Monthly Archives: August 2019

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY-FIRE: REPUBLICAN HOUSE PRIMARIES

This is the second of two posts looking ahead to 2020 House primaries. Last week’s post looked at Democratic primaries and this week’s looks at Republicans. 

Incumbents almost never lose their primaries. In the last 37 House elections since 1946 over 98% of incumbents running for reelection have won their party’s nomination. Over the last twenty years that rate has been 99% — only 49 incumbents have lost primaries.

In 2018, two House Republicans incumbents lost their primaries: Mark Sanford (SC-01) and Robert Pittenger (NC-09). Sanford lost because he did not fully embrace Trump and his populist base. He signed a letter requesting that Trump release his tax returns, disapproved of the president’s push to drill off the Atlantic coast and said that the president was “partially to blame for the demons that have been unleashed” after the shooting at a congressional baseball practice in 2017.  The president went on to endorse Sanford’s opponent the afternoon of election day.

Pittenger’s pro-business Republican identity left room for an opponent who appealed to Trump’s more populist base. And while Pittenger did tie himself to Trump, his opponent, Mark Harris, effectively caricatured Pittenger as a member of the Washington establishment (The Swamp) and won over populist Trump supporters.  

Sanford and Pittenger lost their primaries because they were creatures of a pre-Trump Republican era. That isn’t to say they were otherwise perfect candidates — Sanford’s 2009 weeklong disappearance to Buenos Aires for an affair while he was governor did him no favors. Nor did the federal investigation into Pittenger’s real estate business help him. In the end, though, it was Trumpism that did the establishment incumbents in.   

Is the same dynamic true now? Do incumbents critical of Trump or who lack a Trumpish appeal face the greatest threat from Republican primaries? Sort of.

Of the six Republicans most vulnerable to a primary, only two are in the position because they aren’t Trump-ey enough. That’s largely because most Republicans have either gotten on board with the Trump agenda or have decided to retire. Continuing last week’s fun alliterative categories, we’ll call Republican incumbents who distance themselves from the president “Trump Traitors”. The other four are embroiled in scandals and we’ll call them “Scandalous Statesmen”.

Trump Traitors
One of Trump’s biggest critic in the House is Justin Amash (MI-03). Amash was the lone Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment following the release of the Mueller Report. This, unsurprisingly, was not popular with the president, who called him “one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress”.  It was also not popular with Republicans — a June poll showed Amash trailing GOP state Rep, James Lower, 49-33. This is a departure from 2018 and 2016 when Amash didn’t face any challengers and 2014 when he won his primary by over 14%.

In July, though, Amash announced he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent, making him the first House Republican to do so in nearly 20 years.  So, while technically this does not count as a Republican primary challenge, it’s close enough to be included here. The 2020 election will be interesting, given that there will be three major candidates — a Democrat, a Republican and Amash — unless Amash decides to run for president as a Libertarian, something he’s signaled is a possibility.

Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) is one of three Republican representatives who holds a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. He only won his 2018 general re-election by 2.6% (51.3-48.7), so has been positioning himself as a moderate. He has only voted with the president on 37% of the time since his reelection — far and away the lowest score of any Republican. Unsurprisingly, Fitzpatrick faces a challenge from the right. The first is a man named Andrew Meehan who, in a rather painful to watch announcement video, calls Fitzpatrick a “Democrat masquerading as a Republican” and an “anti-Trump, Trump-hating RINO”.  Given the quality of Meehan’s video and campaign website, Meehan doesn’t have the organizational expertise to take on Fitzpatrick who has raised nearly a million dollars this cycle. As of now, Fitzpatrick seems safe but would be in danger if a more formidable conservative enters he primary.

