At the Races: Hangover Thursday

Posted March 5, 2020 at 2:25pm

Welcome to At the Races! Each week we’ll bring you news and analysis from the CQ Roll Call team that will keep you informed about the 2020 election. Know someone who’d like to get this newsletter? They can subscribe here.

Super Tuesday was not so super for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and many House Democrats were OK with that. Former Vice President Joe Biden won a series of states on Tuesday, slowing Sanders’ march to the nomination.

“We were high-fiving,” California Rep. Juan Vargas, who is now backing Biden, told reporters Wednesday afternoon. Vargas said that’s because they believe Sanders can’t beat President Donald Trump and will be a drag on Democrats further down the ballot. Biden has made his down-ballot impact central to his campaign pitch.

The former VP has consistently had the most congressional endorsements, thanks to his long tenure in the Senate and the relationships he fostered during the Obama administration. And he’s racked up more endorsements in recent days. Since he won South Carolina last weekend, 16 House members and two senators have endorsed Biden. The senators include Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, who ended her own presidential campaign this week, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, which hosts its presidential primary on March 17.

Congressional endorsements may not matter to voters, but members of Congress can be useful surrogates. And, in the event of a contested convention, they cast votes as superdelegates, now known as automatic delegates.

Starting gate

Senators to return to Senate: Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are headed back to Washington after packing up presidential campaigns that chiseled away at the glass ceiling for women in American politics. Klobuchar has joined other moderates who dropped their 2020 bids to back Biden. Warren has reportedly been approached by both her former rivals since Super Tuesday.

Bloomberg boomlet down-ballot?: Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s exit from the presidential race raised questions about whether his vast campaign infrastructure and bottomless wallet would still bolster Democrats in 2020. Bloomberg says he will stay in the fight to defeat Trump, and his congressional allies are confident he’ll help down-ballot Democrats too. But whether he’ll spend at the same clip remains to be seen. Bloomberg spent more than $100 million on the 2018 midterms, but he dropped more than five times as much money on his short-lived presidential bid.

Tuesday’s takeaways: All eyes were on the presidential race, but there were plenty of interesting House and Senate primaries on Tuesday, too. Here are four takeaways from the results.

Catching up: If you want to take a deeper dive into Tuesday’s congressional results, we have you covered! Here are highlights on results in Texas, a House and Senate battleground this year; in California, which is playing host to several competitive House races; in Alabama, where Jeff Sessions is looking for a comeback; and in North Carolina, which featured a few open House seats and a Senate primary. And if you’d rather just hear someone talk about it all, Political Theater podcast host Jason Dick talked with politics editor Herb Jackson this week.

Don’t mess with Texas, incumbent edition: Tuesday’s primaries were a reminder that it is still very difficult to defeat an incumbent in a primary, even with help from outside groups. Longtime Rep. Kay Granger, the first Republican woman to represent Texas in the House, fended off a tea party-style challenger. And Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar defeated his former intern, immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros, who was challenging him from the left.

Smooth sailing: More than a dozen House and Senate candidates on the ballot Tuesday had an easy night, knowing that they would sail through the 2020 elections without any real challengers. That list includes Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who is nevertheless raising serious money. Who’s thinking about 2024?

On second thought: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is reportedly poised to launch a Senate bid against Republican incumbent Steve Daines, potentially putting the seat in play. Bullock said he wasn’t interested in the race after he dropped his presidential bid in December, but he has been under pressure from national Democrats to reconsider.

Nominee backlash: Fresh off suspending her presidential bid, Klobuchar rallied opposition to a GOP pick for the hobbled Federal Election Commission.

ICYMI

He’s in: He raised $459,000 in the last quarter, but Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe put to rest Thursday any doubts about his reelection, announcing that he’s seeking a fifth full term representing Oklahoma. The 85-year-old’s campaign released a video that shows him flying his plane upside down. Inhofe has consistently said that he would continue to run as long as he can still fly a plane inverted. First elected in 1994, Inhofe won his last race in 2014 with 68 percent of the vote.

