At the Races: Can Democrats build on infrastructure?

Posted November 11, 2021 at 3:15pm

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By Kate Ackley, Bridget Bowman and Stephanie Akin

The bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden is expected to sign Monday gives Democrats something to tout, with a year to go to the midterms. But it’s unlikely to fundamentally change the election trajectory, which right now has the majority party on shaky ground. Passing the bill was a victory, but it’ll be difficult for the administration to achieve tangible results before voters head to the polls next year, CQ Roll Call’s Jessica Wehrman writes (and discusses on the Political Theater podcast). 

And there’s still lots of potential for congressional GOP aides’ favorite storyline — Democrats in disarray — when it comes to the major social spending and tax reconciliation package the House takes up next week. Still, Republicans have put on display their own infighting, especially on the infrastructure bill, and it features the GOP’s biggest wildcard for next year: former President Donald Trump. 

Trump headlined an NRCC dinner this week in which he stressed that if Republicans stick together, they’ll see “a massive red wave” sweep the GOP back into power in the House. Then, he proceeded to bash the baker’s dozen of House Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill, saying: “No thank you goes to those in the House and Senate who voted for the Democrats’ non-infrastructure bill. … You gave Biden a victory as his poll numbers were falling off a cliff.” Keep in mind that several of those 13 House Republicans are among the party’s most vulnerable members for 2022 (think New York Reps. Nicole Malliotakis and John Katko).  

That attitude — that Republicans on the Hill see stopping things from happening as a “win” — was one of the reasons New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu cited in announcing he would not run for Senate next year. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who unapologetically supports the infrastructure measure, talked it up during a news conference in his home state of Kentucky this week. He added that he doesn’t think Biden’s low approval ratings will improve dramatically before the midterms, making 2022 “a very good year for Republicans.”

Starting gate

Election integrity on the ballot: The 2022 midterms won’t just decide control of the House and Senate but also will provide the first major test of Americans’ confidence in their electoral system since the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Granite State of GOP disappointment: Sununu’s decision this week to seek another term in his current job deprived Senate Republicans of their most-wanted recruit. Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan still looks vulnerable for 2022, but some other big names have so far declined to run.  

Hot seats: If Sununu had run, Hassan would have been higher on our list of the most vulnerable senators for 2022. Given the uncertainties around redistricting, we didn’t do rankings for the most vulnerable House members and won’t be surprised to see the list change significantly as battleground races become clearer.

Pivot points: With 12 months to go, here are eight questions about the midterms, including what issues might matter and how fundraising is shaping up.

ICYMI

Maps! North Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature approved a new congressional map that would likely increase Republicans’ hold on the state’s delegation, with the state gaining a seat in reapportionment. The map, which does not need to be signed by the governor, dismantles Democrat Kathy Manning’s district and leaves only one competitive district in the state — the one currently held by Democrat G.K. Butterfield. At least one lawsuit has already been filed. Utah’s GOP-controlled state legislature set aside the recommendations of an independent commission and instead approved a new map that split up the state’s only competitive district, making it safe for Republicans. In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a new map drawn by the state’s nonpartisan redistricting commission. 

In the Keystone State pipeline: Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the state’s open Senate seat, said this week that his campaign had raised $10 million. Fetterman faces a crowded primary that includes Rep. Conor Lamb. The GOP field may not yet be finalized, as Republicans have their eyes on businessman David McCormick. Dr. Mehmet Oz, of daytime talk show fame, may also be considering a run for the GOP nomination.

#GASEN: Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith stood alongside Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black this week and called him a “great candidate” for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. (Hyde-Smith herself is a former state agriculture commissioner.) But South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott declared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News that Trump-backed Georgia Senate contender Herschel Walker is “one of the best candidates that we have in the field this year.” 

Taking sides: Rep. James E. Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat credited with rescuing Biden’s presidential bid last year, has endorsed Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes for Senate. Republican incumbent Ron Johnson has not yet formally announced if he will run for reelection. 

#TX15: Monica De La Cruz, who has the support of several national Republican groups in her bid for Texas’ 15th District, was accused last month by her estranged husband in court documents of “cruel and aggressive conduct” toward his 14-year-old daughter, including verbal abuse and pinching the child to stop her from crying, The Washington Post reports. De La Cruz, who faces a primary in a redrawn district the GOP sees as a prime pickup opportunity, said in a statement to the Post that the accusations are false. 

Peer pressure: Former North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, is reportedly fielding calls from Republican officials at home and in Congress to drop his Senate bid and instead try to return to the House.

Eying open seats: Former Montana state Rep. Tom Winter has joined the Democratic primary for the state’s new congressional district, which has yet to be drawn. Winter unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for the state’s current at-large seat in 2020. Greg Casar, an Austin city council member, and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, both Democrats, announced bids for Texas’ redrawn 35th District, which favors Democrats. In Pennsylvania, Steve Irwin, a progressive lawyer and activist, joined the crowded Democratic primary to replace retiring Democrat Mike Doyle in what is expected to remain a deep-blue Pittsburgh-area seat. And Sean Meloy, a vice president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, joined the Democratic primary for the nearby seat Lamb is vacating to run for Senate. In North Carolina, Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, the first Muslim woman to win elected office in the state, announced a bid to replace retiring fellow Democrat David E. Price in the 6th District, while former Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson, a Republican, announced a run in the new 4th District. Two Illinois Democrats — former state Rep. Litesa Wallace and meteorologist Eric Sorensen — joined the primary to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos in the 17th District. In Wisconsin, retired CIA officer Deb McGrath joined the Democratic primary for the competitive 3rd District seat Democrat Ron Kind is vacating.

Mounting challenges: Physician Annie Andrews is the first Democrat to announce a bid against Republican freshman Nancy Mace in South Carolina’s 1st District, which Mace flipped in 2020. New York Democrat Josh Riley, a lawyer and former counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced a bid against Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney in the yet-to-be redrawn 22nd District, and Air Force veteran Sarah Klee Hood joined two other veterans in the Democratic primary for New York’s 24th District, a potentially competitive seat held by Republican John Katko. In New Jersey, Republican Robert Healey Jr., a yacht manufacturer, yoga instructor and former punk rock musician, announced a challenge to Democratic Rep. Andy Kim in the competitive 3rd District. And Marine combat veteran Nick De Gregorio launched a Republican bid in the competitive 5th District, held by Democrat Josh Gottheimer. In Nevada, professional boxer Jessie Vargas announced he had switched his party affiliation to join the GOP primary to take on Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford in the 4th District.

On second thought: In Colorado, Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan dropped her attempt to challenge GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert after redistricting made the seat safer for Republicans.  

GOP Women: House Republican Caucus Chair Elise Stefanik released the first round of endorsements by her E-PAC leadership PAC, dedicated to helping GOP women in primaries. Getting the nod were: Karoline Leavitt, a former Stefanik spokeswoman and assistant Trump press secretary running in a crowded primary for New Hampshire’s 1st District; Esther Joy King, a veteran and lawyer running to replace Bustos in Illinois’ 17th District; Amanda Adkins, a health care executive and former state GOP chair running in Kansas’ 3rd District; April Becker, a small-business owner and lawyer in Nevada’s 3rd District; small-business owner Lisa Scheller in Pennsylvania’s 7th District; De La Cruz in Texas’ 15th District; Jeanine Lawson, a Prince William County supervisor, in Virginia’s 10th District; and Jen Kiggans, a state senator, nurse practitioner and retired Navy helicopter pilot, in Virginia’s 2nd District.

Fired up: The first group of eight candidates has advanced to the top tier of the NRCC’s Young Guns program, which requires candidates to reach fundraising and other benchmarks to qualify for extra support and is generally an indication of who the GOP sees as its star recruits. The qualifiers are: King, Adkins, De La Cruz, former Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd District, former Rep. and Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Montana, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. in New Jersey’s 7th, Army veteran Wesley Hunt in Texas’ 38th, and retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden in Wisconsin’s 3rd. 

Out of the pan: Iowa Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks announced she will run in the state’s newly drawn 1st District rather than challenge Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne in the new 3rd District, which was redrawn to include the town where Miller-Meeks lives. Miller-Meeks noted at a news conference that the new 1st District takes in much of the territory she currently represents. The new district is expected to be competitive. Miller-Meeks joins two Democrats and a Republican who have already announced bids there. 

Rabble roused: North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn — who has a history of challenging GOP orthodoxy — said he is considering a move to the new 13th District. (Cawthorn was drawn into the state’s 14th District, under its new map.) The announcement shocked North Carolina’s political establishment, which assumed the 13th was drawn for longtime state House Speaker Tim Moore, and set up the possibility of an expensive and contentious primary, The Charlotte Observer reports. 

‘E’ is for early, after all: EMILY’s List, which backs female Democrats who support abortion rights, jumped into the expected member-vs.-member primary, courtesy of redistricting, between Democrats Marie Newman and Sean Casten in Illinois’ 6th District. The group is siding with Newman, a freshman who defeated Rep. Daniel Lipinski in a 2020 primary with help from EMILY’s List. 

WY-AL: Harriet Hageman, a lawyer and Trump-endorsed primary challenger to Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, will serve as co-counsel in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government over one of the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates. In an interview with Jewish Insider, she disputed characterizations of herself as a former Cheney ally and said she didn’t think reports unearthing her role in a last-minute effort to strip Trump of his 2016 GOP presidential nomination would hurt her with Trump or his supporters.  

Oops, he did it again: It turned out GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin didn’t need any underage votes from his family to win last week, but his 17-year-old son tried, twice, unsuccessfully to cast a ballot for his dad, according to The Washington Post. 

What we’re reading

Stu says: Biden’s weak job approval ratings and Democrats’ moderate-vs.-progressive struggles on the Hill combined to give Republicans the ideal political environment for last week’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Stu Rothenberg writes. And the GOP is doing a better job demonizing Democrats than vice versa.  

Voter messaging: Politico Magazine’s detailed interview with two top GOP operatives in the Virginia gubernatorial race offers behind-the-scenes strategy tidbits, including the fact that candidates go on cable networks to gin up donations but view local media as a much more important way to communicate with actual voters. Youngkin’s campaign also had bumper stickers and advertisements in 12 different languages.  

Numbers crunched: In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Stanford and the University of Chicago look at statistical arguments Trump supporters have cited to “prove” the 2020 election was a fraud — and found that “none of them is even remotely convincing.”

Bigger crayon box: The Pew Research Center wants to get us away from the black-and-white arguments of red versus blue and look at political groups that range from the progressive left to “faith and flag conservatives,” with a bloc of “stressed sideliners” in the middle. Both parties have divisions within their base, Pew found, that “complicate the already difficult task of governing in a divided nation.”

Getting salty: Vulnerable New Jersey Democrats are “finding themselves in the center” as their party haggles over a proposal to lift a cap on state and local property tax deduction in their social spending tax and climate change legislation, according to National Journal. “SALT-cap relief is a must-pass item for Garden State Democrats, who have run on scrapping the provisions and just saw a too-close-for-comfort victory by their governor Tuesday,” NJ reports.

Survey says: The New York Times surveys voters in Nassau County, N.Y., where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, to see why the GOP did so well there last week.

Mod pod: Virginia Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger gave a candid interview to the New York Times’ podcast “The Daily” about her party’s messaging missteps as it seeks to pass legislation that would make deep changes in the social safety net on the heels of the infrastructure bill. Spanberger, whose 7th District is one of the most competitive in the country, acknowledged that she would have a hard time getting reelected regardless of her vote for the reconciliation bill Democrats are using as a catch-all for dozens of programs. “There will be so many attacks based on this bill, I could probably write some of them myself,” she said, adding at another point: “But when a lot of people are inclined to disagree with you, I just have to work that much harder to explain myself.”

Midterm matters: National Journal speaks with the leaders of the major political committees about where the battles for the House and Senate stand one year ahead of the midterms. And in an interview with The New York Times, DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney says that Democrats’ losses in Virginia and elsewhere last week showed they need to do a better job telling voters about their agenda. But he is sticking by his strategy of tying the GOP to Trump while touting Democrats’ accomplishments. 

The count: $19

That’s how much, out of the $3.5 million raised by two PACs, went to any candidate’s authorized campaign committee or to any political cause, the Justice Department says in an indictment. Liberty Action Group PAC and Progressive Priorities PAC told donors they were working to support 2016 presidential candidates, whose names the indictment does not mention, though news accounts say are Trump and Hillary Clinton. Of the money collected, $1.5 million was transferred to the personal accounts of Matthew Tunstall, 34, of Los Angeles; $714,000 to accounts of Robert Reyes Jr., 38, of Hollister, Calif.; and $84,385 to accounts of George Davies, 29, of Austin, Texas, the indictment states. They face multiple charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and making a false statement to the Federal Election Commission, which the government said could mean dozens of years in prison.

Nathan’s notes

There’s still plenty of uncertainty about the 2022 cycle — see our eight questions above — but it is possible a year out to identify the trajectory an election is taking, as Nathan L. Gonzales shows in his comparison of past year-out projections and how the cycle ultimately ended. 

Candidate confessions

“I hope your headline says ‘Afghanistan veteran shakes up North Carolina race.’ I am on a mission,” Marjorie K. Eastman told CQ Roll Call’s John M. Donnelly in a phone interview last month as she entered the GOP primary to replace retiring Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr

Eastman said her military background and her status as a political outsider separates her from the rest of the GOP field. A retired Army intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan, Eastman said the botched withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country in August spurred her to jump into the race. “I’ve learned in the military, and especially in leadership, it’s always the right time to do the right thing. And this is the right thing to do because we need veterans, we need combat-proven leaders who’ve been battle tested to be part of the decision-making process for the safety of our country,” she said.

Shop talk: Kristin Davison

Davison, a senior strategist for Youngkin’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign, has played leading roles in numerous races, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt’s reelection campaign the same year. She is a vice president at Axiom Strategies. 

Starting out: Davison wanted to be a professional ballet dancer throughout her childhood but was forced to consider a “more sustainable career path” after she broke her leg in high school, she said. Her family was involved in Republican politics — her father was an advance man for President Ronald Reagan. That was unusual at the time outside Scranton Pa., then a Democratic stronghold. “I was probably the only second grader who wrote her ‘my hero’ book report on Ronald Reagan,” she said. Davison was intrigued by the idea of working to elect people who would fight for beliefs that she shared, she said, and she started getting involved in politics when she was in high school, during the 2004 presidential election. 

Most unforgettable campaign moment: During the last bus tour for the Youngkin campaign, the team stopped at a hotel in southwestern Virginia and found that each of the hotel owners’ children had left notes in their rooms thanking them for their work. Davison’s had a picture of a map of Virginia and a smiley face, drawn in crayon. “It really humanizes what we do, outside of all the polling, talking points, messaging and events,” she said. “I won’t forget that.”

Biggest campaign regret: “You can always use more yard signs,” she said. “People in my business usually hate yard signs. They don’t think it changes the vote. In the Virginia case, it was one of the rare occasions where yard signs made a difference.” At the beginning of the race, everyone thought it would be impossible for a Republican to win a statewide race again in the Old Dominion. But that sense began to change as red Youngkin signs began outnumbering the blue ones for his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, all over the state — even in Democratic strongholds like Northern Virginia. The signs helped create “this sense of inevitability” and gave people permission to take a position they might have worried would be unpopular in their neighborhood, Davison said. “It was pretty powerful.”

Unconventional wisdom: “Very often, in this race, in past races, people take direction from the national level over what’s going on locally,” she said. “One of the reasons Youngkin won the race is that it was always about what was going on around the Virginia kitchen table, not what was going on on Twitter or on TV.” That helped make a contrast with McAuliffe, whose campaign echoed the national conversation, Davison said. “We were getting a lot of chirping from our supporters, saying, ‘Why don’t you run an ad hitting Joe Biden? His approval is tanking.’ They didn’t know that McAuliffie’s approval rating was even lower. If we had hit Biden, it would have made the race about Biden.” Maintaining focus on McAuliffe made the race about “what people were talking about at the grocery store,” she said. “At the end of the day, voters want to know that you care about them, and know their concerns and their struggles, and that you have a plan to fix it.”

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

Coming up

We told you last week, but in case you missed it: On Tuesday afternoon, the At the Races team will discuss the coming midterms in a webinar. Sign up here to join us.

Photo finish

At the midpoint of the two-year election cycle, the red team is ready to spike the ball and declare victory. (Cartoon by R.J. Matson/CQ Roll Call)

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