Morning Digest: GOP congressman announces retirement in swingy Atlanta-area House seat

Dailykos

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09 February 2019, 12:22

Georgia's 7th Congressional District Rep. Rob Woodall (R)

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

Leading Off

GA-07: On Thursday, GOP Rep. Rob Woodall announced he would not seek a sixth term in Georgia's 7th Congressional District, a diverse suburban Atlanta seat that has become very competitive turf during the last few years.

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Normally, national Republicans would be upset to lose a veteran congressman in a battleground seat, but Woodall is a special case. As we'll discuss below, the congressman ran an extremely complacent race last year against Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux and ended up winning by just 433 votes. Team Blue is likely to wage strong effort to flip this seat again, and just after Woodall made his retirement known, Bourdeaux told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she would run again.

This constituency, which is dominated by Gwinnett County to the northeast of Atlanta (82 percent of the seat is located in this county, with the balance in Forsyth County), had been reliably red territory for decades. Woodall spent years working as an aide for Rep. John Linder, who never had any trouble winning re-election during his nearly two decades in Congress. Linder retired in 2010 and Woodall, who by now was his chief of staff, ran to succeed the congressman. Woodall did face a competitive primary against conservative radio host Jody Hice, but he defeated him in the runoff by a 56-44 margin; after redistricting, Hice would join Woodall in the House by winning the new 10th District in 2014.

Woodall had no trouble winning the general election in 2010, and the following year, Republican mapmakers did all they could to make sure the 7th District remained safely red. For a time, they succeeded. The new 7th District backed Mitt Romney by a strong 60-38 margin, and national Democrats didn't make any effort to target Woodall for most of the decade. However, Donald Trump was toxic in well-educated suburban seats like this, and he only carried the seat 51-45. Woodall once again fended off a little-known Democratic foe without any effort in 2016, but that wide victory only seems to have helped lure him into a very false sense of security.

Indeed, while Democrat Jon Ossoff was making a strong effort to win the neighboring 6th District (which had also moved hard against Trump) in a 2017 special election, Woodall was very unconcerned about his own prospects. In May of that year, Woodall glibly said of his own race, "It's gerrymandering that makes these things noncompetitive, right?" Woodall never seemed to understand he was in danger even as the political climate got worse and worse for the GOP, and Bourdeaux proved to be a strong fundraiser. In late October, a survey from a bipartisan team of pollsters showed Woodall ahead, but by a shaky 49-43 margin.

However, that poll became public a few days after Woodall had released his own survey from the discredited firm McLaughlin & Associates, which gave him a 59-32 lead. The fact that Woodall was even employing the pollster that had such a bad history of high-profile misses, most notably when it gave then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor a huge lead just before he lost his 2014 primary, alone was a sign that the Georgia Republican wasn’t ready for a serious race. And sure enough, Woodall very much seemed to believe McLaughlin’s glowing numbers.

Woodall didn't run any ads for most of the campaign or even do many advertised campaign events. However, he got something of a wakeup call late in the campaign when Independence USA, a super PAC funded by former New York City mayor and gun safety advocate Michael Bloomberg, dropped $913,000 on him in the final days of the race. On the Friday before Election Day, Woodall finally went up with his first TV spot, which praised this suburban Atlanta seat's diversity and featured people saying that they supported Woodall in different languages—not exactly your typical Republican message.

Woodall did defeat Bourdeaux, but only by 433 votes. At the same time, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, despite the taint of Republican voter suppression that marred her election, still managed to narrowly win the 7th District by a 50-49 margin, another indication that the seat wasn't done moving to the left. However, Woodall didn't seem inclined to make much of an effort to defend the district in 2020, and he barely raised any cash for the remainder of last year. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that some unnamed GOP officials were pressuring him to "consider his options" for 2020, and it seems he took the message to heart and decided to call it a career.

The question for Republicans who got their wish for Woodall to retire is who steps up now. The AJC writes that a few local politicians are eyeing the contest, and they name former state Rep. Buzz Brockway; state Sen. P.K. Martin; and state Board of Education member Mike Royal, who is a former chair of the Gwinnett County GOP. They also mention a few potential candidates: U.S. Attorney B.J. Pak; state Sen. Renee Unterman; former state Rep. Scott Hilton; and former state Sen. David Shafer. So far, no one has publicly expressed interest.

On the Democratic side, we have Bourdeaux and attorney Marqus Cole, who announced he was running a few weeks ago. State Rep. Sam Park also said Thursday that he was interested, and that he would decide after the legislative session ends April 2. Park’s 2016 victory made him both the first openly gay man elected to the Georgia legislature as well as its first Asian-American member, and he would again make state history if he won a seat in Congress. The AJC also writes that state Rep. Brenda Lopez is “said to be interested.”

Senate

CO-Sen: On Thursday, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff announced that he would seek the Democratic nod to challenge GOP Sen. Cory Gardner. The only other high-profile candidate who has declared so far is former state Sen. Mike Johnston, though political observers reportedly expect another former state House speaker, Crisanta Duran, to enter the race soon. There are plenty of other Democrats who might end up challenging Gardner, who is running in a state that Clinton carried 48-43.

Romanoff represented a Denver state House seat from 2001 to 2009, and he spent the final four years of his tenure as speaker before facing term limits. In 2010, Romanoff challenged Sen. Michael Bennet, who had been appointed to the Senate the previous year, in the Democratic primary. Romanoff had the support of Bill Clinton, while Barack Obama and the DSCC backed Bennet. Ultimately, Bennet won the expensive race 54-46 and held on in November.

Romanoff ran for office again in 2014 when he challenged GOP Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado's 6th District. Both candidates raised a massive amount of money and got plenty of outside help, but the GOP wave helped Coffman pull off a wide 52-43 win. The DCCC reportedly began recruiting Romanoff for another run just weeks after his defeat, but he ended up taking over as CEO of a nonprofit called Mental Health Colorado, a post he stepped down from on Thursday as he launched his new Senate campaign.

SC-Sen: On Thursday, former South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison formed an exploratory committee for a potential bid against GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham.

House

CA-25: Former GOP Rep. Steve Knight lost re-election last year to Democrat Katie Hill by a 54-46 margin, and he recently told The Signal that he was "not gonna run in 2020." However, Knight then left himself some wiggle room, saying he'd be watching the cycle and, "If something happens that is very weird, then I might change my mind." This northern Los Angeles County seat backed Clinton 50-44.

Michigan: Former Michigan Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat who holds the record for the longest service in Congress, died Thursday at the age of 92. We’ll have much more to say about Dingell’s life, his times, and his tweets, in the next Morning Digest.

NM-02: Republican Yvette Herrell is out with a late-January poll from Strategy Group Company, and it gives her a wide 51-38 lead in a rematch against freshman Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small. Torres Small defeated Herrell 51-49 just three months ago in this southern New Mexico seat, and it seems very hard to believe that the political winds have shifted so far to the right in such a short amount of time. Trump won 50-40 here, but Torres Small's win demonstrates that Team Blue can very much compete here with a strong candidate.

We've never seen any numbers from this polling firm either, though their founder, Rex Elsass, has been active in GOP politics for a long time and worked on behalf of anti-establishment candidates like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich. That's a camp that Herrell, a former state representative who spent the months after her defeat making evidence-free claims of "voting irregularities," very much falls into.

Herrell also released a poll of a hypothetical primary, and it gives her a massive 50-7 lead over 2018 primary opponent Gavin Clarkson, who took third place last year with just 12 percent of the vote; a little while later, Clarkson got the GOP nod for secretary of state after the party's original nominee dropped out, but he got crushed in the general election by a 58-37 margin. Also included in the poll are oil businesswoman Claire Chase and businessman Chris Mathys, who drew 4 and 2 percent of the vote, respectively.

Herrell is the only one of this quartet who has announced she's running in 2018. Mathys did set up a campaign committee with the FEC this week, but he hasn't said anything publicly. Last month the Albuquerque Journal wrote that Clarkson, who had a brief and chaotic tenure at Trump's Department of the Interior, had expressed interest in another try, but there wasn't any quote from him.

This is the first we'd heard of Chase, who chairs both the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico. However, local reporter Joe Monahan recently flagged her as a potential candidate to watch. Monahan writes that Chase, who works as director of government relations for her family's oil company, could likely self-fund.

NY-11: This week, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis announced that she would challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Max Rose. Oddly, though, Malliotakis said she would still keep raising money for her state Assembly campaign, even though she legally cannot run for both offices at once. It's possible that Malliotakis is trying to keep her options open if she decides her congressional bid isn't going well and that she wants to stay in the state legislature. Trump won this seat, which contains all of Staten Island and a portion of Brooklyn, 54-44.

Malliotakis wanted to run for this seat in a 2015 special election, but she was blocked after the party leaders who were tasked with picking the GOP nominee consolidated behind Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, a move that made it impossible for Malliotakis to claim the GOP nod. Donovan won that race, but eventually lost last year to Rose last year 53-47.

Malliotakis was Team Red's 2017 nominee against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, but few gave her much of a chance to win in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. Malliotakis ended up losing 66-28, though she carried her native Staten Island 70-26. However, while Malliotakis bragged that she carried the 11th District overwhelmingly in that campaign, it's likely that de Blasio's own longtime unpopularity in Staten Island caused him to lose so badly here much more than anything Malliotakis herself did.

Malliotakis gives the GOP a credible candidate for this race, but she may not have the primary to herself. City Councilman Joe Borelli, who co-chaired Trump's 2016 campaign in New York, recently went down to Washington to talk to national Republicans about running.

Former Rep. Mike Grimm, who held this seat from 2011 until he resigned in 2015 ahead of a seven-month prison stint for tax evasion, has also been toying with another bid, and he's no Malliotakis fan. Last month, after Malliotakis set up a fundraising committee with the FEC, Grimm posted a video where he declared, "It is comical to expect Republican voters will want someone as unprincipled, unaccomplished, and underwhelming as Nicole to share the ballot with President Trump in 2020."

SC-01: The GOP firm Trafalgar Group, which said they were not polling on behalf of a client, released a survey Wednesday of the GOP primary to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham in this 53-40 Trump seat. They give 2018 nominee Katie Arrington a narrow 26-23 lead over former Rep. Mark Sanford, whom she unseated in last year's primary, while state Sen. Tom Davis is a distant third with 7 percent. In a scenario without Sanford, Arrington leads Davis 31-8. When Arrington is excluded, Sanford beats Davis 37-8.

The only notable Republican who has announced a bid so far is Beaufort County Councilman Mike Covert, though he wasn't tested in this poll. Arrington, who lost this Charleston-area seat to Cunningham in a 51-49 upset, does sound very interested in giving it another try, though. However, while there's been speculation that Sanford could try to reclaim this seat, he hasn't said much since he left office last month.

A few people whom Trafalgar tested did say they wouldn't run. Former state cabinet official Catherine Templeton, who lost the 2018 primary for governor, took her name out of contention just before this poll was released. State Rep. Peter McCoy also soon said he wasn't interested in this race.

However, others may be eyeing this contest. The local political blog First in the State reports that state Rep. Nancy Mace has met with several national donors, and not only did they like her, but she also told her supporters she was "all in." Mace, who is the first woman to ever graduate from The Citadel military academy, only scored 5 percent in this poll. However, at this very point, all that means is she likely would start the contest with little name recognition.

Team Red has a large bench in this conservative seat, which takes up much of South Carolina's coast, and we may see a crowded primary. Indeed, FITS also has a few other GOP politicians who are "being mentioned as likely candidates." They name Davis, who was Sanford's chief of staff when he was governor, as well as state Sens. Larry Grooms and Chip Campsen, state Rep. Weston Newton, Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey, former state Rep. Samuel Rivers, and businessman Teddy Turner, the son of media mogul Ted Turner.

The only member of this list who has said anything publicly is "Boom Boom" Grooms, who didn't rule out running back in November. Grooms and Turner both ran in the 2013 special election and took 12 and 8 percent of the vote in the primary, respectively (Sanford ultimately won the nod and the seat).

DCCC, NRCC: On Thursday, the DCCC launched the latest edition of its "Frontline" program, which is aimed at helping the most vulnerable Democratic House members as they head into the 2020 elections. The initial roster features 44 names—many more than usual, naturally, thanks to the party's huge success last year.

The list itself looks pretty much as you'd expect as well. It includes all but five freshmen who flipped Republican seats last year. The exceptions are Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-02), Donna Shalala (FL-27), Dean Phillips (MN-03), Chrissy Houlahan (PA-06), and Jennifer Wexton (VA-10). Of these, the most surprising omission is Kirkpatrick, though according to our House Vulnerability Index, her district is only the 38th most at-risk seat for Democrats next year.

Four of the frontline members are freshmen who held at-risk Democratic seats in 2018: Jahana Hayes (CT-05), Chris Pappas (NH-01), Susie Lee (NV-03), and Steven Horsford (NV-04). Meanwhile, there are only four non-freshmen on the list: Tom O'Halleran (AZ-01), Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Matt Cartwright (PA-08), and Conor Lamb (PA-17).

The only truly vulnerable Democrat not on the list is Colin Peterson (MN-07), but he's always been left off the Frontline program in past years, perhaps because he thinks it helps him cultivate an independent image. If Peterson wants help from the committee, he'll undoubtedly get it, as he did in 2014.

Meanwhile, the NRCC has released its first set of targets for 2020, though it's entirely unsurprising, except for the fact that, for once, it doesn't include the kind of goofy, not-in-your-wildest dreams seats that the GOP is notorious for adding to lists like these. It does include every member of Frontline (except, oddly, for Hayes), plus Kirkpatrick, Shalala, Phillips, and Wexton, as well as a number of non-freshmen in swingy districts, for a total of 55. As per usual, though, they've also added the chair of the DCCC. That's a little less silly than in the past because Cheri Bustos' district, IL-17, did at least narrowly vote for Trump.

Mayoral

Nashville, TN Mayor: On Thursday, Metro Councilor John Cooper, a brother of Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, announced that he wouldn’t challenge Mayor David Briley in this August’s nonpartisan primary. The well-connected Cooper likely would have been a strong candidate, and his absence may convince other local politicians to get in. Wealthy businessman Bill Freeman, a former state Democratic Party official who took third place in 2015, said just after Cooper made his announcement that he’d decide on a run within four or five days. Briley’s only notable declared opponent right now is state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a fellow Democrat.

Tampa, FL Mayor: On Thursday, EMILY's List endorsed former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, whom a recent poll found running far ahead of all of her opponents in the March 5 nonpartisan primary. Wealthy businessman David Straz is also out with a poll from The Kitchens Group that finds Castor well ahead, though nowhere close to taking the majority she’d need to avoid an April runoff. They give Castor the lead with 36 percent among what they categorize as “highly likely mayoral voters,” while Straz leads former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turnachik 15-10 for second place. The recent St. Pete Polls survey gave Castor the lead with 45, while Straz was a distant second with 13 percent.

Florida Politics also reports that Straz’s polling memo says that “after exposing the voters to detailed information about Castor and Straz,” Castor still leads him by a wide 47-29, which is a very odd detail to release. The reason these informed ballot questions are often included in polling releases is so that a trailing campaign can argue that, once they have the resources to get their name out, they’ll catch up or overtake their main opponent.

Instead, this survey finds that, while Straz would gain more support under this scenario, Castor still gets much closer to winning a majority of the vote. Straz has also spent $1.4 million so far, so plenty of voters already have been exposed to his message, yet his own survey finds him not doing so great.

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