Midterm Wildcards to Watch

Almost four and a half months out from Election Day, here is a list of potential October surprises that could play a role in determining the outcome. Because Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress, most of these developments would probably work against them politically.

The President’s Trade Wars

The United States government has been involved in an escalatory tit-for-tat feud with Canada, Mexico and the European Union on the subject of tariffs. They haven’t taken effect yet, but their impact (or lack thereof) should be known by November.  The available evidence from early news reports suggests that the tariffs imposed on the United States will specifically target states and voters Donald Trump won in the presidential election.  Here’s an example: according to the Des Moines Register, China’s tariffs on U.S. soybeans could cost Iowa farmers as much as $624 million, according to projected estimates from an Iowa State University economist.

The economy is currently at almost full employment, and there is little or nothing the U.S. government can do to stimulate it further in light of last year’s tax cut.  If it takes a tumble in the late summer or early fall as a consequence of trade wars, voters may take it out on President Trump or his party.

The Mueller Investigation

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is now in jail after charges of witness tampering, will go on criminal trial in two jurisdictions in the second half of this year.  As of this writing, his trial in Virginia is scheduled to begin on July 25, and his trial in Washington DC is scheduled to begin on September 17. Assuming he goes through with both trials and does not work out a plea deal with federal prosecutors, potentially embarrassing revelations about the Trump presidential campaign could come out during the course of testimony and cross-examination in either trial.

Beyond that, it is not known if more indictments or plea deals are coming in connection with the case. Mueller’s office has been notoriously leak proof. Most reporters have gotten their scoops from talking to witnesses or lawyers involved in the case, or from keeping a close eye on the case docket for new legal filings from Mueller’s office.  Journalists and pundits who have been following the case are expecting an indictment in connection with the 2016 hacking of the Democrats’ emails and communications.

It’s unclear if the 60-day rule that James Comey ignored during the Clinton email investigation would apply here. If it does, that means Mueller can’t issue any indictments or take any other major actions in the case after early September. However, since (as far as we know) he isn’t investigating or about to indict anyone running for elected office in November, it’s possible the rule doesn’t apply. If Manafort’s DC trial begins as scheduled on September 17, assuming it takes several weeks it could potentially wrap up in October with a grand jury decision shortly after, before Election Day.

There is also an army of journalists working around the clock trying to find new scoops to report on the investigation, and they aren’t bound by any 60-day rule or fears of impacting an election.

North Korea

President Trump invested an enormous amount of political capital in his summit with Kim Jong Un, and tries to tout it as a great success that he can run on in the midterms. However, the North Koreans have a long reputation for not upholding their end of previous bargains. Most North Korea observers wouldn’t count on much of anything on the basis of Kim Jong Un’s word, though it is unlikely he would do anything to antagonize Trump in light of what was a very successful summit from the North Korean perspective.

For what it’s worth, North Korea has previously done three nuclear tests (2006, 2016, 2017) in the weeks leading up to U.S. elections, although there is no evidence that the timing was politically motivated in terms of influencing a U.S. domestic audience. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the 2016 test coincided with the 68th anniversary of North Korea’s founding.

Separation of Immigrant Families

This story has exploded within the past week or so and is only going to get bigger. The optics and morality of this policy have been condemned by members of both parties. Former first lady Laura Bush explicitly compared it to Japanese internment policy during World War II.  Making it worse is the messaging incoherence of the administration, which is simultaneously arguing that 1) it’s the Democrats’ fault (President Trump), 2) it is a policy that is explicitly meant to deter illegal immigration (Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House aides Stephen Miller and John Kelly), and 3) there is no policy (Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen). The optics of members of Congress being blocked from inspecting facilities are also not good. Remember, they have a right and responsibility to do so because these facilities are run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

More of these detention centers are being set up, just as peak summer temperatures are about to hit in border states like Texas. One senior administration official projected that as many as 30,000 children could be in these facilities by the end of the summer. If this situation isn’t resolved before November, assume that like the airports during the Muslim ban controversy, these detention centers will become flashpoints for public protests.  There are also key elections in border states which could be impacted by the politics of this issue – House races in California, the Senate and governor’s races in Arizona, and the Senate and House races in Texas.

School Shootings

Historically, young voters have been the least reliable age demographic in getting out to the polls. That may change this year in no small part because of the efforts of the Parkland shooting survivors, who have made it their mission to take on the gun lobby and politicians who won’t pass gun control measures. They are currently focusing on registering young voters who will be of voting age for the November midterms. If (God forbid) another shooting happens during the runup to Election Day, the gun control issue could become highly salient and a very powerful closing argument.

