The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from Daniel Donner, David Jarman, Steve Singiser, James Lambert and David Beard.
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● NC Supreme Court: Longtime jurist Mike Morgan, one of the last two Democratic justices on North Carolina's Supreme Court, announced on Thursday that he would not seek reelection when his current eight-year term is up next year. His decision leaves open a critical seat that Democrats must defend as part of a long-term plan that represents their only realistic path toward rolling back the GOP's iron grip on state politics.
Morgan's 54-46 victory over Republican incumbent Robert Edmunds in 2016 gave Democrats control of the court for the first time since the late 1990s, putting it in a position to finally impose some curbs on GOP lawmakers. Those same lawmakers, however, reacted to Morgan's win by transforming what had previously been nonpartisan elections into partisan contests, meaning that Supreme Court candidates would be identified by their party labels on the ballot.
But that change failed to achieve the outcome Republicans wanted as Democrat Anita Earls flipped a second GOP seat in 2018. And thanks to the resignation of the Republican chief justice the following year, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was able to appoint a replacement, extending Democrats' majority to 6-1. Under Democratic leadership, the court handed down rulings in many areas that clamped down on Republican power-grabs and efforts to undermine democracy, including a critical decision just last year holding that partisan gerrymandering violated the state constitution.
That era did not last long. Republicans narrowly won two Democratic seats in 2020, including one by just 401 votes, then won two more last year by margins of 4-5 points. That string of victories returned the GOP to the majority and left Morgan and Earls as the only Democrats and only Black justices on the court. It also immediately ushered in a series of decisions that saw the Republican justices overturn multiple rulings in favor of voting rights by the previous Democratic majority, including the case outlawing gerrymandering.
As a result, Republican legislators will once again be able to draw maps that favor them in the extreme, allowing them to lock in supermajorities despite North Carolina's perennial swing-state status. And the road back to fair maps is a narrow one. North Carolina doesn't allow its citizens to pass laws or amend their constitution through ballot initiatives, and the governor lacks the power to veto redistricting plans. With federal courts closing their doors to partisan gerrymandering challenges thanks to the far-right majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, the only option is for Democrats to focus all their energies on winning back the state Supreme Court.
The road, however, is a long one. It starts with defending Morgan's seat in 2024, though if Democrats are successful, his decision not to run again would come with a silver lining: Morgan would have faced mandatory retirement at the age of 72 in 2027, less than halfway through a second term. A younger justice, by contrast, would be able to serve the full eight years.
They'll then have to ensure Earls wins reelection in 2026 (she would not hit the mandatory retirement age until 2032). After that, they'd have to win two of the three Republican seats that will be up in 2028 for a 4-3 majority. It's also critical that they elect Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein to succeed Cooper next year, since he'd be able to fill any vacancies that arise, including when Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby turns 72 in 2027. A Stein victory would also prevent Republicans from adding two seats to the court that a GOP governor could fill, a plan Republicans have been contemplating for some time.
Republicans also have more immediate designs on changing the rules to benefit themselves. A Republican bill would raise the retirement age to 76, which would allow Newby to complete his term, which otherwise would conclude at the end of 2028, and even run for reelection that year. That would also prevent Stein, should he prevail, from naming a Democrat to Newby's seat in 2027. This retirement provision is included in the GOP's recently unveiled budget, suggesting it's likely to pass before the legislature adjourns this summer.
Yet while 2028 might seem far away, it's still within reach. North Carolina Democrats had to wait 18 years, from 1998 to 2016, to regain a court majority, while progressives in Wisconsin, another similarly swingy state, at last reclaimed control of their own high court earlier this year after a 15-year drought. The horizon this time is five years off. And given the new 12-week abortion ban Republicans just passed over Cooper's veto, Democrats will be able to highlight GOP extremism on the issue, an approach that proved very effective in Wisconsin. The path is not easy, but it is navigable, and it's the one Democrats must take.
● MI-Sen: Michigan Board of Education President Pamela Pugh has filed FEC paperwork for a bid for the Democratic Senate nod. Pugh would be in for a challenging primary battle against Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Department of Defense official who earned an endorsement this week from VoteVets.
● KY-Gov: Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is launching his first TV ad campaign on Monday, and the GOP firm Medium Buying says the incumbent is putting at least $454,000 behind it. The commercial does not mention Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who won Tuesday's GOP primary, and instead focuses on a first term where Beshear acknowledges, "We've been through a lot these past four years, and some days have been tougher than others."
