Kansas Democrat Faces Uphill Battle to Win Congressional Seat

The first congressional election of Donald Trump’s presidency is one week away. Although Republicans are strongly favored to retain the seat formerly held by Rep. Mike Pompeo, the race is seen as the Democrats’ first test of candidates, messages, strategies, and tactics in an effort to win a series of special elections over the course of the next three months, and to prepare for midterm elections in 2018. Kansas Democrats chose James Thompson, a civil rights attorney from Wichita, as their standard bearer to run against state treasurer Ron Estes. Can a Democrat win in a solidly Republican state representing a district that includes Koch Industries? The answer is yes, though it will be an uphill battle based on historical trends and more recent developments in the state. If elected, Thompson would be the first Democrat to hold the seat in more than two decades, and would be the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation.

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South Carolina Democrats Will Have a Primary

After nearly 48 hours as the only declared Democrat running in South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District, Archie Parnell will have competition in the form of Alexis Frank, who declared her candidacy for the special election today. Here’s the statement from South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison:

“I commend Alexis Frank for jumping into this race.  Democrats in the 5th District are looking forward to a substantive primary campaign to hear how all the candidates would work to improve people’s lives.  With Donald Trump and his rubber-stamp Republican Congress threatening to cause great harm to millions of Americans, the stakes could not be higher.  Whoever 5th District Democratic primary voters choose, I am confident that Democrats will be unified behind a nominee with an agenda to bring South Carolinians together and expand opportunity for all.”

This means Parnell’s hope of winning the nomination by default as the only Democrat in the race is over.  He and Frank will have to compete for the party’s nomination in the primary, scheduled for May 2. Candidates from both parties still have until Monday, March 13 to file the papers to get in the race.  If one or more Democrats decide to do so, and neither Parnell nor Frank are able to get a majority of the vote on May 2, there is a runoff scheduled for May 16 if necessary.

UPDATE: I just spoke with Frankie Norstad, who helped launch Alexis Frank’s campaign. The paperwork was filed this afternoon, and her staffing, website, social media, campaign fundraising, etc. should be up and ready to go by Monday.

Some biographical information about the candidate, all from Norstad:

  • Alexis Frank is a 26-year-old mother of two children married to a U.S. Marine currently based in North Carolina.
  • She was born in Hartsville, S.C. and is a graduate of Rock Hill High School, where her mother is still a teacher. Her brother teaches at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, and is openly gay.
  • She enlisted in the Army Reserve at 17, and worked as an Army paralegal for six years.
  • She is two weeks away from graduating with a degree in Project Management.
  • This is her first run for elected office.
  • Frank first thought about running for the seat a little more than two weeks ago, after she saw an online video produced by Norstad looking for candidates to run in the upcoming special elections. She made the decision to run this morning.
  • Norstad: “This girl is hope and passion bottled up and delivered.”

Democratic Candidate Enters South Carolina Special Election

Archie Parnell, a Goldman Sachs adviser, became the first – and so far, only – Democrat to declare for the special election for South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District. The race was called to fill the seat held by Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who resigned from Congress to take the job of OMB Director in the White House.

A series of special elections in Georgia, Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina being held over the next three months to fill vacant congressional seats are widely seen as an early test of whether or not Democrats are able to harness some of the energy of the anti-Trump protests and turn it into tangible electoral results. All were held by Republican congressmen, and all four states have been traditionally Republican in presidential elections.

South Carolina has been a difficult state for Democrats on the ballot in recent years. It is one of the reddest states in the country, and the Fifth Congressional District has been voting progressively more Republican over the past several years.  Mulvaney ousted Democratic incumbent John Spratt 55-44 in the 2010 Tea Party wave election, and was reelected in each subsequent election by 11-21 points until his resignation.  According to Parnell’s communications director John Kraljevic, a centrist Democrat can win the district running on a positive message about the party’s positions than on opposition or obstruction to President Donald Trump or House Speaker Paul Ryan. “It’s easier to run for the ideals of the Democratic Party and the ideals of people back home than to run against any particular individual.”

