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.
By Stephanie Akin, Bridget Bowman and Kate Ackley
Canceled political rallies. Postponed fundraising events. Town halls moved to cyberspace.
Congressional campaigns, already in the throes of the 2020 elections, grappled this week with minute-by-minute updates and decisions about how best to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The campaigner-in-chief, President Donald Trump, canceled rallies and events in Colorado and Nevada, while the top two Democratic contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, scrapped big gatherings in Ohio and and will have their first one-on-one debate Sunday night with no one in the audience.
“The mood right now is we take it day by day,” said Michael Fraioli, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who runs Fraioli & Associates.
Democrat Jon Ossoff’s Senate campaign postponed a Saturday town hall in Savannah, Georgia, and instead scheduled a “virtual town hall,” where voters can phone in and and ask Ossoff questions. Also in Georgia, Democrat Nabilah Islam, who is running for the open 7th District said she is suspending “all in-person canvassing.” In upstate New York, Democrat Tedra Cobb, who is challenging GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik, said her campaign is asking that anyone considered at high risk of contracting the virus not collect petition signatures. Stefanik and a number of other lawmakers canceled their fundraisers in D.C. this week.
With primaries set for March 17 in Illinois, Ohio, Florida and Arizona, state and local election officials are also scrambling. Ohio officials planned to move more than 100 voting locations, originally planned for senior citizen residential facilities, to different locations before the primary. Arizona election officials said they would ensure availability of “curbside voting” and advise polling places to “complete a full cleaning and disinfecting of the spaces used.” The U.S. Election Assistance Commission also issued guidance on cleaning voting machines as well as state-specific resources.
Uncharted territory: Canceled rallies with presidential candidates are high-profile examples of how the new coronavirus is affecting campaigns, but people running for Congress were figuring out their next steps too. The initial impact has been canceled fundraisers in D.C. this week. Campaigns haven’t gotten much guidance from their parties, but lawmakers say they’re closely monitoring guidance from local public health officials.
PAC people: More than 50 lawmakers have pledged to reject donations from the political action committees of corporations, yet a review of campaign records by CQ Roll Call found that the political money of business interests — to the tune of $2.6 million last year alone — continued to find a way to most of them.
When the Senate is your second choice: This week Montana Gov. Steve Bullock launched his Senate campaign after an unsuccessful run for the White House. And he’s not alone. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper did the same after saying he wouldn’t be a good fit in the Senate. But will their failed presidential bids matter for their Senate campaigns?
Commission quorum? James “Trey” Trainor III, a Republican pick to join the Federal Election Commission, would give the hobbled agency a quorum of four to hold meetings and take enforcement action. But don’t expect Democrats to get on board with Trainor, a former lawyer for the 2016 Trump campaign, who would not commit to recusing himself from all matters involving his former client.
Cha-ching: Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally and her opponent, Democrat Mark Kelly, have raked in eye-popping amounts of campaign cash so far. CQ Roll Call’s Chris Cioffi and Sara Wise dive into where in the state their money is coming from.
Trump joins Tuberville’s team: Trump had been fairly quiet about the Alabama Senate race before the primary earlier this month. But now that the primary runoff on March 31 is a one-on-one race between Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, Trump made clear Tuesday whose team he’s on. “Coach Tommy Tuberville, a winner, has my Complete and Total Endorsement. I love Alabama!,” the president tweeted. Trump has made his disdain for Sessions clear, slamming him over his recusal from an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But Sessions appeared defiant, tweeting on Wednesday, “I'm one of the architects of the Trump agenda — I’ve always supported it and always will. Nothing the President can do will deter me from supporting this agenda.”
Issa eyes a comeback: Former GOP Rep. Darrell Issa is one step closer to returning to Congress. The Associated Press made a late projection Wednesday that Issa would advance to the general election in California’s 50th District, which is more Republican than his old 49th District. Issa will face Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who came close to unseating GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter in 2018. Hunter has since resigned amid a campaign finance scandal. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.
