Monday, January 30, 2023

On Our Final Journey On the "Virtual Route 66" For January 2023: On the Week That Was In Our World



As we bid farewell to January and begin a new month,  we present a curation of the week that was as the 2024 Election Campaign in  the US begins, up, as the Ukraine War rages on, and as a fight looms over the US Debt Ceiling:

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) playing the “COVID is a hoax” hits (still?!) in 2023

Houston, we have another classified documents problem.

  • Former Vice President Mike Pence also had classified documents at his house in Indiana, which his aides discovered only last week. Those documents have since been turned over to the FBI. Pence’s attorney said in a letter dated January 18 that Pence engaged outside counsel “out of an abundance of caution” to review records stored in his home after news first broke about the materials found at President Biden’s residence, from his own tenure as Vice President. 

  • In a separate letter dated January 22, Pence’s attorney said that the Justice Department requested direct possession of those documents found at the former Vice President’s home, bypassing standard procedures. Spokespersons for former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush stated that both administrations had turned over all classified documents, with Obama adding that his office had been given a “clean bill of health” by the National Archives and Records Administration. 

  • Pence becomes the third former Executive Branch official found with classified documents in his possession, which should ease the fallout for Biden. In a world of good-faith news reporting and Republican politics, the very similar Pence and Biden stories would give rise to legitimate oversight of the presidential transition process, and how those tasked with moving elected officials out of the White House sort classified from unclassified documents. Those episodes would also be held in stark contrast to disgraced former president Donald Trump, who stole selected documents, lied about it, refused to hand them over, and continues to claim they are rightfully his.

Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in…yet. 

  • Congressional Republicans are trying to spin this as “Our guy innocent, your guy guilty,” but we expected that of them. House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. James Comer (R-KY) issued a statement that Pence’s cooperation “stands in stark contrast to Biden White House staff who continue to withhold information from Congress and the American people.” Lol. Obviously, he cites no specific examples to support that claim, because they don’t exist, but go off, James. 

  • Alas, the Mainstream Liberal Media has proven little better than James Comer in this case. In spite of what Comer would have you believe, Biden and Pence both voluntarily gave over their documents after self-directed searches, and agreed to cooperate with Congress.  Nevertheless, The New York Times has chosen to whistle past the Pence story entirely, so they can milk the false Trump/Biden equivalence as long as possible. But the Pence revelations undermine the Times’s assertion that Biden’s handling of documents “complicates the case against Trump," and actually instead serve to create a sharp contrast of how aberrant Trump’s conduct was. 

If the mainstream media wants to make the argument that transitions are messy and there aren’t enough thorough processes in place when VP’s are on their way out to prevent certain documents from slipping through the cracks, fine, go nuts. Call up Al Gore and Dick Cheney and see what they can add to this conversation. But treating Biden’s voluntary cooperation as equal to Trump’s intentional theft of classified documents and subsequent obstruction of justice is not only journalistically irresponsible, it’s factually incorrect. 


As they’ve long promised (to their billionaire donors) House Republicans have begun weighing a series of legislative proposals targeting Social Security, Medicare, and other social safety net and entitlement programs as part of their ongoing debt-limit extortion plans. Under the weak-chinned leadership of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, House Republicans have rallied around “austerity,” which they claim will balance the nation’s budget—a goal they manifestly don’t care about at all. (The other part of that plan—to defund the IRS and again slash taxes for the wealthy and corporations—would balloon the federal deficit, but pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!) It’s somewhat unlikely they will succeed in gutting Social Security and Medicare because even their god Donald Trump (who, by the way, signed off on two clean debt-limit increases during his presidency with bipartisan support) opposes it, but health care, education, science, and labor programs will all certainly be on the GOP’s list of ransoms. In the meantime, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen activated yet another emergency cash-management measure to avoid breaching the federal debt limit, suspending reinvestments in large government retirement funds. The Government Securities Investment Fund is one of the largest tools the Treasury can wield to reclaim borrowing capacity under the debt limit. Seems like everything is going great! Republican fiscal policy does it again!

