The Downballot: Why Wisconsin is so dang important, with Ben Wikler (transcript)

No state regularly hosts as many hotly contested elections as Wisconsin, which is why we're talking to state Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler about all of this year's key races on this week's episode of The Downballot. He tells us about everything his organization does to ensure year-round investment in Democratic infrastructure; details the state of play in the battle to defeat Sen. Ron Johnson and re-elect Gov. Tony Evers; and previews a critical race for the state Supreme Court next year that could flip control from conservatives to progressives.

Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also recap several recent elections, including Sarah Palin's first-place finish in the special primary for Alaska's lone House seat, the defeat of a pro-impeachment Republican congressman in South Carolina, and a special election where the GOP picked up a Democratic-held House seat in heavily Latino south Texas.

Please subscribe to The Downballot on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

David Beard:

Hello and welcome. I'm David Beard, Contributing Editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir:

And I'm David Nir, Political Director of Daily Kos. The Downballot is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. You can email us your thoughts at thedownballot@dailykos.com or find us on Twitter @DKElections.

David Beard:

And please subscribe to The Downballot wherever you listen to podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. But let's go ahead and get to today's episode. What are we going to be covering, Nir?

David Nir:

We have a bunch of elections to recap. There was a special election for a congressional seat in Texas. There were primaries in South Carolina that saw one pro-impeachment Republican go down to defeat and there was also an unusual Saturday special election in Alaska for the seat that had been held for decades by the late Republican Congressman Don Young so we'll be talking about all of that.

David Nir:

After we recap those weekly hits, we are going to be discussing Wisconsin with the chair of the State Democratic Party, Ben Wikler, who will tell us exactly what a state party like his does and the key races that they're focusing on this November, so please stick with us.

David Nir:

Primary season continues apace but we also had an election on Saturday. We'll get to that one in a minute, but Beard, why don't you kick us off with the top goings on from Tuesday night?

David Beard:

Sure. So we're going to start in Texas where there was a special election held to fill the remaining term for democratic representative Filemon Vela who resigned earlier this year to take a job at a lobbying firm. Conservative activists, Mayra Flores flipped this Rio Grande Valley-based district to the GOP. She won about 51% of the vote. There were four candidates on the ballot but just one major Republican and one major Democrat and then two very minor, one Democrat and one Republican who took a very small percentage of the vote each. And so, Flores won 51% of the vote, the major democratic candidate, former Cameron County commissioner, Dan Sanchez, won about 43% of the vote.

David Beard:

Now, there's a couple of mitigating factors here. Republicans spent over a million dollars on this race. They really invested. Democrats only began airing TV ads in the final week. They didn't spend very much money. This district is changing a significant amount. Biden won the current district which is still from the 2010 redistricting cycle by a 52-48 margin but Biden wins the new district that will go into effect this November by a 57-42 margin so it's getting noticeably more Democratic. And so, there wasn't a ton of investment in trying to hold this seat on the Democratic side.

David Beard:

That being said, that's definitely a shift in the margin from 52-48 Biden to, if you combine the Democrats and the Republicans, about 53% voted Republican and 47% voted Democrat so that's a noticeable shift. It's certainly in line with a more Republican-leaning year which is what we've been seeing with the polling and with other information that's been coming in. The other factor here that's certainly worth noting is that it was very, very low turnout so that can also be a factor in why there was somewhat of a shift. So you don't want to take this and just say, "Oh, we saw this shift. It'll translate all the way to November in every way," but it's certainly a signal worth acknowledging that it is certainly a sign of a Republican leaning environment right now.

David Nir:

The other thing to note is that had Flores not gotten a majority of the vote, the race would've gone to a runoff and Sanchez was actually quite angry at the democratic establishment and the DCCC in particular for coming in so late. It does seem that with a little bit more effort, Flores could have been held under the 50% mark and maybe Democrats would have lost in a second round but you'd certainly always rather have the chance to fight another day.

David Beard:

Yeah, I think the thinking of the Democrats is even if it's only going to be around for six months, it's still worth fighting for... Flores has only won 51% of the vote. You would think that a real investment here had the Democratic Party done that from the start, when the Republicans started investing, there was a good chance she could have been held under that and it would've gone to a runoff. And then, who knows? You never know with 100% certainty how an election's going to turn out.

David Nir:

So we'll switch gears to a couple of primaries in South Carolina that have been framed as Trump's revenge and he did, in fact, exact revenge against a Republican Congressman in the 7th district, Tom Rice, who was one of the ten who voted for impeachment. Rice got completely obliterated by State Rep, Russell Fry, who beat him 51-25. What was even more remarkable about this is there were five Republicans total challenging Rice so for Fry to get a majority of the vote was pretty unexpected. Even Fry claimed that his own polling showed the race going to a runoff.

David Nir:

Really though, this whole outcome feels pretty predictable. The 7th District which is in the Pee Dee region in the state's northeastern corner was actually Trump's best district in the 2016 GOP Presidential Primary and the seat really barely changed at all in redistricting. What I think matters most here is what this says for the remaining pro-impeachment House Republicans who still have primaries yet to come. Of the ten, four decided to retire. Rice is the first to actually lose and there is still one, David Valadao, on California whose primary hasn't been resolved yet. He probably will survive and then four more after that.

David Nir:

I think the two who are probably going to be at most risk right now are Peter Meijer in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District. And of course, Liz Cheney, where we've seen multiple polls now showing her getting completely obliterated. Rice, kind of an enigma. He was always a very low-key, extremely conservative guy, but he just felt that, Jan 6th, really, he had had enough. In remarks a few weeks ago before the primary, he even referred to Trump as a dictator and he seemed completely dispirited about the direction of the Republican party. He said that Trump just wants the entire GOP to be yes men and his diagnosis is exactly right, of course. Really, there's absolutely nothing to feel about this outcome except being deeply depressed at the state of the GOP going even further toward cult status.

David Beard:

I think what we can see, particularly as it looks like, as you mentioned, Cheney and Meijer are probably in very tough shape given this election result. That the only real protection for a Republican running after having voted to impeach Trump is to be in a state like California or Washington state where they do a top two primary so that they can outpace that person with other votes, potentially Democratic and independent votes, and don't have to face them in a Republican electorate. That's where the three, you mentioned Valadao and there's two in Washington state, who have a good shot to move onto the general election and honestly, at this point, I would be surprised if any of the other ones did.

David Nir:

The other South Carolina race that was really closely watched last night, I think, reinforces this as well. This is the 1st District where representative Nancy Mace beat former State Representative, Katie Arrington, 53-45 so she won without a runoff. Trump also despised Mason. He endorsed Arrington. Trump was pissed at Mace because right after Jan. 6, she made a few comments that were critical of him. But unlike Tom Rice who really stuck to his guns the whole way through, she very, very quickly backed off. She did not vote for impeachment and a number of press accounts refer to her as a Trump critic; that's complete bullshit.

David Nir:

A few months ago, Nancy Mace did one of the most humiliating things we have seen in an era when Republican politicians regularly humiliate themselves. The day after Trump endorsed Arrington, Mace went up to New York City, 800 miles away from her district, and filmed a video, it looked like it was filmed on a cellphone, of her in front of Trump Tower pledging her loyalty to Donald Trump. It was just super, super cringey, it was totally gross, and it totally worked for her. She really spent much of the race trying to prove her Trump-y bona fides. She also laid some effective attacks on Arrington who was responsible for this seat flipping to the Democrats in 2018. Mace picked it up for the Republicans again in 2020.

David Nir:

But really, the only lesson here is maybe you can get back in the graces of enough Trump-y voters, even if you can't win Trump back himself, simply by licking his boots. Man, if anything, not that Donald Trump is clever enough to see it this way, but winning back a one-time mild critic is almost more powerful because it just shows your absolute dominance. He was never going to get Rice back but now he's brought Mace back to heel, he can obviously do it with anyone else who even has dared utter any negative comments about him in recent years. So again, I think a truly dismaying outcome.

David Beard:

Yeah. That reminds me of the Ohio Senate Primary actually, where Trump ended up endorsing Vance and the talking point going around was that Trump actually likes when formerly Trump-critical Republicans come crawling back and go over the top to prove themselves loyal to Trump like Mace has done. So while his candidate didn't win, I don't think he'll be too upset about the outcome given how Mace has acted.

David Beard:

Our last election that we're going to cover in the Weekly Hits is the election that took place on Saturday. It was the special election for Alaska's at-large congressional seat that's taking place due to representative Don Young passing away earlier this year.

Alaska has a different electoral system. All of the candidates were in the ballot in this first round and the top four candidates will advance to a second round on August 16th. That ballot will use ranked choice voting to determine the winner which means that anybody who votes can rank the four candidates, 1, 2, 3, 4, and then the fourth place candidate from those results will get eliminated and if you had voted for that candidate, first, the candidate that you voted for second will then get your vote.

The same thing would happen with the third place candidate after those votes were reallocated. And then you would only have two candidates remaining. And the person then with the majority of those two candidates would be the person elected. Ballots are still being counted, but the AP has declared three of the four candidates who are going to advance to the second round, the first being former governor Sarah Palin, who has a clear lead so far with about 30% of the vote.

David Beard:

Of course, Palin is a Republican, as is the so far second-place candidate, businessman Nick Begich, who has about 19% of the vote. And then independent Al Gross, who is also the former 2020 Democratic nominee for Senate, but is running now as an Independent; he's also been called to advance. He has about 13% of the vote so far. And then, the fourth slot hasn't been called yet, but former Democratic state representative Mary Peltola is currently in that spot and will likely advance as well, unless late-breaking ballots are radically different than what's been counted so far.

David Beard:

Palin's strong first-round showing, getting over 30% of the vote, makes it likely that she'll be one of the last two candidates standing when this ranked-choice voting takes place. So, the big question is who's going to make it into that other slot where the fourth place candidate and then the third place candidate are eliminated?

David Beard:

If Begich advances, he's probably favored to consolidate the anti-Palin vote, as he's a fellow Republican but would probably collect the overwhelming number of independent and Democratic votes. But if either Al Gross or Peltola advance, then Palin would probably be the favorite as the only Republican of the two candidates when the ranked-choice voting takes place. But that's not certain. I don't want to say that one of the other two candidates couldn't beat Palin in that last two candidates portion, but we'll have to wait and see. I think Palin would be the favorite in that circumstance.

David Nir:

Palin was always a polarizing figure, but she has Donald Trump's endorsement, which makes it much more likely that Begich would pick up those Independents and Democrats, as you were suggesting, if it is those two facing off against each other at the very end of the instant runoff tabulations. One other thing we should note is that the second round, which you said is taking place on August 16th, that is also the day of the state's regular primary. And there is, once again, going to be a huge ballot of candidates seeking this position for a full term.

Usually, when you have these simultaneous elections, you see the same sets of candidates advance. But because things are so unusual, this is the first time any state anywhere has ever used this top-four system, we could wind up with a different group of four candidates who advance to the November general election, which again, will also be decided by an instant runoff. So, if for no other reason, just watching this unique electoral system unfold, it's going to be worth watching both of these races, the special and the regular election.