He’s not going anywhere: Republicans have had their eye on Rep. Collin Peterson’s seat in rural Minnesota for years, so they probably weren’t too happy to see that he announced Friday that he would run for reelection. Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that Peterson, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, is the only Democrat who could hold on to a seat that Trump won by 31 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race Tilts Democratic.
On the airwaves: Democrats in competitive House districts are getting some air cover this week. House Majority Forward and the League of Conservation Voters announced they are teaming up on ad buys in five districts, focusing on clean air and water. The buys cost $475,000 and will focus on Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin, New York’s Antonio Delgado, South Carolina’s Joe Cunningham, and Virginia’s Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, all of whom represent Trump-voting districts. Ads will also be launched thanking Florida’s Kathy Castor, who does not face a competitive race.
House Majority Forward, the nonprofit arm of the super PAC House Majority PAC, also announced it would spend an additional $715,000 on ads relating to prescription drugs in four other Trump districts, represented by Oklahoma’s Kendra Horn, New York’s Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi, and Utah’s Ben McAdams.
Candidates exit stage left: After Bullock’s announcement in Montana, other Democratic Senate candidates, including Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins and businesswoman Cora Neumann, who led the field in fundraising, dropped out of the race. In Texas, Navy veteran Elisa Cardnell suspended her campaign this week in the race to take on GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw. Cardnell had made the May runoff against former Beto O’Rourke adviser Sima Ladjevardian, but she ended her campaign after determining she could not win the runoff.
Rolling in: North Carolina Democrat Cal Cunningham, fresh off his victory in his Senate primary last week, has picked up numerous new endorsements in his bid to unseat Republican incumbent Thom Tillis. The Sierra Club, abortion rights groups NARAL and Planned Parenthood and progressive outfit Democracy for America all backed Cunningham, whose race will be pivotal in determining which party controls the Senate in 2021.
Top of the ballot: The Republican race for New Mexico’s open Senate seat is down to three candidates after the state GOP’s pre-primary convention Saturday. According to local media reports, Elisa Martinez, a Navajo and Latina conservative, and television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti were the only Republicans in the race to clear the 20 percent voting threshold to appear on the primary ballot. Gavin Clarkson, a professor and member of the Choctaw Nation, told the Albuquerque Journal he would petition for a spot. Louie Sanchez, a shooting range owner, and Mick Rich, a contractor, dropped their bids. The winner will face Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján in the fall.
Other notable results from the convention include a strong showing for Yvette Herrell, who will appear first of the three Republicans on the primary ballot in the 2nd District bidding to take on Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small. At the Democratic convention held the same day, former CIA officer Valerie Plame was a “distant fourth” in the running for the ballot position in the 3rd District, which Luján is vacating for his Senate bid.
The plot thickens: Kansas GOP Rep. Steve Watkins, already facing a local voter fraud investigation, is now also at the center of an FEC probe after his father admitted to funneling money to Watkins’ sister and others to donate to the congressman’s 2018 campaign. Watkins is facing a primary challenge, and Democrats see an opportunity here to pick up a seat that encompasses the Topeka suburbs.
Brat backed: Former Virginia Rep. Dave Brat weighed in Tuesday on the crowded GOP primary for his former seat, endorsing state Del. Nick Freitas. The winner will face Spanberger, who ousted Brat in a 2018 race that became symbolic of the Democrats’ new dominance in the suburbs.
What we’re reading
Stu says: Stu Rothenberg doesn’t pull any punches in his analysis of a Thom Tillis campaign memo following North Carolina’s March 3 primary.
10 years later: Operatives in both parties will tell you that health care is the top issue for voters this election cycle. To understand how Democrats and Republicans are talking about health care, you first have to understand the effect of the Affordable Care Act. CQ Roll Call’s health team dives into Obamacare’s practical and political impact in the 10 years since it became law.
It’s Trump’s party now: The New York Times had a deep dive this week into how Trump’s campaign took over the GOP.
Turnout was bigger in Texas: Politico has an analysis of Texas primary turnout in six GOP-held House seats that are Democratic targets, and what that high turnout could mean heading into 2020.
