MAGA crashes into moderates in train-wreck Senate race

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey isn't running for reelection in 2022. But his vote to convict former President Donald Trump is already rocking the race to succeed him.

County parties have censured Toomey, prompting backlash from centrists and even some Trump supporters who think the efforts will hurt the GOP in upcoming elections. Former Rep. Ryan Costello, a moderate Republican eyeing a bid for the Senate, has publicly come to Toomey's defense in the wake of his vote. Former Trump aides, in turn, are making plans to torpedo Costello before he announces a campaign.

The turmoil is the latest evidence that Trump's departure from office has not at all diminished his role in the GOP — in Pennsylvania, in fact, the primary is likely to be a proxy fight between Trump loyalists and those who believe the former president damaged the party's ability to compete here.

“Any candidate who wants to win in Pennsylvania in 2022 must be full Trump MAGA,” said Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist to Trump.

The back-and-forth over Toomey’s vote is also exacerbating party fissures in a state where Republicans lost Senate and gubernatorial contests in 2018 and the presidential contest in 2020. The intraparty tensions could damage Republican prospects in 2022, when control of both the House and the Senate will be up for grabs.

The Pennsylvania Senate race in 2022 is a must-win seat for Republicans, and there will be a critical gubernatorial election that year in the state as well.

Sam DeMarco, GOP chair in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, said he strongly supports Trump and disagrees with Toomey’s vote to convict him. But he called the efforts to censure Toomey a “distraction” and believes that Democrats pursued the second impeachment of Trump explicitly to divide the GOP.

“At a time where we need to bring people into our tent, into our party, I worry that the attempts to censure or punish the senator for his vote would send the wrong signal to independents and other like-minded individuals who might lean Republican, but don’t think there’s a place in the party for them,” he said. “Politics is a numbers game. You only win through addition, not subtraction.”

Costello, who represented a suburban House seat before retiring in 2018, told POLITICO that the censures “will hurt Republican candidates.” On Twitter, he went further, saying that a proposed resolution to censure Toomey drafted by the Chester County GOP — his home county’s party — is "staggeringly dumb" and “will indisputably brand them in such a way that it will make it *more* difficult to win county-wide elections this year.”

Bill Bretz, leader of Westmoreland County’s Republican Party in Western Pennsylvania, said his committee members censured Toomey because they were “pretty outraged” and downplayed concerns that the admonishment would divert the party from working to win upcoming elections.

“We’re capable of walking and chewing bubble gum at the same time,” he said. "We can express our dissatisfaction with his vote and still proceed accordingly with getting ready to get our statewide judges elected.”

It will be months until the Senate primary heats up, and some party operatives argued that Toomey’s vote is unlikely to have an impact on the election by the time voters go to the polls.

But as several Republicans fret over the political fallout of the party’s condemnation of Toomey, others are already battling over how the senator’s vote — and those who stood up for him — will be remembered by voters in 2022. Former Trump aides told POLITICO they are planning a public relations campaign against Costello, who has defended Toomey as a “foremost policy wonk” for GOP legislative priorities.

A person involved in the anti-Costello effort said their goal is to take on “Toomey plus people trying to follow in his form” in the party. Costello, a longtime Trump critic who is expected to launch an exploratory committee for the Senate in short order, brushed off the threat.

“They can say whatever they’d like, it won’t bother me,” he said. “It might help my fundraising, to be honest with you.”

Top Trump allies are also already openly criticizing Costello.

“Never Trumper Ryan Costello is a sellout to the globalists,” said Bannon in a statement that echoed Washington Republicans’ dissatisfaction with Costello for declining to run again after a court redrew Pennsylvania’s congressional map. “I don’t always agree with the [National Republican Congressional Committee], but when their Chairman Steve Stivers said Ryan Costello lacked intestinal fortitude, I agreed."

Costello replied: "Sloppy Steve will say whatever he's told [because] he's forever indebted for his pardon."

The national anti-Trump group Republican Accountability Project, meanwhile, is expected to launch a campaign to support Toomey and hopes that anti-MAGA Republicans will be encouraged to run for his seat in 2022.

Joe Gale, a Montgomery County commissioner who was an early Trump backer in 2016, launched a bid for governor this week bashing Toomey. He said in his announcement that the senator has a “track record of betraying President Trump” and that his brother, Sean, who is running for the open Senate seat, “will be the exact opposite of RINO Pat Toomey.”

