At the Races: As primaries end, voting begins

Posted September 17, 2020 at 3:00pm

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 Kate Ackley, Stephanie Akin and Bridget Bowman

Believe it or not, general election voters will head to the polls in six states starting over the next 40 hours. We’ll just let that sink in.

Some of the states — Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia — feature pivotal contests in the battle for the Senate or House. In Michigan, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity Action today is endorsing its first Senate challenger of the cycle, Republican John James, who is running against Democratic incumbent Gary Peters. AFP, as first shared with At the Races, plans a six-figure digital (and connected TV platforms) ad buy backing James as well as in-person door-knocking for the candidate.

We’re also watching more than a dozen competitive House races across those states. Democrat Hillary Scholten is trying to flip Michigan’s 3rd District (currently held by retiring GOP-turned-independent-turned-Libertarian Rep. Justin Amash) in a race against Republican Peter Meijer. Democrat Dan Feehan is trying to unseat freshman Republican Jim Hagedorn in Minnesota’s 1st District, while Amy Kennedy and Cameron Webb are seeking to flip GOP seats in New Jersey’s 2nd and Virginia’s 5th districts respectively. 

The early-voting states are also home to potentially vulnerable Democrats, dubbed by the DCCC as Frontline members. Those include Reps. Andy Kim in New Jersey’s 3rd District, Abigail Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th and Elissa Slotkin in Michigan’s 8th, among others.

Some of those incumbent Democrats in potentially competitive races have begun to vent their frustrations publicly with their leadership about reaching a deal with reluctant Republicans over the next round of COVID-19 relief legislation. Slotkin and Spanberger were among those who expressed urgency for a deal this week on Capitol Hill, with Slotkin telling reporters she was “disappointed” in her leadership for pooh-poohing a bipartisan framework, adding: “But I hope that’s not the end of the story, and I hope that we actually get in a room, preferably in the next couple of days, to start hashing this out.”

DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos said during a Zoom news conference Wednesday that she wouldn’t put the blame on Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “She’s at the negotiation table. She’s trying to get Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans on board with doing something,” the Illinois Democrat said. “We’ll be on 24-hour call if we’re back in our districts to come back and vote on whatever the next level of support is.”

Starting gate

Alaska freeze: After the state removed the nonpartisan status of House and Senate candidates who were nominated by Democrats in the primary, a judge temporarily halted the printing of the state’s ballots on Thursday, the day before they were scheduled to start going in the mail.

‘GOTV month’: More voters are expected to cast their ballots before Election Day this year, either by mail or in person. Campaigns and outside groups have had to adjust, launching some ads earlier and extending “GOTV weekend” to “GOTV month.”

Michigan money: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell helped Michigan’s James raise campaign cash this week, as the race against Peters gets tighter. The Democrat is still favored to win reelection, but James has nudged closer in recent polls. The contest is one of the GOP’s top two pickup opportunities in a cycle that is otherwise dismal for the party’s Senate prospects.

First state, last primary (before November): Delaware Sen. Chris Coons comfortably beat back a Democratic primary challenge this week from digital strategist Jessica Scarane, who ran to his left. He next faces activist Lauren Witzke, who has voiced support for the QAnon conspiracy theory. The race for the state’s at-large House seat pits two-term Democratic incumbent Lisa Blunt Rochester against Republican Lee Murphy, an actor who appeared on Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

A Good choice?: Self-described “bright-red biblical conservative” Bob Good could be putting Virginia’s 5th District in play this year. Stephanie caught up with Good at a rally in the district and dug into why the race is looking competitive

Rural outreach: Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s latest TV ad highlights how Democrats are trying to win over rural voters.  

Ya think?: In this week’s Political Theater podcast, Lincoln Project adviser Kurt Bardella tells host Jason Dick that the group’s attacks on President Donald Trump and Republican senators have riled other GOP consultants.

ICYMI

Record breakers: The 19th reports that 298 women are their parties’ nominees in House races, breaking the record set in 2018.

