In this edition: The meaning of the third-quarter fundraising hauls, the battle over drop boxes in California, and why Republican candidates are still circling to find the best Obamacare answer.

Those irritating fundraising emails are so effective that we'll never be rid of them, and this is The Trailer.

Every presidential election year leaves behind a smashed trophy case of old fundraising records. The biggest haul for a Senate candidate? We have a new winner. The most fundraising ever by a Republican challenger in a House race? Another record, broken. The best-funded presidential campaign of all time? We already know that Barack Obama's record won't survive this year.

Oct. 15 was the deadline for federal campaigns to report how much they raised from June 1 through Sept. 30, the third quarter of the year. For the next 16 days, we'll get 48-hour spending reports from campaigns, and we'll see surprise expenditures from last-minute super PACs that don't have to reveal anything until the election is over.

The upshot of everything: This is an expensive campaign, and Democrats have raised more money than Republicans. There are plenty of Republican bright spots, unlike two years ago; there are a few sinkholes, where millions of dollars are funneling into unwinnable races. Here's what mattered, as the cycle begins to wrap up and as the parties make hard decisions about where to try to win their majorities — and both Democrats and Republicans can still see paths to victory.

Joe Biden is the greatest fundraiser in the history of Democratic politics. That would have sounded risible just six months ago. As a primary candidate, Biden was outraised by several Democratic rivals. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont cited his enormous grass-roots network as a reason that he, not Biden, was the party’s most electable candidate.

But by early October, both Biden and Trump were probably topping $1 billion raised for their campaigns and party committees. It’s only the second election, after 2012, in which both Democrats and Republicans raised more than $1 billion for their presidential campaigns.  

Biden is on track to smash through the record set his party eight years ago, as has Trump. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton and the DNC raised a total of $770 million, while Trump and the RNC raised a combined $433 million. In 2012, the Obama-Biden campaign raised $1.1 billion; Mitt Romney’s campaign and the RNC had raised $954 million. 

But as the campaigns revealed Thursday, Biden ended September with $432 million to spend; Trump had $251 million. For the second time, Trump is heading into Election Day with less money than his opponent. He has won in those conditions before, but when he launched his reelection committee in January 2017, it was both to make early investments in the field and to build an insurmountable lead over any Democratic nominee. The first plan worked; the second one didn't.

Unlike in 2018, some House GOP challengers raked it in. The midterm elections two years ago went about as poorly for House Republicans as they could have, and the party's D.C. leadership had a mission for 2020: Recruit stronger candidates who could raise more money and avoid retread candidates who had proved they weren't ready for a Trump-era fundraising environment.

Again and again, Republicans pulled it off. In more than a dozen competitive or potentially competitive races, Republican challengers outraised incumbents, from Oregon's Alek Skarlatos, to California's Young Kim and Michelle Steel, to Utah's Burgess Owens, to South Carolina's Nancy Mace, to Texas's Wesley Hunt, to Wisconsin's Derrick Van Orden. No seat that was on the board after the primaries — i.e., after Republicans learned who their candidates were — has come off the board because of low fundraising, which had happened in 2018.

It's a testament to Republican recruiting, as well as a testament to WinRed, the donation service the party created after years of getting walloped online. WinRed processed $620 million over the quarter, more than double the donations to Republicans through the platform in the previous three months. That still left it behind ActBlue, which processed around $1.3 billion, a number boosted by a surge of donations after the Sept. 18 death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But ActBlue had more than a decade to become liberals’ donation portal of choice, while WinRed had a year.

This wasn't enough to completely turn things around for House Republicans. As Roll Call reported Friday, incumbent House Democrats in all races targeted by Republicans raised more than $258 million for the cycle, while their challengers raised a combined $124 million. And some seats had come off the board weeks or months ago, with a number of freshman House Democrats (California's Katie Porter and Josh Harder; New Jersey's Mikie Sherrill; Virginia's Jennifer Wexton) quickly locking down their seats. But the picture for House Republicans was far better than it had been in other years when the top of the ticket was trailing in polls.

There was just one downside.

