Ralph Northam wins Democratic nod while Ed Gillespie squeaks past Corey Stewart

The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, and Carolyn Fiddler, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, and David Beard.

leading off

VA-Gov: On Tuesday, both parties held primaries for this November’s race to replace termed-out Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeated ex-Rep. Tom Perriello 56-44. But the GOP contest was unexpectedly a cliffhanger, with ex-Republican National Committee head Ed Gillespie, who was Team Red’s 2014 Senate nominee, defeating Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart just 43.7-42.5.

While Perriello quickly endorsed Northam on Tuesday night, Stewart took a very different approach. Stewart told his supporters following his defeat, “There is one word you will never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity’,” and he continued by declaring, “We’ve been backing down too long. We’ve been backing down too long in defense of our culture, and our heritage and our country.” While Stewart’s margin of defeat appears to be just outside the margin needed for a recount, Stewart’s team did not concede, and they told the Washington Post that they want to wait for the absentee votes to be counted before assessing their options.

We’ll start with the GOP primary, which we and almost every other observer expected to be a blowout win for Gillespie. Gillespie, who impressed Republicans by almost defeating Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in 2014, held a massive fundraising edge over both Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner, who took just 14 percent of the vote. Indeed, from April 1 to June 1, Gillespie outspent Stewart $1.7 million to $402,000, and Stewart had little cash left over for the homestretch.

Stewart, who served as the head of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign for much of the 2016 cycle, tried to link himself to Trump and framed Gillespie as an ally of “the Bush family and other establishment Republicans who hurt the Republican brand so badly that we got Barack Obama.” That’s actually one of the nicer things Stewart said about Gillespie. In addition to referring to Gillespie as a “cuckservative” without any prompting on Reddit, Stewart’s allies altered real news headlines on Facebook to attack Gillespie.

However, Stewart of course left off the fact that he was actually sacked by the Trump campaign last year for staging an unwelcome protest outside the RNC. However, while Trump didn’t take sides in this race, a large chunk of Trump-loving GOP primary voters appear to have seen this as the latest battle between the hated GOP elites and Trump.

It also looks like Ed Gillespie’s campaign was almost a casualty of, of all things, the Civil War. When New Orleans began taking down its old monuments to the Confederacy and Charlottesville, the home of the University of Virginia, also removed its statue of Robert E. Lee, Stewart inserted himself firmly into the story on the side of the rebels. Stewart, who is actually from Minnesota, infamously tweeted in April that “[n]othing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.” Stewart’s defense of a Nazi frog also probably didn’t harm him much, either. (That’s not a joke. That really happened.)

With almost no polling, it’s far from clear what effect Stewart’s Confederate-friendly rhetoric on the race, but the whole matter probably helped buy Stewart the publicity his small war chest couldn’t purchase him. In the end, Gillespie pulled off the win, but just barely.

By contrast, the Democratic primary ended with a decisive win for Northam. The lieutenant governor had the primary to himself for a year and a half, but in a complete surprise, Perriello jumped into the race in January without any warning. While the race was often and misleadingly framed as a continuation of the 2016 Democratic primary, with Northam ostensibly acting as a stand in for Hillary Clinton and Perriello functioning as a Bernie Sanders surrogate, that’s not how it actually turned out.

Instead, the unexpected contest largely turned into a battle between state and national Democrats. Northam, a former state senator from the Hampton Roads area, had the backing of McAuliffe, as well as most of Virginia’s Democratic congressional delegation and state legislators. By contrast, Perriello had the support of two well-known New England U.S. senators, Elizabeth Warren and Sanders. Perriello, who went on to serve in the State Department after his 2010 re-election defeat, also touted endorsements from influential former members of the Obama administration. The contest also wasn’t particularly ideological either, with both candidates working hard to portray themselves as the more progressive candidate, and each side attacking Trump on TV.

Ultimately, Northam’s ties to influential state Democrats appears to have helped him more than Perriello’s support from well-known national progressive stars. And while both candidates started the primary with little support from voters, Northam decisively outspent Perriello on TV, which helped him get his name out. To the relief of Democrats, this primary didn’t get very negative.

Both sides will now turn their attention to the November general election. Despite Gillespie’s weak performance, Team Red isn’t going to let this seat go blue again without a massive fight. However, Democrats have some reasons for optimism. Trump lost Virginia 50-44, and he certainly hasn’t gotten any more popular since last year. Gillespie’s close shave underscores one of the problems he’ll likely face in the fall. Gillespie can’t win without Stewart’s ardently pro-Trump voters, but he needs to appeal to them without offending people who don’t want anything to do with The Donald. It doesn’t help that Stewart doesn’t seem the least bit inclined to aid his former rival.

Primary turnout also gives Team Blue some reason for optimism. 531,000 people voted in the Democratic primary while only 362,000 cast a ballot in the GOP race. Democrats have struggled in recent years to get their voters to the polls in non-presidential elections, but if that pattern is reversed in the fall, Democrats could be in for a very good night in the Old Dominion.


AL-Sen: The Death Star known as the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC is finally operational now that Alabama’s Senate special election Republican primary has kicked into gear. Aligned with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, SLF placed a $2 million ad buy on TV and radio to support appointed GOP Sen. Luther Strange, cancelling an earlier $2.65 million buy that turned out to be a placeholder. Meanwhile, another GOP super PAC called One Nation, which also has ties to McConnell, is backing Strange with a $385,000 ad buy.

SLF’s new spot itself praises Strange for fighting back against Obama’s supposed “assault on religious freedom” and “amnesty plan,” while highlighting his NRA endorsement. The narrator repeatedly calls the senator “Big Luther” and emphasizes that he’s a conservative, making its messaging practically identical to a recent ad from Strange himself.

MI-Sen: On Monday, local Michigan politics tipsheet MIRS News Service reported that Republican ex-state Supreme Court Justice Robert Young was telling his supporters that he’ll announce a campaign for Senate against Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow as soon as next week. Young himself previously hadn’t ruled it out and is reportedly being encouraged to run.

Businesswoman Lena Epstein, who was Trump’s state campaign co-chair, is already running, but Republicans might prefer a candidate with an electoral track record. While Stabenow appears by all accounts to be favored for a fourth term at this point, a victory for Young would make him Michigan’s first black senator.

MT-Sen: The GOP field to face Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is only slowly taking shape, but another Republican may be interested. Yellowstone County District Judge Russell Fagg is stepping down from the bench in October, and while he says he’s starting his own law practice, he also said last month that he was considering running for office. Fagg didn’t name a particular post, but he said that the federal budget deficit was “the biggest issue” to him, so it sounds like he’s interested in going to D.C. Fagg also recently attended a GOP state convention along with several other current or possible Senate candidates, though he maintains that he’d only consider running for office after he retires later this year.


AL-Gov: Kay Ivey was promoted from lieutenant governor to governor two months ago after fellow Republican Robert Bentley resigned in disgrace, and it’s unclear if she plans to defend her new job next year. Ivey recently told local reporters that she may not announce her plans until this fall. State Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, and Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington have all announced that they’re seeking the GOP nomination regardless of what Ivey does, and other Republicans have expressed interest. We’ve seen no state polls since Ivey became governor, so we don’t have a good sense for how popular she is.

FL-Gov: The May campaign finance reports for Florida’s gubernatorial race are out, and Republican state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam continues to lead the pack. Putnam and his allied committee raised a monster $2.2 million haul after joining the race last month, giving him an astonishing $9 million on hand (although he’s been fundraising since 2015). There’s still over a year to go until the 2018 primary, but Florida is an incredibly expensive state. Several other noteworthy Republican candidates have previously expressed interest in running too, but the later they wait, the bigger head start Putnam will have with fundraising.

