Morning Digest: How Wisconsin's April Supreme Court race could help undo extreme GOP gerrymandering

Senate

IA-Sen: Democratic state Auditor Rob Sand has been mentioned as a possible opponent for GOP Sen. Joni Ernst since his 51-46 win last year, but he doesn’t sound very likely to run.

Sand appeared on Des Moines’ NBC affiliate over the weekend and was asked if he was eyeing this race, to which Sand promptly responded “no.” The auditor went on to say that he has responsibilities at home with two young children and he thinks he’s “making a big impact where I am.” After Sand was asked if he’d serve “this term out for sure,” he relied, “That’s my plan.” That’s not quite an ironclad no (plans can change after all), but it doesn’t feel like Sand is especially excited about entering what would be a tough race.

TN-Sen: Over the weekend, Democratic state Sen. Sara Kyle announced she would not run for this open seat. The only noteworthy announced Democratic candidate is attorney and Iraq War Army veteran James Mackler.

Gubernatorial

VA-Gov: Virginia Del. Patrick Hope said on Monday that he was putting on hold his plans to file articles of impeachment against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax regarding two separate sexual assault allegations. Meanwhile, several Fairfax staffers resigned their posts.

Hope, saying that he’d received an “enormous amount of feedback” since first announcing his intentions to begin the impeachment process on Friday, explained that additional time is needed “so that we can find the best process to investigate these crimes with the broadest possible support.” According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Hope’s decision to back off impeachment came after a “tense” call with fellow Democratic lawmakers on Sunday night, some of whom apparently were upset that Hope had acted without first consulting them.

Hope himself now says that if an alternative to impeachment proceedings emerges, he’ll be “supportive,” but it’s hard to see what that might be. That’s because the crimes Fairfax is alleged to have committed would have taken place in Massachusetts and North Carolina, meaning the Virginia State Police would have no jurisdiction. And while Fairfax has asked the FBI to investigate, it’s unlikely any federal criminal laws have been violated. Only local law enforcement agencies would have the ability to investigate, and they may or may not have an interest in doing so.

Fairfax’s position continues to grow more tenuous, though, with the departure of four aides, two of whom were government employees and two who worked for his PAC. Also, on Monday, Fairfax was placed on leave by his law firm, Morrison & Foerster, which says it’s hired a firm to conduct an investigation into the allegations against Fairfax. (The position of lieutenant governor, like those of legislators, is part-time, which is why Fairfax and most state lawmakers have outside employment.)

House

GA-07: Businessman Narender Reddy, who serves on the board of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, said over the weekend that he was considering running for this competitive open seat. So far, Reddy is the only notable Republican who has publicly expressed interest in running to succeed Rep. Rob Woodall, who announced on Thursday that he would retire.

IA-03: The local progressive blog Bleeding Heartland reports that some Republicans are trying to persuade state Rep. Jon Jacobsen to challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne in this competitive seat, and he’s not ruling it out. Jacobson, who represents a seat along the Nebraska border, acknowledged he was being encouraged to run, but added, “It is far too early to make those determinations.” He also said that, “Due diligence requires that the performance of newly elected officials be judged objectively,” and “only then can an intelligent decision be made.”

GOP state Sen. Zach Nunn, who represents a seat to the east of Des Moines, also told the local NBC affiliate this week that he had been approached about running, and that “my wife and kids have already voted on it, and I’ll let you know.”

NC-03: North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, who was one of the most iconoclastic Republicans in the House, died Sunday on his 76th birthday.

During his 24 years in Congress, Jones put together one of the most eclectic records imaginable and regularly was a thorn in his party’s ass. You don’t even need to take our word for it: In early 2015, Jones himself bragged, “I like to be a thorn in people’s asses.” Most notably, Jones transformed himself from an ardent supporter of the Iraq War to one of the few congressional Republicans to speak out against it during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Perhaps appropriately, Jones began his long and unusual political career as a Democrat. Jones’ father, Walter Jones Sr., was a Democratic congressman who served from 1966 until he decided to retire in 1992. The younger Jones, who had served as a Democratic state representative for a decade, ran to succeed his father and competed in the primary the 1st District, which had been extensively redrawn in redistricting and was now majority black. Jones lost the nomination in a runoff to Eva Clayton, who would be the first African American to represent North Carolina in the 20th Century, by a 55-45 margin; the elder Jones would die in office a few months later.

Jones switched parties in time for the 1994 Republican wave and also switched districts, challenging 3rd District Democratic Rep. Martin Lancaster, who represented some of the same territory that Jones’ father had once held. Jones made sure to tie the four-term incumbent to President Bill Clinton, who’d become very unpopular in districts like this one, even running a campaign ad that showed the two Democrats jogging together. Jones unseated Lancaster 53-47, and he never faced a close general election again.

Jones spent most of his first decade in Congress as a reliable Republican vote who didn’t draw much attention. However, he first made national news in 2003 when he was one of two Republican congressmen who, angry at France’s opposition to the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq, directed the House cafeterias to redub French fries “freedom fries” and French toast as “freedom toast.”

But within a few years, Jones came to regret his shenanigans and emerged as one of the few Republicans in Congress to oppose the Iraq War. The congressman first realized he had made a mistake by voting to take the country to war after he attended the funeral of a local Marine killed in Iraq during the first month of the conflict. He soon began sending letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan in what he called his “mea culpa to my Lord.” By December 2017, he had sent more than 12,000 of these messages.

Jones attracted a primary challenge in 2008 over his opposition to the Iraq War, but he took 59 percent of the vote and got to rest easy for a few years. However, Jones never stopped being a maverick. He notably was one of the few Republicans who voted for the Dodd-Frank banking reform law, and he voted against John Boehner for speaker in both 2013 and 2015.

Some establishment-oriented Republicans tried to take Jones out in the 2014 primary by spending heavily on former George W. Bush aide Taylor Griffin. Jones survived, but by just a 51-45 spread. The close shave didn’t change his behavior, though, and Griffin sought a rematch two years later. However, fewer primary voters were in the mood to punish Jones this time, and he won with 65 percent of the vote.

Jones continued to test how much he could vote against his party’s leadership during the first two years of the Trump administration. He notably voted against the House version of Trumpcare and the GOP leadership’s tax bill, and he was the only Republican in the chamber to vote against repealing major parts of the Dodd-Frank Act.

In 2018, Jones again earned a primary challenge from a pair of opponents, Craven County Commissioner Scott Dacey and retired Marine Phil Law. The two may have split the anti-incumbent, vote, though, and allowed Jones to escape one last time, as the congressman beat Law 43-29, with Dacey taking 28. While Jones won, the race demonstrated that a majority of the GOP electorate was ready for change, and during this battle, he said that he would not seek re-election in 2020.

However, Jones never got to go to D.C. for his final term. Jones missed every vote in the House from November until the end of his life because of an undisclosed illness, and he was sworn into his final term in the House back home in North Carolina because he was too ill to make it to Washington. In the final week of January, Jones’ team announced that the congressman’s health had declined after he broke his hip on Jan. 14, and he was checked into a hospice care facility. Jones died Sunday after about two weeks in hospice care.

Jones’ district, which includes the Outer Banks along the North Carolina coast, has long been safely red, and Jones’ successor is all but certain to be a fellow Republican. This seat will be filled in a special election on a date that has yet to be announced.

NY-01: Democrat Perry Gershon lost last year’s contest to GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin by a 51-47 margin, and he told the Shelter Island Reporter he was “strongly leaning to another go.”

This seat, which is located in eastern Long Island, has long been very competitive turf, but it swung from 50-49 Obama all the way to 55-42 Trump. However, according to Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo carried the 1st District by a 49.1-48.6 margin last year, so it’s hardly assured that Trump will do so well here in 2020. Zeldin has always been an ardent Trump ally, so if there’s a local backlash against the White House, he could be in for a tough fight.

The seat is also located in the very expensive New York City media market, and last cycle, most major outside groups avoided investing much here. However, this was still an expensive contest, with Gershon outspending the incumbent $5 million to $4.8 million (Gershon self-funded almost $2 million). Zeldin also made sure to portray Gershon, who has long had a summer home in the Hamptons but only changed his voter registration from Manhattan in 2017, as an outsider.

OH-13: Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan recently confirmed he was indeed considering running for president, and that he would be visiting Iowa and New Hampshire this week. Ryan is notorious for talking about running for higher office but never going through with it, but since Ohio does allow him to run for president and for re-election at the same time, it’s possible this time will be different. Ryan’s Youngstown-area seat went from 63-35 Obama to 51-45 Clinton, but the GOP didn’t field a credible candidate last year.

PA-12: The Daily Item reports that local Republicans will hold their convention on March 2 to select their nominee for the May 21 special election to succeed former Rep. Tom Marino in this very red seat. Marino said last month he was resigning to take an unspecified job in the private sector, but he revealed over the weekend he was actually departing because of health issues. Marino said that he “had surgery and they found my lining in my kidney was deteriorating and tissue was blocking everything so they went in and cleaned everything out,” but that he does not have cancer.

A few Republicans have already announced that they’re running here. Joseph Moralez, the vice president of a statewide nursing agency who describes himself as a “black, gay conservative,” also announced he was in this week.

TX-02: Navy veteran Elisa Cardnell announced last week that she would seek the Democratic nod to take on freshman GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who is himself a retired Navy SEAL. Crenshaw won this district 53-46 against Democrat Todd Litton, who is considering another try. This suburban Houston seat moved from 63-36 Romney to a much-smaller 52-43 Trump, and Litton’s performance was the best showing for a Democratic House candidate in this area in a long time.

