At the Races: Irreconcilable differences?

Posted September 23, 2021 at 2:30pm

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By Stephanie Akin, Kate Ackley and Bridget Bowman

It’s been a dizzying week of high-stakes negotiations on the Hill that could have drastic repercussions for international relations, the global economy and quality of life. But campaign operatives on both sides of the aisle say their main focus has been the fate of the massive reconciliation package that remains central to President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda. 

Republicans see the package as a political windfall, whether it passes or not. Its failure would play into the “Democrats in disarray” depiction of a hapless party that allows internal squabbling to stand in the way of fulfilling its promises to the American people. 

But its passage would be an even bigger gift in the eyes of GOP strategists, who are already cueing up attacks blaming the package, which would provide as much as $3.5 trillion in additional new spending, for potential inflation, tax increases and job losses in the oil and gas industry.

Those ads would largely be directed at Democratic moderates in swing districts who initially balked at the package’s large price tag. If they come around and back a final measure, Republicans say that would be an indication they had caved to progressives and Speaker Nancy Pelosi

An early sign of what could be in store for them came Wednesday afternoon, when Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal told CNN that some of the moderates — including Pennsylvania Reps. Conor Lamb, who is running for Senate, and Susan Wild and Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne — had been “best friends” of the progressives working to get the package passed. 

The NRCC and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a House GOP super PAC, blasted the clip to their email lists and social media feeds. “This is a clip you can be sure you’ll see again,” CLF communications director Calvin Moore wrote.

Democrats said Thursday that they had agreed on a “framework” for how the bill would be paid for. Party strategists see their fate in 2022 as largely tied to getting the bill, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed. They say if voters start to feel the benefits of popular measures, such as expanded health insurance and child care access, it would bolster Democrats’ argument that they worked to make big changes in the face of obstructive Republicans. 

Or as Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison put it in an interview with Axios: “It’s very simple. Two words: Democrats deliver.”

Starting gate

On the ground: The DSCC announced Wednesday that it was making an unprecedented early investment in field organizing, with the committee’s chair, Gary Peters, saying he learned from his own Michigan race in 2020 that an early focus on a ground game can be a “difference-maker.”

Sidelined: Citing “toxic dynamics” inside the GOP, Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump in January, announced that he would retire rather than face a brutal primary against a Trump-backed opponent next year. 

Suburban story: We recently caught up with GOP Rep. Stephanie Bice in the Oklahoma City-area district she flipped last fall in one of the most closely watched races of the cycle. Bice’s supporters say she now has a chance to establish herself as a “workhorse” conservative and a leader of the post-Trump Republican Party. She must first navigate Trump-centric political forces at home — but she could get an assist from the state’s GOP mapmakers.

Take five: New York Republican Andrew Garbarino, a DCCC target in 2022, sat down with CQ Roll Call’s Jim Saksa for the “Take Five” series, in which the freshman lawmaker discussed how he got his start in politics and why his friends call him “Baker.”

ICYMI

The Trump primaries: In Ohio, Trump said he would not endorse state Sen. Matt Dolan, who jumped into the crowded GOP Senate primary on Monday, but not because Dolan has criticized him. “Anybody that changes the name of the once storied Cleveland Indians to the Cleveland Guardians should not be running for the United States Senate,” Trump said in a statement. (Dolan’s family owns the baseball team.) And Trump recently phoned retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who is seeking the GOP Senate nomination in New Hampshire, after Bolduc appeared on Fox News. (Republicans are actively recruiting GOP Gov. Chris Sununu to take on Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.) Bolduc said they did not discuss a Trump endorsement in the Senate race but added that Trump “opened lines of communication” and shared his cellphone number. 

Déjà Vegas: Former Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller announced a political comeback this week, launching a run for governor. If both he and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is running for Senate, win their primaries, voters would see a familiar ticket. The two appeared on the ballot together in 2018, when Laxalt ran unsuccessfully for governor and Heller lost reelection to the Senate. 

Bacon bits: Nebraska Republican Don Bacon, who was rated CQ Roll Call’s most vulnerable House incumbent at the end of the 2020 cycle but then won reelection by 5 points, likely would have won his 2nd District under all three draft congressional maps that have been introduced by state lawmakers of both parties, the Omaha World-Herald found. Biden would have carried the seat under all three maps as well. State lawmakers have so far not been able to agree on a new map but are hopeful of reaching a compromise this week.

