At the Races: Debt limit hold ’em

Posted September 9, 2021 at 2:30pm

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Corrected, 3:46 p.m. | Of all the items on Congress’ frenzied fall to-do list — government funding, voting rights, infrastructure, abortion rights — none holds the potential for political and global economic peril like the fight over the debt limit. It would be catastrophic if Congress did not raise or suspend the debt ceiling sometime before the end of October, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen told lawmakers this week. But Republicans opposed to extending the debt limit see more reward than risk, probably knowing that someone else will raise it. 

“The debt limit has become this Kabuki theater where neither side seriously considers not raising it but also doesn’t want to take credit for doing so. So we have to dance around it until the last minute, when everyone globally knows we’ll raise it,” former House GOP leadership aide Rory Cooper, now a partner with Purple Strategies, told At the Races. Despite the stakes, Cooper added, “I don’t think voters spend much time worrying about who did or did not vote to raise the debt limit because most know we don’t have a choice there.”

The debt limit debate will provide Republicans with an opportunity to tie Democrats, who are pushing for a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, to increased federal spending and debt, said Ken Spain, a partner with Narrative Strategies, who ran communications in the 2010 cycle for the NRCC. “The confluence of economic issues that include inflation, erratic job growth, and trillions of proposed spending make it easy for Republicans to sit back and allow for Democrats to do the heavy lifting on the debt limit,” he noted in an email to ATR. 

Still, Democrats see winning issues emerging for them, including the backlash to Texas’ restrictive new abortion law. “I know we will win the Congress,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters in Connecticut this week. “I think all of our members who survived [former President Donald] Trump being on the ballot with them will survive next year.” 

She also said that “any assumptions about politics are obsolete” these days, so we’ll take her projections, and everyone else’s, with a big chunk of salt.

Starting gate

Revenge-ments: Trump’s revenge tour continued Thursday with his endorsement of Wyoming lawyer Harriet Hageman’s challenge to Republican Rep. Liz Cheney. Hageman joins a crowded primary against Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and subsequently lost her House GOP leadership position.  

Turning up turnout: CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales says Republicans may be handing Democrats two motivators that could boost Democratic turnout in the midterms, potentially curbing a GOP wave: the new Texas abortion ban and an early announcement by Trump of a 2024 presidential campaign.

Eyes on Ethics: As CQ Roll Call’s Chris Marquette reports, the House Ethics Committee is investigating four lawmakers: Democrat Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Republicans Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota and Alex X. Mooney of West Virginia. Malinowski is an NRCC target this cycle. None of the Republicans is on the DCCC’s target list.

Looking back: Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and CQ Roll Call is taking a look back at how they affected Capitol Hill. Marquette spoke to a Capitol Police captain who, as a young officer that morning, scrambled to secure the Capitol. And chief correspondent Niels Lesniewski and politics editor Herb Jackson spoke to two veteran Hill staffers whose homes became makeshift offices when they and their colleagues had to evacuate the Capitol complex.

ICYMI

Coming to a courtroom near you? Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the GOP front-runner to take on Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, suggested in a radio interview that there could be more election lawsuits to come in 2022, The Associated Press reports. “With me at the top of the ticket, we’re going to be able to get everybody at the table and come up with a full plan, do our best to try to secure this election, get as many observers as we can, and file lawsuits early, if there are lawsuits we can file to try to tighten up the election,” said Laxalt, who led the Trump campaign’s unsuccessful legal effort challenging the 2020 results in Nevada.

#PASEN: The GOP Senate primary in Pennsylvania got ugly this week, with real estate developer Jeff Bartos going after Trump-backed Sean Parnell over two “temporary protection-from-abuse orders” that Parnell’s wife issued against him in 2017 and 2018. Those orders were not made permanent, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said his campaign has surpassed 300,000 individual contributions. And Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh signaled that her campaign will make abortion a central issue. She released a memo noting she is a physician and the only Democratic woman running and said that made her “the best candidate in the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania to meet this moment and defend abortion access.”

Uh-oh: In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, who is running in the crowded Democratic Senate primary, was charged this week with four felonies and one misdemeanor for allegedly using campaign donations for personal expenses and seeking “reimbursement from the city for travel she covered with campaign funds,” according to WisPolitics.com. Lewis says she is “innocent of any criminal wrongdoing,” chalking the issue up to “potential campaign reporting errors.”

The vets’ bet: VoteVets, a progressive group that supports military veterans running for office, endorsed Lucas Kunce, a retired Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the Democratic Senate primary in Missouri.

