LANSING, Mich. — The campaign to impeach Gov. Gretchen Whitmer started one week ago, later than the Democrat's harshest critics would have liked. “The time to talk with this ruthless tyrant is over,” wrote Brandon Hall, the conservative activist who announced the impeachment drive. The Republican legislators who signed up, whether they wanted Whitmer gone or not, said she had simply gone too long without transparency or limits.
“The whole thing about covid, in the stay-at-home orders and the emergency, was that we didn't know what we were dealing with,” said Ryan Berman, a freshman Republican legislator from the Detroit suburbs, lifting Whitmer's 155th executive order, on pandemic-caused spending cuts, off his desk. “It was this threat of a highly contagious, highly deadly disease. And I think the data isn't showing that. It was about flattening the curve so we didn't overwhelm our health-care system. We were never overwhelmed.” (Michigan saw spikes early in the pandemic, but cases settled lower in May and June before ticking back up slightly this month.)
As lockdowns and stay-at-home orders enter their fourth month, and as some states have pulled back from “reopening” to prevent new coronavirus infections, any hopes of political unity are long gone. Republican governors who resisted some prevention measures are absorbing blame for new infections. Republican governors who took action quickly are facing criticism for new mask mandates, either for acting slowly or for making moves opposed by some conservatives.
In states where Democratic governors face hostile Republican state legislatures, the conflict has reached another level. Four of those states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin — are battlegrounds in the presidential election. The fights over how to deal with the pandemic could affect the race between President Trump and Joe Biden, with exhausted voters still supportive of stay-at-home orders and mask rules. States that were already expecting heated elections are now convulsed by fiscal crises, constitutional tugs-of-war, and accusations of King George III-style tyranny.
Similar fights have been playing out in other competitive states, including Minnesota. “A dictator is a leader who possesses absolute power,” Minnesota GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan wrote Wednesday, accusing Gov. Tim Walz of building a “dictatorship” in that swing state. But Republicans control only Minnesota's Senate, limiting the tools they can use to challenge Walz, a key difference between their state and the four with unending showdowns.
The four key states with Republican legislatures and Democratic governors have seen the same argument play out under dramatically different rules, and with different political stakes. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper faces his own reelection in November against a lieutenant governor who has broken with him on masks. in Michigan, laws passed in 1945 and 1976 give Whitmer powers that have survived court challenges. In Pennsylvania, a liberal state court has upheld Gov. Tom Wolf's orders; in Wisconsin, a conservative state Supreme Court has already canceled the orders that Gov. Tony Evers was trying to extend without Republican legislative approval.
“We would've saved more lives and [we] would've prevented more people from having positive tests for covid-19,” Evers said at a news conference two weeks ago, bemoaning a decision that scrapped his stay-at-home order without any replacement. “Frankly, the Supreme Court has made it very much more complex than it ever should've been.”
Whitmer's decisions have drawn special attention and criticism for another reason: She's still under consideration as Biden's running mate, as Biden confirmed in a TV interview that aired here last week. The aftermath of George Floyd's killing has elevated black women in Biden's Veep search, but when the crisis began, and Whitmer's favorability rating surged, Republicans scrutinized her decisions for any sign of incompetence or ambition.
“It's obvious Democrat Gretchen Whitmer has been focused more on VP auditioning than her job,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel wrote in April, weeks into the pandemic, when Whitmer appeared on a lighthearted podcast with Biden.
In the ensuing months, Republicans highlighted an apparent attempt by Whitmer's husband to get access to a boat while the state was locked down, which Whitmer described as a joke; a contract-tracing deal with a firm involved with Democratic politics, which Whitmer canceled; and, most seriously, Whitmer's refusal to cooperate with questions about covid-19 deaths in nursing homes. At the same time, Whitmer issued emergency orders criticized by Republicans for going beyond what other states did, and, they argue, for being unresponsive to small-business owners.
“We tend to not talk about the consequences for small businesses,” said state Rep. Shane Hernandez, the chairman of the House's Appropriations Committee, an impeachment inquiry supporter and a candidate for Congress in the safely red 10th Congressional District. “We tend to not talk about the consequences of what kind of health programs might get cut to make a $3.4 billion dollar budget shortfall.”
Whitmer's response to criticism has been consistent: that she made tough calls and that it drove down the state's infection rate.
