Federal Judge Strikes Down Tennessee Law Revoking Driver’s Licenses

Tennessee was one of approximately 40 states with laws under which drivers could lose their licenses if they were too poor to pay court costs or traffic fines. Judge Aleta Trauger struck down Tennessee’s law earlier this week, noting in her ruling:

“The damage that the lack of a driver’s license does to one’s employment prospects is just the beginning. Being unable to drive is the equivalent of a recurring tax or penalty on engaging in the wholly lawful ordinary activities of life—a tax or penalty that someone who committed the same traffic violation, but was able to pay her initial traffic debt, would never be obligated to pay.”

“As a general proposition, the cities, towns, and communities of Tennessee are pervasively structured around the use of motor vehicles. Anyone who doubts that premise is welcome to attempt to run a day’s worth of errands in a rural Tennessee county with no car and very little money… Nashville is a city where motor vehicle travel is, for the vast majority of the population, an essential part of ordinary life, particularly for anyone seeking to maintain or build economic self-sufficiency. All of these facts, together, leave very little room for doubt regarding the plaintiffs’ assertion that an indigent person who loses her driver’s license is only going to be made less likely to be able to meet the ordinary expenses of life, let alone pay hundreds of dollars in traffic debt.”

This ruling could have an impact on voter turnout in the midterm elections, where Tennessee has an open U.S. Senate race and an open governor’s race on the ballot. According to the Secretary of State’s office, “all voters must present a federal or Tennessee state ID,” which includes driver’s licenses. According to the New York Times, more than 100,000 Tennesseeans could get their licenses reinstated. Judge Trauger is also presiding over a separate lawsuit arguing that unpaid traffic fines have cost almost 250,000 Tennessee residents their licenses. The Times article also notes:

According to evidence presented in the Tennessee case, 93.4 percent of workers who reside in the state drive to work.

The state revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debts between July 2012 and June 2016. Only about 7 percent of those people were able to get their licenses reinstated in that same period.

Tennessee Democratic legislators had previously introduced bills on this subject.  A state Democratic Party official said, “We believe this is a major positive development because being poor is not a crime, and this is a huge burden lifted from many Tennesseans. Not having a valid photo ID is also a barrier to voting, so this could potentially have a positive impact on voter turnout among this group.”

The ruling could create a voter demographic that neither political party had previously accounted for, which could make the difference in a close race.  For comparison, during the last open Senate race in a mid-term election cycle in 2006, Bob Corker was elected to his first term in office by a margin of almost 50,000 votes.

NARAL Pro-Choice America Endorses Fred Hubbell for Governor of Iowa

NARAL Pro-Choice American president Ilyse Hogue endorsed Democrat Fred Hubbell for next November’s election, calling him “the champion we need in the Iowa Governor’s Mansion.” With Republicans in control of the governor and both chambers of the state legislature, the Hawkeye State has become a flashpoint in the legal and political battle over abortion rights.

Iowa state law currently prohibits abortions after twenty weeks of pregnancy. Incument Republican governor Kim Reynolds, whom Hubbell is hoping to defeat in the election, signed Senate File 359 into law last May. Known as the heartbeat bill because it would ban abortions once a heartbeat has been detected after about six weeks of pregnancy, it is considered one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

According to NPR, critics of the new law say it will prohibit abortions before some women might even know they are pregnant.   Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union both already announced their intentions to sue Governor Reynolds and the state.  The law is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.

A recent court decision does not bode well for the future of the heartbeat law. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled 5-2 last Friday that women had a right to an abortion under the state’s constitution, striking down a 2017 law requiring a 72-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion.   “Autonomy and dominion over one’s body go to the very heart of what it means to be free. At stake in this case is the right to shape, for oneself, without unwarranted governmental intrusion, one’s own identity, destiny, and place in the world,” Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in the majority opinion. “Nothing could be more fundamental to the notion of liberty. We therefore hold, under the Iowa Constitution, that implicit in the concept of ordered liberty is the ability to decide whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy.”

