- Last Week in D.C. – August Recess
- State Races
Last Week in D.C. – August Recess
The Trump Administration
It was supposed to be a quiet week in Washington, with Congress on recess and President Donald Trump staying at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J. But the President shattered any respite with his unexpected threats towards North Korea and a wide-ranging news conference last Thursday that included attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Even if Trump hadn't loudly waved those sticks, things wouldn’t have exactly been quiet within the administration itself. With far less attention, Trump’s agencies continue to crank out new policies, rolling back Obama’s regulatory legacy and imposing a new era of conservative reforms on everything from protections for a funky-looking bird to a controversial rule for stockbrokers.
Here’s how Trump is changing policy in America this week:
Interior relaxes Obama-era sage grouse rules: In September 2015, the Obama administration announced new protections for the sage grouse, a bird whose habitat happens to cover some of the most resource-rich lands in the American West. The administration declined to list the bird on the endangered species list, a big victory for oil and gas companies, but the new conservation plan included strong measures to protect sage grouse habitat.
Last week, the Interior Department, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, began rolling back the conservation plan, directing the Bureau of Land Management to shrink the buffer zones between sage grouse breeding grounds, among other changes. Environmentalists slammed the move, saying it jeopardized the carefully crafted Obama-era compromise between oil and gas interests and environmental groups.
The changes won’t take effect overnight: it can take years for the agency and states to implement new land-use policies that determine where companies can drill for gas and oil, but it was another big sign of the Interior Department’s new priorities under Zinke.
EPA eases the approval process for new chemicals: Last year, in the largest revamp of America’s chemical safety laws in 40 years, Congress required the Environmental Protection Agency to examine “reasonably foreseen uses” of chemicals when they evaluate them for safety. The changes were designed to ensure that the EPA examines chemicals for their likely real-world impact, instead of narrowly evaluating them on the specific uses for which they were intended.
Last Monday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced new “operating principles” for how the agency will apply the law. In a surprise, the EPA will first assess chemicals based only on their intended use, similar to how the agency operated before passage of the new law. If the EPA has any concerns about other potential uses, “as a general matter,” those will be adjudicated through a separate rule-making. In other words, new chemicals may still be approved while the EPA is reviewing their potential further impact, the exact outcome lawmakers were trying to avoid. The change is a big victory for industry groups, which wanted a lighter touch approach to regulation.
Pruitt also announced that the agency had cleared a backlog of 600 new chemicals awaiting approval, another move that drew praise from the chemical industry and strong rebukes from consumer groups.
DOJ switches sides in Ohio voting case: Under Obama, the Department of Justice frequently challenged voter ID laws and similar state-level laws in court, arguing they unfairly affected minority voters while “solving” a voter-fraud problem that was essentially nonexistent.
Under Trump, the DOJ is taking the opposite position. Last week the Justice Department reversed its position on a controversial Ohio voting law, under which the state purged tens of thousands of people from the voter rolls if they haven’t cast a ballot in the past two years and don’t respond to a piece of mail asking them to confirm their registration.
The Obama-era DOJ had argued that the Ohio law discriminated against minorities and, thus, violated federal voting laws; however, in a filing last week, the department said it had reconsidered its position and determined that the Ohio voting roll purge was legal.
Since the election, Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that millions of people cast illegal ballots, allowing Hillary Clinton to win the popular vote. In response, he created a commission to investigate voter fraud, led by controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, which has done little so far.
In addition, the Justice Department in February, dropped its opposition to a Texas voter ID law, a major shift that signaled the priorities of the new administration.
The fiduciary standard gets punted: Perhaps the biggest financial reform of the late Obama era was the “fiduciary rule,” a 2015 regulation that requires investment advisers to act in the best interest of their clients when selling products like retirement investments. The concern was that many advisers were pushing investments with a higher commission for the adviser, rather than a better return for the client.
It was assumed to be doomed under the new administration, but Democrats enjoyed a brief moment of celebration in May when Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he would allow the rule to take effect in early-June.
It now appears the celebration was premature. Only part of the rule took effect in June, and the Labor Department isn’t enforcing that part until the entire rule takes effect on January 1, 2018. But now even that won’t be happening.
In a court filing last week, the Labor Department revealed that it had sent a rule to the White House for review that would delay full implementation of the fiduciary rule for 18 months, until July 1, 2019, enough time for the Trump administration to make significant changes or repeal it altogether.
The nuclear waste storage fight warms up: Where should America stash its spent nuclear fuel? A decades-old plan to create a central dumping site in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain stalled out during the Obama administration, with Nevada powerhouse Harry Reid leading Democrats in the Senate. But the Trump administration has re-opened that dormant fight over the past few months, and it’s starting to really heat up.
Trump requested $120 million in his 2018 budget to restart the licensing process for the Yucca site. In June, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced that he was reconstituting the key office that oversaw the Nevada site for long-term waste storage, setting off protests from Nevada lawmakers and forcing Perry to walk back some of this comments.
Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a memo dated July 31 directing staff to conduct preliminary “information-gathering” on restarting the licensing process. This is a small step but it’s another sign that Trump is serious about storing nuclear waste in the Yucca site. This fight is just getting underway.
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Sigh of Relief
That was the sound from Capitol Hill and health insurers Wednesday when President Donald Trump backed off, for at least another month, a threat to yank funding that helps many low-income Americans afford their medical coverage. Trump has flirted with ending so-called cost-sharing subsidies for months – and that uncertainty has already spooked health insurers – but a decision to pull them could send the markets into a tailspin and send premiums soaring in 2018.
The Senate's health care point-man, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), said the president's decision prevents massive cost short-term premium spikes; he urged his colleagues to pass legislation that would take the decision-making out of the president's hands in 2018.