A lot of conservative money went to safe candidates (or probable losers). This newsletter doesn't make race-by-race predictions, but here's a safe one: Lacy Johnson is not likely to join Congress next year. A Black charter school founder who lost a 2018 race for state representative in Minneapolis, Johnson is now the Republican nominee against Rep. Ilhan Omar, in a district that gave Donald Trump only 18 percent of the vote in the last presidential election.

But Johnson raised $6.2 million in the third quarter, more than any other Republican candidate in Minnesota for any office. (Jason Lewis, the GOP's nominee for U.S. Senate, raised less than half of that.) And Johnson did not set the fundraising record for a challenger last quarter. That title belongs to Kimberly Klacik, a Baltimore-area Republican activist whose viral videos helped her raise $6.5 million and who told the Baltimore Sun that she probably won't spend it all this year. In Maryland's 7th District, where Klacik is running, the president won just 20 percent of the vote against Clinton.

Johnson, Klacik and New York's John Cummings — who is challenging Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — were among the best Republican fundraisers in the country last quarter. Two of the party's strongest fundraisers in the House, Rep. Devin Nunes of California and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, face no serious threat to reelection, but both have become widely known through their defenses of the president in Congress and on TV. Both actually raised more than Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the party's whip; both were less than $1 million behind House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). 

After Oct. 15, the Republican-backing Congressional Leadership Fund reserved ad time in 44 races. Twenty were in seats currently held by Republicans; 17 are in districts that Democrats flipped in 2018 but the president carried in 2016. The remaining offensive targets, such as Minnesota’s 7th District and Iowa’s 2nd District, are on the map because their voters backed Trump in the last election, while sending Democrats back to Congress. 

Senate Democrats smashed fundraising records at the worst time for the GOP. Two years ago, in his moment as a national political phenom, Texas's Beto O'Rourke set an all-time fundraising record: $38 million in the final pre-election quarter. Last week, three Democrats topped it. Arizona's Mark Kelly raised $38.8 million, Maine's Sara Gideon raised $39.4 million, and South Carolina's Jaime Harrison raised $57 million, far and away the new record for any Senate candidate in a single quarter.

All three raised more money than the strongest Republican fundraiser — Lindsey O. Graham, with $28.5 million. So did Kentucky's Amy McGrath ($36.9 million) and Iowa's Theresa Greenfield ($28.7 million). Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who has been quietly written off by national Democrats, raised $10.4 million, tripling rival Republican Tommy Tuberville. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the only purple-state Democrat the party is nervous about, outraised Republican nominee John James for the first time all year. Even Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia raised a bit less than Paula Jean Swearingen, a Bernie Sanders supporter who lost a 2018 primary against the state's Democratic senator, Joe Manchin III, and has built a robust online following ever since.

Which Democrats got outraised? Just a few: Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia phoned it in against a little-known Republican opponent (Warner grabbed $2.2 million to Daniel Gade's $2.5 million), and Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico was outraised by meteorologist Mark Ronchetti by $50,000. In Tennessee, Democratic Socialists of America member Marquita Bradshaw was handily outraised by Bill Hagerty, the Republican to whom national Democrats have effectively conceded. 

How much does this change the Senate map? It broadens it, a little; the Senate Leadership Fund, the GOP's super PAC for these races, went in on Alaska this month, and that state was on no one's watch list one year ago. It complicates it, a little; Michigan's John James has been getting all the outside spending he could want, but he is going blow for blow with Peters, not overwhelming him like some Democratic challengers. One thing to watch is whether this money trickles into less-traditional advertising, or, as in some places two years ago, it locks up so much TV time in the final weeks that there aren't many places left to go for an upset.

Reading list

The re-re-re-boot.

Why a Democrat ran an ad about hating Bill de Blasio.

No, that's not really the shirtless body of President Trump on those posters.

Surprising tremors in what looked like Trump Country.

Like a debate, without all that troublesome debating.

Inside the racial discrepancies around voting lines.

Broken brain? You're not alone.

Why the 43rd president doesn't want to say anything.

In the states

Four days of hearings on Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett came and went without the event Republicans were hoping for: a crass Democratic question about Barrett's religion. (They had to settle for a live mic moment near the end when Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, mentioned that Barrett was Catholic.) Democrats, who expect to lose the confirmation battle this week, intended to focus almost entirely on health care. 

To their own surprise, they pulled it off. By the end of the hearings, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, the committee's chairman, was pulling Barrett into a discussion of “severability,” in which a judge decides that one problematic part of a law can be struck down while the rest of it stands. Republican attorneys general and the Trump administration have asked the Supreme Court to rule that the effective end of the individual mandate, which was reduced to zero dollars by the 2017 tax cut, should invalidate the entire Affordable Care Act. But Graham suggested that Barrett would want to save it.

“The main thing is the doctrine of severability has a presumption to save the statute if possible,” Graham said. “I want every conservative in the nation to listen to what she just said. That is the law, folks.”

The message was directed at Senate races, where the fate of the ACA continues to bedevil Republican candidates. In New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has a sizable lead over Republican Corky Messner, the Trump-backed candidate said in an NHPR-hosted debate that he supported elements of the ACA that would be killed if the law were negated by the courts.

“I support the Medicaid expansion,” Messner said. “I support people being able to stay on their parents' health insurance until they're 26 years old.” Shaheen took a swing back, saying that Messner didn't understand the law.

In Michigan, Democratic Sen. Gary Peters and Republican challenger John James did separate Sunday-aired interviews with an NBC affiliate; they have not agreed on a single host for a debate. A good part of James's time was spent on questions about the ACA, as the candidate declined to say whether the ACA should be repealed before a Republican replacement law was passed.

“Here's the thing: I'm not a politician. I'm coming to this as someone who has real-world experience,” James said. “We make the Affordable Care Act actually affordable by allowing competition.” But the exchanges revealed how much trickier the issue has become for Republicans, with James at one point suggesting Peters had not supported stand-alone legislation on patients with preexisting conditions — something the ACA already handles. Peters, asked why he did not support Medicare-for-all, defended the “public option” and then derided James.

“He has no plan whatsoever,” Peters says. “He has talking points, and they're memorized.”

And in Arkansas, where Republican Sen. Tom Cotton has no Democratic challenger, Libertarian nominee Ricky Dale Harrington got TV time all to himself, in lieu of a two-candidate debate. Democratic candidate Josh Mahoney dropped out after the state's early deadline, and state law did not allow the party to replace him. That has left Harrington appealing to both the small number of Libertarians and the more robust number of frustrated Democrats who want to oppose Cotton, and the third-party candidate used some of his time to praise the ACA.

“Why not amend it, rather than replace?” Harrington asked. “My vision is to try to bring those together for something that benefits those who want public health care and those who would like to go with private insurance.” 

Ad watch

President Trump, Insult.” The president's reelection campaign is continuing to try out new messages (such as allegations of corruption against Joe Biden) and new versions of old messages. This is a second bite at the apple on Biden's interview with Charlamagne tha God, where he suggested that if the host really needed to keep hearing reasons to vote for him over Trump, he wasn't “Black.” (Biden's phrasing made it sound like he was referring to all Black voters.) The ad combines that with a flashback to Biden's crime bill advocacy. “He insulted us. Jailed us,” a narrator says. “We must not elect him president.” Similar ads ran in June, though they clashed with the Trump campaign's ramped-up focus on “law and order” and violent unrest.

John Hickenlooper, “Can't See.” Democrats have been confident enough in Hickenlooper's campaign to cut some of their ad reservations. The theory of why he could win here hasn't changed: He left the governor's office in 2019 with strong approval ratings, while Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has not built a strong identity for anti-Trump voters to latch onto. “When I was governor we faced floods and rebuilt communities in record time,” Hickenlooper says, contrasting how he tackled crises with how the president does, leaving Gardner out of it.

CLF Action Fund, “Define.” The 2020 House map has gotten broader for Democrats since the start of the year, with some of their freshmen in suburban seats locking down reelection and some Republican-leaning seats coming online late. Pat Timmons-Goodson, whose judicial nomination was blocked by Senate Republicans, is running against Rep. Richard Hudson in a North Carolina seat that went for Trump by nine points four years ago, but she has kept pace with him in fundraising, and the House GOP's super PAC has jumped in to help. The message here is that the former judge is simply too “soft on crime,” based on her rulings and how “she's backed by those working to defund the police." 

