DE State Senate: On Saturday, Democrats scored a critical win in a hotly contested special election for the Delaware state Senate, allowing them to maintain control of the chamber and, with it, the state’s government. Democrat Stephanie Hansen, an attorney and former president of the New Castle County Council, handily defeated Republican realtor John Marino by a 58-41 margin, but the result was no foregone conclusion.
In 2014, Marino nearly unseated the prior occupant of this seat, Bethany Hall-Long, losing just 51-49. And the stakes were high: Hall-Long won election as lieutenant governor last year, leaving the Senate with a 10-10 deadlock between the parties. Long had been able to break ties in her role as lieutenant governor, but had Republicans prevailed on Saturday, they’d have taken control of the Senate for the first time since the 1970s. And even more importantly, it would have given them veto power over the agenda of Delaware’s Democrats, who control both the state House and governorship.
That crisis was averted, and in fine fashion. Remarkably, turnout for this race—a Saturday race February—was higher than it was during the regularly scheduled midterms in 2014: 12,580 votes were cast this weekend versus 12,193 three years ago. That’s something you almost never see in a special election. And the energy was heavily weighted toward the Democratic side: Hansen took 7,314 votes, versus 6,230 for Hall-Long last time.
In addition, Hansen outran Hillary Clinton’s own 2016 performance. Clinton carried this seat 54-41, a net of 13 points. Hansen, though, won by 17 points, meaning she ran 4 points ahead of the top of the ticket. That might not sound like much, but it’s actually enormous. In elections when there’s no presidential race on the ballot, turnout among Democratic voters almost always tends to drop disproportionately. Indeed, a rigorous study by analyst Sean Trende of 170 races that took place in 2013 found that, on average, Democrats performed an average of 12 points worse than Barack Obama had just a year earlier. That means we’d ordinarily expect a seat Clinton carried by 13 to essentially be a tossup in a special election. In this case, we got a blowout.
And while it’s still very early, Saturday’s result appears to fit in with a new trend we’ve seen ever since Election Day. Nationwide, there have been six legislative special elections so far pitting a Democrat versus a Republican. In five of them, the Democrat has performed better than Clinton’s margin. In three of them, Democrats have even done better than Barack Obama, and even when they haven’t, the differential has been far less than the typical 12-point dropoff indicated by Trende’s analysis. It’s very possible that an intense “Trump effect” is at play here, driving Democrats to the polls when in the past some had been less inclined to show up.
However, as analyst Nathaniel Rakich has noted, all of these races have taken place in districts where Clinton did worse than Obama—seats where you might expect a reversion to past trends. The real test will come in places where Clinton exceeded Obama’s performance. Will Democrats be able to showcase their sky-high levels of enthusiasm in areas like that? We’ll soon have an excellent test, in the upcoming special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a traditionally conservative seat where Donald Trump cratered compared to Mitt Romney. The primary there is April 18, with a runoff on June 20, so stay tuned—and stay involved.
● TN-Sen, TN-Gov: GOP Sen. Bob Corker is up for re-election next year, and it’s possible he won’t seek a third term. Back in December, when Corker was mentioned as a possible pick for secretary of state, he mused that the “first thing we’ll do is sit down and think about what our future should or should not be inside the United States Senate.” Corker added that “you know what we do is something we’ll be thinking about over the course of the next several months.” It was clear at the time that Trump was going to name his choice for secretary of state very soon, so Corker’s comments that he’d be mulling his future in the next few months indicates that, at least back in December, he was considering leaving the Senate for something other than the State Department.
The Times Free Press writes that there’s been “speculation in some Tennessee Republican circles” that Corker is interested in running to succeed termed-out Gov. Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican, instead of for re-election. Corker hasn’t said anything publicly to indicate he’s interested in a gubernatorial bid, though if he truly has no intention of seeking the job, there’s nothing stopping him from just saying so. Haslam himself amplified the rumors that Corker may run to replace him a few days ago, when the governor didn’t rule out a future Senate bid. However, Haslam soon said that he assumes Corker will run for re-election. A number of Tennessee Republicans are eyeing the governor’s office, though if Corker actually is serious, he could scare many of them off.
However, if Corker does seek re-election, he may not be able to avoid a GOP primary. The Times Free Press recently asked Andy Ogles, the state director of the Koch brother’s Americans for Prosperity, about rumors that he’s interested in challenging Corker. Ogles did nothing to dispel them, just saying that “[t]here has been speculation along those lines,” before he went on to talk about taxes. After a reporter noted that Ogles hadn’t actually said no to a Senate bid, he promised “we’ll have another conversation in a few months.” There’s no sign that Corker has angered many conservatives, and an Ogles’ challenge may have a tough time gaining traction.
● TX-Sen, TX-16: In a new Washington Post profile, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke sure sounds like someone who has the Senate itch. The El Paso-area representative hasn’t officially pulled the trigger just yet, but when asked if he were leaning toward seeking a promotion in 2018, he responded, “I’m pretty close. I really want to do this.”
