Democrats hope the Senate could finally have more than one Black woman

Democrats have a chance to send more Black women to the Senate in 2024 than have ever served in the chamber in its 234-year history. Those hoping to break that particular glass ceiling have a message for the party: Don’t blow it.

Retirements by Senate incumbents in Maryland, Delaware and California created a rare trifecta of open seats in blue states. Even more unusual is the fact that a Black woman is a top contender in each field.

Democrats have their best shot in Delaware. Sen. Tom Carper announced last week that he would not seek a fifth term and threw his weight behind Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, the first woman and person of color to represent the state. It's a welcome development for the party after the disappointments of the midterms when two Black female candidates won Senate nominations in North Carolina and Florida but fell short in November.

But the paths for the Black women running outside of Delaware are less clear. Standing in their way are crowded primary fields full of candidates with massive personal wealth or an army of grassroots liberal donors. Democrats who have waited decades for more racial and gender equity in the Senate are desperate for the party to avoid the pitfalls of last cycle.

"The Democratic Party has got to come to Jesus, if you will, and figure out what they really stand for," said former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), the first of only two Black women elected to the Senate. "They talk about Black women being the base. It's one thing to talk about somebody being your base and then turn around and not return the favor when Black women are trying to get elected."

But for now, there's some optimism.

Blunt Rochester, who was first elected to the House in 2016, has not yet announced a run to succeed Carper, for whom she once interned. But she is likely to and would undeniably be the favorite.

“It's not lost on us that there is not Black representation, Black women, in the Senate,” she said in a brief interview with POLITICO. “For me to just even be considering this, and be considered, is really important.”

A Black progressive candidate, Kerri Evelyn Harris, who challenged Carper in 2018, told POLITICO she would not run if the congresswoman entered the race. Top left-leaning strategists seemed tepid on the idea of recruiting a candidate this cycle.

Other potential Black candidates, however, are not lucky enough to live in a state that only has one at-large House member.

In Maryland, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is campaigning to replace retiring Sen. Ben Cardin in a race that includes Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), a wine magnate who has pledged to spend tens of millions. In California, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is one of three members of the state’s delegation running to succeed the ailing Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed in 2021 that if Feinstein could not serve the remainder of her term he would appoint a Black woman to replace her — a promise that has loomed over the race as the incumbent's health falters.

“We're hopeful that this will be the season where we will have at least one Black woman, and if that is not the case, then shame on us,” said Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder of the Collective PAC, which works to elect Black candidates. “In the more Democratic-leaning states, there's no reason why these Black women couldn't be the party’s choice.”

There is also a Black woman running in a swing state. Pamela Pugh, the president of the Michigan Board of Education, recently launched a Senate bid — though she will have to face Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) in a primary and then a Republican in the fall.

Black candidates, especially women, face enduring and structural obstacles to reaching the upper echelons of politics. Historically they have struggled to amass support from major party institutions and donors, operatives said. And they often face questions that others do not about their qualifications and their ability to win majority-white areas. In recent years, they have had to contend with increased online vitriol and threats.

The midterms brought the disparity into sharper focus. Cheri Beasley, a Black former state supreme court justice, came within roughly 3 points of winning North Carolina's open Senate seat. Her supporters complained she did not receive enough outside help to match GOP spending. In Florida, then-Rep. Val Demings, another Black woman, also lost her race to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) but by a much larger margin.

"Don’t repeat mistakes of the past," said Lee, who is vying for the California seat. "Help create some parity. See Black women as a priority for the party and for the country and value what they bring."

The 2024 battle to increase the Senate's diversity will play out largely in Democratic primaries. While Democratic-leaning voters are perhaps more primed to recognize the value of electing people of color, safe-seat primaries offer a different set of challenges. They are often crowded with non-Black candidates — a dynamic that has irked some who are eager for change.

“What the Democratic Party has to do is to give more than just lip service to Black women,” said Laphonza Butler, the president of EMILY’s List, the party’s flagship abortion rights group that endorsed Alsobrooks. “It's got to be more than just rhetoric. It really has to show up in support. There are opportunities where other candidates could choose to not run and really demonstrate their commitment beyond just the words that they offer on television.”

In California, Lee already faces a fundraising deficit. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, a former House impeachment manager, has already banked $25 million; and Rep. Katie Porter's viral grilling of top executives during committee hearings helped her stockpile $9.5 million. Lee has just $1.2 million.

