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D.C. Memo: Everything old is Newt again

Campaign cash; Eighth District polling; Housley’s Facebook posts; and more.

photo of newt gingrich
One of the figures who has played a central role in shaping what our politics have become: Newt Gingrich.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The D.C. Memo is a weekly recap of Washington political news, journalism, and opinion, delivered with an eye toward what matters for Minnesota. Sign up to get it in your inbox every Thursday.

This week in Washington, the President hit the campaign trail hard, and found a little time to help Saudi Arabia clean up the mess it made over a disappeared journalist. In Minnesota and elsewhere, midterms are in full swing, and Democrats finally have more money than Republicans, which they will definitely not waste on bad ideas.

This week in Washington

Good afternoon from Washington, where nothing is happening, really — it’s Midterm Season! And with 19 days until those elections, it’s all hands on deck at the MinnPost MINN-DECISION 2K18 Desk™️, and we’ll head there first to recap what was a big, consequential week on the campaign trail.

First off: candidates for U.S. House and Senate released their fundraising reports for 2018’s third quarter this week, giving us a look at what kind of resources campaigns are working with heading into the election’s home stretch.

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It’s a great time to check out MinnPost’s handy Campaign Finance Dashboard, which tracks how much cash is on hand for each of the leading candidates for Congress and statewide office.

You can get into the nitty-gritty on that very useful and well-designed page, but the big picture: Democrats just have a ton of cash. In Minnesota’s U.S. Senate races and in several U.S. House races, Democrats have outraised Republicans and have more cash on hand to use in the election’s final weeks.

Even incumbents — who almost always win the fundraising race — are getting smoked: Angie Craig, Democratic candidate in the 2nd District, has outraised GOP Rep. Jason Lewis by over $1.2 million to date, and has $600,000 more on hand. Craig, along with 1st District Democrat Dan Feehan and 8th District Democrat Joe Radinovich all had monster summers for fundraising, bringing in anywhere from $1.2 to $2.1 million, outraising their GOP opponents.

This dynamic is playing out around the country as Dems and Republicans battle for control of the House: 61 Democratic candidates raised over $1 million from July through September, and all Democratic congressional candidates have collectively raised more than $1 billion. According to FiveThirtyEight, Democrats raked in 65 percent of all the money raised in House races — the highest share for any party since records began in 1998.

This good Politico look at the fundraising situation has as its headline a quote from a GOP operative that sums it up: “We’re getting our asses kicked.” With their candidates getting outraised, the outside groups that back up Republicans, like the National Republican Congressional Committee, are now forced to make tough decisions about who among their own is worth supporting and who’s not as they build a firewall around their 23-seat majority. Chaser: President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is raising unprecedented amounts of money this far out from the presidential election, and the New York Times reports that some Republicans are fuming that he’s not spreading the wealth to save the party in the midterms. (POTUS is all about loyalty!)

Poll-watch: the NYT and Siena College, whose live polls have attracted a lot of buzz this cycle, went back into the field in Minnesota’s 8th District, where their poll of the Radinovich vs. Pete Stauber race in September found Radinovich up by one point. Their latest poll found Stauber up… by a whopping 14 points.

This result sparked a lot of debate, with the Radinovich camp dismissing it as a junk poll that didn’t accurately reflect that CD8 electorate. I wrote up the poll in a post this week; one of the red flags I noticed was that Trump’s approval rating in the 8th went up by 19 points in the four weeks between the NYT’s two surveys. That huge jump suggests the two polls got at two totally different slices of the district’s electorate.

The NYT felt compelled to write an explanation of why things changed so much between their two polls. The Timberjay paper, out of Ely, also did a good breakdown of this from a local perspective. I’m curious to think about how we’ll look back on the NYT’s polling experiment in a few weeks, but for now, these results do have an effect.

To that point: perhaps the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — House Dems’ leading campaign arm — doesn’t think Radinovich is down by 14, but they apparently see the race breaking in a bad way: this week, the DCCC pulled the remaining $1.2 million in ad spending it had reserved for CD8, choosing to redirect it to races in CD1 and CD2.

This news prompted Republicans to crow that Democrats were cutting Radinovich loose and have given up on CD8. Political forecaster Dave Wasserman moved CD8 on Wednesday from the “toss-up” column to the “lean Republican column.”

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In Minnesota’s special U.S. Senate election: HuffPost published an article featuring 10 year-old social media comments from the GOP candidate, Karin Housley, that compare Michelle Obama to an ape. Those Facebook comments have since been picked up in national media.

The Housley campaign initially responded saying this was a hit job from the liberal media; Housley later told the Star Tribune that Obama is a “wonderful lady” and that the comments were taken out of context to fuel political attacks.

This topic might have come up in a scheduled debate between Housley and Sen. Tina Smith on Sunday, but Smith declined to join. Now the campaigns are fighting about debates, which is the best kind of fight in politics. But the two candidates are expected to go at it in person on November 1 and 4, just a few days before the election.

AD OF THE WEEK! Until the midterms, I’m going to spotlight the best and worst of the political communication currently flooding your airwaves and clogging your social media feeds. The stand-out ad for me this week was a 30-second spot from the NRCC attacking Dan Feehan in CD1. It was an impressive kitchen sink-throwing of conservative complaints: I’ve never seen one ad so ambitiously weave together outrage over Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem and outrage over the activities of the liberal Jewish financier George Soros! Extra graphic design points for the shadowy image of Soros in the background and piles of money and antifa protesters in the foreground. (National media, like the Daily Beast, quickly picked up on it.)

Stepping back for a second on the midterms: Republicans are already fighting about who they’ll blame if they lose their House majority, according to the Associated Press. At least one person is resting easy: the president, who told the AP this week in an Oval Office sit-down that he won’t deserve any blame if his party suffers losses in the midterms.

Other campaign stuff: I wrote about how Nancy Pelosi, the veteran Democratic leader, is yet again a useful bogeyman for Republicans to use to attack Democratic congressional candidates and fire up conservative base voters. The wrinkle this year: a lot of Dem upstarts are mum, or even publicly chilly, on the prospect of Pelosi remaining at the helm of the party. Third District DFLer Dean Phillips has called for “new leadership” in the party, while Feehan and Craig are saying they’ll reserve judgment until they’re in D.C.

Relatedly, Pelosi appears on the cover of this week’s New York magazine “women in power” issue alongside one other woman: state Rep. Ilhan Omar, likely to be the next member of Congress in the 5th Congressional District. Watch the dynamic between these two next year, as Pelosi and the Democratic old guard battle young left-wing insurgents like Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for influence over the direction of the party in Congress.

At the White House: there’s talk that the administration is reviewing actions to renew the family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border in the wake of increased border crossings by undocumented migrants. The media has taken to calling this “Family Separation 2.0,” and it’s a dangerous road for Trump to go down so close to the midterms: the separation policy, when it was enacted this summer, generated more public outrage than maybe anything else the administration has done. Ask a Republican candidate about something Trump has done that they’ve disagreed with, and most will cite family separation.

As the NYT reports, however, Trump and some of his hard-line advisors believe cracking down on undocumented immigrants is a huge political winner for them — so why not do it two weeks from the election?

Politico’s Playbook reports the White House is gearing up for a PR assault on the Farm Bill, the massive piece of legislation on nutrition and agriculture policy, which is currently stalled amid Congress’ disagreements over a GOP plan to increase work requirements for those who receive food assistance. The top Dem on the House Ag panel, Rep. Collin Peterson of western Minnesota, has held the line here, saying the Republican plan is a non-starter and has been for years. Trump and his inner circle, meanwhile, believe that beating the drum on work requirements will be a political winner for them ahead of the elections — even though any real movement on the legislation will take place in the post-election lame duck session.

