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The Trailer: The path ahead for Kamala Harris

In this edition: The path ahead for Kamala Harris, the big left (and QAnon) wins in this week's primaries, and a scandal in a Massachusetts primary comes apart.

My car was totaled by a U-Haul driver this week, making the name of this newsletter unusually painful to type out. But here we go: This is The Trailer.

The first rumination about a Joe Biden/Kamala Harris ticket began weeks after they both entered the presidential race. Harris beat Biden to the arena, but Biden surged in polls after announcing his campaign. That had some members of the Congressional Black Caucus speculating about a “dream ticket” — the one that Biden made official Tuesday.

Harris's first 48 hours as a vice-presidential candidate have gone smoothly, but they almost always do. Even nominees seen as toxic to the ticket, like Sarah Palin or the quickly removed Thomas Eagleton, had strong rollouts followed by damaging scrutiny. Here's what we know about the vice-presidential picture today.

How do Biden and Harris reconcile their policy differences? In public, they don’t, and won’t unless forced into doing so. Latching onto Biden’s 2019 comments about how he’d be a “transition” candidate, a bridge between his Democratic Party and the next, Republicans welcomed Harris to the race with a kind of promotion, warning voters that the 55-year-old Californian would effectively run the country if the president lost in November.

“Make no mistake — Kamala D. Harris is her party’s de facto nominee for president, and this should scare all Americans,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel wrote this week. “On issue after issue, Harris’ radical positions are well outside the mainstream views of most Americans.”

Harris inarguably ran to Biden's left in the primary, embracing policies that he did not: adopting Medicare-for-all (albeit with a longer phase-in than Bernie Sanders), making illegal border-crossing a civil crime, and banning new fracking, for starters. As a candidate who was taken seriously from the start of the race, Harris was filmed constantly, creating a vast archive of videos Republicans can now draw on for ads and other messaging.

The Biden-Harris campaign, so far, has blown it off. The ticket has not held a traditional news conference since its inception, which is, believe it or not, fairly standard: No recent presidential ticket has held that sort of event, where reporters can lob any question, in a long time. (The ticket usually separates after the convention, campaigning in different states, until the final week or so.) And the campaign has not disputed that Harris's positions during the pandemic, like a $2,000 monthly check for everyone, are not part of the Biden agenda.

We may get joint interviews ahead of the convention next week, but the likeliest opportunities to suss out the disagreements between Biden and Harris will come at the vice-presidential debate, two months away. By then, if questions about whether Harris still wants to ban fracking or still thinks Biden was wrong on busing seem like old news, that's the point.

Does the running mate matter? Yes. Despite the whirlwind of attention that precedes every vice-presidential choice, despite the fact that vice presidents who then run for the party’s nomination have consistently won it, the conventional wisdom is that elections are about the top of the ticket and not the bottom.

That analysis has fallen short twice recently — both times, when a male nominee picked a female running mate. Political scientists who looked at post-election data found that Geraldine Ferraro, despite everything, probably increased support for Walter Mondale’s ticket by two points. Two decades later, a similar analysis found that Sarah Palin was a slight drag on John McCain, with support for his campaign linked with unusual closeness to her favorability ratings.

Ferraro had problems, too, and they started after an initial burst of enthusiasm for her candidacy that moved Mondale up in the polls. The New York congresswoman had not been a national figure before the pick, and the new level of scrutiny led to questions about her husband's business that would, after the election, end with criminal charges.

Harris is different: She ran for president and got her record scoured by a skeptical press corps. Nothing new has come up about her life and record since Tuesday, and even a Fox News interview with Willie Brown, a former mayor of San Francisco who Harris was romantically involved with early in her career, generated next to no interest after it ran Wednesday. Harris's story might unfold less like Palin's or Ferraro's and more like that of John Edwards or Joe Biden, candidates whose biggest vulnerabilities at the time were exposed during campaigns that ended before the “veepstakes.” 

How has Harris handled the pressure so far? Democrats wouldn't admit otherwise, but they've been relieved: Months and months of speculation about Biden picking Harris did not produce a unified Republican front this week. The Trump campaign itself has focused on her liberal votes and positions, as have some Fox News hosts who are influential for both the base and the president: Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. 

The president himself has been less focused, with a Tuesday night interview with Hannity getting into random topics and the host sometimes straining to bring the subject back to Biden's running mate. And just days after the Trump campaign hammered Biden for a racially insensitive comment about diversity in the Black community, some around the campaign have stumbled with bigoted attacks on Harris. Jenna Ellis, a legal adviser for the Trump campaign who has frequently charged toward controversy, retweeted an essay that argues, illogically, that a first-generation American like Harris can't be a “natural born citizen” if her parents were not naturalized, thus disqualifying her from the presidency.

