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Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) seems to have gone too far in his attempts to embrace President Trump in Rokita’s GOP primary.
Trump’s campaign has demanded that Rokita pull down lawn signs that arguably suggest that the president has endorsed him in the heated Indiana Senate primary, where fealty to Trump has become the common denominator between the three candidates.
The signs say Rokita is “Endorsed by: Trump/Pence.” In smaller letters on the next line, it makes clear who’s actually supporting him: “2016 team leaders.”
That refers to Rex Early and Tony Samuel, Trump’s 2016 state campaign chairman and vice-chairman. Both endorsed Rokita earlier this year in his race against Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) and former state legislator Mike Braun.
Samuel told TPM he got a text message from a senior Trump campaign official (he declined to say who it was) complaining about the signs, and pointed them to the Rokita campaign to hash things out.
“This is the Messer campaign concerned with our endorsement and trying to push back and putting heat on this person from the campaign who felt the pressure to text,” Samuel said. “The wording on the yard sign is consistent with our endorsement, we have every right to make endorsements as the former state chairman and vice chairman of the 2016 campaign.”
Messer has a lot of overlapping supporters with Vice President Mike Pence, and Rokita’s team believes Messer’s campaign pressured Trump’s staff into the complaints.
Trump campaign chief operating officer Michael Glassner didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the signs, and the conversation.
The AP first reported the kerfuffle, and has a photo of the yard sign here.
Rokita’s team refused to say whether it will comply and pull down the signs, or discuss the contents of the call with Trump’s team, before taking a swipe at Messer.
“The record shows that Rex Early and Tony Samuel, the chairman and vice chairman of the 2016 Trump campaign in Indiana, have endorsed Todd Rokita because he stood with President Trump while Luke Messer sided with the Never Trumpers who disdain President Trump and gave aid and comfort to Hillary Clinton,” Rokita spokesman Nathan Brand said in a statement after declining to say whether the signs would come down.
Braun’s team was quick with a swipe of its own, labeling him “Todd the fraud” in a statement.
All three candidates have raced to embrace Trump in the primary, name-checking him in ads. But Rokita has gone the furthest, donning a “Make America Great Again” hat in one of his recent ads.
The primary is May 8, and strategists say all three have a real chance at winning the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) in one of the GOP’s best chances to pick up a Senate seat this cycle.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has hired a powerful firebrand conservative to be his new chief of staff, a sign he wants to renew his position on the right with an eye on his political future.
Rubio announced Tuesday afternoon that he was bringing on Michael Needham, until recently the head of the powerful Heritage Action for America, to run his Senate office.
That’s a somewhat surprising pairing, given Rubio’s establishment-leaning reputation. Needham has long been a thorn in the side of GOP leaders, cheerleading for the 2013 government shutdown and rabble-rousing against congressional Republicans from the right on a host of issues throughout his career.
The hiring signals that Rubio may be looking to reestablish his once-strong credentials with talk radio conservatives after losing those bona fides by backing bipartisan immigration reform efforts in recent years and emerging as an establishment favorite in the 2016 presidential election before stumbling out of the race.
“Mike brings a wealth of policy, political and management experience that will greatly complement our office’s mission of serving the people of Florida and leading the effort to modernize the conservative movement in the 21st century. Mike understands and shares these goals, and I look forward to his contributions,” Rubio said in a statement.
The two do have some overlapping history. Heritage was a major backer of Rubio back when he was a Tea Party darling in 2010 and forced then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist from the party. So was then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who went on to head Heritage and work closely with Needham (sources differ on whether Needham supported DeMint’s ouster at the organization last year).
The super-PAC tasked with keeping the House in GOP hands is making a big bet on what the House map will look like this fall, plunking down $48 million in advertising reservations across 30 districts.
The Congressional Leadership Fund’s reservations include $38 million for TV ads in the 20 districts the group seemingly sees as the most likely to decide the House majority next fall, as well as an additional $10 million on digital ads spread across 30 districts.
The list mostly follows most prognosticators’ views of which districts are vulnerable, and groups can always change early reservations and add other targets. But the list is notable for who’s on there — as well as who was left out.
One name that’s glaringly missing from the robust list: Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), a very vulnerable member in a Democratic-trending Northern Virginia district. Reps. Rod Blum (R-IA) and Jason Lewis (R-MN), two other members in tough swing districts viewed as vulnerable by strategists in both parties, also didn’t make the cut. The group also didn’t commit any early resources to open seats vacated by retiring Reps. Darrel Issa (R-CA) and Ed Royce (D-CA) that Democrats have been bullish about picking up.
On the flip side, the group shows it’s legitimately concerned about holding a pair of Kansas House seats by reserving nearly $3 million to protect Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and a GOP-leaning open seat in the state, as well as protecting Reps. Andy Barr (R-KY) and Tom MacArthur (R-NJ).
The reservations come about a month after the House Majority PAC, the group’s Democratic counterpart, plunked down $43 million in its own early bets.
“CLF’s historic and aggressive fundraising pace has allowed us to place larger advertising buys earlier than ever,”CLF Executive Director Corry Bliss said in a statement. “Today’s announcement demonstrates CLF’s continued commitment to doing things differently. By reserving advertising early, investing unprecedented resources in digital, and running the country’s only House-focused national field program, CLF is prepared to lead the way in defending the House Republican majority.”
Here’s the full reservation list as provided by the group:
Television Reservations ($38 million in 20 districts)
National Republicans are quietly making a major push to block controversial coal baron and ex-con Don Blankenship from becoming their party’s nominee in the West Virginia Senate race, amidst growing fears that he could cost them a shot at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
A newly minted super-PAC with national GOP ties, Mountain Families, has unleashed a TV campaign attacking Blankenship for poisoning local drinking water with “toxic coal slurry” even as he built a separate water system for his own mansion, the opening salvo in what will likely be a furious effort to keep him from winning the GOP nomination May 8.
The attacks come amidst building GOP panic that the self-funding Blankenship will spend his way to the nomination in spite of his massive political baggage, as his two main opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), haven’t laid a finger on him with just weeks to go until the election.
Blankenship would be a nightmare of a nominee for the GOP. He’s been out of prison for less than a year after serving a sentence for willfully violating safety regulations at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine, leading to an explosion that killed 29 employees — the worst mining accident in the U.S. in four decades. The incident was the latest in a string of Massey safety violations, leading Rolling Stone to dub him “the dark lord of coal country” in a 2010 story.
His shocking rise has Republicans in West Virginia and D.C. worrying he could triumph next month and cost them another winnable race in the fall while embarrassing the state.
“If the election was held today, Don would win,” one plugged-in West Virginia Republican told TPM late last week. “Alabama gave us Roy Moore. Now West Virginia’s saying ‘hold my beer.'”
Blankenship has sought to turn his conviction into a positive in the race, painting himself as a political prisoner and arguing that the conviction was a set-up by the Obama Justice Department, Hillary Clinton and Manchin, who was governor at the time of the 2010 accident and said Blankenship had “blood on his hands.” In Blankenship’s version of the story, the Mine Safety and Health Administration forced his company, Massey Energy, to use a defective ventilation system, then turned him into a convenient political scapegoat after the disaster.
There’s scant evidence that’s true. A jury trial found Blankenship and Massey systematically refused to follow safety regulations at the mine, leading to a buildup of methane gas and coal dust that caused the deadly explosion, and multiple independent investigations have found no evidence of Blankenship’s claims.
But Blankenship has pushed hard on that tale with $2 million in TV ad spending, a 67-page manifesto and regular speeches across the state in his affectless drawl. And he’s got a seasoned campaign staff around him — many of the same people who helped him flip the state from blue to red in the last 15 years as the state’s largest GOP donor, and essentially buy a state Supreme Court seat a decade ago.
His anti-Obama conspiracy theory plays well in a state where the former president is so hated that a convicted felon nearly beat him in the Democratic primary in 2012. And it’s compelling even to some who back his opponents.
“There’s a feeling among some in the state that he got a raw deal in being sent to jail, that the government was involved rather than Massey Energy,” former West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney told TPM.
McKinney, who backs Jenkins, nonetheless said he believed Blankenship.
“Don has stated unequivocally that they made them change the airflow in that mine and that’s what led to that tragedy. I’m not a coal miner, I’m a urologist, but he makes a very convincing argument about it,” he said.
Views like McKinney’s help explain how Blankenship has shocked local and national observers with a solid showing in the few public polls of the race.
In internal surveys Jenkins and Morrisey released more than a month ago, Blankenship was within striking distance of first place (though each candidate’s poll had him in the lead). No numbers have been released since, and most West Virginia Republicans believe he has the lead right now after vastly outspending his two opponents on the airwaves.
National Republicans have signaled they won’t lift a finger to help Blankenship if he wins, while imploring voters not to pick him.
“I’m not sure if he can even vote. Do they let ankle bracelets get out of the house?” quipped National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) when TPM asked about Blankenship’s chances. “West Virginia will do the right thing and send someone who can actually win.”
The White House has sent similar signals as to its preferences — President Trump recently had both Morissey and Jenkins sitting nearby at a recent official trip to the state, while Blankenship’s invitation was lost in the mail.
But Gardner told TPM that the NRSC wouldn’t get directly involved, conserving its own limited resources and looking to avoid another anti-establishment backlash like the one that helped Moore clinch the nomination in Alabama last fall.
“The last thing West Virginians want is the senatorial committee telling them what they should want,” he said.
In spite of Blankenship’s rise, neither of his opponents have leveled any real attacks against him, focusing instead on using their much more limited resources to tout their own credentials and tear each other down. That puzzling pattern comes in spite of his own ads attacking Jenkins for his Democratic past and Morrisey for being a carpetbagger with a D.C. lobbyist wife.
The pair seemed caught off-guard by Blankenship’s rise, but in recent weeks it’s been unclear why they were still holding their fire — whether they were worried that a shot at the deep-pocketed and ruthless Blankenship would trigger a heavy barrage of attacks in response, or whether they were simply waiting for outside help.
That cavalry has finally arrived, though it’s unclear if it’ll be enough. Mountain Families, a shadowy group run by former RNC senior staffer Ben Ottenhoff, who last fall worked with a super-PAC associated with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to try to stop Moore, has dropped $650,000 in the initial ad buy, a heavy rotation for the next week-plus in the inexpensive state. Ottenhoff didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Blankenship moved to turn those attacks to his advantage.
“The Republican Party swampers in Washington have come to the surface to oppose my candidacy for the U.S. Senate. They are swamp creatures who pretend to be conservatives but are instead liberal big spenders. We welcome the fact that they are showing themselves to be what they truly are,” he said in a Monday statement.
Trump won the state by a whopping 42-point margin in 2016, his second-largest advantage of any state in the country. And while Manchin’s strong personal brand and the promise of a good year for Democrats make him a tough out, recent polls suggest he’s slipped some at home and could be vulnerable in a race against Jenkins or Morrisey.
Manchin refused to say who he’d prefer to face in the fall — “Whoever the Republicans put up is who we’re going to run against, I’m not getting involved in their primary at all,” he told TPM — but Democrats and Republicans agree that Blankenship and his baggage would obviously give Manchin a huge boost in what would otherwise be a tough race.
“It should be the easier race for Joe” if Blankenship emerges, former Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) told TPM. “We’re talking about people’s lives here in Blankenship’s case, people’s lives that were lost, for which he was convicted of being the guilty party.”
Morrisey has looked to position himself as the right-wing outsider in the campaign — his latest ad features a literal West Virginia mountain dropping on the U.S. capitol.
I’m running for U.S. Senate not to just change Washington, but to blow it up and reinvent it.
“When you look at Don Blankenship’s record there’s the obvious prison record. When you look at Evan Jenkins you can see his years as a Democrat,” said Morrisey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. “And when you look at Patrick Morrisey you can look at his six years as attorney general. … He’s really been there on the front lines of every major conservative battle.”
Jenkins has also on bear-hugged Trump, while touting his social conservatism and blasting Morrisey as a carpet-bagger.
Jenkins spokesman Andy Sere said his boss still leads, arguing he’s “the only person in this race who has supported President Trump since day one, and is actually working with the President to drain the swamp and protect our West Virginia values.”
He’s expected to do particularly well in his congressional district in the southern part of the state, the heart of coal country — and the site of the UBB accident. Observers say that that Morrisey and Blankenship share an anti-establishment base, and if one drops the other will benefit, and could win. If they stay roughly equal, Jenkins could pull off a victory with more moderate votes.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told TPM it was a “very competitive race” that any of the candidates could win.
And that could lead to disaster for the GOP.
Former Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie (R), a Jenkins supporter, told TPM he’d gladly vote for Morrisey if he prevails — but would vote for Manchin if Blankenship is the nominee. And he thinks many others would follow suit.
“He has a checkered past, at best,” he said. “The race is over if he wins the primary. The Republicans can basically concede to the Democrats.”
