Morning Digest: How Democrats plan to end 30 years of GOP rule in Pennsylvania’s Senate

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

PA State Senate: After winning back the state House a cycle ago, Pennsylvania Democrats are hoping to end three decades of Republican dominance over the state Senate this fall.

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star’s Kim Lyons takes a look at the battlefield for the upper chamber, where Republicans currently hold a 28-22 majority. Democrats therefore need to flip three seats to benefit from Lt. Gov. Austin Davis’ tiebreaking vote. However, an even split wouldn’t give Davis’ party complete control of the Senate because the state constitution places limits on how the lieutenant governor can resolve deadlocks.

But because only half of the Senate’s 50 seats are up every election year, a tie is likely the best Democrats can hope for in 2024. Even the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee acknowledged to Lyons, “We consider the Pa. senate one of our ‘multi-cycle’ plays.”

One reason the math is so tough is that, while Joe Biden and Donald Trump each carried exactly half of the 50 constituencies in the chamber, Trump won 13 of the 25 seats that are up in 2024. (Odd-numbered seats are on the ballot in presidential years, while legislators in even-numbered seats go before the voters in midterms.)

Two Republican-held seats that Biden won are up this cycle, while the GOP is also defending a seat that Trump only narrowly carried. However, Democrats don’t have any strong targets beyond that trio, and they also need to defend a potentially competitive open seat that went for Biden.

Democrats got some welcome news last year when Republican Sen. John DiSanto announced he would not seek reelection to his 13th District in the Harrisburg area, a constituency that, according to Dave’s Redistricting App, favored Biden 57-42. Rep. Patty Kim appears to be the favorite in the April 23 Democratic primary against pastor Alvin Taylor, while Republicans will choose between Dauphin County Treasurer Nick DiFrancesco and Army veteran Ken Stambaugh.

Republican Sen. Dan Laughlin, however, isn’t going anywhere voluntarily. His 49th District in Erie County went for Biden by a small 50-48 margin, and two Democrats are hoping to face him: county party chair Jim Wertz and Selena King, who previously worked as an aide to U.S. Sen. John Fetterman.

Finally, Republican Sen. Devlin Robinson holds what may be the toughest of the Democrats’ three targets, though Lyons notes his 37th District in suburban Pittsburgh has changed hands between the parties four times beginning in 2012. Because teacher Nicole Ruscitto has no opposition in the Democratic primary, she was able to get a head start in her general election campaign for this 50-49 Trump constituency.

Every other odd-numbered seat held by Republicans, however, favored Trump by at least a 12-point margin in 2020, so Democrats don’t have an obvious fourth target. The GOP’s list, however, is much shorter.

The only vulnerable Democratic seat that Lyons identifies is the 45th District, which is also in the Pittsburgh area. With Sen. Jim Brewster not seeking reelection in this 53-46 Biden seat, state Rep. Nick Pisciottano and community organizer Makenzie White are facing off in the Democratic primary for the right to succeed him. On the GOP side, party leaders are supporting security firm owner Jennifer Dintini over Kami Stulginskas, who badly lost a bid last year for the governing council in the borough of Munhall.

Democrats are also hoping to protect and expand their one-seat majority in the 203-member state House, which they’ve since defended during four subsequent rounds of special elections. Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso analyzed the key races to watch in February, though unlike in the upper chamber, few of them have contested primaries on either side.

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Senate

MD-Sen: Braun Research, working on behalf of Goucher College and the Baltimore Banner, gives former GOP Gov. Larry Hogan a small lead over both of his prospective Democratic foes. The poll shows Hogan edging out Rep. David Trone 43-42, while he enjoys a similar 44-40 advantage over Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.

But this survey offers both Democrats considerably better news than a Braun Research survey conducted a few weeks prior for a different set of clients, the Washington Post and the University of Maryland. Those earlier numbers placed Hogan ahead of Trone and Alsobrooks 49-37 and 50-36, respectively.

The two polls, though, have Trone ahead by a similar margin in the May 14 Democratic primary. These more recent numbers for Goucher and the Banner put the congressman’s advantage over Alsobrooks at 42-33, while the mid-March poll placed him ahead 34-27.

WI-Sen: Wealthy businessman Eric Hovde received Donald Trump’s endorsement on Tuesday evening for his campaign against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, with Trump telling his Green Bay rally, “I mean, if you lose to her, that’s not a good thing, OK?”

Trump’s backing came one day after Hovde publicized endorsements from five of the six GOP members of Wisconsin’s House delegation: The odd man out is Rep. Mike Gallagher, who will resign later this month. Hovde has no serious intra-party opposition in the August primary.