The Justice Department filed its second antitrust lawsuit against Google in just over two years, the latest sign that the Biden administration isn’t backing down from cases against major tech companies even in the face of mixed court results. 


In what would be a reversal, U.S. officials said that the White House is poised to approve sending M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine


Newly-resurfaced audio of an interview Rep. George Santos (R-NY) conducted in December of last year show him claiming to have been the victim of an attempted murder and that he was mugged in broad daylight while walking down Fifth Avenue in the summer of 2021. Any great writer of fiction would be so lucky to have an imagination this active. 


Police have arrested a man suspected of killing seven people in shootings at two separate locations on Monday in Half Moon Bay, CA. Just over three weeks into the year, the U.S. has now had more mass shootings in 2023 than at this point in any year on record. 


The Republican National Committee is set to vote on a resolution this week considering whether or not to condemn not just antisemitism, but rapper Ye (better known as Kanye West) and other white nationalists like Nick Fuentes who have made explicitly antisemitic statements. Glad to know they’re “considering” it months after the fact! Profiles in courage!


Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) wants to ban TikTok in the United States. Okay, man. 


Elon Musk reinstated the Twitter account of Nick Fuentes, a virulent white nationalist and antisemite. America’s gravestone will read “Free speech ;-) ‘absolutism’ !!!”

The U.S. Senate grilled Live Nation Entertainment executives over their inability to block bot purchases of tickets after a major ticket-sale fiasco ahead of Taylor Swift’s upcoming tour. If the Swifties end up breaking up a tech monopoly I will forgive them for everything else.

Against the backdrop of the most far-right government in Israel’s history, a nonprofit called Shlom Asiraich has gained a foothold in the United States and is collecting tax-exempt donations from Americans to fund Israeli extremists convicted in some of the country’s most infamous hate crimes. According to findings from the Associated Press and the Israeli investigative platform Shomrim, the group has a documented money trail from New Jersey to imprisoned Israeli radicals, including the man who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and many others convicted of deadly attacks on Palestinians. At least five of the group’s seven founders have themselves been questioned by Israeli authorities for crimes related to crimes against Palestinians, and some have even been arrested and charged. This raises moral and legal questions for United States government regulators, as nonprofits are not supposed to, you know, support murderers. 

Black workers, young workers, and people on the lowest rungs of the income ladder were among those who saw the largest pay increases last year


Disgraced former president Trump withdrew a second lawsuit against New York Attorney General Letitia James


A new kind of gene therapy is showing promising results for treating a host of brain disorders

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who will chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, is considering a move to call Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in for testimony about the corporation’s union-busting activities. Make that a double.

Democrats are defending all 3 seats they hold in states that Donald Trump carried for president in 2020 -- Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia. Additionally, they are defending 5 more in states that President Biden carried but by margins smaller than his national edge (roughly 4.5 points). Those are Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Of those, one is already an open seat -- Michigan, where Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) is retiring at the completion of her fourth term in office -- and another is effectively open because of Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party. She still caucuses with Democrats, but it’s become clear that she will have credible opposition to both her left and right if she seeks a second term. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-3) entered the race on Monday.

So it isn’t necessarily a stretch to say that Democrats are defending the top 8 Senate seats likeliest to flip. This level of exposure may feel unusually significant at the start of a cycle, although Democrats were also greatly exposed heading into the 2014 Senate elections -- in our first update that cycle, we suggested that at least the 7 most vulnerable seats were held by Democrats. Democrats ended up losing all 7 of those seats, plus 2 more for a total of 9 as Republicans flipped the Senate.

That was, of course, a Republican wave year -- it is way too soon to say anything about what the environment will be in November 2024. But 2014 also was, to a great degree, a realigning election, as 6 of the 9 Republican Senate flips came in double-digit Republican presidential states where Democrats were living on borrowed time in an era where presidential and Senate results are becoming more greatly correlated (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia). The Senate map is now much better aligned with presidential results -- just 5 of the 100 senators are from a different party than the one that won their respective states in the 2020 presidential election. The tricky thing for Democrats is that all 3 of those seats they hold are on the ballot this year (again, Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia).