“You want Michigan to look like Florida, that has more cases daily than the European Union, total?” Whitmer asked rhetorically after the impeachment campaign was launched. “All of these political attacks on my power, all of these political attacks on the power of the executive office, are incredibly dangerous. And of course, I'm going to continue to do what I have done, and make decisions around science and saving lives.”
Wolf and Evers have faced their own calls for impeachment, though there has been less support than the five legislators who instantly endorsed an inquiry into Whitmer. Supporters of the impeachment push say they are not prejudging Whitmer, or saying that she clearly did something that would necessitate her removal from office. What they want is an investigation, with subpoenas that the governor and her staff could not blow off.
“I support government transparency, and I support oversight, whether it leads to something or not,” Berman said. “We've heard many disturbing things because of this; whether it's politicized, whether she waited for after the Democratic [presidential] primary to announce covid-19 in the state, whether some of her decisions right now are arbitrary and affecting one industry over another.”
Although Michigan Republicans control both houses of the legislature, most of them haven’t backed the impeachment inquiry, and Whitmer's political operation has taken advantage of it. In Facebook ads, her campaign directs supporters to a donation page if they want to “stop the impeachment” and “fight back.” A campaign to recall Whitmer — a rallying cry at the “reopen” protests that unfolded in Lansing three months ago — appears to be sputtering, with campaign leader Chad Baase writing a cryptic Facebook post this week that bemoaned an “unpaid volunteer” taking over its website.
But these aren't the only efforts underway to stop Whitmer. Unlock Michigan, which also grew out of the protests of the governor's stay-at-home orders, qualified this month for a campaign to undo the 1945 law that allows Whitmer to declare emergency orders for an unlimited amount of time without legislative approval. That, organizers say, would answer voters' concerns more effectively than any attempt to remove Whitmer from office.
“If you don’t like the way Gretchen Whitmer has behaved as governor, you really won’t like the way Garlin Gilchrist has behaved as governor,” said Fred Wszolek, referring to Whitmer's lieutenant governor. “That doesn’t move the ball down the field.”
Michigan is one of 26 states that allows voters to pass laws directly through ballot measure, as does Pennsylvania. There, Republicans have introduced a ballot initiative that would allow legislators to end a governor's emergency power three weeks after any declaration, which could be voted on next year. But Michigan has a loophole that allows the legislature to vote through any ballot measure that has gotten enough valid signatures to appear before voters. A simple majority could make it law, and the measure would not be subject to a veto.
Passing the measure in November, if turnout is similar to 2016, could take 1.5 million votes. Getting it through the legislature would take just 340,000 valid signatures, and Unlock claims to have gotten the paperwork in front of 40,000 activists, who have nearly two months to find supporters; a list of signing events on the group's website consists largely of Republican gatherings.
“We can all agree that COVID19 is still a problem,” Unlock Michigan says in its mission statement. “But the emergency is long since past — except in the mind of Governor Whitmer, who refuses to give up her preference to govern by decree.”
Democrats are quietly planning to fight back. In Michigan and the other swing states with red-on-blue showdowns, Democratic governors are less popular than they were at the start of the pandemic, but they're still supported by a majority of voters and more popular than the president. While the resistance to Whitmer's orders has been heated, it does not feature in Republicans' electoral messaging here, or in the advertising by candidates in competitive races.
“Folks are so pleased and so proud of how our governor has handled this pandemic,” said Lavora Barnes, the chair of Michigan's Democratic Party. “We’re able to draw a strong contrast between how our governor has responded with how the president has responded. It bears out in the numbers.”
“Republican feuding this week represents broader reckoning over party’s future as Trump sinks in the polls,” by Seung Min Kim and Rachael Bade
How the politics of November are tangling up a must-pass bill.
“Where progressives won — and lost — in the Democratic platform,” by Holly Otterbein
A guide to the ongoing intra-left platform battle.
“Trump’s assault on election integrity forces question: What would happen if he refused to accept a loss?” by Elise Viebeck and Robert Costa
The Nov. 4 project.
“As Bernie Sanders urges party unity, his revolution marches on,” by Hunter Walker
The band of delegates working to shift the platform left before the convention.
Tag team, back again.
How a library trustee might challenge the rapper's ballot status.
“At least 76% of American voters can cast ballots by mail in the fall,” by Kate Rabinowitz and Brittany Renee Mayes
A clip-and-save map to how voters will be able to cast their ballots.