“It’s an open question, and one I think Harris should answer so the American people know for sure she is eligible,” Ellis told ABC News reporter Will Steakin. That answer didn't make much sense; Harris was born in Oakland, Calif., and the only argument against her eligibility goes against a 122-year Supreme Court precedent.

Are Democrats unhappy with the subject? Factually, yes, but politically, any news cycle spent on a conspiracy theory that could alienate voters is a cycle not spent criticizing Harris on the merits. And it's not a fight Republicans really want. 

Could the president replace Mike Pence with a new running mate? Well, for the next few days, it’s possible. Many things are possible. But this is a much more active idea on social media, and among the president’s more nervous allies, than it is with the president himself. 

“He is solid as a rock,” President Trump said of Pence on Tuesday, when asked about Harris. “He’s been a fantastic vice president. He’s done everything you can do. He’s respected by every religious group. Whether it’s evangelical, whether it’s any other group, they respect Mike Pence.”

The president, of course, does not always follow through on what he says out loud. Like Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him, Trump has turned back rumor after rumor that he will try to replace his running mate to jolt the electorate ahead of reelection. Like both of those men, the president expects to win another term anyway. The last time this sort of thing was discussed, allies of Obama wondered about replacing Biden with Hillary Clinton, who was then enjoying high favorable ratings due to her nonpolitical work at the State Department — an idea that sounds ludicrous, based on what happened to Clinton four years later.

Anyway: The president and vice president will be renominated at the shrunk-down Republican National Convention in 11 days. Were the president to decide to replace his running mate after that period, the Republican National Committee’s rules offer two options: the 168 members of the RNC could pick a new running mate, or the party’s delegates could be reconvened to do so. In reality (and again, we’re discussing something unlikely to become reality), the president would inform the party of his new choice, and it would go along.

It has not happened since 1944. There is no evidence that it will happen now. But people need something to talk about when the confetti's cleaned up from the veepstakes.

Reading list

“Inside Biden’s unusual VP pick process: Tough questions, 11 finalists and many lawyers,” by Michael Scherer

The final days of a historic choice.

“Kennedy allies sweat as Massachusetts Senate race tightens,” by Stephanie Murray

How a compelling generational challenge turned into a real primary fight.

“QAnon supporter, with Georgia primary victory, is poised to bring far-right conspiracy theory to Congress,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker and Rachael Bade

The rise of Marjorie Taylor Greene.

“Now comes the difficult work of pushing the Biden-Harris ticket left,” by Natalie Shure

After striking out twice on shaping the Democratic nomination, the left ponders its moves.

“Kamala Harris pick sparks delight in India and Jamaica,” by Joanna Slater and Kate Chappell

The surprising global fan base for the potential vice president.

“Progressives didn’t want Harris for V.P. They’re backing her anyway, by Sydney Ember and Astead W. Herndon

The mixture of pride and long-term worries that some Democrats felt this week.

“Trump and allies struggle to find a focused attack on Harris,” by Philip Rucker and Isaac Stanley-Becker

Phony? Far-left? Inauthentic, or authentically antifa?

In the states

Over six weeks, one of the biggest questions in Democratic politics got a decisive answer: The “squad” will return to Congress.

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota triumphed in her Tuesday primary, by far the most expensive Democratic House primary of the year. After Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York triumphed by 52 points, and after Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan won by a surprisingly robust 32 points, Omar dispatched attorney Antone Melton-Meaux by nearly 30,000 votes, with some absentee ballots still left to count today.

“Our movement didn’t just win,” Omar tweeted Tuesday night. “We earned a mandate for change. Despite outside efforts to defeat us, we once again broke turnout records. Despite the attacks, our support has only grown.”

Omar actually had the closest victory of any “squad” member, though not the closest of any Democrat this year. (That was Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who survived a Justice Democrats challenge in March.) She won by 18 points, after more money was spent against her than has been spent in any 2020 House primary. Melton-Meaux raised more than $4 million, and the PAC Americans for Tomorrow’s Future spent nearly $2.5 million to pound Omar in mail and on TV.

The attacks on Omar followed two themes. One was that the freshman congresswoman was too “divisive,” a catchall term referring to comments she’d made about Israel’s political influence in Congress. (Pro-Israel PACs heavily supported her challenger.) Another was that by using her husband’s firm for campaign advertising, she was engaged in “self-dealing” to enrich her family. 

“Real leadership is selfless,” said a narrator in an ad from Americans for Tomorrow's Future “Ilhan Omar puts herself first.”

