At the Races: Blowback bitter

Posted November 4, 2021 at 2:30pm

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Democrats are rebounding from their bad election night Tuesday to the harsh reality that many of the problems that led voters to reject them — like frustration with inaction in Washington — will be difficult to address.

If Democrats had hoped a rejection of former President Donald Trump and the GOP label would be enough in 2022, Virginia showed how wrong they’d be. Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin did better in every one of the state’s 95 counties than Trump.  

Democrats’ poor performance could be blamed on President Joe Biden, whose favorability ratings are underwater, in part because of exasperation over the lingering coronavirus pandemic. 

The majority of the party responded by doubling down on calls to pass Biden’s two-pronged Build Back Better agenda, and on Wednesday the House reinstated popular paid leave provisions that had been cut.

“People want us to get things done,” Biden said Wednesday. But getting things done in Congress with a narrow majority is hard, and there was no early indication that Tuesday’s results made it easier. If Democrats do pass a package, their real challenge in the midterms is going to be selling it — assuming voters are looking to buy it.

Issues at the top of voters’ minds according to exit polls Tuesday — the economy, education and taxes — aligned with the GOP’s central midterm messaging about out-of-control inflation, Democrats’ “socialist tax and spending spree” and backlash to coronavirus-related school closures and the way race is addressed in schools. 

That’s not to say everything is awesome for the GOP. Youngkin’s ability to appeal to Trump voters without embracing the former president will not be easy to replicate in competitive primaries. And the way voters behave in elections for state office do not always track with the results of federal races.

Starting gate

Setting their sights: Democrats in Congress debated where to place blame for their party’s rough elections this week, while the NRCC expanded its list of House targets for the 2022 midterms to include members in the Old Dominion and beyond. 

Message mishmash: Recently re-signed to the CQ Roll Call roster, John T. Bennett looked at the misalignment between the message Biden was sending on the eve of the New Jersey and Virginia elections and what voters in those states were focused on.

The other elections: In Ohio, Democrats’ hopes for a special election upset in the GOP-leaning 15th District were quashed early with Trump-backed coal lobbyist Mike Carey’s defeat of state Rep. Allison Russo. And Democrat Shontel Brown easily won the special election for Ohio’s deep-blue 11th District. But the crowded Democratic primary for Florida’s 20th District was a nail-biter. With just 12 votes separating Broward County Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness and home health care CEO Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, the race is heading for a recount, according to the Miami Herald.

Breaking the bank? Recent fundraising reports showed more than two dozen Senate candidates are putting a sizable amount of their own money into their campaigns, with several in top battleground races. We also broke down the top 10 Senate self-funders and the sources of their wealth.   

The outsiders: Next year’s midterms will likely shatter fundraising records, thanks largely to big-money outside groups. Here’s our roundup of the leading organizations gearing up for 2022 congressional races. 

Shake-up: If there was any doubt, Democrats showed they know how to gerrymander too, crafting an Illinois map that could give the party an extra seat even as the state loses one to reapportionment. Multiple members could face primaries as a result, CQ Roll Call’s Michael Macagnone reports.

‘Poisoned country’: Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger didn’t mince words in announcing he would not seek another term to the House. A Trump target after his vote for impeachment, Kinzinger’s decision came after his home was put in the same district as fellow Republican Rep. Darin LaHood.

Mark your calendars! The At the Races team is hosting a webinar Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. Eastern time to preview the midterms. Be sure to sign up here and tune in to our discussion about the battle for Congress, redistricting, fundraising, new voting laws, what issues will and won’t matter — and more. 

ICYMI

Update: Last week, we referenced a Politico report that said CBS affiliate KTVN in Nevada had pulled an ad from the Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC after the NRSC claimed the attacks lobbed at GOP Senate candidate Adam Laxalt were false. It turns out the ad was not pulled, and it continues to air, according to an email KTVN general manager Andrew Perini sent to SMP’s lawyer, which was shared with ATR. Politico also updated its reporting to reflect that the local station “reversed its decision” and still aired the spot. 

Coalescing continues: The Club for Growth PAC announced this morning it was endorsing Laxalt, who also has Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primary to take on Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

Parnell accusations: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate Sean Parnell’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Laurie Snell, testified during a custody trial Monday “that he choked her until she bit him to escape, that he hit their young children, and that he lashed out at her with obscenities and insults.” Parnell, an Army veteran and author who is backed by Trump, denied the allegations. “Those allegations are lies. There is no truth to them, not one,” he said, noting that he will make his case in court next week. After the testimony, Politico reported that one of Parnell’s novels includes scenes portraying violence against women. Parnell’s campaign dismissed the scenes, accusing the media and Jeff Bartos, one of Parnell’s primary opponents, of being “obsessed with smearing” the candidate. 

House race news: Democrat Rita Hart, a former Iowa state senator who ran for the 2nd District in 2020 and lost to Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks by just six votes, said she will not run for what will be the new 1st District and endorsed Democratic state Rep. Christina Bohannan. Texas Democrat Rochelle Garza, a former ACLU lawyer who had been running to succeed retiring Democrat Filemon Vela in the 34th District, announced she would run instead for state attorney general, clearing the way for Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who is switching seats to run in the 34th after redistricting made his current 15th District more competitive. In Oregon, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, an elected Jefferson County Education Service District board member who ran for secretary of state in 2020, announced a primary challenge against centrist Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader in the 5th District, although Schrader hasn’t yet said whether he will run there or in the new 6th District under the state’s redrawn map. And in West Virginia, a poll by National Research Inc. on behalf of the Republican group GOPAC found that likely voters in the state’s new 2nd District favored Rep. David B. McKinley over fellow Republican Rep. Alex X. Mooney 44 percent to 29 percent. The two are facing off in a member versus member primary after the state lost a seat in reapportionment. 

Lines drawn: North Carolina Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning, whose district in the Piedmont Triad was essentially dismantled under a new House map adopted by the state legislature Thursday, called the effort an “extreme gerrymander” and “an offering to the national Republican party.”

Donors, don’t hit snooze: Numerous Democrats dispatched desperate-sounding fundraising appeals after the Virginia and New Jersey results. A consensus emerged: that it was a wake-up call. “What happened in Virginia last night should be a wake up call for all Democrats,” read an appeal from California Rep. Eric Swalwell. A Democratic National Committee solicitation said the party “can’t just hang our heads about it — the results in Virginia were a wake up call: Now is the time to get to work, not give in.” Indiana Rep. Frank J. Mrvan, a new addition to the NRCC’s target list, said the returns were “very concerning” and urged his donors to pony up. Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath told would-be donors that between the recent elections and forthcoming new district lines, she is “on edge about what this means in the future for myself and Democrats everywhere” and asked supporters to have her back by giving to her campaign. 

Foreign interference: The FEC appears to have given the green light to donations from foreigners when it comes to financing ballot initiatives, according to an Axios report. The revelation prompted some bipartisan consensus with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, both saying they would back legislation to ban such donations. Foreign nationals are already prohibited from donating to candidates, PACs and other committees. FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said in a statement that “Congress and the states should act quickly and decisively to protect all ballot initiatives from foreign influence.”

Talking points: House Republicans sent out a memo to a listserv of GOP communications aides outlining the “Top five reasons to oppose Democrats’ paid leave plan,” according to The Daily Beast’s Matt Fuller. 

Job news: The abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America said its new president will be Mini Timmaraju, who served as national women’s vote director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She starts later this month.

What we’re reading

Trumped-up messaging: Stu Rothenberg explores whether anti-Trump messaging could be more effective in 2022 than 2021. 

Tar Heel tussel: Politico Magazine does a deep dive into the Democratic Senate primary in North Carolina. 

The youth vote: A record-breaking 66 percent of college students voted in the 2020 elections, according to a study by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. That’s a 14-point increase from the 2016 elections. Let’s see what happens with that number in the midterms. 

Voter education: Frustration over the way public schools handled the coronavirus pandemic upended the Virginia gubernatorial race this week, and House Democrats should expect to lose the state’s 2nd, 7th and 10th districts next year, according to The Atlantic.  

What do you know? Sure, everyone’s talking about the elections this week, but how well do you know the party and demographic swings of 2020? Take this New York Times quiz to find out. 

Data crunch: FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of Youngkin’s win finds that he outperformed their benchmarks almost everywhere, turning out an “electorate in 2021 that was older and whiter than the one that turned out in 2020, and more friendly to Republicans in other ways.”

Talking about race: Democrats will have to forge a counterattack that addresses race head-on as “a tool of division,” then “pivot back to shared interests,” Tory Gavito, the president of progressive group Way to Win, and Adam Jentleson, who was an aide to former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, say in a guest essay for The New York Times. In winning Virginia, they write, Youngkin was able “to use racially coded attacks to motivate sky-high white turnout without paying a penalty among minority voters.”

The count: 1,683,225

That’s how many people an Urban Institute study estimates were missed by the census — more than enough to help Minnesota keep a House seat at New York’s expense, CQ Roll Call’s Macagnone reports.  

Nathan’s notes

Nathan L. Gonzales has 11 takeaways from Republicans’ big election night in Virginia and New Jersey. He also joined CQ Roll Call’s Jason Dick on the latest Political Theater podcast to unpack this week’s elections and what they could mean for 2022.

Candidate confessions

California Republican David Valadao, who represents the state’s 21st District in the Central Valley, recently discussed the bankruptcy of his family dairy farm with our colleague Jim Saksa.

“I was spread really thin, and I trusted a lot of folks to help me when I was gone,” Valadao said, referring to his time away in Washington. “When you’re home, you’re trying to focus on things that are important — your family, your constituents, your community — and you don’t have time to take care of your own personal things.”

But the situation may have forged a connection between Valadao and his constituents: “It actually made me more relatable to the majority of the folks in the district — someone experiencing problems just like they are. It’s life, it sadly is, and I know I’m not the last one to go through this.”

Shop talk: Justin Jenkins

Jenkins was promoted to Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly’s deputy campaign manager in September after serving as the campaign’s senior digital adviser and, in 2020, as the digital director. He is also a veteran of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign, former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2018 reelection campaign and Ralph Northam’s campaign for Virginia governor. 

Starting out: “I have to admit that, up until my senior year of high school, I thought politics were stupid,” Jenkins, a Tucson, Ariz., native, said with a laugh. “I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it. But then I took a U.S. government class my senior year, and my teacher, Betty Dadante, completely changed my whole worldview by pointing out how our government and democracy was a tool. … She taught me that the problems that I saw in the world were, one, solvable. And, two, that to fix them, we had to elect good leaders and mobilize voters to do that. So it got me interested in the political space. But most importantly, I’d say it was then that she taught me that I could be a part of that system.”

Most unforgettable campaign moment: During McCaskill’s race, Jenkins often traveled with the senator on the campaign’s RV, and he recalled a particular event in Kansas City. “When you’re staffing a candidate, you never really know what you’re going to get, whether it’s a conspiracy theorist versus a superfan,” Jenkins said. “And so I saw this woman approach Claire with a folder of newspaper clippings, and I thought, ‘OK, probably the former.’ And when she walked up, she started talking to Claire. And she pointed out that she brought these newspaper clippings because they were the headlines documenting the sentencing of the man that had assaulted her. And it turns out that Claire had been the prosecutor on the case back in the 90s when she was the Jackson County prosecutor. … She came back nearly 30 years later with her family to thank Claire for her work. … There was no dry eye in the room after that,” Jenkins said. “It was a really great moment early in my career to ground myself in the results and the great things these people are doing for their constituents.”

Biggest campaign regret: “Every time I’ve ever doubted my skill or experience or my right to have a seat at the decision-making table,” Jenkins said. “I’m a 6-foot-1, brown, queer man. And for a long time, I was so hyper-aware of my otherness, in the political space in particular, that I let it get in the way of me owning my differences and using them to be a better contribution to my team. I was dealing with the same type of imposter syndrome that everyone experiences, but it was also being reinforced by the fact that the leaders I was told to emulate didn’t look or sound like me,” he said, noting that he’s worked to build up his confidence. “But I’m still working to instill that same level of confidence in young people who are experiencing the same doubts because it doesn’t just hurt them as individuals, it also hurts us as an industry. Without a wide array of perspectives at the table where decisions are being made, pushing us to innovate, the campaigns end up running the same campaign strategies we always have. We don’t reach the potential voters who are too often left out of the democratic process. And by extension, we aren’t able to secure the electoral wins we need to make lasting meaningful change.”

Unconventional wisdom: “Your team is the most important resource you have on the campaign. And we need to get better at cultivating and preparing our teams for success,” Jenkins said. “So in the field, there’s never enough time, never enough sleep, never enough coffee. … For far too long, campaigns have run on this narrative of martyrdom in order to pull the most they can out of their staff. And though it’s effective in the short term, it makes it more difficult for us to recruit and retain the kind of talent that we need. If we could shift our focus to more inclusive and sustainable workplaces, we would retain more campaign workers cycle over cycle and create a deeper bench of expert strategists who know how to win.”

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

Coming up

Next week marks one year until the midterms! Stay tuned here for all of our coverage of the 2022 landscape. And be sure to sign up for our webinar on Nov. 16 when we’ll preview the battle for Congress. 

Photo finish

For anyone on their way to vote in Alexandria, Va., on Tuesday who didn’t own a TV and therefore somehow didn’t know the names of who was running for governor, there were visual aids to guide them. (Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call)

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