"Congress should act before the end of September to keep insurance available at a reasonable cost during 2018," Alexander said in a statement.
That might be a difficult haul in the House, where Republican Study Committee chair Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) called the decision a bailout for insurers and said the Senate should revive its failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Virtually no one thinks it's a good idea for Trump to pull the plug on these subsidies, which help low-income patients pay their copays and deductibles. And even the month-to-month uncertainty has arguably caused premiums to rise. But the president has been loath to give up a unilateral pressure point over Congress and the health insurance industry, and he's still frustrated at Congress' inability to legislate on health care.
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Poll Shows Drop in Republicans’ Support for President
President Donald Trump’s approval rating has sunk to its lowest point since he took office, with only 35 percent of Americans saying they viewed the job he’s done favorably, according to a poll released last Wednesday.
The new Marist poll found that 55 percent disapprove of Trump after seven months on the job. Trump saw a sizable dip in his polling numbers among “strong Republicans,” from 91 percent in June to 79 percent, which analysts said shows a crack in the base on which the president leans heavily.
“While Republicans are still largely in Trump’s corner, the cautionary tale for the president lies in the softening of support at his base,” said Dr. Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “Since his numbers among Democrats and independents are weak, a crack among his most ardent supporters is something Trump can ill afford.”
Pollsters conducted the survey August 8 through 12, the day violence broke out before a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in the deaths of three people and scores who went home, or to the hospital, battered, bruised, and cut. Lawmakers from both parties have roundly criticized Trump for a perceived weak response to the presence of neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups involved in the Charlottesville maelstrom.
The Marist poll surveyed 1,009 adults by landline and mobile telephones. The margin of error for the overall poll was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Among the 361 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents surveyed, the margin of error was plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.
There has also been an escalation of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea in recent weeks, as Trump Kim Jong Un traded verbal threats of nuclear and missile attacks, which did help Trump’s polling numbers.
Sixty-two percent, or nearly two in three people polled, said Trump’s decisions in world affairs have weakened the role of the U.S. on the world stage, up from 58 percent in June.
Thirty-three percent said they believed the president has strengthened the United States’ international standing, including 67 percent of Republicans. But that number is down 9 points, from 76 percent, since June.
“[Republicans] are sending a clear message to the president about his role internationally,” Miringoff said. “More than six in 10 Americans, including a notable proportion of the president’s own party, think Trump is falling short on the global stage.”
Pyongyang indicated last Tuesday that North Korea would stand down from its threats to lob missiles into the waters near the U.S. territory of Guam, and the world breathed a short sigh of relief. The president responded to the threats on Guam by tweeting week that the U.S. was “locked and loaded,” and ready to respond in kind to any provocation. President Trump took to Twitter last Wednesday to applaud Kim’s “very wise and well reasoned decision.” “The alternative,” the president added, “would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!”
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Senator Gardner’s Unhappy Constituents Voice Frustration
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) was hammered for supporting Obamacare repeal during a series of raucous town halls last Tuesday, where constituents repeatedly criticized his role in a closed-door partisan process to draft the failed GOP health bill. Gardner, who’s responsible for protecting the GOP majority in the Senate in 2018, faced heated criticism over the repeal effort that collapsed just a few weeks ago, even as congressional leaders try to pivot to tax reform when they return from the lengthy recess next month.
While Gardner’s constituents in this purple state applauded him for his swift and strong condemnation of white supremacist groups this weekend, he was interrupted by boos and jeers of “shame” and was called a “liar” as he defended his support for health care legislation that would have significantly scaled back Obamacare and Medicaid.
Scott McLean, a 63-year-old who said he pays roughly $830 in premiums each month for an Obamacare plan, attended the town hall but was escorted out by police after repeatedly shouting, “Why are you taking away health care?”
“You didn’t even have a woman on the panel,” McLean said, referring to the 13-member, all-male working group tasked with drafting the Senate’s original repeal legislation. The comment drew a standing ovation from the roughly 400-person crowd in Greeley, the second of Gardner's three town halls on Tuesday.
Gardner also held town halls in Colorado Springs and Lakewood, where he shot down repeated calls to support a single-payer universal health care system favored by progressives.
Meanwhile, he also faced criticism from Republicans who urged him to fulfill the party’s promise to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act. “When I voted for you, you said you would repeal and replace,” said Jefferson County resident Joan Poston, a Gardner supporter.
But on health care, Gardner mostly faced criticism from constituents who said the GOP bill broke his promises to protect coverage, especially for those on Medicaid, as well as individuals with pre-existing conditions.
“We asked you to stand your ground and vote for those principles, and you did not,” said Erin Egan, a physician who practices in rural Colorado. “You only want to cut off people who need it.”
Colorado is one of 31 states that expanded Medicaid, covering an additional 425,000 low-income adults. Another 175,000 enrolled in private plans through the state’s Obamacare exchange this year.
Colorado has had some troubles with Obamacare. Premiums in the state’s Western Slope, home to several mountain ski resorts, have seen major cost spikes, and the state’s exchange struggled with prolonged glitches in the early years that depressed enrollment. Still, the law is strongly supported by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Gardner’s Senate colleague, Democrat Michael Bennet.
Gardner cited those problems, as well as the rash of insurance plan cancellations in 2013, to advocate for bipartisan fixes to the health law. Some key Republicans in Congress are now pursuing bipartisan efforts to shore up the Obamacare exchanges, but with no guarantee that they’ll succeed. “We’ve got to make sure we bring stability to the marketplace,” Gardner said. “What we need are reforms.”
At the same time, Gardner continued to advocate for traditional Republican health care ideas, such as creating high-risk pools for people with pre-existing conditions, allowing the sale of health insurance across state lines and putting Medicaid on a budget.
“We have to make sure that Medicaid is sustainable,” Gardner said, pointing to charts outlining the rise in federal spending on mandatory programs like health care entitlements and Social Security. Gardner has held few town hall meetings in the last several months and has seen his own ratings lag recently. While health care was a consistent focus of the town halls, he also faced questions on tax reform, climate change, North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and education.
He was praised throughout the day for being one of the first GOP senators to speak out against white nationalist groups who led violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend. The Ku Klux Klan and Nazis, Gardner said in Lakewood, “should go back to the cave they came from.” But he refused several requests from constituents to call on President Donald Trump to fire several top advisers that critics say are sympathetic to white nationalists, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. “The president has control over his staff,” Gardner said, as he was drowned out with boos.
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Venezuelan Assassination Plot Against Rubio?
Senator Marco Rubio recently co-introduced the BRAVE Act of 2017 and is a strong supporter of funeral service. What you may not know is that as Rubio ratcheted up U.S. pressure on Venezuela, a top politician believed to control that country’s security forces began actively discussing a plot to kill the Florida senator last month. According to a Department of Homeland Security memo sent to state and local law enforcement officials, the Venezuelan official may have wanted to use Mexican nationals for the assassination plot
The alleged threats from the Venezuelan politician, Diosdado Cabello Rondon, were not specific and weren’t corroborated by enough sources to merit a detailed explanation according to the memo, but the situation was worrying enough to prompt Capitol Police and law enforcement in Miami-Dade County to provide security for Rubio.
Despite the potential threat, Rubio has continued to speak out against Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro and pushed for more sanctions. Rubio even engaged in a brief Twitter exchange with Rondon last week when the senator accused the Venezuelan official of involvement in drug trafficking, which Rondon has denied.
Homeland Security is not releasing information that could endanger Rubio, his family or confidential law enforcement methods or sources.
The memo said that Rondon may even have discussed raising the money to kill Rubio or deal with the “problems” facing Venezuela’s ruling regime. “Rondon did indeed issue an order ... to have Senator Rubio assassinated,” the memo said. “Additionally, Rondon was communicating with unspecified Mexican nationals in furtherance of the matter.”
As Venezuela descended into chaos and a fraud-marred election that enabled Maduro to seize power, the United States labeled him a dictator and slapped individual sanctions on him and other members of his regime.
After a military uprising against Maduro was quashed, Rubio on August 6 called out Rondon on Twitter and said the incident “shows who's in charge of security forces in #Venezuela.”
Rondon replied in Spanish by accusing Rubio of imperialism and as “the defender of the terrorists who attacked Fort Paramacay,” a Venezuelan military base attacked earlier this month, apparently by dissident security forces.
He also called Rubio “Narco Rubio” — an ironic nickname considering that Rondon has long been suspected by the United States of involvement in drug trafficking, which he has denied.
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Will Milton Friedman Finally Kill the Death Tax?
This week a letter signed by 727 economists, including four Nobel Laureates, supporting repeal of the death tax was sent to leadership in the House, Senate and White House. The Wall Street Journal posted a nice writeup on the letter:
Just 11 years after his death, Milton Friedman is leading an expanding campaign to persuade lawmakers to abolish the federal estate tax. And this posthumous lobbying effort by the winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics couldn’t come at a better time.
Here’s the story: Workers cannot earn higher wages unless they get more productive, and the bad news is that productivity growth still hasn’t broken out of its Obama-era slump.
Compared with a year earlier, which is how economists often look at the longer-term trend, productivity was up 1.2% in the second quarter. That was a pickup from last year, when productivity posted its first calendar-year decline since 1982. It also matched the average pace since 2007, but remained well below the post-World War II average of 2.1% annual growth.
Lacking faith in the economic future, business owners have been reluctant to invest in the equipment that makes workers more productive. And the difference for workers between productivity growing at its recent 1% per year versus the faster traditional rate is enormous:
“If labor productivity grows an average of 2% per year, average living standards for our children’s generation will be twice what we experienced,” Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said in a July speech. “If labor productivity grows an average of 1% per year, the difference is dramatic: Living standards will take two generations to double.”
In the U.S., productivity growth was slowing before the recession began in December 2007 and has been historically weak throughout the recovery that began in mid-2009. That likely restrained wage growth and overall growth in economic activity.
A great way to encourage the investment that allows workers to be more productive and to command higher wages is to increase the returns on such investment. This column recently noted the voluminous research showing that reducing corporate income tax rates encourages investment which then drives wages higher for workers. Killing the federal estate tax, currently a whopping 40% after exemptions, would also encourage more investment—specifically in privately held businesses.
“Our model estimates that if you eliminated the estate tax the business capital stock would increase by 2.6 percent, which is about $850 billion worth of productive assets,” says Kyle Pomerleau of the Tax Foundation.
Friedman championed death-tax repeal for years. And now, just in time for a congressional debate on tax reform, he has managed to persuade more economists to participate in the campaign than he ever could while he was alive. In 2001, Friedman wrote an open letter on the subject and convinced 276 other members of his profession to sign along with him. This week the Family Business Coalition will announce that the letter now bears the names of 723 economists, including four winners of the Nobel Prize. Here’s the text of the letter, which makes eminent good sense even to those outside the economics profession:
(text of letter) To whom it may concern:
Spend your money on riotous living - no tax; leave your money to your children - the tax collector gets paid first. That is the message sent by the estate tax. It is a bad message and the estate tax is a bad tax.