Kraljevic said that a winning map for Parnell would require the candidate to keep the margin in York County – which is predominantly Republican – close, while running up the vote margin in neighboring Chester, Fairfield and Sumter counties. Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University, agreed with that assessment, but noted that Parnell’s victory strategy would require strong turnout among Democratic voters who tend to vote less regularly in off-year or special elections. If Parnell is able to tap into an anti-Trump movement in the district, he might be able to buck this historic trend.

Another factor working against Parnell is the fact that York County, the fastest growing region in the state, is becoming more Republican because of people from Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding areas moving 25 minutes away across the state line because of South Carolina’s lower taxes. These transplants tend to be white, college-educated, wealthier, and Republican – with most growth in the areas of Tega Cay, Lake Wylie and Fort Mill.  On top of that, the district’s Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) dropped from 29.45 percent after the 2010 census under the old district lines to 26.46 percent under the new district lines. A victory in this election by Parnell or any other Democratic candidate, though an uphill battle, would be seen as an upset.

In a statement, South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison said, “As we wait to see whether there will be a Democratic primary, today’s announcement ensures that 5th District voters will have at least one candidate with sensible ideas on how to expand opportunity for all and fulfill Congress’s constitutional role as a check against a power-hungry President.”

Candidates have until Monday, March 13 at noon to file the paperwork to enter the race. According to a state party official, if no other Democrat enters the race, Parnell becomes the Democratic nominee by default with the full support of the South Carolina Democratic Party. If one or more other Democratic candidates decide to enter the race, there will be a primary, in which the state party will remain neutral, but will get behind whoever emerges as the nominee.

In contrast, the South Carolina Republican Party has a deep bench of candidates throughout the state. Seven candidates have already declared for the Republican nomination in this race. According to Huffmon, two of them – Tommy Pope and Ralph Norman – are state legislators with strong name recognition in York County, and a third – Chad Connelly – is a former state Republican Party chairman. The primary election is scheduled for May 2, with primary runoffs scheduled for May 16 if necessary. The general election date is set for June 20.

UPDATE: A second Democrat, Alexis Frank, has entered the race, meaning there will be a primary to win the nomination.

Rob Quist Wins Democratic Nomination

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Rob Quist and his family speaking to reporters after winning the Montana Democratic Party nomination to run for the state seat in the House of Representatives.
Photo credit: David de Sola

HELENA, Mont. – Rob Quist, a political novice from Flathead Valley, won the Montana Democratic Party’s nomination to run for the state’s at-large seat in the House of Representatives.  Quist, a musician, will face off against the Montana Republican Party’s nominee in a special election scheduled for May 25 to fill the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, who was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior last week.

“I really feel like I’ve been representing the state of Montana all my life, through my music,” Quist told reporters after his victory. “Instead of playing music and providing entertainment for people, we’ll be giving speeches and hopefully trying to energize people.”

“I really feel that with my connection to the people of the state of Montana, and they recognize that I’m someone that stood up for Montana values all my life,” he added. “I really don’t feel like I’m the underdog here.”

Former Rep. Pat Williams agreed with that assessment, saying “Rob Quist has a bit of an upper hand because he’s known throughout Montana, particularly in eastern Montana, small towns, and the bigger cities. They know him, so he’s going to do well.”

Dawn Gandalf, Vice-Chair of the Sanders County Central Committee, addressed the issue of the party not reaching out to rural communities and voters, which was the subject of at least one meeting during the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in Atlanta last week.  “To have the state start getting involved in recognizing rural communities, it’s been a problem in our state because we are such a huge state,” she explained. “All the attention and funds have gone to the seven or eight top cities, urban cities, and nothing to the outlying. So on the outlying communities, you have people who are voting, but they’re neglected and there’s no support.”

She cites Sanders County – a rural county in the northwest part of the state – as an example, saying it has become “a stranglehold of the Tea Party.” According to the Montana Secretary of State, Donald Trump won this county by a whopping 73-21 margin.

Quist won the race on the fourth and final ballot 90-69 in a head-to-head matchup with State Rep. Amanda Curtis (D-Billings). Curtis became the party’s nominee in the 2014 Senate race against Steve Daines, after interim Senator John Walsh dropped out of the race because of a plagiarism scandal.  Quist’s victory was announced by Williams, who was the last Democrat to represent Montana in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1997.

“I feel better about Democrats’ chances now than I’ve had in quite a number of years,” Williams said during an interview. “In my opinion, this is going to be a very good race for Democrats.”

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Montana Democratic activists and delegates gathered after the convention to discuss plans for Quist’s campaign over the next 80 days. The general election is scheduled for May 25.
Photo credit: David de Sola

One early sign of energy among the Democratic base in the state was the Women’s March in Helena on January 21. Gandalf said that while organizers originally estimated a turnout of 1,200, the actual number who came to the march was 10,000.

That energy may not necessarily be limited to Montana. Dan West, a former Obama administration political appointee at NASA who ran for the party’s nomination in this race and dropped out after the second ballot, felt optimistic about this race getting national attention and support from Democrats outside the state. “The national party is eyeing [this special election]. There’s no other races happening right now to funnel money away,” he said during an interview. West added that he would send out an email to his Obama alumni network to urge them to support Quist in this race.

During his closing speech before delegates began voting, Quist offered unequivocal defenses of the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, public lands, and public education. Despite the fierce opposition to Republican-controlled Washington that has been building within the Democratic base nationwide, Quist is running on a platform of state issues that matter to voters, not hardline opposition or obstructionism. “He’s not running against Paul Ryan or Donald Trump,” Gallatin County Vice-Chair Elizabeth Marum said. “He’s running to put everyday average Montanans at the forefront of his optics, and we have a lot of needs.”

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Montana Democratic Party officials counting votes after the first ballot.
Photo credit: David de Sola

The Montana Republican Party is holding its nominating convention tomorrow. Several Democrats said they expect businessman Greg Gianforte – the GOP nominee in the 2016 gubernatorial race – to win the nomination.  Gianforte lost his race in the same election that saw Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke win statewide by 20 and 16 points last November.

When asked what Quist and the Montana Democratic Party need to do to win, Williams said, “What Democrats have to do to win is continue to talk to seniors, workers, and Indian tribal people. With that combination, and a couple of other things thrown in, they used to win, and they can again.”

Quist and Curtis Will Face Off in Fourth and Final Ballot

HELENA, Mont. – Montana Democratic Party delegates were still divided on the third ballot, with no winner emerging.  The results:

  • 160 votes were cast.
  • Rob Quist:  72
  • Rep. Kelly McCarthy: 37
  • Rep. Amanda Curtis: 51

Kelly McCarthy, the lowest-vote getter, was eliminated from the fourth and final ballot, which will be Rob Quist and Amanda Curtis in a head-to-head matchup.  McCarthy lost five votes from the second ballot, while Quist and Curtis increased their tallies by 10 and four votes respectively.  A minimum of 81 votes are necessary to secure the nomination.

Voting for the fourth ballot is under way.

Three-Way Race Between Quist, McCarthy and Curtis Emerges After Second Ballot

HELENA, Mont. – Montana Democrats were not able to pick their congressional nominee on the second ballot. The results:

  • 160 votes were cast.
  • Rob Quist:  62
  • Rep. Kelly McCarthy: 42
  • Gary Stein: 1
  • Rep. Amanda Curtis: 47
  • Dan West: 8

Dan West dropped out of the race after the second ballot. Gary Stein was eliminated as the lowest vote-getter on the second ballot.  Voting on the third ballot is underway, with Rob Quist, Kelly McCarthy and Amanda Curtis as the remaining candidates.

No Winner on the Montana Democrats’ First Ballot

HELENA, Mont. — None of the eight candidates running for the Montana Democratic Party’s nomination for the upcoming state congressional election came away with a 50 percent plus one majority after the first ballot. The results announced by Montana Democratic Party Chairman Jim Larson:

  • 158 votes were cast.
  • 1 vote was spoiled and did not count.
  • Rob Quist:  57
  • John Meyer: 0
  • Rep. Kelly McCarthy: 38
  • Gary Stein: 6
  • Tom Weida: 0
  • Link Neimark: 0
  • Rep. Amanda Curtis: 39
  • Dan West: 17

There is currently a ten-minute break before the second ballot, which will consist of Quist, McCarthy, Stein, Curtis, and West.  Under the rules, Meyer, Weida and Neimark are eliminated.