At the Races: 6 months to go

Posted May 7, 2020 at 2:30pm

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Painting a picture of where the battle for control of the House and Senate stands six months before Election Day can be tricky, especially when only eight states have held their congressional primaries and pandemic-postponed runoffs are still pending in such places as Texas and Alabama.

But by now we do have a good sense of which lawmakers could be in trouble. So it was time to update our lists of the 10 most vulnerable senators and House members. These lists came together after many hours on conference calls with operatives in both parties and took into account the 2016 presidential results, fundraising, polling and race ratings from Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. And when it was over, we wondered: What happened to lawmakers who looked vulnerable at this point in past election cycles?

We went back through our archives, and found mixed results. All 10 House members on our May 2018 vulnerable list lost, some by double digits. Of course, 2018 was a “wave election” and everyone in our top 10 at that point was a Republican. It was a different story in the previous election. Just four House members on a top 10 list published in July 2016 were defeated — and five of the six who won did so by double digits. So depending on the election, vulnerable can be a relative term. 

On our list in May 2014, just four of the 10 House members we called most vulnerable lost. But two ended up winning by 4 points or less, and two won only after tough primaries.

For the Senate, our May 2018 most vulnerable list included five senators who lost, and two of those who won did so by 4 points or less. We didn’t do a similar ranking in May 2016, but in 2014, the senator we said was most vulnerable withdrew from the ballot and Nos. 2 through 6 lost. Notably, three winners in those races — Republicans Steve Daines of Montana, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Cory Gardner of Colorado — are in the top 10 this year as they defend their seats.

Starting gate

The 10 most vulnerable senators: Three new senators — Republicans Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Steve Daines of Montana, along with Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey — join the list with six months to go until Election Day.

The 10 most vulnerable House members: The House list has also been shaken up six months out from Election Day, with two Republicans, Virginia’s Denver Riggleman and Illinois’ Rodney Davis, joining the list.

Get virtual: Next week, catch At The Races: 6 Months Out, when our campaign team will discuss who’s on the top 10 lists above and why they got there. We’ll also discuss the landscape ahead for President Donald Trump, the GOP’s Senate majority, and the House’s Democratic majority. You’ll be able to watch live at 3 p.m. next Thursday, May 14, on our Twitter, Facebook and YouTube channels.

Previewing pandemic politics: Next week, voters in California’s 25th District will choose former Rep. Katie Hill’s replacement. The special election has offered a preview for what a competitive election looks like in the middle of a global health crisis.

Montana money: When Montana Gov. Steve Bullock launched his bid last year for the Democratic presidential nomination, he said he aimed to “defeat the corrupt system that lets campaign money drown out the people’s voice.” Now, Senate Majority PAC is spending $700,000 attacking Daines, his GOP opponent.

Laws don’t apply to Congress until it says they do: When Tara Reade filed a 1993 complaint about her treatment in then-Sen. Joe Biden’s office, Congress was nearly two years away from making its personnel rules conform to federal labor and antidiscrimination laws, CQ Roll Call’s Chris Cioffi and Katherine Tully-McManas report. And while Biden has asked for records of the complaint to be released, the Senate secretary’s office says it is not allowed to do that under the law.

Quorum countdown: Senate Republicans took a step Thursday toward putting Republican lawyer James “Trey” Trainor III on the Federal Election Commission, which does not currently have a sufficient number of members for a quorum. Democrats oppose the former Trump campaign attorney.

ICYMI

Not so fast: A federal judge reinstated New York’s presidential primary after Democrats on the New York State Board of Elections moved to effectively cancel it (the primary had already been postponed from April 28 to June 23). The co-chair of the state’s board of elections told The New York Times the board was preparing to appeal the ruling.

McCarthy weighs in: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy took sides in two GOP primaries this week, endorsing state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Iowa’s 2nd District, which is an open-seat race, and Army veteran Peter Meijer in Michigan’s 3rd (Justin Amash’s seat). McCarthy has endorsed 40 other House candidates so far this election cycle.