David Beard:

And incumbency in Alaska is so important, as we've seen. So, it'll be interesting to see, in that primary vote, they won't know who the incumbent is. So similar to this one, it'll be a free-for-all. As we saw, so many candidates ran in this first round.

David Nir:

Well, that wraps up our weekly hits. We are going to be talking, after the break, with the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic party, Ben Wikler, about all of the fascinating races that his state has in store for us this year. So, please stay with us after the break.

Every year, it seems that Wisconsin tops the list of states with incredibly important and incredibly competitive elections. That was certainly true in 2018, in 2020. And it's going to be true again this November, in 2022.

We have joining us today, on The Downballot, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic party, Ben Wikler, to tell us everything that is going on in his state this year. Ben, thank you so much for joining us.

Ben Wikler:

Thanks so much Nir. Thanks so much Beard. It's great to be with the Davids.

David Nir:

Ben, you haven't exactly had what might be called a typical path to becoming chair of your state party. I would love it if you could tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and how it is you came to run the Wisconsin Dems.

Ben Wikler:

Sure. In the short-term, Wisconsin has a elected state party chair. You're elected by conventions to our state party convention. That happened with me in June of 2019. But if you go back in time, I grew up in Madison. I actually live in the house that I grew up in. I bought it from my mom who now lives four blocks away. And my wife, Beth, and I have three young kids. So, we have lots of helpful grandparent time, which is great.

Ben Wikler:

I got involved in politics a lot as a kid. And my godmother, a woman named Ada Deer, ran for Congress when I was 11 and became the first American Indian woman to win a congressional primary. So, knocking on doors for her and stuffing envelopes, putting up yard signs was kind of my entree into volunteering for campaigns.

I got to volunteer for a then state Representative who ran for Congress, named Tammy Baldwin, who's now well-known as our fantastic U.S. Senator. Worked on the governor's race. I also got very involved in activism and in comedy writing because The Onion was based in Madison. And so, my friends and I were obsessed with it. And we wrote for first, an underground student newspaper in middle school, another one in high school. And then eventually, we kept sending every issue to The Onion HQ. And eventually they wrote back and invited us to come in.

So, my friend, Peter Koechley and I, who went on to help launch Upworthy, started writing Onion headlines when we were seniors in high school. And that path led to, in college, I got very involved in activism and interned for Russ Feingold then, as a college student. I met my wife putting up posters for a protest together and fell in love with her.

And then, my senior year in college, I met a comedian who was increasingly involved in politics, named Al Franken. And my background with The Onion and doing political stuff, led him to hire me to work with him on the book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. And I worked at Air America Radio as one of the producers on his radio show. And that was kind of my entree to the national progressive movement.

That's where I first met Markos Moulitsas and people involved in Daily Kos and tons of folks. There was a Harvard professor that we would book on the show to talk about bankruptcy and the way that tax laws worked, named Elizabeth Warren. There were all these fascinating people who came through and were on the show.

When Al Franken moved to Minnesota, I moved to Ohio and worked for Sherrod Brown for Senate race and then worked for different advocacy and organizing organizations for a bunch of years until I was at MoveOn as the DC director in 2013 through, I guess, '18. And was involved, first in trying to stop Trump from getting power, and then in trying to organize the huge pushback to stop the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the gutting of Medicaid. I got to work with disability rights activists and so many people who were mobilizing all across the country.

During all this time, I had dreamed of eventually raising my family in Wisconsin. And my wife had heard me singing Wisconsin's praises from our first date on. In 2018, after our third child arrived, we decided to move back. And I volunteered a whole bunch for the Evers campaign and for Baldwin's reelection campaign at that point. And then, when we had actually landed in Wisconsin, the then state party chair decided not to run for a third term. So, I threw my hat in the ring and wound up crisscrossing the state, going to county party meetings, talking to all these people; learning everything I could about all the things we needed to do to win and was elected that June. And it has been a nonstop rollercoaster ever since, for the last three years. I was reelected in 2021.

David Nir:

Let's talk a little bit about what that rollercoaster ride has been like. I'm sure that some of our listeners are probably pretty plugged into their own state Democratic parties. But I'll bet that many folks aren't necessarily all that familiar with what their state parties do. And of course, the goal of any party organization is to get their candidates elected. But what exactly does the Wisconsin Democratic party do to make that happen?

Ben Wikler:

The biggest part of our budget and the crown jewel, the central thing that we do, on a year-round basis, is organize in every corner of the state. Our state party unusually uses the Obama campaign model, where our organizers actually build teams of volunteers that run door-to-door canvasing and phone banking operations in their own communities. And when you do that on a continuous basis, as we've done now since my predecessor, who launched these neighborhood teams in the spring of 2017, and we've built and built and built them; we now have hundreds across the state. When you do that continuously, you actually build momentum over time. So, every dollar you spend on organizing goes further, because you can have one organizer who's working with multiple teams to coach and support them and make sure they have the data they need. But you don't have to have a staff member at every canvas launch location.

Ben Wikler:

You can have teams running door-to-door canvases from their living rooms and from coffee shops around the state. So, that is one huge part. But it's now so much more than that as well.

We have a communications team that is doing everything we can to make sure folks know how terrible Ron Johnson is and how terrible the other Republicans running for governor and Congress and state legislature are. We have a voter protection operation that works, now, on a year-round basis. It didn't used to be year-round. But something we've really focused on over these last few years that works to make sure that local clerks aren't rolling back voting rights, that we're recruiting and supporting poll workers, poll observers; lawyers who are able to help voters resolve issues.

We run a voter protection hotline that any of our listeners who happen to be in Wisconsin can call. It's 608-DEM-3232. We have a data team that helps make sure we're figuring out where the voters we need to mobilize are and who we need to persuade.

Ben Wikler:

We have a political team that includes the staff that just make sure the party operates, in terms of supporting our county parties and congressional district parties, in youth caucuses; our state administrative committee, which is my boss. It's our statewide board. And organizes our state party convention. Every state party does one of these every year. Ours is coming up later this month, the 25th and the 26th of June in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It's going to be amazing.

Ben Wikler:

There's a coalitions team, which is also a year-round team that specializes in working with building the coalitions partnerships with Black and Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander; Wisconsinites with tribal nations, sovereign nations across Wisconsin; with rural Wisconsinites, with LGBTQ Wisconsinites, to make sure that our big tent party includes and lifts up everybody.

Ben Wikler:

We have a candidate services team that, this spring, worked with hundreds of local candidates running for offices like school board and city council to make sure that they were able to run digital ads, to be able to send mailings to their constituents and to connect with our field organizers to make sure that we were knocking on doors and supporting folks running for those offices.

They'll be back at it this fall with state legislative races and other races. And all of this is supported by our finance and HR and operations teams that do all the kind of back-end work that makes an organization go. So there's a whole bunch of people, but the big idea here is candidates should have to be great at being candidates, but they shouldn't also have to be great at figuring out how to stand up an organizing program or doing things that really shouldn't just be starting when the general election begins. There were days in the past in Wisconsin, where if someone wanted to run for Senate, they would have to find a statewide organizing director and fill in all the levels of that organizing program.

 

Sometimes in just a few months at the end. In 2016, Hillary Clinton's team hired their first staff in Wisconsin that August and had no time at all to try to figure out who should be talking to whom. The party can take care of all that. If you have a well funded well run organization, it's like a permanent piece of campaign infrastructure. And then the candidates can just focus on things that only a candidate can do. All of our candidates across Wisconsin now with the democratic party trust and work with our coordinated campaign. So that when we knock on doors, we talk about everyone running up and down the ballot. And that means that people who might not run for office otherwise can do so. It's almost like a form of public financing where people know that they won't need to raise the money for those pieces of the work because the party can take care of that. And that's allowed us to welcome just an extraordinary group of folks running for office holding office.

Ben Wikler:

Now, it's one reason why we have these contested primaries for a bunch of the statewide offices in November, because folks know that they don't need to do every piece. They just need to focus in on the being a candidate part of being a candidate.

David Beard:

Yeah. I've often heard it described as running a campaign as like building a small business, except you do it in the course of six to nine months, maybe a year. And you build it with the entire idea of going to election day and then sort of all that throwing away that small business that you spend all this time creating. But of course, a state party like yours can do so much of the infrastructure work that makes that so much more feasible for so many more people.

Ben Wikler:

That's exactly right. And it's so, I mean, from a business perspective, it is so dumb to do all this work and all this research and all this hiring, and then lay everybody off. Like it just doesn't make any sense.

David Beard:

Amen.

Ben Wikler:

By having organizers on the ground year, over year, over year, you it's like a flywheel. It's like it keeps on spinning faster and faster. So we had more volunteer shifts this spring than we had in the spring of 2021 and more in 2021 than we had in 2020 when we had a much bigger staff because we have kept these neighborhood teams going. And so the kind of the impact of supporting a state party actually grows each time because you get all these things established and you don't have to start from scratch every time there's a new race on the horizon.

David Beard:

So let's dive into the upcoming Wisconsin elections this November, which has two extremely important races at the top of the ticket. You've already mentioned governor Evers and Senator Johnson. Johnson is one of the worst senators in the country. He regularly makes odious statements and claims. A lot of people outside of Wisconsin, I'm sure have heard about him and heard not good things about him. But tell us how that race is shaping up and the race against him on the Democratic side.

Ben Wikler:

Ron Johnson is so, so appallingly extraordinarily bad. He is... It's not just that he says that COVID can be cured with mouthwash or says that the January 6th insurrectionists where patriots, who love their country and love law enforcement, which is something he actually said. He said he would've been scared if it had been Black Lives Matter protestors, but he wasn't scared with the protestors that were actually there. It's not just all that stuff. It's that he's profoundly self-serving. His claim to fame as a Senator is that he insisted on an extra tax break on top of Trump's giant tax scam that personally benefited him and his biggest donor massively. It's one of the most regressive tax cuts ever passed through the United States Congress that he insisted on putting in, and that he's been billing taxpayers to fly him back to Congress from his vacation home in Florida.

Ben Wikler:

So we've been making this case against him. And so many independent and grassroots organizations have done the same thing. His approval rating is now 36%, which is stunning in a year that's supposed to be tough for Democrats and good for Republicans. The Political Report called him the most vulnerable incumbent from either party in the Senate in 2022. And meanwhile, on the democratic side, there's a contested primary. There's a bunch of candidates who've made the ballot, but we won't know our nominee until August 9th. And so this is a perfect kind of case in point for why having a strong party matters, because we have to build the whole general election apparatus before August 9th. It's like building a spaceship right on the launchpad. And then once we have the nominee, they jump into the cockpit and they hit ignition.

We do not want to do the ‘building the plane as you fly’ metaphor that people often use because that is not sound aviation safety practice. You want to actually have the thing built before there's a pilot. So that's the work that we're doing. But I think we really have a shot because he's just so repellent to so many voters. And it's not just that people don't want to vote for him, it's that the chance to vote against him will cause more people to vote.

He's a negative voter turnout machine for our side and we're going to do everything we can to make sure folks know just how bad he is and that they have the power to oust him, that it is worth getting up off the couch and going in or better yet casting an absentee ballot. So we know you voted in advance. Those things can make the difference, not just to defeat him. But also we hope to expand the democratic majority in the Senate and give us a chance to actually pass into law so many of the things Democrats are fighting for.

David Beard:

And we've seen negative partisanship be a real motivating factor. Most prominently at the presidential level, of course. But when you've got a Senator like Johnson, who's so prominent and has so many negative feelings rightfully created among so many Wisconsin citizens. Like that's a motivating factor for them, for sure.

Ben Wikler:

Absolutely. And I talked to folks, I mean, I will say some of our fundraising success this year has come because people want to make sure that Ron Johnson does not win and certainly there's volunteer shifts. It reminds me a lot of the campaign against Scott Walker in 2018 where people saw that he was vulnerable, saw that he was terrible, tons of candidates ran. And in that election, everyone came together around the nominee and we were able to prevail. I think, we're looking for a similar path in the Senate race and I think we have a very, very good chance of ending Ron Johnson's political career this November.

David Nir:

Can you tell us a little bit more about this spaceship that you're building on the launchpad for the eventual Democratic nominee for the Senate race?

Ben Wikler:

Absolutely. So it's all the pieces of the party that I spoke about; the digital, the data, the organizing, the voter protection, the communications, all these different elements. Specifically, in some cases with staff just focused on Ron Johnson and the Senate race. And then with each of the Senate campaigns, we want to make sure that they know that we're doing all these different pieces and understand what they anticipate their needs will be.

So whoever the nominee is, and I should mention our state party because of our state party constitution, we are bound and committed to remaining neutral in the primary. So we're not putting our thumb on the scale, but all the candidates have told us that once we have a nominee, they will work with the infrastructure that we've put in place. As opposed to doing what has often happened in different states around the country, which is you get a Senator nominee and they decide they want to reshuffle all the staff and reshape how the program works and all this kind of stuff.

Ben Wikler:

This is the same strategy we used for the presidential in 2020. We built a presidential scale campaign through the state party. We kept briefing all the candidates in the primary about it. And then eventually we had a nominee and the nominee just adopted our operation wholesale and added their in-state staff to do the things that the nominee needed. But the organizing whole structure, all these different pieces were held and carried forward. And that meant that we were the relationships we built, the trust we'd built, all that kind of stuff was actually preserved and accelerated as opposed to being broken down and then attempted to... There was no Humpty Dumpty situation with a fall and then a reassembly.

David Nir:

So in the race for governor, you almost have the inverse situation where we know who the democratic nominee is going to be. Of course, that's going to be governor Evers, but Republicans are in the midst of a really nasty primary that I don't think has gone, maybe exactly as at least some folks might have expected. So can you fill us in on who the major players are there and what you see happening and the final outcome being there?

Ben Wikler:

 I will say that we went to the Republican state party convention a few weeks ago and had a mobile billboard with an image, an animation of a dumpster fire and held the press conference in front of the dumpster fire mobile billboard. Because that is what the Republican gubernatorial primary is. This is a group of extremist candidates that keep on leapfrogging each other into the most radical fringes of the right wing fever swamps.

Rebecca Kleefisch was the first to announce. She was Scott Walker's Lieutenant governor. If you go to radicalrebecca.com, you can find out more about her. She is someone who just keeps like kind of lurching and grabbing to the right. I'll just give one example. Wisconsin has an 1849 ban on abortion. This is pre-Civil War law. The only exception it says in the statute, if two doctors agree that an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother, that's the only condition where it could be allowed.

Rebecca Kleefisch wants to remove that exception from that law. It's so far out of step with where our values and the vast majority of Wisconsinites are. She's also wants to completely scrap our bipartisan Wisconsin elections commission. She said that there should be an elected official in charge so they would be one throat to choke. That is a direct quote, one throat to choke in charge of the elections. And she was pushed on this by election officials who said, don't use these metaphors when you're talking about election administrators. And she said, oh, I use that phrase all the time. That was her big defense. It's alarming, but apparently radical Rebecca Kleefisch isn't extreme right enough for Donald Trump because Donald Trump has endorsed a different candidate, Tim Michels. Who jumped into the race very late and has been scrambling to get to the furthest right position in this primary that he can possibly find.

He, this week, came out against marriage equality, which is one of those arguments that you thought was over. He supports going back to the 19th century with the 1849 abortion ban in Wisconsin. He joins Rebecca Kleefisch and wanting to totally scrap our bipartisan Wisconsin's elections commission. He's talked about 2020 being rigged. He's one of these kind of Doug Mastriano ultra-hard right candidates who the more voters find out about what he actually thinks about things, the less support that he has.

There's two others in the race as well. There's a guy named Timothy Ramthun who wants to retroactively decertify the 2020 election, which just has no basis in the constitution or law, but that doesn't stop him. Tim Ramthun has a bill that would allow any election where the margin of victories is less than the number of absentee ballots cast in the race to be nullified. That bill so far has not moved through the state legislature. But I have now come to believe that nothing's impossible with these Republicans. And then the guy named Kevin Nicholson, who actually used to be the president of the College Democrats.

But now is the kind of pet project of Dick Uihlein, who is the biggest funder of the Stop The Steal rally and is right there with Rebecca Mercer in the kind of ultra hard right authoritarian billionaire category.

 

So that is the Republican slate of candidates for Governor. We won't know which one is the nominee until August 9th, but we can already tell that all of them are so far out on the right that we have a real shot at defeating them with a candidate as common, sensical and pragmatic and focused on doing the right thing as our democratic Governor Tony Evers. So Tony Evers won in 2018 by 1.1 percentage points, which I call a Wisconsin landslide. We’re the only state where four of the last six presidential races come down the less than one percentage point.

Tony Evers ran on a platform of protecting healthcare, supporting our schools and fixing the damn roads, which is a pretty salty language there. He has fixed the roads. He's paved enough roads to drive to Denver and back. He has restored funding to our schools, which are now back in the top 10 in the country. He's protected healthcare and gotten shots into arms. He's also kept his campaign promise to cut taxes from the middle class. He signed into law of 15% income tax cut and he's invested stimulus funds in small businesses. We've had 4,200 small businesses open storefronts and expand operations on Main Streets across our state.

So we have record low unemployment right now, and we have a state budget surplus. He's demonstrated that the Democratic kind of basic idea of investing from the middle out to grow the economy in a way that works for people can succeed in Wisconsin and that has made him someone that people basically trust. The last public poll, 40% of people disagreed with his statement, he cares about people like me. 54% of people agreed.

Most Wisconsinites know that he's on their side. It's such a clear contrast. Someone who just wakes up wanting to help people and do what's right as opposed to this group of Republicans who are supplicating for Trump's endorsement for the far right fringe of their party, and especially trying to rig the rules and potentially overturn our democracy. That's a contrast that works well for us. In a year that I recognize it's going to be tough nationally, I think we have a very good shot at winning two races that the Cook Political Report calls a tossup, both the Senate and the Governor's race.

David Nir:

For those of us who've watched Wisconsin from the outside, we've seen Governor Evers stand as a bulwark against some absolutely batshit legislation that Republicans have passed in the legislature. Maybe tell us about a few of the examples that Evers has prevented from becoming law.

Ben Wikler:

I appreciate that question. He called himself a goalie. He didn't realize that would be such an important part of his job when he was first running. In 2020, I should mention, Governor Evers put his campaign on hold and just focused on supporting state legislative candidates through a project called Save The Veto, that was a partnership with the state party, and we managed to stop Republicans from getting super majorities in both chambers.

If 3,500 votes had gone the other way, they would have those super majorities now. So it was down to the wire, but because he in veto bills and the state legislature sustains those vetoes, he was able to veto a bill they passed this spring that would allow people to bring loaded guns onto school property in their cars. That is not law because of his veto pen.

Ben Wikler:

He's vetoed 14 different voter suppression and election sabotage bills. He has vetoed a string of anti-reproductive rights bills, and Republicans are not only saying they would try to pass all these bills if they get a trifecta in the state, they have a lot more coming. The kinds of really hideous voter suppression bills that became law in Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Florida. Those would absolutely be law in Wisconsin if it wasn't for having a Governor who believes in democracy.

David Beard:

So you mentioned the upholding of the vetoes, which was allowed to happen because Democrats prevented the Republicans from getting a two thirds majority in the state legislature in 2020. Of course, Wisconsin has one of the worst Republican gerrymanders in the country. That's going to continue into the new decade. What are your goals as from the point of view of the state party for the state legislative elections that are coming in November? And is there a candidate or two you'd like to highlight for those races?

Ben Wikler:

Absolutely. Republicans have managed to re-gerrymander the maps, at least for now, with some help I should mention from the U.S. Supreme Court, which unlike in other states, decided to reach down and strike down our state legislative maps for reasons that will puzzle constitutional scholars for decades. So we have really, really tough maps this cycle.

Ben Wikler:

Republicans are explicitly trying to get super majorities in both chambers yet again, and we are explicitly determinedly working to stop them. We have great democratic leaders in both chambers that we're working closely with, Greta Neubauer in the Assembly, Janet Bewley in the State Senate. We have strong candidates across the state. Republicans are targeting folks like Katrina Shankland in central Wisconsin and Steve Doyle in western Wisconsin, really across the board in our state.

Ben Wikler:

Any place there's a Democrat, Republicans want to take them out. In those districts, we're going to absolutely support our candidates, and we will be organizing everywhere because we believe in the reverse coattails effect that having candidates on the ballot and supporting those candidates turns out voters who can affect the top of the ticket as well. That the essential thing is to make sure that they don't get the two-thirds majorities, and to win the governorship.

Ben Wikler:

Then next year, just to squeeze this in, in April of 2023, we have a state Supreme Court race. There will not be a lot happening across the country in election days that spring, but that race will be for the majority in Wisconsin state Supreme Court. If we can sustain the Governor's veto and if we have a non-hyper right wing majority in our state Supreme court, that sets us up to have a secure and fair and real legitimate election in 2024 when Wisconsin will probably be the tipping point state yet again. And so that is the kind of three hurdles that we have to jump through in order to make sure that the attempt that Republicans attempted in 2020 doesn't carry through in 2024.

David Nir:

It is almost a year off, but I would love to talk a little bit more about that state Supreme Court race because at Daily Kos, we have been obsessed with these sorts of races for many years, and only recently really I think has the broader progressive movement finally begun understood the importance of these races.

From my perspective, of course, I'd rather not be voting for judges at all, but this is the system that we have to live with, and the court right now is a four-three, usually conservative majority. We could flip that because of this Republican seat that's coming up. So can you tell us a little bit about the candidates who are running and how the whole timing of that election works because the time of year is even a little bit unusual?

Ben Wikler:

Sure. Six months after November 8th, 2022, it'll be April, early April 2023, and Wisconsin will have a statewide election, that will follow a February primary. There are already two kind of more progressive independent candidates who have announced their candidacy. On the right, the current justice is Pat Roggensack and she is retiring. She will be 81 when the election takes place, so it's an open seat. And the Republican rumored to be most likely to run is Dan Kelly, who's the candidate we defeated in 2020.

Dan Kelly is a hyperpartisan Republican lawyer who Donald Trump endorsed in 2020 in a big rally, and then kept talking about during his COVID briefings from the White House, which is arguably a Hatch Act violation right there. But Trump was all in for him because he thought that Dan Kelly would cast the deciding vote in our state Supreme Court to overturn the election results if he lost. As it was, we had one more vote against Trump than there were votes for Trump, and Trump was not able to overturn the election results in our state.

Dan Kelly is talking publicly about trying again and making sure that guy does not get in our state Supreme Court is just absolutely critical to people who want to live in a democracy nationally. There shouldn't be so much that rests on Wisconsin state Supreme Court decisions for the future of democracy in the entire United States, but this is where we are. I hope folks will circle in their calendar April of 2023, and we're going to need all the help we can get to mobilize and shoot up, turnout in an election that historically the kind of odd numbered year spring elections have not been a giant national and statewide focus.

David Beard:

So how can our Wisconsinite listeners get in touch with the Democratic party in their state and get more involved?

Ben Wikler:

Wherever you might be, you can support Democrats and the Democratic party of Wisconsin in fighting for victory for Governor Evers in defeating Ron Johnson, and I think Dems up and down the ballot, including defeating Derrick van Orden, who's an insurrectionist and is currently on probation for trying to bring a gun on a plane. He's running for Congress in the 3rd congressional district, which is an open seat. We need help across the board and you can get involved. You can become a monthly donor. That is the single, my favorite thing you can do.

If you go to wisdems.org/monthly, you can sign up to give a few bucks a month, that helps us to hire and know that we'll be able to keep our staff on month over month, year over year, and that in turn allows us to do the kind of deep, long term organizing building neighborhood teams that I've been talking about that helps us win, especially in these tough elections like the spring state Supreme Court race next year. So wisdems.org/monthly is great. Go to wisdems.org/convention to watch our state party convention, wherever you might be, or register and come to join us in lacrosse on June 25th to 26th.

And finally, I'll give the link wisdems.org/volunteer. You can join our virtual phone banks. You can join our volunteer operation to turn out every possible democratic voter. Races here are so close, so often. I was just talking to someone whose county board majority is in place because of a five-vote margin. That kind of thing is not uncommon across our state. And so helping turn out votes can have a huge impact, not just on the lives of Wisconsinites, but in the lives of everyone affected by who has the majority in the U.S. Senate or who the U.S. President is, or who is affected by the U.S. House majority, which is everybody on earth. So get involved wisdems.org/monthly, /donate, /volunteer and /convention.

David Nir:

We've been talking with Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party about all of the intensely competitive races coming up this year and in fact, next year as well in his state. Ben, thank you so much for joining us on The Downballot today.

Ben Wikler:

It has been my great pleasure. Thanks so much, Nir. Thanks so much, Beard.

David Beard:

That's all from us this week. Thanks to Ben Wikler for joining us. The Downballot comes out every Thursday, everywhere you listen to podcast. You can reach us by email at thedownballot@dailycoast.com. If you haven't already, please like and subscribe to The Downballot and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our producer, Cara Zelaya and editor, Tim Einenkel. We'll be back next week with a new episode.

The Downballot: Why House Democrats’ best defense is a good offense (transcript)

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to The Downballot on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Yes, it's a tough-looking midterm, but Democrats can still go on offense! The Downballot takes a deep dive into 10 House districts across the country where Republicans are vulnerable for a variety of reasons, whether due to redistricting, retirements, long-term demographic trends, or plain old GOP infighting. Our tour runs from the eastern tip of Long Island in New York all the way to sunny Southern California, with many stops in between.

Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also investigate Ron DeSantis' turbocharged gerrymander aimed at undermining Black representation; discuss two more Republican Senate primaries where Trump endorsements have made a mess of things; call out a Democrat for running an offensive ad that risks contributing to anti-Asian hatred; and take stock of upcoming elections in France and Australia.

Daily Kos' House fundraising slate.

David Beard:

Hello and welcome. I'm David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.

David Nir:

And I'm David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. The Downballot is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency from Senate to city council. We have a special request for you. Apple Podcasts is sort of like the New York Times Best Seller list for podcasts and The Downballot has been shooting up the charts. But you would be doing us a huge favor if you subscribed to us on Apple Podcasts and left us a five-star rating there. You can do that very easily. Just pop open the Apple Podcasts app on your phone or on your desktop. Type in The Downballot and you'll find us right there.

David Beard:

Let's dive into today's episode. What are we going to be covering today?

David Nir:

First up, we're going to be talking about the bizarre situation unfolding with redistricting in Florida. We're going to be talking about the absolute mess that Trump is making of a couple more GOP Senate primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania. We're also calling out a Democratic candidate for Senate for running an offensive, xenophobic ad, and we are previewing upcoming elections in France and Australia. Beard and I will also be taking a deep dive into the house playing field and looking in particular at 10 Republican-held districts where Democrats have a chance to go on offense and actually pick up seats this year.

David Beard:

Great. Let's get started.

David Beard:

Let's go ahead and get started with our weekly hits. Why don't you kick us off down in Florida where we've got a new map to consider?

David Nir:

So we have a new map, but it comes from a totally bizarre source, and that is Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Normally in states where the legislature is in charge of redistricting, the legislature draws new maps. But after a protracted showdown with DeSantis, Republican lawmakers decided to abdicate their responsibility. It's really shocking on one level, but on the other hand, the way that we saw the Republican-run Congress bow down before Donald Trump, it's really not all that surprising to see the Florida GOP go totally supine.

David Nir:

So they simply said, well, the way we're going to resolve this impasse is to let DeSantis draw the map that he wants and we're going to pass it. They're well on their way to doing that. DeSantis introduced his map just a few days ago and on Wednesday of this week, the state Senate passed the map on a party-line vote. And the map itself is a total travesty.

David Nir:

Now, for starters, it is an extreme GOP gerrymander that would create 20 seats carried by Donald Trump compared to just eight for Joe Biden. And that's compared to just a 15-12 advantage for Trump under the current map. And of course, Florida is a perennial swing state. It certainly leans somewhat to the right, but Trump only won it by about three or four points in 2020. So this map gives the GOP a huge advantage.

David Nir:

But it's how the map goes about doing this that is so troubling. Over a decade ago, Florida voters approved amendments to the state constitution to reform redistricting and crack down on gerrymandering. These are generally known as the Fair Districts amendments, and they block lawmakers from drawing maps that unduly favor one party over the other.

David Nir:

They also contain a provision that bars legislators from drawing maps that diminish minority voting power. Now, the most salient feature of DeSantis's map is the demolition of the 5th Congressional District. This is a seat in north Florida that runs from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. It is quite Democratic-leaning, and it is home to a plurality of black voters. Black voters are the largest proportion of residents of the district, and it's represented by a Black Democrat, Al Lawson.

David Nir:

DeSantis's map completely shreds the district and turns it from a seat that Biden would've won by a 63-36 margin into a seat Trump would've won by a 57-41 margin. That's a swing of 43 points. That's just absolutely massive. Of course, it becomes a white district. Very, very likely to elect a white Republican. And even if the map passes the house as is expected and of course DeSantis signs it, those Fair District amendments still lurk and Democrats are absolutely certain to file a lawsuit.

David Nir:

The Florida Supreme Court has gotten much more conservative over the years. It cracked down on GOP gerrymandering using these amendments in the previous decade. And the justices may be more inclined to be favorable toward DeSantis and the GOP particularly because DeSantis himself has appointed some of them. But legal experts say that the language in the state constitution protecting minority voting rights is actually quite strong and quite clear.

David Nir:

So there is a realistic chance that the Supreme Court throws out at least this part of the map. Of course, this huge GOP impasse that lasted for months and months, benefits Republicans in another way, which is we have seen courts refuse to strike down or adjust unconstitutional or flawed maps because it's supposedly too close to the election to do so.

David Nir:

So even if the state Supreme Court does have a problem with this map, there is a real chance that it's still winds up getting used in November. So definitely keep an eye on the litigation over this map. We will be revisiting it as soon as there is anything to report on.

David Beard:

And my theory during this whole long stretch of Florida back-and -forth between DeSantis and the legislature is that DeSantis has just been pushing for a maximalist GOP map the whole time and doesn't really care whether or not it gets struck down. His goal is to push this so that he can go to GOP activists in Florida and across the country, because he's clearly eyeing the presidency at either 2024 or beyond, and say he did everything he could to get Florida Republicans elected. He pushed it to the brink. Some court, be it the Florida state court or federal court around the Voting Rights Act, stopped him from pushing this maximalist map, and then he can blame the judges and all of that. But he can go and talk to the activists. That's, I think, his main goal. And then if he gets this map, then great. It's like a win-win. But if he fails to get this map, he can still say he did everything he could, which I think is his main goal, because he's looking out for his future more than anything else.

David Nir:

I think that's exactly right though. It will be really amusing if DeSantis winds up railing against his own judicial picks as liberal activist judges. But of course you can't put it past him.

David Beard:

Oh, yeah. He would absolutely do that if it came to it. I'm going to take this now to a couple of Senate primaries that Trump has gotten himself involved in. We've talked some about Alabama Senate and Georgia governor, where he's been very involved in endorsing Republicans in primaries. So late last week, Trump endorsed venture capitalist J.D. Vance, which is a few weeks to go until the May 3rd Republican primary in Ohio.

David Beard:

It's frustrating many Republicans there, particularly the other candidates who have been fighting hard for Trump's endorsement: former state treasurer, Josh Mandel, most notably. He even made sort of a Hail Mary ahead of the endorsement when it became clear that it was happening, releasing a poll claiming that he would win for sure with Trump's endorsement. He would easily win this primary, but Vance very well would lose even if he got Trump's endorsement.

David Beard:

So trying to play on Trump's idea that he doesn't want to be a loser by instead saying, "Well, Vance is going to lose even if you endorse him, so you better endorse me because I'm going to be the winner." And of course, all of this happened just the week after Trump endorsed Dr. Oz in the Pennsylvania Republican Senate race, to the consternation of many Republicans in Pennsylvania and otherwise who didn't want to see Oz be endorsed because he has some apostasies against a number of conservative positions.

David Beard:

He's not seen as the true conservative. And so there's sort of this tension between Trump and his sort of personal favorites and the Republican Party's desire for sort of true conservative candidates. And as Politico wrote, "The former president's endorsements have often added more chaos to these already contentious fights." So it's really interesting to see this sort of division between Trump, who has these really idiosyncratic reasons for endorsing candidates.

David Beard:

One of the theories even that he endorsed Vance was because Vance used to be an anti-Trump Republican. He once labeled himself a never-Trump guy. He had now-deleted tweets. Called Trump reprehensible. He claimed that he was voting for Evan McMullin. So he's somebody who was sort of forced to come down to Trump. And the theory is that Trump likes that. He likes not just somebody who's always been in his corner, like somebody like Josh Mandel would be, but somebody who he forced to come to heel and then sycophantically praise him. And that's one of the reasons he endorsed Vance.

David Beard:

So it's just really interesting to watch the sort of weird, almost psychological drama as Trump goes around and picks these candidates much to the upset of all these other Republicans who are involved in these races. And we'll see how it turns out. Trump now has a number of Senate candidates he's endorsed. Some of them very well may not win. I think there's no guarantee that either Vance or Oz are going to win their primary. So we'll see how Trump reacts if they fail to come out on top.

David Nir:

The idea that longtime loyalty to Trump is quite literally trumped by more recent obeisance to Trump is really amazing. Though I think the story of Oz is a bit different. My guess is that Trump simply likes other TV celebrities and Oz has had Trump on his show in the past. So do you think that's why he picked him in that race?

David Beard:

I think that was definitely a major factor. They knew each other from before. He loves TV. We saw that for years. The most important thing to Trump was who was on TV in front of him when he was watching it. And so the fact that Oz is another TV personality. Apparently, I saw that Melania Trump is also a big fan of Dr. Oz, so that couldn't hurt. So that certainly played a big factor in this endorsement. Because the safer endorsement was clearly to just endorse David McCormick, who's the other leading candidate, who's a hedge fund guy, very conservative, liked by a lot of the establishment Republicans.

David Beard:

Trump's endorsement of him probably would've helped him sort of sail through or would've made him, I think, a pretty strong favorite. And now we have this very messy thing, but Trump is going to do what Trump does, I think. And everyone is beholden to that, particularly with the Republican Party.

David Nir:

So I would much rather spend my time on this show complaining about Republicans, but this time I'm going to register my objection to a Democrat. Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan is running for Ohio's open Senate seat and he just launched a new ad declaring, "We've got to take on China and be Americans first." But it's his first ad, which featured an even more amped-up version of this offensive anti-China rhetoric, that really has me upset. And we're going to play it now.

Tim Ryan:

“China, It's definitely China. One word, China. It is us versus China. And instead of taking them on, Washington is wasting our time on stupid fights. China is out-manufacturing us left and right. Left and right. America could never be dependent on communist shine. It is time for us to fight back. We need to fight back. It's time to fight back. We need to build things in Ohio by Ohio workers. I'm Tim Ryan and I approve this message.”

David Nir:

Asian Americans were furious. Ryan's colleague, New York Congresswoman Grace Meng, demanded that he take down the ad. Asian American advocacy groups demanded likewise. And even Senator Sherrod Brown, who previously endorsed Ryan, declined to defend the ad and said that Ryan should have introduced himself to voters with a biographical spot instead. The reaction in many quarters has been dismaying. It's been the kind of thing you see all too often when members of a minority group call out racism or bigotry.

David Nir:

A lot of folks simply refuse to take it seriously. I saw one remark online saying, "Well, the ad only mentions China, not Chinese people. So what's the problem?" That's not how incitement works. Hate crimes against Asian Americans didn't spike because Donald Trump exhorted goon squads to terrorize individual people, they spiked because people like Trump sought to demonize China as a way to deflect blame for their atrocious handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

David Nir:

And that is what led to a spike in hatred that really the worst Americans turned into violent action. Rhetoric really matters. Now, the professional class was more polite, essentially deflecting these concerns and saying, "This is an effective message in the Rust Belt. This is what it takes for a Democrat to win." But I want to point to a Washington Post piece by Dave Weigel exploring the ad and some unnamed Democratic operatives pointed out, well, former Governor Ted Strickland, he's a Democrat and when he ran for this same Senate seat in 2016, he relied on similar messages.

David Nir:

Here's the problem. Even if you are going to this as a matter of bare-knuckle politics and tell Asian Americans that their concerns don't matter, Strickland got crushed. He lost by 21 points and not only did he get his ass handed to him, he ran 13 points behind the top of the ticket.

David Nir:

Hillary Clinton didn't deploy this same kind of rhetoric. So if you're going to argue that this kind of angry demonization works, at least come up with a better example. And the fact of the matter is other Democrats have won Senate races in many other states throughout the Midwest, including in Ohio as well without sounding like this. In the end, what makes this extra dismaying is that Ryan is selling voters a bill of goods.

David Nir:

He's been in Congress for 20 years. So why hasn't he managed to fight back, quote-unquote, against China in that whole time? What's going to be different about electing into the Senate versus electing into the House? If you really want to help Americans who've been harmed by the decline in manufacturing and the outsourcing of jobs, telling them that you're magically going to roll back the clock to a better time is just not the way to do it.

David Beard:

And the particularly revealing aspect is, is that China isn't even the place where most manufacturing jobs are going overseas at this point. Jobs are going overseas to a ton of different countries in a ton of different sectors for different reasons. So the idea that the problem with jobs overseas is China in particular versus American policy or trade policy is just not true. So to point out one country over the broader situation is clearly wanting to find a villain and blame the villain as opposed to actually solving policy.

David Nir:

Right. Why not go after greedy American corporations who are undermining American workers at home?

David Beard:

Exactly. So I'm going to wrap us up with another international election roundup really quick. We'll start off in France where the presidential runoff is already upon us. We've talked about it the past couple of weeks. Voting takes place this Sunday, the 24th of April, just two weeks after the first round and President Emmanuel Macron's lead over his challenger Marine Le Pen has expanded a bit in polling since we talked about it last week. It's now around 10% as things seem to have settled a bit.

David Beard:

So hopefully that means he'll comfortably win on Sunday. That's obviously, I think, the broadly preferred thing. Le Pen is a far-right candidate, is very concerning, has a been a big fan of Russia in the past. That was the issue that came up a lot in the debate that happened just on Wednesday where Macron went after Le Pen for her party's loan from a Russian bank, and really attacked her on her past contacts with Russia and support for Russia before the invasion of Ukraine.

David Beard:

At the same time, Le Pen went after Macron for his proposed pension reforms that would raise the retirement age to 65 in France, which has been very unpopular, and which Macron has sort of halfway walked back to talk about compromises and things like that as he realized this was really a problem for his race. So that's coming up on Sunday. We'll have the results next week.

David Beard:

And then the other major news story is that in Australia, the date for the upcoming general election was set. Australia has elections every three years for their House. It's going to be on May 21st. Incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison is going to attempt to win a fourth consecutive election for the Liberal National Coalition while Anthony Albanese will try to win back power for the Labor Party after a decade in opposition. And just to clarify, the Liberal National Coalition is the center-right coalition. Don't get confused with liberal. It's not what liberal means here in America. And of course the Labor Party is the major center-left party in Australia.

David Beard:

The election will have all 150 seats in the lower House and then 40 of the 76 seats in the Australian Senate. The Labor Party remains in the lead in polling, but it has narrowed in the past few weeks. So it's certainly something to watch as the campaign heats up as we go through the end of April and into May to see if the Labor Party can maintain its lead, or if it really becomes a toss up.

David Nir:

That's it for our weekly hits. We are going to take a short break. And when we come back, Beard and I are going to be discussing the districts where Democrats have a chance to go on offense this November in the House. Stay with us.

David Nir:

So this week, we're going to talk about Democratic opportunities to go on offense in the house this year. Now, I know we've talked about constantly, 2022 as a midterm year. Democrats control the White House. They have every reason to expect a difficult time at the ballot box in November. But for a whole host of reasons, the best defense may in fact be a good offense. There are a lot of Republican seats this year that actually present interesting ripe targets for Democrats to potentially flip.

David Nir:

One key reason, of course, is redistricting. Democrats were unexpectedly aggressive in many states in gerrymandering the maps in their favor, but there are also retirements and GOP primaries that are creating opportunities as well. Now, in fact, Daily Kos just put together a slate of 10 races where we are asking for donations to the eventual Democratic winner of the primary. And these aren't necessarily the top 10 pickup targets for Democrats. They aren't the only possible pickup targets for Democrats, but they are races that we feel, for a variety of reasons, represent a really good use of small-dollar donors efforts, that these are races where you'll get a good bang for the buck. And if you want to keep the gavel out of Kevin McCarthy's hands, this is the place to start.

David Nir:

So we thought it would be a good idea if we dug deeper into each of these 10 contests to understand why we think that these Republican seats are vulnerable and why grassroots donors should consider giving their hard-earned money to help Democrats in these contests. So we're going to start off with a couple of races where two Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump last year are facing difficult primaries.

David Nir:

And they, in fact, might not even wind up being their party’s nominee in November. And the first one we want to talk about is Michigan's 3rd Congressional District. This is a seat held by freshman Republican Peter Meijer. It's in the Grand Rapids area. And things have changed a lot because of redistricting. So what's going on here, Beard?

David Beard:

Peter Meijer is the incumbent there. As you said, he voted to impeach Trump. It is a district that's no longer gerrymandered. In the previous decade, it had been part of the Republican gerrymander that sort of broke down in the Detroit suburbs and Democrats picked up some seats, but it really held up in Western Michigan.

David Beard:

So now the un-gerrymandered map has a seat based in the Grand Rapids area that Biden would've won by 8% if it had existed in 2020. And so obviously that makes it a very good opportunity for a pickup. Meijer, of course, could be a tough opponent. But he is facing a primary, as you said, against John Gibbs who is a former Trump administration official that Donald Trump has endorsed. And meanwhile Democrats have former DOJ attorney Hillary Scholten, who ran in 2020 against Meijer in the gerrymandered version of the seat and lost by just about 6%.

David Beard:

So if Meijer survives as primary that'll probably be somewhat of a tougher race. You could certainly imagine middle-of-the-road voters who are not crazy about Trump, who might want to reward Meijer or who would vote for Meijer, but would otherwise vote for Scholten if maybe Gibbs won, but I think the race will definitely be very competitive either way.

David Beard:

And the other factor to think about is that the primary isn't until August 2nd, so we still have months to go of Meijer and Gibbs going at each other and causing more Trump chaos in that district before a nominee is selected.

David Nir:

And Scholten there has the primary to herself. She has been raising pretty good money. And you have to wonder if Meijer loses the primary, would he endorse Scholten over Gibbs? Or maybe just sit the race out? That could raise an interesting question after August 2nd.

David Beard:

Yeah, I definitely don't see him endorsing Gibbs given his real ability to stand up to the Trump wing and desire to stand up to the Trump wing that you really don't see very often amongst Republicans, even though he's very conservative otherwise. I would think he might just sit it out. I don't know if he would go actually endorse a Democrat, but maybe Gibbs will win and we'll find out.

David Nir:

So there is one other pro-impeachment Republican on this list. That's David Valadao in California's 22nd District. This is in California's Central Valley. I want to point out that Valadao currently represents the 21st District. This seat has changed numbers, but it's still quite similar geographically to the seat that Valadao already represents. And he has been in and out of office a couple of times.

David Beard:

Valadao had been a congressman, previously lost in 2018 to a Democrat, came back to reclaim his seat in 2020, and is now running for reelection. And as you said, a slightly changed seat in the Central Valley for this year. Now, Biden won this seat by 13% in 2020, but it has some significant turnout issues in the midterms where turnout really drops which can really hurt Democrats, depending on the year.

David Beard:

So Rudy Salas is the Democratic front runner. He's a five-term Assembly member. He's got some really deep roots in the district and he was pretty widely seen as the top Democratic recruit that was possible for the district. He was who people wanted to run against Valadao. If you asked people, what is the number one Democratic recruit for this district, it was Salas. So if anybody can be Valadao in 2022, it's him.

David Beard:

And as you said, Valadao may not be on the November ballot. He's being challenged from the right by Chris Mathys who's running, again, largely on the fact that Valadao voted to impeach Donald Trump. Mathys unsuccessfully ran for office in New Mexico back in 2018. And in 2020, he's mostly been self-funding this year. So it's a little bit of an oddball candidate. You would normally dismiss it, but because of the Trump issue, because of the fact that Valadao voted to impeach Trump and a lot of the Republican primary electorate hate that idea, there's a very real possibility that Mathys could advance in November.

David Beard:

And that's the thing that I want to mention as well. California of course has their top-two primary system. So all of the candidates will appear on the ballot in June. Salas as the main Democratic candidate is expected to advance to November, but Valadao and Mathys will be competing for that other spot on the ballot. So if Mathys wins, he's a really bad fit for this district.

David Beard:

Now, obviously if it's a good-enough Republican year, anything could happen. But it's really hard to imagine Chris Mathys being the right fit for this district, so that would be a big boost to Democrats. But I think again, even if Valadao advances to November, Salas is a really great Democratic nominee and has every opportunity to go and win this Biden +13 seat.

David Nir:

Yeah, California's top-two primary really changes the calculus here because Valadao would have to finish in third place not to wind up on the November ballot. And in the decade that California's been using this system, no incumbent has ever finished in third. So it would be extra remarkable, but I really wouldn't rule it out. One other thing I should mention is that there is also a special election taking place on June 7th for a district that is also numbered California 22, but that is Devin Nunes' old district, the one that he vacated to go run Donald Trump's Truth Social media company into the ground.

David Nir:

Completely separate race, completely separate candidates, completely separate district. They just happen to share a number. This is something you always have to watch out for in a redistricting cycle. So let's move on and talk about a trio of open seats that Republicans are either giving up or are open because they're brand new, thanks to reapportionment. And we will start in the eastern corner of the country on the eastern tip of Long Island in New York's 1st Congressional District, where we have an open seat because the incumbent is running for governor.

David Beard:

So Biden won this new district by 11%, which is a big difference from how the district used to be when Trump won the district by 4% back in 2020. So that's a big change and a really big opening for Democrats, which is probably a big reason that Zeldin bailed. So the district has three Democrats running in the primary. One of whom is veteran and educator, Jackie Gordon, who ran in the 2nd District in 2020.

David Beard:

Now, that district was also redistricted, but it took a lot of the Republican-leaning areas that the 1st used to have. So it's a much more safe Republican seat. So she's running in the 1st District in 2022 and she's joined by two Suffolk County legislators, Bridget Fleming and Kara Hahn. So those are the three Democrats. It's a pretty competitive primary, and the primary is not until the end of June, on June 28th.

David Beard:

So it'll take a while to sort of see how that develops. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Republicans have unified around Nick LaLota, who is the GOP and Conservative Party-endorsed candidate. Of course, in New York, there are additional parties such as the Conservative Party and others that share candidates so they can essentially co-endorse, which can be beneficial to certain candidates to have both, in this case, the GOP and the Conservative Party endorsement.

David Beard:

He's a veteran and a local official in the area. So he's going to do his best to defend a Biden now plus-11 seat, but it could be a tough road.

David Nir:

One thing I should note is that a state court judge struck down New York's congressional map sort of in a really confusing and messy opinion, partly on the grounds that it was a gerrymander, partly on the grounds of the legislature, which he said didn't have the authority to draw a new map. That ruling was stayed by the appellate courts. I think it's overwhelmingly likely that we will use the map that Democrats passed this year. Candidates have already filed petitions to get on the ballot, but I suppose there is an outside chance that the map could change in years to come.

David Nir:

Now out in Colorado, we have a very different situation, one that we haven't directly addressed yet, which is that thanks to population growth, Colorado added a congressional district. It had seven seats and now it has eight. And number eight is of course open because it's brand new. There is no incumbent and it's a rather competitive seat, but Democrats are very much hoping to pick this one up.

David Beard:

So Biden would've won this seat by 5%. So compared to some of the other ones we've talked about a little bit narrower, but still a Biden win, and more than his national average of 4.5. On the Democratic side state Representative Yadira Caraveo has essentially locked up the nomination because she won the ballot at the state convention with 71% of the vote. And to get on the ballot via the state convention in Colorado, you need a minimum of 30% of the vote.

David Beard:

So she had one primary opponent at the convention, but he only received 29% and didn't make the ballot, didn't petition on, which is the alternative way to get on the ballot in Colorado. So she'll be the only Democratic candidate on the primary ballot. And then meanwhile, there'll be a four-way Republican primary between Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, state Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer, Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann, and former Army Green Beret Tyler Allcorn.

David Beard:

So a bit of a mess again on the Republican side. A lot of candidates. Saine is the one who qualified via the convention. The only one to do it in that way, but has not raised much money. So it's very open at this point. The other three all petitioned onto the ballot. And so we expect that this'll be a primary that goes on for a while and could get very messy.

David Nir:

Moving on to another open seat, let's talk about North Carolina's 13th Congressional District, which is in the southern suburbs of Raleigh. North Carolina also won a new congressional district in reapportionment, but it's a little bit difficult to say which seat actually counts as the, quote-unquote, new seat because there's also the 14th District. That's a much bluer seat that Democrats are almost a lock to pick up. So you could call the 14th the “new one.” You could call the 13th the “new one.” Either way, this seat does not have an incumbent.

David Beard:

Yeah, it's interesting because this is almost sort of Ted Budd's old seat, but of course he's running for Senate. And so in a way it's open because of that, but it's so different that it's really hard to even imagine that as the successor seat. But anyway, in this new seat, Biden won it by 2% had it existed in 2020. So it was very narrow, less than his national margin. So it's going to be a really tough seat, but it is in a growing Democratic area. So that does give some hope that this will increasingly become better for Democrats.

David Beard:

So this is a good opportunity to try to get it, win it as an open seat. There are two main Democratic candidates, state Senator Wiley Nickel and former state Senator Sam Searcy. And then there's eight Republican candidates. So if you thought we had a bit of a cluster in Colorado, much more so here over in North Carolina.

David Beard:

The, I think, most notable Republican candidate is Bo Hines who was endorsed by Trump. He's a former college football player. He's not from anywhere near the district. He previously announced that he was going to be running in other congressional districts closer to where he was from in Western North Carolina. But that district didn't end up materializing, because if you'll remember the previous version of the North Carolina map that the legislature had passed had a Republican leaning district west of Charlotte.

David Beard:

So at one point he was going to run there. At one point, he was going to run in the Triad area. Now he's running here, just because it's the open seat in North Carolina that he thinks he can win. So it's sort of all over the place for him, but he has Trump's endorsement, which in an eight-candidate race could be enough.

David Beard:

Another notable candidate is former Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, who is running again. She however has not raised much money and so she's not seen as maybe the leading candidate despite having the federal experience, having won congressional races before. It doesn't seem like she's the one who's picking up the establishment endorsements here.

David Beard:

And so otherwise it's really a free-for-all. There's a lot of candidates who you think could win or potentially advance to a runoff. So North Carolina has a runoff only if the winner doesn't receive 30% of the vote, which doesn't usually come into play. In a two- or three-candidate primary, it would be impossible to fall below the 30% barrier, but in an eight-candidate primary, it is very possible, particularly without really a leading candidate.

David Beard:

I guess Hines is the leading candidate, but you could easily imagine him only getting 25% of the vote or something based on Trump's endorsement and all the other candidates getting some number that adds up to their other 75%. So it's very possible we see a runoff here. The primary is May 17th. So that's coming up fairly soon. But if the primary does go to a runoff, we go all the way to July 26th is the runoff. So that would be another two months of messy Republican primary-ness in this seat.

David Nir:

We're halfway through this list and we are going to head back out to California. The rest of the seats that we're going to talk about all have incumbents seeking reelection and some of them were reconfigured a little bit. Some were reconfigured a lot. California's 27th District in the northern suburbs of LA. This is a district that used to be numbered the 25th. You may recall that Democrats lost a special election in 2020 after the former Congresswoman Katie Hill resigned. And now they are once again trying to reclaim it.

David Beard:

Biden won this seat by 12% in its new form. And so Congressman Mike Garcia, the incumbent, is facing a difficult challenge by trying to overcome that margin. And he also, in redistricting, lost sort of a base area for him, which was Simi Valley, which is a pretty conservative area of the Los Angeles region. And he's got two Democrats challenging him. One is Christy Smith who lost in 2020, both in the special and in the general. The general was very, very close. She lost by less than 400 votes.

David Beard:

But there's another Democrat running, who's also running a strong campaign, Quaye Quartey. And so the two of them are going to have to fight it out for the top two primary slot alongside Garcia in the top two primary on June 7th. Garcia does have a very conservative voting record, given the district. He's not somebody like Valadao or Meijer who has sort of done some things that might appeal to Democrats or incumbents. He is really gone after a very much hard-right voting record, very close to Trump. So it may be more difficult than your average sort of Republican who tries to moderate himself to win a Biden +12 seat.

David Nir:

So just a little bit to the south is California's 45th District. This is represented by freshman Republican Michelle Steel in the western part of Orange County. And this is also looking like another plausible target for Democrats.

David Beard:

Yes, it's a narrower, closer seat than the one we just talked about. Biden would've only won this seat by 6%. A little bit more than his national margin, but not a lot. But Steel only represents 16% of this redrawn district. There were a lot of changes in Orange County. So in the district she ended up running in, it doesn't have a lot of her old constituents. So there's going to be a lot of instances where she's going to have to reintroduce herself to voters, which sort of makes it like a semi-open seat. It's not obviously the same. She has a lot of the benefits of incumbency, but a lot of voters are not going to have voted for her before.

David Beard:

She has one main Democratic challenger; Jay Chen is the leading Democratic candidate. He's a Reservist. He's on the Mount San Antonio Community College board of trustees. And he's done some good fundraising. So this is really sort of a straight top two expected to go through easily into the primary all the way to November.

David Nir:

We're going to shift to a totally different part of the country. Smack in the middle is Nebraska's Second District. This is held by Republican Don Bacon. This is a seat that Democrats have targeted for years. In fact, they held it for a while with former Congressman Brad Ashford, who in fact just died this week. Republicans engaged in a defensive gerrymander to try to protect Bacon. They didn't really make it redder if you're looking at the top lines, but they prevented it from getting bluer as it naturally would have by adding rural areas instead of consolidating it around the Omaha area. But it's still a competitive seat.

David Beard:

Biden won this district by 6%, which is around the same margin of the old district. And so it's definitely still a very competitive seat, just slightly more Democratic than Biden's national margin. Bacon was first elected in 2016 and he's never won more than 51% of the vote in the district. So all of his races have been very close. And the Democrats have a couple of candidates running. State Senator Tony Vargas is the state establishment Democratic choice, but he's facing a primary challenge from mental health counselor Alicia Shelton, who has been endorsed by EMILY's List. So that's some real oomph behind her candidacy there. The primary is May 10th, so it's coming up pretty quickly and we should see which of them advances to the general election to take on Bacon.

David Nir:

To wrap up this segment, we are going to head to the American Southwest. And we're first going to talk about Arizona's First Congressional District. Again, this is another seat where the numbering changed. It is represented by Republican David Schweikert in the Eastern Phoenix area and its suburbs. It was previously numbered district six, but it has been growing more and more competitive as many suburban regions have.

David Beard:

Yeah. And Biden won the seat by only 1% in his current form. So it's a very, very competitive seat. It's the most Republican seat of the ones on this list, but it is an area that's trending Democratic, so we do have that going for us. The Democratic candidates: There's a few candidates here. Jevin Hodge is a businessman and community leader. He narrowly lost a race for Maricopa County supervisor by just about 400 votes in 2020 and so is now running here in this race.

David Beard:

Ginger Sykes Torres entered more recently, but has the endorsement of Congressman Raúl Grijalva who's sort of the dean of the Democrats in Arizona. He's been in there a long time. And then we've also got former Phoenix Suns director of membership experience Adam Metzendorf, who's also running. And then on the Republican side, Dave Schweikert is the incumbent Republican.

David Beard:

He has a couple of issues. He has a primary challenge from insurance executive Elijah Norton, who has self-funded nearly $3 million into the race. So that is a lot of money to come up against you in a primary race, particularly when you've got some new constituents. Like we said, this one doesn't have as much change as the California race that we talked about. There are some new constituents for Schweikert, so that's something for him to be thinking about. And the other issue Schweikert has is that he was reprimanded on the House floor in 2020 for a number of ethical issues, including misusing taxpayer dollars, violating campaign-finance reporting requirements, and several other violations of House rules, which is not something that happens very often. Reprimands on the House floor are not a common thing.

David Beard:

And his 2020 race was very competitive. This issue came up a lot and he really narrowly won. So it's certainly something we could see come back here in 2022. And again, we've got a very late primary here. It's not until August 2nd, so Norton has a lot of time to spend that $3 million, hitting Schweikert before the general election comes around.

David Nir:

Let's wrap up in the state next door in New Mexico. Democrats controlled the redistricting process and they made the state's lone Republican-held seat—that's the 2nd District, which is represented by Yvette Herrell—considerably bluer. This is a seat that actually Democrats managed to win under its old configuration, but now presents a much juicier target.

David Beard:

So this district now includes the western part of Albuquerque, which gives it a really good, strong Democratic base that it didn't have before. The previous district was Trump +12, which, even though Democrats were able to win it in 2018 like you said, it's going to be really hard to have ever held onto in that configuration. But the new district is Biden +6. So just a little bit above his national margin.

David Beard:

So it should be a really competitive, a really good target. We've got a couple of Democrats running. The probably leading candidate is Las Cruces City Councilor Gabe Vasquez. And then we have also got Dr. Darshan Patel running on the Democratic side. The primary is June 7th. So that's coming up pretty soon. And then we'll have a Democratic nominee to go after Herrell for a number of months leading up to the general election.

David Nir:

So as I mentioned at the outset, Daily Kos put together a fundraising slate this week for all of these races. We are using ActBlue nominee funds. These are a very interesting fundraising vehicle. If you're not familiar with them, they allow you to donate right now. And the winner of the Democratic primary in each case will receive all the funds, they're held in escrow, the moment that they win the nomination right after their state has the primary. So it's a great way to get involved right now, if you're not sure about which candidate to pick in a primary with multiple Democrats running. And it also helps make sure that whoever the Democratic nominee is in each case winds up with a nice chunk of change the moment they finish their primary.

David Nir:

Usually, that's a time when campaigns have really spent a lot of their money. And so getting an infusion of resources all at once is extremely helpful to allow them to start the general election off strong. You can find a link to our post describing this slate and internal linking to our ActBlue page in the episode description.

David Beard:

That's all from us this week. The Downballot comes out every Thursday everywhere you find podcasts. You can reach us by email at thedownballot@dailykos.com. And if you haven't already, please like and subscribe to The Downballot and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks also to our producer Cara Zelaya and editor Tim Einenkel. We'll be back next week with a new episode.

With a difficult midterm looming, Democrats have a short window to ban gerrymandering

After winning narrow victories to take full control of the federal government in the 2020 elections, Democrats have a fleeting opportunity to pass major legislation, with a window for action that may close in less than two years. Republicans will dominate the upcoming round of congressional redistricting, and the long-running tendency of the president's party to lose seats in midterms is well-known. But congressional Democrats can flip the script by banning partisan gerrymandering—a move that will both make elections fairer and give the party a better chance to prevail in 2022.

Republican victories in key legislative elections last year mean that the GOP is now positioned to draw new maps in states home to 38% to 46% of districts nationwide. Democrats, by contrast, will hold the cartographer’s pen in just 16% to 17% of all districts, giving the GOP an advantage of two or three to one. This disparity, combined with the threat that the increasingly right-wing Supreme Court may exacerbate the GOP's power to gerrymander within the states they control, means that, without further reforms, the congressional landscape is all but certain to remain skewed toward the GOP in 2022, following after two decades in which it already gave Republicans a large advantage.

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The House isn’t the only chamber where the playing field institutionally favors Republicans. The Senate does as well. Thanks to malapportionment and the legacy of a 19th-century GOP effort to carve out new states for partisan gain, Republicans have a major advantage in excess of their popular support. As a result, rural white voters possess disproportionate power at the expense of urban voters of color.

As our recently compiled spreadsheet illustrates, Senate Republicans have not won more votes or represented more Americans than Democrats since the late 1990s. Nevertheless, they’ve run the body just over half the time since, and this pattern of minority rule that existed continually from 2014-2020 may repeat itself next year. With more Americans increasingly voting straight tickets, it’s become almost impossible for Democrats to win the Senate unless the stars align as they did in 2018 and 2020.

The other major challenge Democrats face next year is that the president's party almost always loses a sizable number of seats in Congress in midterm elections, when opposition voters are energized to vote and the president's supporters are usually demobilized.

This dynamic has played out in every midterm since 2006, and the vast majority of them since World War II. The few exceptions include elections such as 2002, when the GOP benefited from George W. Bush’s post-9/11 surge in popularity combined with a pro-Republican shift in redistricting, or 1998, when Bill Clinton's approval rating peaked at over 60% amid the best economic growth cycle in decades and a backlash to the GOP’s impeachment efforts. Joe Biden is unlikely to benefit from such one-off factors, particularly since partisan polarization has only grown stronger in the ensuing years.

However, one mitigating factor for Democrats in 2022 is that, unlike in past midterms such as 2010 or 1994 when Democrats suffered massive downballot losses, Democrats have far fewer seats to protect that are hostile to their party at the presidential level.

In 2010, Democrats were defending 48 House seats that had voted for John McCain in 2008 and another 19 where Barack Obama won by less than his national margin. Democrats that November would go on to lose 50 of these 67 districts. The Senate story is similar: When Republicans flipped the Senate in 2014, Democrats were trying to hold seven seats in states that Obama had lost during his re-election campaign, and the GOP flipped all of them on its way to gaining nine seats that year. 

Following the 2020 elections, however, Democrats hold just seven House districts that voted for Donald Trump and another 15 that Biden won by less than his national margin of 4 points. In the Senate, none of the states that are up in 2022 went for Trump, though four backed Biden by less than his national margin.

While House Democrats are unlikely to suffer a setback anywhere near as monumental as the 63 net seats that they lost in 2010, the post-2020 Democratic majority of just 222 seats out of 435 is also much smaller than the 256 seats the party held going into the 2010 elections. A net loss of only five seats would be enough to flip the House back to Republicans, which is entirely plausible—if not likely—if 2022 proves to be a typical midterm. In the Senate, likewise, Republicans only need to capture a single seat to take back the chamber next year, compared to the six that they needed to flip in 2014.

A booming economy and an end to the pandemic may boost Democrats’ fortunes in 2022 by propping up Biden's approval rating, but the combined threats of GOP gerrymandering, Senate malapportionment, and the typical midterm penalty make Democrats the underdogs next year. Consequently, congressional Democrats must make the most of what limited time they have to pass reforms that are critical for preserving democracy from an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party.

Chief among those reforms is using Congress' constitutional powers to ban congressional gerrymandering by requiring states to adopt independent redistricting commissions and adhere to nonpartisan criteria when drawing new maps in order to promote fairness. House Democrats have passed just such a bill, the "For the People Act"—best known as H.R. 1—which also includes a historic expansion of voting access protections. But enacting it into law will require Democrats to overcome a filibuster, which means getting every Democratic senator on board with changing Senate rules.

Another critical piece of legislation that would reduce the Senate’s pro-Republican bias would be to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., which would end the disenfranchisement of 700,000 American citizens and add a heavily urban and Black state to a body that underrepresents both groups. However, D.C. statehood on its own would only give Democrats two more Senate seats at most and still leave the Senate with a large tilt toward the GOP. To level the playing field further, Democrats should also offer statehood to Puerto Rico, an idea the island voted in favor of in a referendum last year, and consider further ways to expand the chamber.

Most congressional Republicans supported Trump’s attempted coup d’etat following his defeat, underscoring that the party that controls Congress will also hold the fate of free and fair elections in its hands. It’s readily conceivable that a Republican-controlled Congress could simply reject an Electoral College results it doesn’t like in 2024, just as two-thirds of House Republicans voted to do mere hours after Trump incited an insurrectionist mob that stormed the Capitol.

To avoid this future of escalating autocracy, Democrats must pass serious structural reforms to our democracy while they still can. Time is short, and growing shorter.

House Democrats just passed the most important democracy reforms since the 1965 Voting Rights Act

On Wednesday, House Democrats voted 220-210 to pass H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” which is the most important set of voting and election reforms since the historic Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965. These reforms, which House Democrats previously passed in 2019, face a challenging path to in the Senate given Democrats’ narrow majority and uncertainty over whether they can overcome a GOP filibuster, but their adoption is critical for preserving American democracy amid unprecedented attack by Republican extremists both in and outside Congress.

H.R. 1 would implement transformative changes to federal elections by (1) removing barriers to expanding access to voting and securing the integrity of the vote; (2) establishing public financing in House elections to level the playing field; and (3) banning congressional gerrymandering by requiring that every state create a nonpartisan redistricting commission subject to nonpartisan redistricting criteria.

Using Congress’ power to regulate Senate and House elections under the Elections Clause and enforce anti-discrimination laws under the 14th Amendment, the bill would:

  • Establish automatic voter registration at an array of state agencies;
  • Establish same-day voter registration;
  • Allow online voter registration;
  • Allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register so they'll be on the rolls when they turn 18;
  • Allow state colleges and universities to serve as registration agencies;
  • Ban states from purging eligible voters' registration simply for infrequent voting;
  • Establish two weeks of in-person early voting, including availability on Sundays and outside of normal business hours;
  • Standardize hours within states for opening and closing polling places on Election Day, with exceptions to let cities set longer hours in municipal races;
  • Require paper ballots filled by hand or machines that use them as official records and let voters verify their choices;
  • Grant funds to states to upgrade their election security infrastructure;
  • Provide prepaid postage on mail ballots;
  • Allow voters to turn in their mail ballot in person if they choose;
  • Allow voters to track their absentee mail ballots;
  • Require states to establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions for congressional redistricting (possibly not until the 2030s round of redistricting);
  • Establish nonpartisan redistricting criteria such as a partisan fairness provision that courts can enforce starting immediately no matter what institution is drawing the maps;
  • End prison gerrymandering by counting prisoners at their last address (rather than where they're incarcerated) for the purposes of redistricting;
  • End felony disenfranchisement for those on parole, probation, or post-sentence, and require such citizens to be supplied with registration forms and informed their voting rights have been restored;
  • Provide public financing for House campaigns in the form of matching small donations at a six-for-one rate;
  • Expand campaign finance disclosure requirements to mitigate Citizens United;
  • Ban corporations from spending for campaign purposes unless the corporation has established a process for determining the political will of its shareholders; and
  • Make it a crime to mislead voters with the intention of preventing them from voting.

Ending Republicans’ ability to gerrymander is of the utmost importance after Republicans won the power to redistrict two-to-three times as many congressional districts as Democrats after the 2020 elections. If congressional Democrats don’t act, Republican dominance in redistricting may practically guarantee that Republicans retake the House in 2022 even if Democrats once again win more votes, an outcome that could lead to congressional Republicans more seriously trying to overturn a Democratic victory in the 2024 Electoral College vote than they did January, when two-thirds of the House caucus voted to overturn Biden's election.

If this bill becomes law, Republicans would lose that unfettered power to rig the House playing field to their advantage. Instead, reform proponents would gain the ability to challenge unfair maps in court over illegal partisan discrimination, and the bill would eventually require states to create independent redistricting commissions that would take the process out of the hands of self-interested legislators entirely.

Protecting the right to vote is just as paramount when Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced hundreds of bills to adopt new voting restrictions by furthering the lies Donald Trump told about the election that led directly to January's insurrection at the Capitol. With Republican legislatures likely to pass many of these bills into law—and the Supreme Court's conservative partisans poised to further undermine existing protections for voting rights—congressional action is an absolute must to protect the ability of voters to cast their ballots.

The most important remaining hurdle, however, is the legislative filibuster: The fate of these reforms will depend on Senate Democrats either abolishing or curtailing it. Progressive activists have relaunched a movement to eliminate the filibuster entirely, while some experts have suggested that Democrats could carve out an exception for voting rights legislation. Either way, Democrats will need to address the filibuster in some fashion, since Senate Republicans have made it clear they will not provide the support necessary to reach a 60-vote supermajority to pass H.R. 1 into law.

Democrats in Congress must pass new election reforms to save democracy from an ever more radical GOP

Republicans around the country are plotting a new wave of voter suppression laws in reaction to their 2020 losses, but many of their proposals can be defanged if congressional Democrats take decisive action. Just last month, Democrats introduced sweeping bills that would enact the most transformative changes to our democracy since the 1965 Voting Rights Act and provide a critical bulwark against GOP efforts to suppress votes. These reforms include:

These reforms are urgently needed. Last year saw Republicans almost win full control of the federal government despite receiving millions fewer votes than Democrats at all levels—from the Electoral College down to the Senate and House. Donald Trump then followed up on this near miss by trying to overturn the results in court and in Congress, and through inciting mob violence once it was clear he had lost.

The case of the House is instructive. Thanks to widespread GOP gerrymandering, Republicans very nearly retook the lower chamber last year and might very well have done so had Democrats not brought successful lawsuits over the last decade that resulted in new maps in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. But it might only be a temporary reprieve: Thanks to a strong performance at the legislative level, Republicans are poised to dominate redistricting across the country just as the Supreme Court's GOP hardliners threaten to turbocharge gerrymandering.

The Senate presents a different sort of problem. As our newly published data illustrates, Democratic senators have collectively won more votes and represented more Americans than Republicans continuously since 2000 but have only run the chamber half the time since. Had Senate Republicans won just over 1,000 votes more in New Hampshire in 2016, GOP minority rule would have continued in 2020 despite Democratic senators representing tens of millions more constituents. Of course, there’s also the Electoral College: A shift of just 40,000 votes in three key swing states could have seen Trump again win the presidency last year in spite of a second popular vote loss.

Republican minority rule isn't just a threat to our elected offices. It's already a reality on the U.S. Supreme Court, where five conservative justices have been confirmed by senates where the Republican majority had won fewer votes and represented fewer people than the Democratic minority. Three of those justices were also appointed by a president who lost the popular vote.

And that’s before we even get to January’s unparalleled attacks on democracy by Republican extremists. These included the far-right insurrection that saw a violent mob ransack the Capitol, leave several dead in their wake, nearly cost elected officials their lives, and led to Trump's impeachment for the second time after he and his allies in Congress incited the violence by telling lies about voter fraud and stolen elections.

Despite that violent coup attempt, two-thirds of House Republicans and several prominent GOP senators voted just hours later that day to overturn the Electoral College results in the hopes of stealing the election for Trump. Our democracy has been increasingly under siege by the far right for years, but these attempts to overthrow it both through mob violence and congressional action mark the lowest ebb in American civic health since the Civil War.

We can reverse this decline, however, by adopting the reforms currently before Congress. But to pass them would require unanimous support among Senate Democrats and a newfound willingness to curtail the filibuster in the face of certain Republican obstruction. If Democrats don't take advantage of their fleeting chance to pass transformational reforms to our democratic institutions and protect voting rights, our democracy may not survive much longer.

A failure to act could see Republicans regain a gerrymandered majority in the House in 2022 and another majority in the Senate next year despite once again failing to win more votes or represent more Americans than Democrats. A Republican-run Congress could even try to overturn democracy outright in 2024 by rejecting the outcome of the Electoral College, just as Trump and his many allies sought to do last month.

Democracy reform must be at the top of the agenda this year, because the future of our political system—and every other policy effort—depends upon it.

This Week in Statehouse Action: 2 Lock 2 Down edition

Hello, and happy early Independence Day to all who observe!

(And, of course, as an erudite consumer of this missive, I know you’ll observe in a responsible, socially-distanced way. Because Lockdown 2: The New Batch is going to suck enough as it is.)

As a lot of states whose Republican governors reopened businesses prematurely in the middle of a damn pandemic begin to grapple with the obvious and avoidable fallout, a lot of state-level action right now is extremely coronavirus-related.

… but not all of it.

Body Double: … but some of it!

Campaign Action
  • In Pennsylvania, GOP Rep. (and noted Terrible Human) Daryl Metcalfe is coopting “my body, my choice” as a slogan to justify his reckless refusal to wear a face mask to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
    • Metcalfe has also introduced a resolution calling for the impeachment of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, saying in a statement that Wolf’s businesses closures and other measures he’s taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus have “caused immeasurable harm an hardship for far more Pennsylvanians than the virus!”

I dunno, getting a deadly disease seems like a pretty severe hardship

Double or Nothing: In Kansas, where I’m sure the GOP-controlled legislature is contemplating a measured and reasonable response to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s new mandatory face mask order, one Republican lawmaker is super worried about losing his primary election in August.

Okay, this has all been interesting, but I did promise you non-coronavirus related content.

And, well, tomorrow is an important day.

No, not because it’s Independence Day Eve.

And not because it’s my half-birthday.

(Which it is.)

Election Day is four short months from July 3.

And this is a year that ends in zero.

Which makes this Election Day the final chance for Democrats to flip legislative chambers and put themselves in position in states across the country to prevent another decade of GOP gerrymandering.

Thousands of seats are on the ballot this fall.

And yes, all state legislative elections in each and every state are important.

But because redistricting is at stake, some are a bit more important than others this fall.

Democrats taking a birds-eye view of these elections (c’est moi) have to weigh a number of factors when it comes to prioritizing states, chambers, and seats this year.

  • How many seats do Democrats need to flip to win a majority in the chamber?
  • Do past election results, political trends, or other factors indicate that Democrats can flip that many seats in a single election?
  • Was Democratic recruitment strong?
  • Do legislators in that state impact redistricting (some states, like California, task independent commissions with drawing legislative and congressional maps)?

These are the chief factors I’ve weighed in determining my state legislative chamber priority target list for 2020.

Topmost among those targets are (in alphabetical order, nothing to read into here):

  • Arizona House (Dems need to flip two for a majority)
  • Arizona Senate (Dems need to flip three)
  • Michigan House (Dems need to flip four)
  • Minnesota Senate (flip two)
  • North Carolina House (flip six)
  • North Carolina Senate (flip five)
  • Pennsylvania House (flip nine)
  • Texas House (flip nine)
    • In Arizona, flipping either chamber would break the Republican trifecta. While legislative and congressional maps there are drawn by an independent redistricting commission, Republicans have spent the entire decade trying to undermine and dismantle the body; as long as the GOP has complete control of the state, fair redistricting is in real danger.
    • In Michigan, flipping the House would help stymie ongoing GOP efforts to dismantle or defang the independent redistricting commission the party’s been attacking since voters approved it in 2018.
    • In Minnesota, flipping the state Senate would give Democrats a governing trifecta (governorship, House, Senate) and complete control of the redistricting process.
    • Flipping at least one chamber in North Carolina is essential to preventing another GOP gerrymander of the state. The Democratic governor is generally favored to win reelection here, but it doesn’t matter—the legislature has complete control of legislative and congressional redistricting.
    • While Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is positioned to veto egregious partisan gerrymanders sent to him by the legislature, flipping a chamber in Pennsylvania would give him a redistricting partner, so to speak, which would send him a fair map to approve, levy against the GOP in negotiations, or be considered by the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court in litigation.
    • Flipping the Texas House would break the GOP trifecta in the state and give Democrats a say in the redistricting process for the first time since the infamous DeLay-mander of 2003.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be going in to detail on each of these chambers—challenges, opportunities, available paths to victory, targeted districts, and the like. And I’ll be adding target chambers as the electoral landscape shifts and solidifies as we approach November.

  • But let’s start with the relative layup of the bunch: Minnesota Senate.
    • As ever, much love to the beautiful brains at Daily Kos Elections who crunch the numbers that give us presidential and other statewide elections results broken down by legislative district.
      • And after this crunching, they’ve spit out multiple opportunities for Democrats to win that coveted trifecta this fall.
        • Republicans currently have a 35-32 majority in the Minnesota Senate.
        • In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried just 28 seats in the 67-seat chamber.
        • In the special U.S. Senate election in 2018, Democrat Tina Smith carried 39 out of 67 districts.
        • Democrat Tim Walz carried those same 39 seats, plus two more.
        • Sen. Amy Klobuchar annihilated her GOP opponent and carried a ridiculous 52 of the 67 Senate seats, but let’s look at the closer elections to map out the most viable targets in the fall.
          • Those targets can be found among the eight Smith/Waltz districts currently represented by Republicans.
    • It’s worth noting, though, that only two of those seats supported Clinton in 2016 (SDs 44 and 56).
      • … which, well, is fine, since Democrats only have to flip two for that sweet Senate majority and hot trifecta action.

Welp, that’s a wrap for this week. Thanks for checking in before checking out for the holiday!

Whatever you end up doing this weekend, I hope you enjoy the heck out of it.

You deserve it.

You’re worth it.

Hang in there.

And wear a mask.