Governors

● IN-Gov: The GOP firm ARW Strategies, polling the May 7 Republican primary on behalf of Crossroads Public Affairs and IndyPolitics.org, shows Sen. Mike Braun well ahead with 33% of the vote.

The firm also finds that none of his many opponents has emerged as a main rival: Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and businessman Eric Doden are tied for second with 11% each, while former state Commerce Secretary Brad Chambers is at 10%. Disgraced former Attorney General Curtis Hill is far back with just 5%, while 30% are undecided.

House

● Arizona: Candidate filing closed Monday for Arizona’s July 30 primary, and the state has a list of contenders available here. There were no last minute-developments in any competitive congressional races, though we learned that GOP political operative Brandon Urness, who formed an exploratory committee in October to run for the open 8th District, did not file.

We’ll be taking a look at any late developments in the races for Maricopa County’s local government in a future Digest.

● AZ-07: Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva announced Tuesday that he’s been diagnosed with cancer. “This diagnosis has been difficult to process,” he wrote in a statement, “but I am confident in the vigorous course of treatment that my medical team has developed, and I’ve begun my journey to fight this cancer.” Grijalva, who is the longest-serving member of the state’s congressional delegation, filed with the state last month to seek a 12th term in the reliably blue 7th District.

● CO-04: A committee of local Democrats selected former congressional staffer Trisha Calvarese on Monday to be the party’s nominee for the June 25 special election to replace former Republican Rep. Ken Buck in Colorado’s 4th District. Calvarese will be the underdog against the GOP’s pick, former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez, in an eastern Colorado seat that Donald Trump carried 58-39 in 2020. Lopez, unlike Calvarese, is not taking part in his party’s June 25 primary for a full two-year term.

Still, Democrats are hoping that the Republican’s personal history will hold him back. Lopez’s wife accused him of domestic violence in 1993, though she later recanted the allegation. The spouses each pleaded guilty to harassment, and they remained married.

Lopez addressed the incident in a video during his first bid for governor in 2018, saying, “We were both charged, and we were both held accountable for our actions that night. But we did it together.” Lopez was later charged with drunk driving in 2003, a story that also surfaced during that campaign.

Lopez took a distant third place in that primary before losing the GOP nod for governor again in 2022. In between those bids, Lopez settled a 2020 lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that he’d improperly tried to influence his colleagues at the U.S. Small Business Administration to help a friend. The Republican, unlike Buck, is also an ardent election denier.

● IN-05: Inside Elections’ Nathan Gonzales has obtained an internal from state Rep. Chuck Goodrich that shows him trailing Rep. Victoria Spartz by just a 33-30 margin in the May 7 Republican primary. The survey, from Mark it Red, finds another 26% undecided, with the balance split between other candidates in this nine-person field.

Gonzales adds that a previously unreleased poll from the same firm gave Spartz a 47-15 edge over Goodrich in early February. The only other numbers we’ve seen came from a co/efficient internal for Spartz conducted two months ago prior to rescinding her retirement announcement, and they placed Spartz ahead 44-8.

● MD-03: The hawkish pro-Israel group AIPAC has launched an ad campaign to help state Sen. Sarah Elfreth in the busy May 14 Democratic primary, and Inside Elections’ Jacob Rubashkin says its United Democracy Project affiliate has booked at least $590,000. It’s not yet clear why AIPAC is taking sides in the contest to replace retiring Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes.

The group’s opening commercial touts Elfreth as an effective legislator who has passed bills “like affordable childcare, expanding prenatal care, and enshrining abortion rights in the Maryland state constitution.” This ad, like most of UDP’s spots, does not mention Israel.

● MO-03: Retiring Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer on Monday endorsed his longtime ally, former state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, in the August GOP primary to succeed him in Missouri’s dark red 3rd District.

Luetkemeyer also bashed the “antics” of “far right wingers” in the House earlier in an interview on Wake-Up Mid-Missouri. The Missouri Independent notes that one of Schaefer’s intra-party rivals, former state Sen. Bob Onder, was a key part of the legislature’s extremist Conservative Caucus, which has since been replaced by a group calling itself the Freedom Caucus (one of many that have recently sprung up at the state level).

Onder was also once a rival of Luetkemeyer, who defeated him in the 2008 primary for the now-defunct 9th District. According to St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum, Luetkemeyer and Schaefer “essentially campaigned as a team” that year, when both men narrowly won competitive general elections, the former for Congress and the latter for the state Senate.

● NH-02: The New Hampshire Journal’s Michael Graham wrote Sunday that “multiple sources” expect a pair of Republicans, 2022 nominee Bob Burns and businessman Bill Hamlen, to announce this week that they’re running to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster. Hamlen has not said anything publicly, but Burns recently said, “I think it’s all but a sure thing I’ll get into this race.”

Graham also mentions state Sen. Carrie Gendreau and state Rep. Joe Sweeney as possible GOP candidates, but there’s no word on their interest. On the Democratic side, Graham says that Biden administration official Maggie Goodlander’s name has “popped up.”

● SC-03: Donald Trump on Monday endorsed pastor Mark Burns, an election denier and transphobe seeking South Carolina’s open 3rd Congressional District who previously waged two failed campaigns for the neighboring 4th District. Burns celebrated by retweeting a critic who attacked the candidate for “call[ing] for EXECUTION of Lindsey Graham & Mitch McConnell.”

Burns this time is one of eight Republicans who is running in the June 11 primary to succeed retiring Rep. Jeff Duncan in the dark red 3rd District in northwestern South Carolina. A runoff would take place two weeks later if no one earns a majority in the first round.

Burns was a televangelist in 2016 when he emerged on the national scene as a prominent Trump surrogate. The pastor, who is Black, apologized after retweeting a fake picture of Hillary Clinton in blackface, saying he didn’t “have the correct information” to know it wasn’t genuine. Burns showed his contrition for the incident by posting a cartoon arguing the media was using the controversy to distract people from alleged Clinton scandals.

Burns decided to run for the 4th District in 2018 to replace retiring GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, but he struggled to attract support in a primary that saw Trump remain on the sidelines. The candidate took eighth place with less than 3% of the vote, while state Sen. William Timmons went on to win in a runoff.

While Burns didn’t play as prominent a role in the 2020 presidential election as he had four years earlier, he told attendees at a rally held in Washington, D.C. the day before Jan. 6, “We’re ready to do war!” Burns, who also said that anyone trying to stop Trump from remaining in the White House was part of “a demonic attack from the gates of Hell,” dismissed the following day’s violence as “a staged #Antifa attack.”

Burns decided to challenge Timmons for renomination in 2022, and he wasn’t deterred by Trump’s support for the incumbent. The pastor spent the days before the primary pledging to restore the House Un-American Activities Committee so that the government could “start executing people” who committed treason, and he named McConnell, Graham, and anyone who promotes “LGBTQ indoctrination” as some of the allegedly guilty parties.

“There is no such thing as trans kids, there are only abusive parents who are pushing that evil, evil sexual orientation onto their child’s mind” he told a far-right online show in comments documented by Right Wing Watch. “[A]ny teacher that is teaching that LGBT, transgenderism, furries, the groomers, any sexual orientation communication in the school system should be immediately terminated but [teachers should also] be held for abusing young children,” he added.

Timmons, who had to fend off allegations that he was absent from his job and rumors he’d used the powers of his office to conceal an extra-marital affair, held Burns off 53-24. The next year, the defeated candidate pledged to open the Burns Christian Military Academy to “instill good morals and a love for our country in our students while ensuring that they are not exposed to LGBTQ, CRT, or ‘woke’ teachings.”

Burns this time is competing in a June GOP primary that features state Rep. Stewart Jones, Air National Guard Lt. Col. Sheri Biggs, and Kevin Bishop, a longtime communications director for Graham who may have some strong views about what his rival wants to do to his former boss.

Ballot Measures

● AZ Ballot: The campaign to place an amendment safeguarding abortion rights on the November ballot announced Tuesday that it had already gathered more than the required number of signatures with three months to go before the July 3 deadline.

Arizona for Abortion Access says it’s collected about 507,000 petitions, well above the 384,000 needed under state law. However, the group also said it was still sticking with its goal of turning in 800,000 signatures to guard against any challenges.

The proposed amendment would guarantee abortion access up until fetal viability, or roughly 22 to 24 weeks. Arizona Republicans passed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy just before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, but legal uncertainty prompted most abortion clinics to shutter after the Dobbs decision, though some have since reopened. In December, the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could revive a near-total ban on abortion that dates to 1864.

Politico’s Alice Miranda Ollstein wrote last month that conservatives have been trying to stop Arizona for Abortion Access’ signature collection efforts by sending their own people to intercept would-be signers and try to talk them out of putting down their names. Ollstein added that abortion opponents have also been “tracking the locations of signature-gatherers on a private Telegram channel, filming them, interrupting their work, and calling security to get them removed from high-traffic spots around town.”

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