High-profile race: In New York, Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, announced a challenge to Democratic Rep. Anthony Delgado in the 19th District, which could be substantially altered in redistricting. Molinaro brings a high profile to the race: He won his first election at age 18, has served decades in public office and was the GOP nominee for governor in 2018. The DCCC responded to the news with an email blast accusing Molinaro of running a “pay-to-play roadshow” in his current job, a reference to criticism of him in 2018 for taking campaign contributions from companies doing business with the county.

Will she, or won’t she? California Rep. Karen Bass, whose bipartisan, bicameral policing overhaul talks collapsed this week, may soon decide whether to ditch Congress altogether to run for Los Angeles mayor. The six-term Democrat told Politico she would decide “soon.”  

Iron Dome dispute: The group Pro-Israel America, which invested on behalf of Democrat Shontel Brown in the special election primary in Ohio’s 11th District this summer, condemned what it called “anti-Israel voices in Congress who continue to politicize our strategic alliance with Israel,” according to a statement from its executive director, Jeff Mendelsohn. That was in response to Democratic infighting over U.S. support for the Israeli rocket defense system known as the Iron Dome. Calls to remove funding for the Iron Dome, he added, “are dangerous political stunts.”  

Progressive move: The big donor-backed progressive organization Democracy Alliance said today that it had tapped Pamela Shifman, formerly executive director of the social justice-focused NoVo Foundation, as its next president.

What we’re reading

Democrats’ dilemma: California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall victory aside, Democrats now find themselves in an increasingly tricky political position, Stu Rothenberg writes.

Mum on McConnell: Many GOP Senate candidates have aligned themselves with Trump, but just one is publicly supporting his effort to oust Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader, The Washington Post finds. 

On the left: NBC News has a deep dive on Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a top candidate in the Democratic Senate primary.

Small money: As PAC donations have dried up, the large Republican fundraising vendor Fundraising Inc. is pushing clients to follow Democrats’ lead and “reorient their strategies” around small-dollar contributors, Campaigns and Elections writes. 

Tejano trouble: Many Hispanic voters in South Texas see themselves as white and increasingly identify with conservative values — and that’s a big problem for Democrats, who’ve invested in identity-based appeals to the state’s growing Hispanic population in hopes of turning Texas blue, Texas Monthly writes in this deep dive. And The Associated Press profiles activists working to ensure that at least one of the state’s two new congressional districts is majority Latino. 

Unpacking minority voters: Gerrymandered maps, especially across the South, have packed Black voters into specific congressional districts, but Democrats are beginning to take aim at such hyper-minority seats, David Wasserman writes for The Atlantic.

The count: $5.8 million

That’s the price tag of a new ad buy from progressive group End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund. The spots are aimed at prodding senators to pass a slimmed-down version of Democrats’ campaign finance and elections overhaul. The TV ads take a positive tone, thanking lawmakers such as West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III for backing the measure. The effort will also include digital and direct mail and will focus on Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Hassan in New Hampshire — who, unlike Manchin, are all up for reelection in 2022. The $5.8 million round is part of a $30 million campaign. 

Nathan’s notes

Nathan L. Gonzales analyzes the new GOP-proposed congressional lines in Indiana and says the map offers a lesson to other partisan cartographers that “just because a party can gerrymander the living daylights out of a state doesn’t mean it will.”

Candidate confessions

Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan started to feel sick last week and thought it might just be allergies from being out on the campaign trail while running for the state’s open Senate seat. He took three rapid COVID-19 tests and they each came back negative, but when he lost his sense of taste Sunday, he knew something was wrong. Ryan tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday despite being fully vaccinated. He told reporters during a virtual news conference Wednesday that he did not know where he contracted the virus.

Ryan also did not know if or when his Senate campaign would hold in-person events again, noting that he is quarantining until Oct. 1. “Our campaign, like everybody else, will be evaluating this in the coming days to figure out exactly what this looks like again,” he said. Ryan stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, noting that he is young and healthy but still struggles with symptoms, particularly fatigue. “This thing kicks your butt,” he said.

Shop talk: Meredith Kelly

Kelly is a co-founder and partner of Declaration Media, a Democratic media consulting firm that launched in February. She served as communications director to New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2020 presidential campaign and held the same role with the DCCC in 2018. 

Starting out: Kelly grew up in Sharon, Mass., where her mother was a social worker and her father ran a nonprofit for people with disabilities. “I was raised in a home where you were really taught to help others, especially those that are less fortunate than you,” she said. After she graduated from college, Kelly worked as a press intern for New York’s Charles E. Schumer, now the Senate majority leader. “I fell in love with it and was hooked,” she said. “That’s obviously a really incredible office to get your foot in the door with, especially if you’re interested in communications. … The fast pace of his office and the work that I got to do, and to see him really delivering for New Yorkers and see how good politicians can really serve people, it felt like the right way for me to go into public service. So I didn’t leave for five years.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: “Certainly when we took back the House for Democrats in 2018,” Kelly said. “Maybe people expected us to flip the House, but the historic gain of 40 seats did not come easily or automatically. And we had worked really hard to develop a big battlefield and to hone a really sharp populist message when it came to the Republican health care repeal … and then also the Republican tax bill,” she said. “I remember certain races, like Max Rose in particular. … We’d already won other seats at that point, but when it was clear that he was going to win, we felt very sure we would have a good night. … A lot of staffers had tears in their eyes because he was just a great guy. He had always worked hard, and the team would always work hard for him.” (Rose lost his race for reelection to New York’s 11th District last fall but can run again in 2022.) 

Biggest campaign regret: “When you reflect on the 2020 [presidential] primary, we saw a lot of different leadership styles of women, and a lot of different options for voters to support in that very top executive role. And still, on a daily basis, we saw those female candidates face challenges and double standards that … none of us, collectively, as communications directors or campaign managers or candidates, totally figured out how to solve,” Kelly said. “Unfortunately, we saw that ambition can still be a dirty word for women but admirable in men. We saw that men are still judged on their potential for greatness, and women have to meet a higher, a much higher, standard and demonstrate every element of qualification and experience. … This wasn’t single-handedly my responsibility or something I could have controlled on my own, but I do look back and regret that we weren’t able to figure out — yet — how to present a woman successfully for president.”

Unconventional wisdom: “In reading some of the conventional wisdom right now, there is this narrative building a little bit that Joe Biden and the Democrats will be held responsible by voters for a spike in [the delta variant] and for a lack of ICU beds. And I couldn’t disagree with that more,” Kelly said. “Normally, of course, the party in power gets tagged with these big societal issues. But the spike in delta is a very special case. And Republicans, first of all, have simply been too out front spreading conspiracy theories, discrediting masks, discrediting vaccines, to put that toothpaste back in the tube. And second … if you are a voter that cares about the spike in delta, and who might be voting related to delta — God help us, because that’s a year away — but they will overwhelmingly blame Republican governors and the unvaccinated, not Democrats. These are people that are watching this closely. They are Democrats or independents, even moderate Republicans. It’s not a partisan divide, it’s the divide of the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated. And, frankly, those people are going … to know who was promoting vaccines, who was promoting the booster, who promoted masks, who wanted teachers vaccinated, who did not spread conspiracy theories. And ultimately, the idea that any of those people would blame the Democrats or Biden just doesn’t really pass the smell test for me.”

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

Coming up

The results of the controversial “audit” of election results in Maricopa County, Ariz., will be made public tomorrow in a presentation to the Arizona Senate, The Arizona Republic reports. The results come one day before Trump’s rally in Georgia, where he will likely continue to repeat his false claims that the 2020 election was rife with fraud. Many Republicans believe those claims contributed to a pair of Senate runoff losses in the Peach State in January. Georgia GOP Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, whom Trump has endorsed, is expected to speak at the rally.

Photo finish

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Trump has been talking to “senators and allies about trying to depose Mr. McConnell and whether any Republicans are interested in mounting a challenge.” Asked about the report this week, McConnell said simply, “I don’t have any reaction to that” and abruptly ended his weekly news conference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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