Hawkings

When a Shutdown Amounts to a Mulligan

By David Hawkings
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Montana Sen. Jon Tester was the only red-state Democrat up for re-election in 2018 to vote against advancing debate on the short-term continuing resolution that could end the three-day government shutdown.

And his vote is already opening him up to GOP attacks that he sided with his party’s most liberal senators, including many 2020 hopefuls.

But Tester is holding firm.

“It’s never been about DACA for me. It’s been about community health centers, it’s about security on the southern border,” Tester said after the midday vote.

He was referencing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Liberal groups have been pressuring lawmakers to oppose a continuing resolution that does not include protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

Less than 4 percent of Montana’s population is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census.

Tester said his concerns were about the unreliability of a short-term funding bill.

“We needed some commitments on funding for some pretty basic issues in rural America that were not done,” the senator said.

The former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Tester is running for a third term in a state President Donald Trump won by more than 20 points in 2016. Tester also voted against confirming Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.

Tester has never earned more than 50 percent of the vote in his previous Senate bids. He was was number six on Roll Call’s list of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents one year out from the midterms. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his re-election race Tilts Democratic.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee went after Tester’s image — he’s a working farmer in the state — to argue he’s no longer a good fit for Montana.

Jon Tester’s insane shutdown antics have shown Montanans he’s not the same guy he used to be,” NRSC Communications Director Katie Martin said in a statement.

“Voting alongside the most extreme of the Democratic Party, it’s now crystal clear that Tester can no longer be trusted,” she added.

There’s a crowded GOP field in Montana after several of the party’s top picks with statewide name recognition passed on the race.

State Auditor Matt Rosendale is seen as the NRSC’s preferred candidate. He also has the backing of Great America Alliance, which had ties to Steve Bannon. Wealthy businessman and Air Force veteran Troy Downing has met with the White House and has been trying to claim the Trump family’s support. The primary is June 5.

Rosendale blamed Tester for shutting down the government on Friday.

“Senator Tester chose to play politics rather than work with President Trump to do what is right for our state. That’s not the Montana way,” Rosendale said in a Friday evening statement.

The same press release tried to paint Tester as hypocritical, pointing to quotes from 2013 in which the senator criticized the idea of a government shutdown.

When Rosendale launched his first bid for Congress in October 2013, Montana reporters asked him if he supported House Republicans using a partial government shutdown as leverage to push for defunding the 2010 health care law.

“Drastic times call for drastic actions,” Rosendale told the Helena Independent Record. “In order to find a solution, that’s why drastic measures are talking place — to force everyone to the table, to work on a solution and to address the budget and to address the debt,” he said.

Unlike then-Rep. Steve Daines, whom he was running to succeed, Rosendale said he would not have voted to raise the debt ceiling to end the 2013 government shutdown, according to an AP report from the time.

“I am glad to see the government operational but it comes at a cost to our future,” he wrote on his Facebook page in October 2013.

Joe Williams contributed to this report.

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The Texas branch of the AFL-CIO passed on endorsing Rep. Beto O’Rourke in his challenge against Sen. Ted Cruz at its convention.

O’Rourke did not attend the labor group’s convention in Austin on Sunday and was not listed on the slate of statewide candidates the group was endorsing, the Texas Tribune reported.

“Just because you have a D or an R behind your name doesn’t determine whether you’ll have our support,” Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO said.

Levy said the federation “had significant concerns about the congressman’s commitment to fighting for working people and unfortunately he wasn’t at the convention to address any of those concerns.”

Among those concerns was O’Rourke’s past support for Trade Promotion Authority, which would subject trade deals to an up-or-down vote without the ability to amend.

But O’Rourke said his vote did not mean that he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which labor unions vehemently opposed, but rather did not want to make the deal subject to congressional Republicans.

The Democrat from El Paso told the Tribune his team tried to schedule an appearance at the convention, but he had other campaign events that were ultimately canceled because of the government shutdown.

“It’s on me to further develop and strengthen those relationships and if anybody feels they’re being taken for granted, that’s on me to fix,” O'Rourke said.

O'Rourke, who is running against two little-known opponents, is considered a longshot against Cruz.

But O’Rourke noted that he has a 95 percent lifetime score from the labor federation as opposed to Cruz, who had a 12 percent lifetime score.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.

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It’s no accident that President Donald Trump will travel Thursday to an equipment manufacturing plant outside of Pittsburgh. And it’s no accident that Pennsylvania Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone will be there too.

The visit is an official one, but with a political backdrop. H&K Equipment is located in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where Saccone will face Democrat Conor Lamb on March 13, the first special election of the year.

On paper, the 18th District in the southwestern corner of the Keystone State should be firmly in the GOP column. Democrats acknowledge it will be a tough race to win, but Lamb’s background and moderate profile have given them some hope that it could be competitive.