“Women deserve equal access to quality, affordable health care, and as governor, I am committed to making that a reality,” Hubbell said.

Supreme Court Politics and the 2018 Election Map

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire four months before the election is the best thing that could have happened to Republicans, conventional wisdom says.  It is difficult to disagree with that logic, but it is also necessary to keep in mind the counterargument – which is that enthusiasm cuts both ways. (To be fair, the more adequate word for Democrats still reeling from the announcement isn’t enthusiasm, but fear.)

Historically, Republican voters have been more motivated to go to the polls because of the issue of judicial nominations than Democrats.  Exit polls from the 2016 election confirm this view. According to CNN, 56 percent of Trump voters said Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their decision. Evidence strongly suggests that filling Supreme Court vacancies was a big reason for Donald Trump’s win. Though the stakes for filling any court vacancy are always high, they aren’t as high or urgent from the Republican perspective this time around. Why? Two years ago, the presidency was up for grabs and, with it, the next two or more court vacancies, including the seat held by Scalia which could have altered the court’s majority if Hillary Clinton had won.  Now, Donald Trump is in the middle of his first term, with a Republican-controlled Senate. It may gin up enthusiasm among some Republican voters, but it doesn’t have the same existential sense of urgency that Democrats are now feeling.

“Misery motivates, not utopia,” Karl Marx once wrote. That principle, combined with lingering anger over the Senate Republican blockade of Merrick Garland and the recent string of losses in Supreme Court decisions during the week leading up to the Kennedy retirement, strongly suggest that Democratic candidates and their allies aren’t going to treat this Supreme Court vacancy like any other opening in the past.

State Democratic parties and candidates are fundraising off the Kennedy retirement, some on the specific message of running as a defender of abortion rights. Others have spoken more generally about the urgency of electing Democratic governors and legislators to have as a check on any sweeping future rulings from the Supreme Court on issues like abortion, voting rights, gun control, campaign finance, or redistricting. However, the initial messaging from Democrats and various interest groups on the actual Supreme Court vacancy itself is all over the map, depending on who you ask.  Their options to block a nominee are nonexistent after Senate Republicans abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees for the Neil Gorsuch vote. Their only chance at blocking a nominee is the slim chance that minority leader Charles Schumer can hold all 49 Democrats and is somehow able to get two Republicans to join them in voting against.

Just as there will be enormous pressure on a handful of red state Democrats who are running for reelection this cycle (specifically Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly, who voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch last year), there will also be enormous pressure on Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who are the only pro-choice Republicans in their party’s Senate caucus. Collins and Murkowski have the benefit of not running for reelection in this hyperpartisan political environment, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be feeling pressure. As Republican pro-choice women in the Senate who have a vote in judicial nominations, do they want their legacies to be defined by potentially casting the deciding vote to seat a Supreme Court justice who might one day vote to overturn Roe v. Wade?

It is also necessary to look beyond Murkowski and Collins for potential pressure points. Even though they aren’t on the ballot this year, the governors of Alaska and Maine are, as is Maine’s independent senator Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats. Voters in both states won’t be able to vote against Murkowski or Collins in this cycle, so they may opt to flex their political muscles by voting for (or against) the candidates who are on the ballot in November.

While Senate Democrats have a terrible electoral map to defend this year, when it comes to governors and state legislatures, the map becomes almost the inverse, meaning that they will have ample pickup opportunities in down ballot races.  Democrats have shown more interest and energy in down ballot state legislative races in the first eighteen months of the Trump presidency, and have already demonstrated some success in special elections – the DLCC has flipped 44 Republican-held seats to the Democrats, in addition to a Wisconsin state supreme court seat, a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, and stunning off-year results up and down the ballot in Virginia. If Democrats can harness this anxiety about the court and turn it into votes in November, that could drive them to some surprise victories.

