DETROIT – The day after her 44th birthday, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D) gathered supporters and volunteers at a juice bar in her district for a socially distanced party. Rashida-for-Congress sanitary wipes shared table space with birthday cake. A tracker snuck in and was quickly ushered out by the congresswoman herself. When it came time to speak, Tlaib choked up, reflecting on how her district had come together to protest police brutality and stand with Black Lives Matter.
“This is the only place that ever truly embraced everything about me, including that little edge, and that little rawness that I have,” Tlaib said. “All the different colors of rainbow are out there, marching, and saying black lives matter. And they know that it's not only about who killed George Floyd, and police brutality; it's about the systems that set up George Floyd to be killed in that way.”
In nine days, Tlaib will defend her seat against Brenda Jones, the Detroit City Council president she defeated by just 900 votes in the 2018 primary. Last time, the district's mostly black electorate splintered behind other candidates. This time, her opponents united behind one opponent.
One week later, fellow squad member Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) of Minnesota will face challenger Antone Melton-Meaux, who rocketed from obscurity to raise $3.7 million by arguing that the congresswoman is too “divisive” to represent Minneapolis. Omar, who won easily in 2018, is feeling the backlash from comments she made about pro-Israel donor influence and from a trio of campaign finance controversies, all of it thrown back at her in millions of dollars of ads.
In the first primaries of this year, as the presidential contest wound down, the resurgent left that elected Tlaib and Omar was mostly focused on expansion. Campaign organizations that had helped elect the “squad” – Tlaib, Omar, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) – ousted more conservative Democratic incumbents in Illinois and New York. There are a few more targets on the calendar, such as activist Cori Bush's rematch with Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri, and a challenge to House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal in western Massachusetts.
But for the next few weeks, the squad is playing defense. Seven hundred miles apart, Jones and Melton-Meaux make roughly the same argument about the incumbents: That they are too abrasive and too famous, that their cities would be better off with representatives who could work across the aisle and make less news. In an interview, Jones repeatedly cited the comments Tlaib made on her first day in Congress, promising to impeach the president, and referring to him with an unprintable epithet.
“How often have you, as a reporter, heard someone speak like that?” Jones asked. “Even when you disagree with someone, there is a professional manner of disagreeing with them. I am a professional legislator. I am a professional worker. And I think that professionalism is important in doing the job of representing the people.”
Jones did represent the district briefly, at the end of 2018. The resignation of Rep. John Conyers Jr. created a special primary election to fill his seat the same day as the primary for a two-year term. Tlaib won the six-way primary, while Jones won the four-way special. That put Jones in the House for a few weeks, and her campaign's advertising asks voters to “return” Jones to the seat. In advertising from Concerned Citizens of Michigan, a pro-Jones PAC, black voters are told that “the 13th belongs to us” and that it's time to “take our seat back.”
Tlaib's rebuttal has been her record. When she mentions impeachment, it's typically to say that the same president she voted to impeach has signed her legislation; when asked about that, Jones points out that the Republican Senate hasn't taken up some of Tlaib's work, such as an amendment to spend billions of dollars replacing lead water pipes.
Local Democrats long expected Jones to run, pointing to the results from 2018, when nearly two-thirds of Detroiters backed one of Tlaib's rivals. “I think it’s about numbers,” said Ian Conyers, a former state senator and grandnephew of the former congressman. Like the three other candidates who ran behind Tlaib and Jones two years ago, he has endorsed Jones: “If there had been a runoff in 2018, Brenda Jones would have won. It almost feels like Rashida has an opinion and a prescription that the people of the district themselves have not asked for.”
Tlaib does hold some advantages. The city council president did not officially announce she was running until March 25, a week into the state's stay-at-home order. Eight days later, Jones tested positive for the coronavirus and has made only limited public appearances since. Tlaib has raised more than $3 million, double what she spent to win the seat in the first place; Jones has raised less than $140,000, less than half of what she spent in the crowded 2018 race.
It's another story in Minnesota, where the official Democratic Farmer-Labor Party has rallied behind Omar, but her challenger is set to outspend her in the final stretch. Melton-Meaux, an attorney who'd never run for office, trailed in fundraising until the last few months before the primary. But he established himself a credible competitor. Since March, Melton-Meaux has brought in millions of dollars, most of it from Minnesotans, and nearly half a million of it bundled by the pro-Israel NORPAC and Pro-Israel America PAC.
The money has funded a steady stream of direct mail and TV ads against Omar. The ads don't focus on the incumbent's position on Israel. Instead, they portray Omar as “aggressive” and corrupt, emphasizing some fundraising controversies that made as much news in national conservative media as they did in Minnesota. One involves a misuse of funds for travel, which Omar paid a 2019 fine to settle; one is more personal, accusing her of funneling campaign money to her husband's firm.
On Saturday, Omar defended her use of E Street, which played the same role in her successful 2018 campaign before she married the firm's co-founder Tim Mynett. “They've contracted vendors for us to not only run ads, digital ads, but also to do all of our mailers, and online fundraising,” Omar said of Mynett's firm. “They are a one-stop shop.” (The firm's other founder has also defended Omar.)
Tlaib and Omar arrived in Congress with similar profiles on the issue of Israel, and both opposed a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Asked why donors had rallied behind Omar's opponent, but not Tlaib's, Michigan Democrats speculated that Tlaib's district would likely be broken by redistricting in 2022 anyway. Any map in Minnesota is likely to keep Omar's 5th District, which covers Minneapolis and its closest suburbs, largely intact. But a simpler reason is that of a Palestinian American and a refugee from Somalia who came up through local activism, Omar has been more frequently attacked by conservatives.
In this race, Omar has emphasized her leadership role in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and her support for Medicare-for-all; Melton-Meaux said he favors other health-care reforms but would support Medicare-for-all “if it were to come across my desk.” She’s also questioned Melton-Meaux’s résumé as an attorney with an emphasis in workplace mediation whose old law firm helped companies fight union drives. “There's no evidence that this mediation is something that's ever been deployed in bringing people together in our community,” Omar said. “On the contrary, I have a track record of being a coalition builder.” Asked about his legal work, Melton-Meaux said that he had no role in anti-union work at a “multinational firm that does a lot of different things.”
She has also tried to paint Melton-Meaux's backers as Wall Street cronies and Republicans, like telecom executive and Trump donor Howard Jonas. “Look at the sheer amount of money that is coming from people who funded Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell,” Omar said in an interview, recalling the cries to “send her back,” an insult directed at the two Muslim members of Congress, who, in Omar’s words, have been “othered.” “They're giving to a man who agrees with the sentiment that we shouldn't be in Minnesota, that we shouldn't have representation in Congress, that our voices and visibility in the halls of Congress is an inconvenience.”
But Melton-Meaux has pushed back. “The support we've got from PACs is from nonpartisan organizations that have given to Democrats and Republicans, including Democrats like Senator [Tina] Smith and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and even, yes, Joe Biden,” Melton-Meaux said in an interview. “What's really happening here is that the congresswoman does not want people to know just how much strength we have here in the district.”
As incumbents, she and Tlaib benefit from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's rule that contractors who work for challengers to Democratic incumbents can't work with DCCC candidates; Melton-Meaux has criticized that rule. “It's a decision that I think, frankly, is trying to chill the democratic process. I have a constitutional right to run for this office,” he said.
But Melton-Meaux has less than three weeks to convince Minneapolis to ditch Omar, and Jones has less than two weeks to win over Detroit. Meanwhile, Omar's campaign has activated her national supporters, bringing both Tlaib and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont together for a virtual “day of action” on Sunday. At Tlaib's Saturday party, Angela Gallegos, 34, recalled how she met the future congresswoman at a protest, more than a decade ago, before either of them were involved in electoral politics.
“When I see the opponent's sign, that's almost equivalent of a Trump sign to me,” Gallegos said. “Like, why are you doing that to my girl? It's Rashida. Everyone knows her. We should get her back.”
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In the states
After New York’s primary debacle, which has left tens of thousands of votes uncounted and more in limbo, the Democratic-controlled legislature in Albany passed another reform of the absentee ballot process. Instead of being processed 30 days before an election, voters’ requests for absentee ballots will be processed as soon as they’re received. Like voters in states that previously implemented expansive mail voting, New Yorkers will be informed of their ballot status and get chances to “cure” it — ie, to fix an error that left the ballot uncounted by election officials. Connecticut, one of the few remaining Democratic-run states that requires an excuse for requesting absentee ballots, took a step closer to nixing that with a broad, bipartisan vote in the state House of Representatives.
In Illinois, the first state where Kanye West obtained signatures to petition onto the ballot, five voters have challenged his filing. While West only needs 2,500 signatures to appear as a presidential candidate — he did not file the name of a running mate — he filed around 3,200 total signatures. That’s in the danger zone for a successful challenge, as scrutiny can sometimes remove 20 to 30 percent of the names on petitions, if voters’ identities cannot be verified. (In weekend tweet, West suggested he could “beat Joe Biden off write-ins,” though only 10 states and the District of Columbia count write-in votes for candidates who have not filed for official status.)
West may have missed the deadline to make the ballot in Maine, where petitioning ended on Saturday. Meanwhile, the state's Republicans are continuing their effort to end the state's ranked-choice voting system, after a petition drive to put it on the ballot for November failed. A new federal lawsuit argues that ranked-choice voting disenfranchises those who don't want to rank more than one candidate; if successful, the lawsuit could change calculations about the state's presidential and Senate contests, where third parties and independents currently pose no “spoiler” risk to either party. (While Democratic Rep. Jared Golden won his 2018 race thanks to second-choice voters who'd supported a left-wing challenger, there is no third party in his race this year.)
Ilhan Omar, “Ballot Box.” The Minnesota congresswoman waited until this week to run ads ahead of her Aug. 11 primary. This one boils down a longer campaign video into a message about activism in which she only sometimes appears, wearing a mask and casting a vote. “We can translate our cries for justice into legislation, and that's the fight we've been leading in Congress,” says Omar, whose voice is the only one in the spot.
Americans for Tomorrow's Future, “Self-Dealing.” The super PAC has mostly played in Omar's race with harsh direct mail; its first ad compiles a series of financial controversies into a story of the congresswoman benefiting from her role. “She's paid her new husband's business over $1 million in campaign funds,” a narrator says. That's the only cash total mentioned in the spot, as the civil fine Omar paid for a long-running expenses scandal was just $500.
Rashida Tlaib, “Rooted.” The main ad in rotation for Tlaib's campaign, it combines quick flashes of her legislative record (“Rep. Tlaib secures $1.5 billion for access to water for families”) to the kind of high-profile stances her opponent, Brenda Jones, has pegged as too distracting from her job (“Deny ICE its request for more funding, abolish it.”).
Concerned Citizens of Michigan, “Take Our Seat Back.” A PAC created to help Jones, CCM's TV ad argues that the legacy of the late John Conyers can be filled by Jones. It never says outright that Jones can represent the district better because she's black. But the only white politician seen in the ad is former House speaker Paul Ryan, from 2018, swearing in Jones to fill the final weeks of Conyers's expired term. “The 13th belongs to us,” a narrator says.
There are just 100 days left until the general election, and fewer days until early and absentee voting starts across most of the country. The calendar was enough of a hook for multiple news outlets to conduct swing state polls, with some wide variances but one consistency: Democrats are holding a lead, with the president trailing Joe Biden when voters are asked who is best able to handle the pandemic and social unrest.
Here’s a poll-by-poll look.
Midwestern swing states (Fox News, 756/776/795 voters)
Joe Biden: 49%
Donald Trump: 40% (-1)
Joe Biden: 51%
Donald Trump: 38%
Joe Biden: 50%
Donald Trump: 39% (-3)
The two of these states won by the president four years ago were last polled in April, not long into the coronavirus pandemic. Minnesota, narrowly lost by Donald Trump in 2016, is polled for the first time this cycle, with no evidence that the protests that began there at the end of May have altered the state's defining trend: suburbanites moving toward the Democrats, and “greater Minnesota” voters in rural counties moving toward the GOP.
Arizona (NBC/Marist, 826 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 50% (+3)
Donald Trump: 45% (-1)
Since March, the last time NBC/Marist polled the state, the positions of both the president and Gov. Doug Ducey have deteriorated. Just half of Arizonans now approve of Ducey, and just as many as say that the pandemic is getting worse. President Trump's disapproval rating has jumped to 53 percent, with his personal unfavorable rating even higher, at 58 percent. That has opened up the race for Biden, who just 41 percent of voters view favorably. That was Hillary Clinton’s rating in 2016, when she narrowly lost the state. What’s changed? Just 50 percent of voters have a negative view of Biden, compared to 57 percent for Clinton, and Clinton and Trump entered Election Day with the same favorable rating.
Swing states (CNN/SSRS, 1,002/1,005/1,003 voters)
Joe Biden: 49%
Donald Trump: 45%
Joe Biden: 51%
Donald Trump: 46%
Joe Biden: 52%
Donald Trump: 40%
Here and in the CBS numbers below, Biden has gained and down-ballot Democratic candidates have inched ahead. In Arizona’s Senate race, Democrat Mark Kelly leads by 7, while in Michigan, Democratic Sen. Gary Peters leads by 16. Both of their opponents have plenty of money and have been on the air for months, but nothing has clicked, and while Michigan challenger James is black, he’s losing nonwhite voters by the same 50-point margin as the president.
Rust Belt swing states (CBS/YouGov, 1,177/1,227 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 48%
Donald Trump: 25%
Donald Trump: 46%
Joe Biden: 45%
The best set of polls for the president this weekend still show him losing; he’s just holding onto more white voters, and his support from black voters is a bit higher than 2016. (He gets 9 percent of the black vote in Michigan and Ohio; four years ago he got 6 percent and 8 percent of the black vote in those states, respectively.
These are the only polls this weekend that suggest a strength for the president: job creation. A majority of voters in both states think Trump would do more than Biden in creating manufacturing jobs, and a plurality of voters think his reductions in environmental regulations have helped the economy. While the Trump campaign has obsessed over policing in its recent ads, there’s an opening there for its anti-NAFTA attacks on Biden. The caveat: In both states, more than two-thirds of voters say they dislike how Trump “handles himself personally,” and in both, only half say that of Biden, who has been appearing in public, at most, for a few hours each week.
President Trump stayed off the campaign trail this week, marking a month since what may have been his last traditional rally of the campaign season, in Tulsa. Since Thursday's White House briefing, when he canceled the Republican convention in Jacksonville, Fla., Trump has only fitfully engaged in the campaign. Still, with little fanfare, he continued his run of announcements and executive orders with an order that would force Medicare to pay lower prices for prescription drugs.
“As a result of the orders I’m signing today, the heads of the major drug companies have requested a meeting to discuss how we can quickly and significantly lower drug prices and out-of-pocket expenses for Americans,” Trump said on Friday. “They want to do what’s right. Look, they’re going to do what’s right. Look, I think it’s so important what they’re doing on therapeutics and vaccines. And we’re going to see them on Tuesday. We’ll see if we can do something here.”
Joe Biden had no public events after the middle of the week, but he participated in a virtual Friday fundraiser that focused on Latino issues, co-hosted by actress Eva Longoria.
“Day 1, Dreamers are staying, period. They’re more Americans than most Americans are,” Biden said. “The idea of having to worry if you go to get tested or you go to get help for COVID that you can be deported? No. Not in my country. Not in my country, not going to happen."
On Saturday, Biden marked one year since a failed effort to grant temporary status to Venezuelans fleeing the country — a point of contention with some in the party’s left. “The people of Venezuela and Hispanics across our country deserve a real ally who will stand up for what is right, and not just pay lip service to the suffering of the Venezuelan people,” Biden said in a statement.
… nine days until primaries in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington
… 11 days until primaries in Tennessee
… 13 days until primaries in Hawaii
… 16 days until primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin
… 22 days until the Democratic National Convention
… 32 days until the Republican National Convention
… 40 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 100 days until the general election