On their third day in Washington, after their umpteenth round of interviews, seven of Texas’ Democratic legislators gathered by the window in U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s office Wednesday to get a virtual tour of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“They started hanging the banners that said ‘Trump,’ and all that, over there,” said Cuellar, another Texas Democrat, pointing to the place where the inauguration stage was built. He pointed to another side of the building. “That’s where the tear gas was coming in.”
“You were in here?” asked state Rep. Barbara Hawkins.
“I was in here,” said Cuellar.
The legislators took it all in, then walked to their next set of meetings. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had just told Fox News that they’d be “arrested” if they returned, a threat that none of them took seriously. “If we really committed a crime, he would be extraditing us,” explained state Rep. Liz Campos.
The majority of Texas’ Democratic legislators have fled the state Capitol twice this year, both times stopping the quick passage of a Republican-written package of voting changes. Republicans have punished them by cutting off their salaries, threatening their leadership positions and mocking them as hysterical sore losers who will have to explain to voters why they couldn’t show up for work.
None of this has moved the Texas Democrats, who spent the week meeting with the senators still resistant to altering or breaking the filibuster to pass voting reform bills — the only way, the Texans argue, to save their voting rights before the 2022 election. As Republican legislators have plowed past critics and protesters to pass stricter election rules, Democrats have ditched their usual worries about optics and voter backlash. It’s not clear that swing voters really care about the election changes that Republicans are passing; and it’s not clear that they’ll change their opinions of Democrats who take drastic measures against them.
“We saw how the Republicans were clearly going to fast-track the legislation in both chambers with these weekend hearings,” Rep. Chris Turner, the chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, told Post reporters this week. “We all became increasingly convinced that it was going to be time to go sooner rather than later.”
Texas’ legislation, like Arizona’s and Georgia’s, does not go as far as its initial drafters would have liked. Traditional political tactics worked to kill a provision that would end voting on Sundays, a priority for Black Democrats, and to remove language that would have made it easier for states to throw out the results of elections if there were challenges to the vote count.
But the bill’s very existence offended Texas Democrats. The House Elections Committee, led by a Republican who worked on President Trump’s legal challenges, continued to focus on limiting what the state’s most populous (and increasingly Democratic) counties could do to expand ballot access.
The logistics of leaving work and family behind in Texas were tricky. The politics were easy.
“Governor Abbott should go arrest the people responsible for the 700 Texans who froze to death,” scoffed state Rep. Richard Raymond, responding to a question about the governor’s threats by talking about this winter’s power grid failure.
There are precedents for what the Texas Democrats are doing, and not the kind that would scare them. In 2003, after Texas Republicans captured the state legislature, they redrew the congressional map that Democrats had signed off on after the standard, once-a-decade redistricting process. Texas Democrats fled to New Mexico, got a mixture of positive and what-are-they-thinking media coverage, and temporarily delayed the new Republican map. As expected, the new lines helped Republicans oust four Democrats, but in the same 2004 election, Democrats gained one state legislative seat.
Eight years later, Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats fled to Illinois rather than provide the quorum to pass a budget bill that ended most collective bargaining for public- sector unions. The bill eventually passed, after the GOP majority found a way to gavel it through. But Democrats actually then took over the state Senate in a series of special elections, losing it only after the 2012 election was held on new, Republican-drawn maps. Dramatically leaving the state did not hurt the party in the short term.
In Oregon, Republicans who repeatedly walked out to block debate on Democrats’ climate bills had roughly the same experience: Voters shrugged it off. Last year, none of the House Republicans who had walked out lost their reelection bids, and the party netted one more seat in the chamber. Cheri Helt, a moderate Republican who had skipped the walkout, lost reelection by a landslide to a Democrat who’d raised about half as much money. The hardball tactics didn’t matter; the district was moving left anyway.
From the decisions to flee state capitols, to the more violent efforts by Trump supporters to overturn the 2020 election, there’s little evidence that voters are being moved. Even the backfires have been forgotten, fast.
The GOP-backed vote audit in Arizona, which has stretched on for months longer than initially expected, is overwhelmingly supported by Republican voters; it has got about as much support in public polls as Trump did for stretches of the 2020 campaign. An audit of the vote in Windham, N.H., which Trump himself touted as a potential breakthrough for election critics, found that there was no conspiracy to rig votes. There, a machine used to fold ballots had folded them over the results of a local race, an easy error to correct. That finding, in a 121-page report, got ignored by outlets that had hyped the investigation in the first place.
