The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, Daniel Donner, and Cara Zelaya, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.
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● WV-Gov, WV-Sen: Secretary of State Mac Warner, who runs West Virginia's elections even as he's helped spread election conspiracy theories, announced Tuesday that he was joining the 2024 primary to succeed his fellow Republican, termed-out Gov. Jim Justice.
Warner kicked off his campaign with a speech emphasizing service in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps and declaring, "It is time to call-out the radical, woke, dangerous and ridiculous policies of the 'progressive' Administration in Washington, D.C." West Virginia Metro News' Brad McElhinny notes that in that address, the secretary of state "did not mention issues specific to West Virginia."
Warner, who won his job in 2016 by narrowly unseating Democratic incumbent Natalie Tennant, was respected by fellow election officials heading into the 2020 contest for his efforts to combat misinformation, but that very much changed after Election Day. That's because Warner, who had just decisively defeated Tennant in their rematch, spent the next weeks backing up lies about Donald Trump's defeat.
Warner appeared at a December "March for Trump" rally in the state, where he appeared to be holding up a "Stop the Steal" sign. He later said he didn't actually think he'd hoisted that particular banner, but there's no question the secretary of state told Trump's fans at that gathering that it was "so important to keep him in office."
Warner also supported Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's failed lawsuit to invalidate Joe Biden's win in four swing states. While he insisted he was concerned whether changes states made in how late mail-in ballots could be received were constitutional, Warner also spread lies alleging, "When cardboard is put over windows, when two cases of ballots come out, when ballots are pre-marked or don't have folds on it—there's all those things. Those are red flags that need to be looked at and not just discounted, and that's what the mainstream media wants us to do."
Warner the following year was the one person at the National Association of Secretaries of State meeting to vote against a bipartisan proposal by his colleagues to set a standard for election audits, and he soon withdrew from the group in protest. (Missouri's Jay Ashcroft, who is also likely to run in 2024 for governor of his own state, abstained.)
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Warner acknowledged Biden "was elected," but he still questioned if that contest was fairly run. He also argued that congressional Democrats' efforts to expand voting rights and the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear Paxton's suit are "what spurred on the Jan. 6 people."
Warner joins a GOP primary that includes Del. Moore Capito and auto dealer Chris Miller, both of who come from prominent Mountain State political families. Capito is the son of Sen. Shelly Moore Capito and grandson of the late Gov. Arch Moore, while Miller's mother is Rep. Carol Miller. Warner also has some notable relatives: His wife, Debbie Warner, was recently elected to the state House, while his brother Monty Warner badly lost the 2004 gubernatorial race to Democrat Joe Manchin. Another brother currently leads the West Virginia Economic Development Authority.
The contest to replace Justice could expand further, as Auditor JB McCuskey has talked about getting in. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who lost the 2018 Senate race to Manchin, also put out a video Tuesday reiterating he was "still evaluating my options as to whether I'm going to run for U.S. Senate or for governor … We're coming soon." While Morrisey didn't indicate which office he was leaning towards, McElhinny noted that the attorney general's message urging voters not to "settle for second best" went up as Warner was still delivering his announcement speech.
● Hell yeah! Election season is already here, and it's off to an amazing start with Democrats' huge flip of a critical seat in the Virginia state Senate, which kicks off this week's episode of The Downballot. Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard dissect what Aaron Rouse's victory means for November (abortion is still issue #1!) when every seat in the legislature will be on the ballot. They also discuss big goings-on in two U.S. Senate races: California, where Rep. Katie Porter just became the first Democrat to kick off a bid despite Sen. Dianne Feinstein's lack of a decision about her own future, and Michigan, which just saw veteran Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow announce her retirement.
The Davids also delve back into a topic that frequently came up last year: redistricting. Didn't every state just draw new maps? you might ask. Yes! But many have to do so again, thanks to court rulings. Unfortunately, this gives Republicans in North Carolina and Ohio the opportunity to gerrymander once more, though there's an outside chance some Southern states could be required to draw new congressional districts where Black voters can elect their candidates of choice.
New episodes of The Downballot come out every Thursday morning. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show. You'll find a transcript of this week's episode right here by noon Eastern Time.
● AZ-Sen: The Democratic firm Blueprint Polling has released numbers showing conspiracy theorist Kari Lake, who was the 2022 Republican nominee for governor, leading Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego 36-32 as independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema grabs 14%. None of these people have said they'll be running for the Senate in 2024, though Gallego has been hiring staff for a likely campaign. The firm says this poll was done "with no input or funding from any candidate, committee, or interest group."
● CA-Sen: Multiple media outlets reported Wednesday that longtime Rep. Barbara Lee told the Congressional Black Caucus she planned to run for the Senate seat held by her fellow Democrat, incumbent Dianne Feinstein, but Lee herself did not commit to anything when reporters asked about her 2024 plans. "What I said was that I'm very sensitive and honoring Senator Feinstein," said Lee, who represents a heavily Democratic bastion that's home to Oakland and Berkeley. (Joe Biden performed better in Lee's new 12th District than he did in any of California's other 51 House seats.)