If you want proof that the Parkland students have had an impact in reframing and reshaping the gun control debate in ways that others haven’t, here it is: the NRA took down from its website the old grades it had given to lawmakers.

Supreme Court Vacancy

As was the case in 2016, a surprise vacancy on the Supreme Court – especially if it’s swing justice Anthony Kennedy or a liberal justice like Ruth Bader Ginsburg – would fire up conservative voters who might otherwise have stayed home. Few issues mobilize conservatives like judges, which will be one of Donald Trump’s lasting legacies long after he leaves the presidency.

Do Virginia Republicans Have a Corey Stewart Problem?

Conservative firebrand Corey Stewart won the Republican nomination to take on incumbent Democratic Senator Tim Kaine this fall. He almost won the party’s nomination a little more than a year ago, in a narrow loss to establishment-favored Ed Gillespie in the primary for governor. (Gillespie wound up losing the general election by almost nine points) Stewart, who was the Virginia co-chairman of the Trump presidential campaign two years ago, was immediately endorsed by President Trump after securing the nomination.

Why are some Republicans worried about him being their top statewide candidate in the Commonwealth of Virginia this fall?

Stewart emerged as a fierce defender of the Confederate monuments scattered throughout the commonwealth last year in the wake of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville.  Stewart has also associated himself with rally organizer Jason Kessler. Stewart also spoke highly of far-right figure Paul Nehlen, who has expressed anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic views and is currently running for the Republican nomination to fill the Wisconsin congressional seat being vacated by outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. According to the New York Times, Stewart has since distanced himself from both Kessler and Nehlen.

Stewart shares President Trump’s hardline views on immigration. As chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, he pushed a proposal that would have allowed police to check the immigration status of anyone they arrested. He also pushed the birther conspiracy theory in a tweet last year about the Alabama Senate race. Steve Bannon once called him the “titular head of the Trump movement” in Virginia.

One concern is that Virginia – which has slowly but steadily become a more Democratic state at local, state, congressional and presidential levels – will again reject the Stewart-Trump brand of culture warrior politics.

Virginia Democrats have more or less cracked the code to consistently win statewide races in the commonwealth over the past fifteen years or so, through a combination of candidate recruitment and favorable demographic trends. They have done this so well that they managed to exceed their own expectations during last November’s statewide elections.  Not only did they manage to hold all of the statewide offices, but they came within one seat of getting a 50-50 tie in the House of Delegates, erasing what had been a 66-seat Republican supermajority.

Beyond that, Stewart’s popularity as the highest-ranking Republican on the statewide ballot this year – or the lack thereof – could have a trickle-down effect on other Republicans in down-ticket races. Just as national Republicans are often asked to comment on President Trump’s controversies, Virginia Republicans could be put in a similar bind. According to University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato:

On the day after Stewart’s primary victory, Republican former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling tweeted:

Initial signs from national Republican organizations are not looking good for Stewart. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told CNN the organization has no plans to get involved in the Virginia Senate race. The Republican National Committee has not commented on whether or not it will support Stewart, despite him having secured President Trump’s endorsement.

Stewart could wind up suppressing Republican voter turnout – meaning that voters who might otherwise vote for other Republican candidates could opt to stay home or vote for third party or write-in candidates. If Republican voters don’t turn out in November because they don’t like Stewart, it could have a net negative effect on endangered House Republicans like Barbara Comstock and Dave Brat, or the race to hold the open seat being vacated by Thomas Garrett. The good news for Republicans is that because elections for the state legislature aren’t until 2019, there are only a few down-ballot races this year – a handful of school board and municipal elections throughout the state. Essentially, any negative down-ballot fallout would likely be limited to congressional races.

Larry Sabato and the Cook Political Report both currently project the Virginia Senate race as safely Democratic.

June 12 Primary Results

There were primaries for state and federal races across the country earlier this week.  Here are some of the highlights:

MAINE:

  • This will be the first election using the new ranked-choice voting system, which was approved by state voters in 2016. How this system works is explained here by the New York Times. Voters across the state opted to retain this system 54-46.
  • Businessman Shawn Moody won the Republican nomination to succeed term-limited incumbent governor Paul LePage. He will run against the likely Democratic nominee, state attorney general Janet Mills. Votes from the Democratic primary are still being counted because of the ranked-choice system.
  • State representative Jared Golden is holding a lead for his party’s nomination to compete against incumbent Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin in the state’s second congressional district. However, conservationist and businessman Lucas St. Clair has yet to concede the race because he is waiting for the final results to come in through the ranked-choice voting system.