Watch: Four Things to Watch as 2018 Election Season Officially Nears

Democrats didn’t even have a candidate here the last two election cycles against GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, who was first elected in 2002. Murphy resigned last year amid a sex scandal, after reports that the anti-abortion congressman encouraged his mistress to terminate her pregnancy.

Lamb, a former Marine and prosecutor, is giving local and national Democrats hope that he can appeal to white, working-class voters in the district who tend to be more conservative.

He has attempted to walk the line on thorny issues such as gun control and abortion, saying he is personally against abortion but supports the rule of law. He has also said he would not support Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader.

Democrats say the challenge for Lamb is keeping the focus on local issues, such as highlighting his work combating the opioid crisis as an assistant U.S. attorney. They also say he needs to focus on the economic issues in the district, home to many old manufacturing and coal mining towns. Another coal mine in the district announced last week that it would be closing.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO has endorsed Lamb, which could help boost his credibility among union workers. But a source with Saccone’s campaign countered that the Republican nominee has also won support from union workers, pointing to his assembly seat located in the 18th District.

Republicans are already tying Lamb to the national party, casting him as too liberal and a Pelosi ally — a message they think will resonate.

Trump carried the district by 20 points in 2016. Previous GOP presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain also did so by double digits.

Democrats have roughly 24,000 more registered voters than Republicans in the 18th District, according to statistics from November from the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office. But strategists in both parties say that tally could include former Democrats who now support Republicans but have not changed their party affiliation.

“I really don’t think this race is a harbinger of 2018,” said one national Democratic strategist, noting the district’s Republican slant.

Democrats this year are targeting GOP districts that aren’t as heavily Republican, including those that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, as well as districts that voted for Trump but previously supported Democrats for president. The 18th District is not listed among the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 91 targets.

National Democrats are monitoring the race, but have yet to jump in. Unlike other special elections in 2017, which attracted millions in outside money, the Pennsylvania race comes in an election year when groups are allocating resources for the rest of the country.

Democrats made similar comments about hesitating to spend resources on the Alabama Senate race, which Democrat Doug Jones later won in December.

But strategists caution that the unique circumstances of the Alabama race (including a GOP nominee accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls) are not replicable. And they point out that the largely rural makeup of the 18th District, and its lack of racial diversity, makes for tougher terrain for Democrats.

Whether or not outside groups will play in the race is the “$10 million question,” said Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Mike Mikus.

“They shouldn’t unnecessarily invest just to invest,” said Mikus, who lives in the 18th District. “That said … if internal polling shows it’s winnable, of course, they should.”

Mikus said the district does have suburban, affluent sections that could be more inclined to support a Democrat. And he said a Democrat could also win support from the working-class voters who support more populist economic policies.

“I don’t think so much time has passed that these people are gone from the Democratic Party permanently,” Mikus said.

Democrats are also hoping those voters will reject Saccone, who has said he was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” as too extreme.

Saccone’s previously lackluster fundraising did raise some concerns among Republicans, but a source close to his campaign said any rumors that he raised less than $100,000 are not true. The campaign is expected to release fundraising numbers by the end of the month.

The source noted that Saccone, an Air Force veteran who was first elected to the state House in 2010, has typically been outspent in state legislative races.

One national GOP strategist characterized concerns about Saccone’s fundraising as “a little overblown,” and said to expect a respectable fundraising number.

But the strategist did say it was probable that Lamb would raise more money. The candidates have until March 1 to file their pre-general election fundraising reports.

Lamb’s campaign did raise enough to start airing a television ad highlighting his biography Thursday. A source with knowledge of the ad buy said $100,000 was allocated for the first week, with the ad airing on broadcast and cable.

The concerns over Saccone’s fundraising prompted some GOP outside groups to jump into the race.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, opened two field offices in the district, with 50 staffers knocking on doors. The group’s national data director is on the ground. And it also plans to air television ads, according to a source with knowledge of its plans.

The conservative Ending Spending Inc. also plans to spend $1 million in ads on the race, according to The Washington Post. And the pro-Trump 45Committee is expected to spend $500,000 on the race, according to Politico.

Mikus saw the activity as a sign that Republicans were concerned they could lose the GOP-leaning district.

“I’m certain that these Republican independent expenditures would not be coming into the district, Donald Trump would not be coming to this district, if they were not very worried,” Mikus said.

But national Republicans also see the district as a place to prove they can still win on Trump’s agenda.

“I think it’s an opportunity for Republicans to show that our base is still motivated, still energized from the Trump election,” the national strategist said.

And Saccone isn’t shying away from GOP priorities, including the recent tax overhaul.

“We’re already experiencing the tremendous impact of tax reform in the 18th District — and Rick will work tirelessly to continue advancing President Trump’s bold agenda in Congress,” Saccone consultant Bob Branstetter said.

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