The basic argument against the estate tax is moral. It taxes virtue - living frugally and accumulating wealth. It discourages saving and asset accumulation and encourages wasteful spending. It wastes the talent of able people, both those engaged in enforcing the tax and the probably even greater number engaged in devising arrangements to escape the tax.
The income used to accumulate the assets left at death was taxed when it was received; the earnings on the assets were taxed year after year; so, the estate tax is a second or third layer of taxation on the same assets.
The tax raises little direct revenue- partly because the estate planners have been so successful in devising ways to escape the tax. Costs of collection and compliance are high, perhaps of the same order as direct tax receipts. The encouragement of spending reduces national wealth and thereby the flow of aggregate taxable income. These indirect effects mean that eliminating the tax is likely to increase rather than decrease the net revenue yield to the federal government.
The estate tax is justified as a means of reducing the concentration of wealth. However, the truly wealthy and their estate planners avoid the tax. The low yield of the tax is a testament to the ineffectiveness of the tax as a force for reshaping the distribution of wealth.
The primary defense made for the estate tax is that it encourages charity. If so, there are better and less costly ways to encourage charity. Eliminating the estate tax will lead to higher economic growth, which is the most important variable in determining the level of charitable giving.
Death should not be a taxable event. The estate tax should be repealed.
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North Dakota Senate
Last Wednesday, North Dakota state senator Tom Campbell confirmed he would challenge Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp for her seat. Campbell said he made his decision after months of consideration and traveling the state.
“I just want to basically go to Washington and fight just like my dad did so my grandkids and kids can have the American Dream too,” Campbell said in a brief phone interview. He said his father was a pilot in World War II.
Heitkamp, who was first elected in 2012, is one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats this cycle. President Donald Trump won her state by nearly roughly 36 points last fall. Campbell pointed to Trump when discussing his Senate run, noting that politicians in the nation’s capital have “lost touch with what made America great …. I continue to want to partner up with Trump. I like his agenda.”
The timing of his decision to jump in the race is partly due to Heitkamp’s ever-growing campaign coffers, Campbell said. According to Federal Election Commission documents, she had more than $3 million in cash on hand at the end of June.
Campbell amassed his own wealth before his election to the state Senate in 2012, giving him the ability to self-fund his race. He is the co-founder of Campbell Farms and chairman of Choice Financial Banks Holding Company. He said he was still determining how much he might spend on his campaign. “Right now, I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to take and how much money I’m going to spend but I know I’ll be right there,” Campbell said. “Between my friends and potential people that support me, I’ll have enough resources to challenge her.”
Democrats did not appear fazed by Heitkamp’s new challenger. “No one works harder for North Dakota than Senator Heitkamp, which is why Republicans have struggled for find a qualified candidate to take her on,” David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Looks like they’re still looking.”
Campbell said he expects two of the major issues in his campaign to be overhauling the tax code and repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law. Both issues are also the main GOP priorities that have so far eluded the Republicans in charge of Congress. Campbell specifically pointed to Heitkamp’s votes against GOP proposals to repeal and replace the 2010 law.
Campbell said he would have voted for both the leadership’s proposal, known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act, and the last-ditch effort to repeal some major parts of the law, known as the “skinny repeal.” “It wasn’t perfect. It had a lot of work. But it was a move forward to bring it up and discuss and start fixing it,” Campbell said of the GOP health care bills. “Heidi didn’t give it a chance.”
Campbell said he and his consultants have been in touch with national Republicans, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee. One GOP operative said Campbell wasn’t likely to clear the GOP primary field. North Dakota’s at-large Rep. Kevin Cramer is also eyeing a run. CNN recently reported that some Republicans were pushing Campbell to run and urging Cramer to stay out of the race due to his past controversial statements.
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Utah House Race To Replace Rep. Chaffetz
John Curtis, the mayor of Provo, Utah, won the race for the Republican nomination Tuesday to fill the seat vacated by retired Rep. Jason Chaffetz against a pair of GOP rivals who portrayed themselves as more ardently conservative.
Curtis is now well positioned in Utah’s conservative 3rd Congressional District ahead of the November 7 general election, where he will face a Democrat and several third-party candidates.
Curtis faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative super PAC ads that sought to portray him as insufficiently committed to lowering taxes and cutting government spending. Many of them highlighted his 2000 run as a Democrat for a state legislative seat. But Curtis has won approval since taking office as mayor in 2010, and polls showed he enjoyed an early lead in the race that the attack ads were unlikely to overcome.
Quin Monson, a Brigham Young University professor and political consultant who advised Curtis, said his win was “entirely attributable to his strong performance as mayor of Provo.”
“He had solved some major problems in the Provo area and had the city pretty united around what he was trying to do,” Monson said. “He has stayed pretty positive. He’s run on his record as mayor.”
Although the race generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending and unusually heated political attacks in a state known for its relatively subdued politics, it has flown under the national political radar, largely because President Trump has not been a major factor in the contest.
Unlike other House races decided this year, Democrats are not seriously contesting the heavily GOP district, and unlike in Tuesday’s Senate primary in Alabama, the Republican candidates’ postures toward Trump have not been a crucial factor.
Curtis was ahead with a 41 percent plurality in early returns, outpacing former state lawmaker Chris Herrod and lawyer Tanner Ainge, who both polled around 30 percent with around 77 percent of votes counted.
Herrod won the endorsements of conservative Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and positioned himself as the most keenly conservative candidate in the race, targeting the GOP activist base in the special election that was called after Chaffetz announced his retirement in May.
The Club for Growth, a Washington group that calls for lower taxes and spending, poured about $300,000 into supporting Herrod and attacking his opponents, particularly Curtis, with ads lambasting him for supporting fee hikes as mayor and for once running for office as a Democrat. Curtis held a commanding lead in early published polls, but the race tightened after the spate of outside spending.
Curtis sought to play off the attacks, casting them as desperate ploys from outside agitators and setting up a website to offer a detailed rebuttal of their claims. He also won the endorsements of key GOP figures in the state, including popular Gov. Gary R. Herbert. Monson said the negative ads may have backfired in a state known for relatively genteel campaigning.
“Negative campaigns are effective, but I do think that tone and factual context also matters,” he said. “I do think the negative ads overplayed the hand that they were dealt.”
Curtis will face Democratic nominee Kathie Allen, a physician selected at a party convention, as well as Jim Bennett, the son of the late GOP senator Robert F. Bennett, who is among several third-party candidates running in the general election.
According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Republicans enjoy a 25-point advantage in the district, putting it among the top 20 most-GOP-leaning seats in the country. Although Allen has raised nearly a half-million dollars after challenging Chaffetz this year, national Democrats have shown no sign of getting involved in the race.
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Alabama Senate Race
President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went all in for their man Luther Strange in the Alabama Senate race, but the two GOP leaders will need a lot more to put him over the top after Strange’s second-place finish in Tuesday’s opening round of balloting.
Strange starts the six-week runoff in the hole against former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, whose fervent base of evangelical supporters helped him clinch nearly 40 percent of the vote in a field of 10 candidates. The outcome puts enormous pressure on Trump and McConnell, both of whom have put their political capital on the line: they now must find a way to get Strange a majority of support when the Republican nomination is decided on September 26.
Senior Republicans conceded that Tuesday’s results weren’t what they’d hoped for. But they argued that Strange, who in February was appointed to the Senate seat that Attorney General Jeff Sessions held for two decades, still has a path to victory.
One option being considered by McConnell allies, who have already spent around $4 million in support of Strange, is a scorched-earth campaign targeting Moore. In a possible preview of what’s to come, the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund began airing TV commercials in the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary accusing Moore of taking funds from a charity he ran. Those involved with Senate Leadership Fund insist they have not yet decided on what approach to take. In the days to come, the group intends to examine the results and pore through polling to determine how to proceed.
Yet to some, Strange’s backers have little choice but to turn Moore, a controversial figure who rose to national fame after refusing to obey a federal court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a state judicial building, into an unacceptable choice for the Senate.
“I think it’s a pretty nasty six weeks,” said Blake Harris, a Republican strategist in the state. “If Luther is running from behind, they’re going to have to do some work on Moore.”
Trump gave his full-throated support to Strange. The president effectively bet that his own coattails in Alabama would more than compensate for the baggage Strange carries as the candidate of the D.C. establishment. Alabama was critical to the president’s rise; it was the location of an August 2015 rally that was a key early moment in his campaign.
A Strange loss would be seen as an embarrassment for Trump. It is for that reason that some of the president’s top advisers urged him to stay out of the contest, convinced that an endorsement would be an unnecessary risk. Yet during the past week, Trump cut a robocall for Strange and tweeted repeatedly in support of him. A White House-sanctioned super PAC, meanwhile, spent around $200,000 in the final days of the race to encourage Trump supporters to turn out for Strange.
The president must now decide how aggressively to back the senator in the runoff, including whether he should make a personal visit to the state. With most of the vote counted in the first round of voting, Moore had 39.5 percent, with Strange at 32 percent and Rep. Mo Brooks at 20 percent.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has even more riding on the race than Trump. The Senate leader made the Alabama race his top political priority, a decision borne in part out of a desire to protect besieged incumbents like Strange. Yet it also reflects McConnell's desire to keep bomb-throwing insurgents like Moore, who has vowed to oppose McConnell, out of his conference. That sentiment was reinforced by the leader’s failure to pass an Obamacare repeal bill.
McConnell’s super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, is prepared to spend as much as $4 million more to get Strange elected. Yet some believe the barrage is causing a backlash within the state, feeding the perception that big Washington interests are trying to buy the election. At a time when the public is fed up with party leaders, voters are being repelled by McConnell’s effort to influence the contest, critics of the ad barrage say.
“We don’t like for government – state, local – to inject too much into our personal lives. And what we’ve been seeing with Mitch McConnell and the Senate Leadership Fund is a true injection of money and opinion into our state and into this race, and the backlash is palpable,” said GOP state Rep. Ed Henry, a prominent Trump supporter in Alabama. “People are angry.”
Particularly concerning for the pro-Strange forces is the prospect that Brooks, the third-place finisher who received nearly 20 percent of the vote, will endorse Moore. In the weeks leading up to the primary, as he came under heavy assault from Senate Leadership Fund, Brooks warned that his voters would be less inclined to support the McConnell-backed Strange in the runoff and that they would migrate to Moore. “I don’t think it’s very unclear at all. The supporters of Mo Brooks by and large will not be supporting Luther Strange,” said Bill Armistead, a former Alabama GOP chairman who is helping to lead the Moore campaign. “The Senate Leadership Fund has run so much negativism, it’s hard to imagine any of the Brooks supporters getting behind Luther Strange.”
Top Senate GOP officials say they’ve been digging into polling to determine what effect a Brooks endorsement of Moore would have. In the end, Strange is hitching his fortunes to Trump, who carried the state by nearly 30 points in the November election. Over the coming weeks, pro-Strange TV ads are expected to highlight his presidential endorsement. Yet some believe the 70-year-old Moore, a well-known commodity in Alabama politics, could survive a Trump-led effort to save Strange.
“Judge Moore has a core group of followers that really believe in his message," said Tom Young, a former chief of staff to Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby. "And even if he ran against Donald Trump, a lot of core supporters would support him.”