NEVADA:

  • Clark County Commission chairman Steve Sisolak will face off against Attorney General Adam Laxalt in the governor’s race. Sisolak had backing from the Harry Reid machine, which remains a formidable force in state Democratic politics.
  • Democrat Jacky Rosen (who represents Nevada’s third congressional district) will square off against incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller. Heller is considered one of the most endangered Republican incumbents in an electoral map that is heavily favored for the Senate GOP this year.
  • Democratic state Senator Aaron Ford will run against Republican former state assembly member and assistant attorney general Wes Duncan in the race for state attorney general to succeed Adam Laxalt.
  • Democratic philanthropist and education advocate Susie Lee will run against perennial Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian for the congressional seat being vacated by Jacky Rosen. Tarkanian had originally planned to mount a primary challenge against Dean Heller but was convinced to sit out the race and run for this seat instead.

NORTH DAKOTA:

SOUTH CAROLINA:

VIRGINIA:

  • Former Trump Virginia campaign chairman Corey Stewart won the Republican nomination for the Senate race this fall.  Stewart narrowly lost the Republican nomination for governor in 2017. He will square off against incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine, who ran for his party’s nomination unopposed.
  • Incumbent Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock defeated a primary challenger 60-39.  Democratic state senator Jennifer Wexton emerged from a field of six candidates to win her party’s nomination to take on Comstock, who is considered one of the most endangered Republican House incumbents this cycle. She represents a district in a state that has been trending Democratic during local, state, federal and presidential elections over the course of the last fifteen years.

Georgia Special Election Headed for June Runoff

Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old upstart making a run for Tom Price’s former congressional seat representing the Atlanta suburbs, will finish tonight’s jungle primary with approximately 48.6 percent of the vote – 1.4 percent shy of the 50 percent threshold needed to win the seat outright.  He will face off against former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel in a head-to-head runoff election on June 20.

Democrats in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District had coalesced around Ossoff, while the Republican voters were divided among 11 other candidates, with Handel emerging as the leading Republican with 19.5 percent of the vote.

The race was the focus of intense outside spending and activism, particularly on the Democratic side. Outside groups spent a combined $8.2 million in this race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The organization also reported that a staggering 95 percent of Ossoff’s campaign donations came from outside of the district.

This is the second special election for a congressional seat since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency.  Last week, Democrat James Thompson overperformed by 20 points in an ultimately losing effort to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Mike Pompeo. Ossoff, unlike Thompson, was running in a much more competitive district. Donald Trump won the district by 1.5 points, despite the fact that incumbent Republican Congressman Tom Price won reelection by 24 points, as well as the fact that the district has not had a Democratic congressman since 1979.  Though it was viewed as a more winnable seat than the Kansas counterpart up for grabs a week earlier, the concern now for Democrats is if Ossoff can still maintain or even increase his support in a race against a single Republican candidate with unified party support. It was for that reason that Ossoff and Democrats were trying to deliver a knockout punch today by clearing the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff election.

The race continues for another two months.

Ron Estes Wins Kansas Special Election

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Democratic candidate James Thompson addressed reporters at his campaign’s election watch party shortly after losing the race. Thompson had the best performance of any Democrat in this district since 1996. (Photo credit: David de Sola)

WICHITA, Kan. – State treasurer Ron Estes was elected to the House of Representatives, despite a close race by his opponent, civil rights attorney and political novice James Thompson, who had the best performance of any Democratic candidate in this district in 21 years. In a district where Republicans enjoy a 2-1 party registration advantage that President Donald Trump and Rep. Mike Pompeo won by 27 and 31 points last fall, Thompson lost by just shy of seven points. This marks a 24-point shift in the Democrats’ favor in the same race from last November.

“What’s hard to get my head around is that the last time we elected a Democrat from this district was in 1992. The last time a Democrat candidate broke 40 percent of the vote was 1996, and the guy who ran five months ago got 31 percent more of the vote than the Democrat did. It’s huge momentum,” Kansas House minority leader Jim Ward (D-Wichita) said in an interview.