A group of heavy-hitting Democratic former lawmakers are banding together to help their party try to recover a foothold in the rural areas they once represented.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), former Agriculture Secretary and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and former Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) are launching Rural Forward, an organization to advocate progressive ideas in rural communities and rebuild Democrats’ standing in parts of the country where they’ve been decimated over the last decade.
The organization, first unveiled to TPM, will be helmed by Etheridge, with the others serving as honorary co-chairs. Brad Woodhouse, a former Etheridge staffer who went on to serve as communications director of the Democratic National Committee and run American Bridge, will serve as senior adviser, with former Iowa state Rep. John Whitaker (D) as executive director and John Davis, a veteran of a number of Iowa races as well as the John Edwards presidential campaign, pitching in as well.
Those involved recognize it’s a steep challenge for Democrats to recover in rural areas – and that the group’s launch is a small first step towards meeting it.
“A lot of the states that have gone bright red used to be bright purple, and we want to make them purple again and we think there’s an opportunity to do that. But we need an agenda, we need candidates, we need just about everything to rejuvenate the party in these places,” Daschle told TPM. “This isn’t going to happen overnight, although Mr. Trump may be helping us more than we realize.”
The group’s initial goals are fairly modest, in keeping with their limited resources: organize town halls, help communicate how Democratic priorities like infrastructure investment and rural broadband expansion help rural communities, partner with local advocates to provide them with organizing tools. Its early efforts will be focused in states where the organizers have personal ties, like North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota.
“We’re doing this right now with duct tape and baling wire. We’ve raised thousands of dollars, this isn’t going to be in the millions, it’s going to be earned media and educational as opposed to ads,” said Woodhouse. “We want to get the ball rolling. We’re taking the long view of this work.”
They’re betting that a renewed focus on pocketbook issues can help lead a Democratic recovery in rural areas across the country, even as culture wars burn as hot as ever in the political sphere due to Trump.
The organization is a 501(C)4, so can’t directly focus on elections. But whether they can have some success is critical for 2018, as well as going forward. Democrats will need to pick up some rural House seats to capture control of the lower chamber, and are defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won that have large rural populations, including Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and Ohio.
“These members from Montana or North Dakota, they’re flying by themselves, there’s very little infrastructure to help them trumpet their values. We want to help provide whatever it is, talking points and fact sheets, policy material and analysis,” said Woodhouse.
The group’s leaders share one thing in common: They’ve all won tough races in rural-heavy states and districts. But with the exception of Vilsack, the rest eventually lost reelection as their party brand was too much to overcome in tough Democratic years.
Democrats’ rural erosion has been happening for decades, but accelerated in the Obama era. Etheridge, a former part-time farmer, was one of many rural House Democrats to get wiped out in the 2010 wave. Landrieu was one of many rural-state Democratic senators who faced a similar fate in 2014. Trump’s election marked a new low for rural Democrats, who got shellacked in parts of the country like the Upper Mississippi River Valley in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin where they’d long had strong support, as well as rural areas across the nation.
As Democrats have been washed out of those areas, the party has become increasingly dominated by coastal, urban and suburban leaders who haven’t tried as hard to work the heartland for support.
“It’s going to be hard. The trend is the other way, the party committees have really gone in the other direction too, in some places by necessity,” said Woodhouse.
But with Trump’s numbers sagging across the board (even though they’re not nearly as bad in less populated areas), Democrats see an opportunity to bounce back. And they think he’s giving them opportunities with things like his trade war with China, which risks badly hurting farmers who would face the brunt of retaliatory tariffs, or the GOP push to end Obamacare, which would have put rural hospitals in a bind.
“We think the longer he has the opportunity to show his true priorities, the more likely it is that we’re going to one again demonstrate a resurgence and a real opportunity to develop a strong two-party system,” Daschle said.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said he won’t run against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to become House speaker, lowering the likelihood for a direct conflict between the House’s top two remaining Republicans for the top slot.
“I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” Scalise said when asked on Fox News Thursday afternoon. “He and I are good friends.”
Those remarks suggest there won’t be all-out war between the two powerful Republicans in the wake of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) sudden decision to announce his retirement on Wednesday.
The comments don’t necessarily take Scalise out of the running to lead the party, however. McCarthy, if he takes another shot at becoming speaker, still needs to lock in the votes of the vast majority of his conference – and if he falls short, Scalise could be the backup option for a number of lawmakers. Both have been quietly working hard to see where they stand with the conference, and shore up support in case of a leadership battle.
