In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Democrats were thrilled that a pair of senior California Republicans decided to retire this week, seeing new opportunity in a pair of must-win districts in their quest to retake the House majority.

But while Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ed Royce’s (R-CA) decisions to head home take two tough incumbents with huge war chests out of the picture, their retirements leave Democrats facing a new worry: Whether they might fail to get a candidate into the general election in either district due to California’s unusual “jungle primary” system.

The state, by law, holds all-party June primaries where the top two candidates to receive votes face off in the general election, regardless of what party they align with. That’s cost Democrats a chance at contesting open swing seats in the past — and could be especially problematic this year with the glut of candidates running for these seats.

Democrats are very aware of the problem, and the DCCC isn’t ruling out getting involved to try to push its favored candidates and freeze others out. But there’s only so much the party can do, especially when candidates have plenty of money and aren’t scared of party elders.

“The top two [primary] is absolutely an issue. It’s happened before. It’s also very difficult to get candidates to not run, it’s just a fact of life,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), a vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told TPM Wednesday afternoon.

Democrats know from experience how problematic the top-two primary system can be. In 2012, then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D), a top Democratic recruit, split the Democratic vote with three other candidates in that year’s primary, finishing behind then-Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA) and a Republican state senator. He was boxed out of the general election as two Republicans squared off in a district that President Obama ended up winning by a 16-point margin, costing the party the seat until he won it in a second try in 2014.

“Nobody has the scar tissue of the top-two primary like I do. We need to be mindful of that as we move forward in both the 39th and 49th,” Aguilar told TPM, referencing the two newly open Southern California seats. “The DCCC is aware of what happened to me in 2012, and we’re all going into this with our eyes wide open.”

Aguilar isn’t the only one worried about Democrats potentially getting boxed out of the general election, costing the party prime pickup opportunities. Nor is his experience the only time it’s happened to the party. Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) won his seat by defeating another Republican in 2014 in a competitive district after Democrats failed to get a candidate through to the general election.

The issue was brought up by several members at California Democrats’ weekly caucus luncheon on Wednesday, Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) told TPM.

“People are aware of the Aguilar event in 2012,” he said. “People are aware that it’s an issue and we’ll have to pay particular attention to California.”

The Royce seat is the one Democrats are most concerned about.

Five different Democrats running for the Orange County-based seat had already raised at least $100,000 as of the beginning of October, the last time they had to report their campaign finance numbers.

That includes two self-funders and a candidate who has the support of the big-spending Emily’s List. Self-funding Andy Thorburn gave his campaign $2 million out of the gate, while Gil Cisneros, a Navy veteran and self-funding lottery winner, and Mai-Khanh Tran, a physician with Emily’s List’s support, both had almost a half million dollars in the bank as of three months ago.

That dynamic creates the likelihood of multiple Democrats vying for the Democratic slice of the electoral pie. If Republicans can get two viable candidates to split the GOP primary vote in June, they could luck out and guarantee a win in a seat they should by all rights lose this fall given the district’s slight Democratic lean and a favorable national environment for Democrats.

It’s unclear how many Republicans will run for the seat Royce is leaving. Possible GOP candidates include Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, former state assemblywomen Young Kim and Ling Ling Chang, and former Orange County Republican Party chair Scott Baugh.

Issa’s district is also a concern. Three Democrats running there had raised at least $200,000 as of three months ago: Issa’s 2016 opponent, former Marine Doug Applegate, self-funding candidate Paul Kerr, and environmental lawyer Mike Levin, who has the support of some environmental groups. While the math is easier for Democrats with just three candidates in the race and the GOP field is far from settled, Republicans could end up with two candidates in the district and screw up Democrats’ hopes of picking off the Democratic-leaning district, which stretches from San Diego’s northern suburbs up to Orange County. State Rep. is Rocky Chavez (R) also seriously considering a run, sources tell TPM, while California State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey (R) announced her bid on Wednesday.

Open swings seats usually pose the biggest risk for this scenario, as incumbents tend to unite their party’s base. But this year that may not be the case everywhere — posing other potentially unpredictable scenarios.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA) coziness with Russia has promoted one serious primary challenger who’s raising real money. With seven Democrats in that race, including four who’d raised more than $100,000 already, two Republicans could potentially sneak through in that district as well — especially if Rohrabacher decides to retire and Baugh decides to run for that seat instead of Royce’s, as has been rumored locally.

In each district, it’s still a relatively remote possibility that this scenario develops. But every seat matters for Democrats as they try to overcome structural issues and take back House control, and blowing relatively pickup opportunities in California is not the way back to a majority.

Democrats say there’s only so much they can do about the jungle primary situation — and convincing candidates to drop out, the simplest way to avoid their math problem, is almost impossible once they’ve been in the race a while.