Lee, who has long been a national progressive favorite, told Politico in a separate interview she'd say what she's doing "when it's appropriate," adding, "I'm not really doing anything except letting colleagues know that there'll be a time to talk about the Senate race." The congresswoman also did not reveal if she was willing to challenge Feinstein if the 89-year-old incumbent surprised the political world and ran again. Rep. Katie Porter, a fellow Democrat who represents an Orange County seat, launched a bid on Tuesday and currently has the field to herself.
● MD-Sen: Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin tells Politico he'll decide "probably in February or March" if he'll seek a fourth term.
● MI-Sen: Wealthy businessman Perry Johnson, a Republican who failed to make the Republican primary ballot for governor last year, confirms he's interested in running for this open seat but has no timeline for deciding. Johnson spent $7 million of his own money last cycle before election authorities disqualified him after he and several other GOP contenders fell victim to a fraudulent signature scandal, and he unsuccessfully sued to try to get his name included. The ever-modest Johnson then began talking about a 2024 run for president after he decided to pass on a write-in effort.
Former Rep. Fred Upton, who was not on the 2022 ballot for anything by choice, meanwhile didn't quite dismiss a Senate campaign but sounds unlikely to go for it. The Republican noted he was 69 in his interview with MSNBC's Andrew Mitchell (the relevant portion begins at the 4:45 point) and said he was "probably not a candidate." Mitchell responded by noting he hadn't ruled it out, to which Upton replied, "I'm glad to be out of the Congress this last week, haven't thought about my future quite yet ... I guess you could say I've not ruled it out, but I'm really probably most inclined not to do so."
For the Democrats, Rep. Elissa Slotkin on Tuesday publicly confirmed for the first time she was "seriously considering" running to succeed retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow, though she also didn't have a timeline to decide. Attorney General Dana Nessel, however, played down the possibility she'd run, declaring she believes she could "do the most good" in her current post. "That's where I intend to stay," said Nessel.
● NE-Sen-B: Gov. Jim Pillen says he'll announce Thursday morning whom he'll appoint to succeed Ben Sasse, a fellow Republican who has resigned from the Senate to become president of the University of Florida.
● KY-Gov: Former Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, who currently has the airwaves to herself ahead of the May Republican primary, is running a new ad focused on combating fentanyl.
● LA-Gov: East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore, a Democrat who is considering entering this year's race for governor, tells LaPolitics' Jeremy Alford, "I expect to have a decision in the next few weeks or sooner." Alford also writes that state Democratic chair Katie Bernhardt "sounds as serious as serious can get and will have something to say in a week or so." Bernhardt last week did not rule out a bid last week after her name was included in an unreleased poll.
● CA-47: Former Rep. Harley Rouda, a Democrat who represented about two-thirds of this constituency from 2019 to 2021, announced Wednesday that he would run for the seat that Democratic incumbent Katie Porter is giving up to campaign for the Senate.
The only other declared candidate so far is former Orange County Republican Party chair Scott Baugh, who narrowly lost to Porter last cycle. This constituency, which includes coastal Orange County and Irvine, supported Biden 54-43, but this historically red area contains plenty of voters who are open to backing Republicans who aren’t named Donald Trump.
Rouda and Baugh previously faced off in the 2018 top-two primary to take on longtime Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the old 48th District in what turned out to be an expensive and consequential contest. Rouda and another first-time Democratic candidate, Hans Keirstead, spent months competing against the Putin-loving congressman, and it looked likely that one of them would advance to the general election. But everything changed just before the filing deadline when Baugh, who had previously served in the state Assembly in the 1990s, unexpectedly jumped in and threatened to lock Democrats out of the general election.
Baugh, though, was hardly running as a favor to Rohrabacher. The two Republicans used to be friends, and when Baugh began raising money in 2016 for a campaign, Rohrabacher initially took it in stride and said he was "just laying the foundation for a race for Congress when I am no longer a member ... but I don't know when that's going to be." Their relationship publicly collapsed, however, after Baugh refused to actually say he wouldn’t use that cash against the congressman.
Baugh didn’t run for anything in 2016, but he used the money he’d amassed that year for his last-second bid against Rohrabacher two years later. Democratic outside groups scrambled to make sure this nasty intra-party fight didn’t end up hurting their own chances to flip the seat, and the DCCC and House Majority PAC spent about $1.8 million on an effort mostly aimed at attacking Baugh. The DCCC, which supported Rouda, also made an effort to promote a third Republican, little-known candidate John Gabbard, to further splinter the vote.
This expensive undertaking proved to be just enough to avoid a disaster for Democrats in a contest where Rohrabacher, who was in no danger of being eliminated, grabbed first with 30%. Rouda edged out Keirstead 17.3-17.2, while Baugh was right behind with 16%; Gabbard finished with 3%, which may have been enough to hold back Baugh. Rouda went on to score a 54-46 victory over Rohrabacher, who never seemed to take his general election seriously.
Baugh unexpectedly turned down a rematch with Rouda in 2020, and Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel instead stepped up to take on the new congressman. Steel proved to be a much tougher foe than Rohrabacher, and she managed to secure enough voters who’d turned against Trump but still favored Republicans down the ballot: Biden took the 48th 50-48, but Steel unseated Rouda 51-49.
Rouda quickly began running against Steel again, but that was before redistricting scrambled California’s map at the end of 2021. Rouda and Porter initially both planned to run for the new 47th District, and while Rouda had represented considerably more of the redrawn constituency than his former colleague, Porter went into 2022 with a massive financial edge and a national progressive base that allowed her to bring in far more. Rouda soon announced he wouldn’t run for anything that cycle, and Porter went on to beat Baugh 52-48 after a very expensive battle.
● NY-03: Prominent Nassau County Republican officials held a press conference Wednesday calling for GOP Rep. George Santos to resign only for the scandal-drenched freshman to immediately say, "I will not." The state Conservative Party, which usually backs Republicans in general elections, also told Santos to get lost; Nick Langworthy, the 23rd District congressman who still leads the state GOP, later said he supported the Nassau County party's anti-Santos declaration.
Still, while there was no reason to think Santos would heed the calls for his departure, his former allies used their gathering to make it clear just what they thought of him. Nassau County GOP chair Joseph Cairo, whose community forms three quarters of the 3rd District (the balance is in Queens) even said that the freshman congressman had personally lied to him about being "a star on the" volleyball team at Baruch College, an institution Santos never attended.
Rep. Anthony D'Esposito, who was elected to the neighboring 4th District last year on the same night as Santos, said he "will not associate with him in Congress and I will encourage other representatives in the House of Representatives to join me in rejecting him." The county GOP even added that it would direct any constituent calls from Santos' district to D'Esposito, while county Executive Bruce Blakeman called the 3rd District congressman "a stain on the House of Representatives."
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, though, showed no interest in pressuring Santos to resign or trying to organize two-thirds of the House to expel him. (The last time this happened was 2002, when Democratic Rep. James Traficant of Ohio was ejected by his colleagues three months after he was found guilty on corruption charges.) McCarthy instead said, "The voters elected him to serve," adding, "Is there a charge against him? In America today, you're innocent until proven guilty."
While McCarthy did declare that Santos, who backed him last week in each of the 15 speakership votes, would not be assigned to any of the top House committees, he made it clear that he'd get to sit on some panels. The speaker, when reminded how Santos had lied about his biography, responded, "Yeah, so did a lot of people here, in the Senate and others, but the one thing I think, it's the voters who made that decision. He has to answer to the voters and the voters can make another decision in two years."
● MI State House: Democrats last November flipped the state House to win a 56-54 edge, but Gorchow News Service notes the chamber would become tied for a few months should two members from the Detroit suburbs win their respective mayoral elections this November. State Rep. Kevin Coleman said last month that he would run to lead Westland, while colleague Lori Stone recently filed paperwork for a potential bid for mayor of Warren.
Democrats would be favored to keep both of their constituencies should any special elections take place. According to data from Dave's Redistricting App, President Joe Biden carried Coleman's 25th House District 59-40, while he racked up an even larger 64-35 margin in Stone's HD-13.
Mayors and County Leaders
● Jacksonville, FL Mayor: The two leading Republicans are continuing to attack one another ahead of the March nonpartisan primary, with City Councilwoman LeAnna Gutierrez Cumber's PAC airing a commercial declaring that Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce CEO Daniel Davis was "ready to sell out" the city by supporting the privatization of the municipal utility JEA.
"As CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, Davis took over $300,000 from JEA to promote privatization," declares the narrator, who argues this would have raised energy bills. The ad then plays audio of Davis saying, "I think more privatization should take place in the city of Jacksonville." Davis' own PAC recently went up with a commercial labeling Cumber a "fake conservative."
● Montgomery County, PA Board of Commissioners: Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro announced Wednesday that he was nominating Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Chair Valerie Arkoosh, a fellow Democrat who succeeded him in 2016 as head of the state's third-largest county, to become the new state human services secretary. Should Arkoosh, who ran an aborted 2022 campaign for the U.S. Senate, be confirmed by two-thirds of the state Senate, it would be up to the County Court judges to pick her replacement on the three-member body.
Arkoosh's planned departure comes ahead of this year's local elections in this suburban Philadelphia county. All three Commission seats are elected countywide, and voters in November can select up to two candidates. However, each party can only nominate two candidates this May, so the body will wind up with a 2-1 split no matter what.
Republicans spent generations as the dominant party in Montgomery County, and they continued to control the Commission into the 21st century even as local voters began favoring Democratic presidential candidates. In 2011, though, Shapiro led his party to its first-ever majority, and there's no reason to think they're in danger of losing it this fall in what's become a heavily blue area.
Prosecutors and Sheriffs
● Philadelphia, PA District Attorney: The Republican-led state Senate voted Wednesday to indefinitely postpone its impeachment trial against Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a decision that came weeks after the state's Commonwealth Court ruled that state House Republicans failed to demonstrate any of the legally required standards for "misbehavior in office" in their articles of impeachment. That ruling did not order the upper chamber to halt the planned Jan. 18 trial, and the House GOP has not yet said if it will appeal the decision.