#TXSEN: The Democratic primary to take on Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn is heating up ahead of the July 14 runoff. The liberal group Democracy for American endorsed state Sen. Royce West in the runoff, while Air Force veteran MJ Hegar nabbed endorsements from Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, former presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Looking down ballot: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is jumping back into the political arena after a failed presidential run, launching the “Win Big Project” to support down-ballot Democrats. Klobuchar endorsed New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, who are running for reelection, along with Senate candidates Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, Mark Kelly in Arizona and Rep. Ben Ray Luján in New Mexico. She backed three sitting House Democrats: New York Rep. Anthony Brindisi, Texas Rep. Lizzie Fletcher and New Mexico Rep. Xochitl Torres Small. Klobuchar also endorsed three Democratic House candidates: Dan Feehan in Minnesota’s 1st District, Jackie Gordon in New York’s 2nd and Christy Smith in California’s 25th.

Smoke signals: Firefighter Omar Blanco, who is considered an underdog in the Republican primary to challenge Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in Florida’s 26th District, is trying to get Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez thrown off the ballot. Blanco filed a lawsuit in Leon County state court arguing that Gimenez broke a state law when he submitted a check to qualify for the ballot with his name spelled wrong.

Politics as usual: The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision Thursday overturning the 2016 fraud conviction of a former top aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who played a central role in the Bridgegate scandal. Lawyers for Bridget Anne Kelly had argued that the incident was an example of “bare-knuckle politics” but it did not break federal law. The decision could have implications for the prosecution of political corruption and white-collar crimes.

Ballot battle: Republicans in Oklahoma’s state Legislature are seeking to reinstate a notarization requirement for absentee ballots. The state’s Supreme Court struck down the requirement on Monday. Voting rights advocates have argued that such restrictions pose substantial burdens to voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans, though, say they help prevent voter fraud. Terry Neese, who is competing in the 5th District GOP primary to challenge Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn, who topped our most vulnerable House member list, made that argument in a campaign email this week.

Getting personal: Oil executive Claire Chase called for primary opponent Yvette Herrell to drop out of the race for New Mexico’s 2nd District this week after The Associated Press reported on allegations that Herrell had been spreading rumors about Chase’s former marriage. At the Races readers will remember that Nathan called out Herrell last week for mocking Chase with a ditzy voice in “one of the most sexist ads in recent memory.” The winner of this primary will challenge Torres Small, who was No. 2 on our most vulnerable list.

Pressure game: Republicans are trying to pressure Democrats in competitive House districts to take a stand on the sexual assault allegation against Biden, calling silence on the issue hypocritical after the uproar over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination. Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton is among the only Democrats in swing districts who has called for an investigation, although she made clear that she thinks Biden has responded appropriately to Reade’s claim and that she still supports his nomination. That prompted an email blast from the Congressional Leadership Fund, saying that Wexton was “demanding” an investigation and contrasting her to fellow Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria in the GOP-targeted 2nd District who “has stayed mum.”

What we’re reading

Stu says: Stu Rothenberg explains in his latest column why he didn’t include Kansas in his latest breakdown of the top Senate races.

Lots to read on Loeffler: Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler grabbed more headlines this week as she faces scrutiny over selling stocks shortly after a closed-door coronavirus briefing, which has upended her Senate race. CQ Roll Call’s Chris Marquette reported that Loeffler still owns millions in stock, despite a pledge to divest. He also reported that she asked to be removed from a Senate subcommittee that oversees commodities. Loeffler is using her personal wealth in her campaign, launching a new $4 million ad buy and labeling criticism of her stock trades “liberal lies,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Primary watch: The Chamber of Commerce is backing state Sen. Randy Feenstra in his GOP primary race against Iowa Rep. Steve King, according to The Des Moines Register.

No Trump talk: The New York Times looked at how moderate House Republicans (who face competitive races in November) largely avoid talking directly about the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Flaming out?: Federal investigators are investigating Blue Flame Medical, the new health care supply firm of former GOP operatives Mike Gula and John Thomas, The New York Times reports.

Helping out: Politico reports how House and Senate candidates are shifting their campaigns to help others cope with the pandemic, while recognizing at some point they will have to return to politics.

Badger State ballots: The Washington Post dug into how a last-minute Supreme Court ruling influenced how ballots were counted in Wisconsin’s April elections, and how it’s defining ongoing election lawsuits. Meanwhile, hundreds of voters have submitted incomplete absentee ballot applications for next week’s special election in Wisconsin’s 7th District after the state’s Republican Party sent out a confusing mailer, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Yikes: Politico reports on anti-Muslim and other problematic social media posts from Ted Howze, the GOP candidate in California’s 10th District, which Democratic Rep. Josh Harder flipped in 2018. Howze said other people had access to his social media accounts. 

