Ossoff takes first in special election, forcing runoff with Handel


GA-06: In a result few imagined possible just three months ago, Democrat Jon Ossoff took first place by a wide margin on Tuesday in the special primary election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, forcing a runoff on June 20 with former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who led a badly fractured GOP field. As of this writing, Ossoff had won 49 percent of the vote compared to 20 for Handel.

For decades, Republicans have dominated this conservative district in the northern Atlanta suburbs that Newt Gingrich once represented: Tom Price, who vacated this seat earlier this year to join Donald Trump’s cabinet, won re-election in November by 23 points, and Mitt Romney did the same four years earlier. But Trump himself turned out to be deeply unpopular in this affluent, well-educated area and only carried the district by a slim 48-47 margin, according to data first released by Daily Kos Elections.

That one result—the only close election in Georgia’s 6th since forever—gave Democrats a glimmer of hope that perhaps they could put this seat in play. That they did, and exceeded all expectations. Ossoff, an investigative filmmaker who had previously served as a congressional aide, entered the race in January, making a big splash with the endorsement of civil rights legend John Lewis, who represents a nearby seat. Soon after, he earned the support of Daily Kos, whose community shot him on to the map with an unprecedented infusion of over $400,000 in just a week—all in small donations.

That kicked off an amazing positive feedback loop: Ossoff earned a big round of media coverage, which helped him raise more money, build up a national profile, and garner more endorsements … which in turn won him still more press attention, brought in more cash … you get the idea. Ultimately, Ossoff raised a mind-blowing $8.3 million dollars ($1.5 million of which came from Daily Kos), with an average contribution of just $42.

Those numbers crushed the rest of the field, which was badly fractured between 11 different Republican candidates. In fact, things got so dicey in the final weeks that the GOP spent millions attacking Ossoff on the airwaves (trying to tie him to Nancy Pelosi, Osama bin Laden, and Han Solo) because they feared he might capture a majority of the vote on Tuesday and win the election outright.

That didn’t happen, but Ossoff came remarkably close, and now he’ll have the chance to go mano-a-mano with Handel. The conventional wisdom says that Republicans should have the advantage in a one-on-one race, but the conventional wisdom also said this contest should have been a slam dunk for the GOP in the first place. And while Ossoff has borne the brunt of Republican attacks, he hasn’t been able to go on offense—but now he will.

Handel has her own baggage: Progressives know her best as the anti-abortion extremist who was forced to resign as head of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer charity after she tried to get the organization to stop providing funds to Planned Parenthood—a move that turned out to be very unpopular. That will help keep Ossoff’s massive national network of supporters fired up, and it also gives him a ready-made line of attack against Handel that may play very well against her.

Handel also hasn’t had a great electoral track record in recent years: In 2010, she narrowly lost a Republican primary for governor, and in 2014, she took a close third in that year’s Senate primary. And while Republican voters may rally around her now that she’s their only choice, some may stay home, as they had options they could happily vote for, ranging from anti-tax radicals to Trump wannabes. Will they now cotton to the bland, establishment-y Handel?

Ossoff, meanwhile, has run a nimble, mistake-free campaign, and if he can continue raising huge sums, he’ll be able to put the hurt on his opponent. But there’s no doubt that this runoff will be extremely difficult—as difficult as it was for Ossoff to get as far as he already has, if not more so.

Yet win or lose, this race should worry Republicans. The combined Democratic vote on Tuesday was 49 percent, versus 50 for the GOP. By contrast, as we noted above, Price easily beat his unheralded Democratic opponent by 23 points. That means Ossoff moved the needle by an astounding 22 points—very similar to what Democrat James Thompson managed in an even more conservative district in Kansas a week earlier.

This means that, with Donald Trump’s unwitting help, Democrats are doing exactly what they need to do in order to take back the House next year. The Georgia outcome shows that they can hold on to the votes of anti-Trump Republicans in highly educated suburbs that moved Democratic last year, while the Kansas results demonstrate they’re capable of winning back rural areas that shifted toward the GOP.