Democrats might not be able to stop Donald Trump’s next Supreme Court nominee, but they can put themselves in a better political position for the second half of his term: retaking the House or Senate will give them subpoena power and the ability to launch investigations, as well as control of nominations to the upper chamber; control of governor’s mansions, state offices and state legislatures will give them control of state voting rights as well as drawing the congressional maps for the next round of redistricting after 2020.

As painful as losing cases at the Supreme Court will be, the Democrats’ best hope for now is that they can use the court as an issue to play the long game: rebuild their bench in state and federal offices, gain congressional majorities, and eventually win the presidency.

 

Jay Inslee Headlining Florida Democratic Party Gala

Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) has been announced as the keynote speaker for the Florida Democratic Party’s annual Leadership Blue Gala, scheduled for this weekend in Hollywood, Fla.  Also scheduled to speak at the event are House Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and incumbent senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is running for re-election this fall.

The event is scheduled one week after Inslee traveled to Iowa to campaign on behalf of Democratic nominee Fred Hubbell, who is running for governor.  As was the case in Iowa last week, Inslee is attending the event in Florida in his capacity as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, although it will also raise eyebrows about his possible 2020 presidential ambitions.

Also scheduled to speak at the event are Democratic state legislators and candidates, including the five candidates running for the party’s nomination in the governor’s race this fall: Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine, as well as Marjory Stoneman Douglas teacher Kat Posada. Democrats are trying to win the state’s chief executive position for the first time in 24 years.

Larry Sabato and the Cook Political Report both project the Florida governor’s race as a toss-up. The state’s primary is scheduled for August 28.

The Next Potential Democratic Litmus Test: Abolishing ICE

In light of the national uproar over President Donald Trump’s family separation policy, at least two incumbent House Democrats (Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Rep.  Jim McGovern of Massachusetts) a gubernatorial candidate (Cynthia Nixon in New York) and one possible presidential contender (Kamala Harris in California) has floated the idea of reforming, de-funding or shutting down Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Even the libertarian publication Reason has gotten behind this idea. The most serious move on this issue so far has come from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), who announced this morning that he would be introducing legislation in the House to abolish ICE.

The agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, has come under new scrutiny for its role and actions in implementing President Trump’s policy, as have its architects.  Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and senior White House adviser Stephen Miller were heckled by protesters while eating out in Washington DC restaurants last week.

The Republican National Committee hasn’t made much of an issue out of it yet beyond a blog post, although expect that to change if President Trump enters the fray, particularly in close House and Senate races which could make or break the Republican majorities for next year.

Reading the 2020 Tea Leaves

A look at what prospective Democratic presidential candidates are up to:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Ohio at the end of June for fundraising events in Cincinatti for Richard Cordray, the Democratic candidate in the Ohio governor’s race; and another event in Cleveland for Democratic senator Sherrod Brown.
  • Biden also endorsed Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams in her campaign to become the first Democratic governor of Georgia in 15 years, and the first African American woman to ever be elected governor. Abrams has also been endorsed by other 2020 contenders Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
  • Biden also endorsed Jena Griswold, the Democratic nominee running for Colorado Secretary of State.
  • Governor Jay Inslee traveled to Iowa in his capacity as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, where he joined the Iowa Democratic ticket Fred Hubbell and Rita Hart at a campaign event. He recorded an interview with Iowa Public Television in which he praised Hubbell as “the perfect candidate.” He will also be the featured speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration in Des Moines on Saturday night.  He will also be meeting with Democratic activists in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
  • Senator Jeff Merkley did not rule out a possible presidential run during an interview with The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser: “I’m exploring the possibility.”
  • Senator Cory Booker was the headliner at the Blue Commonwealth Gala in Richmond, Virginia, an annual event organized by the Democratic Party of Virginia. In addition to Booker, all Virginia Democratic statewide elected officials and former governor Terry McAuliffe – another possible 2020 contender – spoke at the event.
  • Senator Kamala Harris sent out a fundraising email on behalf of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, according to Kansas City Star reporter Lindsay Wise. Harris also praised McCaskill during her keynote address before the St. Louis County NAACP, which both senators attended. McCaskill is considered one of the most endangered Democratic senators of the current election cycle.