"I would think that between Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, they would both recognize why their candidacies are obstructions," said Moseley Braun, who is supporting Lee.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a co-chair of Lee's campaign, was initially considering a run for the seat, but declined, in part, he said out of a desire to see a Black woman in the Senate.

"We've been tipping the scales against Black women in this country for 250 years," he said. "If we tip the scales in their favor for once, it's not the end of the world."

But not all prospective candidates are willing to step aside. It's not clear how big the field will get in Maryland's Senate race. Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin is still considering a run while Trone is already in the race and has dropped more than $1.8 million on TV ads for a primary that is roughly a year away.

Asked if he considered bowing out of the Senate race to pave the way for a Black woman, Trone said he had not.

"We ought to leave color behind," he said. "And while diversity is absolutely fantastic, it's got to be the best candidate."

In a brief interview, Alsobrooks stressed that her pitch is that she is the most qualified candidate in the race, having served as state's attorney and county executive. But she has implicitly made the case that different perspectives are needed in a chamber that is primarily white, male and wealthy.

"It is difficult to represent people you don't understand or know," she said. "There are, I believe, a lot of people in the Senate who don't live like the communities that they represent."

In Maryland, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is campaigning to replace retiring Sen. Ben Cardin.

Since the creation of the Senate in 1789, there have only been 10 years when the chamber had a Black woman among its ranks. Moseley Braun served only one term in the 1990s before losing to a Republican. Kamala Harris served four years as a California senator before she ascended to the vice presidency.

But if a Black woman were to win a deep-blue seat, she could hold it for decades with little fear of an electoral threat.

That's part of the reason Black Democrats were so excited about the clear path ahead in Delaware.

When Blunt Rochester walked into the House Chamber hours after Carper's announcement, she was swarmed by cheering colleagues vying to embrace her. “Can I get an amen?” asked Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), prompting cheers from other Democrats.

"The Senate wins," Cleaver said later. “It's almost like Jackie Robinson going into Major League Baseball.”

"We always talk about Harriet Tubman. We talk about Shirley Chisholm," said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Little girls now will be talking about Lisa Blunt Rochester."

Holly Otterbein contributed to this report. 

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DCCC taps members for large leadership team

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced a slate of nearly two dozen members who will join its leadership ranks as it looks to preserve a narrow House majority after redistricting.

The expanded roster is a part of DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney’s pledge to ensuring diversity is reflected in the upper echelons of the committee, something lawmakers complained that his predecessor failed to achieve in the early days of the past cycle.

Some notable additions: Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas — whom Maloney tapped as a vice chair last year — will also lead recruitment efforts this cycle, with the help of Reps. Sara Jacobs of California, Joe Neguse of Colorado and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. Incumbent-protection efforts will be helmed by Rep. Ami Bera of California with assistance from Reps. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia and Steven Horsford of Nevada. All three used to represent swing areas that have become safer in recent years.

In interviews, members said that their early efforts have focused on helping swing-seat incumbents prepare for the midterms by studying what went wrong in 2020 and identifying and convincing strong candidates to run in 2022, even while the district lines themselves are months away from being finalized.

“It's harder in a redistricting year, but generally you're able to recruit,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Candidates that declare know there's a caveat that, 'Well, if the district doesn't look anything like a seat that is viable for me, then I may not run.' Or if they get lumped in with an incumbent.”

But she said she’s been encouraged by the level of interest so far: “We’ll have primaries,” she predicted, pointing to the crowded field in the open seat currently held by Rep. Charlie Crist, a Florida Democrat who is running for governor.

Recruiters note that redistricting will freeze fields for both parties. And Democrats hinted that some familiar names might surface in 2022 — candidates who will be ready to launch quickly when maps materialize.

“Oh I think you’ll definitely see some former incumbents. You’ll see people who came close last time,” Veasey said in an interview. “I think you’ll see some surprises — movie stars.”

Redistricting will also shake up the committee’s Frontline program for endangered incumbents. The DCCC named 32 members to it last spring, but that number could grow and contract. Depending on the new lines, battleground members could find themselves in bluer districts, and safe-seat members could be suddenly in swing territory.

