A W A K E N

Morning Digest: Jeff Sessions on a 2020 Senate bid: ‘I could go back and spend time in the woods’

Senate

GA-Sen: Outgoing Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has been flirting with seeking the Democratic nod to take on GOP Sen. David Perdue for a while, and she says she’ll likely decide whether to run early next year.

Tomlinson would not say if she’d be willing to run in a primary against 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who is considering both a Senate campaign and a 2022 bid for governor. Instead, Tomlinson said that this would be “a hard question to answer because I consider Stacey a friend.” Abrams said last month that, while she would run for office again, she’d “spend the next year as a private citizen,” so if Tomlinson does enter the race in early 2019, she might spent much of the year running without knowing if she’d end up facing Abrams.

TN-Sen: GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander said last month that he’ll decide if he’ll seek a fourth term by the end of 2018, and if he runs again, he could have a tough primary ahead of him. The Nashville Post reports that Rep.-elect Mark Green “has been mentioned in multiple reports as a possible 2020 primary challenger,” and that neither Green nor his staff could be reached for comment. Green, a far-right legislator from Middle Tennessee, considered challenging Sen. Bob Corker in the primary in 2017. However, when Corker instead retired and Rep. Marsha Blackburn ran for the Senate, Green successfully campaigned to succeed Blackburn.

The GOP will be heavily favored to keep this Senate seat no matter how the primary goes, but Democratic state Sen. Sara Kyle tells the Post that she is considering getting in. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, and attorney and Army veteran James Mackler each spoke to the Post about the state of affairs for Tennessee Democrats, but each “begged off discussing their own 2020 plans.” Mackler did challenge Corker in 2017 and raised close to $1 million, but he dropped out after former Gov. Phil Bredesen got in. Berke and Yarbro also both considered running as well, but each deferred to Bredesen.

However, we’ll be avoiding the Tim McGraw for Senate boomlet this cycle. The country music superstar’s representative called the idea that he’d run as a Democrat “very silly, very old rumors with no merit to them.”

Gubernatorial

LA-Gov: On Thursday, GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham announced that he would challenge Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in the 2019 contest to lead Louisiana. Abraham’s only intra-party foe at the moment is wealthy businessman Eddie Rispone, though other Republicans have shown an interest in running after Sen. John Kennedy announced he would stay out of the race on Monday. All the candidates will compete in an October jungle primary, and if no one takes a majority, there would be a runoff in late November.

Abraham, who has worked as a farmer, Coast Guard pilot, medical doctor, and veterinarian, had never run for office before seeking a safely Republican House seat in northeast Louisiana in 2014, though he did appear in ads for Bobby Jindal’s successful 2007 campaign for governor. In his congressional bid, Abraham was one of many candidates from both parties who challenged freshman GOP Rep. Vance McAllister, who made national headlines after security camera footage leaked that featured McAllister passionately making out with a staffer who was not his wife.

Abraham ended up reaching the runoff by narrowly edging out fellow Republican Zach Dasher, a member of the “Duck Dynasty” family who was backed by the radical anti-tax Club for Growth (McAllister came nowhere close to winning). He then had no trouble winning this very red seat against a Democrat in the second round of voting, and he hasn’t been seriously challenged since then.

Abraham, whose seat includes Alexandria and Monroe in the northeast and extends to the outskirts of the New Orleans area, has been a pretty low-key House member since his 2014 win, and he likely begins the contest without much name-recognition outside his 5th District. Indeed, polls taken during 2018 have showed him with little support in the race for governor.

A September survey from Republican pollster Remington Research on behalf of the conservative blog The Hayride found Edwards leading Abraham 48-35 in a hypothetical general election, though that was still better than Rispone’s 52-29 deficit. Kennedy, who was still considering running for governor at the time, also released an October poll from SurveyUSA that showed Edwards leading Abraham 45-37, with the governor defeating Rispone 47-33. (For what it’s worth—which at this point is nothing—both polls found Kennedy beating Edwards.)

Recently, though, Abraham has taken some steps to get his name out. While the congressman faced no serious opposition this fall, his re-election campaign ran a minute-long biographical TV spot that aired across most of the state, an unmistakable sign that he wanted his ad to be seen far outside his district. Rispone, by contrast, has yet to run any TV spots, but if he sticks to his pledge to contribute at least $5 million to his campaign, he’ll have the resources to also increase his name recognition.

Because Louisiana’s gubernatorial election is in an odd-numbered year, Abraham will be able to keep serving in the House through the race. If Abraham wins, there would be a special election to replace him in Congress, and Team Red would be heavily favored to hold his district. If Abraham loses, he’d be able to simply run for a fourth term in 2020.

House

CA-21: On Thursday, GOP Rep. David Valadao finally conceded defeat to Democrat TJ Cox in California’s 21st Congressional District. As of Thursday evening, Cox led 50.4-49.6, a margin of 862 votes, and there are few, if any, ballots left to count.
Cox’s win means that House Democrats netted a total of 40 House seats in 2018 and will hold a 235-199 majority in January. (The race for North Carolina’s 9th District is still in dispute because of apparent electoral fraud aimed at helping the GOP candidate.) Valadao’s loss also means that California Democrats will represent 46 of the state’s 53 congressional districts in the new Congress.

A Cox victory, however, looked unlikely for almost the entire cycle. While this Bakersfield-area seat backed Hillary Clinton 55-40, Democrats have struggled mightily to turn out Latino voters in the Central Valley for elections where the presidency isn’t on the ballot. This race seemed like it would present a similar problem.

Valadao, who was seeking his fourth term, had also proven to be one of the luckiest candidates anywhere. In 2011, when the state’s new independent redistricting commission scrambled California’s congressional map, Democratic Rep. Jim Costa wound up representing close to 80 percent of the new 21st District. But while Costa should have been able to hold this seat with ease, he decided to instead run for the more Democratic 16th District in 2012 after his ally, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, chose to retire rather than seek re-election there.

That cycle, Democrats initially recruited state Sen. Michael Rubio, who looked like he’d be a formidable candidate against Valadao, at the time an assemblyman. But Rubio dropped out in December of 2011, citing family concerns, and Team Blue had a tough time finding another viable candidate. The DCCC ultimately ended up supporting Fresno City Councilor Blong Xiong, but he failed to advance past the top-two primary.

Instead, the Democratic nominee wound up being businessman John Hernandez, who raised very little money and lost the general election to Valadao 58-42 even as Barack Obama was carrying the seat 55-44. Democrats fielded a stronger candidate two years later in Amanda Renteria, but the 2014 GOP wave and awful turnout helped Valadao roll up another 58-42 win.

National Democrats hoped that in 2016, they’d finally enjoy that combination of a formidable candidate and good turnout. However, attorney Emilio Huerta didn’t impress many people and struggled to raise funds. Major Democratic groups, hoping that Trump would encourage local Latino voters to reject the entire GOP ticket, made a late attempt to target Valadao anyway, but he defeated Huerta by a convincing 57-43.

With three disappointments in a row, things again looked glum for 2018, and it seemed that weak turnout would give Valadao another term even if Team Blue did well nationally. It didn’t help that Democrats once again had a difficult time finding a viable candidate. Huerta announced he would run again, but national Democrats were not impressed by his first effort and didn’t see much reason for optimism that his second campaign would be better. It would be months before an alternative emerged.

There was, however, no reason to think it would be Cox, an engineer and community clinic investor who’d lost a 2006 House bid in a solidly Republican Central Valley seat to then-GOP Rep. George Radanovich 61-39. Yes, he was running for Congress again and raising a credible amount of money, but it wasn’t in the 21st.

Instead, Cox was one of several Democrats campaigning to the north the 10th District against GOP Rep. Jeff Denham in what looked like a much better pickup opportunity for Team Blue. However, the DCCC was reportedly concerned that there were too many Democrats running there and feared Republicans could end up advancing through the June top-two primary while Democrats split the blue vote.

Things changed in both races in March. In what appears to have been a coordinated move, Huerta announced he was dropping out, and Cox switched to the 21st. That maneuver didn’t just end up giving Democrats a better shot at Valadao, it likely saved them in the 10th. In June, a Republican came just 3,000 votes away from securing a spot in the general election against Denham; if Cox had remained on the ballot there, it’s very possible Team Blue would indeed have been locked out of the general election. But instead, Democrat Josh Harder advanced to November, where he defeated Denham 52-48.

Still, while Cox’s switch turned out to be bad news for Denham, it wasn’t immediately clear that Valadao was in much trouble. In the top-two primary, Valadao led Cox 63-37. (No other candidates were on the ballot.) While we’ve observed for years that the results of California’s top-two primary often do a bad job predicting how each party will do in November, this still looked like a strong sign that Valadao was in good shape five months ahead of Election Day.

Even in the fall, it seemed as though history would repeat itself. A late September poll from SurveyUSA showed Valadao leading Cox 50-39, and while that was the only public poll we ever saw, major outside groups on both sides very much behaved like they thought the incumbent was well ahead. Valadao’s allies at the NRCC slowly began canceling ad time for September and then October, only hanging on to reservations for the final week of the race. The DCCC, meanwhile, had only ever booked time for that final week of the race, but even they eventually axed that small reservation.

But it was in those last days that things finally got interesting. The Democratic group House Majority PAC launched a quarter-million dollar ad buy, their first investment of the entire race. The NRCC then not only declined to cancel their last remaining reservation, they also threw more money into helping Valadao. We don’t know what exactly transpired on either side behind the scenes, but it’s very possible that both parties realized that the Latino voters who’d sat out midterm races in the past were coming to the polls this time.

On election night, though, that last-minute flurry might have looked like it was a mistake. Results showed Valadao beating Cox 54-46, and major media organizations called the race for the incumbent that evening. While anyone who has followed California elections knew from past experience that there’s always a huge chuck of ballots left to count well after Election Day and that those votes tend to give Democrats a boost, an 8-point hole still looked too big for Cox to climb out of.

Only it wasn’t. Gradually, Cox made up ground as more ballots were counted, and on Nov. 26, almost three full weeks after Election Day, Cox took the lead for the first time and never gave it up. It was only then that many media outlets, including the Associated Press, uncalled the race, and Cox declared victory two days later. Valadao’s campaign was silent during this long count, and the congressman even co-founded a new congressional caucus (the Bipartisan Unexploded Ordnance Caucus, by the by) even though it was looking rather unlikely that he’d ever get to serve in it. Finally, Valadao spoke up and conceded on Thursday, sealing Cox’s impressive come-from-behind victory and adding one more member to the Democrats’ majority.

NC-09: With each subsequent story exposing allegations of election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District more damning than the last, the state Republican Party has now abruptly changed tunes on the need for a do-over—perhaps because, along with the NRCC, it reportedly was informed about potential wrongdoing in the area months ago.

North Carolina GOP chair Dallas Woodhouse had from the start been howling for the state Board of Elections to certify the results in the 9th District, which it twice voted against doing. On Thursday, though, he claimed he puked (yes, really) after watching CNN’s coverage of the scandal and said, “[W]e will absolutely support a new election” if the board “can show that this conceivably could have flipped the race.”

With these new remarks, Woodhouse has now boxed himself in, because there’s no question that the alleged fraud, which involved thousands of unreturned and mishandled absentee ballots, could “conceivably” have affected the outcome, given that Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes.

Don’t imagine that Woodhouse’s newfound openness to a clean election is motivated by a genuine desire to right a wrong, though. According to the Washington Post, staffers for Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris ousted by just 828 votes in the GOP primary in May, informed officials with the state party and the NRCC that they suspected malfeasance just days after Pittenger lost. The reason? Because Harris won the absentee vote in Bladen County by a margin—437 to 17—so overwhelming as to be improbable. That’s exactly what happened in the general election, too.

If Woodhouse is feeling nauseous, it’s because he’s tapdancing so, so desperately:

In an interview this week, Woodhouse initially said he did not recall fielding complaints from Pittenger aides of possible fraud after the primary. But he called back a few moments later to say that he did remember hearing of anomalies—and took “a cursory look at the end of that race at the vote totals.”

Whoops! The NRCC also denies having heard about any problems, but as the Post notes, their regional political director for the southeast, Tyler Foote, was slated to become chief of staff for none other than … Mark Harris. We’ll see how long this denial stands up.

Meanwhile, McCready withdrew his concession on Thursday evening with an forceful shot at his opponent: “I didn’t serve overseas in the Marines to come home to NC and watch a criminal, bankrolled by my opponent, take away people’s very right to vote,” he tweeted, referring to McCrae Dowless, the Harris consultant at the center of the alleged absentee ballot fraud scheme. Added McCready, “[I] call on Mark Harris to end his silence and tell us exactly what he knew, and when.”

Democrats in Washington are also preparing to act. For the first time, Nancy Pelosi addressed the matter publicly on Thursday, noting that the House Administration Committee “will have full investigative authority to determine the winner of the election.” One member of that committee, Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, has already called for what he termed an “emergency hearing,” following incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s previous remarks that he plans to address the issue with the committee’s new chair. Everything will out soon enough, and it all points to a new election.

Mayoral

Chicago, IL Mayor: This week the influential Chicago Teachers Union threw its support behind Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the extremely crowded Feb. 26 nonpartisan primary. The Chicago Sun-Times notes that in 2015, the CTU deployed its extensive get-out-the-vote effort and millions of dollars to help Chuy Garcia in his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Meanwhile, former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley is using his considerable war chest to beat almost all of his rivals to TV. The only other candidate who has aired any TV spots so far is wealthy businessman Willie Wilson, who took a distant third-place with 11 percent in the 2015 primary before launching a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination that attracted almost no attention. The Chicago Tribune says that Wilson has “made a handful of smaller broadcast and cable buys.”

Daley’s spot pledges that he’ll “put a moratorium on tax hikes to keep families in their homes” and “make getting guns and gangs off our streets priority No. 1.” The commercial, which reportedly has at least $101,000 behind it, does not mention that Daley is the son and brother of Chicago’s two longest-serving mayors. Daley has raised more than $2.7 million since entering the race in September, more than twice as much as his nearest competitor, former Chicago Board of Education President and 2011 candidate Gery Chico.

Dallas, TX Mayor: Outgoing GOP state Rep. Jason Villalba said this week that he was “strongly considering” joining the 2019 open seat race for mayor, and would decide by the end of the month. Villalba, who was one of just three Hispanic Republicans in the legislature, lost renomination 53-47 in March after he enraged more conservative elements in the party on what the Dallas News calls “issues such as immigration, his support for vaccinations and his criticisms of President Donald Trump.” The GOP went on to badly lose his seat in November.

Grab Bag

Where Are They Now?: Former California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat who represented the Anaheim area from 1996 until she waged an unsuccessful 2016 Senate bid, had announced that she’ll enter a March special election for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

The GOP has controlled all five seats on this officially nonpartisan body for 12 years, but Democrats won another seat in November as they were also taking all of Orange County’s congressional districts. The seat Sanchez is now seeking, which includes Yorba Linda and Irvine as well as part of Anaheim, will become vacant soon after GOP incumbent Todd Spitzer resigns to become district attorney.

Sanchez will face a number of other candidates from both parties in this contest including fellow Democrat Andy Thorburn, who unsuccessfully ran in the June top-two primary for California’s 39th District this year. Thorburn, who spent $2.8 million of his own money on that effort only to take fourth place with 9 percent of the vote, says he’s committing $1 million to this supervisor bid.  

If Sanchez does win, it’ll be her first victory in a while. Sanchez made it to the 2016 general election for an open Senate seat, but lost to fellow Democrat Kamala Harris 62-38. Sanchez also lost Orange County’s 3rd Supervisorial District, the seat she’s now seeking, by a 58-42 margin. During her Senate campaign, Sanchez actively sought out votes from tea party groups, declared that “between 5 and 20 percent” of Muslims “have a desire for a caliphate” and “are willing to use and they do use terrorism” to achieve those ends, demonstrated a “war whoop” to describe an East Indian supporter she once met with, and suggested that Barack Obama was supporting Harris because they are both black.

Two months later, Sanchez lost a race for the California Democratic Party’s Central Committee. In September of 2017, Sanchez was named as an executive producer for the proposed show “Accidental Candidate,” which had received a script commitment from NBC. This program was to follow a small-town mother who decides to run for Congress as “the ultimate outsider against a powerful male incumbent,” and the protagonist seemed to be based in part on Sanchez. However, we’ve heard nothing about the show since then, so TV viewers anxiously waiting to see a fictional version of Loretta Sanchez in their living rooms may just be out of luck.

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