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Decision 2020: 14 Southern U.S. Senate seats on November ballot, with 4 possible flips

Races in North Carolina, Alabama on national radar; Lindsey Graham faces stiff challenge in South Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Fourteen Southern U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot in November, putting half of the South’s seats in play with control of the chamber very much up for grabs.

Of these seats, one presents a likely pickup opportunity for Republicans, while three Republican incumbents are facing stiff challenges. Three other seats are somewhat competitive but with incumbents still favored, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s race in Kentucky.

Five senators — four Republicans and one Democrat — are cruising toward re-election, with Republicans also likely to keep an open seat in Tennessee. A special election in Georgia with candidates from both parties running in the same race is a wild card that will be difficult to predict — and could potentially decide which part controls the Senate when the dust clears.

Here is your guide to the 2020 Southern Senate races.

Possible Flips

1. Alabama: U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D) vs. Tommy Tuberville (R)

Jones has had a target on his back since he won a special election in 2017 over Republican Roy Moore, whose candidacy imploded in a sex scandal. Jones was the first Democrat elected to a Senate seat in the Yellowhammer State since 1992; his vote to convict President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial has put his continued tenure in jeopardy. Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University, is making his political debut, impressively taking out a field of prominent Republicans in the primary, including Jeff Sessions, who held this seat for 20 years before leaving to join the Trump administration. If Jones somehow manages to hang on, it will be perhaps the biggest surprise on election night.

2. North Carolina: U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R) vs.  Cal Cunningham (D)

Cunningham, an attorney who served a single term in the legislature 20 years ago and made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2010, was recruited by Democratic leaders in Washington to run against Tillis, who is seeking a second term after ousting former Democratic Senator Kay Hagin in 2014. This seat was once held by Jesse Helms, and no one has managed to win a second term since he gave it up in 2002. Cunningham has raised $15 million, slightly more than Tillis, and has led consistently in polls. The outcome of the presidential race in this battleground state may be key here. If Donald Trump wins, Tillis is likely to keep his seat as well; if he doesn’t, Cunningham will be in the driver’s seat.

3. South Carolina: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R) vs. Jaime Harrison (D)

Over the past four years, Graham has become one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, after spending much of the 2016 campaign trashing him. That about-face spared him from the kind of primary challenge he had to beat back in 2014, but Harrison, a former state Democratic party chair, is hoping Graham’s association with the president will turn off enough Palmetto State voters to put him over the top. Harrison has raised a staggering $30 million — an unheard of sum for a Democrat in South Carolina — to stay even with the incumbent in the money chase. While polling shows the race is competitive, Trump is expected to carry the state, and the universe of Trump-Harrison voters may be too small to flip this seat.

4. Georgia: U.S Senator David Perdue (R) vs. Jon Ossoff (D)

It’s been a long time since Georgia has been competitive in a presidential or senatorial contest, but polling has shown Ossoff within striking distance of Perdue, who is seeking a second term. Ossoff built a national profile by raising more than $30 million for a special U.S. House election in 2017 that he narrowly lost. He hasn’t raised anywhere near that kind of money this time around, and Perdue enjoys a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage. Democrats insist that the Peach State’s changing demographics and an influx of newly energized, newly registered Democratic voters will lead to victory for Ossoff and Democratic nominee Joe Biden; Republicans scoff at such a scenario as delusional. If Biden makes a serious play for Georgia, it could help Ossoff; if Biden wins, Perdue will need to run ahead of Trump to survive.

Less Competitive

1. Texas: U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R) vs. MJ Hegar (D)

Democrats had high hopes for flipping this seat, particularly after Beto O’Rourke nearly took out Ted Cruz in 2018. But O’Rourke passed on the Senate race to make a quixotic bid for president, and Hegar, a former military chopper pilot and Afghan war veteran who lost a House race in 2018, had to spend time and money fighting her way through a primary runoff. Cornyn entered the fall campaign with the benefit of incumbency and a huge financial advantage, in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. This could turn out to be a might-have-been race for Democrats — what might have been if O’Rouke had run instead.

2. Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) vs. Amy McGrath (D)

Democratic leaders recruited McGrath for this race, enthused by her prodigious fundraising during an unsuccessful House race in 2018. But running against McConnell in Kentucky is a tall order, and she has not always seemed up to the task. Her campaign had an unsteady launch when she flipped positions on confirming Brett Kavanaugh, and she very nearly lost the Democratic primary after mishandling her response to racial justice protests that have roiled Louisville. After an uneven campaign, she decided change campaign managers in August, which is never a good sign. There’s a reason Mitch McConnell has been a senator since 1985 — he is perhaps the wiliest politician of his generation. His tenure in Washington seems likely to endure.

3. Mississippi: U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) vs. former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D)

This race is a rematch of 2018, when Hyde-Smith beat Espy by 8 points in a special election runoff, running nearly 10 points behind what Trump did in 2016. Espy was encouraged enough by his showing to try to take her down again, hoping that the energy unleashed by social justice protests will galvanize black voters, who make up 37percent of the state’s electorate, the highest percentage in the country. However, if he couldn’t beat Hyde-Smith in a lower turnout midterm election, beating her with the presidential election on the ballot, in a very pro-Trump state, is likely to be a tall order.

Wild Card

Georgia: U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R) vs. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R), Raphael Warnock (D) and Matt Lieberman (D)

In this special election to fill the seat vacated by Johnny Isakson, candidates from all parties run in the same race, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a December runoff. Loeffler is trying to keep this seat after being appointed to the post by Gov. Brian Kemp, who opted to pick the political newcomer instead of Collins, one of Trump’s biggest champions in the House. Collins defied the governor to run against Loeffler, splitting Peach State Republicans into two camps.

On the Democratic side, Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has drawn support from the party establishment who see him as the best option to win the seat. But Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, has resisted pressure to leave the race in favor of Warnock, and polls have shown him remaining competitive. If Warnock and Lieberman split the Democratic vote, it could clear the way for both Loeffler and Collins to meet in an all-GOP second round. If one Republican and one Democrat get through, the outcome of the race is likely to depend on who those two candidates are.

Shoo-Ins

Arkansas: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R) faces no Democratic competition after the lone Democrat who qualified abruptly left the race. The only person standing between Cotton and re-election is Libertarian Ricky Harrington.

Tennessee: Republican Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, has a much easier path to Washington after the Democrat recruited and financed by party leaders to challenge for the seat lost his primary. He will now face Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist from Memphis who harnessed grassroots support to win the primary.

West Virginia: U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) is not expected to have much trouble against Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist who gained national exposure when her 2018 race against the state’s other U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, was featured in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down The House.”

Oklahoma: If U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R), as expected, wins a fifth full term over Democrat Abby Broyles, he will be 92 when this term ends in 2026. Broyles, a former TV reporter in Oklahoma City, has run a spirited campaign in which she’s needled the senator for refusing to debate her.

Virginia: Giving the Old Dominion’s increasingly Democratic tilt, U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D) is a clear favorite over Republican Daniel Gade, a former Army officer who was wounded in Iraq and now teaches at American University in Washington.

Louisiana: U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R) is competing in a jungle primary in November and will face a runoff in December if he doesn’t clear 50%. He avoided any major Republican opposition; the biggest Democratic name in the race is Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins.

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U.S. Senate: Sessions, Tuberville advance to Alabama runoff, with Trump front and center

Texas Democrat MJ Hegar makes runoff; Cal Cunningham wins Democratic nod in North Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

BIRMINGHAM (CFP) — Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville topped the field in Alabama’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, setting up an March 31 runoff with the man who gave up the seat in 2017 to serve as President Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

And Trump, who opted not to endorse anyone in the first round of voting, was quick to demonstrate that he still carries a grudge against Sessions with a post-primary tweet attributing his second-place showing to a lack of loyalty: “This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt.

Meanwhile in Texas, Democrats will decide a May 26 U.S. Senate runoff between the pick of the Democratic Senate establishment, MJ Hegar, and State Senator Royce West from Dallas. The winner of the runoff will take on Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn in November.

And in North Carolina, Cal Cunningham, a Raleigh attorney and former state senator, easily won the Democratic nomination to take on Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, turning back a challenger who had been aided with more than $2 million in ads from a Republican-affiliated PAC.

Sessions and Tuberville declare victory (From WSFA, Fox 10)

In Alabama, where Republicans have high hopes of defeating Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones in November, Tuberville — making his first run for political office — won 33 percent to 31 percent for Sessions. U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who gave up his House seat to make the Senate race, finished third at 26 percent.

Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who lost to Jones in a special election in 2017 amid allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with underage girls, won just 7 percent. Moore has denied the allegations.

In their election night speeches, both Sessions and Tuberville made it clear that fealty to Trump will be front and center in the runoff race.

Referring to Tuberville as a “tourist from Florida,” Sessions noted that he was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump in 2016 and accused Tuberville of being a johnny-come-lately to the Trump cause.

“Where was [Tuberville] when President Trump needed him? What did he do for Trump? Never said a kind word about him that I can find. Never gave a single penny of his millions to the Trump campaign,” Sessions said.

But Tuberville pointed to Sessions’s abrupt departure from the Trump administration after the president repeatedly criticized him for recusing himself during the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“We’re going to finish what President Trump started when he looked at Jeff Sessions from across the table and said, ‘You’re fired,'” Tuberville said. “Only one candidate in this race will support Donald Trump down the line. Doug won’t, Jeff didn’t, but Tommy will.”

In Texas, where the Democratic primary drew 12 candidates, Hegar, 43, a retired Air Force combat pilot who had the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, took 23 percent to lead the field, with Royce at 15 percent.

West has been a fixture in Austin for nearly three decades and is one of the state’s most prominent African American political leaders. He edged out Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who ran as a “progressive,” garnering endorsements from a host of groups and figures on the left of the party, including New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

In North Carolina, Cunningham took 56 percent of the vote to 36 percent for State Senator Erika Smith from Gaston.

A group called the Faith and Power PAC poured spent more than $2 million airing ads promoting Smith as the “progressive” in the race. Federal financial disclosure records show that the group was largely financed by the Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that appeared to be trying to complicate Cunningham’s bid to unseat Tillis.

The Senate races in North Carolina and Texas are at the top of the Democrats’ target list for 2020, while Jones is considered to be the country’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in dark red Alabama.

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U.S. Senate nominations up for grabs Tuesday in 3 Southern states

Republicans will sort out the Senate race in Alabama, while Democrats tussle in Texas, North Carolina

(CFP) — Alabama Republicans will decide Tuesday whether to reward or punish former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his love-hate relationship with Donald Trump, while a gaggle of 12 Democrats jockey for the right to take on Texas Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn in November.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the establishment pick for the Democratic nomination, Cal Cunningham, is trying to hold off two challengers, one of whom received unsolicited support from an unlikely source — a PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Polls in Alabama and Texas are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time; in North Carolina, the polls open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 6:30 p.m.

In Alabama, the Republican primary pits Sessions against U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, a Mobile Republican, and Tommy Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University making his political debut. The winner will face Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones in November.

Sessions held the Senate seat for 20 years before giving it up in 2017 to become Trump’s attorney general, only to resign in late 2018 after his relationship with the president turned acrimonious in the wake of Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Sessions parachuted into the Senate race last November, after Byrne and Tuberville had already been running for months. Since then, Sessions has gone out of his way to express fervent support for Trump, who carried Alabama by 28 points in 2016.

Trump has so far held his fire in the race, which polls show is likely headed to a runoff between Sessions and one of his two competitors on April 14.

Also in the race is Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who lost to Jones in a special election in 2017 amid allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with underage girls, which he has denied. Polls show Moore lagging the rest of the field.

In Texas, the Democratic primary race in appears to be headed toward a runoff between MJ Hegar, who holds a strong lead the polls, and one of her 11 competitors.

Hegar, 43, a retired Air Force combat pilot, burst onto the political scene in 2018 when she nearly unseated Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter in his central Texas district.  She entered the Senate race against Cornyn last April and raised nearly $4 million for the primary, which earned her an endorsement from the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Battling for the second spot in the runoff are veteran State Senator Royce West from Dallas; Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a labor organizer from Austin who has garnered endorsements from a host of groups and figures on the left of the party, including New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez; former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell from Houston; and Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards.

If no candidate gets a majority, the top two competitors will face off in a May 26 primary.

In North Carolina, Cunningham, a Raleigh attorney and former state senator, is running against State Senator Erika Smith from Gaston and Mecklenberg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller.

A group called the Faith and Power PAC poured spent more than $2 million airing ads promoting Smith as the “progressive” in the race. Federal financial disclosure records show that the group was largely financed by the Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC closely aligned with McConnell that appeared to be trying to complicate Cunningham’s bid to unseat GOP U.S. Senator Thom Tillis.

Smith has denounced the ads, accusing Republicans of trying to meddle in the Democratic primary.

Under state law, Cunningham needs to win only 30 percent of the vote on Tuesday to avoid a runoff on May 12.

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4 Southern GOP senators defy Trump on border emergency; North Carolina’s Thom Tillis makes about face to support president

Rubio, Paul, Wicker and Alexander break with Trump in voting to overturn emergency declaration

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — With the support of four Southern Republicans and all four Southern Democrats, the U.S. Senate has voted to overturn President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency in order to find money for a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis

But one GOP senator who had come out publicly in favor of overturning the declaration — Thom Tillis of North Carolina — reversed course and voted no, after intense lobbying from the White House and an avalanche of criticism from Trump partisans back home.

Trump has vowed to veto the resolution overturning the declaration, which passed by a 59-41 margin in the Republican-controlled Senate on March 14. The House passed it in late February by a vote of 254-182.

However, opponents of the declaration do not have enough support in either House to override Trump’s veto, which will be the first of his presidency.

The four Southern Republicans who broke the with president were Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

All four Southern Democrats in the Senate also voted yes — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Doug Jones of Alabama.

Frustrated by the unwillingness of the Democrat-controlled House to vote money for the border wall, Trump declared a national emergency on February 15, which will allow him to shift $8 billion from other federal programs and use it for wall construction. Most of the money will come from appropriations for military construction and drug interdiction.

