Morning Digest: Democratic congressman in Texas indicted on bribery charges

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The Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from the Daily Kos Elections team.

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TX-28: Federal prosecutors announced Friday that they had indicted Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and his wife for allegedly accepting close to $600,000 in bribes from an oil company controlled by the government of Azerbaijan and from a bank based in Mexico.

The Texas congressman responded to NBC’s initial report about the charges by proclaiming his innocence and insisting he would remain on the ballot.

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“I’m running for re-election and will win this November,” Cuellar said in a statement.

Cuellar secured renomination in March without opposition, and until Friday, it didn’t appear to matter which of his underfunded Republican foes might win the May 28 runoff to take on the seemingly secure incumbent.

Following his indictment, though, the GOP is almost certain to take a fresh look at targeting the 28th District, a constituency in the Laredo area and the eastern San Antonio suburbs that favored Joe Biden 53-46 in 2020 but has been trending to the right.

Navy veteran Jay Furman led businessman Lazaro Garza 45-27 in the first round of the GOP primary, which put Furman a few points below the majority he needed to win outright.

Neither candidate had appeared capable of putting up a strong fight against Cueller, who won each of his 10 terms by double digits. Garza self-funded virtually all of the $300,000 he brought in through the end of March but had just $24,000 left at the end of that month, while Furman hasn’t even filed a first-quarter fundraising report even though the deadline to do so was weeks ago.

Cuellar, meanwhile, seemed to be on a glide path to victory after a couple of difficult cycles. The congressman has long been one of the most conservative Democrats in the House and is the last remaining member of the caucus who opposes abortion rights. That voting record prompted attorney Jessica Cisneros to primary him from the left in 2020, and Cuellar held her off by a small 52-48 margin. Republicans failed to field a candidate, though, and Cuellar went on to crush a Libertarian.

Cisneros sought a rematch the following cycle and this time was able to deploy a new line of attack after the FBI raided Cuellar’s home and campaign headquarters as part of a probe related to government and business ties with Azerbaijan.

But while Cisneros forced Cuellar into a runoff, the scandal wasn’t quite enough to topple the longtime incumbent. An attorney for Cuellar claimed that he’d been informed by federal authorities that the congressman “is not a target of this investigation,” a statement that came the month before the incumbent fended off Cisneros in a 50.3-49.7 squeaker.

That fall, Republicans made their first serious effort to unseat Cuellar, with the NRCC unsurprisingly airing ads focusing on the FBI raid. No new information surfaced during the general election about that probe, however, and Cuellar went on to score an unexpectedly wide 57-43 victory over his Republican foe, former Ted Cruz staffer Cassy Garcia.

Cuellar’s troubles, legal and electoral, appeared to be over after that, especially after Cisneros decided not to challenge him for a third time. All that changed Friday, though, when the first public development about the incumbent’s ties to Azerbaijan in two years came in the form of a federal indictment.

Senate

WI-Sen: Restoration PAC, which far-right megadonor Richard Uihlein largely funds, is spending $3.2 million on TV ads against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. The PAC’s initial commercial argues that she’s too liberal and doesn’t represent Wisconsin’s interests.

Governors

WV-Gov: Research America finds Attorney General Patrick Morrisey leading businessman Chris Miller 32-25 in the May 14 Republican primary for governor, with former Del. Moore Capito just behind at 24% and Secretary of State Mac Warner taking only 10%. The firm’s last poll from early April, which was also done on behalf of MetroNews and a health insurance provider called The Health Plan, gave Morrisey a tiny 31-29 advantage over Capito, with Miller in third place at 16%.

The only survey we’ve seen that was conducted between these two polls came in late April from NMB Research on behalf of a pro-Capito group and showed the former delegate beating Morrisey 31-23. That internal was conducted shortly after Capito earned an endorsement from termed-out Gov. Jim Justice.

House

NJ-10: Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday called a Sept. 18 special election to succeed Rep. Donald Payne, a fellow Democrat who died on April 24.

The candidate filing deadline for the Newark-based 10th District will be May 10, while the primary will be on July 16. The general election for this safely blue seat will take place on a Wednesday even though most elections in New Jersey, including this primary, are on Tuesdays. (A 2013 special election to fill the seat held by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, though, was also held on a Wednesday.)

Payne’s name remains on the ballot for the regularly scheduled June 4 primary, where he’s the only candidate listed. Local Democratic leaders will be tasked with selecting a new nominee sometime after results are certified on June 17. The New Jersey Globe, which first reported on the timing of the special, says that party officials “are not expected” to act until after the July 16 special Democratic primary.

OR-03: Inside Elections’ Jacob Rubashkin relays that a new super PAC called Voters for Responsive Government is spending at least $946,000 on ads attacking former Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal ahead of the May 21 Democratic primary for this safely blue Portland seat.

The commercials make use of a November column in The Oregonian where author Steve Duin argued that Jayapal had done a poor job addressing homelessness and other issues while in office. The ads do not mention either of Jayapal’s main intra-party foes, state Rep. Maxine Dexter and Gresham City Councilor Eddy Morales.

Dexter, for her part, is the beneficiary of what’s now $1.7 million in outside support from 314 Action Fund, which is more than twice what the group reported spending about two weeks ago. The PAC, which promotes Democratic candidates with backgrounds in science, is continuing to promote Dexter’s career as a doctor and support for gun safety and abortion rights. No other outside groups have reported spending here as of Friday.

TX-12: State Rep. Craig Goldman has launched what appears to be the first negative ad of the May 28 Republican primary runoff, and it accuses businessman John O’Shea of failing to back fellow Republicans. Goldman and O’Shea are competing to replace retiring Rep. Kay Granger in Texas’ 12th District, a reliably red seat in the Fort Worth area.

“John O’Shea didn’t vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton,” intones Goldman’s narrator. The spot continues, “He didn’t vote for these conservatives either,” as the screen features photos of Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Sen. Ted Cruz. Later a clip plays where O’Shea is shown uttering the words, “Right now, I say I’m not a conservative.” The rest of the spot touts Goldman as a reliable conservative who has the support of Abbott, Patrick, and the NRA.

Goldman outpaced O’Shea 44-26 in the first round of voting on March 5, and he finished that month with a huge $607,000 to $29,000 cash on hand advantage. But turnout with almost certainly be considerably smaller for the runoff, which takes place one day after Memorial Day, especially since there won’t be a presidential primary to bring out more infrequent voters.

O’Shea, who enjoys Paxton’s support, is hoping that hard-right voters will make up a disproportionate share of the vote for round two and favor him over Goldman, a former state House GOP caucus chair who is closer to the party establishment. Goldman last year also voted to impeach Paxton for corruption, something O’Shea is doing his best to remind voters about.

WV-01: Rep. Carol Miller has launched her first negative ad against Derrick Evans, a former state delegate who served 90 days in prison for his participation in the Jan. 6 riot, ahead of the May 14 Republican primary for the safely red 1st District in the southern half of West Virginia.

Miller, who voted against recognizing Joe Biden’s win hours after the attack on the Capitol, unsurprisingly doesn’t mention the assault and instead tries to portray her far-right opponent as a Democrat.

“Not long ago, Evans ran as a hardcore Democrat on Hillary’s ticket, opposing Trump,” the narrator declares of Evans, who lost a 2016 Democratic primary for the state House four years before he won as a Republican.

The commercial doesn’t stop there in reminding viewers of that eight-year-old campaign. “Derrick the Democrat was endorsed by a pro-trans group and rated zero by the NRA,” says the narrator. The ad goes on to accuse Evans of now wanting to both defund the police and cut soldiers’ pay.

Evans, who resigned from the legislature days after Jan. 6 in what proved to be a temporary state of “regret [for] any hurt, pain or embarrassment I may have caused,” has looked like a longshot opponent against Miller. He did, however, raise a notable $780,000 from his launch in early 2023 through April 24, though he had only $65,000 left to spend on that date.

Miller, who has hauled in about $1 million during the campaign, had almost $130,000 left in the bank for the stretch run. She’s campaigning for renomination the same day that her son, businessman Chris Miller, is taking part in a hotly contested GOP primary for governor.

Ballot Measures

AZ Ballot: Reproductive rights advocates in Arizona say they’re forging ahead with their campaign to amend the state constitution after Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs signed a new bill repealing the state’s 1864 ban on the procedure, arguing that their plan to safeguard the right to an abortion is still of critical importance.

Organizers point out that the repeal will not take effect until 90 days after the legislature adjourns, which may not happen until June or July. As a result, the near-total 19th-century ban—which remains on hold until 45 days after the state Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the law becomes final—could come into force sometime this year. (Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes says the soonest that could happen is June 27, but she’s asked the court to delay finalizing its ruling.)

But even if the 1864 law is never revived and the repeal does kick in, a separate 15-week ban that Republicans passed in 2022—one that contains no exceptions for rape or incest—would become operative. Arizona for Abortion Access, the group leading the amendment campaign, says that such a state of affairs “denies us the right to make decisions about our own health,” a right that would be restored with a win at the ballot box in November.

MO Ballot: Missourians for Constitutional Freedom announced Friday that it turned in more than 380,000 voter signatures for a ballot initiative that would enshrine reproductive rights in Missouri’s constitution and overturn the GOP’s near-total ban on abortion. Initiative supporters need signatures equivalent to 8% of votes cast in the last election for governor in six of Missouri’s eight congressional districts—anywhere from 172,000 to 189,000 signatures statewide—and organizers claimed they met that requirement.

A spokesperson for GOP Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office says the signature-verification process likely wouldn’t be complete for any voter-led initiative to appear on the Aug. 6 primary ballot, meaning the abortion rights measure would likely go before voters in November.

However, the legislature’s GOP majority is trying to place their own amendment on the August ballot that would make it harder to pass liberal measures—but not conservative ones—by requiring amendments to win a majority of the statewide vote and win in a majority of congressional districts. Both chambers have passed a version of this plan, but there’s one key difference between them that Republicans still need to reconcile before the legislative session ends on May 17.

Democrats in the Senate waged a multi-day filibuster in February that prevented Republicans in that chamber from stuffing the amendment with “ballot candy,” which the Kansas City Star defines as “inserting unrelated but popular ideas into a measure to encourage people to vote in favor of it.” Most notably, the GOP’s original proposal would have included a provision barring non-citizens from voting, something that has been illegal in Missouri since 1924.

The House, though, placed these sweeteners in the incarnation of the amendment it passed last month. Democratic state Rep. Eric Woods predicted more chaos ahead, telling the Missouri Independent, “We are putting this bad stuff back on to send it back over there and watch the Senate explode again as if we aren’t already in enough turmoil in this building.”

If both chambers can advance one version of the amendment before the session ends, they’d need to convince a simple majority of voters to approve it in August. This rule would apply to any amendments on future ballots, including potentially the abortion rights plan.

MT Ballot: AdImpact reports that a group called Montanans for Election Reform has booked over $10 million for TV ads this fall to support a pair of ballot initiatives that are intended to adopt a top-four primary similar to the system used in Alaska.

The proposed constitutional amendments still have to qualify for November’s ballot. Supporters have until June 21 to submit voter signatures equal to 10% of votes cast in the last election for governor statewide—roughly 60,000 overall—and in 40 of the legislature’s 100 House districts.

One proposal, Issue 12, would eliminate traditional party primaries and have all candidates run in a single primary where the top four finishers, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. However, it would not change the current general election system where it only takes a plurality to win, likely to comply with the state’s “single-subject” rule for ballot measures.

The second proposal, Issue 13, would complement the first by requiring general elections to be “decided by majority vote as determined as provided by law rather than by a plurality or the largest amount of the votes.”

Under Alaska’s approach, the general election is decided using ranked-choice voting, but Issue 13 does not require the use of RCV, which the GOP-led legislature banned via a statute last year. It’s therefore unclear what method the state would use to ensure winners secure a majority of the vote if voters were to approve the measure, though a constitutional amendment would take precedence over any statute.

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