The drip-drip of campaign finance stories damaged Omar, and the Democrat fought back with the support of local and national party leadership. She raised money in a series of live-streamed virtual rallies featuring guests including Ocasio-Cortez, and she got an enthusiastic endorsement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In the race’s final days, both the DFL (Minnesota’s Democratic Party) and the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center filed FEC complaints against Melton-Meaux for disguising the identity of his contractors, a move he made to get around the party’s restrictions on strategists who work against incumbents.

Still, Melton-Meaux got out his vote, as his allies encouraged independents and Republicans to cross over and stop Omar. As of Wednesday morning, Melton-Meaux had won 63,059 votes, not far off the 65,238 votes Omar won in 2018 to take the nomination. But Omar won at least 92,443 votes, a record for any contested primary in the district.

Omar’s campaign, which had not taken Melton-Meaux seriously at first, pulled this off through the kind of intense organizing that's less common during the pandemic. According to the campaign, they made 675,000 voter contacts or attempts, in-person or virtually, and cycled through 1,689 volunteer shifts by Election Day. Omar, who had lost many of the district’s suburbs in 2018, lost them again yesterday. That was overwhelmed by a surge in Minneapolis turnout, with a good deal of same-day registration. 

As in Michigan, Missouri and New York, the city’s left-wing and social justice movements channeled some of the energy from this summer’s protests — which began in Minneapolis — into votes. And looming over all of it was a president who relentlessly attacked Omar, a boon to her in a district where he’s politically toxic. 

Trump, who had attacked Somali immigration and resettlement in Minneapolis during his final 2016 campaign swing, had led his party’s attacks on the congresswoman. In July 2019, he tweeted that Omar and other “squad” members should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” 

At a rally that month, many in the audience turned that into a chant about Omar specifically, chanting “send her back!” when Trump mentioned the Somali refugee-turned-congresswoman. The backlash to that was widespread, especially in Minneapolis — and Omar even interpolated the chant into an ironic slogan, “send her back to Congress.”

“It’s not just that Donald Trump attacks her, it’s that she embodies many of the ideals that Trump is afraid of,” said Omar spokesman Jeremy Slevin. “She is a Black, Muslim refugee who came to this country with very little and worked her way up to represent her community in Congress. He attacks her because he fears her and what she represents. Her election is as powerful a rejection of Trumpism as there is.”

The same night that Omar fended off Melton-Meaux, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene triumphed in a primary for the nomination in the state’s deep red 14th District. Greene had repeatedly attacked Omar in her ads, and in comments first reported by Politico, she’d warned of “an Islamic invasion into our government offices right now” and bemoaned how there were “so many Muslims elected” in 2018. She kept that up on election night, in a speech she delivered before ordering reporters out of the room.

“Let me tell you something: Ilhan Omar’s antifa buddies in Minneapolis, and the Black Lives Matter movement?” Greene asked. “We are not going to let them tear our country down, burn our cities, riot and loot. We won’t have that here in northwest Georgia.”

After Greene's first-round success, Republican leaders in the House denounced her, then did little to slow her down or promote challenger John Cowan. The results didn't suggest an unstoppable candidate. Just 76,235 voters turned out for the runoff, down more than 25 percent from the primary, and less than half of the current turnout in Omar's race. Greene's vote remained remarkably stable, falling from 43,845 in June to 43,584 this week. In a smaller electorate, that meant a 14-point win, and a ticket to Congress.

Both Georgia and Minnesota counted most of their ballots quickly, as did most of Tuesday's primary states, though turnout was sometimes middling outside Omar's race. In Minnesota's 7th District, former lieutenant governor Michelle Fischbach easily won the Republican primary to challenge Rep. Collin C. Peterson; turnout rose from 42,401 two years ago to 42,686 so far this week. 

In Vermont, both Democrats and Republicans voted in greater numbers than two years ago, nominating Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman to challenge Republican Gov. Phil Scott. In Wisconsin, where Republicans in the 5th District picked state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to replace Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., turnout was down from 2018, when more than 90,000 Republicans voted for either the long-serving incumbent or a largely unknown challenger. (The seat backed Trump in 2016 by 20 points.) In South Carolina, while turnout was low in a special election for a state legislative seat near Charleston, Democrats flipped it — a performance that could offer clues to November's race in the overlapping 1st Congressional District that Rep. Joe Cunningham narrowly won in 2018.

As of Thursday afternoon, it was too early to determine results in Connecticut's contested House primaries, where Republicans were picking challengers to Democrats in the 1st and 2nd districts. A potential embarrassment for Republicans loomed in the 2nd District, where Thomas Gilmer was virtually tied with former corrections officer Justin Anderson — even though Gilmer suspended his campaign Monday after being charged for a 2017 case of domestic violence. Absentee ballots will be counted through Friday.