The count: $1.2 million

That’s how much cash the campaign of Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III has invested in a four-week TV advertising campaign in the effort to oust Ed Markey in the Sept. 1 primary in the Bay State. It’s the first TV ad in what’s likely to be a bitter contest.

The spot focuses on health care, with Kennedy pledging to lead the fight for coverage in the Senate. Markey was an original co-sponsor of “Medicare for All” legislation in the Senate in 2017, while Kennedy signed on to such a bill in the House in 2019. Markey campaign manager John Walsh said “the best advertising is doing your job well, and right now the voters are responding.”

Nathan’s notes

“Even in the middle of a global pandemic and after a historic impeachment process, the political environment hasn’t changed dramatically over the last year and a half,” Nathan writes in his latest column marking six months until Election Day. And he joined the latest Political Theater podcast to break down his six-month outlook.

Candidate confessions

California Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith is facing Republican Mike Garcia, a Navy veteran, in next week’s 25th District special election. Asked recently if there was a moment that captured how the pandemic has affected the race, Smith said in a statement, “Just last week I volunteered at a local senior center that I helped secure funding for in my first year in the Assembly. The senior center provides ‘pay what you can’ meals for seniors in our community, and over 350 residents showed up for lunch.This is not a normal time in our country. People are hurting and people are afraid. Now more than ever, we need competent governance that people can trust will look out for them with no ulterior motives or loyalties.”

Reader’s race: GA-07

Georgia’s 7th District was once considered a Republican stronghold, but its Atlanta suburbs began to break away from the GOP in the 2018 midterms just as dozens of other districts around the country that flipped blue did. Republican Rep. Rob Woodall’s 419-vote victory was the narrowest House margin nationwide in 2018, and his retirement announcement the following February created a free-for-all in the June 9 primary.

Trump won the district by 6 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-up.

On the Democratic side, Woodall’s 2018 challenger Carolyn Bourdeaux is running again. The college professor and former state budget official had $1 million in cash on hand at the end of the first quarter, almost twice as much as any other Democrat.

Other contenders include state Sen. Zahra Karinshak, state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, former Fulton County Commissioner John Eaves, educator Rashid Malik and activist Nabilah Islam. Islam, the the 30-year-old daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, has the endorsement of Congressional Progressive Caucus Vice-Chairman Ro Khanna.

As for the Republicans, state Sen. Renee Unterman has the highest profile and, after putting in more than $600,000 of her own, led the GOP field in cash on hand at the end of the first quarter with $726,000. A former local mayor who championed Gov. Brian Kemp’s right-to-life bill in the Senate last year, Unterman spent $50,000 in May on a cable ad that touted her as the only “Trump conservative” in the race and said she would “hold China accountable.”

Unterman’s ad took a jab at emergency room physician Rich McCormick, whose tweets have recently caught Trump’s attention. McCormack has the backing of the anti-tax Club for Growth and the House Freedom Fund, but he has taken flak for not voting for Trump in 2016. Mark Gonsalves, a businessman, has also tried to tie McCormack to surprise medical billing.

Lynne Homrich, a former Home Depot executive who lives outside the district, is also among the best-funded GOP candidates, with $273,000 at the end of the first quarter after putting $330,000 of her own money into the race. Other Republicans include educator Lisa Noel Babbage, hotel auditor Zachary Kennemore and businessman Eugene Yu.

To win the nomination next month, a candidate has to get more than 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, there’s a runoff on Aug. 11.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race for New York’s 24th District or for Minnesota’s 2nd. Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

Mark your calendars for May 12, when voters will choose two new members of Congress. The winner of the special election in Wisconsin’s 7th District will replace former GOP Rep. Sean P. Duffy, while the winner of California’s 25th District special election will replace former Rep. Katie Hill. Nebraska is also holding its presidential and congressional primaries on May 12. Keep an eye on Nebraska’s 2nd District, where Democrats will choose a candidate to take on GOP Rep. Don Bacon in a district Trump won by just 2 points in 2016.

Photo finish

In what a worker called “a big game of Twister,” large decals were placed near the Senate subways to ensure reporters trying to catch senators stayed an appropriate distance apart. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

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Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.