Bera said in an interview that he’s been encouraging Frontline members to study the results of the various analyses of the 2020 election, completed by the DCCC and outside groups. “Certainly we’re looking at what polling kind of missed, because I think everyone ought to be doing that. It wasn’t just the Democratic Party,” he said.

His other advice: Be prepared for a potential drop-off in turnout for a midterm year and to combat GOP attacks on socialism.

”Let the data dictate what you learned, and then you take those lessons and feed them back into how we move forward," he said. "I think that's what we're going through. I would argue the Republicans are probably not going through that same analysis, and they’re tying themselves to Trump."

Also joining the leadership team: Reps. Angie Craig of Minnesota, Scott Peters of California and David Trone of Maryland, who will be regional vice chairs. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia will return as national finance chair, and Rep. Adam Schiff of California will lead finance efforts in the battleground seats, putting to use the large online fundraising apparatus he amassed during the first impeachment trial.

The DCCC has not named a redistricting chair, as its GOP counterpart has. But the regional vice chairs will be monitoring new maps, and the committee has a designated redistricting team on staff, led by Gisel Aceves. A former executive director of BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Aceves moved to the DCCC this cycle.

As previously announced, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland will lead organizing for the committee, and Rep. Linda Sánchez of California will oversee Latino engagement. And Reps. Donald Norcross of New Jersey and Bobby Scott of Virginia will serve as committee liaisons to the labor community.

Meanwhile, Rep. Barbara Lee of California is bringing some of her “Representation Matters” mentorship program for women of color under the DCCC umbrella. And Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas, Dan Kildee of Michigan, Gwen Moore of Wisconsin and Raul Ruiz of California will spearhead the committee’s work with Native American tribes and Indian Country.

“With their diverse array of backgrounds and experiences, we are on an even stronger footing to recruit candidates, build powerful campaigns, and deliver for the American people,” Maloney of New York said in a release announcing the team.

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House GOP super PAC begins $2M TV campaign against Ron Kind

National Republicans are launching a $2 million ad campaign against Democratic Rep. Ron Kind — a sign they see a fresh opportunity to flip his rural Wisconsin district.

Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP’s chief super PAC, will begin running ads on TV and digital platforms on Friday targeting Kind, a 12-term member who is one of 30 Democrats in districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016.

Kind is a prominent moderate voice in the House Democratic caucus as a former chair of the New Democrat Coalition and a leading opponent of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership bids. Though his district has been trending quickly to the right in the Trump era, Kind was thought to be in a strong position this cycle. He has not faced competitive reelections in recent years, besting his 2018 opponent by nearly 20 points.

The group’s spot contrasts the military service of Kind’s opponent, Derrick Van Orden, with what it calls the congressman’s dereliction of duty. A narrator notes Kind missed 138 votes in the last 2.5 years. The ad will air in the La Crosse and Wausau markets.

The decision to go into Kind’s district is notable because new offensive targets have proved rare this cycle for Republicans, who face an increasingly narrow path back to the majority. And they have been pushed into a defensive crouch by Democrats, who have recently made buys targeting deep red seats in Montana, Michigan, Alaska and Colorado.

The GOP initially struggled to find a strong contender to take on Kind. Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL-turned-author, did not file to run until mid-March of this year and said he decided to do so after Kind voted for the articles of impeachment against Trump.

“The concerted effort Republicans put into recruiting top-tier candidates has allowed us to push deeper into the offensive opportunities some thought might be out of reach this cycle,” CLF President Dan Conston said in a statement.

The group’s internal data from this summer found Trump is still leading Biden in the district, and that a majority of voters want their member of Congress to back the president’s agenda. The generic congressional ballot favors a Republican candidate

President Barack Obama won the seat, which spans the western and southwestern swaths of the state, by 11 points in 2012. Trump won it by nearly 5 points four years later. It is predominantly white and largely rural.

Van Orden is not well-known but has proved a solid fundraiser, and he outraised the incumbent by a 2 to 1 margin in the second quarter. He is already on TV with an ad that links Kind to Pelosi and warns that Kind supports giving stimulus checks to illegal immigrants.

Still, Kind has a formidable cash-on-hand advantage, having banked nearly $3.1 million by late July, compared to Van Orden’s $288,000. The congressman has booked nearly $1.8 million in the district. His opponent has reserved about $1 million, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

No other outside groups have booked air time in the district.