Whomever wins the runoff will face former federal prosecutor Doug Jones, who bested seven other candidates with 64 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
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Former NFL Player Considering Congressional Bid in Ohio
Anthony Gonzalez, a former wide receiver for Ohio State University and the Indianapolis Colts is weighing a run for Congress in Ohio’s 16th District. The seat will likely be up for grabs as Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, who has occupied it since 2010, plans a run to replace term-limited Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Gonzalez has met with the National Republican Congressional Committee to convey his intent to run, though he has not yet made any public announcement. A Republican source close to him said he is “seriously considering a run, and is close to making a decision,” Cleveland.com reported.
Gonzalez would square off against a field of seasoned Republican state lawmakers in the primary next May, including Reps. Christina Hagan and Tom Patton.
Ohio’s 16th District spans Wayne County in northeastern Ohio and five other counties, including some in the eastern suburbs of Akron, and has been firmly within the GOP grasp since the 1960s. Inside Elections rates it "Solid Republican." Donald Trump won the district by nearly 17 points in 2016, and Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama by eight points in 2012. Trump’s success could have implications on the 2018 House race, as candidates try to align with or differentiate from the president.
Gonzalez, 32, has soared in the business world since his retirement from the NFL in 2011. He earned his MBA from Stanford University in 2014 and was chief operating officer of Chalk Schools in San Francisco before moving back to Ohio. He played high school football in Cleveland before starting at wideout for the OSU Buckeyes team that lost the NCAA national championship to the University of Florida in 2007. He was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts that spring but struggled to stay on the field due to a series of injuries. Gonzalez is descended from Cuban-American immigrants who fled the country after Fidel Castro deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
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Rep. Tsongas Retirement Sparks Flurry Of Interest
As we reported last week, Massachusetts Rep. Niki Tsongas’ retirement announcement sparked a flurry of interest in her Merrimack Valley-based seat, including Ellen Meehan, the ex-wife of former Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan – who represented the district before Tsongas – and a former campaign chair for Tsongas.
“This will certainly be a highly contested race as it has been in the past,” Meehan told POLITICO. “I’m going to give it very serious consideration.”
Within hours of Tsongas’ surprise announcement, the rare opening in the Massachusetts congressional delegation attracted several other prominent Democrats. State Sen. Barbara L’Italien and former state Sen. Barry Finegold, who finished fourth behind Tsongas in the 2007 Democratic special primary election, both said in statements that they are also considering running for the seat. Two additional Democratic names from the 2007 special primary election have also surfaced: state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who came in third place, told POLITICO he is “taking a look” at running, and state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, who finished a close second to Tsongas.
Another possible candidate in what’s expected to be an expanding field is Dan Koh, chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has made waves in Boston while maintaining a presence in his hometown of Andover.
While Tsongas typically won reelection by comfortable margins – and Hillary Clinton carried the 3rd District by more than 20 percentage points in 2016 – Republicans insist the right GOP candidate has a shot at winning the open seat. The state party is weighing its chances in the district, which only gave Sen. Elizabeth Warren a narrow win in 2012 and was carried by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2014 and Republican Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez in 2013.
Among the Republicans looking at the seat is Rick Green, founder of the influential, conservative-leaning nonprofit Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance (MFA) and owner of a Pepperell-based business.
“I’m sure he’s going to be putting some thought into it,” said Paul Craney, executive director of MFA. “[He] is clearly the frontrunner.”
Green briefly considered challenging Warren in next year’s Senate election. The open seat contest could be buffeted by political crosswinds next year. Aside from the Senate and gubernatorial races at the top of the ticket, a potential 2018 ballot question that would reduce the state sales tax could prove especially popular for residents living in a district that stretches along the border of sales tax-free New Hampshire. Strong early organization around another ballot question that would increase taxes on annual income earners over $1 million could draw strong turnout among progressives.
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Judges Rule Texas Districts Were Drawn Based on Race
A federal panel ruled Tuesday that the drawing of two Texas House districts violated federal law and that the state’s congressional map needs to be redrawn ahead of the 2018 midterms. The unanimous ruling from the three-judge panel found that the 35th District, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett, and the 27th District, represented by Republican Blake Farenthold, were drawn primarily on the basis of race, violating the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
The ruling could also have implications for efforts to ensure Texas voting proposals are pre-cleared by the federal government before becoming law.
In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling “puzzling,” and said he intends to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
“We look forward to asking the Supreme Court to decide whether Texas had discriminatory intent when relying on the district court,” Paxton said.
The ruling is part of a years-long saga over Texas’ congressional map. Earlier this year, the panel ruled that the 2011 versions for the 35th, 27th, and the 23rd District, represented by GOP Rep. Will Hurd, violated federal law. But in 2013, before that ruling was issued, a new map was drawn amid ongoing litigation. The Texas government argued that the new map solved the issues found in the 2011 map, but plaintiffs in the case said some of the 2011 lines carried over into the 2013 map.
The federal judges sided mainly with the plaintiffs, finding that two of the three previously invalid districts were unchanged in the new map. “Rather than draw fair maps, legislators have diminished African-American and Latino voters’ power and separated them into districts based solely on their race, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act,” said Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. “It’s well past time for the Legislature to fix these violations, and we appreciate the court’s rejection of the government’s effort to discriminate against voters based on race and ethnicity.”
Tuesday’s ruling validated the lines for Hurd’s 23rd District, which is likely welcome news for the incumbent. Redrawing the district could have tipped the balance in a race rated a toss-Up by Inside Elections. The court found that the 23rd District is currently “a Latino opportunity district and there is no evidence of intentional discrimination/dilution.” Hurd’s district could still shift if altering the lines of the 35th and the 27th causes a ripple effect in other districts.
“As you dismantle the districts, it’s possible you make changes to the 23rd,” said Michael Li, the senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.
Li said a key part of the ruling was that the court found there was intentional racial discrimination in the 2013 congressional map. That finding could factor into whether Texas is placed back under a pre-clearance process. Under that process, the state would need federal approval before changing voting laws. Texas had been subject to pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which named specific states with histories of discrimination. But in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 5 violated the Constitution. The plaintiffs in the redistricting case have argued that Texas should be placed back under the pre-clearance process under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. That section includes a “bail-in” provision that says jurisdictions that have intentionally discriminated would be subject to the pre-clearance process.
“This will be big test for whether Section 3 actually has real teeth or not,” Li said. But before the pre-clearance issue is settled, Texas first needs to redraw its congressional map to correct the violations.
The state has until Friday to inform the court if and when the Legislature intends to redraw the map. If it opts not to take up redistricting, the court will move to impose a new plan, starting with a hearing on September 5.
Li said an appeal would mean the maps would not be final until the Supreme Court rules on the issue, which could be in December or January at the earliest.
Representative Doggett said in a statement that he is still planning to run for re-election in the 35th District. “What Republicans did was not just wrong, it was unconstitutional,” the twelve-term congressman said. “Since the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final say, this extended struggle is not yet over. Unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise, I plan to seek reelection in the district that I currently represent.”
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Redistricting Cases are Still Pending in North Carolina and Maryland
The Texas case was a reminder that redistricting litigation, which played out in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, is still ongoing across the country. Congressional maps in North Carolina and Maryland are still being challenged, with the impact on next year’s midterms yet to be determined.
For civil rights advocates, the major significance of the Texas ruling is not so much what it means for individual members of Congress in the near term, but what it may mean for the ability of Texas, and other southern states, to make changes to voting procedures on their own in the future. By finding that Texas’ Republican-controlled legislature intentionally discriminated against black and Hispanic voters when it drew the map, the judges opened up the possibility that Texas could be “bailed” back in to preclearance requirements under the Voting Rights Act.
Ahead of a midterm election in which Democrats need to pickup 24 seats in the House, any decision that could shift a district in their favor could put them closer to that magic number.
“Right now we expect the new lines to boost Democrats’ prospects in at least two districts,” said Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The National Republican Congressional Committee did not immediately return request for comment about the ruling.
Redistricting cases affected several maps leading up to last year’s congressional elections. In Virginia, Democrats gained a safe seat, now held by freshman Rep. A. Donald McEachin. In North Carolina, the lines of the districts changed, but the GOP advantage in its congressional delegation did not. Legal challenges to North Carolina’s map are still pending.
In McCrory v. Harris, which was argued before the Supreme Court in December, Republicans are appealing a lower court’s 2016 ruling that the 1st and 12th Districts were racially gerrymandered in 2011. The court found that black voters were packed into Democratic Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams’ districts, thereby diluting their influence across the state. As is the case in Texas, the 2011 North Caroline map in question is no longer in use. The state’s GOP-legislature drew a new map last spring that was used for last fall’s elections. But just because the 2011 map isn’t in use anymore doesn’t mean there can’t be legal repercussions from having drawn it in the first place.
There’s a second pending case that could affect North Carolina’s congressional map, but this one affects the new map and it’s in federal district court. The League of Women Voters and Common Cause are objecting to what they see was a partisan gerrymander in the 2016 map, under which Republicans hold 10 seats and Democrats three, unchanged from the 2011 map.
In Maryland, it’s Republicans rather than Democrats who feel wronged by redistricting. The plaintiffs have argued that in 2011, the Democratic governor and legislature drew the 6th District to favor Democrats. It’s currently held by Democratic Rep. John Delaney, who unseated 10-term Republican Roscoe Bartlett in 2012.
All of these cases are hanging in the balance with just four years to go until state legislatures take a fresh stab at redistricting based on the 2020 census. But there’s not much time for mid-term candidates as the filing deadline for congressional candidates for the 2018 midterms is Dec. 11, a mere nine months away.
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The GOP’s Nastiest Primary (So Far)
The slugfest underway between the Republican Reps. Tod Rokita and Luke Messer in Indiana isn’t just for the right to compete for possibly the GOP’s best opportunity to seize a Senate seat from Democrats in next year’s midterms, it’s a chance for the two ambitious pols, who’ve been vying to outdo one another politically since they graduated from the same small college more than 25 years ago, to finally settle their score.
Their campaign didn’t officially get underway until last week, but Messer has already accused Rokita of attacking his wife and “spreading lies” about his record. Rokita has questioned his rival’s mental health, calling Messer “unhinged” and a “ticking time bomb.”
With 10 Democratic senators from states that President Donald Trump carried up for reelection in 2018, the scale of opportunity for Republican gains has already spawned several no-holds-barred primaries. But few states are as ripe for a Republican challenge as Indiana – where Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly is unusually vulnerable, running in a state Trump carried by 19 points – and no primary has gotten so nasty, so quickly.
More than a dozen professional colleagues and personal acquaintances painted the hostility between Rokita and Messer as the product of three decades of pent-up rivalry. The two men, who both declined interview requests, have climbed Indiana’s political ladder alongside each other for years and even attended the same small, all-male Wabash College together in the early 1990s, a school whose unofficial motto, a former dean noted with a touch of irony, is “competition without malice.”
“I’ve been watching the race between Todd and Luke,” said David Hadley, the former dean of students at Wabash College, “and wondering if that’s going to carry through or not.”
Over the years, Messer has enjoyed the full embrace of Indiana’s political elite, which appointed him to a seat in the state Legislature and embraced him as part of its leadership. That same elite has always kept Rokita at bay.