It appears at this point as though the next leader won’t be chosen until after the November election. At that point, the calculus would be quite different depending on how things go for the GOP this fall. If Republicans lose the majority, that likely means many of the moderate members who would be more likely to back McCarthy will be gone. On the other hand, winning the position of minority leader only needs the support of more than half the conference, rather than the near-unified party support needed to become speaker that McCarthy failed to garner when he tried to take that job when Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) retired.
Scalise clears the way for McCarthy to become speaker. “I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” he tells @FoxNews. “He and I are good friends.” https://t.co/Cqeteb1F0w
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is leaving. Former state chairman Reince Priebus is gone. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), the big cheese, stands alone — and may face an expiration date in November.
Ryan’s sudden retirement announcement removes the second of Wisconsin’s hulking conservative figures of the last decade from the political battlefield in a period of months after Priebus’ ignominious ouster from the White House. That, coupled with signs of a building Democratic wave in Wisconsin and nationally, has some in the state party worried they’re seeing the end of a period of conservative dominance in the swing state that covered the Obama era.
“It definitely feels like this era is coming to an end,” one Wisconsin Republican strategist told TPM. “Losing Paul Ryan knocks out one of the legs of the tripod that’s held Wisconsin Republicans up for so long, after the loss of Priebus knocked out another. … There’s probably going to be a blue wave.”
The developments have long-demoralized Democrats feeling chipper for the first time in years.
“Going, going, gone! Reince is gone, Ryan’s going and Mr. Walker knows he’s in for a dogfight,” Joe Zepecki, a top Democratic strategist in the state, giddily told TPM on Wednesday.
Ryan was a key player in the conservative revolution in Wisconsin, turning a swing state with a powerful union presence and long history of populist politicians from both parties into a right-wing policy bastion over the last eight years. He did so alongside then-state Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus – and Scott Walker, who rose from Milwaukee County executive to become one of the nation’s most polarizing and well-known governors of the last decade.
Walker captured the governorship in a close 2010 race, and with unified control of the state legislature proceeded to gut public unions in the state, a deeply polarizing act that led to a failed attempt to recall him from office. Demoralized Democrats failed to defeat him again in 2014, and saw their power fade across the state, with President Obama’s 2o12 win in the state the sole bright spot in a decade of misery. Last election cycle was the roughest blow to date, as President Trump became the first GOP nominee to carry the state in 32 years after Hillary Clinton failed to campaign in the state, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pulled off a surprising reelection victory after being left for dead by his own party earlier in the year.
Priebus moved on to an impressive reign heading the Republican National Committee, became President Trump’s first chief of staff – and was unceremoniously pushed aside last year. Now Ryan has decided to follow his old ally out of politics.
Walker’s the last man standing – and there are signs that the Democratic resurgence simmering across the country will give him the toughest fight of his career.
Just weeks ago, a liberal candidate won a seat on the state Supreme Court by a double-digit electoral margin, prompting Walker to warn of a “Blue wave” building in the state. The victory was the first time a non-incumbent liberal justice had won a seat in more than two decades in the state.
Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.
“The Supreme Court race was the canary in the cave, a signal, and the canary died, so now we have to figure things out,” Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin Republican strategist with ties to Walker and Ryan, told TPM. “That was a big wakeup call.”
And it came on the heels of a big Democratic upset in a northwestern Wisconsin state senate seat that Democrats hadn’t held in 17 years.
Those results rattled Republicans across the state, who worry the tide may be turning on them after an impressive eight-year run.
Republicans admit that with Ryan gone, his GOP-leaning seat could be competitive this fall. They’re even more worried about Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI), a polarizing figure in a swing district who has less campaign cash than his Democratic challenger. They say even Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) could be in for a real fight, and are worried about losing the state senate as well, while many aren’t too bullish about defeating Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the state’s lone statewide Democratic office-holder, this fall.
But Walker is the big prize. He saw his standing plummet in the state after his failed presidential run, and while his numbers have bounced back he’s still upside down in most recent polling of the state.
Democrats have a late and crowded primary, the eventual winner will face a major cash deficit heading into the election against Walker, and Republicans at least aren’t too scared of any of the people running to face Walker — “A blue wave doesn’t make a C-level candidate an A-level candidate,” said Scholz. But for the first time in years, Democrats are feeling bullish about their chances to seize back control of the key swing state.