“It is monumentally difficult to tell someone not to run, and the only thing more difficult than that is to tell someone not to run who’s been running for a year,” said Lieu. “At a very basic level there’s not much anyone can do. It will be what it will be.”

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It has now been more than 100 days since the Republican-controlled Congress allowed funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to lapse, and despite several infusions of stopgap funding from both Capitol Hill and the Department of Health and Human Services, states could run out of money as early as next week. By March, according to a new report from Georgetown University, nearly half of all states will exhaust all of their federal funding. The program covers nearly 9 million children and pregnant women across the country.

While members of Congress on both sides of the aisle insist that CHIP must be reauthorized, GOP leaders have yet to even schedule a vote, and the program has been stuck in limbo for months amid disagreements about how to pay for it.

A new email from the Congressional Budget Office to lawmakers obtained by TPM notes, however, that renewing the program could actually save the federal government money.

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Ahead of Wednesday oral arguments for a Supreme Court case that could boost efforts to aggressively purge voter rolls, voting rights advocates weren’t optimistic that they’d get a sweeping ruling in their favor, given the court’s conservative make-up. Rather, some hoped merely that the court might rule narrowly against Ohio’s system for removing voters, which they see as the most restrictive in the nation.

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A day after an hour-long window into his meeting with congressional lawmakers, President Donald Trump treated the televised portion of his Wednesday meeting with cabinet leaders like just another episode in his reality television show.

When the news cameras entered the room, Trump greeted them: “Welcome back to the studio.” He then touted 2017 as a year of “tremendous” and “monumental” achievement. He offered his typical over-the-top assessment of his own work, and as any good entertainer would to, he teased the moves to come.

“I don’t think any administration has ever done, has done what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished in its first year, which isn’t quite finished yet,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen over the next few days.”

After listing Republicans’ achievements, such as confirming a new Supreme Court justice and passing tax cut legislation, Trump talked about the “reviews” for his “performance” at the unusually long media spray at his Tuesday meeting with lawmakers. Trump is known to obsess over his portrayal in the media, spending hours in front of cable news each day and reportedly demanding a folder with positive news about him.

“It was a tremendous meeting. Actually, it was reported as incredibly good, and my performance — some of them called it a performance; I consider it work — but got great reviews by everybody other than two networks who were phenomenal for about two hours,” Trump said in front of the cameras.

He then claimed that the anchors on the programs that aired his remarks sent the White House letters “saying that was one of the greatest meetings they’ve ever witnessed.”

“And they were great for about two hours. They were phenomenal,” he said of the cable news networks. “And then they went a little bit south on us but not that bad. It was fun. They probably wish they didn’t send us those letters of congratulations, but it was good.”

He then took credit for news networks’ ratings and for the fact that news outlets are still in business.

“I’m sure their ratings were fantastic. They always are. Which is why I think the media will ultimately support Trump in the end because they’re going to say if Trump doesn’t win in three years, they’re all out of business,” he said.

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In a sprawling hour-long discussion with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, President Donald Trump took a range of positions on negotiations over the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—swinging wildly from demanding billions in funding for a border wall and other immigration restrictions in exchange for renewing DACA to endorsing Democrats proposal for a “clean” renewal and, later, a complete overhaul of the immigration system.

“If you want to take it that further step, I’ll take the heat,” Trump told the stunned lawmakers. “You are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform.”

But the President’s tendency to change positions as frequently as he orders Diet Cokes is once again causing a major headache for lawmakers as they attempt to craft policies without a clear idea of what the White House is willing to support. With no agreement yet on whether a DACA deal will be a part of the Jan. 19 spending bill, what the exact status for the 800,000 impacted young immigrants would be, and what forms of “border security” Trump is demanding, the mass confusion is raising the potential for a government shutdown.

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Federal judges in North Carolina have struck down state Republicans’ highly gerrymandered North Carolina congressional map as unconstitutional. The ruling could cost the GOP House seats in November’s midterm elections if the Supreme Court doesn’t delay the decision  by the Supreme Court because of other redistricting cases it’s currently considering.

A three-judge panel ruled on Tuesday that Republicans had illegally gerrymandered the state’s map to their advantage.

This is not the first time courts have thrown out North Carolina’s congressional map. In May 2017, the Supreme Court declared it an illegal racial gerrymander, a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Tuesday’s ruling went much further, arguing that the congressional map violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, as well as the First Amendment and Elections Clauses.

The district court’s decision may be stayed by the Supreme Court, which is currently considering a pair of cases to determine whether or not extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.

According to Tuesday’s ruling, however, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled statehouse must redraw the map with weeks to spare before the 2018 elections, or the court will appoint a special master to do it for them. If the Supreme Court upholds that part of the ruling, Democrats could see a huge boost—they currently only hold three of the swing state’s 13 congressional seats.

More litigation is likely to come before it’s clear what will happen to North Carolina’s congressional map, but the ruling is the latest blow to gerrymandering—and potentially to Republican control of the House, which is built partly on a series of gerrymanders in large swing states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, as well as Wisconsin, whose maps are currently in front of the Supreme Court.

Read the latest editor’s brief (Prime access) on this story »

 

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Sheriff who?

Senate Republicans aren’t exactly eager to discuss former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s (R) newly declared Senate campaign.

Arpaio, a deeply controversial former Maricopa County sheriff who President Trump pardoned after Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to obey a court order to stop racial profiling, announced Tuesday that he’ll run for the Senate.

“There’ll be a lot of people running in Arizona,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) told TPM Tuesday.

That’s more than others were willing to say.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) simply shook her head when TPM asked her thoughts about Arpaio’s candidacy.

“I think I’ll stick to my own situation,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who may face a primary of his own, told TPM.

Many others begged off as they entered Senate lunches less than two hours after Arpaio made his announcement.

“I hadn’t seen the news yet,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT). “I’m sure it’ll be a crowded primary.”

“Let me understand the story before I comment on the story,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS).

“In fairness, I have not ever had the opportunity to meet him. Obviously he’s got a name and a reputation that precedes him, but I think it’d be important for me to meet him,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said when asked if she would be happy to serve with the controversial figure.

It’s unclear how serious Arpaio is about a bid — or whether his candidacy could actually help Republicans hold the seat, as he might split the hard-right pro-Trump vote with former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) and open up Rep. Martha McSally’s (R-AZ) path to the nomination.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), the seat’s current occupant, was dismissive of Arpaio’s intentions.

“Write about it fast, it won’t last long,” he joked, shaking his head when asked if he thought Arpaio was serious about a campaign.

Flake wasn’t the only one who predicted Arpaio wouldn’t actually be make it to the late August primary. Multiple Arizona Republicans speculated it was just a way for the limelight-loving 85-year-old to get back on camera after losing his reelection last fall (and for his consultants to rake in the cash).

“This is someone that’s just starving for attention and consultants who are more than happy to engage in a money grab,” said one senior GOP consultant not affiliated with any campaign.

But whether or not Arpaio is the eventual nominee, he could further create headaches for the party in the wake of an embarrassing loss in Alabama, where accused child molester Roy Moore lost a Senate race last month in spite of backing from Trump and the national party. His also complicates how Trump’s team might handle the race, just days after Trump promised Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) he’d back incumbents and help him hold the majority.

The race is one of Democrats’ two best pickup opportunities besides Nevada. They need to defend all of their own seats and pick up two to win back Senate control — a tough challenge as they’re defending 10 seats in states Trump won last year, but one that looks increasingly possible after Alabama and in light of Trump’s terrible numbers.

Democrats are excited about their likely nominee, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) — and think she would crush either Ward or Arpaio.

“I think Kyrsten Sinema is going to be my colleague,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said, calling Arpaio “another Republican candidate who is hurting our democracy, hurting the Republican Party and clearly someone who has hurt a lot of people.”

The White House declined to weigh in on Arpaio’s campaign on Tuesday.

“I can’t comment on the specifics of any election, voicing support for a candidate in a race like that. I’m not going to weigh in to the details of that race or make comments on something that would affect that front,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

It remains to be seen whether Arpaio will seriously pursue this race. But the octogenarian’s attempted comeback isn’t exactly thrilling his potential future colleagues.

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President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, former pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar, said during his confirmation hearing Tuesday morning that he supports legislation that failed in Congress earlier this year that would have repealed much of the Affordable Care Act and converted Medicaid into a shrinking block grant.

“There are elements that are very positive, such as allowing states to run their own budgets,” Azar said, when asked by one of the failed bill’s sponsors about his views on the legislation. “Incentives can be reoriented in a very positive way for more state empowerment through Graham-Cassidy-Heller.”

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Controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) will run for the Senate in Arizona, throwing a bomb into the campaign to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

“I think Washington needs me, the president needs me. I’ve got a lot of experience, 60 years, I’ve dedicated my life serving our country. We’ll see what happens,” Arpaio told TPM in a brief phone conversation Tuesday morning.

Arpaio’s decision to run — first reported by the Washington Examiner — creates further chaos in the race to replace Flake, who decided to retire earlier this year after his criticism of President Trump erased his chances at winning a GOP primary.