Dust Settles in Maine Democratic Primary, Mills and Golden Advance to General Election

Nearly one week after the state’s primary and the first election using the new ranked-choice voting system, Maine Democrats nominated Attorney General Janet Mills as their candidate for governor and state representative Jared Golden as their candidate for the Second Congressional District.

The Maine governor’s race is projected as “Leans Democratic” by Larry Sabato and “Toss Up” by the Cook Political Report. The Second Congressional District is projected as “Leans Republican” by both.

Governors Oppose Trump Administration’s Family Separation Policy

In the past few days, governors from both parties have stated their opposition to President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” which has resulted in the separation of thousands of migrant children from their families at the border. Some governors issued statements, while others like Larry Hogan, Charlie Baker and Roy Cooper took action by recalling their National Guard troops that had been deployed to protect the border.

Here is the list, in alphabetical order by state, as of the night of June 19:

For political context, Hickenlooper (D) and Malloy (D) are term-limited. Baker (R), Hogan (R), Raimondo (D), Scott (R), Sununu (R), and Wolf (D) are running for reelection.  Carney (D), Cooper (D), and Northam (D) are in the middle of their current terms.

 

Democrats Ahead By Double Digits in Pennsylvania Poll

Incumbent Governor Tom Wolf and incumbent Senator Bob Casey are far ahead of their Republican challengers, according to a newly released poll of Pennsylvania voters from Franklin & Marshall College.  Casey, who is running for his third term in the U.S. Senate, leads Republican candidate Lou Bareltta 44-27, with 23 percent of voters still undecided.  Wolf, who is running for reelection as governor of the Keystone State, leads Republican State Sen. Scott Wagner 48-29, with 23 percent of voters still undecided.

The same poll gives President Donald Trump a 35 percent approval rating, compared to 52 percent who say he is doing a poor job. The poll is problematic for Republicans on tax cuts and health care, two of the biggest issues in this election cycle. Only 33 percent of voters said they had seen an increase in household income because of the tax cuts signed into law last year. Only 41 percent of voters said the Trump administration had made “significant changes” to the Affordable Care Act. More ominously, 52 percent of voters said that changes to the Affordable Care Act would make the health care system worse for their family.

Pennsylvania had been considered a potential pickup opportunity for Senate Republicans because of Donald Trump’s upset victory in the state in 2016. However, this poll, as well as the redrawn congressional map by the State Supreme Court, and Conor Lamb’s upset victory in a congressional special election last April, would seem to indicate otherwise.

Larry Sabato and the Cook Political Report list both Pennsylvania races as Likely Democratic.

Iowa Democrat Picks State Senator Rita Hart for Running Mate

Iowa Democratic nominee Fred Hubbell announced his selection of State Sen. Rita Hart as his running mate for the gubernatorial race this fall.  More context to his decision from the Des Moines Register:

Hart, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and again in 2014, lives in Wheatland, which is on the eastern side of the state and has a population of about 730 people. She works with her husband, Paul, on the farm his family has owned for more than 100 years there.

Hart’s rural background is an asset for Hubbell, a Des Moines businessman, who will be working to persuade voters across the state that he understands their needs and is best equipped to address them in the governor’s office. Hubbell told the Register he set out to find a lieutenant governor whose background did not mirror his own.

“I like to surround myself with people that come at questions and issues and experiences in a much different way than I do,” Hubbell, 67, told the Register. “I think that makes the discussion richer, and you’re better able to get a better decision that way. So I was looking for somebody that’s very talented and capable, but not a lot like me. And I think I found her.”

As of this writing, Larry Sabato has the race as Leans Republican. The Cook Political Report has the race as a tossup.