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Cash-rich Democrats tighten grip on House majority

Recruitment flops and lackluster fundraising have weakened Republicans’ chances in over a dozen competitive House districts, leaving them with an increasingly narrow path back to power.

Though GOP strategists feel confident they will see some gains this cycle, the latest fundraising reports out last week painted a bleak picture of their odds of netting the 18 seats needed to recapture the House, particularly with campaigning frozen by a global pandemic.

Democrats continue to ride the "green wave" of campaign contributions that propelled them to the majority in the 2018 midterms. Nearly 30 of the most endangered House Democrats have banked $2 million or more in their reelection war chests, offering a layer of protection in otherwise challenging districts.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been unable to field strong candidates in key districts in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin and Minnesota that the president carried and the start of primary season has left them hamstrung by weak nominees in some Illinois and California targets.

“Flipping the House is unlikely at this point. You never say never, but unlikely,” said former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate who retired in 2018. “While Republicans have more offensive opportunities than Democrats in House races this cycle, Republicans are playing more defense than they’d like given retirements, especially in Texas.”

Republicans thus far are struggling to claw back the seats they lost in the midterms, much of it suburban territory that has moved toward Democrats since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Many of the seats where Democrats have fortified their majority are in places like suburban Philadelphia, Detroit and Denver — major presidential battlegrounds.

Among the other roadblocks: Redistricting in North Carolina turned two Republican districts into safe Democratic territory. And at least half a dozen open and GOP-held seats are on track to be highly competitive, diverting precious resources to defense.

“It feels like a status quo year in the House,” Dent said.

Even in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, endangered Democratic incumbents raised exorbitant sums of money in the first three months of the year. Seven of them cleared $1 million.

While incumbents typically have a sizable financial advantage, the Democrats’ lead is particularly stark.

Every one of the 42 members in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s protection program for endangered incumbents had at least $1 million in cash on hand at the start of April, and all but two of them have at least twice as much banked as their opponents. Of their challengers, only 11 had more than $500,000 saved by the end of March.

House GOP leadership began 2020 by warning candidates that they were facing an all-out fundraising crisis — and while they found some bright spots in the first-quarter filings, officials are still sounding alarms.

“We have success stories, but we still have a long way to go,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer said in a statement. “We don’t need to match the Democrats dollar for dollar, but each and every candidate needs to be able look in the mirror and be able to say they are doing all they can to carry their own weight.”

Spotty fundraising is already nudging more than dozen Democratic-held districts to the outer edges of the playing field.

The GOP’s most glaring recruitment hole is in an Upstate New York seat held by Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado that is one of a dozen held by Democrats that Trump won with over 50 percent of the vote in 2016.

Republicans have also struggled in other Trump-won districts. Democratic Rep. Angie Craig has no opponent with more than $100,000 in the bank vying for her suburban Minneapolis seat. None of the candidates running against Democratic Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) has more than $300,000 on hand. And all three seats have crowded primaries.

"They have very few candidates who are reaching the goals that they should be reaching — so they have a map on fire, essentially,” said Abby Curran Horrell, the executive director of House Majority PAC, congressional Democrats’ main outside group. “There’s very few places where things look secure."

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., holds a constituent community conversation at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. After the new member of Congress supported the impeachment of President Donald Trump, she will have to run for re-election in a Trump friendly district. Though she is considered a vulnerable freshman incumbent who ousted a Republican congressman, she maintains robust fundraising and has the strong backing of her party. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Recruiters have also been stumped in Michigan, a state that will host competitive Senate and presidential contests. Eric Esshaki, a potential challenger to Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens, has said he does not have enough signatures to get on the ballot before Tuesday's deadline and has resorted to suing the governor. In a neighboring district, Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin has $3.7 million banked; none of her opponents raised more than $50,000 without self-funding.

In California, Democratic Reps. Josh Harder and Katie Porter both have more than 30 times the amount of cash-on-hand as the Republicans who advanced with them from the March all-party primary.

“We needed to put these seats to bed and be done with them in the off year, and that is what we set out to do,” DCCC executive director Lucinda Guinn said.