Though Thompson lost the race, the mood of the candidate and his supporters at the election watch party on Tuesday night was far from defeated. Thompson told reporters that Estes didn’t win the race, attributing the victory to the last-minute interventions of President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the National Republican Congressional Committee.  Thompson also called Estes “a weak candidate” and declared his candidacy for the same seat for the 2018 midterm elections, adding, “Mr. Estes won the battle, but he didn’t win the war.”

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FILE PHOTO: Kansas Treasurer Ron Estes speaking to supporters at a rally the day before the election. (Photo credit: David de Sola)

During his victory speech, Estes took a shot at the skeptics who thought he was going to lose the race. From the Wichita Eagle’s report:

“We heard a lot from the national media and from people outside the state that we weren’t going to be able to win this race. We showed tonight that we were,” Estes said. “We’re still a Republican seat. … We sent a message across the country that we’re still Republican. That message should echo.

“For far too long, Washington hasn’t worked for us. We need to make sure that changes,” Estes said. “Tonight is a symbol of that.”

He dismissed “angst against the president” and that the election “was a chance for the Democrats.”

“We really showed the pundits tonight, didn’t we?” he asked, to applause and cheers.

Thompson started the night with strong numbers out of Sedgwick County – the most populous of the district’s 17 counties, which includes Wichita – in part because of early voting.  Estes was able to make up an initial deficit of nearly 6,000 votes in Sedgwick County in more rural counties in the district as well as voters who turned out on Election Day.  Thompson wound up winning Sedgwick County by 1,874 votes, but lost every other county in the district.

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Voters at a Wichita area polling place on Election Day. (Photo credit: David de Sola)

Emily Percival, a registered nurse who works at a local hospital in Wichita, said she voted for Thompson because “I tend to care more about social issues than big business. Because of my profession, I frequently deal with the most vulnerable in our population,” and noted Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s recent veto of Medicaid expansion which passed with bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

Susan, a paraeducator and registered Republican, said she voted for Estes in part because of the national attention on the race. “The rest of the nation is looking at this election to see if we are supportive of Donald Trump’s initiatives,” she said, while also noting her pro-life position.  She added that she had some issues with the negativity of Estes’s campaign commercial attacking Thompson on abortion, but noted “There’s never a perfect candidate.”

Mike, a retiree and registered Democrat, said he voted for Thompson because, “I’m not satisfied with the state government, which is run by Republicans. We need a change of everything, from the president on down.”

Greg Gourley, a registered Republican who works in the aerospace industry, said he crossed party lines and voted for Thompson. “Estes would support Brownback. I don’t agree with the policies of the current administration.” He also noted that he had voted for some Democratic candidates in the past, adding, “I tend to vote the issues, not the party.”

Barbara, a retiree, said “[Estes] is the best man for the job. He’s against late-term abortions. He’s a Republican, and I’d like to replace [Mike Pompeo] with another Republican.”

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman told the Wichita Eagle that turnout could potentially double the expected 20 percent, though final numbers were still not available.

Although Republicans managed to avoid what would have been a shocking upset in this race, now they must focus their attention on the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District scheduled for next week.  President Trump won that district by one point in 2016, and the Cook Political Report recently ranked the race as a toss up.

“The Democratic Party needs to remember there are more than just a few states that are in play. We need to make sure that they step up and help out and not wait until the last minute,” Thompson told reporters. “The national party was concentrating on Georgia. It’s a close race, and they should take that. We’ve shown that it’s possible. People didn’t give us credit here, didn’t think it was possible, but they came in at the last minute and tried to help out and we appreciate it. We need to make sure that we have a true 50-state strategy in place to make all races competitive.”

Though Thompson lost the election, Political Wire publisher Taegan Goddard noted the significance of the result: “A 20-point swing towards Democrats in KS-4 during Trump’s first 100 days — a.k.a. his honeymoon — is a political earthquake.”

According to Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, “[A Thompson win] would be a national event, interpreted as huge Trump loss. [A Thompson loss] under 10 point [margin] would be significant,” he wrote in an e-mail, noting this might make both national parties focus more attention on congressional races in the Second and Third Congressional Districts for the 2018 midterms.

Republicans Make Last-Minute Push to Defend Kansas Seat

 

 

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Kansas State Treasurer Ron Estes mingle with voters after a campaign rally at a Wichita airport hangar. (Photo Credit: David de Sola)

WICHITA, Kan. – Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned hundreds of local Republicans of the dangers of complacency as part of a last-minute push to turn out voters for state treasurer Ron Estes, the Republican candidate in tomorrow’s special congressional election.

“The eyes of the whole country are on Kansas,” Cruz said.

Tomorrow’s election is the first of Donald Trump’s presidency. It is also the first test of Democrats’ candidates, messages, strategies, and tactics since the presidential election. The seat previously held by Rep. Mike Pompeo had been safely Republican since the 1994 midterm elections. Though the political history and culture of the district and state at large favor Republicans, anecdotal evidence indicates that state and national Republicans are worried about losing the seat in a district that Donald Trump won by 27 points last November.  Republicans have tried to nationalize the race by tying Democratic candidate James Thompson to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who Thompson has openly cited as his inspiration for running for office. [Sanders’s post-election organization Our Revolution has endorsed Thompson.]

Besides Cruz’s last-minute campaign rally, the National Republican Congressional Committee made a $92,000 expenditure in this race. [According to the New York Times, the NRCC received a poll last week showing Estes ahead only by single digits.] House Speaker Paul Ryan sent out a fundraising email and donated $5,000. Vice President Mike Pence’s robocall, it was revealed today that President Trump himself recorded a robocall on Estes’s behalf.  The Cook Political Report shifted its assessment of the race from Likely Republican to Lean Republican. From their analysis:

Republicans familiar with recent polling describe extremely high Democratic intensity and very low GOP enthusiasm in what is likely to be a very low turnout special. More than that, Estes appears to be swept up in a last-minute vortex of factors outside his control: Democrats’ anger towards Trump, independents’ anger towards Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP dissatisfaction with early administration failures.

Estes himself was optimistic about the race entering the final stretch. “There’s been a lot of enthusiasm the last couple of weeks.  People are now starting to focus on April 11 and really going to turn out,” he said during a brief interview after the rally. “There’s a lot of people, a couple of weeks ago they were doing other things, maybe the basketball tournament. But now they’re focusing on the election and really want to have a representative.”

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State Treasurer Ron Estes addressing a campaign rally one day before Wichita area voters elect their new congressman. (Photo Credit: David de Sola)

The people at the rally were of all ages and walks of life. One local father took his two middle school-aged children out of class early so they could attend the rally on Monday afternoon, which he described as “a civics lesson.”

“I hope it turns out good,” Robert Pell, a Republican committeeman from Wichita said. He noted he had seen more yard signs for Thompson than Estes, who had not put out as many. He cited the Second Amendment and repealing Obamacare as his two major issues in this race.

Melissa Stout said this was her first campaign event, and she came to hear from both Cruz and Estes.  She ranked her issues in the election as “standing behind our president,” opposition to abortion, and support for the Second Amendment.

In his speech, Cruz mentioned four “big things” Republicans had on their plate for 2017: the Supreme Court, repealing Obamacare, regulatory reform, and tax reform.  “We have a Republican president, a Republican House and a Republican Senate. How about we act like it?” Cruz asked rhetorically, to applause from the audience. “If we accomplish all four things, 2017 will be a blockbuster year. If we fail, 2017 will be a heartbreaking year.”

A Thompson victory in the Fourth Congressional District would probably draw comparisons to Scott Brown’s improbable U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts in 2010, though Thompson’s would not be as consequential to the balance of power in Congress. The special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District scheduled for April 18 is another worry for national Republicans. The Cook Political Report recently rated the Georgia race as a toss up.

When viewed individually, the Kansas and Georgia races might be dismissed as a fluke.  Taken into conjunction, happening in two different regions of the country within the span of a week, both in districts considered safely Republican, these two races would cause alarm among Republicans. Less than one hundred days into the Trump presidency, they would be indicators of the volatility of the electorate going into 2018, particularly for Republican chances of retaining control of the House of Representatives.

Down to the Wire in Kansas

I’m traveling to Wichita tomorrow to cover the final days of the special election in the Fourth Congressional District, which is scheduled for next Tuesday.  Recent developments indicate a much closer race than predicted in a district Donald Trump won by 27 points last November. There are no public poll numbers available for this race, but recent actions taken by national Republicans to lock down this race speak volumes:

NOTE: I am told by the Sedgwick County Election Office that the early voting numbers are updated after the polls close at the end of each day, so more numbers will be coming today and in the days ahead. According to state law, early voting ends at noon on Monday.

Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky. Senator Pat Roberts and Governor Sam Brownback both won their respective races in 2014 despite showing abysmal early poll numbers and running less-than-stellar campaigns.