Democrats also were overexposed the last couple of times this map was contested: 2012 and 2018. They basically held the line in both cycles, netting 2 seats to expand their majority in 2012, and then losing just 2 net seats in November 2018, keeping them within striking distance of winning a future majority, which they did in 2020.

Despite the Democrats’ level of exposure, we view the overall race for the Senate as a Toss-up. Republicans have a ton of opportunities but the burden of proof is on them to produce capable candidates after they just had a terrible slate in 2022. The presidential race will also have a large bearing on 2024 -- in the past couple of presidential races, only a single state split its vote for president and Senate (Maine reelecting Republican Susan Collins while backing Biden in 2020).

Map 2 shows the initial ratings.

Map 2: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

The rating that likely stands out the most is West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) starts out in a Leans Republican race. It is fairly unusual for us to start an incumbent as an underdog, but we think it’s warranted in this instance.

First of all, it is not at all clear as to whether Manchin will even be on the ballot again. Appearing on Meet the Press over the weekend, Manchin declined to say whether he will be running again. And West Virginia has just become so, so Republican; It backed Trump for president by roughly 40 points each time.

Manchin squeaked by with a roughly 3-point margin against a mediocre opponent, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), in the good Democratic midterm environment of 2018.

In a presidential year where the GOP nominee appears likely to win West Virginia by another landslide, we are skeptical of Manchin’s ability to generate the immense amount of crossover he will need. Polling also suggests Manchin is relatively unpopular at home: Morning Consult’s recent polling had his approval spread at just 40% approve, 53% disapprove. Manchin may face a stronger opponent in 2024, too: Gov. Jim Justice (R) is considering running. While Justice has some baggage from his business history that could hurt him in a hotly-contested campaign, he has good approval ratings, again per Morning Consult. Rep. Alex Mooney (R, WV-2), who is already running, would not be as formidable of a challenger, but he (or another Republican, like Morrisey) would benefit from West Virginia’s heavy shift toward Republicans. The bottom line is that Manchin is going to be hard-pressed to win again -- and, if he retires, this should be a fairly easy GOP flip.

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Jon Tester (D-MT) start in the Toss-up category. Both of their states are Republican at the presidential level but are more competitive than West Virginia. Each benefited from beatable opponents in 2018: Brown’s challenger, then-Rep. Jim Renacci (R), never really got going, allowing Brown to run well ahead of the other statewide Ohio Democrats that year, while Tester successfully painted then-state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R) as a carpetbagger from Maryland and won a closer race. Rosendale, who has since won election to the House, may very well run again, as might newly-elected Rep. Ryan Zinke (R, MT-1), who returned to the House following a checkered stint as Donald Trump’s first Secretary of the Interior. We wouldn’t regard Rosendale or Zinke as super-strong challengers to Tester, but both probably would be capable of getting the job done under the right circumstances (and perhaps others will emerge). Tester has not announced whether he is running again; Morning Consult has found his approval to be quite good lately.

Brown has already announced his plans to run for a fourth term. His first prominent Republican challenger is state Sen. Matt Dolan, who won a somewhat respectable third place in last year’s Senate primary. Dolan ran a bit closer to the center in that primary than his rivals, and he likely benefited from at least a little bit of crossover support from Democrats in what is effectively an open primary state (the GOP Senate primary was by far the most interesting race, which likely drew some non-Republicans to it). Dolan won’t have the field to himself -- Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) appears to be gearing up to run, likely along with others. It is possible that Brown’s eventual challenger may be stronger than Tester’s, but we’ll just have to wait and see how things shake out. Brown should be able to get at least some crossover support, but will that be enough to overcome a GOP margin of, say, 8 points for president (Trump’s margin in both 2016 and 2020)? We don’t know, which is why this is a Toss-up.

The Arizona situation is fascinating, given the possibility of a true 3-way race. Gallego may have the Democratic primary field to himself, but that remains an open question -- one possible contender, Rep. Greg Stanton (D, AZ-4), passed on a bid in advance of Gallego’s announcement. Gallego is definitely positioned to Sinema’s left, which may help him consolidate the Democratic base but could leave him vulnerable with the swing voters who ultimately will decide the race. But that also depends on whether Sinema runs, how national Democrats decide to handle the race if she does, and who Republicans nominate. Speaking of, the leaders of the Arizona Republicans’ weak statewide 2022 ticket -- gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Senate nominee Blake Masters -- are both reportedly considering entering this race, among others. Republicans would be wise to look elsewhere. Karrin Taylor Robson (R), a former member of the state Board of Regents who lost to Lake in the 2022 gubernatorial primary and very well might be governor now had she not lost that race, is also considering the Senate race (all of this Republican maneuvering was reported recently in the Washington Post). There are more moving pieces in this race than probably any of the others as this cycle begins.

We discussed Michigan in-depth in the aftermath of Stabenow’s retirement, and the race starts as Leans Democratic despite it being an open seat in a swing state. The Democrats holding the other marginal Biden states -- Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) -- all begin favored to some degree, with Casey best-positioned (in our view) thanks to his longer track record and the possibility that Pennsylvania may be a very marginally better state for Democrats at the presidential level than Nevada and Wisconsin in 2024. Casey did announce a prostate cancer diagnosis earlier this month, but he also said his prognosis was good. It appears that Casey is planning on running for a fourth term -- obviously, if he retired, that would change our outlook.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) announced his reelection bid on Friday. He plus Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) start in the Safe Democratic column, as Republicans would need very outstanding challengers and a strong overall political environment to really push any of them. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) also starts in the Safe Democratic column, despite the emergence of another federal investigation into him that was reported right before the recent midterm. Sen. Angus King of Maine, a nominal independent who caucuses with Democrats, indicated in December he intends to run again. He starts in the Likely column. The other Safe Democratic seats don’t merit much mention, at least in a general election context (we’ll have more to say about primary action across the Senate map in both parties in a future issue).

Democrats actually held several of the seats Republicans are defending this cycle at some point within the last dozen years or so. Republicans flipped Nebraska in 2012, and then Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota in 2018. But we’re starting nearly all of the 11 seats Republicans are defending in the Safe category -- many of these states are just no longer open to voting Democratic at the Senate level.

The pair of Republican-held Senate seats that are the most plausible Democratic targets, to the extent that any are plausible, are Florida and Texas. Both were close in the 2018 election -- Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) only knocked off then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D) by about a tenth of a point, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) beat Beto O’Rourke (D) by about 2.5 points (O’Rourke has since run unsuccessfully for president and for Texas governor). It may be the case that Florida and Texas are moving in opposite directions -- the former getting less competitive, the latter getting more competitive -- but as it stands now, both states are clearly positioned to the right of the nation as a whole at the presidential level. Neither Scott nor Cruz is a perfect incumbent, and both are sometimes mentioned as possible 2024 presidential contenders. We could envision one or both of these Senate races heating up if Democrats get impressive challengers and help from the environment. As of now, both start in the Likely Republican column.

An obstacle for Democrats is that both Florida and Texas are huge states with many pricey media markets. Outside groups can’t just dip their toes into such states to effectively advertise: They need to come loaded for bear.

On the other hand, we suspect a strong Cruz opponent would have little trouble raising money from what has become a formidable national Democratic small-donor fundraising base, and that may be true for a Scott challenger as well. Also, Democrats likely are going to want to play offense somewhere, even if the options are expensive and difficult.


Beyond trying to save their Senate majority, Democrats will at the very least want to hold their losses to a minimum. If Republicans can win the Toss-ups and even cut into the leaning Democratic seats, they could build a potentially durable Senate majority, given that the other 2 Senate maps (coming up in 2026 and 2028) are fairly well-sorted by party at this point. But that’s getting way ahead of the action -- the first order of business for Republicans is simply fielding a better roster of candidates than they produced last time in order to convert 2024’s potential into reality. We’ll see if they can do it.

Democrats overcame a difficult environment in 2022 and netted a Senate seat in large part because of their ability to court persuadable voters and turn races that could have been referendums on Democrats into, instead, choices between candidates. They will need to do that again in a presidential year, particularly in the otherwise unfavorable states of Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia.