Morning Digest: Ohio’s GOP senator backs House candidate who led party to 2022 disaster

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

OH-09: While national Republicans want former state Rep. Craig Riedel to be their nominee against Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, several prominent Ohio Republicans have now either retracted their support or endorsed the party’s disastrous 2022 nominee, JR Majewski.

  • Trump’s “bro” leads the charge. Rep. Max Miller, who represents the 7th District, dropped Riedel Friday after far-right personality Charlie Kirk shared audio of Riedel ostensibly trashing Donald Trump.
  • The stampede continues. Riedel argued that a “social media trickster” was trying to damage him, but those comments didn’t stop Sen. J.D. Vance from backing Majewski on Monday.
  • A “proven loser.” The Republicans charged with actually beating Kaptur, however, remain convinced that, despite this debacle, Riedel remains their man.

Check out more on how this March primary took such a sudden turn―as well as why so many Republicans still dread the idea of having Majewski as their nominee again, in our new post.

Senate

IN-Sen: Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita said Friday he’d appeal a state judge’s decision blocking a law that would have prevented wealthy egg farmer John Rust from appearing on the May GOP primary ballot for Senate.

NJ-Sen: Former News 12 reporter Alex Zdan tells the New Jersey Globe he’s considering seeking the GOP nod for the seat held by indicted Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. Zdan, the site says, covered Menendez’s first corruption trial in 2017 and hosted the station’s weekly politics show, but he was one of many employees that News 12 laid off in October.

Governors

NJ-Gov: Former New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney on Monday launched his long-anticipated campaign to replace his fellow Democrat, termed-out Gov. Phil Murphy, in 2025.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who entered the primary back in April, responded to the news by telling the Associated Press that Sweeney is a “conservative” who was “very, very close” to Chris Christie when the Republican was governor. Sweeney’s intraparty critics also remember how he lost reelection to the legislature in a 2021 shocker against Republican Edward Durr, a truck driver who spent all of $153 on his campaign.

Sweeney, who got his start as an ironworker and a union leader, is a childhood friend and close ally of South Jersey party boss George Norcross. To say Norcross was an important power player in the region would be an understatement: Steve Kornacki wrote in Politico in 2011, “It’s not written down anywhere, but it’s acknowledged by everyone (privately, of course): You don’t run for office as a Democrat in South Jersey unless George is OK with it—and you don’t win in the fall without him.” In 2009, Norcross went on to play a key role in helping Sweeney oust Richard Codey, who served as governor for 14 months from 2004 to 2006, as leader of the state Senate.

Sweeney and Christie had what on the surface looked like a terrible relationship, with the Senate president calling him a “rotten prick” in 2011. “I wanted to punch him in the head,” Sweeney went on. “You know who he reminds me of? Mr. Potter from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the mean old bastard who screws everybody.”

However, as Kornacki highlighted that year, Sweeney made these comments after he’d helped Christie pass legislation that “radically scaled back healthcare and pension benefits for state, county and municipal employees and banned collective bargaining for at least the next four years.” The Senate president, Kornacki said, wanted to run for statewide office at some point in the future, and he couldn’t afford for Democratic activists to view him as a Christie enabler.

Sweeney also said in 2011 that his biggest regret in office was opposing same-sex marriage in 2009. “It was like real-time contrition,” Kornacki wrote, “as if Sweeney realized that his problems with the base were starting to add up and had decided to course-correct on the spot.”

Both Sweeney and Fulop planned to run to succeed the termed-out Christie in 2017, but their calculations changed after Murphy, a wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive, earned several influential endorsements. Fulop first announced in the fall of 2016 that he’d stay out of the race, and Sweeney acknowledged weeks later that Murphy “has been able to secure substantial support from Democratic and community leaders that would make my bid all but impossible.”

Sweeney instead ran for reelection in 2017, but he remained on the outs with one major progressive organization. The New Jersey Education Association took the unusual step of backing his Republican opponent, though that didn’t stop the incumbent from winning a very expensive campaign 59-41.

Sweeney and the new governor had a difficult relationship from the start, with Politico reporting just after the election that, after Murphy appointed one of Sweeney’s political foes to a spot on his very large transition team, the Senate leader “expressed his displeasure directly to Murphy in language befitting a New Jersey politician.”

The outlet soon published a story saying that Sweeney’s opposition to tax increases made him a major obstacle to passing Murphy’s agenda. However, the two were able to reach a consensus on legislation to expand family leave and raise the minimum wage to $15, laws Sweeney highlighted in his kickoff video on Monday.

Sweeney was on the ballot again in 2021 in a seat that Donald Trump had carried 50-48 the previous year, though he didn’t seem to be in any danger until election night. But Durr’s 52-48 victory, which came on the same night that Murphy was only narrowly winning reelection against former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, represented perhaps the most dramatic loss for the Norcross machine ever, and it led only to questions about whether the party boss’ reign was over.

However, while Norcross announced in May that it was “time for others to lead the party,” he’s hardly a spent force. Indeed, the New Jersey Globe responded to Democratic victories in last month’s legislative races, including former Assemblyman John Burzichelli’s victory over Durr, by writing that Norcross had “re-established his hold over the core of his South Jersey domain and will get a larger legislative footprint this year.” That’s a very welcome development for Sweeney, who will need strong support in South Jersey to win the primary in 2025.

Fulop and Sweeney, however, are unlikely to have the contest to themselves. The Globe writes that Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill “are moving towards gubernatorial runs,” and it also lists as possible contenders:

  • Newark Mayor Ras Baraka
  • State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin
  • Former Deputy U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jim Johnson
  • State Sen. Paul Sarlo
  • State Senate President Nicholas Scutari
  • Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller

On the GOP side, Ciattarelli announced he was in just days after he lost the 2021 general election to Murphy by a surprisingly narrow 51-48 spread. State Sen. Jon Bramnick is publicly considering joining him, while far-right radio host Bill Spadea is another possible candidate. More Republicans could also decide to run in what’s usually a reliably blue state.

House

AZ-08: Donald Trump on Friday endorsed Abe Hamadeh, a fellow election denier who was the party’s 2022 nominee for attorney general, in the packed August Republican primary for this conservative open seat. Trump last cycle also backed Hamadeh, who called the 2020 election “rotten, rigged, and corrupt,” in the primary to serve as Arizona’s top law lawyer. Hamadeh, characteristically, has contested his 280-vote defeat against Democrat Kris Mayes.

California: Candidate filing closed Friday in California for the March 5 top-two primary, though it was automatically extended to Wednesday in any U.S. House or state legislative districts where an incumbent chose not to seek reelection. (This extension does not apply to legislative races where the incumbent was termed out.)

The state does not currently have a central list of contenders, and several country election sites have not yet updated to make it clear who did or didn’t file. We’ll be running down the list of candidates who are competing in each competitive contest in a future Digest.

CA-16: Former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo declared Friday that he was joining the busy race to replace his fellow Democrat, retiring Rep. Anna Eshoo, in this safely blue Silicon Valley seat. Just under 40% of the district’s denizens live in San Jose, though San Jose Inside says that Liccardo himself resides “about 10 blocks east” of the 16th District.

Municipal elections in the city that calls itself “The Capital of Silicon Valley” tend to pit business-aligned politicians against candidates closer to unions, and Liccardo falls into the former camp. The city councilman won the 2014 mayor race by beating a labor-backed opponent, then-Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, 51-49, and he won reelection four years later without any trouble. The termed-out Liccardo last year supported a like-minded ally, City Councilman Matt Mahan, in an upset victory against Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

CA-20: Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong declared Monday that he’d changed his mind and would now run in the top-two primary to replace outgoing Rep. Kevin McCarthy, but his reversal may come with a big headache attached to it. That’s because Fong, who previously served as McCarthy’s district director, filed to seek reelection to the legislature last week.

Analyst Rob Pyers notes that, not only does the state bar candidates from appearing on the same ballot for both the legislature and Congress, “it’s nearly impossible to remove your name from the ballot after qualification.” The Bee’s Gillian Brassil writes that the paper “asked the California Secretary of State’s office how easily he could withdraw from the Assembly race and is awaiting a response.”

Fong made his announcement shortly after his fellow Republican, state Sen. Shannon Grove, said she wouldn’t campaign to replace McCarthy in this safely red seat. However, former state Sen. Andy Vidak said over the weekend that he was thinking about it, while the San Joaquin Valley Sun relays that Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux is considering. The deadline to seek a full two-year term is Wednesday.

CA-31: Former Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros has unveiled an endorsement from 47th District Rep. Katie Porter, a Senate candidate who represents a seat a few constituencies to the south. Porter and Cisneros were both elected in the 2018 blue wave by flipping neighboring Orange County-based districts, but only Porter won reelection two years later. Cisneros, who went on to serve in the Department of Defense after losing to Republican Young Kim, is now campaigning for an open and safely blue seat in Los Angeles County’s eastern San Gabriel Valley.

GA Redistricting: Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has signed the GOP’s new congressional and legislative maps after a federal court struck down the previous districts for violating the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Black voters. However, as we recently explained in detail, some of the GOP’s new districts may run afoul of the court’s ruling. The new maps won’t go into effect until the court weighs in on whether they are legal, and it will hold a Dec. 20 hearing on the likely objections to the new districts.

MD-03: Del. Vanessa Atterbeary exited the busy Democratic primary to replace retiring Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes over the weekend, telling Maryland Matters that she’s decided to remain in the legislature.

MI-07: House Speaker Mike Johnson has endorsed former state Sen. Tom Barrett, who faces no major opposition in the Republican primary in his second campaign for this swing seat. Barrett had previously been endorsed by Johnson’s predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, just days before McCarthy was ousted from the speakership.

NC-10: Republican state Rep. Grey Mills has announced he will run to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry next year in this newly gerrymandered seat that includes rural parts of the western Piedmont region along with most of Winston-Salem. Mills joins a primary that includes firearms manufacturer Pat Harrigan, who was the GOP nominee in the old 14th District last year.

Meanwhile, GOP state Rep. Jason Saine declared he wouldn’t run after indicating that he was considering it last week.

NY-26: Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Sunday that he wouldn’t campaign in the as-of-yet unscheduled special election to replace Rep. Brian Higgins, a fellow Democrat who will resign in the first week of February to lead Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo. The only declared Democratic candidate is state Sen. Tim Kennedy, though Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has shown interest in getting in.

TX-18: On Monday, longtime Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee announced she will seek reelection next year, which comes after she lost Saturday’s nonpartisan runoff for Houston mayor by a wide 64-36 margin to Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire.

Just hours later, aerospace industry consultant Isaiah Martin declared he was ending his House campaign and endorsing Jackson Lee, whom he had previously praised as a mentor. However, former Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards once again made it clear she’d continue her campaign.

WA-06: State Sen. Drew MacEwen on Monday became the first notable Republican to join the August top-two primary to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer. This constituency, which is based in the Olympic Peninsula and Tacoma, supported Joe Biden by a wide 57-40, though Democrats will need to be on guard to make sure two Republicans don’t advance to the general election.

Attorneys General

UT-AG: Republican incumbent Sean Reyes announced Friday that he would not seek reelection, a move that made him Utah’s third attorney general in a row to leave office because of scandal.

Reyes himself acknowledged in a 10-minute video that the sexual abuse allegations leveled at his old ally, conservative activist Tim Ballard, “weighed into” his calculations. The Salt Lake Tribune also previously reported on the attorney general’s “donor-funded trips to international and American resorts, how Reyes exaggerated the relationships of his nonprofit, and accusations in civil court that he intimidated Ballard’s critics.”

Reyes was appointed to his post in 2013 by then-Gov. Gary Herbert after John Swallow, who himself had been elected the previous year to succeed Mark Shurtleff, resigned. Both former attorneys general were arrested on corruption charges in 2014: However, state prosecutors dropped the charges against Shurtleff in 2016, and Swallow was acquitted in court the following year. The latter tried to retake this post from Reyes in 2020, but his campaign ended after he failed to gain enough support at the party convention to make the primary ballot.

P.S. The last Utah attorney general to not leave office under a cloud of scandal was Jan Graham, whose 1996 reelection victory made her the last Democrat to win statewide office.

Legislatures

CA State Senate, Where Are They Now?: Former Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney unexpectedly announced Friday that he would run for an open seat in the state Senate, a declaration that comes one cycle after he retired from Congress. The open seat McNerney is seeking, the Stockton-based 5th Senate District, favored Joe Biden 59-39, and he’ll be going up against Democratic Assemblyman Carlos Villapudua in the March 5 top-two primary: Politico’s Jeremy White describes  Villapudua as “one of the most moderate Democrats” in the lower chamber.

Until last week, a different set of candidates was campaigning to succeed termed-out Democratic state Sen. Susan Eggman. The state party last month endorsed Rhodesia Ransom, who works as a staffer to local Rep. Josh Harder, over Edith Villapudua, the wife of Carlos Villapudua. However, the assemblyman unexpectedly announced Tuesday that he would run for the upper chamber, while Edith Villapudua said she’d campaign for his now-open seat in the Assembly. Ransom went on to declare Sunday that she’d also switch to the Assembly race.

P.S. McNerney isn’t the only former member of the U.S. House who is running for a spot in the California legislature. Republican George Radanovich, who retired from Congress in the 2010 cycle after eight terms representing the Central Valley, is campaigning for a conservative open seat in the Assembly. Radanovich ran for the state Senate last year, but he narrowly took third in the top-two primary behind two Democrats.

TN Redistricting: Tennessee’s Supreme Court, which is entirely GOP-appointed, has put a lower court ruling on hold that had recently struck down some state Senate districts, pending the outcome of the GOP’s appeal. However, the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ request to expedite the appeals process, likely ensuring that the GOP’s gerrymander will remain in use next year. In April 2022, the high court reversed a similar lower court ruling that had temporarily blocked the map, holding that it was too close to the election to make changes, and this latest delay could let Republicans use the map for two of the decade’s five elections even if it’s ultimately found unconstitutional.

At issue is how Tennessee’s constitution requires that state Senate districts in the same county be numbered consecutively so that counties with multiple districts don’t go four years between elections, since even-numbered districts are only up in presidential years while odd-numbered seats have elections in midterms. Yet in Nashville’s Davidson County, the GOP’s map numbered the districts as the 17th, 19th, 20th, and 21st. The state House map is also being challenged for having split counties too many ways, but the plaintiff is appealing over that map after the lower court upheld the districts.

Obituaries

Julian Carroll: Former Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll, a Democrat who led the state from 1974 to 1979 and went on to serve in the state Senate from 2005 until 2021, died Sunday at the age of 92. Check out the Kentucky Lantern’s obituary for a look at his long and turbulent career, including why he listed “dealing with the FBI” as the biggest letdown of his governorship.

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