Scandalous Statesman
Republicans have a problem in Steve King (IA-04). He’s long been criticized for his flirtations with racism and white supremacism. He was rebuked by Republican leaders in 2013 for saying that immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert”. His expanding list of controversies culminated this year in a defense of rape and incest, arguing that without it, there might be no population left on earth.  Unsurprisingly, Republicans want him out. He only beat his 2018 Democratic challenger, J.D. Scholten, by 3% in a district that leans Republican by 23%. With Scholten running again, national Republicans are lining up behind state Senator Randy Feenstra. Feenstra has almost $340,000 in the bank, which could help him overpower King’s $20,000. King has represented the area since 2003, meaning that voters have consistently re-elected him even after seeing his warts, which is a promising for his primary chances. Given that he’s one of the only Republicans in the country who could manage to lose the heavily Republican leaning district, expect establishment Republicans to throw support and resources to a more electable Republican. 

Chris Collins (NY-27), Duncan Hunter (CA-50) and Ross Spano (FL-15) are all in trouble for various accusations of corruption. Collins faces an indictment of insider trading; Hunter is facing federal accusations that he stole money from his campaign to “take their family to Italy, buy their children school lunches and fly a relative’s pet rabbit to Washington; Spano admitted that he violated campaign finance laws for failing to disclose “loans” from friends. The charges against Collins and Hunter and accusations against Spano all emerged after the 2018 primaries, meaning that they haven’t had to face their party’s voters with these accusations in the open. Primary challengers can also attack Collins’ and Hunter’s electability in a general election, claiming that they are endangering a safe Republican seat. Collins only won his 2018 general election by 0.4% in a district that leans 22.9% Republican, earning the distinction as the House Republican incumbent who most underperformed his district’s partisan lean. Hunter didn’t do much better — winning by 3.4% in a district that leans Republican by 21.6%.

Challengers have emerged against Collins and Hunter races. New York state Senator Christopher Jacobs, who is running against Collins, raised $446,000 in the second quarter of 2019 while Collins raised just $9,000. Hunter already faces five Republican primary challengers including Larry Wilske, a former Navy SEAL who raised over $200,000 in the last quarter. Spano, however, faces no primary challenger yet and had a relatively strong second quarter, raising over $200,000, making him seem like the safest of the three scandal makers.

The Takeaway
These are not the only Republican incumbents who will face viable primary challengers in 2020. Other incumbents including John Carter (TX-31) and Ted Yoho (FL-03) have primary opponents may eventually pose a threat, but don’t seem to viable right now. Chances are that Carter, Yoho and almost every Republican incumbent not mentioned above will easily win their party’s nomination. Even some of the six that I presented as vulnerable will probably breeze past their primary opponents next year.

The biggest factor in any of these primary races, though, is not fundraising totals or even the scandals. It is the president. The president’s blessing would probably even overcome egregious scandals, but endorsing controversial figures may be dangerous for a president hoping for reelection himself.

If Trump explicitly endorses or tweets support for a candidate — incumbent or challenger — they will have the upper hand. Similarly, if a candidate can successfully paint their opponent as anti-Trump, they have a good shot at winning over the party’s base. Remember, about  90% of Republicans approve of Trump, meaning that to defy him is to defy the party: a terrible strategy for trying to win the party’s primary.

Having Trump as party leader has created a primary season less fractured than that of the Democrats. The president’s kingmaker status will scare off and neutralize most party dissension and snap Republicans into line — at least through primary season. After winning their elections, many of these Trumpist tones may die down in favor of moderate appeals.  Until then, though, expect to see Republicans bringing out their ropes as they tie themselves as tightly to the president as possible.

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY-FIRE: DEMOCRATIC HOUSE PRIMARIES

This is the first of two posts looking ahead to 2020 House primaries. This post will look at Democratic primaries and next week’s will focus on Republican’s. I largely relied on a report by Common Dreams, endorsements by Justice Democrats, and an article by Sabato’s Crystal Ball to identify vulnerable incumbents.

Incumbents almost never lose their primaries. In the last 37 House elections since 1946 over 98% of incumbents running for reelection have won their party’s nomination. Over the last twenty years that rate has been 99% — only 49 incumbents have lost primaries.

When insurgent candidates do beat incumbents, though, it makes headlines. The most famous Democrat in the House (besides maybe Nancy Pelosi) is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She holds the title because of her surprise primary win in 2018 over the Joe Crowley, who was the Democratic Caucus Chairman and the number four Democrat in the House leadership. The only other Democratic newcomer to defeat an incumbent last year was Ayanna Pressley, another nationally known figure. Together, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez form half of the “squad” a group of four progressive Democratic women who have pulled the party leftward and been the focus of national media, Republican ire and Democratic infighting since their elections. All this to say, an insurgent beating an incumbent is rare, but when it happens, can be big news.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose primary goal is to elect Democrats to the House, took a controversial step to protect incumbents earlier this year. In March, the committee announced that it would no longer hire political vendors that work for Democratic primary challengers. Whether or not this will help Democrats keep the House — some saw this as a way to keep more electable, moderate Democrats in at-risk seats — it infuriated progressives. The executive director of the progressive organization, Justice Democrats, tweeted “This is in direct response to the election of AOC and Ayanna Pressley.” The founder of a progressive consultant firm, New Deal Strategies, called the DCCC an “incumbent protection racket”.

So, how are Democratic primaries shaping up as we head towards 2020? The following is an overview of what are looking to be the most interesting and competitive primaries. It is not a comprehensive list of all incumbents who will face a viable challenger or are at risk of losing the party’s nomination.

I’ve separated the incumbents who face — or are likely to face — viable primaries into five groups.  Some incumbents fall into more than one category, but I have put them into the one that seems to be the dominant reason for their primary challenge.

  1. Moderate Mistakes: Representatives seen as too ‘moderate’ or ‘corporate’ for their districts.
  2. Progressive Problem Makers: Representatives seen as too ‘progressive’ or as causing problems within the caucus.
  3. Leadership Loons: Members of the Democratic leadership.
  4. Presidential Pursuers: Representatives who are seeking the presidential nomination.
  5. Vulnerable Voters: Representatives who have faced close primaries in recent years as incumbents.

Moderate Mistakes

The biggest (and most dramatic) bucket is #1: The Moderate Mistakes. These are the incumbents that risk a primary due to their moderate voting record or public image. Some of these candidates have business relationships and take campaign donations from corporate PACs, giving them the derisive title, corporate Democrats.

The left wing of the party and affiliated groups want to replace these more moderate incumbents with progressives. These groups seem to have made the concession that a far left progressive might not do well in a purple, moderate district. That’s why they are largely targeting moderate incumbents in deep blue, safely Democratic districts. Their aim is to pull the party leftward by replacing moderate incumbents in safely Democratic seats.

I’m not going to detail each of these elections because most have the same story: A reliably blue district. A ‘moderate’ incumbent who has made statements or taken votes that infuriate progressives. A progressive insurgent who claims that the incumbent does not truly represent their constituents and that it’s time for a new generation of leadership. It’s worth noting, though, that Lipinski, Clay, Beatty and Cuellar have opponents that have been endorsed by Justice Democrats, the group that helped AOC and Pressley get elected and is now a proxy of sorts for them. Justice Democrats requires endorsees to refuse corporate PAC donations and to sign onto their extremely progressive platform — Abolish ICE, Green New Deal free public college, Medicare for All, etc.  Races that have challengers with endorsements from Justice Democrats or other progressive organizations — Our Revolution, Indivisible, PCCC, Move On, Democracy for America — will be the most heated and interesting primaries among the “Moderate Mistakes”.

Progressive Problem Makers

On the other end are the outspoken progressives who have drawn the ire of Republicans and, more importantly, of Democrats. The two that actually could have viable primary opponents are Ilhan Omar (MN-05) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13). I’m not going to go into the drama surrounding accusations of anti-Semitism here — you’re one Google away from that.

Omar’s comments in particular have angered some Democrats and have them searching for a primary challenger. Her district very liberal, but includes the white suburbs surrounding Minneapolis. These demographics would appear to have cross-cutting effects for a progressive, Somali-American Muslim woman.

Tlaib, though, is even more vulnerable than Omar. Tlaib is a Muslim and Palestinian-American representing a district that is 57% black. In 2018, Tlaib just barely won the primary with just 31% of the vote, enough to eek out the plurality over her competitor Brenda Jones who got 30%. Several African American candidates — including Jones — were running that year and split of the black vote. The right black candidate could coalesce that constituency in 2020.

