In this edition: a victory for Texas Republicans, a new GOP ad buy in Trump country, a surprising poll in Minnesota, and an interview with the man who wants to put Democrats in charge of the states again.
I trust Pete, and this is The Trailer.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) were not on the ballot Tuesday, but they felt like winners. In an upset that rattled Texas Democrats, Republicans won a state senate seat that had voted reliably Democratic since the 19th century. In the final ballot test ahead of the midterm elections, there was no “blue wave” in sight — in other words, the outcome that Cruz and Hurd are hoping for in November.
After a short campaign, Republican businessman Pete Flores defeated former Democratic congressman Pete Gallego in Texas’s 19th state senate district, which stretches from San Antonio to Big Bend National Park. Flores won by nearly 6 points — a major reversal of fortune for Democrats, who had regularly carried the district, who beat Flores soundly here in 2016, and who won 59 percent of the vote in a July jungle primary.
Democrats, who have been sounding alarms all year about the difficulty of turning out Latino voters, felt their stomachs sink — especially because their candidate seemed to take the election for granted, failing to call in reinforcements.
“Despite having previously been a Latino Victory Fund-endorsed candidate, he did not request our support for this race,” said Jorge Silva, a spokesman for the LVF, which has poured millions of dollars into Latino turnout elsewhere. “I'd caution people not read too much into this single outcome as it does not reflect what is happening across the state or the country.”
Flores’s victory will pay years of dividends for Texas Republicans, who will hold a supermajority of state senate seats — one they are unlikely to lose in November. Flores, meanwhile, will serve out the next two years and three months of a term vacated by Carlos Uresti, a Democrat who left office after being convicted of 11 felonies.
The Democrats' embarrassing defeat was a twist after scores of special elections elsewhere in the country had mostly gone their way. But it was not a complete surprise. A series of blunders hobbled the party and were capitalized on by Republicans, who controlled the timing of the election and had plenty to gain by turning out votes in territory that largely mirrors the 23rd House district, held since 2014 by Hurd.
“One side worked to increase its turnout, and the other side didn't,” said Democratic strategist Colin Strother, who worked for San Antonio legislator Roland Gutierrez, the Democratic runner-up in the primary. “I was telling everyone who would listen that we were in trouble here.”
First, there was the drawn-out spectacle of Uresti’s resignation. The senator was indicted in May 2017 on 11 charges of fraud and bribery, was convicted on all of them in February 2018 and then stayed in office for four more months, dragging any possible special election past the high-turnout primaries and runoffs in March and May. That gave Gov. Greg Abbott (R) the power to declare a rare, mid-September election, weeks before Abbott himself would appear on the ballot.
“The opportunity was out there,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist who worked to elect Flores. “One of the big benefits for Flores was that the governor and lieutenant governor wanted to test their turnout strategies in this district.”
Next, Democrats tumbled into a nasty, contested primary, with both Gutierrez and Gallego, who had represented the 23rd Congressional District until Hurd’s 2014 upset and lost to him again in 2016, in the running. That complicated the math in July’s jungle primary; Democrats had two serious candidates, while Republicans largely consolidated behind Flores. While the Republican won just 34.3 percent of the primary vote, he had surged in Election Day voting, running ahead of both Democrats and giving Republicans a tantalizing look at a possible upset over a weak challenger.
“Pete Gallego never reached out to Roland Gutierrez,” Strother said. “That's what you do when you have any special election — you consolidate the vote.”
Republicans also played hardball. Abbott defied Democrats who wanted a November special election, citing the “emergency” of the district potentially going unrepresented for months. The Texas legislature adjourned last summer, but taking office early would give the winner seniority in Austin.
Republicans, who spent just $50,000 in the primary, poured at least $300,000 into Flores’s runoff campaign, giving him a competitive ground game in a place his party usually conceded before Election Day. At the same time, they walloped Gallego with legal challenges, arguing in court that the former congressman did not have a permanent residence in the district, which would make him ineligible to run.
