Heitkamp Fundraising Off of Cramer’s Kavanaugh Comments

North Dakota Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp is considered one of the most vulnerable of this election cycle. Recent polls have her trailing her challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, by 1.6 points according to the RealClearPolitics average. But Cramer’s recent comments defending embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh or downplaying the sexual assault allegations against him have given Heitkamp a lifeline.

Heitkamp’s campaign sent out the following fundraising email specifically targeting female voters:

Heitkamp email

The most recent poll for this race, done by Fox News almost two weeks ago, showed a gender gap – women preferred Heitkamp by 7 and men preferred Cramer by 15. However, the national gender gap in generic congressional polls is much higher – men prefer Republicans by 1 and women prefer Democrats by 16, according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll.

Whether or not these comments make Cramer this cycle’s Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock remains to be seen.  If Heitkamp can make an issue out of these comments and begin to work the gender gap more in her favor, this could wind up being the moment that turned the race.

Koch Organization Declines to Endorse Republican Candidate in Key Senate Race

Heidi Heitkamp caught a lucky break.

The incumbent Democrat running for re-election in the solidly Republican state of North Dakota has been considered a top pickup opportunity for Senate Republicans in a state Donald Trump won by 36 points in 2016.

With all these underlying dynamics working against Heitkamp, her challenger Rep. Kevin Cramer, the state’s at-large member of the House of Representatives, failed to secure the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity, the political and policy arm of the conservative Koch network which has been a major player in Republican politics for more than a decade.

According to CNN’s Rebecca Berg, reporting from the Koch network’s meeting in Colorado Springs:

Top officials at Americans For Prosperity, the political and policy arm of the Koch network, said the group is not currently supporting Cramer because he is not leading on central policy priorities for the Koch network.

“If this were 2016, we likely would have gone ahead and endorsed” Cramer, said AFP President Tim Phillips. “But we’re raising the bar.”

The move to withhold support for Cramer comes as part of a wider rethinking of the network’s support for Republican candidates. Charles Koch expressed regret for his namesake network’s support for past candidates that didn’t necessarily adhere to the conservative and libertarian principles he espouses.  The Koch network is also not happy about the administration’s trade wars and the divisiveness of the White House.  Because of this, the network is openly considering working with and supporting Democrats.  The network launched a digital ad campaign earlier this year praising Heitkamp’s support for rolling back bank regulations.

President Trump responded to the latest developments via Twitter:

As NBC’s Carrie Dann pointed out on the Meet the Press: The Lid podcast earlier this week, this does not automatically mean they are going to start bankrolling Democrats, nor will Democrats start embracing them.  For all the Kochs’ past disagreements with Donald Trump and the Republican Party, they are presumably happy about the Trump administration’s tax cuts and judicial nominees, something which no Democrat would ever tout. However, the fact that they are willing to sit out a key race that could potentially determine control of an evenly divided Senate is good news for Heitkamp.

The most recent poll of the race from last June gave Cramer a four-point lead over Heitkamp, within the poll’s margin of error. Most observers consider the race a toss-up.

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.

 

McConnell-Aligned Super PAC Makes $25 Million Ad Buy for the Fall

The Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC run by political allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have made an initial TV advertising reservation for the fall worth $25 million, according to the Washington Examiner.

The ads will run in Missouri ($10.5 million), Nevada ($11.2 million) and North Dakota ($2.3 million).  Missouri and North Dakota represent pickup opportunities for Senate Republicans to add to their slim 51-49 majority. Republicans are playing defense in Nevada, where incumbent Dean Heller is seen as one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans. The organization is holding off on buying more advertising time until later to keep its strategy for November under wraps.

In contrast, the organization’s Democratic counterpart Senate Majority PAC has announced a “first wave” of buys worth $80 million targeting Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia. With the exceptions of Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee, Senate Democrats are playing defense in the other states.

The report also notes, “The Republican super PAC is already active in West Virginia and Indiana, where Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly is in trouble against Republican businessman and former state legislator Mike Braun. The Democratic super PAC has been spending on advertising in Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott is challenging Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson; in Montana, where state Auditor Matt Rosendale is challenging Democratic Sen. Jon Tester; and in Indiana and North Dakota.”

Cramer Up By 4 in North Dakota Senate Poll

One week after the North Dakota primary, a new Mason-Dixon poll has Republican Senate candidate Rep. Kevin Cramer leads incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp 48-44, with 8 percent undecided. Cramer’s lead falls within the poll’s margin of error.

North Dakota is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races this fall.  It is one of ten seats in red states that Democrats must defend in a difficult Senate map this cycle. Heitkamp, who was first elected in 2012 by a margin of 3,000 votes, is running for reelection in a state Donald Trump won by 36 points in 2016 and Republican senator John Hoeven won by 61 in the same cycle.  After some tensions between Cramer and the White House over the president’s perceived friendliness toward Heitkamp, President Trump is scheduled to campaign for Rep. Cramer at an event in Fargo, N.D. on June 27.

Trump considered Heitkamp for a cabinet post during the transition and unsuccessfully attempted to persuade her to switch parties. A new Heitkamp ad released last week touted her bipartisan credentials, specifically noting that she voted with President Trump more than half of the time.

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.

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.