The crisis surrounding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has intensified, now that there is evidence the Saudi Arabian journalist and dissident was murdered by a team of Saudi assassins at their ambassador’s residence in Istanbul — a hit signs are indicating came from the highest levels of the kingdom’s leadership: ruler-in-waiting Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince.

Trump’s response to this horrific episode has amounted to a search for reasons to overlook the Saudis’ apparent murder of a dissident: WaPo details his rationalization, which includes emphasizing the importance of U.S. arms sales to the kingdom and the Saudis’ role in helping the U.S. exert pressure on Iran, which it calls a human rights-abusing rogue state. (The NYT has more on that point.) In a nifty bit of news-cycle merging, Trump has also compared the murder allegations against Saudi royals to the sexual assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Earlier in the week, the Saudis seemed prepared to admit some culpability, and still might, but Trump’s trust in their “strong denials” of involvement have taken some heat off Riyadh. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the kingdom for a “grip-and-grin” with the Crown Prince, after which he declared “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts.” Much like O.J. Simpson, the Saudis are vowing to find the true killers, and Pompeo said they should be given time to investigate. WaPo’s smart Daily 202 newsletter highlights the episode as exhibit A of Trump’s foreign policy, in which the only consistent thread is transactional self-interest.

Back in the Swamp: there’s been good coverage of what this saga means for D.C.’s lobbying sector, in which the Saudis are an influential presence, spending millions each year on contracts with Washington firms. Some key lobbying firms are terminating those contracts in the wake of the Khashoggi story, while others are continuing to work for Saudi Arabia — such as Hogan Lovells, which employs former Sen. Norm Coleman to handle the Kingdom’s interests in D.C. HuffPost has a look at the playbook Saudi Arabia might employ to push assert themselves in the Swamp right now.

Liberal #Resisters have yelled about Trump’s business interests in Saudi Arabia as an explanation for his conduct. Though there’s plenty of reasons to believe this is how Trump would approach this crisis anyway, WaPo’s David Fahrenthold reports that officials in Trump’s hotel business discussed how Saudi visits to their properties were padding their bottom line.

This week’s essential reads

Mark Zuckerberg has spent $1 million of his considerable fortune to support a ballot measure to ease criminal penalties on nonviolent drug offenders — not in his home state of California, but in Ohio. Increasingly, billionaires are spending piles of money to influence local politics around the country — and some locals don’t like it. The Center for Public Integrity’s Liz Essley White:

Zuckerberg’s investment in a ballot measure a long way from home is hardly unique. The liberal billionaire George Soros has given $5 million for issues on the ballot this fall around the country. The California environmentalist Tom Steyer has spent $10 million.

All told, this trio and 22 other American billionaires have invested more than $70.7 million for initiative campaigns this year in 19 states where they do not reside.

In total, the $78 million tally from all 34 billionaires—local givers and out-of-state donors alike—may be pocket change to them, but it is more than 10 percent of the $648 million disclosed so far this year for statewide ballot-measure campaigns, as tracked by the nonpartisan political encyclopedia Ballotpedia. And the total is likely an undercount of billionaires’ influence on this year’s ballot measures. It doesn’t include gifts from billionaire-led corporations, or from nonprofits where the billionaires are among a multitude of backers, or from nonprofits whose donors’ identities are unknown.

As with Tobin and the prosecutors association in Ohio, the handouts from the wealthy to campaigns across state lines rankle some local opponents, even though no one questions their legality. Just who should decide issues in their state, they ask—the people who live there, or some rich folks from out of state?

Whether you’re addicted to cable news or have just glanced at headlines in the last year, you know Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump and Russia is a big deal. But with a potentially explosive cloud hanging over the GOP, candidates from both parties are basically pretending the Mueller probe doesn’t exist at all. Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn explains why:

It’s a rare phenomenon in modern American politics to have a midterm election coincide with a major investigation that delves into anything related to the president. Even rarer is the phenomenon of voters going to the polls at the same time that an investigation remains active into questions of criminality tied to the winning campaign from the most recent presidential election.

That makes predicting the Mueller inquiry’s influence on voters that much more challenging, and why Democratic and Republican party operatives and candidates say the topic is best handled as mood music rather than as a primary argument to be used to drive turnout.

“It’s not the best thing for Democrats to be talking about right now,” said Robby Mook, the former Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign manager. “We just need to let Mueller do his job. Politicizing it even more isn’t going to help that.”

The way Trump’s election galvanized women to participate in politics, from the Women’s Marches to today, has been a well-covered story. Two weeks out from the election, WaPo traveled to Ohio to reflect on how the “blue wave,” if it hits, will be fueled by a group of white, middle-class women who have arranged their lives around stopping Trump.

Thin margins of error have not discouraged the new foot soldiers of the Democratic resistance. They don’t cover their faces with bandannas, speak of socialist revolution or get lost in debates about the best model for Medicare expansion.

Instead, many of them juggle campaign events with school commutes and soccer practice. They leave the kids with their husbands to march, come out of retirement to register voters and form close bonds with neighbors who were strangers when Hillary Clinton was the presumptive president. An aspiring blue wave with a decidedly pink hue, they are women defined by a desire to atone for their relative inaction in 2016.

“People are making social connections that they really, really like,” said Abby Karp, an organizer for Swing Left in North Carolina, who works days as a dean at a private school in Greensboro. “I don’t even have a Facebook page anymore. I have a political page. I don’t know what my cousin is doing. I know what canvass is coming up.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

As we near the end of another ugly and divisive election season, it’s worth reflecting on one of the figures who has played a central role in shaping what our politics have become: Newt Gingrich.

The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, one of the media’s sharpest observers of the right, profiled Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House who pioneered a brand of zero-sum, slash-and-burn politics that has spread from Congress — whose norms Gingrich trashed in the 1990s — to every corner of the country. In the era of Trump, the leader of the “Republican Revolution” is now sitting back and savoring the chaos.

In the clamorous story of Donald Trump’s Washington, it would be easy to mistake Gingrich for a minor character. A loyal Trump ally in 2016, Gingrich forwent a high-powered post in the administration and has instead spent the years since the election cashing in on his access—churning out books (three Trump hagiographies, one spy thriller), working the speaking circuit (where he commands as much as $75,000 per talk for his insights on the president), and popping up on Fox News as a paid contributor. He spends much of his time in Rome, where his wife, Callista, serves as Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican and where, he likes to boast, “We have yet to find a bad restaurant.”

But few figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump’s rise. During his two decades in Congress, he pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism—that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction. Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution—an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence. …

Twenty-five years after engineering the Republican Revolution, Gingrich can draw a direct line from his work in Congress to the upheaval now taking place around the globe. But as he surveys the wreckage of the modern political landscape, he is not regretful. He’s gleeful.

“The old order is dying,” he tells me. “Almost everywhere you have freedom, you have a very deep discontent that the system isn’t working.” And that’s a good thing? I ask.

“It’s essential,” he says, “if you want Western civilization to survive.”

What to look for next week

Midterms, midterms, midterms. Did I mention there were midterms?

The president, maintaining an active campaign schedule, will swing through the West in the next few days: he’ll rally in Montana on Thursday, Arizona on Friday, and then on to Nevada and Texas. All four states are seeing hotly contested elections for U.S. Senate — particularly the Lone Star State, where Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat challenging Sen. Ted Cruz, just raised an insane $38 million in three months. Trump will stump in Houston for Cruz, his onetime rival for the GOP presidential nomination. The two have become pals after Trump mocked Cruz’s wife and suggested his father had something to do with the assassination of JFK.

Meanwhile, I’ll be hopping on a plane to Minnesota to cover the home stretch of this crazy election season, so look forward to a few on-the-ground reports from me over the next two weeks.

Until then, please channel all your anti-Wisconsin energies to my Los Angeles Dodgers, who are on the brink of sending the Milwaukee Brewers packing and punching a ticket to the World Series. Send me an email, too: