At the Races: Three months to go

Posted August 6, 2020 at 2:45pm

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

While it may be hard to believe in this pandemic time warp, Election Day is three months away! That means we have our new lists of the 10 most vulnerable senators and 10 most vulnerable House members. While we don’t include open seats that are likely to flip, the exercise does give us a chance to talk to campaign strategists in both parties and get a 30,000-foot view of the battle for Congress. These lists also provide a snapshot of how much the political environment has — or hasn’t — changed. 

Three months out, the first half of our list of most vulnerable senators looks identical to our list marking one year until Election Day. But there’s been quite a bit of movement on the second half of the list, underscoring how a tumultuous political environment and President Donald Trump’s dropping poll numbers are creating headaches for Republicans. Michigan Democrat Gary Peters falls off our latest list, while Georgia Republican David Perdue was added back on. 

There’s been an even more dramatic shift in the battle for the House, with some Democrats now thinking 2020 might be an even better year for the party than 2018. Eight of the 10 most vulnerable incumbents one year out from Election Day were Democrats. With three months to go, our list has an even number of Republicans and Democrats, with California GOP Rep. Mike Garcia taking the top spot. 

If you want to hear more about our list of vulnerable incumbents and what we’ve learned from the primaries in the battle for Congress, tune in next Thursday, Aug. 13, at 3 p.m. on Roll Call’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages for our At the Races webinar. See you then!

Starting gate

10 most vulnerable senators: The latest list of endangered senators includes one new GOP addition, while a Democrat in a state Trump won drops off the list.

10 most vulnerable House members: Our list of the 10 most vulnerable House members is now evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, a sign that the national environment is tilting in Democrats’ favor. 

Back to basics: Democrat Cori Bush’s surprising House primary victory in Missouri underscored how progressives are increasingly embracing traditional campaign tactics, such as spending lots of money on TV ads. 

Playing favorites: So far all of the Senate candidates the DSCC endorsed have won their primaries. But could national Democrats picking favorites be a problem for party unity come November?

I volunteer as tribute: Tennessee (aka the Volunteer State) will hold its primaries today, and CQ Roll Call’s Chris Cioffi breaks down what to watch. He also has a deeper dive into the contentious GOP primary in the open 1st District.

Revenge of the establishment: In Kansas, GOP Rep. Steve Watkins, who was recently charged with felony voter fraud, lost a primary challenge to state Treasurer Jake LaTurner. Rep. Roger Marshall rode a wave of support from national Republicans to beat conservative firebrand Kris Kobach for the Senate nomination. And former state GOP chairwoman Amanda Adkins got the nod to take on freshman Democrat Sharice Davids in the Republican-targeted 3rd District.

Results! Get your results here!: Three other states also held primaries Tuesday. In Michigan, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib fended off a primary challenge, while the matchups were set in competitive House races. Competitive races were also set in Arizona. And in Washington state, where they’re still counting mail-in votes, a more moderate Democrat snagged one of the slots in the top-two primary, and two opponents who split endorsements from the Congressional Progressive and Hispanic caucuses were battling for the other spot.

Six weeks later: New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney was declared the winner of her primary in the 12th District after six weeks of vote counting and amid an ongoing lawsuit over absentee ballots. New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres also won the primary in the open 15th District.

ICYMI

On the airwaves: The Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, made an additional $21.3 million in TV and radio ad reservations, all in states Republicans are defending. The ad buys include $6.6 million in Georgia; $6.1 million in Montana; $4.1 million in Iowa; $2.6 million in North Carolina; and $1.9 million in Arizona. 

On the airwaves, part II: The DCCC has also added to its TV reservations, according to The Hill, reserving $716,000 in airtime to defend Oklahoma Rep. Kendra Horn. The committee also reserved a combined $1.5 million for targeted seats held by Republicans Rodney Davis of Illinois, Ann Wagner of Missouri and Don Bacon of Nebraska.

Lone Star gamble: The DSCC announced Tuesday it was making a “seven-figure coordinated investment” in Texas for TV ads, polling and field organizing, releasing a poll that showed a tight Senate race between Democrat MJ Hegar and GOP Sen. John Cornyn. 

Making moves: Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott is making a move to be the next NRSC chairman for the 2022 cycle, The Wall Street Journal reported. He’s also eyeing a run for the White House in 2024.

Did someone say recount?: Trailing Trump-backed Tony Gonzales by just 45 votes, Raul Reyes, who had Sen. Ted Cruz’s endorsement, will call for a recount in the GOP primary in Texas’ 23rd District to replace retiring Republican Will Hurd.  

Eyes on Sept. 1: The Boston Globe reported that a super PAC supporting Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III is reserving airtime to help him in his Democratic primary race against Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey.

Close race: A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed a tied race between vulnerable Democrat Ben McAdams and GOP challenger Burgess Owens in Utah’s 4th District.

Storm clouds for Spano?: Rep. Matt Gaetz endorsed the businessman who is waging a primary challenge against his fellow Florida Republican Ross Spano. Spano is under federal investigation for alleged campaign finance violations.

What we’re reading

Playing defense: Georgia GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler faced off with the WNBA this week after players sported T-shirts supporting one of her Democratic opponents, including on the team she co-owns. CQ Roll Call’s Clyde McGrady looked at how Loeffler is leaning into the culture wars

Pandemic politics: The 19th looks at whether the pandemic will sideline moms running for office, since mothers have shouldered much of the child care with kids stuck at home. 

Mail call: The DCCC tested strategies for getting voters to cast mail ballots in the May special election in California’s 25th District, and presented the results to the House Democratic Caucus this week, Politico reported

Not so Libre: The Intercept reports that House Democrats backed off on attempts to roll back Trump’s Cuba sanctions in order to protect Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell, who is facing a serious challenge from Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Cuban American, in Florida’s 26th District.

Battle for the ’Burbs: The Associated Press and The New York Times both dug into a key battleground for House races: the suburbs.

The count: 7

That’s how many House incumbents have lost their primaries so far this election cycle. The ousted Republicans include Watkins, Steve King of Iowa, Scott Tipton of Colorado and Denver Riggleman of Virginia. On Tuesday, Clay became the latest Democrat, joining Daniel Lipinski of Illinois and Eliot L. Engel of New York. Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, pointed out that 2020 has seen the most incumbents lose their primaries in a cycle that didn’t immediately follow national redistricting since 1974.

Nathan’s notes

Stu Rothenberg is pinch hitting for Nathan L. Gonzales this week. Stu’s latest column dives into the battle for the Senate and explains why it’s not over yet.

Candidate confessions

Ever wonder what it’s like to run for Congress? Former college professor Dana Balter, who is in a rematch against New York GOP Rep. John Katko, said in a recent interview that being a candidate is a full time job. (ATR readers might remember that she is drawing a salary from her campaign.) Twelve-hour days are common, and can include eight hours focused just on fundraising. Then a couple of hours are spent on connecting with voters (which nowadays looks like video and phone calls), writing op-eds or position papers, and meeting with individuals and organizations. “There really is no such thing as a day off,” she said.

Reader’s race: NE-02

National Democrats put some muscle this week into their promise to fully support House candidate Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd District, with an announcement Tuesday that the DCCC was reserving $305,000 in airtime on Omaha-area stations for TV commercials.

The reservation is a signal that the race against two-term Rep. Don Bacon is about to become a much higher priority for both parties. Eastman came within 2 points of unseating Bacon in 2018 with little outside help. 

This time around, the DCCC added Eastman to its Red to Blue program for top-priority challengers after she won her primary, and she was among the first wave of candidates to receive an endorsement from former President Barack Obama this week. 

She also has the backing of Justice Democrats and EMILY’s List. And the campaign is expecting to get a boost from Joe Biden’s plans to be on the ground in Nebraska since the state divides its electoral votes by congressional district. An internal poll released by her campaign in July and an in-house DCCC poll released before the May primary had Eastman and Biden with narrow leads in the district. 

So far, Eastman has not posted the impressive fundraising hauls of other Democrats in priority seats, and she had less than half of Bacon’s $1 million in the bank on June 30. But she outraised him by $100,000 in the most recent fundraising quarter. She is also the first on the airwaves, with a TV ad debuting last weekend focusing on her struggle to pay her mother’s bills for end-of-life cancer treatment. 

Health care was an issue in the 2018 campaign, and some operatives see it as a liability for Eastman, whose support of “Medicare for All” might be too progressive for a district that is dependent on the insurance industry. 

Bacon, meanwhile, is confident that voters will once again reject Eastman in November. “Nebraskans weren’t hoodwinked by her aggressive radical socialism in 2018,” he told At the Races in a statement. “What makes her think we could be fooled this time?”

Like many Republicans in targeted districts, Bacon has said he supports continuing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. After criticizing the Affordable Care Act when he ran for Congress in 2016 and voting with the GOP to eliminate some of its protections, Bacon now says he would like to improve it to provide more options for patients. 

House Majority PAC, which is tied to House Democrats, has made a $500,000 ad buy in the Omaha area that could also be used to bolster nearby Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne’s efforts to fend off a challenge from her predecessor, Republican David Young, the Omaha World-Herald reported, adding that the DCCC’s most recent buy could also be shifted to help Axne. Bacon and Young will split $700,000 for fall ad reservations from the Republicans’ Congressional Leadership Fund, the newspaper reported.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race for Pennsylvania’s 17th District or for Florida’s 26th. Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

There are even more congressional primaries to watch over the next few days! Voters in Tennessee are voting today. Hawaii’s primaries are on Saturday, where voters in the 2nd District will choose a Democrat to replace Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Also on Saturday, GOP leaders in Texas’ 4th District will choose a nominee to replace former Rep. John Ratcliffe on the November ballot. (He left Congress to become director of national intelligence.) And on Tuesday, Vermont, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Connecticut hold primaries, while Georgia holds primary runoffs.

Photo finish

Not mailing it in: A demonstrator sets up mock voting booths outside the Capitol on Wednesday to protest Senate Republicans’ exclusion of funding for safe elections in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

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