The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 46 – This week:
- Russia investigation still hasn’t touched Trump
- Two more top House Republicans quit
- Key races Tuesday in Virginia, Washington State
Russia investigation: Democrats were brimming with anticipation, but the boring and predictable happened last week when special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation issued its first two indictments, of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and aide Rick Gates. The offenses in question, which include failure to register as a foreign agent and money laundering, had nothing to do with the Trump campaign and in fact predate it by some time. Trump’s name was not mentioned even once.
What’s more, they include the revelation that the Democratic lobbying firm most closely connected to Hillary Clinton’s campaign (the Podesta Group) was involved in helping Manafort help the pro-Russian government of Ukraine in exchange for large sums of money. The Podesta Group, whose agents did not contemporaneously register as foreign agents, were tasked with convincing members of Congress that there was absolutely nothing wrong with then-president Viktor Yanukovych imprisoning his political opposition.
Democrats are still counting on this investigation bringing Trump down. Their hopes rest on two possibilities. The first: That these early charges are negotiating platforms, from which Mueller can gain the cooperation of someone who can bring Trump down. The second: That the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos for making false statements, also announced last week, was hidden for a time because he has been wearing a wire and managed to gather something more substantive than what we currently know about.
Still, it’s important to note that the presents under the Trump-Russia-mas Tree have been been pretty disappointing so far.
Democrats: Democrats, even as they face the complication posed by the Podesta Group’s high-profile involvement, also came up against a few complications of their own. Former DNC interim chair Donna Brazile’s allegations that Hillary Clinton’s campaign essentially held the DNC in financial receivership between August 2015 and last November. Combine that with the Clinton campaign’s now-revealed role in underwriting and compiling the lurid Trump Dossier, and it seems there were at least as many bad Democratic fleeting political stories last week as there were Republican ones. Democrats still look good if you’re thinking about the 2018 elections, but nothing about Mueller’s investigation has them prospering so far.
Retirements: Two Texans — Reps. Lamar Smith and Jeff Hensarling — became the eleventh and twelfth House Republicans to retire this cycle without the intention of running for a higher office. (Ten other Republicans so far are quitting the House to run for Senate or governor.)
When you’re trying to hold on to a majority, retirements are always bad. But these numbers are by no means catastrophic numbers for the Republicans in their quest to hold on to the House. They probably add one more indicator (along with the typical midterm dynamic for a new president) that it isn’t going to be an easy year for the GOP. Democrats, in contrast, have just five of their number leaving the House to run for higher office, and just one member (Niki Tsongas, D-Mass.) quitting politics altogether.
Another important note: Both Smith and Hensarling are committee chairmen, but both would have run up against term limits after 2018 if they ran again and won re-election to the House.
Idaho: Democrat A.J. Balukoff proved in 2014 that even the best-funded Democratic effort for governor against the worst, scandal-scarred Republican incumbent is doomed to fall short of 40 percent in Idaho.
Balukoff will test the theory once again by running for governor in 2018, he announced last week. He may be hoping for the chance to face Rep. Raul Labrador, the most conservative of the three major Republican hopefuls.
But Labrador is a real electoral force in Idaho politics and would still be an overwhelming favorite if he won a primary over either of his more establishment GOP rivals, Lt. Gov. Brad Little or developer Tommy Ahlquist.
Virginia: Unlike in New Jersey, where the Democrats will pick up a governorship and a governing trifecta, all signs are pointing to a very, very close finish in what was never supposed to be a close governor’s race in the Commonwealth. As we noted here previously, as loss in this race would be the most devastating event since President Trump’s victory a year ago this week.
Former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie’s campaign, is focusing on the same traditional law-and-order ideas toward which Trump redirected his party’s message. He talks about violence by deportable MS-13 gang members (a major problem in Northern Virginia), and he has been so outspoken on sanctuary cities as to force his opponent to oppose them.
As you can imagine, that last detail demonstrates that both sides recognize Gillespie’s strategy is a winning one. Yes, some Democrats and media types are outraged that anyone would treat public safety and crime as important issues to people, but there isn’t a broad enough feeling of outrage to produce a blacklash helpful to Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Northam is still favored to hold on and win by the skin of his teeth, but this race is going to be close enough that no one can predict the outcome accurately.
Meanwhile, note that although Hillary Clinton won a narrow majority of Virginia’s state House districts, Republicans are widely expected to hold onto and control the chamber despite suffering modest net losses from their current level of 66 seats.
Washington State: Republicans gained a state government trifecta earlier this year when West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice flipped from Democrat to Republican. Democrats could now pick two of them up this week. One is in New Jersey, and the other is in Washington State, where the state Senate is up for grabs on Tuesday night.
Up to now, Republicans controlled it thanks to an arrangement by which one elected Democrat caucuses with them. But control now hinges on the outcome in a King County district that Hillary Clinton won easily, but which Republicans held until the death of Republican Sen. Andy Hill.
In the first round of the jungle primary, Democrat Manka Dhingra finished with just over 51 percent and a full ten points ahead of Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund. Republicans are trying very hard to frame the race as a referendum on a state income tax, since Democrats could well impose one if they gain a trifecta (House, Senate, governorship) by winning on Tuesday.