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.

Beto O’Rourke Will Run Against Ted Cruz in Texas 2018 Senate Race

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) will announce on Friday plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. From the Houston Chronicle:

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat and ex-punk rocker who pulled a stunning upset to win his House seat six years ago, plans to declare his candidacy on Friday for the Senate seat held by Ted Cruz, according to Democratic sources in Texas.

O’Rourke’s fledgling campaign has scheduled an announcement on Friday in El Paso, his hometown. He has traveled heavily in Texas over the last three months making contacts, barely concealing his political plans.

“I’m very moved to do it,” O’Rourke, 44, said in an interview earlier this month, adding that he had reached the “emotional decision” about his candidacy.

Campaign aides declined to confirm that he will enter the 2018 Senate race.

The article also points out that Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) is still thinking about whether or not to get in this race, though the article notes that Castro has climbed the ladder in the Democratic House caucus farther and faster than O’Rourke, implying that Castro would have more to lose if his Senate run fell short. Most of the Texas Democrats I’ve spoken to in the past several weeks and months mentioned Castro as a probable candidate for 2018 and possibly their best (albeit longshot) chance at unseating Ted Cruz.

Millions of Americans Could Lose Health Insurance Under Republican Health Care Proposal

Congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration had 24 million reasons to be unhappy on Monday: that’s the number of Americans who would lose their health insurance under the Republican-crafted American Health Care Act by 2026, according to a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.  The major findings of the CBO estimate:

  • The AHCA would reduce federal deficits by $337 billion from 2017-2026.
  • The biggest savings would come from reductions in Medicaid and the elimination of subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act.
  • The biggest costs would come from repealing changes to the Internal Revenue Code caused by the ACA.
  • In 2018, there would be 14 million more uninsured people than under the current ACA law.
  • This figure will continue to increase by 21 million in 2020 and 24 million in 2026.
  • By 2026, an estimated 52 million people would be without health insurance, compared to 28 million people for current projections under the ACA.
  • The reduction in insurance coverage between 2018-2026 would be in large part from states discontinuing the Medicaid expansion program offered under the ACA.
  • In 2018 and 2019, average premiums for single policyholders would be 15-20 percent higher than under the current law. Average premiums would start to decrease in 2020.
  • By 2026, average premiums for single policy holders would be 10 percent lower than under the current law.
  • However, the savings on premiums (or lack thereof) vary by age:
    • For a 21-year-old: 20-25 percent less
    • For a 40-year-old: 8-10 percent less
    • For a 64-year-old: 20-25 percent higher
  • Medicaid spending would decrease by $880 billion from 2017-2026.
  • By 2026, Medicaid spending would be 25 percent less than what the CBO estimates currently under the ACA.

Republicans – who had previously cited CBO estimates as evidence to attack the ACA – had been preemptively attacking or trying to question the credibility of the agency in the days leading up to the estimate’s release. Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council, told Fox News, “We will see what the score is, in fact in the past, the CBO score has really been meaningless.” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told reporters, “We disagree strenuously,” with the CBO’s findings.

Not all Republicans were optimistic about the proposed law, even before the CBO estimate was released. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) warned House Republicans that they would be risking their majority if they voted for the AHCA, and told them, “Do not walk the plank and vote for a bill that cannot pass the Senate and then have to face the consequences of that vote.”

Opposition to the bill is not limited to Democrats. A variety of organizations ranging from the left, right and center have all publicly come out against the AHCA. They include the AARP, the American Hospital Association, the Federation of American Hospitals, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, Moveon.org, and the Center for American Progress.

Democrats attacked the AHCA almost immediately after its unveiling last week, because it finally gave them a concrete Republican policy proposal to target after nearly seven years of a vague and undefined “repeal and replace” pledge Republicans offered as an alternative to the ACA.  The CBO estimate will provide them with quantifiable data for campaign ads and talking points to target Republicans running for election or reelection in the 2017 and 2018 cycles.

In a statement, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said, “Donald Trump’s ‘insurance for everybody’ pledge was a big fat lie.”

“The CBO, which is headed by a Republican-appointed director, just made it clear that Trump’s health care plan will cause up to 24 million Americans to lose their health insurance. At the same time, the plan slashes Medicaid, drives up the cost of care for older Americans, and defunds life-saving services provided by Planned Parenthood. The only winners here are Trump, and the corporations and rich people who get to pocket new tax breaks.”