Republican prospects are also dimming in two Chicago-area battlegrounds where the party nominated weaker-than-expected standard-bearers. Democratic Rep. Sean Casten will face Jeanne Ives, who ran a scorched-earth 2018 governor campaign attacking transgender and abortion rights — stances that may not endear her to suburban swing voters.

To the west, in a seat held by Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood, national Republicans were so eager to block a primary win by GOP state Sen. Jim Oberweis that they dropped over $900,000 in attack ads against him. Oberweis, an immigration hardliner who has made unsuccessful runs for the House, Senate and governor’s mansion over the past two decades, narrowly won anyway.

A dairy magnate, Oberweis is prone to self-funding but Underwood has $2.3 million on hand.

“There’s an entire super PAC that went in to try to stop Jim Oberweis from becoming the Republican nominee, and now he’s their nominee,” Guinn said. “He’s a perennial loser who Republicans can’t afford to bail out in the Chicago media market.”

Both parties largely agree that a cluster of suburban seats around Denver, Tucson, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Diego and Washington, D.C., that Democrats flipped by wide margins last cycle are not in play because they are trending quickly away from the GOP.

As the battlefield crystallizes, there are roughly 25 Democratic-held seats that are on track to be highly competitive — though that number could change as the national political environment shifts throughout the summer and fall. More than half lie of in districts that Trump carried in 2016, offering the GOP glimmers of hope.

Republicans have landed some impressive and well-funded recruits in some of those districts, but they also face messy primaries in many of their top pickup opportunities. Republicans won’t choose a nominee until June to face Reps. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) and Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), who all hold seats Trump carried by double digits.

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) speaks to members of the media at the U.S. Capitol March 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi held a briefing on the Coronavirus Aid Package Bill that will deal with the outbreak of COVID-19. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The coronavirus outbreak has upended the GOP primary in Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s central Virginia seat; officials were forced to postpone the nominating convention set for this week, and the campaigns are in limbo.

National Republicans hope state Del. Nick Freitas emerges as the nominee, in part because the conservative Club for Growth has signaled it will spend heavily to elect him. But the winner is likely to be chosen by delegates in an unpredictable process. Several Republicans are running, but none has more than $250,000 in the bank. Spanberger has $3.1 million.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is certain to cripple fundraising throughout the summer months, meaning Republicans who empty out their accounts to win primaries could seriously struggle to refill the coffers.

Still, GOP officials insist that House races are highly susceptible to top-of-the-ticket trends, and that races in red-leaning districts could heat up late in the fall as the presidential race tightens, even if they have middling nominees with insufficient cash.

For example, Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) has at least 10 times more cash on hand than any of his opponents. But Maine is one of two states that divides electoral votes by congressional district, and national Republicans hope investment by the Trump campaign could help lift Golden’s opponent.

To widen their net, Republicans are also investing heavily in a handful of seats where the president is less popular.

"We’re going to maximize our chances not only in Trump country, but also in a group of swing seats that, on the presidential side, we may ultimately lose by a couple points,” said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP’s top super PAC. “But we have recruited uniquely strong candidates that can outrun the top of the ticket."

Among them: Tom Kean Jr., a New Jersey state Senate minority leader and son of a former governor; Michelle Steel, a supervisor in Orange County, Calif.; former Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) and Wesley Hunt, an army veteran running in Houston. They are also the rare GOP candidates who raised more than a half a million last quarter.

Yet Republicans' hopes could rest heavily on the extent to which they have to play defense. Races for GOP-held seats in Texas, Harrisburg and suburban Atlanta will be heavily contested.

Democrats have tried to land well-funded recruits who can force national Republicans to spend to protect otherwise-safe incumbents. While the party has no strong candidate to take GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in swing Philadelphia seat and is likely to again nominate failed 2018 candidates in New York and Nebraska battlegrounds, it has found formidable contenders in several other districts.

More than a half dozen endangered Republican incumbents were outraised by a Democratic challengers last quarter, including Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.).

“The nightmare scenario for Republicans is that Democrats have enough money that they can be on offense,” said one veteran GOP consultant. “A lot of that has to do with how much pressure we can put on Democratic incumbents, and so that’s why recruiting failures anywhere are not ideal.”

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Inside the crazy race to replace Mark Meadows

Republican voters in retiring Rep. Mark Meadows’ (R-N.C.) congressional district received a curious, unsolicited mass text message recently warning them that Lynda Bennett, a candidate endorsed by the congressman’s wife, is a “Never Trumper” — and there was audio attached that claims to prove it.

"I’m never Trump. So now what?" a woman yells in the 45-second recording. "What are you going to do? Going to ask me to get out there and help Trump get elected? And you want me to help organize 100 people to come and work the polls to get Trump elected when I am not for him? I am against him — never Trump!”

Bennett, Meadows and her allies claim the tape is selectively edited, taken out of context from a meeting over three years ago where she was role-playing a Trump antagonist and distributed by rivals within the local GOP. But the circulation of the audio — which had appeared previously on some Republican-affiliated websites but had never been widely disseminated is only the latest bizarre development in an unusually dramatic House primary next month that has splintered Republicans in western North Carolina.

The race itself has drawn national interest because of its connection to Meadows, one of the president’s closest congressional allies. And the insinuation that he is actively working to elect a candidate that may have publicly bashed Trump has added an extra layer of intrigue.

“It’s edited to make it appear that she’s against the president when she’s actually very much for, and I happen to know that,” Meadows said in an interview last month shortly after the message went out. “There is zero chance that my wife would have endorsed Lynda Bennett had she been even remotely against the president of the United States.”

Two days after the mass text, Meadows doubled down and endorsed Bennett himself over a field of a dozen contenders that includes a state senator and his former congressional district director.

Some local GOP leaders had urged the congressman not to endorse out of anger at the way he announced his surprise retirement just 30 hours before the state’s filing deadline. They quickly speculated that Bennett, a friend of the Meadows’, had advance notice of his exit and that the congressman timed his decision to help her — a charge that Meadows and Bennett deny.

Bennett’s ties to Meadows, his wife, Debbie, and her devotion to the president have become a prominent topic of discussion ahead of the March 3 primary that will extend into a May runoff if no candidate clears 30 percent of the vote.

So have the mysterious text messages, which baffled local party officials, who cannot determine the origin and scope of the message or the veracity of the audio tape.

“It’s caught some people off-guard, not knowing exactly when, where, who and what any motivation may have been,” said Aubrey Woodard, the 11th District GOP chairman. “It’s definitely a mystery. It certainly is. I don’t know if that’s to have an effect on her electability one way or another, but it’s certainly not something she wanted to have out.”

The texts were sent out from a D.C. area-code number around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29, according to a survey of screenshots from five different recipients obtained by POLITICO. Those texts were all sent from different numbers, though all but one had the same exchange, (915). Attempts to call those numbers yielded an automated response that none were in service.

This account comes from interviews with a dozen people who live in or have connections to western North Carolina, including registered Republican voters in five counties across the district who all received the audio file via text. The message was also sent to the cell phone of a POLITICO reporter.

Accompanying the file is a text message: "Please listen to this audio from Lynda Bennett, GOP candidate for NCs 11th Congressional District, & hear where she stands on President Trump in her own words."

The audio is purportedly taken from a fall 2016 meeting of Haywood County Republicans, according to three people who were at the meeting. The discussion centers around palm cards — handouts given to voters outside polling locations that advocate for a slate of candidates.

Some Republicans wanted names of certain GOP nominees to be taken off the palm cards that would be distributed outside the polling location, according to Bennett and Ken Henson, the chairman of the Haywood County GOP, who was also present at the meeting.

Bennett said she advocated for the inclusion of all candidates, including Trump, but that the audio was chopped to suggest otherwise.

“They have cut off the beginning and the end, and they just grabbed this part out of the middle,” Bennett said in an interview this week. “I'm saying, ‘This is what I've been hearing,’ and then I mimic the 'Never Trumpers.'”

Bennett said she had been supportive of the president for years. The clip, she said, was “taken completely taken out of context” and was likely “a coordinated attack” from one of her opponents or an outside group.

Versions of the audio have been circulating among Republicans in the district. Monroe Miller, a GOP activist from Haywood County, said he created the original audio of the meeting and posted two unedited segments of it to his website this month, along with 11 pages of typed and handwritten notes and a diagram of the meeting room. But he denied coordinating any text message pushing out the audio to voters in the district.

Miller is a member of a local Republican faction, sometimes called the “Haywood Five,” that has openly sparred with the leadership of the Haywood County GOP.

