At the Races: COVIDed we stand

Posted April 23, 2020 at 2:29pm

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.

Perhaps it was inevitable that deeply divided Americans, including candidates for Congress, would view a deadly pandemic through the prism of their political leanings. That crevasse has been on display in recent days with demonstrations urging governors to reopen businesses as the nation’s unemployment rate and deaths from COVID-19 have continued to mount. Some candidates and lawmakers have joined the debate, though it does not always cut specifically along Democratic-Republican lines.

Democratic Senate hopeful Jon Ossoff in Georgia blasted the state’s GOP Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday for allowing nail salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors to open their doors, saying Kemp “risks accelerating the outbreak.” Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is running for a separate seat from the same state, gave Kemp props, though even President Donald Trump said Wednesday the governor was moving too quickly. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican who is Loeffler’s chief competition in an all-party special election this November, lashed out at Kemp on Fox News on Thursday for muddling his message and lacking leadership

“Reopen” protests, however small, have cropped up in pivotal Senate battlegrounds such as Colorado, Montana, Michigan and North Carolina, fueled at least in part by Trump allies and prominent GOP donors. It’s still too early in the election cycle and in the coronavirus pandemic to know how such fights may influence voters in November, but a majority of Americans — 80 percent — say they favor strict shelter-in-place measures, according to a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The issue has made its way to House races too. Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin criticized her potential GOP opponent, Mike Detmer, for snapping selfies with people protesting stay-at-home orders from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “I guess the protesters were attempting to make a statement. It certainly didn’t represent Michigan in a positive light,” Slotkin said in an email. Whitmer said Thursday on CNN that she was looking at relaxing the state’s orders “in the coming days.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Thom Tillis, the North Carolina Republican who has a tough reelection fight this November against Democrat Cal Cunningham, has backed his state’s stay-at-home orders from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. “We have not hit the peak of the curve yet,” Tillis noted during a virtual town hall this week.

Starting gate

Viral politics: The politicization of stay-at-home orders could have a direct impact on the race for Florida’s 26th District. Republican Carlos Gimenez is challenging freshman Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Frontliner, for this swing seat while he navigates the response to the pandemic in Miami-Dade County, a COVID-19 hotspot. Gimenez is the mayor of the community of 2.7 million.

Cashing in: Democratic Rep. Katie Porter has had multiple million-dollar fundraising quarters thanks to her viral moments in committee hearing room. Some Republicans now believe her traditionally Republican district is out of reach in 2020.

A slippery (ski) slope: CQ Roll Call’s Chris Marquette dug into House lawmakers’ leadership PACs and found seven members who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years on trips to ski resorts and spring training.

Blah squad: Four Republican women running for the House went on Fox News in December to brand themselves the “Conservative Squad,” an alternative to the four liberal Democratic women in the House using a similar moniker. Nathan L. Gonzales checked into how they’re doing now.

Dogma detour: Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, the once and perhaps future presidential candidate, seems to be everywhere, touting the Paycheck Protection Program that provides forgivable federal loans to businesses battered or shuttered by the pandemic to keep workers on the payroll. But as CQ Roll Call’s Jim Saksa points out, Rubio is bucking Republican Darwinism when it comes to the government picking business winners and losers, and his turn in the spotlight comes with political risk if the program ends up being judged a failure.

ICYMI

Elections, they are a-changin’: States have continued to shift elections amid the pandemic. Connecticut delayed its presidential primary again, pushing it to Aug. 11, the same day as its congressional primaries. And Michigan’s filing deadline was extended from April 21 to May 8 (giving independent Rep. Justin Amash a little more time to think about running for president instead of for his House seat).

Taking sides: The liberal group Democracy for America announced this week it’s endorsing another primary challenger taking on a sitting Democrat, backing Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal, against House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel in New York’s 16th District. DFA also announced recently that it would back Mckayla Wilkes, who is taking on House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer in Maryland.

Taking sides, Republican edition: The Republican Main Street Partnership, which bills itself as the pragmatic wing of the party, is taking aim at Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King, who faces multiple primary challengers. The group’s affiliated super PAC, Defending Main Street, plans to spend $100,000 against King and to boost GOP state Sen. Randy Feenstra, The Washington Times reported.

Party like it’s 2010: Colorado Senate hopeful Andrew Romanoff secured a spot on the Democratic primary ballot, winning the support of 86 percent of the nearly 3,000 delegates at the state party’s assembly on Saturday. Romanoff’s chief opponent in the primary, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, did not compete at the assembly after qualifying for the primary ballot by collecting the necessary signatures. Romanoff also won the Democratic state assembly when he ran for Senate back in 2010, but he ended up losing the primary to Sen. Michael Bennet.

Save the receipt: Republicans looking to oust Kentucky GOP Rep. Thomas Massie, who drew the ire of Trump last month by forcing a vote on a sweeping coronavirus response package, are looking for their money back. House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney and Ohio GOP Rep. Michael R. Turner are asking for their campaign donations to Massie’s primary challenger, Todd McMurtry, to be returned after his recent racist tweets came to light. The Republican Jewish Coalition also withdrew its support for McMurtry.

Remember 2016?: A new report by the Senate Intelligence Committee found the intelligence community assessment that Russia wanted to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election was accurate.

Missing House calls: Kansas Rep. Roger Marshall, who is in a crowded Republican primary for an open Senate seat, announced Wednesday that he would miss House votes this week as he volunteers to treat COVID-19 patients at a Kansas clinic. Marshall, an obstetrician and gynecologist, said in a press release that his campaign would remain “fully operational.” The announcement comes as Marshall has been targeted in separate ad campaigns paid for by the anti-tax Club for Growth and the political action committee funded by California billionaire Peter Thiel, both of whom support former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in the GOP primary.