Foster, out: After testing the waters, Wyoming megadonor Foster Friess has decided not to seek the Republican nomination for retiring Sen. Mike Enzi’s seat, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney previously decided not to run. And Enzi has endorsed former Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who also has Sen. John Barrasso’s backing. Since 2008, Friess has given $5.6 million to candidates and committees, according to Political Moneyline, including $2.1 million to a super PAC that supported former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s presidential candidacy in 2012.

That was fast: North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis waited a whole two hours after former state Sen. Cal Cunningham won the Democratic Senate primary before launching a digital ad that attempted to tie Cunningham to progressive Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. That’s an early taste of what is bound to be a barrage on the North Carolina airwaves. More than $20.6 million was spent on the primary, making it the most expensive race in the country so far, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported.

Kennedy cash: Former GOP Rep.-turned-lobbyist Lamar Smith of Texas dipped into his old campaign coffers to donate a total of $4,000 this cycle to the Senate effort of Rep. Joe Kennedy, who is challenging Sen. Ed Markey in the Massachusetts Democratic primary Sept. 1. Smith, now with D.C.’s biggest K Street shop Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, has used lots of funds from his “Texans for Lamar Smith” campaign account to donate to his onetime colleagues, according to FEC reports. Among them: Cheney and Granger as well as Democrats Cuellar, Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Jamie Raskin of Maryland. Smith’s registered lobbying clients last year included the city of Laredo, Texas, which is in Cuellar’s district, and HerdX, an agriculture-technology company.

Money man: Longtime GOP fundraiser and lobbyist Dirk Van Dongen, who at 76 would fit right in among presidential contenders in both parties this cycle, has decided to retire after the 2020 elections. He’ll exit the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the group he’s led for more than four decades, on Nov. 30. In the meantime, he’s raising money for Trump’s reelection, and NAW plans to put its political money behind Republican candidates in pivotal Senate races. After he leaves NAW, Van Dongen says he hopes to keep fundraising. “It may sound weird, but I do enjoy doing it,” he told At the Races. “I believe in the candidates I try to help.”

Venno?: A letter this week from the FEC raises questions about how campaigns may, or may not, use the electronic payment company Venmo. The FEC scolded a group for listing Venmo LLC as a “depository,” which should be a federally insured bank or credit union. “This doesn’t mean that political committees can’t use Venmo to make transactions,” said campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel, a partner at the law firm Akerman. “They just can’t hold funds in their Venmo account.”

This again?: A staffer for former Virginia GOP Rep. Scott Taylor pleaded guilty to her role in a petition signature forgery scandal that helped sink the congressman’s 2018 campaign. Taylor is attempting a rematch against Elaine Luria, the Democrat who unseated him, in the suburban 2nd District. But first he has to make it through the Republican primary on June 9. Taylor has cooperated with the investigation of his campaign and has asserted he was exonerated, but it could be an issue for him if other charges surface.

Price tag: An analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center concluded that the top 1 percent of taxpayers would pay 74 percent of the cost of a tax plan that would raise $4 trillion over 10 years. But if you expect this to be a Sanders plan, you’d be wrong. The analysis looked at Biden’s proposal, and concluded that households earning more than $837,000 would see their average tax burden rise 12 points, CQ Roll Call’s Doug Sword reported.

What we’re reading

Holding fire?: The gun control group Brady is spending on Amy McGrath’s campaign to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. That could pose a problem for McGrath, a Democrat running in a state that is very pro-gun. The Courier-Journal takes a deep dive into how the gun control issue will play out in the race.

#AZSEN: Politico has a deep dive on the Arizona Senate race, where appointed GOP incumbent Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot, is taking on Democrat Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut.

Frenemies in Florida: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former House member, won his 2018 election after cozying up to Trump. That relationship is now souring, with Trump allies saying behind closed doors that DeSantis has not done enough to support the president in the state. The tensions threaten to bubble into the 2020 election in this crucial battleground, Politico reports.