“It is certainly an exciting time to be a Wisconsin Democrat,” said Zepecki.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) had her second child on Monday, becoming the first senator to give birth while in office.
Maile (pronounced Miley) Pearl Bowlsbey is Duckworth’s second child; she and her husband, Bryan Bowslbey, had Abigail in late 2014, when she was in the House. Duckworth is only the 10th member of Congress to have a child while serving, and the first in the upper chamber.
“Bryan, Abigail and I couldn’t be happier to welcome little Maile Pearl as the newest addition to our family,” Duckworth said in a statement, before saying she was “deeply honored” that retired Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), a mentor of hers who died last week, blessed her child’s name before passing on.
Duckworth, a 50-year-old Iraq War veteran, said that the baby’s middle name is from her husband’s great aunt, who served during World War II as an Army officer and nurse.
The birth is the latest in a series of firsts for Duckworth. She’s the first Thai-American ever to serve in Congress, and was one of the first women to fly an Army helicopter in Iraq.
Duckworth has made both military and family issues priorities during her congressional career, sponsoring legislation requiring the military to extend maternity leave for soldiers, make sure student parents have on-campus child care, and require major airports to provide spaces for breastfeeding and milk pumping, as well as bill for paid family leave and laws to help lower the number of veteran suicides.
“Parenthood isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s an economic issue and one that affects all parents—men and women alike,” she continued in her statement. “As tough as juggling the demands of motherhood and being a Senator can be, I’m hardly alone or unique as a working parent, and my children only make me more committed to doing my job and standing up for hardworking families everywhere.”
Indiana Republicans are bracing for a three-car pileup in a key primary next month that will have major implications for the balance of the Senate.
Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN), Luke Messer (R-IN) and businessman and former state Rep. Mike Braun (R) are battling for the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), arguably the country’s most vulnerable incumbent.
Strategists say each of the three could conceivably win the nomination —and beat Donnelly. But the primary has grown increasingly heated as the candidates approach the May 8 election, worrying some Republicans that it could leave the eventual nominee short on cash and wounded from a bruising race as they prepare for a tough general election fight that gives Republicans one of their best chances at a pickup this fall.
“The nastier this gets and the more money these guys have to spend, the better this looks for Donnelly,” Ed Feigenbaum, the longtime editor of the nonpartisan Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter, told TPM.
Strategists in both parties think this will likely be a close general election no matter who wins the nomination, with Indiana’s natural GOP advantage balanced against Donnelly’s talents as a candidate and Trump’s unpopularity.
Donnelly won his seat in 2012 in large part because of his opponent’s flaws. After then-Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) beat longtime Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) in a tough primary, Republicans spent months trying to pull the party back together, only to see Mourdock blow it by declaring during a debate that pregnancy caused by rape “is something that God intended to happen.” Donnelly is unlikely to get that lucky this time, but has worked assiduously to raise his profile as a moderate Democrat with a populist streak and is better-positioned this time around.
“You have to call it a jump-ball in the general election,” said Indiana-based GOP strategist Kurt Luidhardt. “Donnelly’s just a good candidate. … A lot of the old Republican donor community maintain good ties with him, and he does a really good job in Indiana appearing like he’s a moderate.”
Most Democrats would be happiest to face off against Rokita given his hard right views, tensions between him and many of the state’s GOP establishment, and his occasional penchant for tin-eared comments (like telling a female CNN anchor on-air in 2013 that she was “beautiful, but you have to be honest as well” and in a 2007 speech asking “Who’s the master and who’s the slave” in African Americans’ relationship with the Democratic Party).
“We feel confident Joe can beat any of them, but Rokita lends himself most closely to Richard Mourdock part two,” said one source close to Donnelly.
Rokita also has a strained relationship with many other Republicans in the state going back years that many blame on his difficult personality as well as a push opposed by most others in the party to end gerrymandering in Indiana.
“He does have a reputation for being prickly,” said Luidhardt, who worked on earlier races for Rokita and Messer and called both friends.
The race has been a relatively sleepy one so far. Strategists say voters are just starting to tune in, and Braun is the only one who’s had much in the way of paid advertising until now. But things are beginning to heat up.
Braun has spent the most by far on the race, almost $3 million on TV ads since the end of last year. That helped boost his name ID around the state, and has pushed him into the lead in private polling of the race. But curiously, the wealthy and largely self-funding candidate took his foot off the gas in ad spending after an early burst, and has cycled through a number of ads rather than focusing on one particular message.