Leadership Loons

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary upset was a big deal because she ousted the number four House Democrat, a national political figure. Party leaders are natural targets for Democrats who are upset with the status quo. If you want to change the party and get your voice heard, it makes sense to attack those at the top. But not every leader is vulnerable. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, for example, isn’t going anywhere. So which leaders could be?

The highest-ranking Democrat that might realistically be in trouble is Steny Hoyer (MD-05), the House Majority Leader and the highest-ranking Democrat after Speaker Pelosi. He already has two challengers, one of which has received some serious attention. She’s running in the mold of AOC — pushing the Green New Deal and Medicare for All while claiming that Hoyer is out of touch and beholden to donors. Hoyer faces criticism from the left for his ties to Wall Street, his vote to authorize the Iraq War and opposition to big progressive programs like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

Cheri Bustos (IL-17) is the Chairwoman of the DCCC. She infuriated progressives with the new policy blacklisting vendors who provide service to challengers. She continued to infuriate liberals with plans to attend a fundraiser for her pro-life Democratic colleague, Dan Lipinski. She eventually backed out, but anger does not dissipate quickly. She’s also a member of the New Democratic Coalition, a moderate branch of House Democrats, further opening her up to a progressive challenger.

Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, holds the job of AOC’s 2018 primary rival before she successfully ousted him. Rumors of an AOC backed challenger began late last year.  She has since tamped down these rumors, but Jeffries will probably face a progressive opponent for accepting corporate PAC donations, supporting of charter schools, ties to the banking industry, etc. He might also face some residual anger for defeating progressive hero Barbara Lee in the election for Democratic Caucus Chair.

The other four party leaders are all Chairs of House committees. Jerry Nadler (NY-10): House Judiciary Committee, Nita Lowey (NY-17): House Committee on Appropriations, Richard Neal (MA-01): House Ways and Means Committee, Elliot Engel (NY-16): House Foreign Affairs Committee. Their vulnerabilities all come in familiar form — some combination of being too moderate and a general anti-establishment fervor among progressives. I’m not going to go into each of their individual circumstances, but importantly, two of the four — Neal and Engel — have opponents officially endorsed by Justice Democrats, so they could be in the most trouble.

Presidential Pursuers

Then there are the dreamers. There are currently three Representatives running in the Democratic Primary for president: Seth Moulton (MA-06), Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) and Tim Ryan (OH-13). Each of these candidates could probably have safely won the party renomination to the House, but risk that every day they stay in the presidential race. Being on the presidential trail means they can’t spend as much time in their district with constituents. It also could make voters back home feel like a stepping stone. Why re-nominate a representative who doesn’t really want the job?   

Gabbard in particular seems vulnerable. She already has a viable primary opponent in state Senator Kai Kahele and has raised negative $20 for her House campaign in the second quarter of 2019. Her heterodox political ideology grinds with Democrats and her a rough history on LGBT issues, abortion rights and support for the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could be problematic in a deep blue district.

Moulton also faces legitimate primary if he decides to run for the House again. Criticism over his failed attempt to block Nancy Pelosi’s leadership is a weak spot and could be a focus of the primary. He already faces primary challengers, including Salem City Counselor Lisa Peterson who thinks there is room to Moulton’s left in the primary.

Tim Ryan, who tried to take on Pelosi as the House Democratic leader in 2016, seems safer than both Moulton or Gabbard if he heads back to the House. He doesn’t have any official challengers yet and won his primary in 2018 with 87% of the primary vote.

Vulnerable Voters

Both Yvette Clark (NY-19) and Carolyn Maloney (NY-12) faced relatively close primary elections in 2018. Clark in particular just scraped out a 53-47 win over Adem Bunkeddeko, a son of Ugandan refugees who had been endorsed by the New York Times. Clark, though, is extremely progressive, leaving little room for Bunkeddeko on her left. He ran instead on a message of anti-establishment/machine politics. He is running again in 2020, making Clark one of the most precariously positioned incumbents. Maloney is probably in less trouble than Clark as she won her primary 60%-40%. It was not an extremely close election, but still indicates a vulnerability that the right candidate could exploit.

