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D.C. Memo: 725 days until Election Day 2020

Sessions fired; midterms analysis; Congress’ prospects; and more.

Some Republicans are worried that President Trump is on track to shut down the Russia investigation.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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, the blue wave crashed, sweeping away a few Minnesota Republicans. The midterm elections weren’t a total Democratic romp, and there were positive signs for both parties on display — especially in Minnesota. Trump claimed victory and celebrated by finally firing his emo-as-hell attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

This week in Washington

Greetings from Washington, which barely had time to process the midterm election results before President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

There’s long been chatter that POTUS would cut loose Sessions, his former flame and current whipping boy — who the president never forgave for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties with Russia — after the midterm. But the fact that he did it so quickly, with some final election outcomes yet to be determined, was striking.

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A lot to chew on here: Democrats are talking about a “constitutional crisis” and soon-to-be committee chairs in the U.S. House of Representatives are sending letters, calling for hearings, and demanding answers on the firing — providing a glimpse of what real oversight of the administration might look like.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are worried that Trump is on track to shut down the Russia investigation, either by firing special counsel Robert Mueller or having a loyalist replacement of Sessions work to undermine his team’s efforts. (Acting AG Matt Whitaker has expressed skepticism over Mueller’s probe; the rumored list of possible replacements includes people like Chris Christie.) The New York Times breaks down how the Sessions firing affects the Mueller investigation.

The big irony of all this, for me, is that Sessions — the first U.S. Senator to endorse Trump and a true believer in his hard-line immigration message — was, by far, the most effective member of the president’s cabinet in terms of actually carrying out his agenda. For Trump, “loyalty” proved more important.

OK: on to the midterms! Those hoping for a “blue wave” or an even more unlikely “red tsunami” may have been disappointed when the dust settled on these extremely-hyped elections this week.

As expected, Democrats picked up enough seats in the U.S. House — at least 30 at the time of this memo hits your inbox — to take control of the chamber. Also as expected, Republicans benefited from a favorable U.S. Senate map to not only keep but expand their majority by anywhere from two to four seats. Races in Arizona and Florida remain in doubt, but Republicans are leading in both.

Big picture: it was a good, but not great, night for Democrats, and it was an OK night for the GOP that could have been much, much worse. Next year, Congress will be starkly divided, with one chamber poised to finally provide meaningful oversight of the president — and the other more staunchly in his camp than it was before. (More on that later.)

Breaking down the results on the House side: the handful of GOP-held suburban seats Democrats have been targeting for the last two years — including those of Reps. Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen — overwhelmingly turned blue, a key part of the party’s midterm strategy. (Nineteen GOP incumbents lost in mostly-suburban districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.)

Dems also picked off some seats on the wish list, like a historically ruby-red Richmond, Virginia-area district held by the ultra-conservative Rep. Dave Brat (remember him?) along with a few wildcards: most people didn’t have Democrats grabbing seats in Charleston, South Carolina, or the suburbs of Oklahoma City, for example, but they did.

Those kinds of wins were majority-makers. But what stopped a blue wave was a string of GOP holds in districts favorable to them: Republicans won many of the lean-Republican seats they needed, often by razor-thin margins, in places like western Michigan, south Texas, and upstate New York. The dean of the House, Rep. Don Young of Alaska, staved off a scare, as did Iowa’s very own homophobe, white supremacist Rep. Steve King, who finally received some blowback from his party in the home stretch of the election. A few true toss-up races also went the GOP’s way in Trump states like Ohio and Kentucky. My election night go-to, the New York Times interactive map, is a good guide to assessing how each party fared versus expectations.

Two of Republicans’ brightest spots on the House map were in Minnesota: two of their three flips of Democratic seats came in greater Minnesota districts, the 1st and 8th, that are being vacated by their incumbents. (The third flip was a foregone conclusion in a new seat in Pennsylvania, which just had to redraw its congressional districts.)

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In CD8, Pete Stauber notched a healthy five-point win over Democrat Joe Radinovich, turning this historically Democratic seat in northeast Minnesota red, two years after it saw a 20-point swing from Obama to Trump. In CD1, GOPer Jim Hagedorn and Democrat Dan Feehan were locked in a neck-and-neck contest, trading narrow leads into the wee hours of Wednesday. By noon, Hagedorn had come out on top, with a lead of about 0.5% after all precincts had reported. (Feehan may yet ask for a recount. I have more in a story from Wednesday.)

At about 2 a.m. on election night, I wrote up this story exploring how Minnesota’s 2018 midterm results appeared to consolidate the urban-suburban-rural realignment that was seemingly sparked by Trump’s 2016 win. Hopefully it makes some sense in the light of day.

Over in the Senate, Democrats had long odds to take back the majority: they had 10 incumbents on the ballot in states Trump won, and their best opportunities for pickups were in purple states (Nevada) and outright red states (Texas). Democrats ended up losing three incumbents in deep-red states – Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota — who were widely regarded as the likeliest to go. (Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is narrowly down and — stop me if you’ve heard this one — is vowing a recount in the Sunshine State.)

While Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and allies cracked open the champagne, it wasn’t all bad news for Democrats, who won tough races in Montana and West Virginia (a state Trump won by over 40 points) and flipped a seat in Nevada. It was a great night, too, for Minnesota’s senators: Sen. Tina Smith, appointed to this seat in January following the resignation of Al Franken, won a decisive, 10-point victory over GOP state Sen. Karin Housley in a race where Republicans thought they could score an upset, or at least keep it close.

It was not a small group of national reporters who were eyeing Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 25-point victory margin over GOP state Rep. Jim Newberger as she cruised to a third Senate term. Klobuchar spent the final weekend of the campaign in Iowa and the night before the election on Stephen Colbert’s show in New York. With her big win, one of the top stories in Minnesota politics instantly becomes what Klobuchar does next.

So: how is each party messaging the midterm results? Trump— unsurprisingly bucking the customary post-midterm presidential mea culpaframed the loss of the House as a win for him and his party in a long, characteristically off-the-rails press conference on Wednesday.

More realistic White House and GOP officials have leaned on the “historical precedent” spin to explain away their loss of the House, arguing that it’s common that the party out of the White House tends to do better in midterms, particularly in a president’s first term. That is true; to them, it’s Trump’s unique appeal to the conservative movement that insulated them from further losses in the House — and it’s the aftermath of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process that handed them more seats in the Senate.

The GOP also took pleasure in noting that Democrats’ most-hyped progressive heroes in this cycle — Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia — all lost or were facing long odds in recounts. (Voter suppression tactics, by Abrams’ opponent in the governor’s race there, played a huge role in the outcome.) Moderate Dems are arguing that these candidates’ losses mean Democrats need to tack to the center in the group of Sun Belt and Rust Belt states they’re targeting in 2020; others argued they showed progressivism can win there.

Democrats’ general spin is that Tuesday’s results are a harbinger for much worse things to come for Trump and the GOP in 2020 and beyond. Democrats easily won the national popular vote for the House, which puts their performance, they say, squarely within “wave election” territory, and is good evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with Trump and the GOP. In this election, Democrats had a seven-point advantage (as of this afternoon) over the GOP in terms of the national House popular vote — about the same margin the GOP had in its historic 2010 wave election, in which it picked up 63 House seats.

Gerrymandering was a big reason why Democrats didn’t translate votes into seat pickups: Vox looks at how Republicans drew themselves into a red fortress to protect themselves from a blue wave. Pennsylvania showed the promise of court-ordered redistricting: its newly-drawn districts turned an eight-seat GOP advantage in their 18-member U.S. House delegation (not representative of a Dem-leaning state) into an even split.

There has been some talk on the left about a “Senate popular vote,” which Democrats technically won but is not a statistic that makes any sense. (Klobuchar got 1.5 million votes; John Barrasso of Wyoming got 136,000. Both get to go back to the Senate.) In general, anti-Senate sentiment is on the rise in progressive circles.

Other good news for Democrats: even districts they did not win went in their direction this year. The NYT has a cool interactive graphic showing how each congressional district shifted from 2016 to 2018, and it shows a total of 317 CDs went in Democrats’ direction, and by an average of 21 points. CD3, which shifted from Paulsen to Dean Phillips by 25 points, had the 5th-biggest swing of any district the country. (CD2’s Lewis-to-Craig swing of about 7 points was much more modest.)

One more results thing: the governor’s races were some of the best pieces of news for Democrats this cycle, who are eyeing control of state governments as redistricting battles loom in 2022. Democrats flipped seven governorships, which included bringing down a giant next door in Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker. And in one of the wildest results anywhere in the country on Tuesday, Laura Kelly won the Kansas governorship over steadfast Trump ally and hard-line immigration hawk Kris Kobach. (The New Yorker holds up that race as a possible model for how to defeat Trumpism in 2020.)

You know that Rep. Tim Walz handily won the Minnesota governorship, becoming the first ever Democrat to win that office following two terms of a DFL governor. He is one of five U.S. House members — three Democrats, two Republicans — to move from Congress to a governor’s mansion next year.

Stepping back: what was the point of all this? For starters, the Republican-dominated Washington of Trump’s first two years is now toast: Democratic control of the House means that the GOP’s legislative agenda is effectively stymied for the next two years; prospects for a border wall or repealing Obamacare will go down to basically zero come January.

At the same time, progressive priorities like expanding Medicare are unlikely to go far with Republicans in charge of the Senate — but expect the House to make some noise, as it did when Republicans took it in 2010 and then passed many versions of Obamacare repeal that were D.O.A. in the Senate.

So it’s possible Congress won’t do much next year, but there could be a bipartisan way forward on immigration, drug pricing and infrastructure issues. (Turns out the GOP’s Pelosi-fueled midterm messaging strategy didn’t work out, which is consolidating her position ahead of a possible leadership fight.) Politico runs down the possible areas of compromise.

Partisan warfare, though, is at the top of the menu for 2019. Democrats will pick up gavels in key House committees that oversee the executive branch, meaning they’ll have expansive power to press the administration for answers in investigating things like the family separation crisis, the federal response to the Puerto Rico hurricane disaster, and, yes, the Russia investigation. Very relevant this week: a deep WaPo multimedia tour of the long-festering decline of the legislative branch.

Trump’s response is, essentially: bring it on. But it won’t be pretty: Politico had a good look at what happens inside a White House when the opposition party wins the House, like it did for Obama in 2010 and Bill Clinton in 1994. The takeaway: Trump’s team is in for a protracted, legalistic, and miserable two-year battle with revved-up Democratic lawmakers and lawyers.

The Senate is a different story: the GOP expanded its majority and replaced red-state Democrats with Trump loyalists who may owe their seats to the president. One wrinkle there: Utah will send Mitt Romney, a sometime Trump critic, to the Senate. Whether or not he folds at key moments, like most #NeverTrumpers, will be a big 2019 D.C. storyline. (He already has pushed back, if gently, on Trump’s firing of Sessions.)

But the Senate victories mean Mitch McConnell can continue building on his — and arguably Trump’s — greatest accomplishment: filling the federal courts with conservative judges.

The week’s essential reads

The alarm bells for a Democratic takeover of the House had been ringing basically since Trump’s inauguration as president. A team of McClatchy reporters has a well-reported play-by-play of how Republicans lost the House, from the Women’s March to strategic missteps down the home stretch:

This reporting revealed that the GOP’s acute panic about 2018 began as early as the weekend of Trump’s inauguration. Internal Democratic data, which has not previously been reported, showed a path to a wholesale realignment of the political parties by summer. And even as Democrats tried to focus their campaigns on pocketbook issues, behind the scenes they were also preparing for Trump’s late push on immigration.

Ultimately, Conor Lamb’s victory in that western Pennsylvania district offered a template for the eventual Democratic takeover, as a telegenic, well-funded Marine Corps veteran with no voting record and a profile independent of the national Democratic Party beat out a GOP politician who couldn’t keep up in fundraising. Even in a conservative district, Lamb managed to capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment without fully alienating Republican voters.

Republican candidates in competitive districts, meanwhile, could never fully claim independence from Trump’s polarizing presidency.

“Everything became about Donald Trump,” said retiring GOP Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania. “And we did not find a way to assert a separate identity as a Congress, or more in particular, for those members in competitive districts.

“We became victims,” he added, “of the 2016 election.”

If 2016 showed that U.S. elections were vulnerable to foreign meddling, 2018 may have showed that a bigger threat to the integrity of democracy and voter rights could be poor administration of elections by domestic officials. ProPublica with a good look at the problems voters faced on Tuesday:

While aging infrastructure was already a well-known problem to election administrators, the surge of voters experiencing ordinary glitches led to extraordinarily long waits, sometimes stretching over hours. From Pennsylvania to Georgia to Arizona and Michigan, polling places started the day with broken machines leading to long lines, and never recovered.

“In 2016, we learned the technology has security vulnerabilities. Today was a wake-up call to performance vulnerabilities,” said Trey Grayson, the former president of the National Association of Secretaries of State and a member of the 2013 Presidential Commission on Election Administration. Tuesday, Grayson said, showed “the implications of turnout, stressing the system, revealing planning failures, feel impact of limited resources. If you had more resources, you’d have had more paper ballots, more machines, more polling places.”

The election hotline from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law clocked 24,000 calls by 6 p.m., twice the rate in in the 2014 midterm election. “People were not able to vote because of technical issues that are completely avoidable,” Ryan Snow, of the Lawyers’ Committee, said. “People who came to vote — registered to vote, showed up to vote — were not able to vote.”

The week in takes

Your weekend longread

White supremacist and far-right extremists have killed more people in the U.S. since September 11, 2001, than any other kind of terrorist. Things are getting worse in the last two years: emboldened far-right extremists are responsible for violent and even deadly acts around the country, from a Pittsburgh synagogue to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Federal and local law enforcement was not only ill-prepared for the rise of this kind of domestic terrorist, writes the NYT Magazine’s Janet Reitman, but it’s become clear that they are not equipped to stop what has already started.

In this atmosphere of apparent indifference on the part of government officials and law enforcement, a virulent, and violent, far-right movement has grown and metastasized. To combat it, some officials have suggested prosecuting related crimes through expansion of the government’s counterterrorism powers — creating a special “domestic terrorism” statute, for instance, which currently doesn’t exist. But a report released on Oct. 31 by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School argues that the creation of such a statute could easily be abused to target “protesters and political dissidents instead of terrorists,” and that law enforcement already has ample authority to prosecute domestic terrorism: “Congress must require that counterterrorism resource decisions be based on objective evaluations of the physical harm different groups pose to human life, rather than on political considerations that prioritize the safety of some communities over others.”

The report also calls out the Justice Department for its “blind spot” when it comes to domestic terrorism and hate crimes, which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein conceded earlier in the week. During a conference on Oct. 29, Rosenstein said that according to the latest F.B.I. crime report, “88 percent of agencies that provide hate-crimes data to the F.B.I. reported zero hate crimes in 2016.” The Justice Department was reviewing the accuracy of the reports, he noted. “Simply because hate crimes are not reported does not mean they are not happening.” …

In just seven days, a Florida man who lived out of a van plastered with stickers, including one of Hillary Clinton’s face in cross hairs, is reported to have sent a series of pipe bombs to at least a dozen of Trump’s critics. Two days after the first package appeared, a middle-aged white man, having tried unsuccessfully to break into a black church near Louisville, Ky., reportedly shot and killed two elderly African-Americans at a Kroger. “Whites don’t kill whites,” the man reportedly told an armed white man who confronted him. Then, at week’s end, a man who posted on Gab, the alt-right’s preferred social-media site, about a “kike infestation” interrupted services at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and several handguns; he was charged with murdering 11 people and injuring several more, including police officers. The Anti-Defamation League believed it to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history.

Law enforcement’s inability to reckon with the far right is a problem that goes back generations in this country, and the roots of this current crisis can be traced back more than a decade. With violent political messaging emanating from the White House and echoed throughout the conservative media and social-media landscapes, Levin only expects more attacks. “What we need to worry about is the guy who is riled up by this rhetoric and decides to go out and do something on his own,” he told me in August. “We have people who are ticking time bombs.”

What to look for next week

After spending October on the campaign trail, the 115th Congress will return for the lame duck session, the last gasp of an eight-year GOP House majority. In that chamber, there is a huge group of both Republican and Democratic members (over 90, a fifth of the House) who were defeated, moving onto other offices, or are retiring. Just in the Minnesota House delegation, five of eight members — Tim Walz, Keith Ellison, Jason Lewis, Erik Paulsen, and Rick Nolan — will cast their last votes before returning to Minnesota.

But there’s some important business that awaits these lawmakers: before skipping town earlier in the fall, Congress kicked some key government funding deadlines to December 8th, in order to avoid a potential pre-midterm government shutdown over funding for a border wall.

All year, Trump has mostly assumed a threatening stance on the wall, suggesting he’d risk a shutdown in order to secure money for the wall — all of the funding for it, he reiterated on Wednesday, not just some of it. Just weeks away from welcoming a Democratic majority that can shut down the wall, Pelosi and her caucus aren’t looking to compromise. Politico has some of the inside baseball on how the gamesmanship might shake out.

That’s all for me for this week. Thanks for sticking with me this week, and throughout an intense, fascinating midterm election season. What should I pay attention to in Minnesota and D.C. next year? Email me: