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This Week in Statehouse Action: Welcome to the Dollhouse edition
I was never much for dolls as a kid. Barbie, Cabbage Patch, Polly Pocket, Jem … okay I tolerated Rainbow Brite because I was addicted to the cartoons, but also I played way more with Starlite than I ever did with her (and I was into My Little Ponies, too… fake girls, boo, fake animals, yay? I’m not sure what this says about me but it’s probably something).
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But, what with all the Barbie movie buzz (and the hilarious conservative backlash to the film), I’ve got America’s favorite doll on the brain. Apologies in advance.
Campaign contributions haven’t been about hard cash for a long time, and while actual paper checks to still change hands now and again, election dollars these days are usually fully plastic transactions.
And while elections aren’t all about money, they’re also not not about money.
In Virginia – home to the most interesting set of elections this year – a key fundraising deadline just passed.
Historically, the midsummer finance reports are … well, they’re odd little creatures.
The preceding round of campaign finance filings covered the period from April 1 through June 8, which is
A good chunk of time that
Not only covers most of the fundraising around primary contests, but also allows members to really flex their post-session fundraising muscles (in Virginia, as in many states, lawmakers are prohibited from raising money during the legislative session, which ends at either the end of February in odd years).
In contrast, the most recent round of campaign finance reports covers just a few weeks.
Specifically, June 9 through June 30.
The rationale behind this probably has something to do with capturing late primary donations (which, as you may recall, happened on June 20), but generally speaking, it can be tough to read too much into campaign cash numbers for such a short span of time.
But the next crop of fundraising reports covers the period from July 1 through August 1 — and they won’t drop until mid-September.
… which means they’ll be incredibly educational in terms of campaigns’ strength and viability, but there won’t be much time left in the cycle to plug funding holes and spend last-minute dollars.
After all, early voting for this fall’s general election begins on September 22.
But that isn’t to say that this most recent crop of campaign finance reports is useless. Far from it, in fact.
So let’s talk about what they signal regarding each party’s quest to take full majority control of both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly.
Republicans control the House 52-48 (although technically both parties are currently down two seats because of required resignations to seek other seats/offices).
Democrats have a 22-18 majority in the state Senate.
First, a little good news for each side of the aisle:
On one hand, of the House candidates with the most cash on hand, three of the top five are Republicans.
On the other, six of the top 10 House candidates in terms of cash-on-hand are Democrats.
Of the top five Senate candidates in terms of cash on hand, three are Democrats.
But six of the top 10 Senate candidates in terms of cash-on-hand are Republicans.
The good folks at VPAP helpfully broke down how much each candidate raised by quarter, rather than by reporting period, since the difference between the June 8 reports and June 30 reports are generally pretty negligible.
Anyway, the good news here for Democrats is that both their House and Senate candidates are, broadly speaking, outpacing their Republican counterparts over the course of the first six months of this year in terms of overall fundraising.
But the state election cash race in Virginia is never quite that simple.
Most states, including Virginia, permit things like leadership PACs and caucus committees and other non-candidate fundraising vehicles.
But most of those other states don’t take the … ah, permissive approach to campaign finance that Virginia does.
Virginia is not most states.
Virginia campaign finance uses more of a … hydraulic approach to election cash.
Like water seeking the sea, campaign cash often finds a way to its target candidate; restrictive rules tend to force that money underground, away from the public eye, where it can be harder to see and track.
In Virginia, election contributions have basically zero restrictions in terms of eventually getting to their intended candidate, and it’s all relatively easy to track (thanks mostly to the aforementioned VPAP, which is easily the most useful state political resource anywhere outside of Ballotpedia and NCSL, which also have the benefit of being nationwide).
But that also means that no assessment of campaigns’ fiscal health is useful without also taking these leadership committees/PACs into account.
And the financial story told by those numbers has a happier ending for the GOP than it does for Dems.
When it comes to party committees, Democrats are, frankly, eating the GOP’s lunch.
Democrats’ House campaign committee both raised and has on hand more than twice as much as its Republican counterpart.
And then there are the “leadership committees.”
These PACs aren’t new to Virginia – at least 11 governors have made use of them, as have various lawmakers seeking to not only build up their party’s numbers in the legislature, but also wield more political influence within their respective caucuses.
But the thing about Virginia governors is that they can’t run for reelection while they’re in office, so any money their leadership committees raise is free to go to other things.
… specifically, in many cases, to electing more members of their own party.
Which brings us to the status of Virginia’s “leadership committee” PACs.
For Democrats, there’s the bad news, and … there’s the worse news.
The bad news: Four of the top five leadership committees in terms of both dollars raised and cash on hand are GOP slush funds.
Also, the Republican Commonwealth Leadership PAC alone has enough cash money to obviate Democratic committees’ financial advantage.
Just for a little context, the previous gubernatorial fundraising record was $4.77 million, set by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2015 – and that total was for the entire year.
So unless some VERY rich progressives get off their butts, Virginia Democrats are going to come up VERY short in the cash race this cycle.
Of course, the candidate/party that has or spends more money is in no way guaranteed to come out on top on Election Day.
But it’s a lot easier to get your message out there, fund a viable field program, and just generally run good campaigns when you’re rolling around in a big pile of money.
And now we travel to Wisconsin (which, well, I’m putting the finishing touches on a list of The Worst Legislatures In America, and you bet your ass the Badger State is on it) for some more lousy news — but also maybe some slightly less lousy news.
Did you know there was a special election for Wisconsin Assembly District 24 this week?
Honestly, no one’s mad if you didn’t – the seat isn’t super competitive this decade and the fact that Rs kept it did nothing to alter the balance of power in the GOP-dominated state Assembly (which, by the by, is still 64 R/35 D).
The main reason I’m even mentioning this special at all is because of Dems’ relative overperformance in this race.
On Tuesday, Republican Paul Melotik won the seat 54 to 46%.
Normally, this margin wouldn’t be something to get excited about, but considering that Republican Dan Knodl (who vacated the seat after winning a state Senate special election in April) won AD-24 last year 61-39%, this seven-point swing towards Democrats is nothing to sneeze at.
Anyway, Wisconsin Assembly Republicans remain just two seats shy of a veto-proof supermajority (they already have it in the Senate), so a win here would have been rad, but gerrymandering is a hell of a drug, so to speak.
Speaking of special elections, Democrats in Pennsylvania are facing a stark reminder of just how fragile their House majority is.
As an erudite consumer of this missive, you may recall that Dems’ tiny (102-101) majority in the Pennsylvania state House has already resulted in controversy this year.
Waaaaaaay back in January, the Pennsylvania House became a hotbed of drama after a death and two resignations denied Democrats the tiny technical majority they’d won in the November elections, when they picked up the 12 House seats they needed to flip the chamber.
But with Democrats’ hard-won majority knocked back to just 99 members in the new year because of two resignations and a death, Republicans had the numbers to go down in a blaze of sour grapes – that is, to deny a Democratic Rep. Joanna McClinton the speakership.
A compromise temp speaker was agreed upon, but then Republicans got mad that they couldn’t bully him into doing what they wanted, so pretty much nothing got done until the three specials to fill those vacant seats were held in February.
These seats were solidly blue, and to no one’s surprise, Dems held all three.
The compromise speaker stepped aside, and McClinton was elected to the role, and life went on.
But this week, another Democrat resigned from the House – Rep. Sara Innamorato, who’s running for a local office this fall.
This technically ties the chamber 101-101, but considering that Pennsylvania’s legislative session is in recess until the last week of September, this won’t meaningfully affect anything until after Innamorato’s seat is filled in a special election on September 19.
Speaking of states where legislatures flipped red-to-blue last fall, Republicans in Michigan are having a time.
They’re understandably mad that they’re out of power, but instead of focusing on, say, promoting policies or candidates that voters might actually support in 2024’s general elections, when the entire Michigan House will be on the ballot again, some conservative activists have launched recall campaigns against five first-term Democratic women … and, oddly, one Republican.
The five targeted Democrats are Reps. Betsy Coffia, Jennifer Conlin, Jaime Churches, Sharon MacDonell, and Reggie Miller—women who were all elected just last fall and helped usher in Democrats’ new 56-54 majority.
All but one of these Democratic seats are quite swingy – Rep. Sharon McDonnell won HD-56 comfortably, while her fellow recall targets won their seats by single digits.
According to the recall petitions filed with the secretary of state's office, a handful of conservative activists are targeting these Democratic women for their votes in favor of a bill expanding hate crimes (which hasn’t even passed the Senate yet, much less become law!) and a new red flag law that allows courts to remove firearms from people deemed to pose a danger to themselves or others.
The Republican being targeted by conservatives for recall is Rep. Cam Cavitt.
According to the petition, Cavitt should be recalled for his vote to elect Democratic Rep. Joe Tate as speaker in the Democratic-majority chamber – a procedural vote that most of Cavitt’s fellow Republicans joined.
The thing about recall elections, though, is that
A. they’re pretty tough to pull off to begin with and
B. Republicans themselves made recalls more difficult back in 2012.
First, recall petitions can’t be filed during a lawmaker’s first six months in office, which is why all of these are popping in July.