Texas Democrats don’t want to audit anything. At their multiple daily meetings and news conferences, they repeat themselves: They are willing to stick around until the 30-day special session is over, or until Democrats in Congress who still support the filibuster bend and pass something that will override the bills backed by Republicans in state capitols. They might not get what they want, but the positions of Democrats, Republicans, and their voters are so fixed that they no longer worry about a backlash.
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Special elections are, by definition, flukes. No state or federal legislative seats have changed hands this year, but the vast majority of vacancies have come in uncompetitive districts, where even a swing toward one party or the other isn’t enough to engineer a flip.
The pattern held up on Tuesday, though one race, in Georgia’s 34th state House district, thrilled conservatives. Republican Devan Seabaugh, an executive at the MetroAtlanta ambulance service, demolished retired teacher Priscilla Smith, the Democrat who’d lost to the GOP incumbent last November. Both advanced to a runoff after a June 15 primary, pitting a first-time GOP candidate against a liberal activist who had protested the party’s abortion bills by showing up to legislative sessions as “Donna Trump,” a parody of the ex-president. Seabaugh won easily, increasing the GOP’s win margin from 12 points last year to 26 points this week.
“I think that the viability of our campaign was, perhaps, alarming to my opposition, and it revved them up,” Smith said in an interview. Turnout went up, but it was particularly strong among Republican partisans. Smith recalled one voter she’d met while campaigning in the primary, who saw her going door-to-door for the runoff, and told her that she’d already voted — unaware that there was a runoff at all.
Smith had tried to excite Democrats by running against the Republicans’ post-2020 voting restrictions, and her campaign knocked on 6,000 doors in the monthlong runoff period. Republicans knocked on more, and their advertising focused on conservatives who might usually skip special elections. Door-hangers urged voters to “stop the radical left’s takeover attempt,” portraying Smith next to Stacey Abrams (who had endorsed her), and promising that Seabaugh would “cancel the cancel culture movement” while also working to “ban critical race theory.” Those messages, less used during the 2020 campaign, appeared next to more typical promises to fight higher taxes.
That was an effective message, returning the district to its pre-Trump baseline. In 2012 and 2014, Democrats had not even fielded a candidate in the Cobb County district, but in 2016, Republicans won it with 64% of the vote, slightly more than Seabaugh’s total on Tuesday. The district, like the county, shifted left in 2018 and 2020; the new result, Smith said, might amount to “retrenchment” in a reliably red district. Turnout was a paltry 7,086 in the June primary, but runoff turnout jumped to 8,900; that benefited the GOP, whose vote share rose from 59% in June to 63% in July.
Republicans also did better than before in Alabama’s 73rd House district, electing Kenneth Paschal as the first Black Republican in the lower House. Just 3,663 people turned out, with Paschal winning by 50 points, up from the 38-point margin Republicans last got out of the district, slightly south of Birmingham. But Democrats improved in the night’s other race, for Wisconsin’s 37th Assembly seat, vacated by a Republican who won a special election for state Senate. In a GOP-leaning district north of Madison, Republican William Penterman won by 10 points, down from the 15-point margin for the party in last year’s election.
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— Nina Turner, “Surprised.” With early voting underway, Turner’s campaign for Ohio’s 11th Congressional District has run one ad responding to attacks on her past criticism of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and has otherwise kept portraying her as a populist inside the Democratic Party’s mainstream. Nothing in this ad would fit awkwardly in the mouth of President Biden, from the starting line about billionaires who “don’t pay taxes” to the two pledges to fight for higher wages.
— Brian Kemp, “Not Backing Down.” Three months ago, Major League Baseball announced that it would move the All-Star Game and the new MLB draft from the Atlanta area to Denver, in a protest of a Republican-backed package of voting restrictions. Ever since, Georgia Republicans have blamed Democrats for the cancellation, because some of them encouraged a business boycott to protest the new laws. (Repealing the law to bring the game back was not considered.) “Secure, accessible, and fair elections will always remain the foundation of who we are as a state,” Kemp says, attacking likely gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams for not telling the “truth” about the law, in a spot that appeared next to coverage of the actual All-Star Game in some markets.
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The second fundraising quarter of the year ended on June 30, and this is the last day for candidate and committee reports to be filed with the Federal Election Commission. We’ll have a rundown of what we learned from these numbers next week, when everything has been dropped into the database. But here are a few things to look for.
