Politics

Morning Digest: Republicans dump $2 million on TV ads to help them win the Ohio Supreme Court

At stake is an enormous array of issues, including abortion rights and redistricting. Currently, Republicans hold a 4-3 majority on the court, but Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor repeatedly sided with Democrats this year to strike down gerrymandered GOP maps for both Congress and the state legislature. O’Connor, however, is stepping down this year after hitting the mandatory retirement age of 70, so there’s a battle to replace her as chief justice between two incumbents: Democrat Jennifer Brunner and Republican Sharon Kennedy.

The outcome of that contest likely won’t affect the partisan balance of the court because the governor would be able to appoint a replacement for whoever wins, and Republican Mike DeWine is the favorite to win his own bid for re-election. Still, the post is a powerful one: The holder is considered the superintendent of the state’s entire court system and, among other things, is solely responsible for assigning temporary judges to fill absences, deciding motions to disqualify lower court judges, and even appointing judges to the Court of Claims, which hears all lawsuits against the state of Ohio.

The two other races going before voters, however, hold the court’s fate in their hands. They pit a pair of Republican incumbents against two Democratic women who sit on the state’s Court of Appeals: Justice Patrick Fischer is facing Judge Terri Jamison, while Justice Pat DeWine—who happens to be the governor’s son—is going up against Judge Marilyn Zayas. If either Jamison or Zayas can win, then the court would flip to a Democratic majority.

Such a result would be especially important in the fight over gerrymandering, which is still ongoing in litigation thanks to successful GOP efforts to run out the clock on 2022. Should Republicans gain unfettered control over the court, we can expect them to ignore O’Connor’s earlier rulings and simply side with their party. But abortion will be critical, too. The Supreme Court declined to block the state’s new abortion ban this summer, and it will eventually have to rule on a case in which a lower court judge recently found that the ban violated the state constitution.

Despite Ohio’s sharp turn to the right in recent years, Democrats scored a major win in 2020 when Brunner defeated Republican Justice Judith French by a surprisingly wide 55-45 margin. However, Republicans reacted to that loss by changing the way that Supreme Court races appear on the ballot. In the past, while parties would pick nominees, general elections were officially nonpartisan. Now, candidates will be identified with party labels, likely creating an additional hurdle for Democrats.

A new poll from Siena College, though, shows a 40-40 tie between Brunner and Kennedy, even as it has DeWine winning by a considerable 55-32 spread in the governor’s race. A recent survey from Suffolk University likewise had the pair deadlocked at 42 apiece, with similar numbers for the other two races. The issue for Democrats will be winning over undecided voters, who likely lean to the right in a red state like Ohio, and that will mean finding the resources to match the GOP’s new infusion.

Senate

NH-Sen: NBC reports that the NRSC has booked another $1.1 million to aid Don Bolduc, who still has not aired any TV ads in his general election campaign against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.

NV-Sen: NBC puts the size of the buy of the Club for Growth’s new ad campaign against Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto at $3.9 million.

UT-Sen: The NBC affiliate KSL Television has pulled a TV spot by the Club for Growth against independent Evan McMullin after “receiving a complaint about the factual nature of its content.”

The Club, which backs Republican Sen. Mike Lee, had shown clips where McMullin appeared to say, “The Republican base is racist … these bigots,” which the spot argued demonstrated that he showed contempt for conservatives. As the Gephardt Daily explains, though, the footage came from two very edited clips from a 2017 CNN segment right after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where McMullin made it clear he wasn’t attacking most Republicans.

McMullin, who was a CNN contributor at the time, said, “Not all Republicans, of course, are racist” before declaring, “But there is an element of the Republican base that is racist, and our leaders who are afraid to stand up to them, because if they do, if they do so, they’ll be criticized, and they’ll potentially lose votes, so they don’t do it.” He went on, “We need leaders, especially on the Republican and conservative side these days, who will serve the country, and serving their country means standing up to these bigots.” (Lee himself also denounced the Unite The Right Rally and criticized Donald Trump’s “there is blame on both sides” comments.)

