Morning Digest: Bob Corker tries to brown-nose his way back into Trump's good graces

Senate

CA-Sen: On Tuesday, the state SEIU endorsed state Senate leader Kevin de Leon over Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat. The Los Angeles Times‘ Seema Mehta describes the 700,000-member union as “one of the state’s most politically powerful labor unions,” and a group that has access to money. De Leon’s opening fundraising quarter only brought in $500,000, not a huge haul for such a massive state, and he’ll need a bit of help if he wants to advance through the June top-two primary, much less beat Feinstein in November.

ND-Sen, ND-AL: National Republicans are doing all they can to persuade Rep. Kevin Cramer to challenge Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, and it sounds like they’ll get him soon. Cramer said Tuesday night that he “would expect to have a decision by the end of the weekend.” Cramer said he hadn’t decided yet, but added that after hearing so much encouragement, “I’m having a hard time arguing with them.”

Wealthy state Sen. Tom Campbell has been running since September, and while he said back then that he’d stay in even if Cramer ran, he’s changing his tune. Campbell told The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott that he’s taking “serious consideration” of a bid for Cramer’s House seat, which covers the entire state. But it sounds like Campbell has already decided to defer to Cramer, adding, “The last thing I want to do is split the party,” and, “It’s all hinging on Kevin’s decision.”

While Senate Republicans would be overjoyed to get Campbell out of their hair, however, their counterparts in the House may be in for a headache. National Republicans reportedly were so wary about having Campbell as their Senate nominee that an operative actually allowed the Washington Examiner to publish the opposition research they found on him, including, “Campbell’s bank has foreclosed on North Dakota farmers” and “Campbell was sued for fraud over the life insurance policy he obtained on his mother.” North Dakota is a very red state, but Heitkamp’s 2012 upset demonstrates that it isn’t safe for the GOP yet. Team Blue has been looking to put the House seat into play, and if Campbell ended up as the GOP’s House nominee and Democrats field a strong candidate, this could end up as an unexpected battleground.

WV-Sen: We simply can’t get enough of disgraced coal baron Don Blankenship’s cheap, manic ads. His newest commercial once again argues that, because of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Obama, West Virginia “ranks last in jobs.” The narrator then declares that the economy in GOP primary rival Evan Jenkins’ 3rd Congressional District “ranks near last in the entire country,” as the screen shows Jenkins’ face with the caption (in all caps), “The economy in Evan Jenkins’ district ranks 431st out of the 435 in the U.S.” Wait, what? Look, we have absolutely no love for Jenkins, but is Blankenship really suggesting a two-term congressman really is largely to blame for a poor economy in his district?

Apparently, he is. The narrator then says that Jenkins, who was a Democrat until 2013, backed Manchin “and his liberal friends” in the past, and declares that career politicians like Jenkins and Manchin “have kept West Virginia last in jobs and near first in poverty for decades.” The spot only briefly name-drops Blankenship at the end as “a proven job creator.” Attorney General Patrick Morrissey, who is also competing with Jenkins and Blankenship in the May GOP primary, goes unmentioned. If this were another campaign, we’d wonder if Blankenship had decided that Jenkins was a bigger threat than Morrissey, but Blankenship isn’t exactly a traditional candidate.

Gubernatorial

CA-Gov: Democrat Amanda Renteria, who served as national political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, set up a campaign account on Wednesday for a bid for governor. Renteria, who had not shown any public interest before this, soon tweeted, “For questions coming in right now: I am still serving as the Chief of Operations at the California Department of Justice.” But hours later, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Renteria would step down from her post to run, though he didn’t say when she was leaving.

Renteria has only sought elected office once before. In 2014, national Democrats were excited about Renteria’s bid against GOP Rep. David Valadao in the 21st District in the Central Valley. Renteria, who had served as chief of staff to Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, raised a credible $1.7 million for the campaign. However, while the seat had backed Obama 55-44, Democratic turnout is usually awful in this area when there isn’t a presidential election on the ballot, and the GOP wave didn’t help things. Valadao ended up winning 58-42, and while the DCCC reportedly tried to immediately recruit Renteria for another try, she soon signed onto Clinton’s campaign.

If Renteria runs, she’ll need to put together a campaign very quickly in this huge and very expensive state with just months to go before the June 5 top-two primary. It also won’t help Renteria that the process to win the state party endorsement is already well underway, and party chair Eric Bauman says it’s too late for her to be a part of it. However, if Renteria has the connections to jump-start a bid this quickly, she may have an opening. So far, the most prominent woman running on the Democratic side is former state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin, who left office in 2003 and has raised little money and barely registered in the polls. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is the frontrunner, while former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa looks like his most formidable opponent, and state Treasurer and fellow Democrat John Chiang is also in the mix. If Renteria can get her name out, she may have a shot to reach the general election in what’s been a male-dominated field.

Villaraigosa may also have the most to lose if Renteria does well. Villaraigosa was the only prominent Latino candidate, and Renteria, who is Latina, could take away votes he’s counting on to reach the top-two. It could also be good news for Republicans who are afraid an all-Democratic general election could hurt Team Red’s turnout for winnable races. If Renteria is in, she could split the Democratic vote enough to make it easier for a Republican to advance.

No matter what, Newsom will likely remain the overwhelming favorite to at least advance to the November general election. Newsom also got some good news on Tuesday when he earned an endorsement from the powerful state SEIU.

CO-Gov: While Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said a week ago that she’d try collecting petitions to appear on the June GOP primary ballot, she said Tuesday she was reversing course and would instead try to advance through the state convention (also known as the assembly). As we’ve written before, collecting signatures is a very expensive process, and Coffman didn’t look like she had the time and resources to do it well. Now, Coffman will need to win the support of at least 30 percent of the delegates at the April state assembly. If she succeeds, she’ll be on the June primary ballot, and if she fails, she won’t be.

Several other Republicans are running, but most of them are collecting signatures and avoiding the convention. Several little-known candidates are going through the convention, so Coffman won’t exactly be competing with big name rivals. However, the assembly can be unpredictable. In 2016, little-known and under-funded candidate Darryl Glenn wowed the delegates with a speech and secured so much that support that no one else made it though the convention, and there’s always a risk someone could come out of nowhere and keep Coffman from advancing.

MN-Gov, MN-08: Minnesota Republicans have waited for over a year to see if state House Speaker Kurt Daudt would run for governor, but with former Gov. Tim Pawlenty looking likely to jump in, there may not be much of an opening for him anymore. Daudt still hasn’t ruled it out, but it doesn’t sound like he has much enthusiasm for it. MPR’s Brian Bakst wrote on Tuesday that Daudt said he wasn’t actively pursuing or closing the door on a run. Daudt was a bit more direct on questions about a possible bid for the open 8th District, with him saying he hasn’t ruled it out but was leaning against it, and expected to decide soon.

NE-Gov: On Tuesday, state Sen. Bob Krist announced he would challenge GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts as a Democrat rather than as an independent. Krist had identified as a Republican in Nebraska’s officially non-partisan state legislature until he became an independent last summer, though he was far from happy with his party. As far back as early 2013, Krist showed some interest in running for Congress as a Democrat, and he originally talked about challenging Ricketts in the GOP primary as a centrist.

The very wealthy Ricketts will be heavily favored to win re-election in this conservative state no matter what. Still, Democrats want someone to at least run a credible campaign against him in order to boost turnout for more competitive races down the ballot. Several prominent Democratic politicians and party officials, including former Rep. Brad Ashford and Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, appeared with Krist as he made his Tuesday announcing, so the party seems to have decided he’s their guy.

NH-Gov: On Wednesday, former state Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern announced that he wouldn’t seek a rematch with GOP Gov. Chris Sununu this year. Van Ostern lost the 2016 general election to Sununu just 49-47, but the only polls we’ve seen have shown Sununu popular as he seeks his second two-year term. A few other Democrats are eyeing this race.

