Citing ill health, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran announced this week that he will resign from the U.S. Senate in April, putting both of Mississippi’s Senate seats on the ballot in this year’s midterm elections. The 80-year-old Republican, who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, has been dogged in recent months by Beltway whispers that his physical and mental health was fading, and a cluster of aides have closely supervised his activities on Capitol Hill. Cochran’s retirement will trigger a special election that could roil Mississippi politics. Republican Sen. Roger Wicker is already facing a primary challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a controversial hard-right candidate that GOP leaders hope to keep out of the Senate. McDaniel nearly unseated Cochran in 2014 and could choose to run for the departing senator’s open seat again instead of facing the incumbent Wicker. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will now appoint an interim senator to hold the seat until November.
Democrats in Texas voted in droves this week in the first primary elections of 2018, boosting confidence on the Left that high turnout and anti-Trump sentiment could propel Democrats to midterm victories in the ordinarily red state. More than 1 million votes were cast in the statewide Democratic Senate primary, more than double the number in 2014. Rep. Beto O’Rourke will now face GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in November; Cruz is favored for re-election, but O’Rourke has been drawing crowds and enthusiasm from small donors. At least 14 women won Democratic nominations for House seats, with more expected after runoff elections in May. Unsurprisingly for Texas, Republicans cast more ballots overall, with just over 1.5 million votes. Democrats have not won a statewide race since 1994, but the party believes it could flip three House districts, near Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Charleston, W. Va.
West Virginia lawmakers voted unanimously this week to give teachers and state employees a 5 percent raise, ending a nine-day teacher strike that shut down classes for 277,000 public school students. Teachers had initially walked out on Feb. 22 after Gov. Jim Justice offered them a 2 percent salary increase, and they resisted union leaders’ calls to return to class when Justice bumped the offer to 5 percent, deciding to continue the strike until the raise was enacted by the legislature. GOP lawmakers warned that the pay raises would have to be paid for with spending cuts, including to Medicaid. In Oklahoma, which is ranked 49th in the nation for average teacher pay, just behind West Virginia, teachers are now planning their own statewide walkout. “West Virginia teachers walked out—and they make more than us!” said high school teacher Bon Bennett at a rally in Bartlesville, Okla.
Two senior Environmental Protection Agency officials—both Trump administration appointees—will be allowed to make extra money working for private clients, according to a department letter released by House Democrats this week. The first, John Konkus, serves as the EPA’s deputy associate administrator for public affairs, and is responsible for signing off on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants. An EPA ethics lawyer gave Konkus permission to advise at least two undisclosed clients, despite the lawyer noting that those outside contracts presented a “financial conflict of interest.” The second, Patrick Davis, who works for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, will moonlight as the sales director of a political robocall company. Both men have been barred from working on EPA projects that will have a direct financial impact on their clients, and from earning more than $27,765 in outside annual income.
The State Department has yet to spend a single dollar of the $120 million it was granted over a year ago to prevent foreign countries from meddling in U.S. elections, The New York Times reported this week—heightening concerns that President Trump isn’t doing enough to counter Russia’s cyberthreat before the November midterms. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which heads the effort to counter the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign, does not have an analyst who speaks Russian, and a department-wide hiring freeze has hindered the recruitment of computer experts able to combat hacking and social media manipulation. Last week, Adm. Michael Rogers, head of the U.S. Cyber Command, told lawmakers he has not been granted the authority from President Trump to confront Russian cyberoperators, and that U.S. inaction has likely emboldened Moscow to attempt further meddling. “They have not paid a price that is sufficient to change their behavior,” warned Rogers.
Crystal River, Fla.
A Florida school district last week removed a middle school teacher from her classroom after HuffingtonPost.com reported that she was the secret host of a white nationalist podcast. Dayanna Volitich, 25, who teaches social studies at Crystal River Middle School, is accused of producing the podcast, “Unapologetic,” under the pseudonym Tiana Dalichov. During her shows, Volitich allegedly praised neo-Nazis, including former KKK grand wizard David Duke; said Muslims should be eradicated from the earth; and asserted that science proves certain races are smarter than others. She is also believed to have boasted about “infiltrating” her school and attempting to spread her white nationalist beliefs among the students. “I’m pretty hyperaware that [colleagues] will be watching,” said Volitich, during a conversation with one podcast guest. “I’m getting a little more underhanded.” Volitich could not be reached for comment; the school said an investigation was ongoing.