The governor, who is seated in a church, continues by touting his record bringing jobs to Kentucky, establishing clean drinking water "to folks who've been overlooked and underserved," and working on disaster recovery. "My granddad and great-granddad were preachers in this church," he says before informing the audience, "It was flattened by the tornadoes. But when Kentuckians get knocked down, we get right back up again and we rebuild stronger and better than before."
● LA-Gov: Republican Stephen Waguespack has launched what his team says is an opening "six-figure ad buy" for the October all-party primary less than two weeks after his super PAC allies began a $1.75 million campaign to get the first-time candidate's name out. Waguespack, who is a former head of the state's Chamber of Commerce affiliate, introduces himself as "Wags" before bemoaning the state's economic, education, and public safety struggles.
Prosecutors and Sheriffs
● Northampton County, PA District Attorney: While Democratic incumbent Terry Houck almost certainly won the Republican nomination through a write-in campaign Tuesday, local Republican Party head Glenn Geissinger is making it clear that his organization won't do anything to help the district attorney in the general election. Instead, Geissinger tells LehighValleyNews.com that he's even spoken to an unidentified Republican interested in waging their own November write-in effort to compete with the incumbent and former local Judge Stephen Baratta, who beat Houck 54-46 for the Democratic nod. Biden won this Lehigh Valley county 50-49.
● Charles Stenholm: Former Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm, a leader of the conservative "boll weevil" Democrats who lost his seat in rural West Texas in 2004 as a result of GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay's infamous gerrymander, died Wednesday at 84. The congressman, who was later a prominent Blue Dog Democrat, often frustrated his party during his 26-year career, though he always turned down GOP appeals to join their own ranks.
Stenholm, who managed his family's cotton farm and was known as the "cotton farmer from Stamford" throughout his career, first got the chance to run for office in 1978 when his fellow Democrat, Rep. Omar Burleson, retired from what was then numbered the 17th District. While today the communities contained within the borders of that sprawling constituency, which included Abilene, are some of the most Republican places in America today, Democrats back then were still the dominant faction. Jimmy Carter, according to analyst Kiernan Park-Egan, had defeated President Gerald Ford 57-43 two years before, and Stenholm's decisive win in the primary runoff set him up for an easy victory in the fall.
The new congressman was reelected without opposition in 1980 even as, per Park-Egan, Ronald Reagan triumphed 55-44 in his seat, and he quickly made himself an ally of the new administration. Stenholm was a prominent boll weevil, a faction that handed Reagan crucial victories on tax and budget bills in the Democratic-run House, and he even launched a doomed leadership challenge from the right against Speaker Tip O'Neil following Reagan's 1984 landslide. But the Texan thrived electorally during this era, and he didn't even face a single Republican foe for reelection until 1992―a campaign he won with 66%.
The incumbent experienced his first single-digit victory in 1994 when he prevailed 54-46 as the GOP was taking control of the House, a campaign that came weeks before Stenholm badly failed to unseat Michigan Rep. David Bonior as party whip, but he was still able to maintain more than enough crossover support to remain in office for another decade. Stenholm, whom Speaker Newt Gingrich unconvincingly dubbed "the most effective left-winger in Congress," experienced a closer scare in 1996 when he held on 52-47 against Republican Rudy Izzard as his constituents backed Bob Dole for president 50-39, but he won their rematch 54-45 the following cycle.
Stenholm was one of five Democrats to vote for three of the four articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton, but his area's increasing drift to the right made his political survival all the more difficult. In 2002 he secured another term 51-47 in a constituency that George W. Bush had won 72-28 two years prior (Donald Trump would have carried that version of the 17th 79-19 in 2020), a win that came the same day that Texas Republicans were taking full control of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
DeLay soon engineered a gerrymandered map that led to a faceoff between Stenholm and Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer in a new 19th District that had favored Bush 75-25 and included far more of Neugebauer's territory, but the Democrat still fought to stay in office. Stenholm, who was the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, aired ads touting his seniority and "old-fashioned values," and he argued that he could do a better job providing for his district than his opponent. Stenholm, though, struggled to win crossover support from voters who didn't know him, especially with Bush himself touting Neugebauer, and he looked doomed well before Election Day.
Stenholm ran far ahead of John Kerry, but the new 19th was so red that it was far from enough: Bush took the new 19th 78-23, while Neugebauer toppled Stenholm 58-40. The Democrat, who went on to become a lobbyist and college instructor, did express optimism weeks after his defeat that four new Blue Dogs would be joining Congress, saying, "These Blue Puppies are very impressive. They will carry on the fight."