A W A K E N

Morning Digest: New Hampshire lawmakers re-elect secretary of state who backed GOP voter suppression

Senate

AL-Sen: We hadn’t heard Secretary of State John Merrill mentioned as a potential GOP candidate against Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, but the local political tip-sheet Inside Alabama Politics reports that he’s been speaking to potential staffers about a possible campaign for a while.

They also name-drop state Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries-elect Rick Pate, state Attorney General Steve Marshall, and Lt. Gov.-elect Will Ainsworth, though they say that it would be “surprising” if Pate or Marshall ran for the Senate. Politico reported last month that some Republicans had reached out to Ainsworth about running, but we still don’t have any word if he’s interested.

AZ-Sen: In unsurprising news, GOP Gov. Doug Ducey confirmed that he would not run in the 2020 special election for the remainder of John McCain’s term.

IA-Sen: GOP Sen. Joni Ernst confirmed to National Journal that she “absolutely” plans to seek a second term in 2020.

MN-Sen: Democratic Sen. Tina Smith won last month’s special election by a convincing 53-42 margin, and she’ll face the voters again in 2020 for a full six-year term. It looks unlikely at this early point in the cycle that Smith will be a major GOP target, but the local Minnesota tip-sheet Morning Take relays that there’s “buzz” that retired Marine intelligence officer Donna Bergstrom, who was Jeff Johnson’s running mate during his unsuccessful campaign for governor this year, is interested in getting in. While Bergstrom hasn’t said anything publicly yet, Johnson’s campaign manager told National Journal, “Yes, Donna is in the early stages of looking at a 2020 U.S. Senate run.”

MT-Sen: After a confusing few hours on Wednesday morning, it looks just as unlikely as ever that Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will challenge GOP Sen. Steve Daines.

Bullock is termed out in 2020, but while he’s shown plenty of interest in running for president, he told Politico in late November that when it comes to the Senate race, “I’ve said earlier that really doesn’t interest me. But—well, no. I won’t even say ‘but.'” So it came as a huge surprise when a video surfaced in which Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who headed the DSCC during the 2016 cycle, seemed to outright declare that Bullock would be running for Senate.

The video, which was posted by the American University College Democrats and has since been removed, showed Tester addressing the group and being asked, “Do you think Gov. Bullock will be running for the Senate, or will you be convincing him to?” Tester first joked about the questioner betting $100,000 on it, and then said, “Yeah, he’s running. Yeah. Yeah, he is.”

Tester’s probably very relieved right now that he didn’t actually make this $100,000 wager. Bullock chief of staff Tom Lopach (who incidentally was the DSCC’s executive director while Tester was chair) put out a statement reiterating that the governor was “not interested in a Senate run.” Tester’s own chief of staff soon put out a statement saying that the senator had “misheard a question about Gov. Bullock and his future.” This statement didn’t say what Tester thought he’d heard, but it seems that he believed he was being asked if Bullock would run for president.

NC-Sen: GOP Sen. Thom Tillis recently confirmed to National Journal that he will seek a second term in 2020. Two years ago, Tillis said that he might not run if a sweeping criminal justice overhaul wasn’t passed, and he sounded pretty sincere at the time, declaring, “I don’t run again until 2020, and if we’re not able to get things like this done, I don’t have any intention of coming back.” The Senate’s current proposals are presently stalled, but Tillis seems to have decided that he wants to stick around the Senate no matter how things turn out.

Gubernatorial

WV-Gov: Gov. Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat in 2016 but rejoined the GOP the next year, picked up his first notable Democratic opponent last week. Stephen Noble Smith, who spent six years heading up West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, a group of nonprofits that work to combat poverty, announced he was in. Smith is a first-time candidate, but local political columnist Steven Allen Adams writes that he “has a vast network statewide already in place that can help him in 2020.”

However, Adams adds that it’s “apparent based on his statements [that Smith] plans to run from the far-left” in a way that probably won’t play well in this conservative state, though Adams doesn’t go into any details about what statements he’s referring to. In his campaign kickoff, Smith argued that, while the state seems to be producing more wealth than ever, that money isn’t “staying in our pockets, it’s not staying in our roads, it’s not staying in our schools.” That approach hardly strikes us as “far-left” rhetoric that’s toxic to conservative voters who are unhappy with the status quo.

Smith may get some competition in the primary. Adams writes that former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who lost the 2016 Democratic primary to Justice 51-25, is considering a second try. Last month Goodwin’s wife, Amy Shuler Goodwin, was elected mayor of Charleston, the state’s capital and largest city, which could give him a higher profile if he runs again. Smith also adds that Booth Goodwin spent this last election cycle working with several political action committees to unseat GOP legislators.

Adams also adds that Woody Thrasher, who served as commerce secretary under Justice, is also considering a run. Like Goodwin, Thrasher doesn’t appear to have said anything publicly about his interest. He ran a successful engineering firm before he joined the Justice administration in early 2017, and he remained in office after Justice switched parties months later. Thrasher scored a high-profile win a year ago when he announced that China Energy was making an $83 million investment in West Virginia natural gas projects as part of a deal he signed in China in front of Donald Trump. But Thrasher attracted some bad attention a few months later over his department’s handling of federal flood-relief money, and Justice forced him to resign in June.

Adams also name-drops former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who was Team Blue’s 2014 Senate nominee. Tennant ran for re-election in 2016 but lost 49-47. Afterwards, she took a job at the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice as its manager of state advocacy for the Voting Rights and Elections project. Tennant filed pre-candidacy paperwork with the state to set up a committee for a 2020 race back in September, but we still don’t know if she’s looking at running for governor, secretary of state, or a different office, or just keeping her options open.

Justice himself hasn’t confirmed that he’ll run again, but he said in late October that he would probably seek a second term, and that he would be sure in a “little while.” Adams writes that, while Republican state legislators praise the governor openly, there’s still plenty of behind-the-scenes distrust when it comes to the former Democrat. (We’re shocked they haven’t gotten over the manure veto incident.) Adams says that the name he hears the most from Republicans looking to challenge the governor in a primary is Rep. David McKinley, who also doesn’t appear to have said anything publicly about his plans.

McKinley ran for governor all the way back in 1996, and he’s considered other statewide bids in recent years. He toyed with running for governor for months in 2016, and he briefly flirted with challenging Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin this year, but he chose to seek re-election to his safely red northern West Virginia seat both times. However, Adams notes that the state looks likely to lose one of its three congressional seats in 2022, so McKinley may decide it’s better to run for governor again now rather than take his chances with redistricting two years down the line.

House

IA-03: Outgoing GOP Rep. David Young sounded pretty meh about a 2020 comeback when he spoke to the New York Times a few days ago, but he seemed a little more interested in a Monday interview with Radio Iowa. Young, who lost this swing seat to Democrat Cindy Axne 49-47, said anyone in the country who’d lost “should do a forensic audit, look at the numbers, look at what happened and not make any kind of emotional decision right away.” Young added that anyone in his position should “take some time and also just see what other kind of opportunities are out there,” concluding, “No doors are closed.”

Young really doesn’t need to spend much time going all CSI on us with his “forensic audit,” though, since he pretty much nailed why he lost in his earlier interview with the Times. Young bemoaned the “Trump effect” on his race and explained, “That’s why you see a lot of people, myself included—who are asked: ‘Are you going to do it again?’—saying: ‘I’m just going to wait and watch.'” Well, Trump is sadly still very likely to be the head of the GOP in 2020, so it’s up to Young to decide if he wants to deal with another campaign full of “Trump effects.”

Other Races

GA-SoS: On Tuesday, former Democratic Rep. John Barrow lost by a modest 52-48 against Republican Brad Raffensperger in Georgia’s runoff for secretary of state. Raffensperger won just a 49.1-48.6 plurality on Election Day in November, with Libertarian J. Smythe DuVal, who later endorsed Barrow, taking the rest.

Barrow’s defeat is a blow to the fight to protect voting rights and the integrity of the election system itself, since Raffensperger will likely maintain the policies of Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp. Both before and during his campaign for governor, Kemp gained national notoriety over his pervasive voter suppression measures in his own election and failure to protect Georgia’s voting equipment and registration database from security threats like hackers.

Apart from Louisiana, Georgia is the only state in the country to hold general election runoffs if no one wins a majority in November, and they still exist for unsavory reasons. The creation of runoffs, in both primaries and general elections, was a tried and true tactic of Jim Crow-era Dixiecrats to ensure that conservative white candidates could defeat those favored by black voters. It’s a practice that continued to have an impact for a long time: In 1992, Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler won a 49-48 plurality for Senate on the same day that Bill Clinton also won a plurality for president in Georgia, but Fowler lost to Republican Paul Coverdell by just over one point in the lower-turnout runoff.

Following that loss, contemporary Democrats—no longer the party of Jim Crow—eliminated general-election runoffs, bringing Georgia into line with nearly every other state, a decision that made the difference in key races later that decade. But after Republicans gained control of state government in 2004 for the first time since Reconstruction, they revived those runoffs, knowing that black voters tend to turn out at lower rates whenever there’s a second round of voting. That change worked just as planned: In 2006 and 2008 elections for state public service commission, which regulates utilities, Democrats won pluralities on Election Day yet lost the subsequent runoffs, and Democrats have done worse in every runoff since 2005.

However, as Miles Coleman’s map comparing the precinct results of Barrow’s runoff defeat with Democrat Stacey Abrams’ one-point loss in her race for governor last month illustrates, Barrow likely was able to count on turning out northern Atlanta’s college-educated white suburbs despite suffering a drop with black and Latino Democrats in the metro Atlanta area without Abrams on the ballot.

It’s also notable that Barrow’s deficit grew by a smaller proportion—around 3.5 points—between Election Day and the runoff than Democrats have seen in most other runoffs since they were re-instituted in 2005. By way of comparison, for instance, Democrat Jim Martin trailed in the first round of Georgia’s 2008 Senate race by just three points yet lost his runoff by 15. It’s therefore possible that Democrats might not face such an insurmountable hurdle in future runoffs, especially if they involve black candidates like Abrams who can energize African-American turnout.

Grab Bag

Governor-by-CD, Senate-by-CD: As Maine goes, so goes Daily Kos Elections’ project to calculate the results of the 2018 Senate and gubernatorial elections by congressional district (that rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?). As with past cycles, we’ll be releasing data after states certify their final results. You can find each state’s certification deadlines at Ballotpedia. You can find our master list of states here, which we’ll be updating as we add new states, and you can also find our complete set of data from this and previous cycles at Daily Kos.

Maine Democrats retook the governor’s office, after eight years of GOP Gov. Paul LePage, when Janet Mills defeated Republican Shawn Moody by a wide 51-43 margin, with independent Terry Hayes taking another 6 percent. At the same time, Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, won a second term against Republican Eric Brakey 54-35; Democratic nominee Zak Ringelstein, who received little help from his party, took 10 percent of the vote.

We’ll start with a look at Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which has been very competitive turf in recent years. Moody defeated Mills 48-45 here, while Hayes took 7 percent. In the Senate race, King led Brakey 50-41, while Ringelstein hit 9 percent. This rural northern Maine seat had swung from 53-44 Obama in 2012 to 51-41 Trump, and both parties fought hard to win it in 2018. Democrat Jared Golden ultimately unseated two-term Rep. Bruce Poliquin 50.5-49.5 in the nation’s first ever instant-runoff congressional race.

By contrast, neither Mills nor King had any trouble carrying the 1st District in the southern part of the state, a reliably blue seat that includes Portland. Mills outpaced Moody 56-39 there, with Hayes taking five. Meanwhile, King beat Brakey 58-30, while Ringelstein took 12 percent. This seat moved from 60-38 Obama to 54-39 Clinton, and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree won her sixth term 59-33.

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