Beating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in a midterm in a state that voted 52-43 for Trump will likely be a very steep hill to climb for any Democrat, but O’Rourke isn’t the only one to consider running. Rep. Joaquin Castro has previously said he too was looking at the race earlier in February. O’Rourke might have a distinct disadvantage in a primary when it comes to geography, given El Paso’s great distance from most Texas voters both physically and culturally, but his outsider image could also be an asset in the age of Trump.
O’Rourke had previously pledged to adhere to a four-term limit in the House, and if he stands by it, then he’ll be leaving the House at the start of 2021 at the latest. Hillary Clinton won this majority-Latino seat in a 68-27 landslide, and it should remain safely blue. El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser isn’t running for re-election in 2017, and he said in January that he’d consider running if O’Rourke doesn’t run again, but several more Democrats could look at the House seat if it opens up.
● WI-Sen: Far-right firebrand Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has never personally indicated that he’s interested in running for Senate against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2018, but that hasn’t dampened the wishes of some of his supporters to see him enter the race. Now, a spokesperson for Clarke has explicitly refused to rule out a bid, but says Clarke isn’t “making plans to run for Senate.”
Despite being a nominal Democrat, Clarke is an extreme Trump supporter and one of the most reactionary sheriffs in America. If he were to run for Senate, he almost certainly would run as a Republican rather than in the Democratic primary. Nonetheless, a recent survey from GOP pollster Magellan Strategies found Baldwin easily fending off Clarke in a hypothetical general election by 49-35, though they found he wasn’t well known statewide.
Those who do know him best may just like him the least, though. PPP recently found Milwaukee County voters disapproved of Clarke by a staggering 62-31 margin. If he seeks a fifth four-year term as sheriff in 2018, he could finally lose the Democratic primary for this populous dark-blue county after just barely scraping by in 2014, or lose a general if he finally runs as a Republican. That prospect might be why Clarke is keeping his options open, since he could just be looking for an escape hatch, especially if he can’t get a job he wants with Trump.
● CT-Gov: Another Republican is looking at running for the governor’s office in 2018, when unpopular Democratic incumbent Dan Malloy may or may not be running for a third term. State Sen. Toni Boucher has formed an exploratory committee for a potential gubernatorial bid and confirmed she’s giving a statewide run “serious thought.”
Boucher also formed an exploratory committee for the 2014 race, though she ended up pulling the plug well before the primary. It’s possible the same thing will happen this time, with Boucher saying that of the many Connecticut Republicans eyeing this race, “There are a lot of other good people by the way and others who I would even support, and others who I would not support for policy reasons,” though she didn’t name any names. Ctpost also reports that House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, whose name we haven’t heard before, is interested, though there’s no quote from Klarides.
● FL-Gov: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, only recently acknowledged he was interested in this open seat, but he told Ebony Magazine that while he “believe[s] in being courageous,” he doesn’t “believe in suicide missions. I think there has to be a relevant place to make a difference and a pathway to get there.” But Gillum appears to have decided that attacking this Death Star actually is his idea of courage, since he sounded a whole lot more enthusiastic about running for governor on Friday. The mayor declared on Twitter and in a speech that he’s “seriously considering running for governor.” If Gillum wins, he’ll be Florida’s first black governor.
No Democrats have entered the race yet, but several are positioning themselves. Ex-Rep. Gwen Graham has made it no secret that she plans to run, while wealthy Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has expressed interest and begun hiring for his political committee. Wealthy trial attorney John Morgan, real estate company owner Chris King (whose self-funding capacities are unknown), and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn are also looking at this race. It won’t be easy for anyone to win what could well be a crowded primary, and the GOP will fight hard to win their sixth gubernatorial race in a row.
● GA-Gov: GOP state Sen. Josh McKoon, who has pushed for anti-LGBT “religious freedom” legislation, recently announced that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election to the legislature. However, we probably haven’t seen the last of McKoon, since he recently expressed interest in running for higher office. McKoon didn’t say which office, only saying that, “The only thing for certain right now is that Gov. [Nathan] Deal is term-limited. So we’ve got to wait and see what some other people decide to do.” However, last month, a McKoon allied suggested he would run for attorney general in 2018. A number of other Peach State Republicans are eyeing the governor’s office.
● KS-Gov, KS-02, KS-03: The Democratic game plan for the 2018 cycle in Kansas is starting to take form. Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star reports that the state party is hopeful it can win the race to succeed deeply unpopular term-limited GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and put two of the Sunflower State’s four congressional seats into play. To that end, former state House Minority Leader Paul Davis has been the focus of much attention within the party after he lost to Brownback 50-46 during the 2014 GOP wave.
Davis hasn’t given a strong indication of whether he intends to run for governor again or for Congress, but says he’s “very interested in being on the ballot in 2018.” He reveals that he’s been approached about running for the 2nd District, which contains his home of Lawrence and covers eastern Kansas outside of the Kansas City area. Incumbent Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins isn’t running for another term, and Davis even carried the 2nd by 6 points amid his 2014 gubernatorial defeat. However, voters there favored Donald Trump by 56-37, and such a red seat will likely be less hospitable toward Democrats in a federal race.
In the Kansas City-based 3rd District, Democratic businessman Jay Sidie says “there’s a strong likelihood” that he’ll run again. Sidie lost to Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder 51-41 in 2016, but Hillary Clinton managed to eke out a 47-46 victory here in a reversal from Obama’s 54-44 loss four years earlier. Yoder is reportedly considering a bid for governor though, and Democrats almost certainly wouldn’t mind not having to face an incumbent if he vacates the 3rd.
Meanwhile, turning back to the gubernatorial race, Republican Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer’s office claimed last month that he “has not even considered” whether he’ll run to succeed his unpopular and termed-out boss, Gov. Sam Brownback. Well, Colyer has dropped the charade and told the National Journal that yep, he is considering.
● MN-Gov, MN-01: Democratic Rep. Tim Walz didn’t rule out a 2018 gubernatorial bid when we last heard from him in December, and he now confirms that he is actively considering the race to succeed retiring Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and expects to decide by April.
Donald Trump won a 53-38 blowout in Walz’s southern Minnesota district, which was a stunning reversal from Obama’s 50-48 edge in 2012. Democrats would almost certainly have better luck holding such a tough seat with a popular incumbent like Walz than without him.
However, Walz had a shockingly close call with defeat against an unheralded opponent in 2016 when he prevailed by just a 1-point margin, likely due to Trump’s unexpectedly large victory in the 1st District. Walz might simply be thinking that his chances of becoming governor in a state that Hillary Clinton won by 47-45 are better than winning another term in his far redder House district, much to the chagrin of national Democrats. A slew of other candidates from both parties are also contemplating gubernatorial bids.
● OK-Gov, Oklahoma City, OK Mayor: On Wednesday, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, announced that he would not seek a fifth term next year as chief executive of Oklahoma’s largest city. However, Cornett doesn’t sound done with politics yet, saying that he’s considering seeking a job in state government and won’t rule anything out. Cornett doesn’t appear to have named a particular post he’s interested in, but with GOP Gov. Mary Fallin termed-out, he may be eyeing her job. Cornett is OKC’s first four-term mayor, though that’s not entirely by choice. In 2006, just a few months after he overwhelmingly won re-election, Cornett ran for the 5th Congressional District and lost the primary runoff to Fallin 63-37.
Regardless of what Cornett does, there’s likely to be a crowded race to succeed him in the mayor’s office early next year. Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan, a Republican, has already announced he’ll seek this post. All the candidates will compete on one non-partisan ballot in February of 2018 and if no one takes a majority, there will be a runoff in April. Oklahoma City is quite conservative for a major U.S. city and it’s been led by Republicans since the mid-1980s. However, the city is still one of the more Democratic areas in this very red state, and if Team Blue can snag this office, it will go a long way towards building up a bench for future races.
● MN-07: Last cycle, Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson beat Some Dude Dave Hughes by a surprisingly close 52.5-47.5 as Trump was carrying his rural northwestern seat 62-31. Hughes has announced that he’ll seek a rematch, but it’s unlikely he’ll scare off many Republicans who are eyeing this seat. The local Minnesota tip sheet Morning Take says that state Rep. Tim Miller is “strongly considering” challenging Peterson, though Miller doesn’t seem to have said anything publicly.
The GOP made a serious effort to oust Peterson in 2014, but the congressman turned back GOP state Sen. Torrey Westrom 54-46 despite the GOP wave, so he’s hardly a pushover. But Peterson will be 74 on Election Day, and he constantly flirts with retiring; if he does call it a career, it may be impossible for Democrats to hold his seat. However, Peterson told Roll Call a few weeks before the 2016 election that he was enjoying his time in Congress more than before, and added, “As long as I think I’m making a difference, I’ll probably keep going,” so he may stick around a while longer.
● Where Are They Now?: Stephanie Herseth Sandlin rocketed on to the political scene with a huge upset victory in a special election in 2004, picking up South Dakota’s lone congressional district from the GOP and giving a shot in the arm to Democrats everywhere after several miserable years of George W. Bush. That made her a rising star in the party, but her trajectory was disrupted when she narrowly lost in the 2010 Republican wave. Since then, as South Dakota’s Democratic bench has grown barer, Herseth Sandlin’s name continued to top recruiters’ wish lists, especially for the state’s Senate race in 2014.
But Herseth Sandlin always declined, and now, though she’s just 46, she says her political career is over. In accepting a new job this month as president of Augustana University, a small liberal arts college in South Dakota, Herseth Sandlin declared, “I am done seeking political office.” Of course, Herseth Sandlin wouldn’t be the first politician to make a pronouncement like this only to change her mind later, but as Democrats cast about for candidates in the Mount Rushmore State, they should probably cross her off those old lists.
The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, and James Lambert.
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