At the Races: Air war vs. ground game

Posted June 18, 2020 at 2:30pm

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This week, heading into a highly unusual summer campaign season, candidates and outside groups launched a flurry of new big-dollar advertising buys, especially in the country’s hottest Senate races. At the same time, candidates began to embark on more in-person events, notably those in some of the toughest upcoming primaries. They include Democrat Charles Booker, who is challenging Amy McGrath for their party’s Senate nomination in Kentucky. Jamaal Bowman, who is trying to defeat Democratic incumbent Eliot L. Engel in New York’s 16th District, took to subway stops to woo voters. Both primaries are set for Tuesday. The Erie County GOP also just announced an in-person rally Saturday at New York state Sen. Chris Jacobs’ campaign headquarters, ahead of Tuesday’s special election in the 27th District.

Though the ground game, even amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, seems to be coming back into action, the “air wars” on TV and digital buys really seem to be heating up, especially in Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona and Maine, home to the Senate’s most vulnerable Republicans. The Democratic outside group Majority Forward, an affiliate of the super PAC Senate Majority PAC, launched a seven-figure advertising campaign against North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis. 

Tillis’ opponent, Democrat Cal Cunningham, just put out his first ad of the general election. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, put out ads supporting Tillis and his fellow embattled GOP Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine. Gardner launched his own TV ad, knocking former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s endorsement ahead of the June 30 primary. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also launched a new TV ad against Hickenlooper this week. House races won’t be left out when it comes to ads. The National Republican Congressional Committee announced a $23.5 million buy.

The twin phenomena are evident in the presidential race too, with Democrat Joe Biden out with his initial ad blitz, per The New York Times, and President Donald Trump holding his first in-person rally since the coronavirus shut them down on Saturday in Oklahoma.

Starting gate

The Sanders effect: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is turning his attention to congressional races since ending his presidential campaign, and he’s making some more endorsements in safe Democratic open-seat races. New York’s primaries next week will be an early test of his down-ballot influence.

Generational fight: Republicans in North Carolina’s 11th District will choose between a 24-year-old real estate investor and a 62-year-old businesswoman in Tuesday’s runoff for the seat previously held by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, CQ Roll Call’s Chris Cioffi reported.

Not going quietly: After GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman lost his party’s nomination for another term Saturday night at a drive-thru convention in Virginia’s 5th District, he charged there was rampant fraud and said he was “weighing his options.”

Blue view: Running in a Democratic primary for Congress during widespread protests against police brutality, Josh Hicks is not downplaying his experience as a small-town cop. He argues that both black and white residents in his Kentucky district might see the justice system as tilted against them. 

Family feud: Statewide, Democrats in Kentucky agree they want to oust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but the test in Tuesday’s primary will be whether longtime front-runner Amy McGrath’s attempts to reach out to moderates and independents provide an opening for her more liberal challengers, state Rep. Charles Booker and retired Marine Mike Broihier.

Winning the West: Kathleen Williams easily won the Democratic primary earlier this month in her second run for Montana’s at-large House seat. And she’s not the only Democratic woman in the West making a repeat bid.

Late calls: Results from last Tuesday’s primaries finally called this week included Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux winning the nomination outright for an open seat in Georgia and two challengers being chosen in Nevada: Former state Assemblyman Jim Marchant got the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, and Republican Dan Rodimer, a former pro wrestler, was tapped to face Democratic Rep. Susie Lee. Final tallies in Georgia also showed Democratic Rep. David Scott clearing the 50 percent barrier and will not face a primary runoff.

Ooops: A text survey asking a select group of Kansas voters to rate Republican Senate candidate Bob Hamilton’s ads went to someone who recorded the unreleased ads and provided them to one of his opponents, CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales reported.

ICYMI

In-house watchdogs: The Senate Ethics Committee dropped its inquiry into Sen. Kelly Loeffler, telling the Georgia Republican that after looking at stock trades she made after senators were briefed about the coronavirus pandemic, it “did not find evidence that your actions violated federal law, Senate Rules, or standards of conduct,” CQ Roll Call’s Chris Marquette reported. On the House side, however, a probe into campaign spending by Georgia Democratic Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. is continuing, Marquette reported.

Meanwhile, in the Bronx: Engel’s hotly contested primary continued to heat up this week. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee secured endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who said last week he wasn’t taking sides in the 16th District race. Bowman, Engel’s main opponent, released a poll that showed him in a strong position at 41 percent to 31 percent for Engel and 27 percent undecided. Engel’s campaign responded on Twitter by saying their internal numbers had the congressman ahead by 8 points.

’Bama bound: CNN reported that Trump is expected to hold a rally with former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, who is facing Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in a GOP primary runoff on July 14. The winner will face Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.  

Eyes on Ernst: The latest Des Moines Register poll found that Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst might be in some trouble. Forty-six percent of likely voters surveyed supported Theresa Greenfield, who won the Democratic Senate primary earlier this month, while 43 percent backed Ernst. A source with Ernst’s campaign pushed back on the poll, noting that Greenfield may have benefitted from millions in outside spending ahead of the primary and that the dynamics would change once Greenfield faces GOP attacks.

Unsend: Nebraska Democrats pulled resources from their nominee to challenge Sen. Ben Sasse after he sent text messages to his staff describing an imagined group sex scene involving a female aide, who was on the text chain. 

What we’re reading

Stu says: Everyone was sure at some point the top issue in 2020 was going to be Charlottesville, or Russia, or impeachment, or Brett Kavanaugh. “The reality is that plenty of things could happen between now and Nov. 3 that could help define the choice voters have this year,” Stu Rothenberg wrote. “I don’t know what those things could be. After all, six months ago, I had never heard of COVID-19.”