“Of course, instead of admitting that the bill would leave millions without health insurance, Republicans are desperately trying to discredit the CBO with more ‘alternative facts.’ The American people are smarter than that.”

Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, issued a statement saying, “Every single House Republican owns this catastrophic bill and should be prepared for backlash at the ballot box, particularly given the anticipated loss of coverage for 14 million people as early as next year.”

UPDATE: Politico viewed a White House assessment of the AHCA which estimated 26 million Americans would lose their health insurance by 2026 – two million more than the CBO estimate. The explanation for the document from White House Communications Director Michael Dubke was, “This is OMB trying to project what CBO’s score will be using CBO’s methodology.”

Tim Ryan Won’t Run for Ohio Governor in 2018

After months of flirting with the idea, Rep. Tim Ryan told Ohio Democrats he would not be entering the race to succeed term-limited Governor John Kasich:

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Tim Ryan, whose national profile has risen in recent months, announced Tuesday that he will not be a candidate for Ohio governor in 2018.

The eight-term congressman wrestled with a run for months, weighing the risk of jumping into a potentially crowded and unpredictable primary against sticking with a safe House seat.

“Constituents in my district are at the forefront of an economic transformation that has hollowed out our nation’s middle class,” Ryan said in a statement emailed after word about his decision first trickled out to cleveland.com. “As I’ve considered how best to address these challenges, the more I’ve appreciated how much they are national issues that require national solutions.

“That is why, while I have been truly humbled by the encouragement I’ve received to run for Governor of Ohio, I believe the best way to serve my community, my state and my country is to remain in the United States Congress.

Ryan’s decision was made easier by the plum committee assignments he maintained despite his unsuccessful bid to unseat Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last fall. In his Tuesday statement, he asserted that spots on the Appropriations Committee and Defense Subcommittee will help him “fight back against wrong-headed policies and champion the kinds of solutions that would have a real impact for American families.”

With Ryan’s decision to not enter the race, the Democratic field is wide open. According to cleveland.com’s Henry Gomez, the potential field of candidates includes:

  • Ohio Senate minority leader Joe Schiavoni
  • Former Rep. Betty Sutton
  • Former Rep. Connie Pillich
  • Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley
  • Former Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams
  • Former Sen. Nina Turner
  • Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich
  • CFPB Director Richard Cordray

While the race for an open governor’s mansion in Columbus is ongoing, at the same time Sen. Sherrod Brown will be running for reelection in the same cycle. Depending on the political climate in 18 months from now, that could be a boost for Democrats up and down the Ohio ballot.

Heidi Heitkamp Endorses Pete Buttigieg for DNC Chairman

ATLANTA – Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) endorsed South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg in his race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. “Pete Buttigieg is the only candidate who has demonstrated he has what it takes to organize and win in places where Democrats haven’t competed for years,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “This is bigger than what happened in 2016 and what will happen in 2018. This is about the future of our party. Pete Buttigieg offers us the best opportunity to be put on a path to victory for decades to come. I proudly endorse Pete Buttigieg and a fresh start for the Democratic Party.”

Heitkamp’s endorsement offers Buttigieg one final big-name endorsement – though she is not a voting DNC member – less than 24 hours before Democrats elect their next chairman. Though the two front-runners in the race continue to be Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Buttigieg has been quietly gaining momentum and endorsements – most notably from five former DNC chairs, including Governor Howard Dean – in recent weeks and has emerged as the leading candidate from the rest of the field.

While the Ellison-Perez battle is seen by many observers and journalists as a proxy war through the prism of the 2016 primaries – Ellison was a Bernie Sanders supporter and Sanders has endorsed him in this race, Perez is seen as having the support of many former cabinet officials in the Obama administration and people close to the former president, including Vice President Joe Biden. Buttigieg – who wrote an essay praising Sanders when he was still in high school and endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 – is perceived by many as a possible alternative candidate who is not tainted by the lingering Clinton-Sanders divisions within the party. At the recent DNC forum in Baltimore less than two weeks ago, Buttigieg said, “I didn’t enjoy the 2016 primary the first time. I don’t know why we would want to relive it a second time.”

Heitkamp is considered one of the Senate Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection in 2018. Though North Dakota has a record of electing Democratic senators like Heitkamp, Byron Dorgan, and Kent Conrad in the past, Donald Trump won the state by 36 points in 2016.