Campaign Friese: Arizona state Rep. Randy Friese has ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the state’s open 2nd District. Friese, a trauma surgeon who treated then-Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after a mass shooter opened fire at a district event, said in a press release that he could not abandon his “commitment to serve and care for our community at our hospital” amid the delta variant surge. CQ Roll Call profiled him when he launched his bid in March.

Sad news: Army veteran Kyle Van De Water, the unsuccessful GOP nominee last cycle against New York Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado, died this week. Authorities said they were investigating the death as a suicide. Van De Water, a 41-year-old father of four who served in Afghanistan, had recently suspended his bid for a rematch against Delgado. (If you or someone you know is facing a suicidal crisis, please call the toll-free hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor or visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.)

For Freedom: Georgia Rep. Jody B. Hice has endorsed state Rep. Timothy Barr in the crowded GOP primary to succeed him in the 10th District. Hice is giving up his seat to challenge Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, a fellow Republican, who drew Trump’s ire for refusing to overturn the 2020 presidential result in Georgia. Hice called Barr “a proven fighter who will put America first and be an active member of the Freedom Caucus.”

Game on: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has scheduled a special legislative session starting Sept. 20 to begin drawing the state’s new congressional and legislative district lines. Texas is gaining two congressional seats, and the Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to draw new maps that would maximize the party’s electoral advantage, although Democratic groups are already cueing up lawsuits.

Under pressure: The progressive group Our Revolution continued its campaign to pressure Democratic lawmakers to support the party’s $3.5 trillion spending package, with a series of demonstrations outside Senate and House members’ district offices this week. Targeted lawmakers included Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Reps. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Brendan F. Boyle and Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania, and Stephanie Murphy of Florida.

What we’re reading

#NVSEN: The Wall Street Journal has a dispatch from Nevada, where Democrat Cortez Masto is looking to distance herself from the more liberal wing of her party ahead of a competitive reelection race. 

Ten’s a crowd: NBC News explores this cycle’s crowded Democratic Senate primaries (including a 10-candidate field in Wisconsin) and how the party’s approach to primaries has shifted.

Another reason to feel old: Noting that this is the first cycle in which members of Generation Z can run for the House, CNN profiles two candidates in that cohort, Florida Democrat Maxwell Frost and New Hampshire Republican Karoline Leavitt, who see their youth as an asset in a Congress heavy on octogenarians. CNN defines Generation Z as those born after 1996, many of whom will be turning 25 before the next Congress is sworn in — making them legally eligible to run for the House. (A senator must be at least 30 years old.)

Legal strategy: Insider looks at how Marc Elias, the Democrats’ “$1,200-an-hour legal bulldog,” is preparing for a major battle against Trumpism with his new law firm.

No code blue: Federal labor data disproves the narrative that police officers, demoralized by the Black Lives Matter movement, are quitting in droves, criminal justice nonprofit The Marshall Project reports. Republicans have been working to tie Democrats to alleged police force reductions and violent crime increases since the 2020 cycle. Last year, as the overall U.S. economy shed 6 percent of workers, local police departments lost just under 1 percent of employees after a decade of steady expansion, according to The Marshall Project.

Pick your party: “America’s two-party system is broken,” political scientist Lee Drutman writes in a New York Times opinion piece. His solution? More parties. He’s come up with a 20-question quiz to help citizens figure out which hypothetical new party might be their political home.

Do the math: The Washington Post profiles a Tufts math professor who specializes in geometry and tries to apply data science to the drawing of political districts. Independent redistricting commissions have taken notice, including the new one in Virginia.

The count: 4

That’s how many challengers to House GOP incumbents Trump has endorsed so far, following today’s endorsement of Hageman in Wyoming. The third one also came this week when the former president threw his support behind Michigan state Rep. Steve Carra, who is challenging 18-term Rep. Fred Upton. Upton, like Cheney, joined eight other House Republicans in voting to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 attack.

“Harriet has my Complete and Total Endorsement in replacing the Democrats number one provider of sound bites, Liz Cheney,” Trump said in a statement, to which Cheney responded on Twitter, “Here’s a sound bite for you: Bring it.”

Trump has already backed challengers to GOP Reps. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, who both also voted to impeach. 

Trump has also been willing to weigh in on competitive Senate races. Late last week, he endorsed former football star Herschel Walker in the GOP primary to take on Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock (although Republicans are concerned that Walker’s tumultuous past could hurt their chances of winning the seat).

Nathan’s notes

There’s one thing that President Joe Biden cannot afford to lose, Nathan writes. And it could have serious consequences for down-ballot Democrats in the midterms.

Candidate confessions

Sen. Raphael Warnock had never held elective office before he won a special election runoff in January. Asked late last month what has surprised him about the Senate, the Georgia Democrat told the Atlanta Press Club, “Honestly, after what we’ve seen, especially over the last few years, very little surprises me in Washington.” Warnock, who’s running for a full six-year term in 2022, said he was struck by “how much good you can get done in the Senate,” but also noted, “It’s frustrating, it’s not easy.”

“Every now and then there’s a surprise, like a Warnock-Cruz amendment. I didn’t necessarily see that coming,” Warnock said, referring to his work with Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz on a bipartisan amendment to a sweeping infrastructure package that designated a future interstate through five states, including Georgia and Texas. “But if there’s a road that needs to get built in Texas that also needs to get built in Georgia, then we ought to get together and do it even if we disagree on almost everything else. And I think that is a lesson for our politics in general: that there is a way in which there is a road that runs through all of our communities and we all have a stake in building and maintaining that road that connects our humanity. And that’s the spirit that I try to bring to government.”

Shop talk: Jessica Mackler

After a 20-year career in politics, Mackler returned in May to EMILY’S List, where she started her career as a research assistant and intern in 2002. She is now vice president of federal and gubernatorial campaigns for the abortion rights group.

Starting out: Mackler was a college intern for what was then considered the wild-card House campaign of California Democrat Susan A. Davis — who flipped a San Diego-area seat and went on to serve 10 terms in the House before retiring last year. “Some people really get the campaign bug and fall hard,” Mackler said. “There’s something about, for me to this day, the gritty, authentic nature of campaigns and real, tangible outcomes.” Davis’ campaign manager advised Mackler to seek an internship at EMILY’s List when she moved to D.C. “When I first learned the story of EMILY’s List and [group founder] Ellen Malcom and the impact that the 1992 Anita Hill hearings had on the Year of the Woman that came after that, that really, for me, cemented bringing together this type of work that I really loved with a mission really critical to me. So I was done, then. I’ve been working in campaign politics ever since, and I never really considered anything else,” she said.

Most unforgettable campaign moment: Mackler ran independent expenditures for the DCCC in 2018, when Democrats rebounded from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat to take the House in a blue wave. On election night, Mackler was at DCCC headquarters, where staffers tacked posters on the wall to track each Democratic win. “Seeing all of the wins rack up was really such a gratifying moment,” she said, noting that she had recently returned to work after having a baby. “It was really just an intense experience both personally and professionally, and to see the outcome there, and to feel like we had made a real tangible difference for the country is something that I will never forget.”

Biggest campaign regret: Mackler was working on a campaign — she declined to say which one — that was trying to defuse several bits of opposition research when an attack was launched at the candidate, focused on a “personal ethics issue.” The team made a joint decision not to address it, concluding that their attention was better focused elsewhere. “But at the end of the day, the cumulative effect of those attacks really made a dent,” she said. “I learned then — it’s a lesson we need to keep on learning — that you really can’t let any attack go unanswered in this business, and that you have to really defend the integrity of a candidate. … Not everything is going to show up as a silver bullet in a poll, but there’s a real need to respond to any attack like that.”

Unconventional wisdom: “Politics and campaigns are about authentic stories,” Mackler said. “It matters to have candidates who have real stories that they can share, that demonstrate why they will be able to best represent their constituents. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited to be in the job that I’m in now because I came from working in independent expenditures for the last several cycles, and now I’m back working directly with campaigns and candidates. And there’s something that is really amazing about that experience. … At the end of the day, the fundamentals are really important, and it’s getting back to ‘How are we communicating with voters? What are we telling them? And how are we moving them with something that’s authentic?’ And that’s really critical.”

Do you know someone who works in campaigns whom we should feature for Shop Talk? Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com.

Coming up

Voting in California’s gubernatorial recall election ends Tuesday, but it’s anyone’s guess how long it will be before there’s a final result.

Photo finish

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, will find out next week if he still has a job leading the nation’s most populous state. Here's a throwback to 2014 when Newsom, then the state’s lieutenant governor, was on Capitol Hill. Also pictured is Rep. Xavier Becerra, now HHS secretary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

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Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

This report has been corrected to reflect Xavier Becerra’s current position as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.