OH-Gov: On Wednesday, former state Rep. Connie Pillich announced she was dropping out of the May Democratic primary and backing former state Attorney General Richard Cordray. Pillich is the third Democrat to leave the race since Cordray, who resigned as head of the federal Consumer Protection Bureau in the fall, entered the race after months of speculation. Former Rep. Betty Sutton became Cordray’s running mate, while Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley also endorsed him last month.

Cordray was already the clear primary frontrunner, and at this point, it’s very tough to see anyone beating him in May. State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a former minority leader from the Youngstown area, has been running for a while, but he ended January with only $277,000 in the bank, which isn’t much in a state as large as Ohio. Jon Heavey, an Army veteran and physician at the Cleveland Clinic, self-funded $1.5 million for his campaign, but he doesn’t seem to have many, if any, political connections.

Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich may still have a base in the Cleveland area, but he’s been out of office since he lost the 2012 primary to Rep. Marcy Kaptur 56-40 after the two were thrown into the same seat. Kucinich spent the following years as a Fox News pundit and he’s defended Trump plenty of times, so he’s also not exactly a good fit for the party. There’s also former state Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill, who seems to be little more than a gadfly. The filing deadline has passed, so it’s too late for anyone else to get in. Maybe someone will catch fire, but unless something very unexpected happens to damage Cordray, it’s tough to see him losing the Democratic nomination.

House

AZ-02: Former state Rep. Matt Heinz, who was Team Blue’s nominee in 2016, is out with a PPP survey of a hypothetical general election with GOP frontrunner Lea Marquez-Peterson. The poll gives Heinz a wide 45-31 lead over Marquez-Peterson in this 50-45 Clinton Tucson seat. However, it also shows former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who represented a neighboring seat until last year, leading Marquez-Peterson by just a slightly-smaller 43-34 margin. Oddly, the sample gives Trump a 45-51 approval rating, which is a lot better than Marquez-Peterson’s deficit would suggest.

Heinz is arguing that he’d be a better general election candidate than Kirkpatrick, who has the support of the DCCC, and the survey finds him with a 26-21 favorable rating while Kirkpatrick is upside down at 27-34. Still, a 9-point lead for Kirkpatrick is still pretty solid, and it’s unlikely the poll will convince her allies to think twice about backing her. It doesn’t help that Heinz lost his 2016 race to Rep. Martha McSally, who is leaving to run for the Senate, by a wide 57-43.

Several Democrats are running in the late August primary, but Kirkpatrick continues to dominate the money race. Kirkpatrick raised $397,000 during the final quarter of 2017, while Heinz was second with just $82,000. Kirkpatrick led Heinz in cash-on-hand $464,000 to $193,000, while former Defense Department official Mary Matiella was a distant third with $48,000, and former state Rep. Bruce Wheeler had just $5,000 to spend. Marquez-Peterson, who began raising money before McSally announced she would run for the Senate last month, ended 2017 with $210,000 on-hand. No other noteworthy Republicans have entered the race yet.

FL-16: GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan didn’t have a very good night on Tuesday. The congressman’s son, James Buchanan, lost a special election for a Sarasota County state House seat that’s located mostly in Vern Buchanan’s 16th Congressional District, by a 52-45 margin. (See our Special Elections item below for more.) HD-72 backed Trump 51-46 while the 16th Congressional District supported him 54-43, so Rep. Buchanan has a lot room for error than his son had, but that’s still a large swing that should concern him.

Buchanan has won his last two congressional races without much difficulty, but Democrats are fielding a stronger challenge this time. Personal injury attorney David Shapiro outraised Buchanan $250,000 to $187,000 during his opening quarter. However, Buchanan ended December with a $2.2 million to $187,000 cash-on-hand edge, and the very wealthy congressman won’t need to worry about being outspent. And unlike his son, Buchanan will have the advantages of incumbency in November. Still, the result in Buchanan’s backyard should give him more reason to be nervous, and it could get Shapiro more attention from party movers and shakers and outside groups.

FL-27: Former University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who served as Clinton’s secretary of health and human services, recently acknowledged she was interested in seeking the Democratic nod for this open seat, which is probably Team Blue’s strongest pickup opportunity in the country. Shalala, who just turned 77, told the Miami Herald her hesitancy was about “the kind of work that it will take to get elected,” adding, “The mechanics of running for office, you have to fully understand before you make the plunge.” Several Democrats have been running and raising money for months, and some won’t want to defer to her. The Herald also notes that some of her potential supporters have already committed to other candidates. The filing deadline is in early May.

PA-07: While we recently wrote that Republican Pearl Kim had resigned as a deputy state attorney general to run, she tells PoliticsPA that she’s still deciding and didn’t have a timeline. That’s understandable, since no one knows what this district will look like when court-ordered redistricting is done.

TX-29: Retiring Rep. Gene Green and other important Democratic figures and groups have endorsed state Sen. Sylvia Garcia’s bid for this safely blue Houston seat, and no other elected officials are running in the March 6 primary. However, health care company owner Tahir Javed has announced that he’ll “spend whatever it takes” to win, and he’s not bluffing. Javed, who hosted a major fundraiser for the Hillary Clinton campaign, outraised Garcia $248,000 to $198,000 among donors before Dec. 31. Thanks to an additional $400,000 in self-funding, Javed held a $553,000 to $210,000 cash-on-hand edge.

Javed recently went up with an ad that describes how he immigrated to the country and started a successful business that “provides healthcare to Texas families,” and pledges he’ll stand up to special interests. There’s no word on the size of the buy, but a local source tells the Texas Tribune’s Abby Livingston that Javed’s “all over TV now.”  

Still, Javed will need a lot to go right no matter how much he spends. Garcia’s state Senate seat includes about 90 percent of the district’s population, so she starts with some good name recognition. By contrast, Javed only moved here in December from Beaumont, which is well to the east of this Houston-based seat. This district is also 73 percent Hispanic, and while the local primary electorate is usually disproportionately white, demographics should help a Latina candidate like Garcia. Nothing’s assured, but it would be a big surprise if Javed upset Garcia next month. A few other Democrats are running, so it’s possible that no one will take the majority needed to avert a May runoff.  

WA-05: This 52-39 Trump seat in Eastern Washington is a very tough target for Team Blue, but the DCCC is out with an in-house poll arguing it’s very winnable. The survey gives GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers a 47-43 lead over Democrat Lisa Brown, a former state senator who resigned as chancellor at Washington State University Spokane before running here. McMorris Rodgers is a prominent member of the GOP leadership who won’t lack resources, but Brown is a strong fundraiser. At the end of 2017, McMorris Rodgers held a $1.1 million to $450,000 cash-on-hand edge.

Legislative

Special Elections: Democrats scored a pickup in the Florida state House on Tuesday. Here’s Johnny Longtorso:

Florida HD-72: Democrat Margaret Good defeated Republican James Buchanan by a 52-45 margin. Libertarian Alison Foxall took the remaining 3 percent. This seat went 51-46 for Trump in 2016 and 51-48 for Romney in 2012.

Georgia HD-175: This was an easy hold for the Republicans; Republican John LaHood won with 71 percent of the vote, while Democrat Treva Gear came in second with 24 percent. The other two Republicans on the ballot split the remainder. This seat went 61-37 for Trump and 66-33 for Romney.

Oklahoma SD-27: This was also a Republican hold, though Team Red performed well below Trump in an extremely red seat. Casey Murdock defeated Democrat Amber Jensen by a 68-32 margin. This seat went 84-11 for Trump and 85-15 for Romney.

Florida’s HD-72 was the 36th seat to flip from red to blue in a special election in the Trump-era. And no, this wasn’t some case of Democrats winning an under-the-radar race because Republicans got arrogant. Both sides spent plenty of money, and Buchanan, the son of local Rep. Vern Buchanan, held a Trump-style Buchanan rally on Sunday that featured a guest appearance from former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Voter turnout was also record setting for a special election.

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