carter, a voting rights attorney who was involved in litigation against the maps. “They did a special redistricting just to change Kemp’s district.”
Cowsert easily won the new seat, and is now the GOP’s state Senate majority leader.
Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, later served in the state Senate and ran for governor in 2014. He said the redistricting effort marked the beginning of Kemp’s years-long push to lock in GOP power in the state by any means necessary.
“His background as a gerrymandering electioneer is longstanding,” Carter said.
Kemp wasn’t out of office long. When then-Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) resigned from office in early 2010 to run for governor Kemp was appointed to fill the rest of her term, helping him win election that year.
Then, things got ugly.
In 2010, activists in tiny Quitman, Georgia undertook an absentee ballot push to boost black turnout. That helped African Americans win a majority of seats on the Brooks County education board for the first time in history.
The result shocked many locals — and aroused Republicans’ suspicion.
The local district attorney, whose deputy was one of the white school board members, demanded an investigation. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Kemp’s office proceeded to question hundreds of voters and arrest a dozen activists — all of them black, and three of them newly elected members of the school board.
The state failed to find evidence that the activists had coerced anyone’s vote or committed any voter impersonation. But they kept pushing, arguing that some had still violated the law by helping people fill out their ballots or by mailing in others’ sealed ballots. One woman was prosecuted because she’d helped her disabled and partially blind father fill out his ballot. Another, the sister of a women elected to the school board, faced 33 felony charges — and potentially a century of jail time. After two mistrials and four years of stress, she was acquitted in 2014, ending the investigation without a single guilty verdict.
But the damage was done. Some of those accused lost their jobs. One person died while under indictment. The three school board members were temporarily suspended from their positions. And the investigation sent a clear signal that voter registration drives better be careful.
“The Quitman story reads like something out of the 1960s,” said Rev. Raphael Warnock, the current president of the New Georgia Project and the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s old church.
“Civil rights activists say Kemp has been one of the fiercest voter suppression proponents they’ve dealt with anywhere, and a key player in power consolidation efforts undertaken by Georgia Republicans since they seized control in 2004.”
The case wasn’t the only case where Kemp was accused of trying to intimidate black voters. After the 2012 elections, the Georgia State Election Board, which Kemp heads as secretary of state, claimed that a local black official in Douglas County may have violated the law by showing a new voter how to use the county’s electronic voting machine. The board spent three years investigating her, and local officials spent another three trying her on felony charges. She was officially acquitted in 2018. The jury deliberated for just 20 minutes before finding her not guilty.
Gutting The Voting Rights Act
The Brooks County investigation could have been a warning sign for Kemp. Instead, he seemed to take it as a model. And he soon faced fewer constraints.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, kneecapping the federal government’s ability to enforce the law.
Since its passage, the law had forced states with an extended history of voter suppression, most of them in the Deep South, to clear every election change with the federal government, a process known as “preclearance.”
Its mid-2000s reauthorization passed by wide margins in Congress and was signed into law by President George W. Bush. But many southern Republican congressmen fought it because the preclearance formula wasn’t updated.
“214 polling places have been shuttered statewide since — 8 percent of all polling places in Georgia. They’ve been disproportionately in rural, poorer, and blacker counties.”
That opposition was led by then-Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA). He lost the battle but won the war when the Supreme Court agreed with him in a 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula for which states and localities fell under preclearance was unconstitutional because it hadn’t been updated.
Brian Robinson, Westmoreland’s spokesman at the time, called it his “proudest work ever.”
“We were mocked as racists, right? I did all of the messaging on the anti-Voting Rights Act, I did all of the anti-renewal messaging. No one stood with us, we got called racists, and when the Supreme Court found we were right my language was all over the arguments,” he told TPM.
The result removed the law’s most powerful tool — the federal government’s ability to block voting changes deemed unfair to minorities. In the past, states and localities who fell under pre-clearance had to prove that their changes weren’t discriminatory. Now, the Justice Department has to prove the changes are discriminatory. And rather than deciding internally to block the new laws, DOJ officials now have to take states and localities to court, a much slower and less predictable process. That has often allowed jurisdictions to temporarily enforce their changes while waiting to see if courts ruled against them. It also puts a greater burden on civil rights groups to pick up the DOJ’s slack with lawsuits.