Alexander

In a floor speech before the vote, Alexander said he objected to Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to provide border wall funding after Congress failed to appropriate the money.

“The problem with this is that after a Revolutionary War against a king, our nation’s founders gave to Congress the power to approve all spending so that the president would not have too much power. This check on the executive is a crucial source of our freedom,” Alexander said.

Rubio

Rubio said he agreed with Trump that an emergency exists at the border but said he objected to shifting money out of the military construction budget to finance the border barrier.

“This would create a precedent a future president may abuse to jumpstart programs like the Green New Deal, especially given the embrace of socialism we are seeing on the political left,” he said in a statement on Twitter.

Paul and Wicker also cited constitutional considerations as the reason for their vote to overturn the declaration.

Wicker

Paul

“I stand with President Trump on the need for a border wall and stronger border security, but the Constitution clearly states that money cannot be spent unless Congress has passed a law to do so,” Paul said in a statement.

Wicker said he regretted “that we were not able to find a solution that would have averted a challenge to the balance of power as defined by the Constitution.”

“The system of checks and balances established by the Founders has preserved our democracy. It is essential that we protect this balance even when it is frustrating or inconvenient,” he said in a statement.

Tillis made a splash when he published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on February 25 saying he would vote to overturn the emergency declaration because it would set a precedent that “future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms.”

Tillis faced an avalanche of criticism from the president’s supporters in the Tar Heel State and was facing the likelihood of a primary challenge in his 2020 re-election race.

“A lot has changed over the last three weeks — a discussion with the vice president, a number of senior administration officials … a serious discussion about changing the National Emergencies Act in a way that will have Congress speak on emergency actions in the future,” Tillis said.

Republican senators had considered changing the National Emergencies Act to make it more difficult to declare emergencies in the future, but the plan faltered when House Democrats came out against it.

Tillis said he concluded that the crisis at the border was sufficiently serious to warrant the emergency declaration.

“We have narcotics flooding our country, poisoning our children and adults of all ages, and a lot of it has to do with the porous border and the seemingly out of control crossings,” Tillis said.

But Democrats back home pounced on Tillis for his change of heart.

“Tillis again reminded the entire state who he is — a spineless politician who won’t keep his promises and looks out for himself instead of North Carolina,” said Democratic Party spokesman Robert Howard in a statement.

Rubio and Paul do not face re-election until 2022; Wicker’s current term lasts through 2024.

Among the Democrats who voted against Trump, Jones is the only one who is running for re-election in 2020. Warner isn’t up for re-election until 2022, and Manchin and Kaine’s current terms last through 2024.

Jones is considered among the most vulnerable Democrats up for election in 2020, in a state where Trump remains popular.

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Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul will oppose President Trump on border emergency vote

Rand’s defection means resolution to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration can pass Senate

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky (CFP) — U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky will break with Donald Trump and vote to overturn the president’s declaration of a national emergency to find money to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul

Paul is the fourth Republican senator to come out in favor of a resolution overturning the declaration, enough defections to get the measure through the Senate and force Trump to veto it.

Speaking at a Republican dinner Saturday in his hometown of Bowling Green, Paul cited constitutional objections to Trump’s plan to shift money to wall construction that has been earmarked by Congress for other purposes.

“We may want more money for border security, but Congress didn’t authorize it,” Paul said, according to a report in the Bowling Green Daily News. “If we take away those checks and balances, it’s a dangerous thing.”

Paul is the second Southern Republican senator to announce support for the resolution, joining North Carolina’s Thom Tillis in bolting from the party line.

Trump, frustrated by the unwillingness of the Democrat-controlled House to vote money for the border wall, declared a national emergency on February 15, which would allow him to shift $8 billion from other federal programs and use it for wall construction. Most of the money will come from appropriations for military construction and drug interdiction.

Under the law that governs national emergencies, Congress can overturn an emergency declaration with a majority vote in both houses. The House approved the measure by a vote of 245-182.

Only three of 101 Southern Republicans in the House opposed Trump’s declaration — Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Will Hurd of Texas, and Francis Rooney of Florida.

Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate. With Paul, Tillis, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska publicly opposed, the resolution overturning the declaration will pass the Senate if Democrats unite against it.

Trump has vowed to veto the resolution and has more than enough support in both houses to prevent his veto from being overridden. The battle will then move to federal court, where opponents are challenging the legality of the emergency declaration.

Paul, who doesn’t come up for re-election until 2022, had been seen as a likely yes vote on overturning the declaration. A libertarian known for opposing his party leadership on constitutional issues, Paul reportedly argued with Vice President Mike Pence about the declaration at a recent GOP party lunch.

The Southern Republicans in the Senate still deciding about whether to oppose the emergency declaration include Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Paul, Cruz and Rubio were all presidential candidates against Trump in 2016. Alexander has announced he will retire in 2020.

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