After a judge kept Gallego on the ballot, Republicans filed an FBI complaint on the same issue that remained active by the time early voting began. Gallego recycled an old campaign slogan — “I Trust Pete” — even though he was, for the first time, running against someone else named “Pete.” And Gallego, who had been one of the more moderate Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, also struggled to excite more liberal voters who had backed Gutierrez.
All of that combined with a lackluster Democratic turnout operation. While Democrats are blaming Abbott, Gallego's campaign did little to turn out votes.
Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who's well known in the region, got no requests to help Gallego — not until early voting had already begun, last weekend, when the campaign asked him to record a robo-call. Republican volunteers and staffers, meanwhile, knocked on 30,000 doors. To Republicans' great surprise, Gallego didn't even bother running TV ads, leaving the airwaves to Flores — even though the Democrat had more than $100,000 left to spend when balloting came Tuesday.
“That is something I will never understand,” Mackowiak said.
The result, in addition to one more Republican seat in Texas’s legislature, was a dose of ice water for Texas Democrats. Since falling into minority-party status in 1994, Democrats had struggled to turn out Latino voters in midterm elections, and Republicans had stayed competitive for the Latino voters who did turn out — a trend that helped Abbott win a landslide in 2014.
Democrats were hoping to change that trajectory this year, with Lupe Valdez running to be Texas’s first Latina governor and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who represents a heavily Latino district based in El Paso, running an unusually strong U.S. Senate race. But they had not cracked the code on how to turn out Latinos between San Antonio's Bexar County and the Rio Grande Valley. In 2014, just 116,297 total votes were cast in TX23 — and that was, by far, the highest turnout in any of the border districts. Hundreds of thousands of Latino Texas Democrats who vote in presidential elections simply stay home in midterms. And this week, Democrats learned again how big a problem that can be.
“The Republicans manipulated this date to make it the lowest-profile special election they could,” Castro said. “Of course it wasn’t the outcome that anybody wanted, but the midterm will be different. Everybody knows that November 6 is coming.”
This weekend, Castro will join O'Rourke for a campaign tour across the Rio Grande Valley. It's the sort of activity that came a few days too late for Pete Gallego.
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Look, we don't have any results to analyze for another few weeks, so bear with me on Texas. There are two stories here: a successful GOP campaign to maximize turnout, and a Democratic base that went to sleep.
Texas's 19th state senate district is on the ballot every four years, in presidential cycles. That's meant high turnout and no real competition between the parties. (The numbers below don't add up to 100% because I'm leaving out write-ins and third-party votes.)
SD19 GE, 2012
205,736 total votes
SD19 GE, 2016
241,627 total votes
Despite the surge of Latino turnout that made Texas a bit closer at the presidential level in 2016, the margin in this district stayed roughly the same. When Democrats turned out, they won by 20 points.
SD19 PRIMARY, 2018
26,207 total votes
SD19 SPECIAL, 2018
44,487 total votes
You can see why Democrats are bitter -- they lost this seat in an election where the total votes cast amounted to one-fifth of the last election.
IL13/MI06/NC02/NM02/NV03: The Congressional Leadership Fund is reserving $5.5 million of TV and radio across these five districts — all of which backed Trump for president in 2016. The biggest single buy is in Nevada, where the National Republican Campaign Committee has signaled that Danny Tarkanian might not be able to win, after narrowly losing the seat in a better year for the party. There, CLF is up with $2.5 million; the first buy hits Democrat Susie Lee over her wealth, weaknesses that first emerged in 2016 when she sought the nomination in slightly bluer NV04.
IL06: Democrat Sean Casten is out with one of the must-run Democratic ads of the cycle: the Sad Republican ad. In it, six people — the first of them a former supporter of Rep. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.) — say how disappointed they've become in Republicans. It's a theme across Democratic campaigns in tough districts; in August's special election in Ohio, Democrats repeatedly handed the camera to Republicans who had backed Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) but gotten off the bus.
TX07: A new ad from Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) adds to a trend we've been seeing in tough House races — shameless whoppers about the Democrat's position on health care. In it, an Alexa device (named “Anita” for copyright reasons, I assume) is asked about Democratic candidate Lizzie Fletcher. “Like Bernie Sanders, Lizzie Fletcher supports a complete government takeover of health care,” the machine says.
The problem: Fletcher has never supported any version of “Medicare for All.” The fact that she didn't was well covered in her primary with Laura Moser, a candidate backed by liberal and Sanders-aligned organizations. As Rachel Cohrs first reported, Culberson's campaign argues that Fletcher essentially endorsed single-payer because, in one debate with Moser, Fletcher said she favored “universal health care.” But in her full answer, she denounced — by name — Sanders's version of single-payer, saying she supported tweaks to the Affordable Care Act and universal “access.”
This is at least the third ad in recent weeks that has falsely accused a Democrat who does not support single-payer of supporting it; earlier ads attacked Virginia's Abigail Spanberger and Kentucky's Amy McGrath.
WV03: Carol Miller, who's trying to hold a safe Republican seat, has begun attacking Democrat Richard Ojeda as a catspaw for “radical liberals.” In one ad, she claims that Ojeda is “bankrolled by more than $1 million from the radical left,” as a protest banner reading “NO MORE COAL” flashes on-screen.
In another ad, Miller makes use of a frequent Ojeda stump line: “America isn't the greatest country in the world.” Ojeda, a tattooed U.S. Army veteran, usually says those words to set up a riff on how America can't be truly great unless it provides universal health care. Miller's ad hands the microphone to several anti-Ojeda veterans, including Allan Lardieri, a Republican activist who has appeared in a number of media profiles of why Trump won West Virginia. On Wednesday, Ojeda pointed out that Lardieri's left arm contains a prominent Confederate flag tattoo — which is not visible in Miller's spot.
NJSen: The low-key nastiest race in the country is continuing on that track. Sen. Bob Menendez (D) is running yet another ad attacking Republican Bob Hugin's drug company's settlement over product labeling; Hugin, after a summer of slashing attack ads, is up with a series of spots from happy patients who say he made medicine affordable.
Democrats simply don't think the race can be lost in this cycle. Case in point: A new poll of NJ02, a district where Trump won by five points, has Hugin up 10 with those same voters. Running five points ahead of Trump statewide would mean a Hugin loss in the high single digits. But while Menendez's approval numbers haven't recovered from his corruption trial, a plurality of New Jersey voters still have no opinion of him. Hence the friendly new ads.
MNAG (Star Tribune/MPR News, 800LVs)
Keith Ellison (D) - 41%
Doug Wardlow (R) -36%
It's safe to call this the year's bitterest campaign for attorney general — no disrespect, Illinois — but Ellison may survive a story that had the potential to end his campaign. While just 20 percent of voters view Ellison favorably, just 21 percent say that they believe a claim from Ellison's ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, that the congressman once abused her by dragging her off of a bed. A super-majority of voters either believe Ellison or have no opinion.
The Monahan-Ellison drama stands apart in the year of #MeToo. After news outlets passed on Monahan's story, her son posted an August 13 Facebook message which claimed that Monahan had video of Ellison dragging her off the bed. That story got national attention, and Ellison denied the allegation, as Minnesota Democrats opened a probe into them.
Since then, the video did not materialize, and Ellison resumed his campaign. Monahan tweeted a photo of a 2017 medical record that described her telling a doctor of "physical and emotional abuse" by Ellison; the same record stated that she did "not have any physical injuries."
CA39 (Monmouth, 402 voters)
Young Kim (R) - 46%
Gil Cisneros (D) - 42%
Hillary Clinton narrowly carried this Orange County district by 9 points after Barack Obama only narrowly lost it. Gil Cisneros, a multimillionaire and veteran, was the candidate Democrats wanted in the crowded jungle primary. But this is the first district polled by Monmouth where Democrats are running far behind Clinton's numbers. One reason is Kim, a rising Republican star who went on the air early and would be the first Asian-American to represent the diverse district. Another is Cisneros, one of several Democrats who made an awkward transition from donor to politician, and who's been besieged by ads accusing him of sexual harassment.
That's another complicated story. In May, shortly before the Democratic primary, a Democratic candidate named Melissa Fazli claimed that she'd twice asked Cisneros for a campaign donation. The first time, at the state convention, she said that Cisneros asked if he should come to her room. The second time, over the phone, Fazli claimed that Cisneros asked her, "what are you going to do for me?" She interpreted both comments as innuendo; Cisneros denied that, and produced some witnesses who cast doubt on the first incident. But in two ads, part of a $2 million ad buy, the Congressional Leadership Fund has claimed that Cisneros "demanded money for sex" -- a contested claim that's being beamed into homes regardless.
NJ02 (Monmouth, 414 LVs)
Tom Malinowski (D) - 47%
Leonard Lance (R) - 39%
No scandal this time: Just negative polarization. Lance represents a district that backed Clinton in 2016, where most voters dislike the 2017 tax cut law and where 55 percent of voters disapprove of the president.
MAGov (Suffolk, 400 voters)
Charlie Baker (R) - 55%
Jay Gonzalez (D) - 28%
Baker is the most popular governor in America, presiding over economic growth and, on occasion, making high-profile breaks with the president. The key result here: fully 61 percent of voters consider Baker, who did not vote for the president, to be "anti-Trump." That leaves just the hardcore Democratic base behind Gonzalez.
MASen (Suffolk, 400 voters)
Elizabeth Warren (D) - 54%
Geoff Diehl (R) - 24%
Shiva Ayyadurai (I) - 6%
Diehl, a charismatic anti-tax state legislator, was probably the best candidate Republicans had to challenge Warren, and he isn't breaking through. Republicans have consoled themselves with crosstabs that find most Massachusetts voters unready to back Warren for president, over worries — pushed to the front of their mind since November 2016 — that a woman with a well-defined negative narrative against her cannot win. But here's something to watch: The four Democratic senators seen as likely 2020 candidates are all waltzing to new terms. Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) have only token challenges.
Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) has, in some ways, the easiest job of any Democrat running a national campaign this year. As head of the Democratic Governors Association, he has to lift the party from its near-historic lows — from just 16 Democratic governors, to … well, more than that.
This week, Inslee and the DGA clarified their top targets for November: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The overall spending strategy is called "Un-Rig the Map," designed to put or keep Democrats in governor's mansions across states where they could veto maps that slant toward Republicans. In some of those states — Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — Republican governors have been in charge during redistricting for decades.
"They can veto massively gerrymandered maps," Inslee told reporters in the DGA's downtown office this week. "This can be a ticket for actual, functioning democracy in this country for years."
The "Un-Rig" fund doesn't touch two states where Democrats controlled the last round of redistricting. In Illinois, both parties increasingly doubt that Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-Ill.) can win reelection. In Maryland, both see nothing short of a miracle pushing Ben Jealous past Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.). A Hogan reelection, if it breaks Democratic super-majorities in the legislature, could cost Democrats at least one safe House seat. But Democrats see opportunities to make that up.
"Traditionally, you want to dampen expectations and enthusiasm," Inslee said. "I just can't do that. We're seeing a level of enthusiasm and turnout that beggars imagination."
In an interview after his news conference, Inslee put a number on the potential benefit of wins across the "Un-Rig" map. "If you get anywhere close to parity in redistricting — if the maps are fair —that's 25 to 28 seats that become competitive," he said. That number came from reverse-engineering the gains Republicans saw after their 2010 sweep, which helped them turn swing states into machines for electing Republican House majorities. Maps in Pennsylvania were already redrawn for this year's election, and simply winning there and Michigan, where polls now show the party ahead by double digits, would lead to a decade of more competitive maps.
The turnout patterns from 2018's primary season also shifted some of the DGA's thinking. The race against Gov. Chris Sununu (R-N.H.), which seemed like a longshot — and remains uphill — intrigued Inslee after a surge of Democratic votes. "To go from 70,000 votes to 125,000 is huge," said Inslee, referring to the turnout boost from 2016. "That's tectonic. That's a really good reason to be more optimistic."
Democrats are also stony-faced about the potential of third-party spoilers in two key races, in Kansas and Maine. In Kansas, where frequent candidate Greg Orman beat a Democratic lawsuit to stay on the ballot as an independent, he has not broken out of single digits, and some high-profile (if decreasingly powerful) moderate Republicans have endorsed Democratic nominee Laura Kelly. In Maine, two left-leaning independents have struggled to crack 5 percent in polls.
"There's no Ross Perot in these races. They don't have strong bases. They don't have great ideological messages," said Inslee.
Joe Biden. The former vice president endorsed Joe Cunningham, the Democrats' candidate in SC01 — the coastal district held by Rep. Mark Sanford (R) until he lost a primary this year. Biden has made bigger moves in South Carolina's midterms than anyone else considered a potential presidential candidate.
Cory Booker. The ramp-up to his Oct. 6 speech in Iowa begins with a lengthy New York magazine profile and a can't-miss-it quote: "Of course the presidency will be something I consider. It would be irresponsible not to.”
Jeff Merkley. The Oregon senator's PAC is hiring field organizers in the early 2020 states — to help elect midterm candidates, of course.
The scribe of south Florida, who has covered every move by the candidate formerly known as "Hurricane Donna," reports on internal polls that show, at best, a dead heat in a district where Donald Trump couldn't crack 40 percent of the vote. The problem, which Democrats saw coming and could not stop: Donna Shalala, a 77-year-old Clinton cabinet vet who does not speak Spanish and decided to run in a district that mostly does. The problem fewer Democrats saw coming: Maria Elvira Salazar, the Republican TV anchor who jumped into the race in March.
Some wealthy Democrats figured that "dark posts" were the secret to Trump's win, so they're running their own head-scratching and sometimes offensive ads on Facebook.
"Evangelical Leaders Are Frustrated with GOP Over Kavanaugh allegation," by Jeremy Peters and Elizabeth Dias
Social conservatives hadn't been thrilled with the Kavanaugh pick at first, but they're now all in and adding him to the pantheon of conservatives who, they say, have been treated unfairly by ruthless and dishonest Democrats.
Barring a revelation that convinces Republicans to dump Brett Kavanaugh, the judge is likely to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. But there's a right and a wrong way to talk about it. In a call yesterday, which several reporters got to listen in to, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) hand-waved away the late-breaking accusation that Kavanaugh had committed sexual assault while in high school.
"We got a little hiccup here with the Kavanaugh nomination, we’ll get through this and we’ll get off to the races," he said.
Democrats pounced, but Heller didn't go as far as Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.). The first-term congressman is expected to cruise to reelection, largely because his opponent, Archie Parnell, was damaged by court records that revealed how he had abused his first wife. Norman even held off on debating Parnell, saying he had no reason to indulge a "wife-beater." But they met this week, and Norman had a joke ready, one that surely never saw the bright lights of a focus group session.
“Did y’all hear this latest late-breaking news on the Kavanaugh hearings?” he asked. "Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out saying she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.”
The risk for Republicans — one expressed more by conservative columnists than by the candidates themselves — is that Kavanaugh steps onto the court with a majority of female voters opposed to him and many believing that once again, a man committed sexual assault and got away with it.
... one day til early voting begins in Minnesota
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... 159 days until the Chicago mayoral election