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Election Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour'

This is Election Countdown, The Hill's weekly newsletter from Lisa Hagen (@LA_Hagen) and Max Greenwood (@KMaxGreenwood) that brings you the biggest stories on the campaign trail. We'd love to hear from you, so feel free to reach out to Lisa at LHagen@thehill.com and Max at MGreenwood@thehill.com. with any questions, comments, criticisms or food recommendations (mostly the latter, please).

 

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We're 83 days from the 2018 midterm elections and 811 days from the 2020 elections.

 

In an era of big money and sophisticated campaigns, politics is increasingly becoming a team sport. A strong candidate at the head of a ticket can drive turnout in other contests on the ballot, and a weak candidate can hurt turnout in other races just as much.

Tuesday night was a bad night for a Republican squad hoping to defend its already-tenuous majority in the House, as voters opted for more conservative nominees in two battleground states over stronger and more traditional contenders expected to do well in the general election.

In Minnesota, those conservatives squelched former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's comeback bid, choosing Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (R) as the Republican nominee for governor. And in Kansas, Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) conceded defeat to Kris Kobach, the lightening rod Kansas secretary of State who has President Trump's backing.

Already aware of the treacherous terrain they face this year, Reps. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) and Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) had urged Pawlenty to run for his old job, confident that a steady hand would mollify suburban voters who might otherwise want a change. Republicans had also hoped to pick up Democratic-held seats left vacant by Reps. Tim Walz, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Rick Nolan.

"They're both in more trouble with a weak gubernatorial nominee," one Minnesota Republican strategist said of Paulsen and Lewis. "And we can forget about picking up" the Walz or Nolan seats.

In Kansas, top aides to Rep. Kevin Yoder (R) voiced private concerns that having Kobach at the top of the ticket would energize Democrats and independents who can't stand the firebrand conservative. Republicans are also concerned that a seat being vacated by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R) may be vulnerable.

"This race will be nationalized," said one Kansas Republican familiar with the internal discussions. "Kobach is hated by independents. He energizes the [Democrats] to get out the vote."

How does a subpar top-of-the-ticket play out in down-ballot races? Look no farther than Virginia, where Sen. Tim Kaine (D) has spent this week campaigning with Abigail Spanberger, Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton, three Democratic candidates running for GOP-held House seats. Kaine has done more than 30 events with House candidates since the June primary, his campaign told The Hill.

By contrast, the Republican nominee facing Kaine, Prince William County Council chairman Corey Stewart, has based his pitch to voters on a pledge to defend Confederate statues -- even though he is a Minnesota native. Not exactly the pitch that suburban voters in an increasingly blue state want to hear.

A Virginia Commonwealth University poll released last week shows Kaine overwhelmingly leading Stewart. So don't expect to see Stewart campaigning alongside Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) any time soon.

The Hill's Reid Wilson has more here on Republican worries that weak top-of-the-ticket candidates could cost them the House.

 

Primary recap

Two big things from Tuesday's primaries: Democrats chose history-making nominees in three states and establishment candidates flexed their muscles in the Midwest.

Democratic voters in Vermont chose Christine Hallquist as their gubernatorial nominee, making her the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for a governorship by a major political party.

In Connecticut's 5th District, voters handed former National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes the Democratic nomination to replace Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D). If Hayes wins in November, she'll become the first black Democrat from Connecticut to serve in the House.

And in Minnesota's 5th District, Ilhan Omar took the Democratic nomination to succeed Rep. Keith Ellison (D), likely setting her up to become one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

Tuesday was also a (largely) good night for establishment candidates, particularly in the two Midwestern primaries.

Leah Vukmir, who carried the endorsement of the Wisconsin GOP, overcame a challenge from Kevin Nicholson in the state's GOP Senate primary, handing a defeat to a candidate who billed himself as a political outsider.

And incumbent Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a longtime player in Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, easily advanced to the state's special Senate election in November, beating out Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, in her primary.

 

Read our takeaways from Tuesday night.

 

Race for the White House

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing Stormy Daniels in her lawsuit against Trump, released his policy positions on Twitter as he weighs a 2020 bid. Among his positions, Avenatti supports "Medicare for All," which is gaining steam on the left flank of the party.

And while we're on the subject of Avenatti, The Hill's Amie Parnes and Mike Lillis take a look at how Democrats are embracing Avenatti's call to be more aggressive in the Trump era--making a notable switch from former first lady Michelle Obama's call to "go high."

 

Senate showdown

Democrats and Republicans are vying for votes among Florida's burgeoning Puerto Rican population - a voting bloc that is expected to play a critical role in 2020 and beyond.

On the Republican side, party officials and outside groups are holding civics classes and resume-writing workshops to court Puerto Rican voters, The Hill's Rafael Bernal and Max Greenwood report. Meanwhile, Democrats are looking to field more diverse candidates as they seek to hold onto Puerto Ricans as reliable Democratic voters.