Braun is the man to beat at this point. But Messer and Rokita are just starting to spend in earnest, and hope that once they reach relative parity on the airwaves they’ll be able to catch up. Polling of the race shows a relatively close contest between all three, though most Republicans think Messer is in third and risks becoming a non-factor if he doesn’t make a move soon.
Braun has hammered his opponents as career politicians, including in this memorable spot that unaligned Republicans say could help him draw the contrast he needs to stay ahead:
All three Republicans have bear-hugged President Trump in the race, attacking one another for not being sufficiently pro-Trump. But the sharp-elbowed Rokita has gone the farthest in this regard, donning a “Make America Great Again” hat in his latest ad as he attacked Braun for his Democratic past and Messer for criticizing Trump during the 2016 campaign.
“Mike Braun is nothing more than a series of TV ads trying to cover up for his record of voting for Democrats and hiking taxes. Meanwhile, Never-Trumper Luke Messer is the most underwhelming GOP Senate candidate in the country,” Rokita spokesman Nathan Brand told TPM.
Messer, in contrast with the other two, has mostly focused on positive TV spots showcasing his family and promising to promote the Trump agenda.
A number of GOP strategists questioned whether his message was aggressive enough for a GOP primary, and wondered why Messer hadn’t been able to out-raise Rokita given his close ties to the GOP establishment including Pence’s network and House Republican leadership. But Messer’s team dismissed those concerns.
“Luke’s path to victory is people feeling like they know Luke better by the end of this race, that the other two guys are all talk and Luke’s action,” Messer campaign adviser Brad Todd told TPM. “Primary voters are frustrated that we control everything and not enough is getting done, and Luke has by far the biggest track record of someone who can get something done.”
Embracing Trump and Vice President Mike Pence won’t be as big a problem in Pence’s home state as elsewhere in the country. Even in deep-red Indiana, though, fealty to Trump may not be an asset in the general election. The president won the state by a 19-point margin, but recentpolls have found about the same amount of voters approve and disapprove of the job he’s done as president.
Rokita, Braun and Messer have all had to grapple with some harsh news cycles. Messer has faced months of attacks for not living in the state (he moved his family out to D.C., selling his Indiana house while keeping a vacation spot in Tennessee, and co-owns a home with his mom that he stays at when in town). That’s a serious problem in a state where politicians including Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and former Rep. Dave McIntosh (R-IN) have lost races for similar transgressions.
Rokita faced embarrassing headlines early on for an internal staff memo that obsessively outlined how his employees must handle their interactions with him, and more recent ones questioning his use of $3 million in government funds to boost his name ID around the state.
Braun was the latest in the woodshed, facing rough headlines in recent days for pushing to cut taxes and regulations on the logging industry, changes he stood to profit from. He’s also taken heat in the primary for voting to raise the state gas tax to fund infrastructure projects.
Donnelly has also been dinged up, however – his family’s business has ties with Mexico, a problematic connection in the rust belt state.
The general election is likely to be driven heavily by outside groups. Donnelly had $5 million in the bank as of the end of last year, a decent sum but not enough to stay on the airwaves, and the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity has already been on TV attacking him, with Democratic super-PACs rushing to his defense. Rokita and Messer are both likely to emerge from the primary with little cash left, and while Braun can self-fund to some degree few think he’ll put up the tens of millions he’ll need for the race.
Democrats think all three Republicans have enough problems that the race will be competitive. And they hope that as the primary crescendoes, those vulnerabilities will be drawn in sharper contrast.
“You hope you have an opponent that’s not just a generic Republican, it’s someone people will frown upon,” said the source close to Donnelly. “That’s the permission slip you need in Indiana.”
Dave Matthews apparently has so much to say about Ohio politics.
The ’90s rockstar will crash into Cleveland to help fellow throwback Dennis Kucinich with a campaign fundraiser later this month, Kucinich’s gubernatorial campaign announced Friday.
The event will take place on April 20 – a fitting date for a candidate who has campaigned for full marijuana legalization and a veteran of the jam band circuit.
The activist musician and left-wing candidate first connected more than a decade ago at Farm Aid, Kucinich’s campaign said, and have teamed up on a number of liberal causes since.
Kucinich is looking to topple former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray, the establishment Democratic favorite, in next month’s primary – a prospect that has many Democrats in the state worried could happen and hurt their chances at winning the general election. But Matthews, for one, hopes Democrats don’t drink the Cordray water.