Yikes: Politico uncovered racist and offensive videos from Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who advanced to a primary runoff for an open seat in Georgia. Greene had already grabbed headlines as a QAnon conspiracy theorist. And to correct a post in last week’s At the Races that had the wrong district number and incumbent, Greene is running for the 14th District vacancy created by GOP Rep. Tom Graves’ retirement.

Snowball’s chance: The House may be set to vote next week on a bill to grant Washington, D.C. statehood, as CQ Roll Call’s Chris Cioffi reported. But considering that would mean two senators from a place that’s so Democratic Trump got a whopping 4 percent of the vote in 2016, it will go no further.

Targeting micro-targeting: Along with challenging Facebook’s laissez-faire attitude toward Trump’s shooting-for-looting statement, Democrats in Congress are also questioning ad policies that make it possible to aim “hyper-partisan and divisive advertisements regardless of their factual accuracy” at specific users, CQ Roll Call’s Dean DeChiaro reported. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg announced in a USA Today op-ed that Facebook would allow users to block political ads, but didn’t provide any details.

Seizing the moment: Bloomberg Governent looks at how the current debate over race and police brutality could affect the race for North Carolina’s 8th District, where George Floyd was born. GOP Rep. Richard Hudson is defending his redrawn district, and he faces Democrat Pat Timmons-Goodson, the first African American woman to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Mail call: ProPublica dives into whether the U.S. Postal Service can handle a surge in voting by mail.

Party people: The Pew Research Center breaks down Republican and Democratic demographics, reporting that the parties, “which bore at least some demographic similarities in past decades, have strikingly different profiles today.”

The count: 10

Ten of the 12 House Democrats seeking reelection in New York City districts have primary challengers Tuesday. Seven primary challengers had raised more than $100,000 as of June 3. And two of the insurgents got a boost from The New York Times last week. The paper’s editorial board endorsed Bowman in his race against Engel, as well as Adem Bunkeddeko, who’s taking on Democratic Rep. Yvette D. Clarke in the 9th District. Bunkeddeko also nabbed the Times’ endorsement in his 2018 primary race against Clarke, and lost to her by 6 points. The only two Democrats representing the Big Apple who aren’t facing primary challengers are freshman Rep. Max Rose, who is the only one in a competitive district, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries.

Nathan’s notes

Answering a question few of us ever thought to ask, Nathan and CQ Roll Call member data guru Paul V. Fontelo determined that right now, there are more people in Congress who ran for and lost races for lieutenant governor than people who previously held that job in their states. Some even hold leadership spots in the House and Senate. This fall, there’s a handful more candidates trying to join them.

Candidate confessions

Mondaire Jones is a top candidate in the Democratic primary to replace retiring Democrat Nita M. Lowey in New York’s 17th District. If he wins the primary Tuesday, he’s likely to come to Congress, given the seat’s deep-blue lean. And although the lawyer has been endorsed by liberal groups and leaders, including Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he isn’t saying who he supported in the 2016 presidential primary. “I’ve got a constituent named Hillary Clinton who, as of now, has stayed out of this race,” he told ATR this week.  

Reader’s race

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee once again listed Colorado’s 3rd District on its initial target list for 2020. GOP Rep. Scott Tipton’s shrinking margins of victory in recent cycles and the district’s sizable Hispanic population has Democrats thinking the seat could be in play. Unaffiliated voters now make up the largest chunk of the electorate, with 38 percent of active voters not linked to any party. A third of active voters are registered Republicans, while 27 percent are registered Democrats. 

But flipping the district could still be a tall order for whichever Democrat emerges from the June 30 primary. CityLab classified the expansive district, which covers much of the western half of the state, as purely rural. Trump carried it by 12 points in 2016, doubling Mitt Romney’s margin four years earlier. Tipton won a fifth term in 2018 by 8 points with 51 percent of the vote, although that was his smallest margin of victory since he unseated Democrat John Salazar in 2010.

Tipton’s 2018 opponent, former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, is running again. She faces businessman James Iacino in the primary. The filing deadline for pre-primary fundraising reports is today, but as of March 31, Mitsch Bush had raised $798,000, including $16,000 of her own money, and had $478,000 in the bank. Iacino had raised $729,000, including $291,000 self-funded, and his campaign had $361,000 on hand.  

Tipton also faces a primary from Lauren Boebert, a gun rights activist who owns a restaurant where staffers openly carry guns, according to The Colorado Sun. Tipton has a financial advantage in the race, raising $970,000 with $626,000 on hand as of March 31. Boebert raised $133,000 but had just $13,000 left in the bank. There has been no outside spending in either primary, according to FEC filings. Inside Elections rates the 3rd District race Solid Republican. 

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race for Oklahoma’s 5th District or Utah’s 4th. Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

Three states — Kentucky, New York, and Virginia — are holding primaries next week, while North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi will hold primary runoffs. There’s also a special election in New York’s 27th District to replace former GOP Rep. Chris Collins, who resigned amid an insider trading scandal. The race pits Republican state Sen. Chris Jacobs against Democrat Nate McMurray, a former town supervisor who nearly defeated Collins in 2018. But without Collins on the ballot, the district is expected to remain in GOP hands. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Republican.

Photo finish

Live action shot of a Republican in Virginia's 5th District dropping a ballot into a sealed banker's box during Saturday’s drive-thru party convention in Lynchburg, where challenger Bob Good defeated incumbent Rep. Denver Riggleman. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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