Why not Warren: Vox’s Matthew Yglesias looked at why Warren's campaign fizzled despite so much sizzle among white, educated professionals.

The count: 32

That’s how many California House districts, out of 53 overall, still haven’t declared first- and second-place winners from Tuesday’s primary. In some cases, the first-place winner won overwhelmingly and the battle is for the second spot. California law says the top two primary vote-getters run against each other in the general, regardless of party. Settling the races takes time, in part because any ballot postmarked by primary day and received within three days of Election Day has to be counted, so they’re waiting for the mail delivery. The count is 33, by the way, if you include the special election for the remainder of former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill’s term in the 25th District.

Nathan’s notes

This is something of a retread, because Nathan’s original compendium of “Things Losing Candidates Say” was first posted in 2013. But how many times have they remade “Little Women?” The latest version of the classic still got nominated for six Oscars and won one. So with the help of videographer Thomas McKinless and our talented CQ Roll Call multimedia team, Nathan reprised his role as translator of losers’ spin. Anyone have an email for the Academy?

Candidate confessions

Balancing a House campaign with parenting is no easy task, Democrat Candace Valenzuela said recently while knocking on doors in Irving, Texas. “I’ll spend the full day talking to voters, and I’ll go off to a candidate forum, and then I’ll go home and — this is going to sound gross — and then I have to take the snot out of my youngest one’s nose, because he can’t breathe at night,” she said as she walked through the neighborhood with both of her young sons and her husband. But, she said, they’re also why she’s running. “This is a really scary environment,” she said, her voice catching as she noted she is raising two boys of color. Valenzuela, if elected, would be the first African American Latina in Congress. But first she has to win the May 26 primary runoff against retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson. The open-seat race in Texas’ 24th District is a top Democratic target this cycle.

Reader’s race: Ohio's 1st

Ohio Democrats have long had their sights on the state’s 1st District, and for good reason: The seat includes much of Hamilton County, one of just seven counties in the state that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.

The district still favors Republicans, however. Warren County, just north of Cincinnati, is consistently conservative and Trump won with 67 percent of the vote there.

Democrats thought they had a great candidate in 2018 with well-funded up-and-comer Aftab Pureval, the Hamilton County clerk of courts. He raised more than double the amount raised by Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, a onetime impeachment manager in President Bill Clinton’s trial, who was seeking a 12th term.

Pureval was felled by a campaign finance scandal, however, and Chabot won with 51 percent of the vote. This year, Democrats in the March 17 primary must choose between two relative newcomers with potentially compelling backstories. Nikki Foster, an Air Force Reserve pilot and the daughter of immigrants, lost a 2018 race for state representative in Warren County. She is running on a health care-centric platform and has talked on the campaign trail about her second child, Henry, who was born with a hole in his heart.

Her primary opponent, Kate Schroder, has spoken about her own battle with cancer. She’s also a health care policy expert who spent 12 years working for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, where she worked to improve treatment rates for childhood illnesses in limited-resource countries. The initiative was a part of the Clinton Foundation established by Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Chabot has the financial edge: He’d raised $1.3 million as of Dec. 31, compared with $620,000 for Schroder and $309,000 for Foster. As the year began, Chabot had $699,000 in the bank to Schroder’s $343,000 and Foster’s $113,000.

Chabot has faced his own campaign finance issues after federal investigators launched a probe into missing campaign funds totaling more than $123,000. The man listed on Chabot’s campaign finance reports as treasurer said he has never, in fact, served as Chabot’s treasurer.

Inside Elections rates the race Leans Republican.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race for Oregon’s 4th District or the Mississippi Senate contest. Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

More primaries are happening next week! Mississippi is the only state with congressional primaries, though. It’s also holding a presidential primary, as are Idaho, North Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Washington and Hawaii, though Hawaii’s is for Republicans only.

Photo finish

Rep. Kay Granger’s speech notes at a candidate forum in Azle, Texas, on Feb. 20. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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Jessica Wehrman and Patrick Kelley contributed to this report.