● WI-01: On Wednesday morning, in a move that had been telegraphed for some time yet was still momentous, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he would retire at the end of this term. Ryan’s exit not only could put his own seat in play, it has the potential to seriously alter an already volatile electoral landscape for both Democrats and—especially—Republicans.
Ryan first won Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District in southeastern Wisconsin in 1998 after working for several years as an aide to various members of Congress, including Sam Brownback. Ryan succeeded GOP Rep. Mark Neumann, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate that year, and easily won both the primary and general elections. Once in office, he never faced a serious challenge for re-election and always won by double digits, particularly after his seat was redrawn to become redder ahead of 2002.
Ryan rose to prominence in 2010, the year Republicans took back the House, by pushing a plan to radically slash both taxes and spending, particularly Medicare. A credulous press regarded him as a sincere intellectual, even though his proposals were based on fraudulent math—a Paul Krugman column memorably dubbed him “the Flimflam Man.” His aim of gutting entitlements endeared him to the conservative establishment, though, and helped win him a spot as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. (Even though the ticket lost, state law allowed Ryan to simultaneously run for his House seat.) Eventually, he rose to the pinnacle of House leadership.
But in mid-December, following passage of the GOP’s bill cutting taxes on the wealthy, reports began surfacing that Ryan’s speakership (and with it, his congressional career) appeared to be nearing its end. While some Republicans refused to believe it—Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker claimed Ryan told him he was “not going anywhere”—Ryan’s ascension to the speakership in the wake of John Boehner’s surprise resignation in 2015 was marked above all else by extreme reluctance.
Ryan had to be forcibly drafted by his colleagues after Boehner’s heir-apparent, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, abruptly withdrew his own name from consideration. Ryan only accepted the job after demanding that the unruly Freedom Caucus give him their support, and after publicly insisting he wouldn’t curtail his weekend visits to his family in Janesville, a pledge he apparently kept. Yet all that family time didn’t stop Ryan raising truly prodigious sums for his party, including $54 million this cycle alone.
That prolific fundraising is something the GOP might soon miss. Even if Ryan maintains his hectic schedule, now that he’s stepping down, he’s unlikely to be the same draw for wealthy conservative interests that he once was. Ryan’s exodus could also damage Republican morale and recruitment and might even lead to more retirements. After all, who wants to charge into battle when your own general has decided to abandon the field? (NRCC chair Steve Stivers bravely concurred that Republicans would see “under 10” more departures, to go with the 39, Ryan included, they’re already facing.)
Indeed, Ryan’s choice may reflect his own calculus of the GOP’s increasingly dim odds of holding the House. Had Ryan sought re-election but seen his majority slip away, remaining in Congress would likely have been untenable. Republicans in recent decades have had a way of making it clear to their speakers that losing is unacceptable: Newt Gingrich resigned after unexpectedly losing seats in the 1998 midterms, and Denny Hastert did so after losing the majority outright in 2006. Rather than join such an ignominious list, Ryan upended precedent and decided to walk off of his own accord—the first House speaker to do so while his party controlled both Congress and the White House since 1902.
Ryan’s absence could impact the Democratic game plan as well. Some Democrats had been gearing up to make a foil of Ryan, who is vastly more unpopular—and more closely associated with the GOP’s failings—than Donald Trump, in much the same way Republicans have demonized Nancy Pelosi. And the early tests had been positive: Conor Lamb attacked Ryan in TV ads for wanting to gut Medicare and Social Security, to great success. With Ryan gone, will such campaigns still be effective? Considering that Republicans still run ads attacking Hillary Clinton, Democrats are sure to try making Ryan their punching bag—he’s still speaker, after all.
As for his own seat, Ryan had earned a spirited challenge from ironworker Randy Bryce, whose viral launch video helped nationalize his campaign and raise millions of dollars in small donations from progressives eager to take a bite out of the speaker’s hide. (Janesville School Board Member Cathy Myers is also running in the Democratic primary.) Democrats will no longer be able to run against their favorite bogeyman, but at the same time, whoever wins the GOP nomination to succeed Ryan also won’t have his $11 million war chest.
