CONCORD, N.H. — Since 1976, Secretary of State Bill Gardner has overseen New Hampshire's elections from a cramped office in the state capitol, elected by the legislature every two years no matter which way the electoral winds blew. This week, Democrats took their first serious step toward removing him, as just 23 members of their incoming state House majority — one in 10 — voted to give Gardner another term.
The vast majority backed Colin Van Ostern, the 2016 Democratic nominee for governor, who challenged Gardner, who is also a Democrat, after the incumbent raised no objection to laws restricting student voting, and after he participated in President Trump's ill-fated “voter fraud” commission.
“I know some may never forgive me for having done that,” Gardner told reporters, “but it was better that New Hampshire be represented than not.”
The heated battle for Gardner's job, which will conclude when the new legislature sits next month, is the next stage in what the election law guru Rick Hasen has dubbed the “voting wars.” The legal battles in Florida and Georgia, which ended today with Republicans affirming their victories in close elections, were trial runs for the hardball legal strategies both sides plan to employ across the country in the 23 months before the next presidential election.
The project of electing and, in New Hampshire's case appointing, Democrats to state elections offices, and lifting the profile of those races and their issues, began 12 years ago. Democrats will hold 21 of those offices next year, up from 18 before the election, making three gains in swing states — Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan.
As Democrats have amped up their approach to expanding voting rights, Republicans have seized on another strategy: attempting to undermine public confidence in voting systems and outcomes.
Republicans are increasingly comfortable making Trump-like arguments, accusing Democrats of working to rig elections. Before late-counted ballots pushed Democrat Gil Cisneros ahead in California's 39th District, Republican candidate Young Kim alleged “foul play,” accusing Cisneros of “harassing and intimidating vote counters.” In an op-ed, California RNC committeeman Shawn Steel referred to the Democrats' turnout surge with young voters as “borderline fraudulent turnout rates outdoing dead voters in Chicago.” Both had been in politics long enough to know that California's late-arriving ballots skew Democratic and neither put forth evidence backing up their allegations of fraud.
Under the flag of fighting “voter fraud,” Republicans in key states have argued for new laws that restrict the ability of parties or third-party groups to turn in ballots or register voters. In Arizona, Republicans passed a law banning “ballot harvesting,” the practice by which campaigns canvass voters who have not turned in mail ballots yet and offer to deliver them.
The Democratic response, which began in 2017 and will intensify, is to posit that anything less than an election system that allows for maximum turnout is tantamount to fraud. The hand-wringing about whether questioning an election's integrity will undermine voters' faith is over; Democrats start with the presumption that votes are being suppressed. That attitude is shared by every leading figure in the party, from DNC Chairman Tom Perez on down, with exceedingly little worry about whether that. too, might undermine confidence in voting.
Those attitudes surfaced among both parties' candidates in the races where Democrats picked up elections offices. In Arizona, Democrat Katie Hobbs said that she would use the office to educate lower-propensity voters, such as former felons, on how to get the ballot; Republican Steve Gaynor promised to focus on stricter standards for voters, including ID requirements and a continued fight against “ballot harvesting.”
In Colorado, Democrat Jena Griswold pledged to oppose the Trump administration's hunt for “voter fraud,” in a state where her Republican predecessor's cooperation with Trump had been a source of controversy. In Michigan, Democrat Jocelyn Benson ran on a memorable "30-minute guarantee," saying it should take no longer than that for anyone to register a vehicle or to cast a vote. In swing states, from New Hampshire on down, Democrats are comfortable portraying elections themselves as under threat from Republicans who want to rig elections.
That's the argument that Stacey Abrams has taken national since her narrow defeat in the race for governor in Georgia. Historically, it's dangerous for politicians who might want to seek office again to cast doubt on the election they lost and demand a recount; the list of candidates who did so and emerged weaker in later elections includes Maryland's Ellen Sauerbrey, Florida's Jan Schneider and Virginia's Creigh Deeds.
But Abrams has used the days since the election to ask for testimony from voters who had trouble casting a ballot, and publicize cases in which they were stymied by long lines or in voter roll purges that proportionately punished minority voters more than whites. In a Sunday interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, Abrams repeatedly refused to say that former secretary of state Brian Kemp, her Republican opponent, had legitimately won the election.
“Yes, when he takes the oath of office, he will be the legal governor of the state of Georgia,” Abrams said. “But what you are looking for me to say is that there was no compromise of our democracy, and that there should be some political compromise in the language I use. And that's not right. What's not right is saying that something was done properly when it was not.”
Neither Abrams nor Florida's Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, who also hopes to expand voting rights, will hold power in January. But House Democrats will, and they've signaled that they'll introduce legislation and hold hearings on voter suppression. On CBS's “Face the Nation,” incoming House Oversight chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said that “we cannot have a country where people are being blocked from voting,” citing Georgia and Florida as the reason for further investigation.
Just a few election cycles ago, Democrats hesitated to go this far as a party for fear of a backlash. That fear appears to have dried up. The long tail of the midterm recounts will be more pitched battles over voting rights, with Republicans continuing to defend laws that police the voting rolls and Democrats raising the specter of suppression to campaign for laws that would make voting easier.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — As Democrats seriously begin to explore presidential campaigns, they're circling around a New Hampshire that has changed dramatically since the last wide-open primary in 2008.
One: Independents, who can vote in either party's primary, will be more likely to pick a competitive Democratic race than a token primary against the Republican president. In 2008, both sides had competitive primaries.
Two: As many as three candidates might come from neighboring states: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.
Three: The 2018 elections in this state went well for Democrats, elevating young party strategists who are, at the moment, up for grabs. Kari Thurman helped get Chris Pappas through an expensive primary and elect him to Congress; Erin Turmelle, a veteran of Hillary Clinton's campaign, was the party's political director for a breakout year; Nick Taylor, just 24 years old, helped design the campaign that flipped the state House.
“My guess is that nobody's going to hire anybody in the early states until somebody else does," said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. “Once you start hiring, there's an expectation from people in the early states that they're going to get their calls returned and get their emails returned. I don't think there'd be any hires until the start of the year, but someone could surprise me."
The Democrats who have been in closest contact with New Hampshire political talent are seen as second- or third-tier presidential hopefuls; Sen. Jeff Merkley's (D-Ore.) name comes up often. A better measure of early interest has been party fundraising. At least three Democrats — Warren, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — raised more than $100,000 for the party in 2018. When former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe helped launch a canvass but did not raise money, it got noticed.
The first party event of the cycle is set for Feb. 16, when Democrats hold a fundraising dinner in Manchester.
On Saturday night, the Associated Press called the close race in California's 39th District for Gil Cisneros. It was official: The next Congress would have no Republicans representing Orange County. Across the county, 524,083 votes (so far) have been counted for Democrats; 454,705 votes have been counted for Republicans.
When you take a closer look at the numbers, two patterns emerge, both more complicated than a simple Democratic rout. One: In every close race, Democrats at least doubled their vote total from the last midterm, while Republicans' vote was only 30 percent higher than it was in 2014. Two: In every close race, Democrats won by getting fewer votes than Republicans received in these districts two years ago. The problem for Republicans: they got far fewer votes than in 2016.
Here are the numbers, for comparison, from 2014 through this year.
Ed Royce (R) - 91,319
Peter Anderson (D) - 41,906
Ed Royce (R) - 150,777
Brett Murdock (D) - 112,679
Young Kim (R) - 109,580
Gil Cisneros (D) - 113,075
Mimi Walters (R) - 106,083
Drew Leavens (D) - 56,819
Mimi Walters (R) - 182,618
Ron Varasteh (D) - 129,231
Mimi Walters (R) - 136,902
Katie Porter (D) - 145,895
Dana Rohrabacher (R) - 112,082
Suzanne Savary (D) - 62,713
Dana Rohrabacher (R) - 178,701
Suzanne Savary (D) - 127,715
Dana Rohrabacher (R) - 124,816
Harley Rouda (D) - 141,903
Darrell Issa (R) - 98,161
Dave Peiser (D) - 64,981
Darrell Issa (R) - 155,888
Doug Applegate (D) - 154,267
Diane Harkey (R) - 111,967
Mike Levin (D) - 139,763
If a Republican is looking for optimism, here it is: In 2016, each of these districts cast more votes for the incumbent Republican than were cast for Democrats two years later. At least the first three seats will remain top targets in 2020. But there may not be as much opportunity for a snapback as it looks. In each district, Democrats dramatically gained in voter registration from 2016 to 2018. And each district rejected Donald Trump's campaign in 2016, which was the reason Democrats targeted these races in the first place.
2020 Democratic Primary. Richard Ojeda just became the second Democratic contender with a campaign ad, a 30-second spot that remixes the footage he used in his unsuccessful campaign for Congress. Is it the first presidential ad that focuses briefly on the candidate's back tattoo? Most likely.
Joe Biden. He adopted a dog, named Major, an event that made national news.
Cory Booker. He's in Mississippi on Monday to campaign with Mike Espy, the Democrat who'd be the first black U.S. senator from Georgia if he prevails in the Nov. 27 runoff election.
John Delaney. He's expanding his campaign in Iowa, planning to open eight offices by January, one year after he began running campaign ads there.
Kamala Harris. She stumped with Espy over the weekend, denouncing “racism, anti-Semitism, sexism [and] homophobia.”
Eric Swalwell. He got in a Twitter argument with a former Infowars correspondent, suggesting with tongue somewhere in cheek that any rebellion against the United States government would lead to a “short war” because the feds have nuclear weapons. There was no corner of the Internet where this went over well.
On Saturday night, incoming members of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib dialed in to a call organized by Justice Democrats, the not-quite-two-year-old insurgent group that had endorsed both of them. The message, in Ocasio-Cortez's words: “Throw your hat in the ring.” Both women urged left-wing, working-class candidates not just to run for office, but to challenge incumbents.
Any threat to dislodge incumbents makes news, because it's so rarely done. Just two Democrats, Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, defeated incumbent members of Congress in primaries this year. And importantly, both did so in safely blue districts; high-profile challengers in tough districts, such as Nebraska's Kara Eastman and Pennsylvania's Jess King, went down to defeat.
So, any 2020 wave of primaries is likely to focus on seats where a Democrat is favored to win the general election. Here are the Democrats being circled at the moment, and the reasons.
Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.). The 2016 Clinton margin in his district was +15.3 points, and Republicans made no effort to challenge him in 2018. That helped inspire a near-miss primary challenge by Marie Newman, a first-time candidate who has not ruled out running again. Lipinski, who was helped by antiabortion activists in the final stretch of the campaign, moved left on immigration and gay rights during the primary, but liberals still view him as vulnerable and unreliable.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). Clinton margin: +18.3 points. Nashville is getting bluer — Clinton outran Barack Obama's margins in this Nashville-based district — but it's represented by a member of the Blue Dog Coalition who casts protest votes for Speaker of the House. Cooper has dismissed and prevented threats to his job for years, but he raised less than $500,000 to secure his new term, making him an appealing target for a movement that can pile up millions of dollars.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.). Clinton margin: +19.8 points. Cuellar actually won his first race as the moderate challenger to a more liberal incumbent, after a mid-decade Republican gerrymander. He's one of just three Democrats who back a 20-week abortion ban, and he angered his party by helping Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) fend off one of the year's strongest near-miss challenges, from a female Democrat.
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.). Clinton margin +26.0 points. Lynch, one in a line of moderate, labor-backed Democrats who's held this Boston district, represents the bluest seat of any Democrat who opposed the Affordable Care Act. He held off two liberal challengers this year by 42 points, but two members of the Massachusetts delegation — Pressley and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) — got to Washington by ousting incumbents. Lynch is now seen by liberals as the most vulnerable member who no one has ever tried to challenge.
Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.). Clinton margin +78.2 points. The 77-year — old Democrat faced his first serious challenge this year from Anthony Clark, after trying to kick the insurgent off the ballot. Davis prevailed by 48 points, but he remains a special kind of primary target, the aging incumbent who does not make the sort of news or alliances that an Ocasio-Cortez does.
The party is getting ready for an agonizing debate over the face it will present to America, and none of that may be necessary.
The pre- and post-election attention paid to this cycle's megadonors obscured just how far the Koch network had pulled back.
“Orange County goes blue,” by Mark Z. Barabak, Joe Mozingo and Michael Finnegan
A requiem for the birthplace of modern conservative politics. Sidebar: In two of the Southern California districts won by Democrats this month, the Orange County portions broke for Republicans. But the Orange County-based 39th District spills into Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, and the 49th District includes northern San Diego County; the outlying areas turned the seats blue.
“Why the perfect red-state Democrat lost,” by Alec MacGillis
The companion to the Orange County story is the drama of rural Ohio, where labor unions, convinced that Democrats can no longer win, abandoned a promising young candidate to make sure a moderate Republican got elected in a district that elected Democrats, reliably, for years.
... nine days until Mississippi's Senate runoff
... 16 days until Georgia's Secretary of State runoff
... 51 days until the special election for the Virginia senate seat vacated by Jennifer Wexton