 

Meanwhile, progressives are livid that Senate Democrats aren't doing enough to oppose Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, reports The Hill's Jordain Carney. Their frustrations come as vulnerable Senate Democrats o meet with Kavanaugh. They include Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.). He's already met with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

 

Survey says...

Sen. Bill Nelson (D) holds a slight lead over Gov. Rick Scott (R) in Florida's Senate race, a poll commissioned by the nonpartisan Hispanic Federation and several progressive Latino groups finds. The poll finds Nelson up, 44 to 41 percent, among Latinos statewide. Scott leads among Cuban-Americans, who lean conservative, while Nelson is ahead among Puerto Ricans.

 

A new Monmouth University poll is showing the race for a competitive New Jersey House seat is a dead heat. Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) leads his Democratic challenger Andy Kim, a former national security aide in the Obama administration, 41 to 40 percent, an edge within the survey's margin of error. Trump won MacArthur's district in 2016, but Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012.

 

New polling is out from Navigator Research and here are some of the highlights: Democrats are leading the generic ballot by 8 points, 45 to 37 percent. The group found that opposition to the family separation policy has grown even as the administration has stopped the policy. Now 69 percent oppose it. And on the Supreme Court, 15 percent say they have a favorable view of Trump's nominee Brett Kavanaugh, while 28 percent view him unfavorably.

 

Paper chase

Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer announced Tuesday that he will spend $10 million on a get out the vote effort that he's calling "Need to Vote." The name is a play on his other initiative "Need to Impeach," which seeks to rally support for booting Trump from office. The Get-out-the-vote campaign will take out TV and digital ad spots, mail out handwritten letters encouraging supporters to vote and dispatch political operatives across the country.

 

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) is going up on the airwaves--and using the money he raised after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) ran a negative ad against him. O'Rourke, who has an uphill fight in his Senate bid in ruby-red Texas, is spending $1.27 million on a "positive" ad campaign.

 

What we're watching for

Here's a list of the final primaries in August: Alaska and Wyoming hold primaries on Aug. 21 and Arizona and Florida have primaries on Aug. 28.

 

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is set to campaign alongside Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) on Aug. 18 in a trio of events the lawmakers are dubbing the "Freedom Tour." Jordan is mounting a bid for House Speaker and DeSantis is Trump's choice for Florida governor. They'll be joined by another avid Trump supporter, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will debate progressive challenger, former "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon, on Aug. 29 in the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

 

Coming to a TV near you

Less than 24 hours since the Wisconsin primary, Democrats and Republicans leapt out of the gate with new ads in the Senate and governor's races.

 

In the Senate primary, Democratic super PAC American Bridge is running an ad targeting newly minted GOP nominee Leah Vukmir. And Gov. Scott Walker (R) is also out with a new TV ad touting his agenda. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Republican Party launched an ad targeting Walker's Democratic opponent, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.

 

Meanwhile, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) launched a flurry of new ads this week tarring Democratic candidates in competitive House races. The ads take Democrats to task over local issues as well as continuing to tie them to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). CLF is running ads in competitive GOP-held seats in California, New Jersey, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York and Maine.

 

Mike Braun, the Republican challenging Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) in Indiana, is out with a new digital ad campaign seeking to put pressure on Donnelly to support Kavanaugh's nomination. One ad questions whether Donnelly will get "permission" from Democratic leaders to confirm him, while another demands that Chuck Schumer "allow Joe to confirm Judge Kavanaugh today."

 

 

Wave watch

About a week after Washington state's primary, we finally know who Republican Dino Rossi will face in November. Democrat Kim Schrier, a physician won the second spot on the general election ballot in Washington's top-two primary. Rossi and Schrier will compete in the race to replace Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), whose seat Clinton carried by more than 3 points.

 

Pelosi is going back to a familiar strategy from 2006--painting Republicans as corrupt in the wake of Rep. Chris Collins's (R-N.Y.) arrest on insider trading charges. Democrats are looking to hit home that strategy in the run-up to the midterms, linking the party to Collins and the scandals that have swept up White House officials. It's unclear how effective those attacks will be, but Democrats--and Pelosi--believe it can be a powerful campaign message like in 2006.

 

And speaking of Collins, Democrats are threatening to sue to keep the New York congressman on the November ballot, which they believe will help them flip a deep-red Buffalo seat. Meanwhile, a dozen local Republicans are expressing interest in Collins's seat.

 

Also today... A new poll also shows Democrats up 11 points over Republicans on a generic House ballot. The Cook Political Report is moving four GOP races to the toss up category. And President Trump praised the results of Tuesday night's primaries, claiming that Republicans have "the team we want" heading into the midterms.

 

The Hill's Election Countdown was written by Reid Wilson, Lisa Hagen, Max Greenwood, Jasper Goodman and Caroline Gardner.

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