Morning Digest: Republicans seek to trim Democrats’ majority in race for Pennsylvania Supreme Court

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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Leading Off

PA Supreme Court: Two Democrats and one Republican have so far announced that they'll run in next year's statewide race for a 10-year term on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which will be a high-stakes contest even though the Democratic majority on the seven-member body is not at risk. The post these candidates are running for became vacant in September when Chief Justice Max Baer died at the age of 74 just months before he was to retire because of mandatory age limits.

Baer's absence was felt just before Election Day when one Democratic justice, Kevin Dougherty, sided with his two GOP colleagues against the remaining three Democratic members in a high-profile case over whether to count mail-in ballots that arrived on time but had missing or incorrect dates. This deadlock meant that election authorities were required to "segregate and preserve any ballots contained in undated or incorrectly dated outer envelopes," a decision that Democrats feared could cost them crucial contests.

Team Blue, after scrambling to encourage any impacted voters to cast new votes (one woman even immediately flew home from Colorado at her own expense to make sure she would "not be silenced by voter suppression"), got something of a reprieve when Senate nominee John Fetterman and other Democrats pulled off decisive wins. Still, the ruling was a troubling reminder that, even with a 4-2 Democratic edge on the state's highest court, Republicans could still have their way on major cases.

Baer's seat still remains unfilled, since either outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf or his successor, fellow Democrat Josh Shapiro, would need to have his nominee confirmed by the GOP-run state Senate. It's not clear whether Republicans would assent to anyone chosen by Wolf or Shapiro, though any acceptable appointee would almost certainly be someone who agreed not to run next year.

That likely explains why two Democratic members of the Superior Court from opposite sides of the state, Beaver County's Deborah Kunselman and Philadelphia's Daniel McCaffery, have already launched campaigns ahead of the May primary. (The Superior Court is one of two intermediate appellate courts in the state and hears most appeals.) The only Republican in the running right now is Montgomery County President Judge Carolyn Carluccio. A win would be a boon to Republicans but, barring more unexpected vacancies, the soonest they could actually retake the majority would be 2025.

election calls

 CA-13: The final unresolved House race of 2022 was called Friday night for Republican agribusinessman John Duarte, who flipped this seat by defeating Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray 50.2-49.8 after an expensive battle. Biden carried this sprawling constituency in the mid-Central Valley by a 54-43 margin, but Democrats often struggle with midterm turnout in this region. Duarte, though, will almost certainly be a top target when the next presidential cycle comes around in two years.

With this race settled, Republicans will begin the 118th Congress with 222 House seats compared to 212 for Democrats. This tally includes Colorado’s 3rd District, where Democrat Adam Frisch has conceded to far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert even though an automatic recount will take place this month. The final constituency is Virginia’s safely blue 4th District, which became vacant last week following the death of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin and will be filled through a still-to-be-scheduled special election.

Georgia Runoff

GA-Sen: Two new media polls show Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock with a small lead over Republican Herschel Walker going into Tuesday's runoff. SurveyUSA, working for WXIA-TV, put the senator ahead 50-47, while SRSS' poll for CNN had Warnock up 52-48. (SRSS allowed respondents to say they were uncommitted, but almost none did.)

Redistricting

MT Redistricting: Montana's bipartisan redistricting commission gave its approval to a new map for the state House on Thursday, with the panel's tiebreaking independent member voting in favor of a proposal put forth by Democratic commissioners while the body's two Republicans voted against it. While Republicans are still all but assured of retaining control of the 100-member House, Democrats will have a strong chance of rolling back the GOP's supermajority, which currently stands at 68 seats. (An interactive version of the plan can be found on Dave's Redistricting App.)

The map isn't quite done yet, however: Members of the public will now have the chance to offer feedback, which the commission may use to make further tweaks. Once that task is complete, the panel will work on a map for the upper chamber, which will involve uniting pairs of House districts to create single Senate districts (a process known as "nesting"). The commission will then vote to send final maps to lawmakers, who will have 30 days to propose additional adjustments. Commissioners, however, are not obligated to make any revisions based on comments from legislators.

Once all of this is done, Montana will finally become the last state to finish regular redistricting this decade. It waited so long due to arcane provisions in its state constitution, a delay that very likely was unconstitutional. Despite this apparent violation of the "one person, one vote" doctrine, no one brought a lawsuit challenging these procedures prior to the 2022 elections, so they remained in place. However, in the coming decade, such a challenge could very well succeed.

Senate

FL-Sen: Retiring Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy did not rule out challenging Republican Sen. Rick Scott in 2024, telling the Orlando Sentinel, "I'm running through the tape in this job. And then I'll figure out what comes next." Murphy also used the interview to push back on the idea that her state had become unwinnable for Democrats, arguing, "Florida is not dark red. It can be a purple and blue state with the right candidates and with the right field strategy."

WV-Sen: Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said Friday he'd announce his re-election plans sometime in 2023, and that he is "not in a hurry" to make a decision.

House

NM-02: Defeated GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell sent an email to supporters shortly after she created a new FEC account where she confirmed she was considering a rematch against the Democrat who beat her, Rep.-elect Gabe Vasquez. "We know our work in Washington was not completed, and hundreds of people from all over the District and colleagues in Washington have asked me to stay in the fight," Herrell said, adding, "All options will be on the table--so stay tuned."

OR-06: A local judge on Thursday allowed Mike Erickson's lawsuit against Democratic Rep.-elect Andrea Salinas to proceed, but the Republican's legal team is hedging whether he'd try to prevent Salinas from taking office or stop at demanding hundreds of thousands in damages over what he claims was a dishonest ad.

Attorneys General and Secretaries of State

PA-AG: The Philadelphia Inquirer's Chris Brennan takes a look at what could be a crowded 2024 contest to serve as attorney general of this major swing state, a post that Democrat Josh Shapiro will hold until he resigns to become governor. Shapiro will be able to nominate a successor for the GOP-led state Senate to approve, but there's little question that the new attorney general will be someone who agrees to not run in two years.

On the Democratic side, former state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale tells Brennan that he's interested in running; DePasquale was last on the ballot in 2020 when he lost to far-right Rep. Scott Perry 53-47 in the Harrisburg-based 10th District. The paper also reports that former Philadelphia Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, Bucks County Solicitor Joe Khan, and state Rep. Jared Solomon are all thinking about it. A PAC began fundraising for Bradford-Grey all the way back in April, though she hasn't publicly committed to anything.

Finally, Brennan mentions outgoing Rep. Conor Lamb, who lost this year's Senate primary to John Fetterman, as a possibility. Lamb recently drew attention when he announced he had accepted a job at a prominent law firm in Philadelphia, which is at the opposite side of the commonwealth from his suburban Pittsburgh base, while adding, "I hope to return to public service one day, perhaps soon." Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, who is running for re-election in 2023, is also name-dropped as a possible contender.

On the Republican corner, Brennan relays that former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain being recruited to run for attorney general by unnamed people even though his last bid went very badly. McSwain initially looked like a strong candidate for governor this year before Donald Trump castigated his appointee for not doing enough to advance the Big Lie and urged Republicans not to vote for him. McSwain's main ally, conservative billionaire Jeff Yass, later urged him to drop out in order to stop QAnon ally Doug Mastriano, but he didn't listen: McSwain took a distant third with just 16%, while Shapiro went on to beat Mastriano in a landslide.

Another Republican, state Rep. Craig Williams, says he's considering even though he's focused right now on being an impeachment manager as his party tries to remove Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner from office. (Solomon will be one of the Democrats defending Krasner at his January trial before the state Senate.) Brennan also mentions as possibilities former U.S. Attorney Scott Brady; state Rep. Natalie Mihalek; York County District Attorney David Sunday; and Westmoreland County District Attorney Nicole Ziccarelli.

The attorney general became an elected office in 1980, and Republicans had an iron grip on the job until Democrat Kathleen Kane finally broke their streak in 2012. Kane resigned in disgrace four years later, but Shapiro held the seat for his party even as Donald Trump was narrowly carrying the state and prevailed again in 2020.

Legislatures

WI State Senate: Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has scheduled the special election to succeed former Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, whose resignation gives Democrats a chance to take away the GOP's new supermajority, to coincide with the April 4 statewide contest for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Evers' proclamation also makes it clear the contest for this seat, which is based in the suburbs and exurbs north of Milwaukee, will take place under the new legislative lines drawn up this year.

The new version of this seat would have backed Trump 52-47, according to Dave's Redistricting App. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson last month won the district 54-46, according to our calculations, while GOP gubernatorial nominee Tim Michels prevailed over Evers here by a smaller 52-48 spread.

The only notable candidate currently running to succeed Darling is Republican state Rep. Dan Knodl, who launched his bid on Tuesday. Prospective contenders have until Jan. 3 to file, and primaries would take place Feb. 21 if needed.

Mayors and County Leaders

Houston, TX Mayor: State Sen. John Whitmire announced all the way back in 2021 that he would compete in next fall's nonpartisan contest to succeed his fellow Democrat, termed-out Mayor Sylvester Turner, but Whitmire's Tuesday kickoff still made news for attracting a number of prominent Republican donors.

Whitmire has in his corner billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who also used the launch at the hotel he owns to attack Turner's leadership. (Paper City notes that Fertitta once hosted a fundraiser for Turner.) The state senator also has the backing of several donors whom the Houston Chronicle says funded Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer's unsuccessful attempt to oust Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last month, as well as local police unions. The kickoff was also attended by some notable local Democrats including Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who has clashed with Hidalgo, and fellow state Sen. Carol Alvarado.

Whitmire himself begins the campaign with a huge $9.5 million in his legislative account, though, the Chronicle says it's not clear how much of that he can use to run for mayor. He's been able to build up this sort of haul in part because he's had decades to fundraise. He was first elected to the state House all the way back in 1972, when Democrats were still the dominant party in Texas, and he won a promotion to the upper chamber in 1982.

Whitmire, who is the longest serving member of the state Senate, has remained a powerful figure even though he's spent most of that time in the minority. He has chaired the Criminal Justice Committee since 1993, which makes him the only Democrat to hold this sort of power. The Chronicle writes that, while he's usually supported his party's proposals, he's sided with the GOP on multiple votes against bail reform. The state senator last year also dismissed the lack of air conditioning units in jail cells by snarking, "Don't commit a crime and you can be cool at home."

The state senator, though, had no trouble winning renomination to his seat, which now takes up about a quarter of Houston, until this year when he faced a challenge from the left from nurse Molly Cook. Cook, who accused him of "running for two offices at once," lost 58-42, which was still Whitmire's closest showing since the early 1990s.

Whitmire currently faces three notable opponents in the race for the job that his former sister-in-law, Kathy Whitmire, held from 1982 to 1992. The field includes former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who attracted widespread attention in 2020 for implementing efforts to expand access to voting during the pandemic. Hollins has already called Whitmire's Democratic loyalties into question by reminding voters that he did not support Hidalgo during her competitive re-election fight.

The contest also includes former City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards, who took fifth in the 2020 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and would be the first Black woman to lead Houston. Rounding out the field is attorney Lee Kaplan, a first-time candidate who has done some self-funding. Kaplan and Edwards had about $700,000 and $720,000 on hand at the end of June, respectively, while Hollins had $940,000 to spend. All the candidates will compete on one nonpartisan ballot in November, and it would take a majority of the vote to avert a runoff the next month.

Morning Digest: Conspiracist GOP lawmaker joins Iowa Senate race without waiting on Grassley

The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, Carolyn Fiddler, and Matt Booker, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.

Leading Off

IA-Sen: While Sen. Chuck Grassley has yet to make a decision about seeking an eighth term, one fellow Republican has already announced a bid for his seat: state Sen. Jim Carlin, a pro-Trump die-hard who has baselessly claimed the 2020 election was stolen and spouted antisemitic conspiracy theories blaming wealthy Jews like Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros for the outcome.

Carlin didn't appear to address the incumbent in recent remarks discussing his run, though earlier this month, Grassley said he'd finalize his plans within "several weeks." Carlin may be hoping to push Grassley to the exits, but he doesn't seem like a particularly imposing presence: Iowa Starting Line notes he "doesn't start with much of a political infrastructure in the state."

Just last week, Carlin introduced legislation requiring that all employees of Iowa's public universities be interrogated about their political beliefs, part of a long-running conservative crusade against higher education. He's also pushing a "bathroom bill" that would target transgender people and has proposed a measure requiring that schoolchildren be taught cursive handwriting.

Campaign Action

Senate

AL-Sen: Wealthy businesswoman Lynda Blanchard, who served as Donald Trump's ambassador to Slovenia until earlier this year, says she's considering a bid for Alabama's open Senate seat. "I am deeply interested in promoting President Trump's MAGA agenda," she said in a statement, "while fighting the socialist policies of the Biden/Pelosi/Sanders/Schumer crowd."

NH-Sen: Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who previously hadn't ruled out a bid for Senate, now says he'll "take a look" at the possibility but suggested he wouldn't have an answer until he "get[s] through the legislative session maybe six, seven months from now." The current session is not scheduled to conclude until the very end of June. Sununu's indecision is therefore likely to freeze the field of other potential GOP candidates, robbing whoever does ultimately run of precious time to campaign against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.