Turnout watch

Ad watch

President Trump, “Phony Kamala Harris.” The president's campaign welcomed Joe Biden's vice president to the arena by saying she moved toward “the radical left” during her own campaign. (Perplexingly, the headline chosen to illustrate her “embracing Bernie's plan for socialized medicine” is a criticism of her own health-care plan, which did not go as far as the Sanders bill that she co-sponsored.) As in many recent Trump ads, we get a flat-out statement of Biden's decline (“he's not that smart”) and a warning that the ticket will put the left in power.

Joe Biden, “Swing.” It was quickly subsumed by attention on Biden's vice-presidential pick, but the Democrat's campaign thinks it found an opening with the president's confusing comments about whether the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare, could be eliminated entirely. That's the focus of an ad that was designed for Florida and takes a populist tone that recent Biden ads have lacked. “Donald Trump's failed leadership is hitting seniors the hardest,” a narrator says, at the end of several clips that show the president golfing.

Lauren Boebert, “Helping Others.” Boebert was briefly in the national spotlight after she unseated a little-known Republican congressman in a primary, making her flirtation with the QAnon conspiracy more relevant. But unlike Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene, Boebert has discussed QAnon in only a single interview and has run on more than support for the president. “Showing compassion, creating opportunity, providing a good-paying job, is far more valuable than a government handout could ever be,” Boebert says in this spot, discussing her volunteer work as a prison counselor who sometimes houses former inmates.

Poll watch

Massachusetts Democratic Senate primary (UMass, 500 registered voters)

Edward J. Markey: 51% (+8) 
Joe Kennedy: 36% (-4)

Since the last look at Massachusetts by this pollster, in February, Markey and Kennedy have gone on the air and faced off in a series of debates — the latest going viral thanks to a clip of Markey demanding that Kennedy tell his father not to fund a super PAC. This poll, while consistent with some that have shown Markey regaining footing after Kennedy's early surge, has a small sample size and an enormous turnout assumption, imagining a race that more than 70 percent of Bay State voters participate in. (That would be higher than most presidential elections.) Still, because UMass was in the field before, we can see the trends, chiefly a migration of voters under 40 to Markey, whose support of the Green New Deal (and endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) have been a heavy focus of his campaign.

Kansas Senate (SurveyUSA, 1,202 likely voters)

Roger Marshall (R): 46%
Barbara Bollier (D): 44%

Both Democrats and Republicans threw money into Kansas to shape this month's Senate primary; both had data to suggest that former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach could lose a seat that Republicans had held since the 1930s. Marshall clobbered Kobach, but millions of dollars were spent to attack him, and, having come to the House as a business-friendly pragmatist (he endorsed John Kasich's 2016 presidential campaign), Marshall reintroduced himself as a proud MAGA-flag-flier. Democrats have been here before, thinking for a while in 2014 that a weakened Sen. Pat Roberts, whose primary win was narrower than Marshall's, could lose. The difference is that Roberts could tie his opponent to an unpopular Barack Obama; the president, who leads in Kansas, leads by less in this poll than any GOP presidential nominee since 1992.

Candidate tracker

The rollout of the Democratic ticket meant that Joe Biden dominated news about the presidential campaign for the first time, arguably, since the end of the party's primary. Biden's campaign continued hitting the president over his still-murky proposal to eliminate or refund the payroll tax, while Biden used his first event with Kamala D. Harris, as well as a virtual fundraiser, to continue attacking the president's pandemic response.

“Instead of doing the hard work of meeting face-to-face with congressional leaders, Democrats and Republicans in the White House, like every other president's done in a crisis, to get Americans the relief they need and deserve, Donald Trump is on the golf course,” Biden said in Wilmington, Del.

But in a Thursday call-in to Fox Business Network, Trump changed the subject, going further than he ever had in arguing that further funding to the U.S. Postal Service should be prevented, because doing so would make it impossible for all-mail elections to be conducted.

“Now, they need that money to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he said Thursday in an interview on Fox Business. “But if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting.”

The Biden campaign quickly unwrapped its political gift. “The President of the United States is sabotaging a basic service that hundreds of millions of people rely upon, cutting a critical lifeline for rural economies and for delivery of medicines, because he wants to deprive Americans of their fundamental right to vote safely during the most catastrophic public health crisis in over 100 years,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said within an hour of the interview. “Even Donald Trump's own campaign has endorsed voting by mail and his own administration has conclusively refuted his wild-eyed conspiracy theories about the most secure form of voting.”