Wisconsin’s 1st District (which now includes conservative suburban Milwaukee) has long been solidly red turf thanks to redistricting, though, so this was always going to be a tough race. But interestingly, while Trump carried the seat by a 53-42 margin, Mitt Romney only won here by a considerably narrower 52-47 spread—even though Ryan himself was on the ticket and won his own House race 55-43. We’ll take a more detailed look at the playing field in the next digest, but given the way 2018 is shaping up for Democrats, a seat like this could definitely wind up in play, especially given the message Ryan’s retreat sends to Republicans.
Be sure to keep our Senate fundraising roundup handy, since we update that as new numbers come in. As per usual, we’ll have a House roundup after reports are due at the FEC on April 15. Note that this is the last day we’ll list out individual House numbers for the fourth quarter; after that, they’ll all go in our big roundup.
● IN-Sen: Wealthy businessman Mike Braun is out with another ad taking aim at both his May 8 GOP primary rivals. His newest offering features two children in suits playing young versions of Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita. As they hand out fliers on the steps of their school telling kids to vote for them, a third boy, who is meant to represent Braun, is shown reading about stocks and commodities. And as much as it pains us to say so, it’s actually a pretty cute and memorable spot. (Though if we wanted to see kid versions of the candidates in any GOP primary, we’d probably have gone with the crazy West Virginia Senate race. Though come to think on it, Young Don Blankenship is a scary premise. CBS, don’t call us, we’ll call you.)
Back to the ad. While young Braun is shown with his head in the book as little Messer and Rokita groom their hair and practice smiling in front of their lockers, the narrator says that, his two opponents wanted careers in politics, “Mike wanted a career in business.” The two little congressmen are then shown in front of the classroom arguing in front of bored students, while Braun continues to sit quietly and read.
The spot ends with the narrator saying that, while the other two “spent 40 years in politics voting for billions in debt, Mike spent 40 years building a successful business.” Adult Braun is then shown at his desk working, and he interrupts the narrator and declares he’s trying to work.
● MI-Sen: We have two polls of the August GOP primary to take on Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and they confirm that voters have little idea who their choices are. Denno Research gives venture capitalist Sandy Pensler a 16-12 lead over businessman and veteran John James, while the GOP firm Strategic National has Pensler up 20-12. Strategic National did not identify a client, but they asked a follow-up question asking if viewers had seen Pensler’s ad about cleaning up Washington and whether it makes them more likely to back him, while they didn’t inquire any further into James.
● CT-Gov: While there was a report last week saying that former banking executive James Smith had decided to seek the GOP nomination for governor, he announced he would stay out of the race. Smith only had recently switched his party registration from the Independent Party to the GOP, and he acknowledged there were legal hurdles ahead of him if he wanted to run as a Republican.
● IA-Gov: State Sen. Nate Boulton is out with his latest TV ad in the Democratic primary for governor. The spot features former state Senate President Pam Jochum relaying the story of how Republican privatization of Medicaid hit her family especially hard because her severely disabled adult daughter relies on it. Jochum praises Boulton for fighting for Medicaid patients and taking their case all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court over the GOP’s closure of state mental hospitals.
● MI-Gov: Denno Research has released a poll of each party’s Aug. 7 primaries, but the results aren’t too informative. On the Democratic side, former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer leads self-funding businessman Shri Thanedar by 17-15, while former Detroit Health Commissioner Abdul El-Sayed takes just 2 percent. On the GOP side, state Attorney General Bill Schuette beats Lt. Gov. Brian Calley by 23-13. Unfortunately though, with such a sky-high share of undecideds on both sides, this poll doesn’t really tell us much about the state of each race.
Meanwhile, the state AFL-CIO has endorsed Whitmer, who has already won the lion’s share of labor support in the primary. However, Thanedar isn’t without his own resources thanks to his large personal fortune, and for a while he has been the only Democrat already running TV ads. Indeed, Thanedar said on Tuesday he plans to spend $1 million to air 10 new ads over the next two months.
● MO-Gov: The legislative committee that Missouri Republican House Speaker Todd Richardson formed in February to “investigate allegations against Gov. Eric R. Greitens” after the governor’s indictment on felony charges in St. Louis issued its report early Wednesday evening—and it’s damning, to say the least.
The felony invasion of privacy charges Greitens faces stem from an incident in 2015 when he allegedly restrained his partly nude girlfriend (Greitens is married) and took photos of her without her consent. Greitens then used those photos to blackmail the woman into remaining silent about their affair as he ran for governor, according to the indictment. But according to the report, the incident was far more horrific than previous press accounts had indicated.
The investigating committee, finding the woman a “credible witness,” described in detail the means by which Greitens allegedly restrained, exposed, and photographed her without her consent. The report also recounts events that she says happened immediately after Greitens took the photos and freed her from her restraints. As she wept “uncontrollably,” says the report, Greitens coerced her into giving him oral sex “under duress” before permitting her to leave his home. The woman also disclosed additional encounters with Greitens, including multiple instances where she says he hit her.
An hour before this damning report dropped, Greitens held a pre-emptive press conference, during which he read a prepared statement castigating the report’s findings as “lies” and claiming that the allegations against him were “outlandish,” “false,” and the result of a “political witch hunt.” Despite the fact that he declined the committee’s request to testify and provide documents, Greitens accused the lawmakers—five Republicans and two Democrats—of publishing “an incomplete document made in secret.” Greitens continues to ignore calls for his resignation.
● PA-Gov: Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest ad bemoans how the (GOP-controlled) state legislature cut funding for education before he got elected, hurting Pennsylvania’s children. Wolf takes credit for restoring much of that funding once he took office by refusing to back down in fights with the legislature over the budget.
● NM-Gov: Campaign finance reports covering the period of Oct. 3 to April 2 are in. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic primary frontrunner, took in $1.4 million, and she had $1.8 million cash-on-hand. State Sen. Joe Cervantes only raised $55,000 during this time, but he loaned himself an additional $1 million, and he had $1.4 million in the bank. Businessman Jeff Apodaca raised only $254,000, and he had only $323,000 to spend.
GOP Rep. Steve Pearce will need a lot to go right to win the general, but it doesn’t look like money will be a concern for him. Pearce raised $816,000 and transferred an additional $780,000 from his House account, and he had a $2.1 million war chest.
Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (D): $548,000 raised, $2 million cash-on-hand
State House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D): Could not raise money during legislative session, $643,000 cash-on-hand
Rep. Diane Black (R): $294,000 raised, additional $3 million self-funded, $2 million cash-on-hand
Former state cabinet official Randy Boyd (R): $606,000 raised, additional $2 million self-funded, $2.9 million cash-on-hand
State House Speaker Beth Harwell (R): Could not raise money during legislative session, $4.9 million cash-on-hand
Former Higher Education Commission member Bill Lee (R): $317,000 raised, additional $3 million self-funded, $6.3 million cash-on-hand
● VT-Gov: Democratic state Sen. John Rodgers has announced he’s considering a run for governor, but he may have considerable trouble winning a primary as a steadfast foe of new gun-safety measures. Despite its Democratic lean, Vermont’s heavily rural population historically tends to be less supportive of gun-safety proposals relative to Democrats in more urban states. However, Rodgers even acknowledged he would likely struggle to win over the state’s nevertheless sizable share of urban Democratic primary voters.
Rodgers said he would likely run as a Democrat if he joined the race. However, he didn’t rule out running as an independent or even as a Republican after relatively moderate GOP Gov. Phil Scott recently signed a major gun-safety bill, which the Democratic-run legislature passed in the face of significant Republican opposition. Scott has so far looked like the heavy favorite despite Vermont’s blue lean in federal elections, but Rodgers might be able to shake things up if he runs.
● CT-05: Democrat Nicole Hockley, who co-founded the gun-safety advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise after her son was one of the first-graders murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, said she was considering running for the open 5th District and had already met with the DCCC. Hockley’s fellow Sandy Hook Promise co-founder Mark Barden, who also lost a son in the shooting, recently said he was also considering a campaign. However, the two said they wouldn’t run against each other.