In the states
New York's ballot count reached the one-month mark this week and lurched closer to completion, with left-wing challengers scoring upsets in several state legislative races. The Working Families Party claimed 31 victories in primaries, three of them upsets over incumbents and 17 of them defenses against primary challengers. The city's branches of the Democratic Socialists of America, which elected state Sen. Julia Salazar in 2018, pushed four candidates over the finish line.
“Gay Vegan Socialist Elected in Brooklyn,” tweeted Jabari Brisport, who'll join Salazar in the state Senate.
The city's close congressional primaries remained uncalled, as the fight continues over ballots that were not postmarked and thus not counted. Jamaal Bowman, who officially defeated Rep. Eliot L. Engel after results came in last week, followed in the footsteps of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by endorsing Cori Bush, an activist challenging longtime St. Louis-era Rep. William Lacy Clay. (In 2018, Ocasio-Cortez flew to the city to support Bush.)
The next few weeks could be pivotal for the left-wing movements that elected some of the best-known members of the 2018 House class. In Minnesota, Rep. Ilhan Omar has been outspent on the air — she has yet to run a TV ad — by challenger Anton Melton-Meaux. In Michigan, Rep. Rashida Tlaib has outspent Brenda Jones, the Detroit city council president who won a special election for her House seat in 2018. Internal polling released this week put both Omar and Tlaib ahead by double digits, and there will be more about both races in the next edition of this newsletter.
Donald Trump, “Goya.” This is one of several spots that the president has tied to the liberal criticism of Goya Foods after its chief executive appeared at a White House economic event. While Joe Biden never criticized the company, the ad strings together Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who joked about Goya on Twitter) with accusations that Biden will be soft on socialism. The coup de grace: a quick photo of Biden (seen in profile) meeting Venezuela's president Nicolás Maduro.
Cori Bush, “Our Time.” A liberal challenger in a rematch with Rep. William Lacy Clay, Bush has more money and name recognition now, and an ad that more forcefully makes her case: Clay has been in office since 2001, and St. Louis hasn't improved. (Clay inherited the seat from his father, Bill Clay, who served from 1969 to 2001.) “Lacy Clay hasn't risen to meet this moment,” Bush says. “He's presided over 20 years of decline.”
Cory Gardner, “1964.” Colorado's Senate race is one of the GOP's uphill battles, with Gardner's approval rating sinking as voters (who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016) turn en masse against the Trump administration. While independent groups have gone negative on Democrat John Hickenlooper, working to drive down his high favorable rating, Gardner has been reintroducing himself as the sponsor of the Great American Outdoors Act, an environmentalist priority in this Congress. “It took a new generation to get it done,” says Gardner, who is 23 years younger than Hickenlooper.
Florida (Quinnipiac, 924 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 51% (+5)
Donald Trump: 38% (-4)
The Connecticut-based pollster last surveyed Florida in April, and nothing has gone right for Republicans since then. Gov. Ron DeSantis’s net approval rating has collapsed by 31 points, as he has gone from touting the state’s resilience to the coronavirus to dealing with a late outbreak. A plurality of voters favor removal of Confederate flags and renaming of bases with Confederate names. The president’s approval rating has collapsed, too, with just 37 percent of voters approving of his response to the coronavirus and a majority of senior citizens thinking Biden would do a better job.
The caveat: Florida is hard to poll, and Quinnipiac has been stymied by it before. Its final polling in the state’s 2018 elections found Democrats Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum ahead outside the margin of error in the races for Senate and governor; both lost by less than a point. Still, an error of that size, if applied to this poll, would leave Biden ahead. And Quinnipiac never found Trump so vulnerable in 2016; its July poll found him up three points on Hillary Clinton, as 53 percent of voters had a “strongly unfavorable” view of her in the aftermath of the FBI’s probe of her use of a private email server. Just 34 percent of voters view Biden so negatively, while 48 percent view Trump so negatively.
Joe Biden: 45% (+2)
Donald Trump: 44% (-)
Quinnipiac's record in Texas is more solid than its record in Florida, and some of its 2018 surveys actually lowballed the support that then-Rep. Beto O'Rourke would get in his Senate bid. So a similar torrent of bad news, and similar decline for a once-popular governor, doesn't much move the presidential ballot test. The same proportion of voters, 40 percent, hold “strongly unfavorable” views of both Biden and Trump, and on the culture war/heritage questions, most Texans still favor keeping Confederate names and memorials where they stand. Texas, unlike Florida, has a Senate race this year, and while Democrat MJ Hegar trails by single digits, she does not pick up Biden's level of support with white and Hispanic voters. A sign of just how much Texas's electorate changes from cycle to cycle: While 56 percent of voters have no opinion of Hegar, 34 percent have no opinion of Sen. John Cornyn (R), who won a third term easily in 2014.
President Trump's week was spent in Washington, arguing about the cognitive test he took several years ago and talking at length about the Operation Legend, which has sent federal resources, often unasked for, to some heavily Democratic cities that have seen recent spikes in violent crime. While local Democrats have condemned the policy, Trump brought to the White House the mother of LeGend Taliaferro, who was killed by gun violence in Kansas City, asking whether Democrats were pitting themselves against worried parents and family members.
“Extreme politicians have joined this anti-police crusade and relentlessly vilified our law enforcement heroes,” Trump said Wednesday. “To look at it from any standpoint, the effort to shut down policing in their own communities has led to a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence. This bloodshed must end. This bloodshed will end.”
Joe Biden's campaign gave some special production value to a video meeting between him and Barack Obama. Like most of Biden's messaging, it positioned the former vice president as uniquely qualified to turn the country around, handle crises and empathize with people who were suffering. And the two men batted around an analogy of the Affordable Care Act as a “starter home” that was designed to be improved on with time.
“That starter house,” Biden said. “They got inside the house [and] they realized, ‘Wow, God, this is better than being out in the cold.' ”
On Thursday afternoon, as this newsletter was about to go out, the president said at a covid-19 briefing that the convention scheduled for Jacksonville next month was canceled, saying it was "not the right time" to pull the event together.
Dems in disarray
When he suspended his presidential campaign three months ago, Bernie Sanders asked his supporters for one more mission: get as many delegates as possible, so they could influence the Democratic Party’s platform. The path to a delegate majority was closed, but getting just 25 percent of available delegates, enough for a “minority report” challenge to the platform, was doable.
Sanders’s voters pulled that off, winning 157 delegates in the primaries that unfolded since he quit the race, bringing his total so far to 1,076. (A handful of those primaries included votes cast before he ended his campaign.) And the draft of the party’s platform, as circulated this week, includes much of what Sanders allies put into their “unity task force” recommendations to the platform committee. The result: A committee that is working virtually, with few fireworks (and few people to watch them), is moving toward a more left-wing Democratic platform.
“Did we get everything we wanted? Obviously we didn't, that's for sure,” Sanders told supporters on a Wednesday night conference call. “But I think we reached agreements in all of these areas.”
What didn’t Sanders supporters get? So far, a few things that are probably not going into the platform under any circumstances. First, while Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren wanted to condition aid to Israel on its human rights policies, Biden did not, and Biden won. The resulting Israel language in the platform supports the creation of a Palestinian state and opposes settlement expansion but also condemns the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, with language that neutralizes anything controversial.
“Democrats oppose any unilateral steps by either side — including annexation — that undermine prospects for two states,” the draft platform says. “We believe that while Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations, it should remain the capital of Israel, an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths. Democrats will restore U.S.-Palestinian diplomatic ties and critical assistance to the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza, consistent with U.S. law. We oppose any effort to unfairly single out and delegitimize Israel.”
There were no surprises in the draft, but this stood out: Foreign policy wasn't one of the issues debated by the task forces. The platform got a condemnation of the “forever wars,” a pejorative term often used to refer to the conflicts justified by the 2001 authorization of force against global terrorism. It committed the party to an end to intervention in Yemen, something most Democrats have already voted for, but stopped short of anything more than a “political settlement” in Afghanistan, as a vote in the House this week found many Democrats still reluctant to call for a total troop withdrawal.
“We are in a healthcare crisis. We need a bold healthcare vision,” Rep. Ro Khanna, who chairs the California delegation to the DNC, thanks to Sanders's victory in the state, said in a text message. “It’s obvious to everyone that millions who are losing jobs should not lose their healthcare. Let's have a clear statement that our party reaffirms the goal of Medicare for All that was part of the party platform before 1980. We also need to commit to reducing Trump’s bloated military budget and to ending the endless wars."
… 12 days until primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington
… 14 days until primaries in Tennessee
… 16 days until primaries in Hawaii
… 19 days until primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin
… 25 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 35 days until the Republican National Convention
… 43 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 103 days until the general election