At the Races: $2 trillion edition

Posted March 26, 2020 at 2:50pm

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.

House and Senate candidates are getting a crash course in crisis messaging as they try to navigate the medical, economic and social devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

For Democrats, that means blasting President Donald Trump’s initial response of downplaying the risks of COVID-19, while seeking to tie their GOP opponents to the commander in chief. Republicans, meanwhile, tried to tar Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for using the pandemic to push liberal priorities.

Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff had harsh words for Trump after the Labor Department reported record unemployment figures Thursday showing that 3.28 million Americans filed jobless claims.

“These are the consequences of Donald Trump’s negligence, arrogance, and incompetence,” Ossoff said in a statement.

He also criticized the Republican he is bidding to unseat, Sen. David Perdue, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for breaking for a monthlong recess after voting on a $2 trillion economic relief package.

Former Iowa GOP Rep. David Young, who is seeking a rematch against Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne after losing to her in the 3rd District in 2018, took to Twitter to criticize Pelosi and “her minions’ pet provisions to federalize elections, offset airplane carbon emissions, aid the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts, etc., etc., etc…” He said those measures had nothing to do with fighting coronavirus. “It’s time for a new Speaker,” he wrote.

This is all an early preview of attacks we expect to escalate through November.

Starting gate

Where’s the money?: The political action committees of businesses are seeking workarounds to writing checks for fundraisers their executives already attended, illustrating just one of the difficulties campaigns will face as a crucial March 31 fundraising deadline looms.

Is $400 million enough?: The massive federal spending package included $400 million to states to help them prepare for the 2020 election. States need resources to accommodate an expected surge in requests for mail-in ballots and to ensure polling places are safe for voters and poll workers. But some say $400 million is just a fraction of what is needed before November, and Congress is running out of time.

Bracing for impact: Many of the primaries postponed so far have affected the presidential race, but congressional campaigns are starting to brace for uncertainty around when and how elections will be administered.

No Good for Riggleman: Virginia’s 5th District is one of a handful in the state where the status of GOP nominating conventions has been thrown into question because of prohibitions against mass gatherings. The turmoil could pose even more trouble for Rep. Denver Riggleman, who is facing an intraparty challenge from former Liberty University athletics director Bob Good.

Cutting room floor: Republican Trent Christensen, who is vying to take on Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams in Utah, wanted to emphasize his commitment to term limits in a campaign launch video by having actors portray House and Senate members on hospital gurneys and in wheelchairs being wheeled through Hill office building hallways. Those scenes were dropped when the video went up on his website a few days later — just before McAdams announced his COVID-19 diagnosis.

Reality check: After Rep. Dan Lipinski’s loss in last week’s Democratic primary in Illinois’ 3rd District, Nathan L. Gonzales of Inside Elections reminded us just how rare it is for a challenger to take out an incumbent of the same party. In the last presidential election cycle, just three incumbents lost primaries. Can you name them?

ICYMI

Calling it quits: Ross LaJeunesse, a former Google executive, just ended his bid for the Democratic nomination in Maine to take on GOP Sen. Susan Collins. LaJeunesse said Thursday he was endorsing Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, as COVID-19 had made meeting voters in person untenable. “I cannot ask my supporters to continue working hard, to continue making financial contributions, to continue volunteering, to continue advocating for my campaign when the country is focused on an unprecedented health and economic crisis, and when the type of campaign I planned, meeting voters where they live and work and speaking person to person, is impossible,” he wrote in a lengthy post about his decision. LaJeunesse self-isolated (this newsletter incorrectly described his situation last week) after coming into “indirect contact” with someone who later tested positive for the new coronavirus. Gideon is considered the top Democrat in the race and has the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

13 and counting: So far, 13 states have postponed primaries or primary runoffs as in-person voting became viewed as a health risk. Pennsylvania is poised to become the next state to move its April 28 primaries to June 2, with a bill headed for the governor’s desk. Here are the new election dates so far:

April 28: Ohio congressional and presidential primary elections (all mail-in, although that could still face legal challenges)
May 19: Georgia presidential primary (same day as the state’s congressional primary)
June 2: Presidential primaries in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware; Congressional and presidential primaries in Maryland and Indiana
June 20: Louisiana presidential primary
June 23: Kentucky presidential and congressional primaries; Mississippi and North Carolina congressional primary runoffs
July 14: Alabama and Texas primary runoffs

On the airwaves: Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC aligned with McConnell, announced this week it was reserving $67.1 million worth of fall television airtime. The buy is spread across six states where Republicans are defending Senate seats.The largest share, nearly $21.8 million, is in North Carolina. The next largest, $12.6 million, is in Iowa, followed by $10.8 million in Kentucky, $9.2 million in Arizona, $7.2 million in Maine and $5.5 million in Colorado. Most vulnerable senators in 2020 are Republicans.