The uproar over Toomey’s vote has also led to questions about the role he will play in attempting to influence the contest for his seat. Some pro-Trump Republicans predict that a stamp of approval from Toomey could be harmful in the Senate GOP primary. Toomey’s office declined to comment for this story.

Greg Manz, Trump’s 2020 communications adviser for strategy and a former spokesman for the Pennsylvania GOP, said Republican candidates who vie for Toomey’s endorsement or funding from his political action committee will be viewed unfavorably by pro-Trump activists.

A nod from the state party apparatus — whose members include many Trump loyalists — is seen as a significant benefit for primary candidates here.

“It would be foolish for any statewide candidate seeking the Pennsylvania GOP’s endorsement to accept Sen. Toomey’s endorsement or donations from him,” said Manz. “I imagine a feckless hack like Ryan Costello would gladly align himself with Sen. Toomey, but he won’t even place in the Senate primary. He’s a non-factor ultimately.”

In an indication of how divided the two flanks of the GOP are, Costello struck back at Manz with a scathing comment.

“Before Greg Manz worked for Trump, he worked at the state party. Everyone back then and before used to make fun of him [because] he’s a clown. No one respects him and a few years from now, he will probably be pumping gas in New Jersey,” he said. “No one knows who he is. He just does what he’s told like the little errand boy he is.”

Manz returned the barb: “People who disparage hard-working Americans, gas station attendants in this case, have no place in public office.”

Shortly after speaking with POLITICO, Costello took to Twitter to criticize Manz again. Jason Miller, Trump’s senior adviser, retweeted Costello and defended Manz, calling him “true #MAGA and a real-deal Patriot!"

Posted in Uncategorized

Dems buzz about breakout stars of Trump’s impeachment

The Democratic House members who prosecuted the case against former President Donald Trump last week say they’ve been laser-focused on his trial.

But as their speeches were being piped into Americans’ homes 24-7, they also elevated their national profiles — in some cases, generating considerable buzz about their prospects for higher office.

Rep. Madeleine Dean is being talked about as a potential candidate for the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania in 2022, a top priority for the party. Democratic strategists are speculating that Rep. Joaquin Castro, relatively well-known before the impeachment trial, further distinguished himself as an impeachment manager, advancing talk of a statewide bid in Texas. And an ex-Jeb Bush aide went so far as to say that Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse gave his “2004 convention speech” — a nod to former President Barack Obama’s breakout moment in politics.

For the lawmakers who have been able to use this moment to boost their name recognition and grow their fan bases, they’re following in the footsteps of Democratic and Republican impeachment managers who have shone in the past.

"I remember Lindsey Graham as an impeachment manager,” said Tom Lopach, former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It is rare to have a congressional hearing or session of such import that it is on throughout the day. You have to go back to Watergate, you go back to the Iran-Contra hearing, you go back to the Clinton impeachment and Trump's impeachment.”

Graham, who was an impeachment manager during former President Bill Clinton’s 1999 trial, ran for the Senate and won just a few years later in 2002. Asa Hutchinson, another then-House member who made the case against Clinton, is now the governor of Arkansas. Bill McCollum, also on the impeachment team against Clinton, went on to become Florida’s attorney general.

More recently, Democratic representatives such as Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler and Val Demings served as impeachment managers during Trump’s first trial, burnishing their national profiles. Schiff is now looking to be appointed California’s next attorney general. Demings, a Florida congressmember, made it to President Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist.

Some of the impeachment managers for Trump’s second trial include Democrats who have considered or ran for higher office before, such as 2020 presidential candidate Eric Swalwell and Castro, who has eyed bids for the Senate. One Democrat who isn’t able to run for the Senate, Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett, has some Democrats wishing that she could after her steady performance.

Though impeachment is an inherently political process, elected officials typically don’t like to admit that working as a manager can come with electoral benefits. They were required to walk a careful line, especially when making the case that Trump incited a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol. Still, strategists from both sides of the aisle acknowledged that their roles likely furthered their careers.

“When you’re part of impeachment proceedings and you’re in a managerial position, of course you’re going to have better name ID. You’re on camera all this time, bringing incredible evidence,” said Sonia Van Meter, a former campaign consultant to Castro. “And anyone who’s paying attention to these proceedings is going to get to know your face.”

For some of the managers, their presentations were shared widely on social media. Neguse, who is an attorney and the youngest impeachment manager, won acclaim for his compelling and high-minded arguments. Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead manager, poignantly talked about his daughter and son-in-law fearing for their lives during the insurrection only a day after he buried his son. Dean, who previously ran for lieutenant governor, grabbed viewers’ attention when she teared up recounting the day of the attack.