Worth a listen: The Frontier, an Oklahoma investigative journalism nonprofit, focused on the race for Horn’s seat in the Oklahoma City suburbs in its latest podcast. The Democrat is at the top of CQ Roll Call’s list of most vulnerable House members after she flipped this seat in 2018, and it’s rare to get such a close look from a local media outlet at a race that a lot of people are watching from afar.
Senate in play: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s top political adviser, Scott Reed, had strong words in The New York Times for Biden’s rise in the suburbs — and how that might influence Senate races: “Biden’s success in the suburbs makes him an acceptable alternative to Trump. His turnout in the suburbs threatens the Republican Senate.”
The count: 26
Biden continues to dominate congressional endorsements, racking up endorsements from 26 lawmakers this week alone. He now has endorsements from 109 members of Congress, while just 10 lawmakers have endorsed Sanders.
For all intents and purposes, the general election campaign for president is on, Nathan writes in his latest column. “It’s sooner than expected but looks a lot like what we thought it would look like,” he says, with Biden and Trump both looking at a pretty small pool of persuadable votes and a handful of states where everything will be decided. And at this point, the Senate is in play, and the House isn’t.
GOP Rep. Doug Collins, who went into self-quarantine at his home in Georgia after he found out he shook hands with a CPAC attendee who later tested positive for the new coronavirus, didn’t break much of a stride in his Senate campaign against appointed Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler. He did television interviews over Skype and spent 40 minutes answering questions Tuesday on a Facebook Live video, during which he touted his support of Trump and took swipes at Loeffler for posing in campaign ads with a hunting rifle when she was later found not to possess a hunting permit. He also noted that he had taken advantage of his first uninterrupted four days at home since Christmas to get some things done around the house.
“Both he and his wife are highly energetic people and are very bad at being cooped up,” Collins campaign spokesman Dan McLagan said. “She might have him reorganizing the kitchen cabinet three times.”
Reader’s race: Mississippi Senate
After the state’s Democratic primary Tuesday, the Mississippi Senate race is officially a rematch between the 2018 special election candidates, Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Michael Espy. That’s not much of a surprise to anyone who’s been following this race.
Espy, a former Agriculture secretary and congressman, had two opponents in the primary but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed him soon after he announced he would run again. He was the only Democrat in the primary raising money, according to FEC reports. He also outraised Hyde-Smith, a former state agriculture commissioner, in the final reporting period before the primary, with $215,000 raised between Jan. 1 and Feb. 19 compared to Hyde-Smith’s $171,000.
That’s partly a testament to Espy’s ability to keep up the momentum after the 2018 runoff. It’s also due to Hyde-Smith’s lackadaisical fundraising — she was outraised by all but three incumbent senators during the 2020 cycle. As Mississippi Today pointed out, those three — Pat Roberts of Kansas, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mike Enzi of Wyoming — are all retiring.
But it’s still far from smooth sailing for Espy, who would be only the fifth African American man popularly elected to the Senate. Even after his strong pre-primary fundraising, he had $600,000 less in the bank than Hyde-Smith at the end of February. He outraised Hyde-Smith in 2018 too — by almost $2 million and lost by 8 points. That was the closest any Democrat has come to winning a Senate race in Mississippi since 1982. To be sure, the close margin was due, in part, to a national backlash against Hyde-Smith for saying that, if one of her supporters invited her to a public hanging, she would “be on the front row.”
She also received negative attention for another video that surfaced during the campaign, when she appeared to express support for making it “just a little more difficult” for liberal college students to vote.
This time around, Hyde-Smith, a staunch conservative and loyal Trump supporter, has the advantage of running with the president at the top of the ticket in a state he won by almost 18 points in 2016. Both candidates are expected to get an infusion of outside cash as the race moves toward the general. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Republican.
For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race for Iowa’s 2nd District or the Utah’s 4th District. Email us at email@example.com.
Four states are holding presidential primaries on Tuesday: Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio. Illinois and Ohio also have congressional primaries that day, and both states feature competitive contests. Stay tuned to CQ Roll Call’s campaign page for all of our coverage.
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