And while Democrats would be thrilled to win Georgia’s 6th, neither it nor Kansas’ 4th are the type of district they need to carry in 2018 in order to win the House. That’s because there are many more Republican-held districts that are much less red than either of these seats, all of which will be up for re-election in the midterms. And in dozens and dozens of them, if the GOP’s margins once again collapse by 20 points, Republican incumbents are going to lose.

But that’s a year-and-a-half away. For now, progressives are going to fight like hell to help Ossoff defeat Handel, and if he does, hoo boy—look out!

1Q Fundraising

MN-Sen: Amy Klobuchar (D-inc): $1.45 million raised, $3.1 million cash-on-hand

NY-Sen: Kirsten Gillibrand (D-inc): $4.4 million raised, $5.7 million cash-on-hand

MD-Sen: Ben Cardin (D-inc): $325,000 raised, $912,000 cash-on-hand

Senate

AL-Sen, AL-Gov: On Tuesday, Alabama GOP Gov. Kay Ivey announced that she was rescheduling the special election for the final years of ex-Sen. Jeff Sessions’ Senate term from 2018 to 2017. The party primaries will be Aug. 15, with a Sept. 26 runoff for contests where no candidate takes a majority of the vote, and the general election will be Dec. 12; the winner will serve out the rest of the term, which ends in early 2021. The 2018 date was set by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned in disgrace last week after using state resources and state personnel to try and cover up a sex scandal.

The decision to move up the special is likely bad news for GOP Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to his new job by Bentley in early February. As we’ve detailed before, as state attorney general, Strange was tasked with investigating Bentley and his coverup. But after Donald Trump announced that Sessions was his choice to head the Justice Department, Strange very much wanted Bentley to appoint him to the Senate. Just before Election Day, Strange had requested that the state legislature halt its impeachment proceedings against Bentley “until I am able to report to you that the necessary related work of my office has been completed.”

Since Strange was aware that accepting a Senate appointment from the man he was investigating would look very bad, he belatedly insisted that he never actually said he was investigating the governor, and claimed he had only asked the legislature to suspend its impeachment proceedings because there were “some common players involved” in another investigation. However, after Strange was appointed, the new state attorney general acknowledged that his office had been investigating Bentley the whole time, something Strange belatedly admitted as well. This ugly story may have been old news in 2018, when Strange originally was supposed to face the voters, but it will be a lot fresher in August and September.

Still, Strange won’t go down without a fight. As the incumbent, he has access to plenty of money and support from his party. On Tuesday, the well-funded Senate Leadership Fund, which is close to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, made it clear that they are backing Strange, and this is a group that is willing to spend vast amounts of money to win. There’s been no public polling here, so we don’t know if voters are interested in dumping Strange over his sketchy moves, or if they’re inclined to give their old attorney general the benefit of the doubt.

Because the special election is this year, any office holder who wants to run can jump in without needing to give up their current post, which could incentivize some GOP politicians to challenge Strange. The biggest and most notorious name out there is Roy Moore, who was suspended as chief justice of the state Supreme Court last year. Moore’s team said back in February that he was considering a Senate bid, as well as runs for governor or attorney general. After Ivey moved the race, Moore scheduled a Wednesday afternoon “announcement” on an unknown topic. Moore was suspended from office last year for defying federal court orders on same-sex marriage, which probably will be a plus for most GOP voters.

State Senate leader Del Marsh, who is reportedly quite wealthy, says he’ll make his decision this week on a Senate bid. Marsh has also been flirting with a gubernatorial bid, but he seems to have closed the door on that, saying that he’d “have a real hard time running against Gov. Ivey.” (Though Ivey herself hasn’t announced if she’ll seek a full term in 2018 yet.)