The next step in the process is having the Board of State Canvassers review the recall petitions – likely at their next meeting on Aug. 1 – to determine whether the conduct alleged in them is clear and factual and occurred while the lawmakers were in office.
Then, if the recall language is approved, organizers would have just 60 days to obtain a sufficient number of signatures to trigger recalls.
That “sufficient number” is what’s going to make this process so daunting for conservatives.
Within that 60-day window, organizers have to collect resident signatures equal to 25% of the vote in last year's election for governor in each district.
You see, in 2022, Michigan set a record for midterm turnout; almost 4.5 million votes were cast statewide in the gubernatorial election.
While exact numbers will vary district to district, this means that, on average, more than 11,000 valid signatures are required to prompt a single recall.
And because any number of the collected signatures are likely to be invalid and rejected upon review, organizers need to collect way more than just those 11,000 to succeed in triggering a recall election.
If that signature threshold is met, then a recall election will be scheduled at the next regularly occurring election date (either in May or November), where the recalled lawmaker will run against nominees of the opposing party. The winner serves the rest of the term.
Further complicating conservatives’ efforts to recall these lawmakers is the fact that the Michigan Republican Party is “functionally bankrupt” (they reportedly have just $93,000 in the bank). Also, the party has been plagued by bitter (and sometimes literal) infighting in recent months.
Democratic House leadership, on the other hand, says it will “fully support and defend those targeted” by these recall efforts.
And while Michigan Republicans aren’t total strangers to using recalls to flip majority control of a legislative chamber, they’re a bit out of practice.
Almost 40 years ago, Republicans targeted two Democratic state senators for recall over their votes for an income tax increase.
Both Democrats lost, giving the GOP their first majority in the Michigan Senate in a decade.
Largely through the power of gerrymandering, Republicans managed to maintain their majority in the Senate until just last year, when they lost control of the map-drawing process to an independent commission.
The only successful recall in the decades since happened in 2011, when Republican Rep. Paul Scott – a key leader in the GOP’s last-decade push to gut unions and public education while eliminating taxes on businesses – was just barely felled by a recall effort (seriously, he lost by just 197 votes).
Of course, Republicans responded to this by passing new laws to make recalls harder the very next year.
Which maybe they’re regretting now.
Anyway, stay tuned for updates after the August 1 Board of State Canvassers meeting!
Maybe you don’t need a new reason to be mad at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but I’mma give you one anyway.
DeSantis developed a nasty little habit last year of dragging his feet when it comes to setting special election dates in districts that might be competitive for or favor Democrats.
In 2021, DeSantis let three heavily Democratic and majority Black seats in south Florida remain open for three months without calling a special election, finally only scheduling them after he got sued for not doing so.
By dragging ass, he guaranteed that Democrats' diminished numbers wouldn’t get replenished until the tail end of the next session of the legislature, gifting Republicans with an even larger majority than Florida voters had actually given them.
In the end, DeSantis set a special election calendar that effectively deprived these three districts of legislative representation for three-quarters of a year.
And for the record, this is not normal practice in Florida; the ACLU noted in a lawsuit that, from 1999 through 2020, Florida governors took just over a week on average to call special elections.
Which brings us to DeSantis’ current anti-democratic shenanigans.
Two Florida House seats have sat vacant since June: HD-35 since June 30, and HD-118 since June 11.
Both seats were previously held by Republicans, but DeSantis only just scheduled the special elections to fill them, and then only after the ACLU sued him for not doing so.
Honestly, of these two, only HD-35 is reasonably flippable; it’s a 52-47 Biden seat in Orlando's suburbs.
DeSantis helpfully scheduled these specials for different dates, for some reason: In HD-35, the primary will be held on November 7, and the general will be held on Jan. 16, 2024.
The primary in much redder HD-118 is on October 3, and the general will be held on December 5.
And yes, Democrats will remain deep in the House minority (Democrats hold just 35 seats to Republicans’ 85, including the two vacant R-held ones) even if they flip HD-35 in January.
But not every legislative chamber majority is flipped overnight; more often, they’re chipped away at over years. And a strong showing in this special could energize Florida Dems ahead of November 2024.
That’s all the Doll Parts I can handle for one week.
Stay tuned next week for … maybe … some actual good news for a change?
Just a little, as a treat.
But also, yes, there will be bad news.
Because there’s never an uncomplicated day when it comes to statehouse action.
And maybe it’s more fun to, say, see Barbie after watching Oppenheimer…?
Anyway, thanks, as ever, for hanging in.
And take care of yourself.
We need you.
Thanks for reading This Week in Statehouse Action! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.