On the Democratic side, ex-Rep. Gwen Graham also officially jumped into the contest in May, and she brought in the most for Team Blue. She and her committee raised $1.5 million, although that included a transfer of $950,000 from her old congressional campaign account. Wealthy real estate company owner Chris King raised $212,000 and had roughly $1.6 million on hand, largely thanks to earlier self-funding $1 million. Meanwhile, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum only raised a mere $97,000, although his campaign says that the candidate “took some well-deserved time off the campaign trail” after his son was born.

MD-Gov: Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz had revealed back in November that he was considering running for governor in 2018, and on Monday, he said he’ll likely decide after Labor Day whether to launch a campaign. Kamenetz, who faces term limits for his current position next year, has been travelling across the state while serving as the president of the Maryland Association of Counties, which is also convenient for someone who could be thinking about seeking statewide office and wanted to boost their profile outside of their geographic base.

If Kamenetz runs, he’ll join state Sen. Richard Madaleno, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, and tech entrepreneur Alec Ross in the Democratic primary for the nomination to take on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Several other noteworthy Democrats are also still thinking about the race, including Rep. John Delaney, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, and attorney Jim Shea, who has already formed an exploratory committee.

PA-Gov: While it didn’t get a fraction of the attention as Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte’s assault of reporter Ben Jacobs did, last month, another Republican also got violent on tape when state Sen. Scott Wagner aggressively tried to grab a tracker’s phone, bloodying the tracker in the process. Wagner, however, won’t face any criminal consequences, as state Attorney General Josh Shapiro declined to bring charges.

Rather bizarrely, Shapiro, a Democrat, issued a statement saying that “both men acted inappropriately.” Exactly how Shapiro thinks the tracker, Chris Van Leeuwen, misbehaved he doesn’t say. Wagner, a wealthy businessman who is running for governor, accused Van Leeuwen of trespassing, but even if that were so, this isn’t the NFL where penalties offset or somesuch—Wagner still got physical with Van Leeuwen. Also, haven’t we had enough of prosecutors opining on cases they ultimately decide not to pursue?


GA-06: Last month, SurveyUSA released a poll showing Democrat Jon Ossoff with a giant 51-44 lead over Republican Karen Handel in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, though at the time we strongly advised caution because other polls at the time had shown a much tighter race. Now SurveyUSA has apparently returned to earth, with a new poll conducted for local news station WXIA that finds Ossoff and Handel tied at 47 apiece. Among those who’ve already voted—fully 45 percent of the sample—Ossoff has a 57-38 advantage.

This time, though, it may be SurveyUSA who’s understating things. The last five polls, and seven of the eight conducted since the April primary, have all found Ossoff ahead. But the range has been quite scattered, with Ossoff up by as little as 1 to as many as 7. The one thing we do know for sure is that Republicans have never released a single poll, and now we’re just a week away from the election.

That means, of course, a final flurry of TV ads, and there’s a striking contrast between the closing spots from each campaign. Handel, sitting alone at a table in a restaurant, mostly berates Ossoff, whom she says “doesn’t live here,” “doesn’t share our values,” and has “raised millions outside of Georgia from Nancy Pelosi and outsiders who just don’t share our priorities.” Ossoff, however, stays positive, criticizing wasteful government spending and encouraging voters to visit his website to learn about his plans. He doesn’t make any reference to Handel whatsoever. Wonder who’s feeling confident.

In a separate ad, Ossoff addresses some attacks leveled against him, and he does so smartly. Rather than repeat his critics’ accusations—a mistake campaigns often make—he simply says, “Let’s put this to rest once and for all: I want to see ISIS destroyed.” He spends the rest of the spot inveighing against the terror-state with a calmness and gravitas that politicians twice his age often lack.

The GOP, however, remains in permanent attack mode. The NRCC finds a bunch of reg’lar folks (funny, all older white people) to call Ossoff a liar who lacks experience and will be a Pelosi toady. (Once again, someone specifically berates him as “childish,” an oddly specific word we’ve heard in multiple Republican ads. It somehow must have tested well in a focus group.) The Congressional Leadership Fund, by contrast, accuses Ossoff of dodging a debate on CNN, which is amusing because it’s Handel who’s been AWOL throughout the campaign.

One week!

IA-01: This week, Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker became the latest Democrat to express interest in challenging GOP Rep. Rod Blum. Walker told Bleeding Heartland that he is considering, and he “hope[s] to have a final decision in the very near future.” Walker only won elected office last year, but Bleeding Heartland says that some Democrats have been encouraging him to run for higher office. State Rep. Abby Finkenauer has been running for a little while, while ex-U.S. Labor Department official Thomas Heckroth, state Sen. Jeff Danielson, and Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson also are eyeing this competitive eastern Iowa seat.

KS-03: This week, attorney Andrea Ramsey entered the Democratic primary to face GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder in this competitive suburban Kansas City seat. Ramsey recently stepped down from the board of a local clinic that provides care to underserved children to run for Congress, and she cited Yoder’s support for Trumpcare when she kicked off her bid. Hours after Ramsey announced, Iraq War veteran Joe McConnell ended his three-week old campaign and endorsed her, saying that his family has “faced some challenging events … over the past several weeks, unrelated to my run for Congress.” 2016 nominee Jay Sidie is also seeking the Democratic nod. This seat flipped from 54-44 Romney to a 47-46 Clinton edge in 2016.

NH-01, NH State Senate: On Tuesday, GOP state Sen. Andy Sanborn announced that he would challenge Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in this very swingy seat. Sanborn, the co-chair of the conservative House Republican Alliance in the legislature, wasted no time portraying himself as a political outsider and painting Shea-Porter as an extremist. Sanborn will face ex-state Liquor Commission Enforcement and Licensing Director Eddie Edwards in the GOP primary, while ex-state party vice chair Matt Mayberry, 2010 gubernatorial nominee John Stephen, and state Rep. John Burt are all considering. Amazingly, ex-Rep. Frank Guinta, who has faced Shea-Porter over the last four cycles, hasn’t shown any interest in another bid this year.

Sanborn’s decision to run for Congress may also give Democrats a better chance at his state Senate seat. SD-09 backed Clinton 48-47 four years after Romney carried it 51-48. (Sanborn himself mistakenly told WMUR that Obama won his seat in 2012, so he clearly doesn’t pay attention to our Pres-by-LD project.) Republicans hold a 14 to nine majority, and there will be a special election for one additional seat this July; the entire chamber will be up in 2018.

NJ-03: Orange Alert! Donald Trump, as often noted, relishes punishing his enemies and disdains helping his allies, but he actually did lift a very short finger last weekend for the man who shocked the corpse of Trumpcare back to life with an amendment that would allow insurers to charge as much as they like to people with pre-existing health conditions. Trump headlined a fundraiser for New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur—conveniently located at Trump’s Bedminster golf course, which just happens to be in the Garden State—that, according to Politico, raised $800,000 for the congressman.

What’s remarkable about this, though, is not just that Trump did something for someone not named Donald Trump, but that MacArthur doesn’t actually need the cash: He’s worth over $50 million! He is, however, potentially vulnerable next year, in large part because of the key role he played in advancing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. However, you’ve got to imagine that there are a whole host of less-wealthy Republicans on the hot seat who would really like some of that sweet Trump magic showering down on them. On second thought, perhaps there aren’t.

NJ-11: VoteVets, a progressive group devoted to electing veterans to office, recently announced their endorsement of ex-federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill. A former Navy helicopter pilot, Sherrill is running for the Democratic nomination to face Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen in this Morris County-centric suburban seat, which has historically long favored Republicans, but swung from 52-47 Romney to just 49-48 Trump. She might still face a primary though, since Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon also previously hadn’t ruled out a bid and has reportedly been recruited to run by the DCCC.

NY-22: Rabidly conservative Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney prevailed just 46-41 in 2016 to win a then-open seat centered on Utica and Binghamton even as Trump carried it 55-39, but Democrats have so far shown less eagerness to challenger her this cycle. Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, however, recently acknowledged that he’s thinking about running against Tenney in 2018. Brindisi has represented Utica since a 2011 special election, and he’s won re-election unopposed ever since, even as his swingy district lurched from 51-47 Obama to 54-41 Trump in 2016, meaning he could have experience winning crossover support (or in this case, enough to have dissuaded GOP challengers).

One likely reason the 2016 race was as close as it was is because self-funding businessman Martin Babinec ran as a center-right independent and won 12 percent of the vote, appearing to draw mostly from Republicans. While Babinec has shown no signs of running again in 2018, former GOP Rep. Richard Hanna recently said that he was considering a center-right independent campaign in 2018. It’s possible that Hanna too might draw more from Tenney, who nearly ousted him in the 2014 primary and likely spooked him into retirement in 2016. However, it’s just as possible that his relatively centrist message and endorsement of Hillary Clinton will make him persona non grata with Republican-leaning voters.

Although Trump easily won the overwhelmingly white 22nd Congressional District, Obama only lost it by a mere fraction of a percentage point in both 2012 and 2008, meaning Democrats have some hope that their wayward voters might return home if 2018 becomes a more favorable year, especially after Tenney voted in favor of Trumpcare. This seat won’t be easy, but a strong Democratic recruit and the wild-card impact of a possible Hanna bid could give Team Blue a shot at ousting the hard-right Tenney.

Reacting to the news that Brindisi was thinking about running, Tenney made a quote that’s revealing, as we’ll explain below:

“I think Anthony versus me, makes an excellent contrast for voters. I think he has an uphill battle challenge in this district which is almost 60 percent of this district voted for Donald Trump. I hope he finds a more moderate road if he’s interested in running,” said Tenney.

Of course, as we mentioned above, Trump didn’t win nearly 60 percent here, but slightly less than 55 percent according to Daily Kos Elections’ calculations of the presidential results by congressional district. If Tenney doesn’t even know one of her district’s most critical measures of partisanship, we can only hope she’ll similarly overestimate the chances she has of winning next year and act accordingly.

VA-10: Here’s a good example that shows that “the Democratic establishment” is not the monolithic creature it’s often made out to be. Back in April, Democrats scored a big coup when state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, who’d reportedly been recruited by the DCCC, announced a challenge to GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia’s 10th District. But later this month, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a prominent national figure who is close to Senate leadership, will headline a fundraiser for another candidate, former Veterans Administration official Lindsey Davis Stover.

This isn’t an example of #demsindisarray, though, and there aren’t any ideological fault-lines at issue here. Rather, there appears to be a personal link, as Stover worked at the VA at the same time as Duckworth was an assistant secretary there, just before Duckworth left the department to pursue a second bid for Congress. Interestingly, there are also two former service members in the race, Army vet Daniel Helmer, a Rhodes scholar who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and retired Naval intelligence officer David Hanson, who also happens to have a degree from Oxford.

other races

VA-LG: In Virginia, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, and both sides held primaries for this important office. On the Democratic side, former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax, who narrowly lost the 2013 primary for attorney general to eventual winner Mark Herring, beat former Joe Biden chief of staff Susan Platt 49-39. For Team Red, state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel defeated fellow state Sen. Bryce Reeves 43-40.

The Democratic contest was a civil affair, but the Republican primary was quite another story. Reeves accused Vogel of sending out an email under a pseudonym insinuating that he had an affair with a campaign staffer. Vogel has denied it, but subpoenaed records link those messages to Vogel’s home IP address and to her husband’s phone. Vogel claimed that her family was hacked, and a judge denied Reeves’ request to depose her. A third Republican, Del. Glenn Davis Jr., stayed out of this mess, but he only took 17 percent of the vote for all of his trouble.

The stakes are high in this general election. The GOP holds a small 21-19 majority in the state Senate, and the chamber will be up again in 2019. If Democrats can net just one district that year (or somehow take a seat before then in a special election or through a party switch), it will be up to the new lieutenant governor to break the ensuing deadlock and decide which party controls the chamber. This post is also a good launching pad for higher office: Aside from attorney general, Virginia doesn’t have any other statewide elected offices besides governor and U.S. senator.

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