Rokita became one of the nation’s youngest statewide elected officials when he was elected Indiana’s secretary of state at age 31. But he made enemies among Republicans in the state Legislature, which years later redrew Rokita’s congressional district in a way that put his home on the wrong side of the new boundary. Many of Indiana’s most prominent political leaders, including Vice President Mike Pence’s brother Greg, have lined up behind Messer. When Rokita put his name forward for governor last year when Pence became Trump’s vice presidential nominee, the state Republican central committee instead went with now-Gov. Eric Holcomb, a former party chairman.
“Todd has a sense that ‘Messer gets all the breaks and I don’t,’” said one GOP operative. “Now they’re placed in a zero-sum game, and their underlying feelings come out.”
Those feelings reached a boiling point in May and have not calmed since. Messer had been considering a challenge to Donnelly since at least last summer, according to allies, and at first, Rokita waited quietly in the wings. But early this year, Rokita started raising money and meeting with Republican leaders in Washington. An Associated Press story in May revealed Messer’s wife, a lawyer, was being paid a $240,000-a-year consulting fee from an Indianapolis suburb. The attack struck a particular nerve with Messer, who thought it was prompted by Rokita, according to two people familiar with his thinking. And he didn’t hold back.
"Frankly, I've known Todd a long time and very little surprises me," Messer told a local TV station. "But I would say it's not typical that someone starts a campaign by coming after someone's spouse.”
Rokita kept needling Messer in public, about that story and for relocating his family to Virginia. Messer distributed a lengthy email accusing Rokita of “spreading lies and half-truths,” which Rokita’s campaign responded to by calling Messer “unhinged” and a “ticking time bomb.” Soon, as both candidates lashed out at each other in the press, a dozen edits appeared on Messer’s Wikipedia page echoing one of Rokita’s main lines of attack on Messer: his work as a lobbyist.
They have not always clashed, though their careers have been entwined from their earliest days. The affable Messer was the starting middle linebacker and captain of the football team at clubby Wabash, which has produced an unusual number of Indiana politicians for its size, while the hard-charging Rokita worked at the student newspaper.
When the secretary of state race came up in 2002 and Rokita decided to run, Messer, who had made a failed bid for Congress and then became the executive director of the Indiana GOP, passed on running himself and instead worked to raise money, make ads and bring in staff to elevate the relatively unknown Rokita. Bob Grand, a longtime Indiana lobbyist who is now supporting Messer, described Messer as a “tireless advocate” for getting Rokita elected.
But many supporters who helped Rokita defeat a slew of other prominent Republicans in the primary have since abandoned him and are backing Messer for Senate, including his campaign manager Tom John and Grand.
Rokita has earned a reputation as an exacting boss, prone to calling staff late at night. “Todd has been more of a squeaky wheel than Luke,” said Dan Dumezich, chairman of Rokita’s finance committee. “Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and sometimes the squeaky wheel just irritates people.”
Rokita ran particularly afoul of the state Legislature, where Messer had quickly risen up the ranks during a stint several years earlier, in 2009, as lawmakers began preparing for the once-in-a-decade redistricting process. Then in his second term as secretary of state, Rokita proposed making it a felony for lawmakers to consider politics when drawing political boundaries. He toured the state promoting his idea and drew up sample maps with new boundaries.The Legislature bristled at Rokita’s suggestion, which would have given his office new power and disrupted lawmakers’ safe seats. The state Senate president, a fellow Republican, said Rokita had “crossed the line.”
Two years later, lawmakers gave Rokita his due: the Legislature drew Rokita, who by then was serving his first term in Congress, out of his district. His home sat just 500 yards from the line, a slight that lawmakers called coincidental and Rokita publicly labeled as “comeuppance.” Rokita would later move into his new district.
Messer has been quick to build coalitions and quickly rose to leadership positions in both the state House and in Congress. Messer had a very different experience in the Legislature: he was appointed to a state House seat in May 2003, and by 2005 was serving in the chamber’s leadership.
After a Time magazine story spotlighted Indiana as a center of the high school dropout crisis, Messer embraced school reform and found support from Gov. Mitch Daniels, as well as Indiana’s elite donors.
Rokita eyed running for Senate in 2010, but opted instead to run for the House. He arrived on Capitol Hill in 2011 and within months found himself at the center of a national clash after he joined other newly elected conservatives in refusing to vote to raise the debt ceiling, enraging House leaders.
Messer ran for Congress in 2010 unsuccessfully, but succeeded two years later on his third try. The Wabash grads then found themselves rubbing elbows – and at times, throwing them – on Capitol Hill.
Messer again rose up the ranks fast: within two years he was elected as chair of the House Republican Policy Committee. And he again embraced education by leading a school choice caucus, hosting rallies attended by John Boehner and Eric Cantor that featured Messer as the smiling emcee.
While Rokita appears endlessly willing to take on unpopular, but important, fights, Messer has been quick to build coalitions and quickly rose to leadership positions in both the state House and in Congress. But Messer’s skill at listening to people and building coalitions can have downsides as well, a GOP strategist warned. “Luke’s personality is to try to placate both sides. You may not ultimately satisfy anybody,” he said.
And Rokita, who led an education subcommittee, jockeyed with Messer for prominence on his key issue. In 2015, he was working diligently on a major education bill when Messer nearly unraveled a year’s work. Messer made a stand in favor of adopting school vouchers, a controversial issue that jeopardized the bill; Rokita fumed to colleagues until Messer backed down.
Today, both men are feuding in public as they launch their campaigns. Both say they’re focused on running campaigns that can eventually defeat Donnelly but they frequently fall back into a now-familiar habit, nipping at each other instead of their Democratic foe.
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