The Hartford Courant reported that national Democrats are looking to land a big name in the race to replace scandal-plagued Rep. Elizabeth Esty because they’re worried state Rep. William Petit could win the GOP nomination; Petit was the survivor of a brutal 2007 home invasion where the perpetrators murdered his wife and daughter, and the crime became widely covered in state and even national media. However, Petit is still only considering whether to launch a campaign. Meanwhile, GOP state Sen. Eric Bethel announced on Tuesday that he won’t run.
● FL-15: On Wednesday, GOP Rep. Dennis Ross announced that he would not seek a fifth term. Ross’ move came just after news that Speaker Paul Ryan would also retire broke, though the Florida Man says he learned of Ryan’s departure as he was telling his own staff about his decision. Florida’s 15th Congressional District, which includes some of Tampa’s suburbs as well as Lakeland, went from 52-47 Romney to 53-43 Trump, and it could be competitive in a strong Democratic year.
Ross spent years in the legislature before he launched his 2010 campaign to succeed Adam Putnam, who was leaving to run for state agriculture commissioner and is now a GOP candidate for governor. Ross, who was known to many national observers as the other and less-famous Dennis Ross, had plenty of support from the party establishment, and he easily won his primary.
However, the general election was a bit more difficult. While Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards had trouble raising money, she was helped when Polk County Supervisor Randy Wilkinson, who had planned to run in the GOP primary, decided to campaign as a tea party independent. But 2010 was simply a horrible year for Democrats, and while Wilkinson took 11 percent of the vote, Ross beat Edwards 48-41.
Ross never had another competitive campaign, and while he rose to become senior deputy majority whip, he never attracted much attention in the House. Now, the dude known as the other Dennis Ross also gets to be remembered as the other Republican who retired on April 11.
There are many Republicans who could run in the August GOP primary, but candidates don’t have long to decide. State Sen. Tom Lee, who has been considering a bid for chief financial officer against appointed GOP incumbent Jimmy Patronis, told Politico that he was considering it.
Politico also name-dropped state Sen. Kelli Stargel; state Rep. Ben Albritton; and former state Rep. Neil Combee, who currently serves as state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Nathan Gonzales also name-drops state Rep. Ross Spano, who is currently running for attorney general, and state Sen. Dana Young. None of this group had publicly said anything about their plans by Wednesday afternoon. But while Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd was briefly mentioned as a rumored candidate, he quickly said he will “run for a different public office.”
Several Democrats had been running against Ross, but none of them have attracted much national attention. Navy veteran Andrew Learned had raised the most money by the end of 2017, but he only had taken in $64,000 since he launched his campaign at the end of May. Learned said this week that he had raised a total of $100,000 for the race, which would mean he’d only brought in another $36,000 for the first quarter of the year. Learned does have the support of 2010 gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink, and he might benefit if Democratic leaders take an interest in his campaign.
Team Blue doesn’t have a large bench here, so it might be tough to recruit another candidate in the few remaining weeks before the filing deadline. While some insiders floated Lori Edwards’ name (she remains the Polk County elections supervisor), she quickly told Politico she wouldn’t run.
However, one very familiar name is talking about jumping in. Former Rep. Alan Grayson has been talking about running for the House somewhere in Florida ever since the end of 2016, and he acknowledged he was “looking at all possibilities” when he was asked about this race after Ross retired.
Grayson represented part of the Orlando area until he unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic Senate nod in 2016, and his old 9th District doesn’t overlap at all with this seat. Grayson has an awful relationship with national Democrats and plenty of weaknesses that the GOP would love to exploit against him. Until now, Grayson seemed likely to challenge Rep. Darren Soto in the primary to retake the 9th, and he seems content to wait until the deadline to decide where he’ll run.
● FL-27: On Wednesday, both Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell and state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez dropped out of the crowded and expensive August Democratic primary for Florida’s open 27th Congressional District. Had they continued their campaigns, they would have both been impacted by the state’s newly amended resign-to-run law.
The new law, which was passed the legislature overwhelmingly and was signed by GOP Gov. Rick Scott last month, now requires any state-level elected officials who are seeking federal office to submit their resignations at least 10 business days before they file to run if the two positions’ terms overlap. (The old law exempted candidates for federal office.)
Candidates need to submit an irrevocable resignation at least 10 days before the qualifying deadline for the federal post they’re running for, and that resignation takes effect either at the start of the term for their new office or whenever local law requires their replacement to be sworn in for their old office. (Note that this law conveniently doesn’t impact termed-out officials like Scott, who is now running for the Senate.)
Importantly, even though resignations required under the law may be post-dated, they have the legal effect of creating an immediate vacancy—one that, for state legislative seats, must be filled at the next election. Javier Rodriguez’s resignation would therefore have hurt state Senate Democrats, since they’d have needed to defend his competitive seat this year rather than in 2020, when it’s next scheduled to be up.
Javier Rodriguez, who voted for the new law, doesn’t appear to have directly addressed the matter in a new interview with Politico, but he did say he wanted to stay in the Senate because he believed Democrats now have a better shot of winning a majority sometime in the next few years than they did when he decided to run for Congress last year. Russell did acknowledge that resign-to-run was a factor in his decision, though, saying that his old political foe Marc Sarnoff could have been appointed in his place.
However, another Democratic candidate for this congressional seat is taking a different approach. Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez has filed a lawsuit against the modified resign-to-run law, arguing that Scott and the Republicans are impermissibly trying to apply it retroactively. If Rosen Gonzalez doesn’t prevail in court, though, and doesn’t resign, the law says that the governor can strip her off her current post. The filing deadline to run for Congress in Florida is May 4, making the resign-to-run deadline April 20.
● GA-06: Former local TV news anchor Bobby Kaple is out with his first ad ahead of the May 22 Democratic primary. The spot consists entirely of footage of Kaple’s two young twin children, Camden and Alice, while Kaple relays how they were born prematurely and had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep alive. He says, “Thank God for Obamacare … there isn’t one reason why I’ll stop Donald Trump from repealing health care in Congress, there are two of them.”
● IN-04: A group called With Honor Fund, which is supporting veterans in both parties who are running for office this cycle, recently laid out roughly $150,000 for cable and digital ads to oppose former state Workforce Development Director Steve Braun in the Republican primary. There’s no copy of the TV ad available yet, but the group is backing former Mike Pence advisor Diego Morales, who is a veteran of the Army National Guard, for the GOP nomination in this dark-red seat west of Indianapolis.
● KY-06: Lexington Mayor Jim Gray’s latest Democratic primary ad features him speaking at a town hall where he says his four decades of business experience has informed him that not only is buying a load of concrete and not paying for it obviously an act of stealing, so is not paying women the same as men for equal work. But Gray says the latter is still legal, which is why he’ll change the law if elected to Congress.
● ND-AL: On Wednesday, GOP state Sen. Tom Campbell announced he was dropping out of race for this open seat and endorsing fellow state Sen. Kelly Armstrong, a former state party chair. Armstrong, who defeated Campbell to win the state party endorsement over the weekend, now faces only minimal opposition in the June primary. Democrats have consolidated behind former state Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider.
● NE-02: Former Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford is out with his first TV ad, which features Nebraskans praising Ashford for helping secure millions in funding for Omaha-area Offutt Air Force Base, bringing the CenturyLink Center convention building and arena to Omaha, and a prompting a new Veterans Administration healthcare facility in the area. Ashford himself promises to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Planned Parenthood, in addition to fighting healthcare spending cuts.
● NJ-02: Engineer Brian Fitzherbert was thrown off the GOP primary ballot for insufficient signatures in this South Jersey GOP-held open seat, although he says he’ll appeal. Fitzherbert is relatively unknown and unlikely to win the nomination even if he stays on the ballot, but he currently has the organization line of the Gloucester County GOP, which could end up going to another candidate if he’s kicked off the ballot. While Gloucester made up just 8 percent of the 2014 primary vote, organization lines are worth quite a few votes and could make the difference for other candidates in a close primary.
● NY-12: Unsurprisingly, EMILY’s List has endorsed longtime Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who faces a Democratic primary challenge from well-funded businessman and attorney Suraj Patel in this safely blue Manhattan and Queens seat.
● NY-24: Uh, awkward: Just days before she entered the race for New York’s 24th Congressional District, Juanita Perez Williams donated $250 to the campaign of none other than Dana Balter, the fellow Democrat she’s now running against in the June primary. Perez Williams explained the turnabout in pretty blunt terms, though. While she called Balter “brilliant” and “a superb person,” Perez Williams said she felt her rival had not raised enough money and failed to attract attention from national Democrats, and believed GOP Rep. John Katko was going to escape without a serious challenge.
Naturally, these comments provoked a hot response from Balter’s backers, who include the leaders of the local Democratic Party organizations in all four of the counties that make up the district. But right now, it’s all just a war of words. The real test will be whether Perez Williams can raise the kind of cash that Balter’s been unable to bring in, and if she does, whether the intensity of Balter’s grassroots support can match her opponent’s money.
● OH-16: Anthony Gonzalez, a former star football player at The Ohio State University, is out with another ad ahead of the May 8 GOP primary. The spot features old footage of Gonzalez in his old football uniform as the narrator declares he’s “never left anyone on the field, and he won’t start now.” He also pledges that Gonzalez will work with Trump and focus on jobs.
● PA-05: Wealthy energy executive Paul Addis was knocked from the GOP primary ballot on Tuesday for not having enough valid signatures, and he said he would not challenge the decision. However, Addis did say that he intended to pursue legal action against the company he’d hired to gather petitions for him, which he argued acted in an unprofessional manner. Former state prosecutor Pearl Kim is now the only Republican seeking this open 63-34 Clinton seat.
● TX-05: On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence endorsed fundraiser Bunni Pounds in the May 22 GOP primary runoff for this safely red seat. Pounds is a former campaign manager for retiring Rep. Jeb Hensarling, who is a close friend of Pence and also supporting her; she also has the backing of the anti-tax Club for Growth. Pounds is competing with state Rep. Lance Gooden, who led her 30-22 in the first round of the primary in March.
● WA-05: On behalf of several local media outlets, Elway Research takes a look at the general election for this 52-39 Trump Eastern Washington seat. They give GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers a 44-38 lead over Democrat Lisa Brown, a former Washington State University Spokane chancellor who previously served as state Senate majority leader. Back in February, the DCCC released an in-house poll that gave McMorris Rodgers a similar 47-43 edge, and the GOP hasn’t countered with any better numbers.
● Special Elections: Johnny Longtorso recaps Tuesday:
Florida SD-31: This was an easy Democratic hold. Lori Berman defeated Republican Tami Donnally by a 75-25 margin. Berman’s win was an impressive 25-point improvement on Hillary Clinton’s 61-36 margin and a 21-point outperformance of Barack Obama’s 64-35 win.
Iowa SD-25 Republicans held onto this seat after Annette Sweeney defeated Democrat Tracy Freese by a 56-44 margin. Though Freese lost, she outperformed Clinton’s 34-60 margin by 14 points and fell just shy of Obama’s 45-54 spread.
There are no special elections next week, but the week after is huge: There are 11 different specials taking place in New York (in part because Andrew Cuomo delayed them to benefit his Republican buddies in the legislature), plus one more in Arizona.
● Where Are They Now?: Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner was a man well known for his consumption of both red wine and tobacco, but during his time in the House, he certainly wasn’t interested in expanding beyond that; in 2011, Boehner stated that he was “unalterably opposed” to the legalization of marijuana or any other schedule I drug.
Something got seriously altered, however, between 2011 and today, as Boehner has taken a new position: he’s joining the board of directors of canna-business concern Acreage Holdings. In his tweet announcing his new job, he also spoke favorably about de-scheduling marijuana, and to his credit, partly framed his change of mind in terms of addressing the opioid addiction epidemic.
Of course, it also helps that what changed in the intervening years was that successful legalization in a number of western states made clear that legalization is not only a good source of governmental revenue but also a potentially very profitable enterprise for those getting into the field early. Consequently, Boehner could of course be one of the many congressmen who make considerable money after leaving office.