He disputes Bennett's account of the meeting. Miller said he did not think she was imitating anyone and that he believed her to be opposed to Trump.

“This came out spontaneous,” Miller said of her “Never Trump” comments. “It’s pretty evident from the recording. She just went off, and I didn’t view that as role-playing.”

“She was very vocal,” he said. “Lynda was a very opinionated person.”

Some local Republicans suspect a candidate or outside group hoping to fracture the field along the lines of Trump loyalty— a key fault line in GOP primaries — coordinated the message, possibly by contracting a firm that offers peer-to-peer text messaging.

Candidates will have to file "pre-primary" campaign-finance reports with the FEC on Feb. 20, but it could be easy to disguise an SMS-texting payment as vague expenditure for consulting or another service.

The filing deadline will also offer a look at which candidates are the most formidable ahead of the Super Tuesday race. Without any public polling, it’s not clear if Bennett is even in the top tier of candidates. A dozen Republicans filed to run for the solid GOP seat, but only a handful have spent money on television advertising.

State Sen. Jim Davis, the only current state legislator in the race, is likely a frontrunner. Wayne King, Meadows' former district director, is also running, as is businessman Chuck Archerd, veteran Dan Driscoll and Madison Cawthorn, the survivor of a near-fatal car accident.

Bennett has two outside groups supporting her on the airwaves. Meadows cut a direct-to-camera TV ad for House Freedom Action, the political arm of the Freedom Caucus, in which he calls Bennett a "good friend" who will "work with President Trump to drain the swamp."

It’s possible that no member has yoked their fortune more tightly to Trump than Meadows, who said he is leaving Congress after four terms to serve in an as-yet-undefined role in Trump world.

The president notably gave both Meadows, his wife and the race a shout out in his post-impeachment victory speech last week at the White House.

“He’s just a very special guy,” Trump said, gesturing to Meadows. “His wife I actually like better than him, to be honest.”

He also asked Meadows about a possible successor: “You got somebody good to run? Somebody going to win your district by at least 20 points? Please?"

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House Democrats drowning GOP in money chase

House Democrats are clobbering their Republican challengers in the fundraising race, dramatically reducing the GOP’s chances of winning back the majority.

The roughly four dozen most endangered House Democratic incumbents raised a collective $28.5 million in the last three months of 2019, a staggering total that is nearly twice the sum of all of their Republican challengers combined, according to a POLITICO review of the fundraising filings.

This drastic disparity, which House GOP leaders have deemed an all-out crisis, throws the Democratic advantage into stark relief: 32 of the 42 swing-seat Democrats raised over $500,000 last quarter and 36 started the election year with at least $1 million in cash on hand. Of the over 120 Republicans who filed to run against the so-called frontliners, just six had cleared that fundraising threshold, and three had that much in the bank.

“This is quite a wake-up call for Republicans — no way getting around it,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). “There’s no panacea in this. It’s going to take a lot more grinding work.”

Republican members and strategists, clear-eyed about the scope of the problem, describe it as twofold. GOP donors eager to reelect the president and fortify the Senate majority seem to have less interest in funding House candidates. Meanwhile, Democrats have turned the unprecedentedly high fundraising that propelled them to the majority in 2018 into a regular occurrence.

Buoyed by grassroots enthusiasm and the structural dominance of ActBlue, Democrats have moved the financial goal post, and privately many Republicans are at a loss about how to adapt.

Democratic incumbents seem to be picking up speed: All but five of the 42 most vulnerable members raised more in the fourth-quarter than in the third. In fact, 11 of them raised over $900,000 in the last three months of 2019; only Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) passed that mark the prior quarter.

“We used to always tell our candidates: ‘Have a $250,000 to $300,000 quarter. That’s a really good quarter,’” said Parker Poling, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “And it was until they started having $900,000 quarters," she added, referring to House Democrats.

In a joint interview last week at the NRCC’s headquarters, top committee officials outlined their work to confront their fundraising dilemma, from investing in Facebook and Google ads to grow their email lists to consulting with the president’s digital fundraising team.

Desperate to compete with ActBlue, NRCC’s digital fundraising managed to grow the amount the group raised online from just under $5.8 million in the 2017 off-year to $22.6 million in 2019, a 390 percent increase.

In total, the committee slightly surpassed their total 2017 fundraising, raking in $85.1 million last year.

But the DCCC raised a whopping $125 million in 2019, $40 million more than the House GOP campaign, and $38 million of that came from their digital fundraising. In the past four cycles the disparity between the two committees’ off-year total has never exceeded $21 million.

“The DCCC is very good at online fundraising. They’re probably the best Democratic organization at it,” said NRCC digital director Lyman Munschauer. “But we’re catching up.”

Part of the NRCC's task is getting members to invest in their digital operations. Many started the cycle “from ground zero” in building an email list and are still learning best practices for online fundraising, which is totally different from "having a nice lunch at the country club,” Poling said.

WinRed, the new GOP fundraising platform, raised $101 million in the last six months of 2019, but two-thirds of that went to President Donald Trump’s campaign or the Republican National Committee. Just $5.4 million of that haul went to the NRCC.

GOP donors appear to have other priorities. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy often tells members that that House Republicans get the “third dollar” after up-ballot donations.

“People give to the president. They want to make sure we hold the Senate,” said Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), who chairs NRCC’s recruitment team. “And so our candidates work really hard to get that $500 or $1000, maybe harder than they’ve had to in the past.”

Still, the NRCC insists there is still a path to reclaim the chamber if fundraising ticks up, and that top GOP leaders have been vocal about their monetary concerns because there is time course correction.

“If we were in July, and we’d just gotten those second-quarter reports, that’s when you’re really in the panic mode,” Poling said. “But we wanted to ring the bell now so that people can really step it up.”

There were some bright spots for Republicans in the fourth-quarter filings. Five vulnerable members — Reps. T.J. Cox (D-Calif.), Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.), Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Susan Wild (D-Pa.) — were outraised by GOP challengers. Former Rep. David Valadao and Young Kim, who are challenging Cox and Cisneros, respectively, had more in cash on hand as of January.

But, overall, the numbers are daunting for Republicans. Some seats appear to be sliding off the map altogether. For example, in Orange County, Porter raised over $1 million last quarter. Not one of her challengers cleared $100,000.

Of the Republicans running in the 30 districts currently held by Democrats that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 — which should have seen the biggest grassroots boost from the impeachment vote last quarter — only one challenger raised more than $400,000 without self-funding.

Democrats’ financial dominance has major implications for GOP candidate recruitment. Republicans lack top-tier challengers in several key battlegrounds, including seats held by Reps. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah).

McAdams' most formidable opponent ended his bid last quarter, sending House Republicans scrambling to find another contender. They courted Thom Carter, the executive director of an environmental group in Utah. Carter ultimately declined to run — in part, he said, because keeping pace financially with McAdams would require too much time away from his wife and newborn son.

“The incumbent has about $2 million hard cash on hand,” Carter said in an interview last week. “I’d have to spend so much time playing catch up to raise money — not just to win the primary, but against a well-financed, well-liked incumbent.”

House Democrats also plan to parlay their financial edge into growing the offensive battlefield, forcing Republicans to waste valuable resources on protecting incumbents and open seats.

Last quarter, several House Republicans were outraised by an Democratic or independent challenger, including DCCC targets like Reps. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.); Ann Wagner (R-Mo.); Don Young (R-Alaska); Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.); Steve King (R-Iowa); Rodney Davis (R-Ill.); Ross Spano (R-Fla.); David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas). More concerningly, all but four on that list also trailed their opponent in cash-on-hand.

Democrats were the top fundraisers in five competitive open-seat races in Indiana, Iowa, Georgia, New York and in the Texas district held by retiring GOP Rep. Will Hurd. Though Republicans dominated in two other open Texas seats in the Houston and Dallas suburbs.

“We want to work very hard to make sure that we push deeper into Republican territory,” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos told reporters at a briefing last month. “That is the job that we have in front of us.”

Yet Democrats have failed to post strong fundraising in some biennial House battlegrounds held by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.); Don Bacon (R-Neb.); and John Katko (R-N.Y.).

GOP strategists insist there is time to rebound, and that Democrats’ vote to impeach Trump will backfire, particularly through the 30 Democratic-held districts that Trump won in 2016.

"We recaptured the majority in 2010, even though they raised more money than us," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former NRCC chairman. "If you think you can get out of a bad vote with money, good luck to you. I don’t think you will."

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