Squad challenge: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a freshman Democrat from Michigan, faces a rematch primary challenge from Brenda Jones, president of the Detroit City Council. Jones came in second to Tlaib in the 13th District’s 2018 primary, among six total contenders. But Jones did win a special election that year to replace former Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. (beating Tlaib in that primary) so she briefly served in the 2018 lame-duck session before Tlaib took office. Jones said in her campaign announcement video that she recorded it from her home as a way of “setting a safety example” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disclosure fight: The Campaign Legal Center, a political money watchdog organization, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission this week over the conservative 45 Committee’s failure “to register as a political committee” and not releasing information on its donors. “This time they’re trying to let a group get away with $22 million in secret spending,” tweeted Campaign Legal’s Adav Noti.

What we’re reading

Remembering Richard Hanna: The former GOP House member from upstate New York passed away earlier this month at age 69. Stu Rothenberg recalls how Hanna was a rare kind of lawmaker, and why he was probably Stu’s favorite candidate interview.

Falling behind: Political ads have shifted more and more to the digital battlefield, but the nation’s primary regulator of money in politics has made no real moves to follow it, writes Nancy Scola in Politico magazine.

What are the rules?: Republican Party rules give the national committee the power to decide how a presidential nominee is picked if a disaster makes holding the national convention impossible, but Democrats have no such provision. That’s one of the nuggets in a detailed look by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at whether the Democrats really will be able to have their convention in the city in July.

Pandemic fallout: The National Rifle Association, a major political backer of Republicans, is bracing for layoffs amid budget cuts stemming from losses blamed on the coronavirus pandemic, The Washington Post reports.

E-Pubs Unum: For those who can’t get their fix because they’re staying away from Capitol Hill and other fine locations where our print editions are served, we wanted to make sure you knew how to access the electronic editions of CQ Magazine and Roll Call.

The count: 554,116

For evidence of whether the coronavirus will cause a surge in voters wanting to cast absentee ballots, look no further than Wisconsin. The state’s election commission announced Tuesday it had received 554,116 requests for absentee ballots in recent days, ahead of the April 7 election, which includes Wisconsin’s presidential primaries, a state Supreme Court race and local elections. The commission noted 520,000 absentee ballots have already been issued. In 2016, a total of 249,000 absentee ballots were issued for the spring election.

Nathan’s notes

Voters in congressional districts usually don’t turn from Democrats into Republicans overnight, or vice versa. But these five districts Nathan looked at changed so dramatically, and so quickly, it could give you whiplash. If you have candidates for other whiplash districts, let us know at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Candidate confessions

“Social distancing” isn’t new for Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut challenging Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally. During a recent appearance on KTAR’s “The Gaydos and Chad Show,” the Democrat was asked how he dealt with isolation in space, as Americans across the country work from home and stay away from loved ones to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Kelly said his space shuttle missions usually only lasted two weeks and the schedule was hectic, so he didn’t have much time to dwell on life in isolation. But Kelly said astronauts who spend longer periods of time on the International Space Station, like his twin brother who spent a year in space, “make sure that every day they are doing exercise, that they’re taking some time for themselves.” Kelly said those astronauts also try to make sure they stay connected with friends and family on earth.

Reader’s race: Georgia Senate special

The action-packed Senate special election in Georgia got even more dramatic last week when The Daily Beast reported that GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her husband had unloaded millions of dollars worth of stock holdings after a senators-only briefing about the brewing coronavirus crisis. The reports set off a cascade of criticism and raised the potential of investigations into Loeffler and other senators who also sold stock. Loeffler has spent the last week insisting a “third party” financial adviser made the trades without her knowledge.

But in a potential sign of trouble, the GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, which has spent nearly $2 million attacking one of her primary opponents, GOP Rep. Doug Collins, temporarily halted its ads in the race. An SLF spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the group was reallocating its spending to respond to the pandemic. Collins spokesman Dan McLagan had another explanation: “McConnell’s folks wanted to abandon ship while there were still life jackets left.”

Meanwhile, Majority Forward, the Democratic dark money group, launched a seven-figure digital ad campaign criticizing Loeffler and the state’s other Republican senator, David Perdue, for their stock trades.

The race, to fill the open seat left by the health-related resignation of GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, is one of two Senate races in the state. The special election is set for Nov. 3, and candidates from all parties compete on the same ballot. With over 20 qualifying candidates in the race, it is almost certain to end in a January runoff. Loeffler was appointed to the seat by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp.

Democrats running include Raphael Warnock, a civil rights leader and pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, who has been endorsed by the DSCC; Matt Lieberman, a businessman and the son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman; and former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver. Warnock, who also has the support of 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, has been dealing with his own controversy. His wife accused him of running over her foot during a heated argument days before he filed to run for Senate, but Warnock has denied the allegation.

Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican. Trump won Georgia by 5 points in 2016.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about races in New York’s 19th District or New Jersey’s 2nd. Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

There are still a few presidential contests happening on April 4, but social distancing precautions are in place. Alaska and Hawaii have eliminated in-person voting for their presidential primaries that day, and Wyoming nixed the in-person portion for its caucuses.

Photo finish

We bet they read every word of it: Secretary for the Majority Robert Duncan carries a copy the coronavirus stimulus bill to the Senate floor Wednesday night before votes on an amendment and final passage. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Subscribe now using this link so you don’t miss out on the best news and analysis from our team, plus key stories and data that will keep you informed about 2020 races.