OH-Sen: Republican Rep. Steve Stivers, who has reportedly been considering a bid for Ohio's newly open Senate seat, now confirms that he's looking at the race in a new interview. Stivers insisted he would not "rush into a decision" and said he'd likely wait "months" to decide. When asked about the possibility that Donald Trump could endorse another candidate in the primary, the congressman ever-so-slightly edged away from Trump, saying he's "not putting my faith in any one individual that could deliver this race for anybody.

Stivers' 15th District is conservative turf in the southern Columbus area. He served as chair of the NRCC during the 2017-18 election cycle, when Republicans lost control of the House.

Governors

CA-Gov: Politico reports that former Trump apparatchik Richard Grenell is interviewing staff for a possible run for governor in the event a recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom makes the ballot. Grenell himself says the report "isn't true" but did not dispute that he's considering a bid.

IL-Gov: Former state Sen. Paul Schimpf kicked off a bid for governor on Monday, making him the first notable Republican to challenge Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Schimpf served a single term in the legislature but declined to seek re-election last year without explaining why. In 2014, he ran for state attorney general but got crushed 59-38 by Democratic incumbent Lisa Madigan.

House

CT-02: Republican state Rep. Mike France has filed paperwork for a possible challenge to veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney, but he hasn't yet announced a campaign and did not respond to press inquiries. After ousting Republican Rep. Rob Simmons by just 83 votes in the 2006 Democratic wave, Courtney's never faced a difficult re-election, winning with at least 59% of the vote every time.

The 2nd District, which occupies the entirety of eastern Connecticut, normally is reliably blue turf, but in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried it just 49-46. However, according to new calculations from Daily Kos Elections, it returned to form last year, supporting Joe Biden 54-44. Simmons described himself as "excited" about France's potential candidacy, though the former congressman, who had a relatively moderate reputation during his time in office, recently went full tinfoil and blamed the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection on "antifa."

LA-02: Democratic state Sen. Troy Carter is spending at least $100,000 on a TV buy ahead of the March 20 all-party primary to succeed former Rep. Cedric Richmond. "Throughout my career I've remained laser focused on the simple ways to improve people's day to day lives," Carter says, "like guaranteeing access to COVID-19 vaccine, equal pay for women, criminal justice reform, and fighting for a living wage."

Carter continues by pledging, "In Congress, I'll have your back and I'll get things done." The candidate does not mention Richmond, though on-screen text informs the viewer that Carter has the former congressman's endorsement.

TX-06: Republican Brian Harrison, who served as chief of staff to former Trump HHS chief Alex Azar during his disastrous handling of the COVID pandemic, is reportedly considering a campaign for the late Rep. Ron Wright's vacant 6th Congressional District. Notes Politico, "In the West Wing, a handful of his detractors derisively referred to Harrison as 'the dog breeder'—a reference to the labradoodle-breeding family business that he helped run prior to joining the Trump administration." More on that here.

Judges

PA Supreme Court: Both of Pennsylvania's major parties have endorsed candidates in the May 18 primary for a key open seat on the state Supreme Court, with Democrats backing Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin and Republicans giving their support to Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson.

Judicial candidates in Pennsylvania who don't earn their party's official seal of approval often drop out, and we may yet see that happen. While PoliticsPA says that Superior Court Judge Carolyn Nichols, who is hoping to become the first Black woman to sit on the high court, intends to continue her bid for the Democratic nod, she said in a statement that she will "consider the next steps in this election," which could presage a departure.

The situation for the GOP is even more uncertain, since the party's two other hopefuls, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick and Commonwealth Court Judge Patty McCullough, both declined to comment when asked about their plans. Any questions will be resolved soon, though, since the filing deadline is March 9. Democrats currently hold a 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court but could expand it in November since this year's race is for the seat held by Republican Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75.

Mayors

St. Louis, MO Mayor: The Missouri Scout has released a survey from the GOP firm Remington Research of the March 2 nonpartisan primary, which will be the city's first experience using the "approval voting" system.

Approval voting allows voters to cast as many votes in the primary as there are candidates, and Remington finds that 59% of the sample plans to back Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. City Treasurer Tishaura Jones has the support of 51% of respondents, while a third Democrat, Alderman Cara Spencer, is in third with 40%. Just 19%, however, intend to vote for the final contender, Republican Andrew Jones. The two candidates with the most votes will face off in the April 6 general.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also reports that the pro-Spencer group Gateway to Progress is spending at least $45,000 on a TV ad praising her for "cracking down on predatory lenders, slum landlords, and City Hall insiders."