DCCC.edu: The DCCC announced Wednesday that it was making an unprecedented $9 million investment in educating voters on “options for casting their ballots and to develop plans for voting.” Volunteers with the effort will contact voters via phone banking, text messages, digital ads and mailings. DCCC executive director Lucinda Guinn told reporters the effort will focus on more than 50 districts.

#TX06: Texas GOP Rep. Ron Wright was hospitalized last weekend with complications from lung cancer treatment, The Texas Tribune reported. The DCCC recently added his 6th District to its target list, a signal Democrats believe the race could be competitive.

Taking sides: Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a top Trump ally, is appearing at a rally for Georgia GOP Rep. Doug Collins tomorrow. Collins is taking on Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who has the backing of Senate GOP leadership, in the special Senate election. The rally is Gaetz’s latest attempt to play in GOP primaries (more on his future ambitions here).

The gentleman from Delaware: Joe Biden spoke today by phone with Senate Democrats about mobilizing voters and helping down-ballot candidates. It’s the first time Biden, a former senator addressed the entire conference since he became the Democratic nominee for president, Politico reported. Democrats leaving the lunch told pool reporters the Biden campaign is helping candidates in states not considered presidential battlegrounds — “They’ve been putting money down in Alabama,” said West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III — because Biden believes Republicans will just try to block anything he does if they maintain Senate control.

More Georgia drama: Last Friday was a busy day for Georgia’s 14th District. GOP Rep. Tom Graves, who was already retiring, announced he would depart in October. And the Democratic candidate running to replace him, Kevin Van Ausdal, dropped out of the race and will leave the state, paving the way for QAnon supporter and GOP nominee Marjorie Taylor Greene to win the deep-red district in November. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the secretary of state said it’s too late for Democrats to name a replacement on the ballot. 

Dead letter office: A bin containing 1,666 uncounted ballots was found in New Jersey more than two months after the state’s July primary.

What we’re reading

Tuning in: Stu Rothenberg’s latest column delves into why presidential campaign ads may not actually sway the outcome of the race.

Bye-bye summer 2020: GOP pollster and CQ Roll Call columnist David Winston writes that the president and Republicans, heading toward Election Day, have to do a better job when it comes to explaining their proposals to get the country out of the pandemic.

Watch what you click: A group code-named Strontium operating from Russia is trying to harvest logins from people and organizations linked to the presidential election, including consultants in both parties, according to a Microsoft blog post covered by CQ Roll Call’s Gopal Ratnam.

Get the memo: The Guardian obtained a memo from the NRSC that acknowledges the Senate majority “is at risk” and details the committee’s top races.

Speaking of vulnerable Republicans: NBC News unpacks how GOP senators in competitive races are running ads pledging to protect health care coverage for people with preexisting conditions. But those ads are “at odds with their own recent votes and policy positions.”

Showing up: Down-ballot Democrats are breaking with their presidential nominee and beginning to knock on would-be voters’ doors, Politico explores.

The mods have it: The Kansas City Star takes a look at the moderate Republican vote that could be the deciding factor in the race for Kansas’ open Senate seat between GOP Rep. Roger Marshall and Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican. 

Moving toward the middle: As he works to fend off a challenge from Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff in one of the country’s most competitive Senate races, Republican Sen. David Perdue has been casting himself as a “bipartisan problem solver” and talking less about his reputation as a strong advocate for Trump, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.

The count: $19.08

After Biden announced Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, Democrats saw a wave of $19.08 donations. DNC finance director Clayton Cox told Heard on the Hill’s Clyde McGrady, “I’ve never seen people give in such a specific increment ever before,” but he knew why the number was significant. The figure is actually a reference to the year Harris’ sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, was founded.

Nathan’s notes

Nathan L. Gonzales’ latest “everyone, chill out” warning focuses on early vote statistics. He explains that it’s tempting to overanalyze early vote numbers, but it’s problematic since those numbers “only tell us the registration of the voter, not the contents of their ballot.”

Candidate confessions

Cal Cunningham, the Democrat challenging North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, admitted during a debate this week that he would be reluctant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if one were approved this year. 

“Look, I’ve got questions. And I think we have seen entirely too many times, and especially in recent years, politics intervening in what should be driven by health and science,” said Cunningham, a lawyer and Army reservist. He followed up by saying, “Yes, I would be hesitant, but I’m going to ask a lot of questions. I think that’s incumbent on all of us right now, in this environment, with the way we’ve seen politics intervening in Washington.”

Reader’s race: SC Senate

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is facing the most serious challenge of his 18-year Senate career from the former state Democratic Party chairman, Jaime Harrison. 

That conclusion was reinforced this week with the release of a Quinnipiac poll that showed Graham and Harrison tied at 48 percent, the second consecutive survey from the university showing a tied race. 

Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy attributed the close margins to Harrison’s fundraising advantage and perceptions in the state that Graham has become a “Trump apologist.” 

After criticizing Trump as “a kook,” “crazy” and a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” during the 2016 presidential campaign, Graham has become one of the president’s biggest defenders and a frequent golf partner.

The same poll found Trump with a 6 point lead over Biden. That’s a drop from his 2016 performance — he carried the state by 14 points — but still enough of a lead to suggest that Harrison will have to work hard to win in this traditionally red state. And the poll found that, by a 52 percent to 44 percent majority, voters would prefer a Republican in the Senate. 

Harrison, who was the first Black chairman of the state Democratic Party, says he is running a new kind of campaign for the “new South” and represents a constituency that has been hungry for political representation. The son of a teenage mother who was raised by his grandparents, he grew up in poverty in a rural part of the state before graduating from Yale and Georgetown Law. And though the state’s other Senate seat is occupied by Tim Scott, the GOP’s only Black senator, Harrison says he has energized Black voters. His campaign cites a record-breaking 1 million registered “voters of color” and has reported staggering fundraising figures. He has been outraising Graham by the millions in every reporting period of the year and was threatening to overtake the incumbent’s nearly $31 million total at the end of the last reporting period in June, according to the FEC. 

Graham’s campaign prefers to paint Harrison as too liberal for South Carolina voters and focus on Harrison’s career as a D.C. lobbyist — he worked for the Podesta Group, a now-defunct firm originally founded by brothers Tony and John Podesta; John Podesta went on to manage Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Republicans don’t dispute that Graham faces a tough challenge, but Graham told CQ Roll Call this week that Harrison’s momentum has been exaggerated. 

He argued that the Quinnipiac poll’s reported sample of 34 percent of respondents identifying as Republicans was not a true gauge of voter sentiment in the state. CNN exit polls in 2016 found 46 percent of voters were Republicans. 

“Anyway, I’ll take the race seriously, we’re running like we’re behind,” he said. “But I can just tell you, methodology matters.”

Graham’s campaign rolled out a new website this week called “Hiding Harrison,“ alleging that the Democrat has tried to hide liberal positions on health care, climate change and police overhaul and focusing on Harrison’s campaign contributions from out of state.

For his part, Harrison has been attacking Graham for co-sponsoring a 2017 bill with Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy that would have eliminated protections for people with preexisting conditions and terminated several programs funded through the Affordable Care Act. Harrison has been avoiding in-person campaign events during the coronavirus pandemic because he is borderline diabetic.

For next week, let us know if you’d like to learn more about the race in Texas’ 23rd District or the Montana Senate contest. Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

As we mentioned, early voting kicks off in six states this weekend! Voters can head to the polls in Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia, Wyoming, Michigan and New Jersey. (For more information on when early voting starts in each state check out this helpful guide from Business Insider.)

Photo finish

The 2020 meet and greet: Democrat Cameron Webb meets with University of Virginia students at a recent event on campus in Charlottesville. Webb is in a competitive race in Virginia’s 5th District. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

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