“The part where she showed emotion, that was very real and it gets to who she is,” said Larry Ceisler, a public relations executive based in Pennsylvania. “Obviously she’s raised her profile in the caucus, with political people, and maybe some people who don’t know her. When you distinguish herself as she has, people are going to mention her for the Senate opening.”

Ceisler added that her performance was likely influenced by her past experience as an executive director of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association: “She has at her fingertips some very good legal minds in Pennsylvania … and my guess is, knowing Madeleine, she didn’t go at this on her own, she would ask advice.”

Van Meter said the trial is “upping Joaquin Castro’s name ID and certainly Stacey Plaskett’s.”

She has also worked as a campaign adviser to Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a manager during Trump’s first impeachment, who she said has been invited onto TV and quoted in articles more often since the trial.

Jon Seaton, a former senior adviser to Graham during his 2016 presidential campaign, said the South Carolina Republican’s sense of humor during the Clinton impeachment trial led to national attention and media clips. Graham was noticed ahead of the trial for asking, “Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?'” — a reference to a 1960s soap opera.

“I think it did help. I don’t know if it was determinative, but it certainly gave him a leg up,” Seaton said of Graham’s Senate bid shortly thereafter. “I just think he acquitted himself very well throughout the Clinton impeachment trial and I think people kind of liked him. And it’s always hard to break through, and that gave him an opportunity to break through that his opponents just didn't have.”

But some Democrats who earned the most praise this week will likely not be in a position to run for higher office for some time. Neguse’s home-state senators are both Democrats, and Michael Bennet has said he plans to run again in 2022, while John Hickenlooper is not up for reelection until 2026. Incumbent Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat, faces reelection in 2022.

Poor impeachment performances can also have a lingering effect. When Bruce Castor, a former acting attorney general of Pennsylvania, was named as one of Trump’s attorneys for the trial, it set off speculation that he was contemplating a bid for Senate or governor in 2022. But that chatter has died down after his initial speech last week was widely panned — including by Trump.

And sometimes, the volatile mix of electoral politics and impeachment can create uncomfortable moments. Dean’s son, former Obama aide Pat Cunnane, tweeted on Wednesday that Dean “seems comfortable in the Senate.”

Aware of the optics, Dean’s aides struck a different tone. “She’s focused on the trial,” said Dean’s spokesperson, Timothy Mack, when asked about Cunnane’s tweet.

Posted in Uncategorized

The left channels its fury toward McConnell

Less than two hours after the news of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death — and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to try to replace her with a nominee picked by President Donald Trump — the progressive movement was activated.

Liberal activists convened an emergency call at 9:30 p.m. Friday to chart out the battle ahead. According to people on the line, leaders of the anti-Trump group Indivisible, abortion rights organization NARAL, and court advocacy nonprofit Demand Justice called for a united front: Oppose any confirmation before Inauguration Day. They talked over plans to hold vigils for Ginsburg, and some people briefly discussed the idea of packing the court.

At the same time, Democrats were smashing donation records on the small-donor site ActBlue, and hundreds of mourners were spontaneously gathering on the steps of the Supreme Court.

It marked the beginning of a mobilization effort designed to harness the grassroots fury ignited by the GOP’s response to Ginsburg’s death — an opening flurry of activity that Democrats hope will fuel their takeover of the White House and Senate in November’s election.

“This illustrates forcefully that justice is on the ballot in each of those races for U.S. Senate,” said John Walsh, 2020 campaign manager for Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “We need to succeed, and fulfilling Justice Ginsburg’s wish will be a motivation for millions of people to vote and talk with their friends about the election.”

In the last few years, Democrats have grown increasingly concerned about the composition of the Supreme Court, an issue that’s long been the province of Republican voters. But the battle over the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, along with McConnell’s refusal to hold a vote on former President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, helped to change that.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of Joe Biden supporters said Supreme Court appointments were very important to their vote in the presidential election, compared to 61 percent of Trump backers — a reversal from 2016, when Trump fans saw them as more critical.

Liberal groups are looking to use that energy to ramp up pressure against Republican senators to break with McConnell, particularly those who are in competitive races or who have said in the past that they would not confirm a nominee before Inauguration Day. Most see GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) as being the most promising after Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who said Saturday that the appointment to the Supreme Court should be made by the president who is elected on November 3.

Demand Justice is launching a $10 million ad campaign in an effort to stop Republicans from filling Ginsburg's seat before the presidential inauguration in January. Women’s March is planning big protests. Indivisible has mobilized its members to call Republicans’ offices in the Senate and demand that they “refuse to hold any hearings or confirm any new justices until the next term begins,” according to a prepared script.

The group also said it already has campaign infrastructure in place seeking to oust 12 Senate Republicans, which was originally created in response to the Senate’s impeachment acquittal of Trump, that it plans to utilize in the weeks ahead.

“If the Senate Republicans continue to follow McConnell on this,” said Indivisible press secretary Emily Phelps, “they're going to be the target of the wrath of millions of grieving, pissed-off, motivated volunteers from all 50 states.”

Democratic activists are particularly incensed by the fact that McConnell and other GOP senators argued in 2016 that, rather than vote on Garland, Americans should be able to weigh in on the next Supreme Court nominee in the upcoming presidential election. In key battleground states, local left-wing organizations are also looking to push Republicans such as Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey to hold off on confirming a new justice by turning their own words on them.

“Our plans around mobilization are still in formation, but we do intend to remind Sen. Toomey that he blocked the confirmation of Merrick Garland on the grounds that in an election year, ‘it makes sense to give the American people a more direct say in this critical decision,’” said Hannah Laurison, executive director of the progressive group Pennsylvania Stands Up.

But Democrats face a formidable challenge in trying to pick off Republicans, even those in tight races. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is tied with Democratic opponent Jaime Harrison according to a recent poll, has already signaled that he supports Trump nominating a justice, despite the fact that in 2016 he said the Senate shouldn’t fill vacancies in a presidential election year.

The pressure campaigns aren’t limited to Republicans. In a year in which progressives ousted a handful of incumbent House Democrats, a former aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for a Democrat to immediately announce that they will launch a 2022 primary challenge against Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The goal: Make him grind the Senate to a halt in hopes of somehow staving off a confirmation.

“Schumer needs to face maximum pressure every single day to use all possible power that his caucus has — and it has power — to stop a Trump appointment,” wrote David Sirota, Sanders’ speechwriter for his 2020 presidential campaign, and progressive activist Andrew Perez in a newsletter. “Not just pressure as in phone calls and protests — pressure as in you-will-be-voted-out-of-office pressure.”

Along with contacting Republicans, Indivisible members are also calling Senate Democrats’ offices to urge them to slow down the business of the Senate in hopes of blocking a future nominee.

Demand Progress, a left-wing group, said 50,000 people have sent emails to Democratic and Republican senators around the country asking them to “block every motion, force every bill to be read in full, and use a wide range of parliamentary tactics to shut down the Senate between now and January, when new Senators and the president are inaugurated.”

Democrats are largely powerless to stop the nomination if Republicans have 50 votes: They can try to put on the brakes, but judicial confirmations run on a separate calendar and McConnell controls the floor. Progressive activists and former Senate aides insist they have leverage to drag it out, though.

“All options have to be on the table,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), referring to efforts to block the confirmation. But asked for details, he declined to elaborate.

In the wake of Ginsburg’s death, left-wing groups are also working to boost support for the campaign to pack the Supreme Court by expanding the number of justices. Once a fringe idea, the cause picked up steam in the Democratic presidential primary when several candidates said they were open to it. Biden, who has opposed the proposal, is likely to face increased pressure from liberals to change course.

Already, some Democrats are expressing support for adding seats to the court.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tweeted that if Republicans “were to force through a nominee during the lame duck session — before a new Senate and President can take office — then the incoming Senate should immediately move to expand the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, in a call with Senate Democrats Saturday, Schumer said, “nothing is off the table for next year” if Republicans move forward with their plan.

"Court expansion is on the map in a way that it’s never been before,” said Aaron Belkin, director of Take Back the Court, a group leading the charge for court-packing. “Part of that is because [McConnell] stole the court in 2016, and the fact he’s now pledging to violate the ‘rule’ he used to steal the court in the first place is, of course, electrifying the opposition and underscoring the need to rebalance the court so this doesn’t happen again.”

Given the obstacles they face in trying to stop McConnell, however, progressives had not effectively prepared for this moment, said a person involved with one liberal group opposing the confirmation.

“There’s no clear strategy,” the individual said. “It’s another one of these moments where if we were the other side, we would have had much more of a plan in place.”

But many Democrats said the upcoming Supreme Court battle is making their voters even more motivated than they were before, which could pay dividends in November.

“Enthusiasm is through the roof,” Schatz said. “Nothing motivates voters like righteous anger.”

Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.

Posted in Uncategorized