Robinson scoffed at the idea that Georgia Republicans want to suppress the black vote.
“These groups that work on these voting rights issues need fundraising hooks, so when they can find a Republican to demonize they’ll demonize him,” he said. “They made Brian Kemp one of their villains. But I don’t think it reflects his record. I honestly believe that if he set out to suppress the black vote he’s failed miserably, because they’re voting just fine.”
Kemp’s office pointed out that there are now 6.7 million registered voters in the state, up from 5.8 million when he took office in 2010 — a faster increase than the state’s population growth. But it’s unclear whether that registration growth was spurred by anything he did, or renewed voter registration efforts from outside groups.
Kemp also created an online voting registration system and a voter registration phone app, which has processed 200,000 new voters in the last four years.
Republicans also expanded early mail-in voting last decade, allowing voters to cast ballots by mail without having to give a reason and making it easier to vote.
“My policies and my record are very clear that I have made it easier to vote,” Kemp recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have made the elections process more accessible to people in Georgia, not less, despite their rhetoric.”
But many of Kemp’s other actions undercut that argument.
Shortly after the Shelby County decision, Kemp sent a letter to the counties advising them that this meant they no longer had to check in with the feds before closing down local precincts. That’s led to a rash of precinct and early voting closures.
According to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 214 polling places have been shuttered statewide since — 8 percent of all polling places in Georgia. They’ve been disproportionately in rural, poorer, and blacker counties.
Republicans argue those closures are simply cost-saving measures. Democrats vehemently disagree.
That fight is ongoing, and has flared up again this election. But it wasn’t the battle that drew the most attention heading into the 2014 midterms.
Midterm Mayhem And Hurricane Fights
As Abrams geared up for her big voter registration push in 2014, she says she reached out to Kemp’s office to work with them to make sure she was doing everything by the book. Kemp sent staff to help train her organizers.
After receiving a few complaints alleging misbehavior by employees of Abrams’ group, Kemp’s office met with her staff in early summer to work further on best practices.
Over the summer, as her group submitted tens of thousands of voter registrations, Republicans grew increasingly nervous that Abrams’ push would pay immediate dividends. Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and Carter were neck-and-neck in gubernatorial polls, and Abrams’ friend Michelle Nunn (D), the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), was mounting a credible Senate bid.
In September Kemp suddenly pounced, publicly accusing Abrams’ group of “significant illegal activities” and slapping them with a subpoena. It became Georgia’s largest voter fraud investigation this decade.
“We launched a formal investigation and found significant proof of fraud,” a Kemp spokesman said as the office began its investigation that September. “We need to get to the bottom of this fraud.”
That claim turned out to be mostly bunk, and the investigation came up mostly empty. Just a few dozen voter registrations were found to be potentially fraudulent out of the tens of thousands of applications. Kemp’s own investigator found that while some low-level field staff may have screwed things up, Abrams was not at fault — and there was no conspiracy by organization leaders.
“In 2005, Georgia Republicans passed one of the first, and strictest, voting identification laws in the country, an early salvo in the GOP’s nationwide effort to use false claims of widespread voting fraud to push for strict ID laws that disproportionately affect minority voters.”
But the investigation had a chilling effect, sliming her group’s efforts just before the election and forcing them to spend time and money fighting Kemp’s investigation rather than registering voters.
Republicans think she should be held accountable. But some concede that with a sprawling new project like hers, it’s no surprise that there were issues.
“Anytime you do something like that or a canvassing effort, you’ve got to manage that project very tightly. Even if you manage that project very tightly there could be some issues with it,” said Chip Lake, a longtime Georgia GOP strategist. “I’ve done quite a bit of paid canvassing and paid door-to-door and I can tell you it’s a management nightmare.”
There may be some legitimate issues around the New Georgia Project’s efficiency. But after a major inquisition, Kemp’s office came up empty: The probe was quietly dropped in 2017. Abrams and the group were not charged with any wrongdoing, and while some independent contractors’ work was scrutinized no one was prosecuted.
Kemp’s second fight with Abrams had a deeper impact.
Abrams’ group took Kemp to court that fall, claiming that nearly half of the 85,000 potential voters they said they’d helped register that year weren’t on the rolls.
Kemp argued that Abrams’ group was making up that number and claimed they’d processed everyone who’d registered by the voting deadline. A GOP-appointed judge ruled against Abrams, saying the law didn’t force Kemp to process voter registrations by Election Day even if they were submitted before the state’s registration deadline.
In the year after the election, more than 18,000 of those voters were added to the rolls, showing that their applications had been slow-walked.
The problem, say voting rights advocates, lay partly in how Kemp’s office was verifying voter applications — a process known as exact match.
That system checks new registration information against driver’s license, state ID card and Social Security records to make sure the submitted information perfectly matches that in state systems. If even an accent or a hyphen is missing from a name, the application gets blocked.
People got mailed letters giving them just 30 days to figure out what was wrong with their application, without an explanation of what didn’t match. Almost 35,000 voting applications were canceled from 2013-2016 due to exact match problems, two thirds of them from African Americans and just 14 percent of them from white applicants, according to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which sued Kemp over the process.
Devin Butler spent last summer working as an intern for his aunt Helen Butler’s voter registration group, the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda. But when the 18-year-old from Alpharetta tried to get himself registered, he ran into a problem.
The county claimed his name didn’t match their records. But the letter was addressed to Devon, not Devin.
He was lucky, as it’s often not that apparent what the issue is. And he’s luckier that his aunt is well versed in the law. She had to threaten to file a complaint and present a copy of the original form proving the mistake had been on the registrar’s end before he could get on the rolls, he said.
“If it wasn’t for my aunt it probably would have been a lot longer [fight] and there’s a chance that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to register,” Butler said.
After fighting with civil rights groups for years, Kemp finally reached a compromise that kept him from using parts of the system in 2016. Civil rights groups thought that had resolved the issue for good. But that was not to be.
Kemp also sparred with activists in 2016 over extending the deadline for voting applications for five coastal counties who’d been hit by Hurricane Matthew right before the deadline. Kemp refused, attacking “left-wing activists” for disagreeing.
A judge directed Kemp to let Chatham County, which includes Savannah, to extend its voter registration deadline because it had closed its offices during the storm — but not four other nearby counties.
And during the hotly contested special election to replace Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) in early 2017, during Democrats’ push to find new voters for Jon Ossoff, Kemp tried to shorten the voter registration window by setting the deadline 30 days before the first round of voting. A federal judge ruled that violated federal law.
Kemp and Abrams had been plotting their runs for governor for nearly a decade by the time the 2018 elections rolled around. But first, they had to win their nominations.
Abrams used her years-in-the-making national fundraising network and reputation as a voting rights crusader to easily defeat Stacey Evans, a white state lawmaker.
Kemp had a tougher challenge. First, he needed to stand out as the most anti-establishment, pro-Trump candidate in a crowded field in order to make the runoff against Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R), the establishment favorite.
He did so by running hard right.
“I’ve got a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself. Yep, I just said that,” he said in one campaign ad. “If you want a politically incorrect conservative, that’s me.”
After years of sparring, Abrams and Kemp are finally facing off for the state’s most powerful position. And while they’ve slightly tempered their rhetoric for the general election, both are running campaigns largely focused on turning out their own party bases.
The court battles have continued as well.
Kemp refused to follow the example set by some past secretaries of state who resigned to run for higher office to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
And Georgia Republicans have reopened a legal can of worms. In early 2017 the legislature passed a law that essentially codified the exact match practice Kemp had just been forced to modify.
Under the new law, people whose registrations are still pending have 26 months to correct the problem, and get one notice by mail advising them of the issue. They can still vote in-person provided they present a driver’s license or other form of photo ID, something that minorities are less likely to have, or cast a provisional vote and return within three days with valid proof of identification.
“We sued and were successful, and now we have a state legislature adopting a law that essentially puts that rule back into effect,” Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told TPM. “That’s the kind of deep voter suppression we’ve seen across Georgia. They’ve been relentless, and even when they see the writing on the wall they’re willing to face the threat of litigation because even in that interim period the damage is done.”
Other problems abound.
Experts say Georgia’s touch-screen voting system isn’t safe from hackers. Kemp and the legislature refused to adopt systems that include paper ballots in time for the 2018 elections, making it impossible to audit Georgia’s vote to make sure the state’s elections aren’t hacked. A judge recently ruled that it was too late to force Kemp to change before this election, while admonishing him for not doing so earlier.
Abrams’ team is concerned. To minimize worries about both in-person voters getting rejected and concerns about digital-only voting machines, her campaign has sent out more than 1 million absentee ballot applications to likely supporters. She often promotes the state Democratic Party’s voter protection hotline.
And Democrats are on high alert for other problems.
Earlier this year, an outside advisor recommended by Kemp quietly pushed for the black-majority Randolph County to close voting locations.
Civil rights groups found out and raised hell, shaming the county into keeping the poll locations open. Once the story was in the headlines Kemp said he opposed the closures and said he had nothing to do with suggesting them. But Democrats continue to claim he was behind this effort — and many others.
“As we saw in Randolph County a few weeks ago you can beat things back but it’s hard to catch, you don’t know where Brian Kemp has been and who he’s been talking to,” said Henderson, the Common Cause head.
Her group is also fighting Kemp’s regular voter roll purges, which the Supreme Court cleared by allowing a similar law in Ohio. Anyone who hasn’t voted for three years is placed on an inactive voter list, and permanently removed from the rolls if they don’t respond to a mail piece asking them to confirm their voting address within 30 days.
According to the Brennan Center, Kemp’s office has purged 1.5 million registered voters from the rolls since 2012. It’s unclear how many of those were legitimate removals — people who have died, moved out of the state, or are now felons — and how many were improperly removed. Civil rights groups have concerns that as many as 20 percent of those should have been left on the rolls.
In early October, a muck-racking journalist and activist launched a lawsuit against Kemp with the aim of forcing him to reveal whether he’s using a flawed and controversial program designed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) to check whether voters are registered in other states, in order to remove them. Some civil rights groups offered support to the push, though they privately said they didn’t expect it to yield much.
If past is prologue, voting rights advocates could get more October surprises. And the election’s results will have long-term impact.
Georgia’s heavily gerrymandered statehouse isn’t going to flip, meaning that a Kemp victory will give hardline conservatives unchecked power to do whatever they want for the next four years.
“After years of sparring, Abrams and Kemp are finally facing off for the state’s most powerful position.”
Deal, a business-minded moderate, led a bipartisan criminal justice reform push in the state. He’s also blocked some of Republicans’ most controversial legislation, including a push to ban transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice. Kemp supported the bathroom bill, and on the trail has talked up cracking down on gangs and crime, not helping low-level offenders get out of jail.
Redistricting also looms large. For the first time since the Voting Rights Act passed in the 1960s, Georgia won’t have to get pre-approval from the federal government for its maps. It’s unlikely the Trump DOJ will push any other lawsuits either.
That means that even if maps are are an obvious racial gerrymander, the only recourse for civil rights groups will be to sue — an unpredictable process in which the maps are often used for a number of elections before they’re forced to be redrawn, if they’re every thrown out at all.
“It’s frightening,” said Clarke, the head of the Lawyers Committee. “We’ve seen voter suppression unleashed since the Shelby County ruling and sadly I expect those efforts will intensify as we move into the 2020 redistricting cycle.”
But an Abrams win will give Democrats a clear check on that process — and a chance to block other controversial laws as they look potentially compete for control if fairer maps are put in place.
And for the first time in a long time, Georgia Democrats are hopeful that a change is going to come.
“He’s made it harder, more difficult for people to register and vote,” Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights legend and Abrams backer, told TPM. “I think she’s going to prevail in spite of everything. The people of Georgia are ready.”
This story was updated at 9:20 p.m. to more fully explain the state’s exact match law.
Cameron Joseph is TPM’s Washington, D.C.-based senior political correspondent.
House Democrats’ lead in the generic congressional ballot has slightly increased in the wake of the bombshell hearing for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, according to a newly released survey from CNN — numbers that conflict with some other recent polling and push back on the narrative that the Kavanaugh hearings were a political win for the GOP.
Democrats lead in the new survey of likely voters by 54 percent to 41 percent, a 13-point edge. That’s up from 10 points when SSRN last polled for CNN in early September.
Those numbers are some of the best recent poll figures for Democrats. And while they should be looked at in the broader scope of things, they suggest the building narrative that the Kavanaugh confirmation was a disaster for Democrats isn’t totally correct.
Of the eight reputable national pollsters to survey the generic congressional poll since the Sept. 27 hearings, three including CNN have found an increase for Democrats’ lead in the generic congressional ballot since the last time those pollsters were in the field, three have found Democrats’ lead shrinking, and two have found essentially no change.
That’s a sign that at least on the House side, the Kavanaugh fights may have had a negligible effect on the overall battle.
That doesn’t mean the confirmation hearings couldn’t be deeply problematic for Democrats in certain states and districts, especially red states. That’s because the Kavanaugh fight undoubtedly galvanized both parties’ bases, and in places with key Senate races like Tennessee and North Dakota that’s certainly not helpful, as anything that polarizes both sides equally in the national fight will only help Republicans in Republican strongholds.
Senate Democratic strategists tell TPM that their candidates in the deep-red states saw some overall degradation in their numbers around the time of Kavanaugh hearings, numbers that have been borne out by some other recent public surveys.
But the argument from some Republican strategists that the Kavanaugh fight has drained the blue wave seems far-fetched, according to this survey and others.
Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) last-minute announcement that he will vote to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court triggered fury from many Democrats — including some who’d previously worked for him.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) will vote to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, he announced Friday, making him the only Senate Democrat to support Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“My heart goes out to anyone who has experienced any type of sexual assault in their life. However, based on all of the information I have available to me, including the recently completed FBI report, I have found Judge Kavanaugh to be a qualified jurist who will follow the Constitution and determine cases based on the legal findings before him,” he said in a statement.
The announcement came just hours after he voted yes on a key procedural measure to advance Kavanaugh to a final vote. As he did with the procedural vote, Manchin waited until his close ally, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), announced her position on confirming Kavanaugh before taking a position himself. While Manchin sought to avoid having to be the deciding vote for Kavanaugh, it appears Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) may end up missing the vote because of his daughter’s wedding, making Manchin the potential deciding vote in a 50-49 split. The timing isn’t likely to temper Democrats’ rage at him any less, as evidenced by anti-Kavanaugh protestors’ chants of “shame on you” as Manchin walked through his Senate office building shortly after the vote.
The red-state senator’s decision makes him the only Democrat to back Kavanaugh. All other red-state Democrats facing tough reelection fights, including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN), who’d voted to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, said they couldn’t support Kavanaugh.
Manchin said he’d been torn about the decision, saying he had “reservations about this vote given the serious accusations against Judge Kavanaugh and the temperament he displayed in the hearing.”
But Manchin has spent the past two years courting Trump and his voters as he steeled himself for a tough reelection fight in a state Trump carried by a 41-point margin. And while he’s held a lead in all polls of his race, there were signs that the polarizing and emotional fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination could be putting his reelection at risk.
Manchin’s lead over West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) was down to four points in a recent poll conducted for the GOP’s top super-PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund. That poll and another conducted for a different conservative group found that a vote against Kavanaugh would further damage Manchin’s standing with the Trump voters he needs to hang onto to win.
Manchin’s own internal poll released after the Kavanaugh hearing had him with a 12-point lead, so it’s unclear how much the debate had damaged his standing. But it’s clear there was political risk for him to take the vote.
Democratic strategists privately concede that the Kavanaugh fight has helped galvanize the GOP base. That’s an especially problematic development in the battle for the Senate, where most of the toughest fights are in deep red states. The one other major Democrat to announce he would back Kavanaugh is former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), who’s in a tight Senate battle with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).
It remains to be seen how much their votes against Kavanaugh will hurt Heitkamp, Donnelly and McCaskill, or whether Bredesen and Manchin will face enough backlash from what makes up the Democratic bases in their states for it to be truly problematic. Manchin did lose 30 percent of the Democratic primary vote to a little-known challenger last spring, and he needs every vote to win his reelection.
It’s also quite possible that this will not be the issue animating voters on either side a month from now, given how dramatically news cycles shift in the Trump era.
But where Heitkamp and Donnelly stuck their necks out, Manchin decided to go where polls show the majority of his state’s voters are. That could help keep him come out ahead of Morrisey.