Burn rates. It takes money to make a viral candidate, and plenty are willing to spend it early so they can rake it in when it matters. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., who has a safe seat that Republicans probably will make safer, raised a bit more than $730,000 while spending around $780,000. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., raised $4.6 million after spending $1.6 million for a robust digital ad campaign announcing her Senate bid.
Refunds. Some of the most-used fundraising portals for campaigns automatically check boxes for recurring donations. Give $100 once, and if you missed the fine print, you’re giving $100 to the campaign every month. The tactic got a lot of negative attention after last quarter, and we’ll see if any behavior changed since.
Primary challengers. A few have already outraised their incumbent opponents, like liberal academic Jerry Dickinson, who got more money in the quarter than Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. — a surprise after Doyle faced Dickinson last year and raised less than expected. Just like last cycle, the left-wing group Justice Democrats is focusing on a few safe seats, and the candidates with their branding have been raking it in. We’re looking for the incumbents who woke up and started raising more money, the ones who seem to be sleeping on their potential challengers, and, on the Republican side, what has happened to the war chests for Trump’s Republican critics and their challengers.
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What I’m watching
On Monday, former South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, announced that he’d work to legalize marijuana if he wins next year’s gubernatorial election. Two days later, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., joined colleagues to unveil marijuana legalization legislation, putting the majority party’s weight behind a cause that President Biden does not support.
Biden’s opposition has confounded Democrats: Marijuana legalization is popular, approved by voters in states as red as South Dakota. Republicans, who have won every South Carolina gubernatorial race this century, blasted Cunningham’s proposal, saying that the party “stood with law enforcement” against legalization. But Cunningham thinks it’s a winning issue. He jumped on the phone to talk about that and his race against Gov. Henry McMaster, R-S.C., the likely GOP nominee.
Q: Tell us about how you came to this decision. You were still in the House after the election and voted for the decriminalization bill, so you aren’t a brand-new convert.
A: I’m running because I want to bring South Carolina out of the past and into the future, and our marijuana laws are stuck in the past. They’re impractical. They hurt more people than they help. They’re based on myths and prejudice and fear. And that’s why I believe it’s time to end the prohibition on marijuana.
There’s a lot of good things that can come from this. Legalizing marijuana would free up law enforcement. They could spend more time or resources going after violent crime, especially now when we have the highest murder rate we ever had in South Carolina. It’s also well known that someone of color is nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than someone who’s white, even though they use it at the same rate. And this could provide critical medical care to our veterans who suffer from illnesses like PTSD and others and other and other neighbors and family and friends who suffer from chronic illnesses.
Q: Have you smoked marijuana?
A: Yes, I have, but this isn’t about me. The war on marijuana is not a war we’re winning. Legalizing is going to create a lot of jobs in our states and create a lot of economic opportunities for South Carolina farmers.
Q: Well, I ask because sometimes people have their minds changed on a policy, especially on this one, by some personal experience, by interactions with police.
A: I grew up in a dry county. The counties around us were wet. And what I could see from there was that the sky didn’t fall and that the jobs were leaving us and going into surrounding areas. We see something similar with other states that have ended the prohibition on marijuana. There’s no state that has allowed for medical or recreational marijuana use and then backtracked on it. They see the opportunities.
Q: What else did you take from other states’ legalization efforts and how they implemented it? One example: Illinois has very high taxes on recreational pot, and they’re much lower in Colorado. There are places where the black market’s still pretty active because the products are cheaper on it.
A: The details are all things that we can we can hash out during the legislative process. But there’s a lot of things we can do with tax revenue in South Carolina. We think we can put that money to good use by paying our teachers more or by repairing our broken roads and bridges or even by cutting other taxes in the state. There’s a lot of good things we can do with that revenue.
Q: Are there other drugs you want to legalize and tax? I’m in D.C. right now, where we decriminalized psilocybins last year.
A: No, we’re just trying to correct the failed policy of this failed war against marijuana. My generation recognizes that it failed. And our government is not willing to admit that.
Q: I mentioned the decriminalization vote, which Democrats only held after the 2020 election. This has been a fairly popular idea for a while. Why do you think there’s still a good deal of resistance from people who generally like to vote for popular things?
A: I really don’t know. I’ve supported de-scheduling marijuana. I’ve supported cannabis banking. [Both would allow dispensaries to behave more like other legal businesses.] Our state has failed leadership right now, and we don’t have a governor who’s willing to step up and make decisions like this.