The 85-year-old former Maricopa County sheriff has a long history of controversial actions and hostility to immigrants. His department’s sometimes-brutal policing tactics, embrace of racial profiling, and his refusal to change them in the face of court orders led to his being convicted of contempt earlier this year — but he was spared from a possible prison sentence when President Trump decided to pardon his longtime ally.

Arpaio told TPM he didn’t discuss his decision with Trump or White House officials before announcing.

“I haven’t talked to the president about this,” he said. “This is something I decided to do, to go to Washington and be different.”

But he talked up his controversial record, describing it as an asset in the race.

“As a sheriff, I’ve done some controversial investigations,” he said, talking up his earlier work as a DEA agent and later bringing up the construction of a border wall as a way to curtail the influx of “drugs destroying our country.”

If elected, Arpaio would immediately become the Senate’s oldest member — Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are 84. But he said his age was an asset, not a problem, in the race.

“I’m a senior citizen so I don’t expect to make a career out of Washington like most politicians do,” he said.

Arpaio will square off with former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), another firebrand conservative, in the race. Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), an establishment favorite who likely would give the GOP its best chance of holding onto the seat, is expected to announce her own bid in the coming days.

The seat is a top pickup opportunity for Democrats, who have rallied around Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). The state is fast trending Democratic due to explosive growth in the Hispanic community, and Trump won it by just four percentage points last fall. Arpaio also lost reelection on the same day in the state’s most populous county, and Republicans worry that Arpaio could cost them the seat — and possibly control of the Senate, after their recent debacle in Alabama with former Judge Roy Moore as their nominee narrowed their edge in the Senate to 51-49.

It’s unclear whether Arpaio’s campaign will ultimately help his party by splitting the hardline vote and giving McSally a better chance at the nomination, or whether his huge celebrity in the state and his devoted following could make him a tough challenge in the race. It’s also unclear how vigorously the 85-year-old will run, or what campaign infrastructure he’ll be able to construct.

Arpaio declined to discuss his primary opponents. But he didn’t sound worried about his chances in the race.

“I’ve never lost a Republican primary in my political career. I don’t expect to lose this one either,” he said.

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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) will retire at the end of his term, handing Democrats a huge opportunity in a Democratic-trending district and marking the latest sign of a building blue wave in the 2018 elections.

“In this final year of my Foreign Affairs Committee chairmanship, I want to focus fully on the urgent threats facing our nation,” Royce said in a statement Monday evening. “With this in mind, and with the support of my wife Marie, I have decided not to seek reelection in November.”

Royce’s decision to retire is a blow to his party’s hopes to hold onto the Democratic-trending Orange County swing seat. Royce won reelection last year by double digits even as Hillary Clinton was carrying the district by 52 percent to 43 percent — a major shift to Democrats after Mitt Romney won it by four percentage points in 2012.

His decision adds Royce to a growing list of longtime GOP lawmakers who’ve decided to leave Congress instead of facing a tough reelection battle in what’s increasingly looking like a wave election year. A high number of retirements are often a sign of a building political wave, and while many committee chairmen decide to retire from Congress at the end of their tenures rather than take on a reduced role in Congress, Democrats’ double-digit lead in many recent generic congressional ballots is unquestionably playing a role in some of their decision-making. Congressmen often decide to pack things up after talking things over with family over the holidays, and Royce may not be the last one to decide to retire.

The race was shaping up to be Royce’s toughest election in his career. He was held to 57 percent of the vote last year, a solid number but a mark that matched the lowest win percentage of his career, from his first election in 1992, and that came against a candidate who raised just $74,000 for his entire campaign. While some GOP operatives were worried Royce might not be ready to shake off the rust in the district, he was sitting on a campaign war chest of almost $3.5 million — a major sum in an expensive media market.

Democrats had already made it clear the seat would be a top target in next fall’s midterm elections — its population is roughly one third Hispanic and one third Asian American, making it a prime pickup opportunity in the age of Trump.

Five Democrats are already running for the seat that have raised at least $100,000 — including heavy-hitting self-funders Andy Thorburn, his campaign $2 million, Gil Cisneros, another self-funder, and  Mai-Khanh Tran, a pediatrician and former refugee from Vietnam who has the backing of EMILY’s List.

Royce is a longtime foreign policy hawk who often sparred with the Obama administration on issues from Iran to North Korea. He’s also taken a hawkish approach towards Russia — calling for more sanctions against the country after its invasion of Ukraine — and his decision to retire could free him up to return to his more aggressive posture towards the country.

With Royce leaving, the GOP faces a potentially tough recruiting challenge in the district, though they said they’ll fight hard for it.

“Republicans are fired up and ready to hold this seat. Orange County has no shortage of Republican talent and a highly organized ground effort with the NRCC at the forefront,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH) said in a statement. “We have just one message for Democrats who think they can compete for this seat: bring it on.”

 

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