None of that context is present in the Club’s commercial, though, which makes it look like the independent is attacking the GOP base. McMullin responded to the Club’s offensive by saying “we have informed every television station running this ad that it is clearly deceptive and false, and we’ve asked them to remove the ads immediately.” KSL ultimately complied.

As we’ve written before, candidates can try to get outside group ads bumped from the airwaves because TV and radio stations can be held liable for defamatory content in third-party ads. Knowing this, campaigns try to hunt down inaccuracies (real or perceived) in third-party ads and demand that broadcasters stop airing them, with the stated or unstated threat that if they fail to comply, they could find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit. Whether or not such suits would ever succeed, TV and radio stations have to think hard every time as to whether they want to incur legal costs should a campaign ever follow through.

The same isn’t true, though, for commercials from candidates. Under federal law, broadcasters cannot censor or refuse to air ads from candidates as long as they’re paid for: In 2018, for example, a TV station in New Mexico had to run a spot from a Democrat who started his ad by saying, “Fuck the NRA.” Consequently, because they have no choice but to run such ads, stations have successfully argued that they should not be liable as publishers if they’re ever sued for defamation for anything said in a candidate ad.

Polls:

AZ-Sen: Beacon Research (D) and Shaw & Company Research (R) for Fox News: Mark Kelly (D-inc): 46, Blake Masters (R): 40 (Aug.: 50-42 Kelly)

WI-Sen: Beacon Research (D) and Shaw & Company Research (R) for Fox News: Ron Johnson (R-inc): 48, Mandela Barnes (D): 46 (Aug.: 50-46 Barnes)

WI-Sen: Data for Progress (D): Johnson (R-inc): 50, Barnes (D): 48

Governors

PA-Gov: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Commonwealth Leaders Fund, which was the only organization airing ads against Democrat Josh Shapiro, has stopped running TV spots with $3.2 million left on its reservation after gradually scaling back throughout September. Reporter Chris Brennan says the super PAC, which is funded by billionaire Jeff Yass, will instead focus on aiding Republican legislative candidates.

The move wasn’t a surprise because the group’s head, Matt Brouillette, recently said of Republican Doug Mastriano, “I’ve not seen anything that is even a semblance of a campaign.” However, Brennan also believes that it’s no coincidence that the super PAC is redirecting its efforts at a time when Shapiro is adopting a “cautious embrace of school vouchers,” which is one of Yass’ pet issues.

Polls:

AZ-Gov: Beacon Research (D) and Shaw & Company Research (R) for Fox News: Katie Hobbs (D): 44, Kari Lake (R): 43 (Aug.: 47-44 Hobbs)

IL-Gov: Fabrizio Lee (R) for People Who Play By The Rules PAC (pro-Darren Bailey): J.B. Pritzker (D-inc): 48, Darren Bailey (R): 40, Scott Schluter (L): 3 (early Sept.: 50-38 Pritzker)

MN-Gov: Cygnal (R) for Scott Jensen: Tim Walz (D-inc): 48, Scott Jensen (R): 44 (July: 50-46 Walz)

OR-Gov: Clout Research (R): Christine Drazan (R): 39, Tina Kotek (D): 35, Betsy Johnson (I): 16 (Aug.: 33-32 Johnson)

OR-Gov: Nelson Research for the Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter: Drazan (R): 33, Kotek (D): 32, Johnson (I): 19 (May: 30-28 Drazan)

WI-Gov: Beacon Research (D) and Shaw & Company Research (R) for Fox News: Tony Evers (D-inc): 47, Tim Michels (R): 47 (Aug.: 49-46 Evers)

WI-Gov: Data for Progress (D): Michels (R): 48, Evers (D-inc): 47, Joan Beglinger (I): 2

IL-Gov: The trendlines come from a previously unreleased poll for this client. People Who Play By The Rules PAC, which is funded by conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein, has had at least two of its ads pulled by TV stations in the last few weeks.

MN-Gov: The memo touts that “Jensen Closes the Gap” even though the gap is essentially unchanged from its last poll. A mid-September survey from Mason-Dixon showed Walz up 48-41.

WI-Gov: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Evers and his allies have outspent Michels by a 2-1 margin so far. Michels, though, self-funded $15.7 million through the end of August, and he may be capable of throwing down more in the final weeks.

House

FL-28: Democrat Robert Asencio has publicized an internal from Impact Research conducted Sept. 8-13 that shows him trailing freshman Republican Rep. Carlos Giménez 50-40 in an exurban Miami seat that would have backed Trump 53-47.

The memo finds the Democrat cutting his deficit to 49-44 after “balanced positive bios are read” and argues, “If Asencio has the resources to tell his story, he can quickly close the gap in this Congressional race.” Friday was the end of the third fundraising quarter, so we’ll know soon if Asencio, who served one term in the state House, has a notable amount of money available for a contest that hasn’t attracted much outside attention so far.  

IA-03: Moore Information Group, polling on behalf of Republican Zach Nunn and the NRCC, shows Nunn edging out Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne 46-44, a small improvement from the 43-43 tie it found in July. A mid-September Axne internal also had things deadlocked 47-47.

MI-03: CNN recently reported that Republican John Gibbs argued against women’s suffrage as a college student in the early 2000s, and Democrat Hillary Scholten is now airing a commercial blasting him over it. The ad uses news clips where reporters say that Gibbs back then believed that “the United States has suffered as a result of women having the right to vote,” “women should not be allowed to be in the workplace,” and “women don’t have the characteristics necessary to govern.”

Ballot Measures

KY Ballot: Protect Kentucky Access is airing its first TV spot in its campaign to beat the anti-abortion Amendment 2, and it stars a woman talking about how she needed a life-saving abortion. “We wanted this baby,” says the commercial’s subject, “But me and the baby were at risk. Amendment 2 means no abortions, no exceptions.” She adds, “It’s an impossible decision, I can’t imagine a politician making it for me.” So far Amendment’s 2’s backers, who have considerably less money available, don’t appear to have run any TV ads yet.

Other Races

NV Treasurer, NV-AG: News broke Friday that former Republican Sen. Dean Heller is co-hosting a fundraiser for Democratic state Treasurer Zach Conine, a move that comes as a surprise even though Conine’s general election opponent is the one and only Michele Fiore. Still, while Heller awkwardly refashioned himself after the 2016 elections from an ardent Trump critic to a MAGA supplicant, even Fiore appears to be just too much for him.

Heller’s announcement came days after one of Fiore’s Republican colleagues on the Las Vegas City Council, Victoria Seaman, filed a lawsuit alleging that Fiore broke her finger in a fight they had at City Hall last year. Fiore is also still reportedly under FBI investigation for alleged campaign finance violations.

Heller and Fiore were briefly competitors this cycle when they each sought the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. The two were on stage together at a January crowd where the crowd repeatedly booed the former senator when he tried to assert that he was the most conservative candidate. The audience, though, was enthusiastic about Fiore, a longtime far-right figure who, among many other things, stood out in the Assembly for her desire to castrate pimps, belief that cancer victims could “flush” tumors out of their bodies with the magic of baking soda, and obsession with guns.

Fiore ultimately bailed on the race for governor just before filing closed and instead ran for treasurer. Heller stuck around but took a distant third in the primary, a result that may have convinced him that he has nothing left to lose by crossing party lines for Conine now.

Heller, though, isn’t the only prominent Republican to wind up in Conine’s corner. Former state party chair Amy Tarkanian said over the summer she was supporting the incumbent because a “qualified state treasurer is beneficial for every person in our state, and having someone who is running for treasurer after being under investigation multiple times is not a good start.”

Tarkanian, who is the wife of perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, also crossed party lines to back Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford over Sigal Chattah, whom she called “an unprepared, dangerous candidate who lacks the experience, foresight and temperament to be able to do right by Nevadans.” The state GOP responded to Tarkanian’s endorsements by calling its former leader a “failed chair.” The Douglas County Republican Central Committee also told her that it was planning to boot her from the body, to which she responded, “If these people are willing to treat me this way, then I’m not going to give them the time of day, but I am still a Republican.”

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