The Takeaway
So, what’s the big takeaway? It’s not particularly important to remember every endangered incumbent, their district and their challenger. Even the incumbents covered above is not a comprehensive list of all vulnerable representatives, nor will all of these incumbents face tough primaries. The big takeaway is that the Democratic party is not at peace — there is tugging and pulling and fighting coming from many different wings within the party.

Looking at primaries highlights intraparty challenges that Democrats will face in the coming years. Chief among these is: what kind of a party do Democrats want? Do they want a big tent party with room for moderates like Henry Cuellar and pro-life Dan Lipinski? The 2020 primaries will help identify what kind of leaders Democratic voters want and how willing they are to throw out their current representatives in an effort to transform the party.  

THE 2018 MIDTERMS CONTINUE: NORTH CAROLINA’S 9TH

The 2018 midterms will finally end next month. North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District will hold a special election on September 10 for a seat that should have been decided in November 2018. Those election results were thrown out by the state’s election board due to allegations of election fraud against McCrae Dowless, a member of Republican candidate Mark Harris’s campaign staff. He was charged with improperly collecting absentee ballots, forging signatures on absentee ballots and changing or filling in votes.

The District is traditionally Republican — No Democrat has won there since 1962 and Trump carried it by 12%. It runs from southeast Charlotte eastward through more rural and majority black counties. Union County, which includes the exurbs of Charlotte, was Harris’s stronghold. He won by 20% (over 17,000 votes) in Union County which allowed him to lose both Mecklenburg County (home to Charlotte) as well as the more rural and less populated Districts to the east and still win the election.

In the (invalidated) 2018 election, Republican Mark Harris beat his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by just 905 votes.  Such a close election was bound to set off a competitive rematch. And so it has: Cook Political Report and Inside Elections have the race rated a “Toss Up” and Sabato’s Crystal Ball has it as “Leans Republican”.

Dan McCready, a marine veteran and renewable energy businessman, is again the Democratic nominee. He ran unopposed in the primary and is running as a moderate — disavowing some of the party’s more progressive figures and vowing not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker in the 2018 race. On the Republican side is Dan Bishop, a state senator most famous for sponsoring the controversial “bathroom bill” to require transgender people to use public bathrooms that align with the sex indicated on their birth certificates.  Also on the ballot: Libertarian candidate Jeff Scott and Green Party candidate Allen Smith.

Polling has been scarce and hasn’t told us much about who is leading. The only external poll in the race found Bishop with a 46% to 42% lead over McCready. This poll, though, was taken back in May and found 10% of voters were undecided and had a 5.2% margin of error. The only other poll is from McCready’s camp and had the two candidates tied at 46% with 8% of voters and a 4.6% margin of error. These two polls don’t give us much indication of a favorite. They both show a tight race and have margins of error and enough undecided voters that the race could go either way.

The current polling doesn’t tell us much about who is winning. So, what other indicators do we have?

Good Signs for Democrat Dan McCready:

  • McCready had no primary opponent. Primaries can cause intraparty schisms and drain candidates’ bank accounts, hurting them in the general election. McCready was able to glide through the primary season while his opponent, Dan Bishop, was battling it out with fellow Republicans.
  • McCready has been campaigning for nearly 28 consecutive months. He announced his 2018 campaign in May of 2017. His opponent, on the other hand, has been running for 5. McCready has had ample time to get his name recognition up, meet voters and spread his message.
  • McCready has dominated Bishop in fundraising. As of July 30, McCready had outraised his opponent $3.4 million to $1.2 million. McCready also had $1.8 million left in the bank compared to Bishop’s $340 thousand. As I wrote in a previous post, candidate fundraising in the general election usually doesn’t actually change the race that much. But it will allow McCready to stay on the air through election day, which could tip the scales in a very tight race. More importantly, though, it is an indicator of grassroots support and heightened enthusiasm.
  • The district has an urban(ish) core and lots of black voters. The district did vote for Trump by 12 points in 2018, but is the archetypal district that is swinging towards Democrats. It comprises a good portion of southeast Charlotte and its suburbs, meaning there are likely plenty of suburban voters — the kind we saw swing towards Democrats in 2018, handing them the House. And while the district stretches eastward into rural counties, these counties have high proportions of black voters, a core Democratic constituency.
  • Lastly (and in my opinion an underrated factor) is that Democrats did not commit election fraud. The Republican in 2018 received national bad press for tainting the election process, something Americans on both sides of the aisle view as sacrosanct. It’s not hard to imagine this recent Republican betrayal driving Democrats to turn out and Republicans to stay home.