What we’re reading

Pinkie on the scale: Stu Rothenberg sees Democrats having a slight edge when it comes to the battle for Senate control in November.

Changing the narrative: Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler has been in hot water over selling stocks after a closed briefing on the coronavirus. The Daily Beast reports that the appointed senator is trying to turn things around by touting her appointment to Trump’s task force to reopen the economy (every GOP senator was included, except for Utah’s Mitt Romney).

What happened: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, PBS Frontline and Columbia Journalism Investigations teamed up to dig into multiple failures that led to missing ballots in Wisconsin’s recent election.

On the front lines: New York Democratic Rep. Max Rose, one of the most vulnerable House members in 2020, recently spoke to Politico about his experience deploying with the National Guard to fight COVID-19 in his district.

When freshman year never ends: Freshman Democrats who helped flip the House in 2018 probably weren’t expecting their first terms to be quite this eventful (and it isn’t over yet). CNN checks in with these lawmakers who have had to deal with a government shutdown, impeachment proceedings and now a global pandemic.

When mothers are in the House: Rep. Katie Porter, part of a record-breaking class of freshman women in Congress, talked to The New York Times about the craziness of trying to self-quarantine in a bedroom after she was exposed to the coronavirus while managing seven hours of daily conference calls and the homeschool schedule for her three kids, who she is raising by herself. The Times also featured Texas Democratic House candidate Candace Valenzuela in this story about the stress that the pandemic is placing on working moms. Porter and Valenzuela said they were channelling some of their frustration into political action.

Racist rant: Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, a Democratic candidate in New Jersey’s 6th District and the founder of the popular website MuslimGirl.com, was the target of a racist threat. She released a recording on Twitter of a violent and obscenity-laced call threatening to kill her and her family, The Record of Bergen County reported. Al-Khatahtbeh is challenging House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., who denounced the call on Twitter as “vile and Islamophobic” and called for a complete investigation.

The count: $17,700

That’s how much money the campaign of Sen. Edward J. Markey plans to return to donors because they violated some of the Massachusetts Democrat’s pledges to forgo contributions from corporate political action committees or from entities and individuals with fossil fuel connections. Some of the cash came from the PACs of the American Cable Association and the Real Estate Roundtable, the campaign said. Markey faces a tight primary against Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, scheduled for Sept. 1.

Nathan’s notes

His role piloting Trump’s agenda and multiple judicial nominations through the Senate has made Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a top villain for Democrats. But it’s not likely to cost him many votes in Kentucky where Trump won by 30 points in 2016. So Democrats are going to have to get creative if they want to find a way to oust him. Nathan has one suggestion.

Candidate confessions

Utah Republican Trent Christensen encouraged resistance to government measures meant to contain the coronavirus pandemic during a virtual town hall on Saturday, referencing a prominent critic of social distancing.

“He is being destroyed right now by the national press because he is coming out and saying social distancing has no correlation to infection rates,” Christensen said, referring to former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson. “So you’re talking about, social distancing is great and it is curing and helping us flatten the curve. His point is that no, look at the numbers: Social distancing has no correlation to infection rates, to hospitalizations, to any of those things. But he is being destroyed for it.”

Christensen is in a primary to challenge freshman Democrat Ben McAdams in the 4th District that Republicans are targeting. McAdams was recently released from the hospital after becoming one of the first members of Congress to be sickened by the coronavirus.

Reader’s race: Michigan Senate

Democrat Gary Peters, the first-term senator and former congressman from Michigan, raised more money in the first quarter, nearly $4.1 million, than in any previous quarter. His presumptive opponent, Army veteran John James, who has Trump’s backing, hauled in even more with $4.8 million. (James faces fellow Republican Bob Carr in an August primary, but Carr has only $1,500 in cash on hand.) James has more money, $5.2 million, from small donors giving less than $200; Peters has reported about $3.1 million in small sums, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. All told, Peters had $8.8 million on hand to James’ $8.6 as of March 31.

Those big treasure chests indicate that Peters is taking his race seriously, but they also speak to Republicans’ scant opportunities for Senate pickups in November. Only one other Senate Democrat is more vulnerable than Peters, and that’s Doug Jones in deep-red Alabama. But Peters, whose race Inside Elections rates as Lean Democratic, is probably not as at-risk as Republicans would hope. Recent polls have had him up by single digits. And James lost his first attempt for a Senate seat in 2018 when he challenged Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who won by 7 points.

Outside money will be a factor, as super PACs on both sides of the aisle have already infused millions into the race. Presidential politics will matter, too. Trump beat Clinton in Michigan by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. And a Fox News poll taken Saturday through Tuesday found Democrat Joe Biden leading Trump, 49 percent to 41 percent, and the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls on the matchup has Biden ahead by 5.5 points. James, a 38-year-old African American businessman and former Apache helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, may be tethered to Trump’s outcome in the state. The president recently tweeted, “John James will be a GREAT Senator for Michigan!” Peters, who is 61, white and a former Naval Reserve officer, serves on the Armed Services Committee.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about Iowa’s 2nd District or Illinois’ 14th. Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

Two states are conducting elections next week that are primarily by mail. On Tuesday, voters in Maryland’s 7th District will choose a successor to the late Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. Democrat Kweisi Mfume, who preceded Cummings in Congress, is favored in the deep-blue district after winning a decisive primary victory over Cummings’ widow. Mail-in ballots in Ohio’s presidential and congressional primaries, which were postponed at the last minute in March, have to be postmarked by Tuesday. Results will be reported on Tuesday night, but final results won’t be known until early May, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Photo finish

Protesters took to the streets in Richmond, Va., this week to protest stay-at-home orders. Photographer Tom Williams was on hand to capture the action. You can find more of his photos here.

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