Legislative

Special elections: There are two races on tap for Tuesday

GA-HD-176: This is a Republican district in south Georgia located in the Valdosta area. This vacancy was created when state Rep. Jason Shaw was appointed to the state Public Service Commission. There are four candidates running, two Democrats and two Republicans. The Democrats are social worker Barbara Griffin and retiree Barbara Seidman, and businessman Franklin Patten and attorney James Burchett represent the GOP. If no candidate takes a majority of the vote, a runoff election will be held on a date that has yet to be determined. This a strongly Republican district: It backed Donald Trump 66-34 in 2016 and Mitt Romney 65-33 in 2012, and Shaw ran unopposed for this seat every year since first winning in 2010.

TX-HD-125: This is a Democratic district in western San Antonio. This vacancy was created when state Rep. Justin Rodriguez was appointed to the Bexar County Commission. The race will feature four Democrats and a one Republican. The Democrats are activist Steve Huerta, former San Antonio City Councilman Ray Lopez, education policy expert Coda Rayo-Garza, and former state Rep. Art Reyna, who previously represented this district from 1997-2003. The Republican candidate is Fred Rangel, who picked up an endorsement from Gov. Greg Abbott. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, a runoff election will be held on a date that has yet to be determined. Though Abbott’s involvement suggests Republicans might be interested in making a play here, this is strongly Democratic turf: Hillary Clinton won this district 62-34, and Barack Obama carried it 59-40.

Mayoral

San Antonio, TX Mayor: Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a progressive who identifies as an independent, picked up his first notable opponent over the weekend when City Councilor Greg Brockhouse jumped in the race. The filing deadline is Feb. 15, and there hasn’t been much talk of anyone else running. All the candidates will compete in the May 4 nonpartisan primary, and there would be a runoff June 8 if no one took a majority.

Nirenberg won his first term in 2017 by unseating conservative Mayor Ivy Taylor 55-45 (San Antonio is the largest city in the country where the mayor serves a two-year term). Brockhouse, who was also elected to his first term that year, has been a persistent conservative critic of Nirenberg, with him arguing that the mayor didn’t do enough to attract the 2020 Republican National Convention or Amazon.

Brockhouse, who used to be a consultant for both the city’s police and firefighter unions, also used his announcement to argue that Nirenberg was “needlessly” fighting first responders. Nirenberg has battled the two labor groups over pensions and other issues, and while he begins the contest with a $278,000 to $15,000 cash-on-hand lead over Brockhouse, the San Antonio Express-News’ Gilbert Garcia writes that the mayor’s allies fear that the fire union could spend heavily for the challenger.

Other Races

Suffolk County, NY Executive: Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone is seeking a third term as leader of Suffolk County, a large Long Island county that swung from 51-47 Obama to 51-45 Trump, and he picked up two noteworthy GOP foes over the last few days. Robert Trotta, a member of the Suffolk County Legislature, launched his bid Tuesday. The following Monday, County Comptroller John Kennedy entered the race with the support of Reps. Lee Zeldin and Pete King as well as county GOP chair John Jay LaValle. The GOP primary is June 25, and the general election is Nov. 5.

Both Trotta and Kennedy argued that Bellone has badly managed the county’s finances, with them each focusing on how ratings agencies have downgraded Suffolk County’s bonds because of heavy borrowing. Bellone has blamed the problem on the deficit he inherited when he took office seven years ago, and said that he’s combating budget issues by downsizing the county workforce and privatizing health centers. Last month, after Kennedy argued Bellone was “doing nothing” to solve Suffolk County’s budget problems, the budget office also announced that the executive will have saved taxpayers nearly $300,000 by the end of his second term by cutting his own salary and paying a share of his health insurance.

Meanwhile, Bellone’s team didn’t waste any time hitting Trotta for waiting a day to take office in 2014 so that he could receive $7,000 in vacation pay from his time as a police officer, though the legislator ended up not accepting the money in the end. Bellone’s campaign also turned their focus on Kennedy, who only won re-election last year 50.4-49.6, arguing that the comptroller had used his office to conduct audits aimed at weakening Bellone.

Bellone begins the race with a huge financial edge over both his would-be GOP foes: The incumbent has $2 million in the bank, while Kennedy has $120,000 and Trotta just $38,000. There may also be other GOP candidates ahead of the April filing deadline. Republican Tom Cilmi, the county legislature minority leader, said last week that he was considering but had no timeline for deciding. Larry Zacarese, who was Team Red’s 2017 nominee for county sheriff, also said on Saturday that he would decide in the next two weeks. Zacarese earned the GOP nod two years ago in a huge primary upset, then lost the general election in a very tight race.

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