Morning Digest: Congressman turned unsuccessful fast-food proprietor seeks comeback

The Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from the Daily Kos Elections team.

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Leading Off

The NRCC was recently bashing Democratic candidates who lost elections in previous years as "week old crusty lasagna," so surely that gustatory slur should apply to Republicans too, right? Ex-Rep. Denny Rehberg, once a touted recruit, was last on the ballot in 2012, when Sen. Jon Tester sent him packing. Since then, he's operated a bunch of fast-food restaurants, all of which have since shuttered. (What was that about past-their-prime vittles?) Oh, and he also became a lobbyist. Read more at Daily Kos Elections about Rehberg's quest to win eastern Montana's maybe-open House seat.

He may have co-founded No Labels, but now he wants to adopt at least one label: Former CNN anchor John "Fipp" Avlon just launched a campaign for Congress on Long Island under the banner of the Democratic Party. His problem is that he's not the only person with that idea, since he's joining a crowded primary that already has a frontrunner—and he'll have to explain to voters why a longtime Manhattanite who never voted in Suffolk County prior to 2020 is the right fit for the district. Jeff Singer handicaps the evolving Democratic primary to take on first-term Republican Nick LaLota.

The Downballot

The economy seems to be going great, but lots of voters still say they aren't feeling it. So how should Democrats deal with this conundrum? On this week's episode of "The Downballot," communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio tells us that the first step is to reframe the debate, focusing not on "the economy"—an institution many feel is unjust—but rather on voters' economic well-being. Shenker-Osorio advises Democrats to run on a populist message that emphasizes specifics, like delivering tangible kitchen-table economic benefits and protecting personal liberties, including the right to an abortion.

Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also investigate the new candidacy of rich guy Eric Hovde, the latest in a long line of GOP Senate candidates who have weak ties to the states they want to represent. Then it's on to redistricting news in two states: Wisconsin, which will have fair legislative maps for the first time in ages, and New York, where Democrats are poised to nuke a new congressional map that no one seems to like.

Subscribe to "The Downballot" 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. New episodes every Thursday morning!


CA-Sen: Analyst Rob Pyers highlights that Fairshake, a super PAC funded by cryptocurrency firms, has deployed an additional $3.2 million against Democratic Rep. Katie Porter. This brings the group's total investment to $6.8 million with less than two weeks to go before the March 5 top-two primary.

MD-Sen: Former Gov. Larry Hogan has publicized an internal poll from Ragnar Research conducted about a week before the Republican unexpectedly entered the race, and it shows him far ahead of both of the major Democrats. The numbers, which were first shared with Punchbowl News, show Hogan outpacing Rep. David Trone and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks 49-33 and 52-29, respectively. The memo did not include numbers pitting Joe Biden against Donald Trump in this blue state.

MI-Sen: The Michigan-based pollster EPIC-MRA finds Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin narrowly edging out former GOP Rep. Mike Rogers 39-38 in a hypothetical general election as respondents favor Donald Trump 45-41 over Joe Biden. There is no word if the firm had a client for this survey, though The Detroit Free Press, which often employs EPIC-MRA and first reported these numbers, says that this poll was not conducted on its behalf.


AL-01: The Club for Growth has launched a $580,000 TV buy to help Rep. Barry Moore fend off fellow incumbent Jerry Carl in the March 5 Republican primary, an ad campaign that comes more than three months after Moore insisted he wouldn't "accept support" from the well-funded group. But Moore, as we explained at the time, may have issued this public disavowal to stay on the good side of Donald Trump, whose on-again, off-again feud with the Club was very much "on" last year.

Politico reported earlier this month that Club head David McIntosh and Trump have again made peace, though Moore doesn't appear to have said anything new about the Club. However, independent expenditure organizations like the Club's School Freedom Fund affiliate don't need a candidate's permission to get involved and in fact cannot legally seek it.

The Club, of course, is behaving like there never was any feud: Its opening commercial promotes Moore as an ardent Trump ally, complete with a clip of him proclaiming, "Go Trump!" Carl goes unmentioned in the script, though his image appears alongside Mitch McConnell's as the narrator attacks "weak-kneed RINOs." The buy comes shortly after another pro-Moore organization, the House Freedom Caucus, launched what AdImpact reported was a $759,000 buy targeting Carl.

CA-16: Primary School flags that a super PAC called Next Generation Veteran Fund has now spent close to $1.1 million to promote businessman Peter Dixon, who is one of the many Democrats competing in the March 5 top-two primary to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in Silicon Valley. The organization, which says it is "exclusively supporting former U.S. Marine Peter Dixon," is connected to the With Honor Fund, a group co-founded by Dixon that backs military veterans in both parties.

Dixon is one of several well-funded Democrats on the ballot, but he's the only one who hasn't previously held elected office. His opponents include former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Assemblyman Evan Low, and Eshoo's endorsed candidate, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian. Palo Alto City Councilmember Julie Lythcott-Haims is also competing, though she finished 2023 with considerably less money than the rest of the pack. (Updated fundraising reports covering Jan. 1 through Feb. 14 are due Thursday evening.)

Dixon's backers at Next Generation Veteran Fund, according to OpenSecrets, have also spent considerably more than any other outside group. Liccardo and Low have each received just over $300,000 in aid from allied super PACs, while about $250,000 has been spent to boost Simitian. None of these PACs have spent in any other contests this year.

Joe Biden carried the 16th District 75-22, so there's a good chance that two Democrats will advance to the Nov. 5 general election. Indeed, the Palo Alto Daily Post writes that one of the two Republican candidates, self-described "small business owner" Karl Ryan, appears to have done no campaigning and has an AI-generated website that "includes made-up quotes from made-up people, and a single photo of Ryan with what appears to be his family."

CO-04: Colorado Politics' Ernest Luning writes that most of the 11 Republicans campaigning to replace retiring GOP Rep. Ken Buck say they'll try to reach the June 25 primary ballot both by collecting signatures and by competing at the party convention. (We explain Colorado's complex ballot access process here.)

The only candidate who appears to have said he'll only take part in the convention, which usually occurs in early April, is former state Sen. Ted Harvey. Logan County Commissioner Jerry Sonnenberg, meanwhile, said at a debate that he's currently only going the convention route but held open the possibility of also gathering signatures.

MN-03: Former state judge Tad Jude announced this week that he'd seek the GOP nod to replace Democratic Rep. Dean Philips, who is continuing on with his quixotic bid for president. But Jude, who has a political career stretching back five decades, may be tilting at windmills himself: While Republicans were the dominant party in this highly educated suburban Twin Cities seat before Donald Trump entered the White House, Joe Biden carried the 3rd District 60-39 in 2020.

Jude was elected to the legislature as a 20-year-old Democrat in 1972, and he still carried that party label in 1992 when he narrowly failed to unseat Rep. Gerry Sikorski in the primary for the 6th District. (Sikorski went on to badly lose reelection to Republican Rod Grams.) Jude soon switched parties and claimed the 1994 GOP nod to replace Grams, who left to wage a successful Senate campaign, but he lost a tight general election to Democrat Bill Luther.

After decisively losing a rematch against Luther two years later, Jude eventually returned to elected office by winning a packed 2010 race for a local judgeship. He left the bench ahead of the 2022 elections to campaign for attorney general, and he responded to his defeat at the GOP convention by switching to the race for Hennepin County prosecutor. That effort, though, also ended after Jude took fourth place in the nonpartisan primary.

MO-03: The Missouri Scout's Dave Drebes reports that state Rep. Justin Hicks has filed FEC paperwork for a potential campaign to replace his fellow Republican, retiring Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer.

The site also has a candidate tracker for the August GOP primary, and it identifies three names we hadn't heard before as "considering": Cole County Prosecutor Locke Thompson, former state House Speaker Rob Vescovo, and state Rep. Tricia Byrnes. The Scout also lists in the "OUT" column state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer (whom Drebes has said is the congressman's cousin "of some indeterminate distance") and state Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden. The filing deadline is March 26.

NY-26: Republican leaders nominated West Seneca Supervisor Gary Dickson on Wednesday as their candidate for a difficult April 30 special election to succeed former Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins. Dickson, who was chosen a day before the deadline to pick nominees, will take on Democratic state Sen. Tim Kennedy in a Buffalo area constituency that Joe Biden carried 61-37 in 2020. (Democrats tapped Kennedy in mid-January.)

However, the two men may not have the ballot to themselves. Former Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray, who was the Democrats' nominee three straight times in the now-defunct 27th District, is trying to collect enough signatures to appear on the ballot as an independent. McMurray previously announced that he would campaign for a full term in the June Democratic primary.

PA-10: EMILYs List on Wednesday endorsed former local TV anchor Janelle Stelson ahead of the six-way April 23 Democratic primary to take on far-right Rep. Scott Perry. Only one other Democrat, however, finished 2023 with a six-figure bank account. Marine veteran Mike O'Brien led Stelson $186,000 to $140,000 in cash on hand, while former local public radio executive Blake Lynch was far back with $22,000.

Perry, for his part, had $547,000 available to defend himself. This seat, which is based in the Harrisburg and York areas, favored Donald Trump 51-47 in 2020.

TN-07: Music video producer Robby Starbuck tells The Tennessee Journal's Andy Sher that he's interested in running to replace retiring Republican Rep. Mark Green in the 7th District, though whether he can even appear on the August GOP primary ballot may not be up to him.

Starbuck campaigned for the neighboring 5th District in 2022 three years after relocating from California to Tennessee, but party leaders ruled that he was not a "bona fide" Republican because he hadn't yet voted in enough primaries in his new home state.

Starbuck unsuccessfully went to court to challenge the GOP for keeping his name off the ballot, but that move may have ended his hopes for future cycles: The state Republican Party passed new by-laws last month stating that any person who's sued the party cannot appear on a primary ballot for the ensuing decade.

Party chair Scott Golden informs Sher that GOP leaders could grant Starbuck the waiver they denied him two years ago, which would allow him to compete in the primary for the 7th District. Still, Golden added that he believed the would-be candidate's primary voting record still prevented him from meeting the regular definition of a "bona fide" Republican.

Sher also reports that state Sen. Kerry Roberts is reportedly interested in seeking the GOP nod if her colleague, Bill Powers, stays out of the race. The candidate filing deadline is April 4.

WA-05: Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner, a Republican who previously said he was considering competing for this conservative open seat, tells the Washington State Standard he is "receiving overwhelming support to run and could likely make an announcement early next week." He even listed his campaign's likely co-chairs, including Dino Rossi, who was the unsuccessful GOP nominee for competitive races for governor, the Senate, and the 8th Congressional District over the past two decades.

Mayors & County Leaders

Maricopa County, AZ Board of Supervisors: Far-right Rep. Debbie Lesko confirmed Tuesday that she would run for the seat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors held by incumbent Clint Hickman, a fellow Republican who is retiring following years of harassment from Big Lie spreaders. We took a detailed look at the elections for the five-member body that leads Arizona's largest county in our story previewing a possible Lesko bid earlier this week.

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New York Democrats rally around legislator for House special election, but a primary challenge looms

Democratic leaders in the Buffalo area voted Thursday to select New York state Sen. Tim Kennedy as their nominee in the as-yet-unscheduled special election to replace Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat who has said he'll resign in the first week of February to lead a local cultural center. But while Kennedy is on a glide path to succeed Higgins in the 26th Congressional District, which favored Joe Biden 61-37 in 2020, he's likely to face a familiar name in the June 25 primary for a full term.

Former Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray, who twice came unexpectedly close to flipping the now-defunct 27th District, announced Tuesday that he'd run for the constituency that Higgins is giving up. McMurray, who has a fraught relationship with local party insiders, acknowledged to the Buffalo News that there was little chance they'd select him as the party's standard-bearer. (There are no primaries in New York special elections.)

However, McMurray also told the paper he plans to keep campaigning through the summer primary. "Do I think it will be a quick thing? No," he said. "I think it’s going to be a fight and a struggle." The former supervisor, though, argued he felt compelled to run because of the danger Donald Trump poses to American democracy. "I think the people in Western New York know, if we have another insurrection, they’re going to want Nate McMurray in the room when it happens," he said.

McMurray also took Kennedy to task for opposing abortion rights earlier in his career. "I was pro-abortion in the middle of the reddest district in New York State," said McMurray, “but I am somehow blasphemous because I want to have open discussions and open debate about the future of the community." Kennedy made news in 2014 when he announced that his positions had "evolved," a shift that NARAL Pro-Choice New York praised as "wonderful."

Both Kennedy and McMurray have experience competing in tough races, though the former has enjoyed considerably more success. Kennedy, a longtime Higgins ally, earned an appointment to the Erie County Legislature in 2004, where he joined a bipartisan coalition that backed Republican County Executive Chris Collins. But Kennedy campaigned from the left in 2010 when he waged a primary challenge to state Sen. William Stachowski, a 28-year incumbent who opposed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage.

Kennedy won in a 63-26 landslide, but he faced a difficult general election battle against both Republican Assemblyman Jack Quinn and Stachowski, who continued to run as the nominee of the Independence Party. Kennedy, however, had the support of the Conservative Party, which usually supports Republicans (candidates in New York can accept multiple parties' nominations), and its backing helped him win a tight contest despite that year's GOP wave.

Kennedy wound up turning back Quinn 47-45, with the balance going to Stachowski. The following year, Kennedy voted for a successful bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the Empire State and said wouldn't seek the Conservative Party's nomination to avoid putting it in a "touchy situation."

Kennedy never again had to worry about a competitive general election, but he had to fight to win his primary in 2012 against Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant. Grant, whose longtime antipathy toward Kennedy was reciprocal, went after him for his old alliance with Collins, the Republican county leader. The seat, which was redrawn after the 2010 census, also was home to a large Black electorate, which was a factor in the contest between the white incumbent and his Black challenger. After Kennedy won the primary 50.3-49.7―a margin of just 156 votes―Grant soon made it clear she'd seek a rematch.

Their 2014 battle was an expensive and closely watched affair. Grant, who was close to Erie County Democratic Chair Jeremy Zellner, also had the support of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction that allowed the Republican minority to remain in control of the state Senate—an ironic state of affairs given her attacks on Kennedy for his cooperation with Collins. Kennedy, though, prevailed 60-40, and he never again faced a serious threat.

McMurray emerged on the national political scene a few years later, when he challenged Collins in 2018. The Republican, who had lost reelection as executive in 2011 to Democrat Mark Poloncarz, had bounced back the following year by unseating future Gov. Kathy Hochul in the 27th Congressional District, and he appeared secure in a seat that had favored Donald Trump 60-35 in 2016.

But Collins' grasp on New York's reddest House seat was threatened after he was accused of insider trading and grew weaker still after he was indicted just months before the 2018 election. McMurray ran a strong campaign against the scandal-tarred congressman, but Collins held on 49.1-48.7 after he ran a xenophobic campaign ad showing footage of the Democrat speaking Korean.

Collins, however, resigned the following year as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, prompting a special election in June of 2020. The GOP selected Chris Jacobs as its nominee, but despite lacking Collins' taint, he beat McMurray by an underwhelming 51-46 margin. Their November rematch, though, ended with a 60-39 victory for Jacobs as Trump was taking his district 57-41. Collins, meanwhile, soon received a pardon from Trump after serving just two months of what was supposed to be a 26-month prison sentence.

McMurray announced in January of 2023 that he'd challenge Poloncarz in that year's primary for county executive, but he dropped out the following month. The former supervisor published a series of tweets charging that "the party machine" had made "a legitimate primary (from someone like me) nearly impossible." He made it clear this week his opposition to local insiders would be a centerpiece of his newest effort.

Just over 10% of the 26th's denizens live within the boundaries of the old 27th, but the district could soon be transformed. New York's highest court recently ordered the state's bipartisan redistricting commission to draw a new congressional map, but several steps remain before a new map can be finalized. However, the special election to replace Higgins will take place under the current district lines, which were used in 2022.

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