Later Thursday morning, the White House announced an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, offering recognition for the Jewish state in exchange for a halt to annexation of Palestinian settlements. “I wanted to call it the Donald Trump accord,” Trump joked in the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, Kanye West continued paying signature-gatherers to get him on some state ballots where the deadline has not yet passed, even though his no longer eligible to win 270 electoral votes. He will no longer appear on the ballot of Illinois, his birth state; he is petitioning to get on in Montana and Iowa, where canvassers have been reported pitching voters on the premise that getting West on the ballot can help take votes away from the Democratic ticket.

Meet a PAC

What it is: Rebellion PAC

Who’s behind it: Cenk Uygur, the left-wing media entrepreneur who co-founded Justice Democrats and ran for Congress this year; Brianna Wu, a game developer who ran a similar primary challenger in 2018; and a board of advisers that is yet to be named.

What it’s doing: Running ads designed to “make sure progressives have reasons to show up” in November, according to Wu, with a combination of ads making the case against Trump and ads helping downballot candidates.

“In 2022, when we have more time, you can expect us to be more involved in primaries,” Wu said. “Right now, it’s triage.”

How much it’s spending: The goal, per Wu, is at least $1 million raised and spent by Election Day. “We think it’s feasible,” Wu said. “I say that because Cenk raised $1.3 million in a short amount of time, and I raised half a million dollars in a short amount of time.”

What’s next: The PAC is “very interested” in the Sept. 1 primary between Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy, and the growing controversy in the 1st District (read more about that below) has piqued their interest. “We’ve been having meetings all morning about getting involved in that,” Wu said. After left-wing victories in Missouri and Minnesota, the appeal of PACs that can rush in right before voting ends has been growing in the movement.

Dems in disarray

Alex Morse, the Holyoke, Mass. mayor who is challenging Rep. Richard E. Neal in next month's Democratic congressional primary, spent last weekend fending off questions about a shocking but murky allegation — claims of “inappropriate” behavior, levied against him by Massachusetts College Democrats. Each day has brought new reporting and new doubt on those allegations, with Massachusetts Democrats now planning an investigation of the college organization once the Sept. 1 primary is over.

What happened? The Democrat, who like Neal has taught politics classes in the UMass system, had not faced any official complaints about his behavior, and said in a weekend statement that he had engaged only in consensual relationships. According to the Intercept, which obtained key messages, the letter that created a furor around Morse's campaign was a plot to hurt him.

Morse's allies, ranging from the Sunrise Movement to Justice Democrats, had reacted cautiously after the Daily Collegian story that first levied the accusations. The western Massachusetts chapter of Sunrise retracted its support for Morse, saying it believed “survivors” and that “the students that came forward about the inappropriate nature of Alex’s actions.” (No students were named in the group's letter about Morse.) Justice Democrats, which waited for days to react to the story, pushed out a fundraising appeal after the Intercept published its report. Some individual supporters of Morse, who had recoiled at the allegations, later walked that back.

“The damage Richie Neal is doing to our democracy must be our focus,” tweeted Jennifer Taub, a law professor in the district who had criticized Morse. “This now looks like a smear campaign. I should have waited before jumping to conclusions.”

Neal, who had previously commented only to say that his campaign was not behind the allegation, went further in a Thursday statement. “I will not tolerate my name being associated with any homophobic attacks or efforts to criticize someone for who they choose to love,” Neal said. “That's inconsistent with my character and my values.”

By that point, the story had already begun to backfire. A Holyoke councilor who supports Neal called for the mayor to resign; Morse described that effort as a “sad, ignorant, and homophobic attack.” The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which had been backing Morse, criticized the “political hit job” as a case of anti-gay animus.

“We now know the leadership of UMass Amherst College Democrats was conspiring to damage Alex’s campaign since at least October,” the fund's senior political director, Sean Meloy, said in a Thursday statement. “Yet they chose to release the information ten months later — literally as ballots dropped in voters’ mailboxes — and motivated by hopes of a future political career with Alex’s opponent.”

Morse, one of the last Justice Democrats-backed challengers in a House primary this year, had raised $840,111 by the end of June, according to his FEC reports. On Aug. 12, the final day of the pre-primary FEC reporting period, Morse raised around $130,000, by far the single strongest fundraising period of his campaign.


… four days until the Democratic National Convention
… five days until primaries in Alaska, Florida and Wyoming 
… 11 days until the Republican National Convention
… 12 days until runoffs in Oklahoma
… 19 days until the Massachusetts primary
… 22 days until some absentee ballots start going out
… 82 days until the general election