Good Signs for Republican Dan Bishop:

  • This is historically a Republican leaning District. Both Trump and Romney carried it by 12 points. No Democrat has won the seat since 1962. A 12 point swing in three years is a huge jump and a lot of things would have to go wrong for Bishop and right for McCready for it to happen.
  • 2018 was a banner year for Democrats. They won the House popular vote by 8.6% and netted 41 House seats. But that may have passed. And if the national mood of the country is not as friendly for Democrats, it will be tough for them to win in a district that Trump carried by 12%. According to FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 poll aggregator, Democrats are currently leading in the generic ballot by about 6%. Special elections, though, are hard to predict and don’t always align with the national environment. But the possibility of a less Democratic national mood is a good sign for Bishop.
  • Outside spending is heavily weighted in Bishop’s favor. While McCready has dominated in direct campaign contributions, Bishop has the weight of the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund behind him. The two groups have reserved around $3.8 million in ad spots through election day. The DCCC pledged to spend $2 million on the race. The $1.8 million gap effectively neutralizes McCready’s advantage in campaign fundraising and may even be more effective because outside groups are often more amenable to drafting negative ads.
  • This is an off-year election and off year elections have lower turnout. Generally, low turnout elections benefit Republicans because their base of older white voters are more likely to turn out than younger minority voters who lead Democratic.
  • Dan Bishop avoided a runoff in the Republican primary, allowing the general election to happen in September rather than in November. Charlotte’s municipal elections take place in November and will likely turn out Democratic voters in the city. Bishop will benefit from the lack of overlap between the municipal and congressional elections.

The winner of this seat is not going to affect the current House power balance. Democrats hold 235 seats and Republicans effectively hold 1991There is a vacancy in NC-03 due to the death of Representative Walter Jones, but this is a heavily Republican district and expected to elect a Republican in the September special election. After this election the House balance will be either 236-199 or 235-200 — an insignificant difference. More importantly, the winner will have the incumbency advantage in 2020 and a good chance of holding onto the seat. Depending on how close the House race is next year, one extra seat could be meaningful.

And perhaps even more importantly, the results will tell us a few things about the current national environment. If McCready wins the election — or even if he loses but the race is much tighter than Trump’s 12-point margin — Democrats can breathe a bit easier. This would mean that the blue wave of 2018 has not completely receded and may stay through 2020. On the other hand, if Republicans again carry the seat by close to 12 points, they may have a better shot at winning back the House than the generic ballot indicates.

Lastly, the election is a testing ground for the parties’ 2020 messaging. Dan Bishop has been attacking Democrats as socialists, focusing his jabs against progressives like Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders. McCready has run as a moderate — distancing himself from those same progressive figures and party leaders like Nancy Pelosi. His campaign slogan is “country over party”.

We are one month from election day and the race is up in the air. The polls show a tight race and no other indicators show a clear frontrunner. So, without any clear indicators, I’m moving from clear, hard data to opaque, soft guesswork. The previous Republican’s dabbling with election fraud caused this special election and left the district without congressional representation for nine months. This betrayal of America’s most fundamental institution — free and fair elections — leaves voters with a bad taste.

The election is still up in the air, but election fraud is, understandably, not popular. This could cause Republicans to stay home and drive Democrats to the ballot box. Election fraud is not a good look for Republicans and could give McCready the win in this traditionally Republican district.