GOP state Sen. Slade Blackwell also told Birmingham’s ABC 33/40 that he’s considering facing Strange. An unnamed GOP source also suggest to the Washington Examiner that Rep. Mo Brooks, an ardent member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, could go for it, though Brooks has yet to say anything publicly. Back in November, Brooks expressed interest in a Senate appointment, so he clearly isn’t absolutely in love with staying in the House. Brooks also is exactly the type of guy who would challenge a flawed incumbent in a primary, because that’s exactly how he got to the House. In 2010, Brooks ran against Rep. Parker Griffith, who delighted the House leadership when he left the Democratic Party the previous year, and won 51-33.

A few other Republicans made noises about running against Strange before the special was moved up. State Sen. Trip Pittman acknowledged his interest last week, while ex-state Rep. Perry Hooper, a finalist for the Senate appointment, has been reportedly thinking about it. It’s not quite clear when potential candidates will need to make up their minds. The secretary of state set the filing deadline for May 17, but confusingly, the parties can set an earlier date. The state GOP says they’ll determine their dates this weekend, while Democrats say they’ll set theirs after the party executive committee meets.

Alabama is a dark-red state, and the GOP is likely to keep this seat no matter what. Still, hopefully a credible Democrat will take what amounts to a free shot. As Scott Brown’s 2010 win in deep blue Massachusetts demonstrates, strange things can happen when the political winds are blowing against the president’s party, and it’s possible that if Strange wins a bloody primary, he could be vulnerable. Moore may also give Team Blue an unexpected opening: In 2012, as Moore was running for his old job after being removed in 2003 for refusing to comply with a federal judge’s order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the grounds of the state Supreme Court, he only won 52-48. An energetic Democratic campaign could also help Democrats lay the groundwork for the 2018 statewide races as well.

FL-Sen: Republican Gov. Rick Scott faces term limits in 2018 and has been seriously considering mounting a challenge to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is up for re-election next year, but Scott seems to be in no rush decide. He recently said that that he “[doesn’t] think people like long races,” while Scott also noted how he only joined the 2010 governor’s race in April of that year, so he likely isn’t kidding about wanting to wait.

Of course, with the Florida GOP’s 800-pound gorilla content to delay a decision on joining the race, he could freeze out potential lesser-known candidates from announcing their own bids. Indeed, no other prominent Republican beside Scott is considering the race publicly yet. While Scott’s near-universal name ID and his ability to self-fund tens of millions like he did in his gubernatorial campaigns mean he can likely afford to wait months until jumping into the race, other Republicans would need to raise millions to compete in this expensive state. Consequently, they’d likely prefer that Scott decides sooner rather than later.

Gubernatorial

CT-Gov: Last week, Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy announced that he would not seek a third term next year. Malloy’s decision wasn’t a massive surprise, especially since the incumbent has posted poor approval ratings for years as he’s struggled with the perception that the state has not recovered well from the Great Recession. Still, it may take a while for the Democratic contest to replace him to take shape.

One of the big questions hanging over the Democratic primary is what Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a former state comptroller, will do. Wyman herself deflected questions about her 2018 plans after Malloy made his announcement, and according to Hearst Connecticut Media, an unnamed “person familiar with Wyman’s plans” says that she hasn’t ruled out seeking a promotion. State Comptroller Kevin Lembo has expressed interest in running, but last year he unequivocally said that he’d support Wyman if she ran. Jonathan Harris, a former West Hartford mayor, has also talked about running, and on Monday, he stepped down from his position as commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection to “to pursue other professional opportunities.” However, Harris also says that he won’t run if Wyman does.

Several other Democrats are also making noises about getting in, and they may not be so deferential to Wyman. Middletown Mayor Dan Drew formed an exploratory committee months ago, though he hasn’t declared that he’s in yet. Chris Mattei, a former federal prosecutor who is best-known for successfully prosecuting ex-GOP Gov. John Rowland in 2015 for hiding campaign work from election officials, told CT News Junkie on Thursdaythat he would decide within days. On Monday, CT Post reported that Mattei could set up his own exploratory committee as soon as this week.

But wait… there’s more! New Haven Mayor Toni Harp only said on Thursday that she’s “not considering a run at this time,” which is of course far from a no. Back in November, Harp’s team launched a PAC, and the group’s top strategist acknowledged that he hoped she would run for governor in 2018. Rep. Elizabeth Esty has ruled out a bid, though the Hartford Courant writes that there’s no word if her husband, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Dan Esty, is interested.

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney has expressed interest, while state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. reportedly is likely to get in. Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim also sounds interested, but given his seven-year stint in jail for steering city contracts in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of perks, he’s not exactly an appealing candidate. The CT Mirror name-drops Attorney General George Jepsen, but there’s no word if he’s looking at a run.

Connecticut is a reliably blue state in federal elections, but it has a long history of voting for GOP governors, and Team Red hopes that Malloy’s unpopularity will give them an opening. House Minority Leader Themis Klarides is the latest Republican to express interest, while Hartford Business name-drops her Senate counterpart, Len Fasano. Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti and state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan each kicked off bids before Malloy made his decision not to run public, while former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, businessman Steve Obsitnik, attorney Peter Lumaj, and state Sen. Toni Boucher have all formed exploratory committees.

Ex-state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, who lost the 2014 primary, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, and state Sen. Tony Hwang have each expressed interest as well. However, the CT Post reported last month that Hwang was considering challenging Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy instead.

GA-Gov: GOP Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle filed to set up a gubernatorial campaign earlier this month and, while he didn’t say he was running, it looks like we won’t need to wait long for that announcement. Cagle’s team is spreading word of a big event April 30 (featuring a “surprise musical guest”) that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution believes will be his campaign kick off. That’s probably the case, unless Cagle plans to announce nothing except that he’s written a musical tribute to the people of Georgia. We’re only half-joking: Cedar Rapids Mayor and possible Iowa GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron Corbett did almost that exact thing in February.

ID-Gov: The 2018 race to succeed retiring Republican Gov. Butch Otter in this dark-red state has drawn heated interested from Team Red, and GOP Rep. Raul Labrador is the latest to reiterate his interest in running. Labrador recently said he’ll probably announce his decision “sooner rather than later” and almost certainly before November.

If Labrador does enter the race, he’d join Lt. Gov. Brad Little, ex-state Sen. Russ Fulcher, and developer Tommy Ahlquist in the Republican primary. Democrats face tough odds in the Gem State, but Boise School Board member A.J. Balukoff is considering a second go of it after he performed respectably for such a conservative state as the party’s 2014 nominee.

IL-Gov: In the post-apocalyptic near future, Americans might simply select their governors by Thunderdome rules: Two billionaires enter, one billionaire leaves. Until then, we’ll just have to watch filthy rich candidates self-fund staggering amounts into their election campaigns. Democratic venture capitalist and Hyatt Hotels heir J.B. Pritzker is the latest to do so after announcing his candidacy in early April, funneling an initial $7 million into his 2018 bid from his reported $3.4 billion personal fortune. Should Pritzker secure the Democratic nomination, he’d face Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who himself is reportedly worth $1 billion and has backed his re-election campaign with $50 million of his own money.

However, Pritzker doesn’t have the primary to himself in this strongly Democratic-leaning state. Fellow Democrat Chris Kennedy is a wealthy businessman and Kennedy family scion who also has the ability to self-fund well into the seven figures if he so chooses. State Sen. Daniel Biss, Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, and Madison County Schools Superintendent Bob Daiber are also in the race, while several other Democrats are considering it, but they might struggle to raise the necessary funds to get their message out while Kennedy and Pritzker saturate the airwaves. Illinois is an expensive state for campaign ads, and both the Democratic primary and the general election could quickly become a money pit.

NM-Gov: Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham has emerged as the early frontrunner for the 2018 gubernatorial election to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, raising nearly $900,000 since December, but the race is still far from settled. Democratic state Attorney General Hector Balderas has been considering running and expects to decide by summer. He brought in $212,000 during the first quarter and had $683,000 in the bank for his re-election bid, which he could transfer to a gubernatorial campaign if he chooses. Meanwhile, state Sen. Joe Cervantes only recently entered the Democratic primary and self-funded $190,000, leaving him with $245,000 at the end of March.

Few Republican candidates appear eager to announce their candidacies in this blue-leaning state. Lt. Gov. John Sanchez has expressed interest as recently as a few weeks ago, but he raised all of $14,000 in the past three months and had $232,000 on-hand, which is far from what we might expect from a potential gubernatorial candidate. Rep. Steve Pearce and outgoing Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry are also possible Republican candidates, but they have been quiet for the past few months about their plans.

VA-Gov: With a little less than two months to go before the June 13primary, polls show ex-RNC head Ed Gillespie with a clear lead over his two GOP primary foes, state Sen. Frank Wagner and Corey Stewart, the Trump fanboy who also leads the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Most voters remain undecided, but Wagner and Stewart’s continuing money woes will likely prevent them from getting their names out. From Jan. 1 to March 31, Stewart brought in just $306,000, and he has only $410,000 in the bank. But Stewart is loaded compared to Wagner, who raised only $60,000 during this period and has $178,000 on-hand. By contrast, Gillespie raised $1.9 million and has $3 million on-hand.

WI-Gov: While Republican Gov. Scott Walker appears to be gearing up to run for a third term in 2018, Democrats continue to struggle to find a candidate to challenge him. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi had previously refused to rule out running, but on Monday he became the latest Democrat to take his name out of contention. Rep. Ron Kind, who is Wisconsin Democrats’ perennial Hamlet-on-the-upper-Mississippi, previously announced last month that he would once again pass on running for higher office, leaving the party without any obvious well-known choice. However, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, Assemblyman Dana Wachs, and businessman Andy Gronik are still considering it.

House

CO-07: Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter is leaving this suburban Denver seat behind to run for governor, and at 51-39 Clinton, it’s likely to stay blue. Still, Perlmutter’s departure gives the GOP as good a chance to retake this seat as they’ve had in a while. National Republicans reportedly are excited that Jefferson County Commissioner Libby Szabo, whom they believe could win over local Hispanic voters, could run. Szabo has yet to say anything publicly, but the Colorado Independent, citing “sources both inside and outside the GOP,” says she’s thinking about it. But if Szabo passes them up, Team Red may need to look long and hard for a backup candidate. State Rep. Lang Sias reportedly took a look at running here, but he tells the Independent that he’s not going to do it.

On the Democratic side, state Sen. Andy Kerr and state Rep. Brittany Pettersen wasted no time jumping in after Perlmutter made his plans clear. Another legislator, state Sen. Dominick Moreno, has been considering, though he says he won’t decide until after the legislative session ends May 10. State Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp has also said she’s considering.

KS-02: Republican Ron Estes’ 53-46 win in last week’s special election for Kansas’ 4th Congressional District was weak, but it was a win, and Gov. Sam Brownback has appointed state Sen. Jacob LaTurner to replace him as state treasurer. LaTurner had been mentioned as a potential candidate for the nearby 2nd District, but LaTurner says he plans to run for a full term as treasurer next year instead. So far, the GOP field for this open Topeka seat has been developing slowly, with only state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald entering the race so far. The Kansas City Star‘s Bryan Lowry characterized LaTurner as a potentially strong candidate for the House, and it’s possible that his promotion will encourage other Republicans to run for Congress.

MD-06: A few days ago, Democratic Rep. John Delaney confirmed that he was “absolutely considering” a bid against GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, and promised he’d have “something formal to say on the matter” in June. If Delaney runs for governor, he’ll leave behind Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, which is anchored around Montgomery County in suburban D.C.. Clinton carried this affluent seat 56-40, and Democrats should be favored to keep it.

One Democrat is already laying the groundwork to run for Delaney’s seat if he doesn’t; State House Majority Leader Bill Frick has already set up a campaign committee to begin raising money. Frick made it clear that he wouldn’t run against Delaney if the incumbent sought re-election; instead, Frick said that the GOP would target an open seat, and that “[i]t is critical Democrats field a strong candidate in 2018.” Delaney did have an unexpectedly close call during the 2014 GOP wave, and last cycle, Republicans did land a wealthy candidate against Delaney, so Frick is correct that this isn’t a seat that Democrats can completely take for granted. Still, it’s tough to see an area this anti-Trump flipping with Trump in the White House, and Frick is almost certainly trying to raise money early to deter a credible primary challenge.

Frick may end up needing to fight his way through an expensive race regardless. Back in 2012, after state Democrats redrew this seat to elect a Democrat, then-state Senate Majority Leader Robert Garagiola entered the race as the frontrunner. However, a wealthy candidate by the name of John Delaney decisively outspent Garagiola and won the primary 54-29. Montgomery County doesn’t lack Democrats who are capable of self-funding a campaign, and one possible contender has expressed interest. Liquor store magnate David Trone ran for the neighboring 8th District last cycle, and spent more than $13 million of his own money to lose the primary 34-27 to now-Rep. Jamie Raskin. Trone says he’s “focused very heavily” on a possible run for county executive, but he hasn’t declared, and he’s also said that he’d be interested in running for the 6th if it’s open.

And as an aside: Last year, when Delaney faced a re-election challenge from a well-funded GOP rival, he declared that he had “no plans to run for governor,” a statement that some observers interpreted as Delaney ruling out a gubernatorial campaign. When we give politicians grief for not clearly saying no to a bid for another office, this is the exact type of ambiguous language we’re looking out for.

TX-03: On Monday, Collin County Judge Keith Self announced that he would not seek this open suburban Dallas seat. The only other Republican who has publicly expressed interest in running to succeed retiring Rep. Sam Johnson is wealthy state Sen. Van Taylor, who reportedly is planning to announce he’s in after the legislative session ends in late May. There are plenty of other Republicans who could get in, but so far, potential candidates seem far more interested in running for Taylor’s Senate seat. Trump won 55-41 here, a huge drop from Romney’s 64-34 win, but still quite red.

TX-07: This suburban Houston seat has been red since 1966, when failed 1964 GOP Senate nominee George H. Bush flipped a previous version of this seat. However, this seat swung from 60-39 Romney to a narrow 48.5-47.1 Clinton win, and Democrats are hoping to give longtime Rep. John Culberson a tough race. (Fun fact: Former Ways & Means Committee Chair Bill Archer is the only congressman to represent this seat between Bush and Culberson.)

The Texas Tribune‘s Abby Livingston reports that national Democrats are interested in two potential candidates: attorney Collin Cox and Alex Triantaphyllis, who directs a non-profit called Immigration and Economic Opportunity at Neighborhood Centers Inc. So far, neither Democrat appears to have expressed interest in what will be a tough bid in an area that remains red downballot. Culberson himself starts the cycle with very little money, though Livingston notes that as a subcommittee chair on the powerful Appropriations Committee, he can likely bring in plenty of cash if he feels threatened.

However, the congressman may have more immediate worries. Last cycle, Culberson won a meh 57 percent of the vote against two unheralded primary foes, and it’s possible he’ll need to watch his back again. The anti-tax Club for Growth recently launched an ad campaign urging the incumbent to vote against a border-adjustment tax, a policy the GOP leadership is pushing but that plenty of industries hate. The spot is not exactly friendly, with the narrator arguing that, while Culberson “wasn’t shy about voting to raise his own pay seven times,” he’s been “strangely quiet about a trillion-dollar tax hike Congress is cooking up.” Livingston suggests that the Club’s early move is their way of letting Culberson know that he should expect another primary if he defies them.

TX-23: In 2014, freshman Democrat Pete Gallego narrowly lost his seat to Republican Will Hurd, and he lost his comeback campaign 48-47 as Clinton was

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