The Sweep: Biden Pushes for Voting Reform
Plus: Has Donald Trump backed another losing candidate in Alabama?
Campaign Quick Hits
Thune and RoJo Decide Retirement Is a No-Go: Republican Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin both said over the weekend that they will run for reelection in 2022. The announcements came as a relief to GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is hoping to retake the upper chamber this fall. This is good news for Republicans not only because it means two fewer open seats to defend—always more expensive and time consuming than defending an incumbent—but it is also a pretty good sign that even internally Republicans are feeling bullish about their chances of taking back the Senate. But Republicans still have to win a Democrat-held seat in New Hampshire, Georgia, Arizona, or Nevada and hold onto all of their current seats in battleground states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.
Worth the Read: Michael Kruse over at Politico had an intriguing longform piece, “Does John Katko Have the Secret to Thwarting Trump?” Not thwarting Trumpism, mind you, which isn’t so much a secret as an impossibility it would seem. But how is it that Katko—one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach the former president—may be the only one who gets reelected.
Politically, Katko is an enigma wrapped in a mystery riding on top of a unicorn:
Katko wasn’t just one of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump — he was the first to announce his intent…He was one of 13 Republicans to vote for Joe Biden’s $550 billion infrastructure bill, one of 11 to vote to censure incendiary Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of five to vote for the pro-union PRO Act and one of three to vote for additional protections for LGBTQ Americans in the Equality Act — all while also being a firm no on Democratic priorities like voting rights, abortion rights and Biden’s Build Back Better Act.
With a record like that, it's not hard to imagine that party leaders in his district are pissed. Trump is out for revenge. But the truth is that Katko represents one of the few battleground districts left in the country. Hillary Clinton won his district in 2016. Joe Biden won it in 2020. If fact, Katko “won his district by 10 points and Biden won it by nine — that 19-point swing the nation’s largest such spread.”
And that might just be Katko’s secret: He’s good at his job. But even if he has beaten the partisan odds countless times in the past, the real question for his reelection in the 2022 midterms is: How much influence will Donald Trump really have over the party faithful?
Freedom to Vote and Federalize
President Biden traveled to Georgia on Tuesday to renew (or start, depending on your perspective) the push for voting legislation, including the Freedom to Vote Act. This isn’t a newsletter on Hill happenings—though our sister newsletter, Uphill, is amazing and you should definitely subscribe to it—but it’s worth a moment here to discuss what the bill, if passed, would actually do and why Georgia is at the center of all of it.
First, Joe Biden isn’t getting the warm reception he may have hoped for when he touches down in Atlanta. “Several voting rights groups also won’t attend, after saying separately they’ll boycott the Biden-Harris trip promoting voting rights in Atlanta on Tuesday,” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, because “they feel the White House is more concerned with grand gestures than passing the legislation.” Stacey Abrams, the Democrats’ presumptive gubernatorial nominee in the state, isn’t going to be there, citing a scheduling conflict. (Scheduling conflicts in campaign speak mean “go schedule a speech to the Kiwanis ASAP because that dude’s got a lower approval rating than a root canal.”) And even senior Democrats are annoyed, “questioning why Biden is visiting Georgia rather than working in Washington to break the logjam.”
So why did he go? Georgia is going to be the epicenter of the 2022 midterms—a Senate race and a gubernatorial race in a red state that Joe Biden won. Perhaps the White House is willing to face some bad headlines now because it knows Biden won’t be there again between now and November but it wants to head off the October headline, “Joe Biden is so unpopular he stayed away from Georgia all year.” Or perhaps he just wants to see what it looks like when an entire state has a hangover.
But let’s also touch on the substance. Democrats have said the bill is necessary to protect and expand the right to vote against the backdrop of GOP voter suppression efforts at the state level; Republicans say it’s a grab bag of progressive talking points that will undermine election security. From my perspective, neither side quite has a handle on it.
But the purpose of the bill, as I read it, is to federalize our elections.
Any campaign operative will tell you that we currently have 50 different elections in the country. It was my job on the Romney campaign in 2008 to create an election law binder for every state as a reference for our legal team that would include everything from voting hours, triggers for automatic recounts, to which court to file for an injunction. And every binder was different.
This legislation would standardize a whole bunch of election stuff—early voting, no-excuse mail/absentee voting, automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration. On the one hand, it’s kind of incredible that we don’t have any standardized election rules on this stuff set at the federal level. On the other hand, we don’t have standardized criminal codes either—manslaughter is whatever your state says it is and the punishment is however long your state thinks it should be.
And what’s the problem we’re trying to solve? As I mentioned a few months back, “academic research shows that voter ID laws have little to no effect on turnout” and that “one nationwide study found that expansions of absentee voting in some states in last year’s election didn’t alter turnout.”
My point is that the continuing need for federalism may be in the eye of the beholder at this point. Republicans are going to take the side of federalism in this era because they control more state governments and because their voters are more spread out. But it’s unclear if anyone is really on the side of federalism as a guiding principle anymore.
I asked Audrey to take a closer look at this Alabama race that has a lot of people—including me—scratching their heads. Could Donald Trump really have backed a losing candidate again in Alabama?
Mo Brooks’ Senate Campaign Loses Steam
For most members of Congress, last Thursday was remembered as the one-year anniversary of the Capitol riot. But for Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, January 6, 2022, was a day of reckoning of a very different sort, marking one year since he delivered arguably the most controversial speech of his decades-long congressional career.
“America does not need, and cannot stand, cannot tolerate, any more weakling, cowering, wimpy Republican congressmen and senators who covet the power and the prestige the swamp has to offer while groveling at the feet and the knees of the special interest group masters,” Brooks told a crowd of Save America March attendees on the morning of January 6 in a speech teasing his forthcoming bid for U.S Senate in Alabama. “Today is the day American patriots start takin’ down names and kickin’ ass.”
Just hours later, Brooks joined the majority of his Republican colleagues in voting to decertify the Electoral College results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Brooks was widely criticized by House Democrats for the speech he delivered that day, and was even sued by one of his colleagues, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, who alleged that Brooks’ speech incited the Capitol riot. But even with the benefit of hindsight, Brooks remembers the speech fondly. “It was a great rally speech,” Brooks told The Dispatch in May.
From Brooks’ perspective, the speech likely helped him curry favor with the former president, who endorsed his U.S. Senate campaign just weeks after he announced in March 2021. All seemed well and good between the two until August, when during a rally featuring the former president, Brooks was booed by a crowd of supporters for suggesting that Republicans should stop obsessing over the 2020 election. “Put that behind you,” he said, before a chorus of jeers reportedly prompted an awkward about-face from the congressman. “All right, we’ll look back at it, but go forward and take advantage of it.”
Brooks’ slip-up was made worse by a CNN report from last month alleging that backstage during that same August rally, Trump ran into Brooks’ biggest primary competition, Republican candidate Katie Britt—former chief of staff to retiring GOP Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby—and her husband, Wesley Britt, a former NFL player for the New England Patriots. Per CNN, Trump left the encounter “newly impressed” with Britt, whose campaign aide later confirmed the encounter to The Dispatch.
Per CNN, another concern for the former president is the fact that Britt is crushing Brooks in the fundraising department, ending the third quarter of 2021 with $3.3 million in cash on hand compared with Brooks’ $1.1 million. “He keeps getting reports from people who say Katie is making headway and all that is adding to the irritation,” a source close to Trump told CNN, who added that the former president “doesn’t like to lose or for people to think that he’s losing.”
And Trump has picked the wrong horse before in Alabama. In 2017, he endorsed Luther Strange, who had been appointed to the Senate seat, over Brooks and Roy Moore in the special election to replace outgoing GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions. Moore won the nomination but lost the reliably red seat to Democrat Doug Jones in the general election.
That said, Trump carried 62 percent of the vote in 2020 and Donald Trump says—at least for now—that Brooks is his guy. But the Britt folks aren’t letting up the pressure.
“Congressman Brooks has a record of attacking Donald Trump and the people of Alabama aren’t going to forget that,” a Britt campaign aide told The Dispatch in an interview, recalling Brooks’ criticisms of Trump in 2017 over the former president’s embattled relationship with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, during the Russia probe. “The [former] president’s extremely popular here in Alabama. Brooks just isn’t, and I think they're able to recognize that he is the consummate career politician.”
The Brooks campaign has responded to attacks by insisting that Britt is a pawn of the D.C. Republican establishment. “Katie Britt is a Washington DC lobbyist—that’s why the DC insiders and swamp creatures are desperate to get her elected,” Brooks campaign chairman Stan McDonald told The Dispatch in a statement. “Her only base is the insiders and RINOs that undercut President Trump for 4 years,” McDonald added, using an acronym for the phrase “Republicans in name only.”
Britt certainly isn’t campaigning as a moderate. She’s called for a full forensic audit of the 2020 presidential election and says in her campaign launch video that “the leftists” in Washington are advancing a “socialist agenda.” But her campaign style is admittedly less bombastic than Brooks,’ and as the former president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, she may have an easier time than Brooks—not to mention the other two declared candidates, “Black Hawk Down” pilot Mike Durant and businesswoman Jessica Taylor—in courting one of the most important Republican voting blocs in the state: business conservatives.
“With states in the South like Alabama, people assume that they’ll just elect Republicans like [Marjorie Taylor Greene], people who are way out there,” said J. Miles Coleman, an elections analyst at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Well in a lot of those states like Alabama, Mississippi, my home state of Louisiana — you still have that kind of Chamber of Commerce, business constituency who vote in Republican primaries, donate to Republican candidates. I think someone like Mo Brooks would make those people very nervous.”
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two contenders will proceed to a runoff in June.
“It may be one of those cases where perhaps Trump endorsed too early,” Coleman said, adding that Brooks may struggle to appeal to voters beyond his hometown of Huntsville ahead of this year’s GOP primary scheduled for May 24. “If Trump ends up losing some endorsements this year, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if one of them is Mo Brooks.”