Poll watch

U.S. Senate race in Alaska (NYT/Siena, 423 likely voters)

Dan Sullivan (R): 45%
Al Gross (D/I): 37%
John Howe (AIP): 10%

The New York Times, under pressure from more election-obsessed readers, took a dare to poll one of the hardest-to-study electorates in the country. The president's approval rating in Alaska is even, weak for a state he won by 14 points but probably not enough to put it in play; Biden's favorable rating is even, too. Both Sullivan, elected narrowly in 2014, and Al Gross, the independent running with the support of state Democrats, are viewed more favorably than not.

Presidential election in New Jersey (Stockton poll, 721 registered voters)

Joe Biden: 56%
Donald Trump: 36%

After the pandemic hit, New Jersey joined the small group of states that mail ballots to every registered voter. As of Sunday morning, turnout there had already hit one-third of voter turnout four years ago, with the universe of persuadable voters shrinking every day. But no statewide race is close; Biden leads by 20 points, and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker leads a largely unknown challenger by 25 points, which if it held would be the biggest Senate landslide in the state since 1984. There's a north-south split in Biden's popularity, as well as Trump's; the two candidates run about even in South Jersey, which could benefit party-switching Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew.

Presidential election in Arizona (CBS/YouGov, 1,064 registered voters)

Joe Biden: 50% (+3) 
Donald Trump: 47% (+3)

This pollster was last in Arizona in mid-September, before the first debate, and the change since then has been minimal — largely undecided voters sorting themselves out. Biden's ratings are flat, and the president's haven't got much further to drop. But there's an advantage for Biden that the pollster only recently started to ask about: What do voters want politics to look like “for the next four years?” Sixty-one percent say “steady,” and 52 percent say “calm,” to just 22 percent who want the political system to be “shaken up.” In a close race, Biden's overall message syncs up better with voters' mood than Trump's promise to keep disrupting the status quo. 

How has Trump's response to the pandemic affected seniors, and how would Biden respond? (CBS/YouGov, 1,124 registered voters in Wisconsin)

Donald Trump
Made them more at risk: 50%
Not much effect: 37%
Made them safer: 13%

Joe Biden
Make them safer: 47%
Not much effect: 33%
Make them more at risk: 20%

The top-line of this poll finds a race similar to the race before the debates: Biden's six-point lead down to a five-point lead, with both candidates gaining from the pool of undecided voters but Trump gaining a bit more. But this is the problem that no pivot has helped Trump with: Voters believe Biden would be doing a better job responding to covid-19, and that opinion outpaces the actual support for Biden and opposition to Trump.

Voting wars

A multiday standoff between California's Democratic attorney general and the state Republican Party came to an end over the weekend, with the GOP agreeing not to distribute more drop boxes for ballots or to label them “official.” But California Republicans stuck to their guns on the boxes themselves, arguing that they were simply taking advantage of the laws that Democrats passed in 2016, allowing “ballot harvesting” by getting rid of the limit on how many ballots volunteers can collect and drop off. 

“This is a thuggish voter intimidation and vote suppression tactic by our Democratic attorney general and secretary of state,” California GOP spokesman Hector Barajas told the Los Angeles Times, referring to Democrats' efforts to stop the drop boxes.

Like many states that have expanded vote-by-mail options this year, California has paid to install drop boxes, separate from Postal Service mailboxes, where ballots can be dropped off securely. Republicans, who have criticized the “ballot harvesting” law, set up some of their own drop boxes, which were both unofficial and lacking the safety precautions used by the state. And as of now, they're staying put, many in locations (such as near gun shops) where Republicans expect more of their voters to go.

Candidate tracker

Joe Biden's campaign continued to dismiss questions about emails and documents purportedly taken from a computer belonging to Hunter Biden, his surviving son and the target of Republican attacks over his lucrative career with foreign companies. Asked Friday night about the New York Post's stories about his son, Biden snapped at the reporter, CBS News's Bo Erickson.

“I know you’d ask it,” Biden said. “I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley. Those are the questions you always ask.”

The email story has played out away from the campaign's mainstream. Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney, has recorded long YouTube videos in which he sifts through printouts of conversations found in the alleged email trove and says there's enough evidence against the “Biden crime family” to bring a case against them. President Trump has referred briefly to it at rallies since Wednesday. Vice President Pence has yet to bring it up, a departure from four years ago, when both sides of the Republican ticket would work Clinton campaign emails released by WikiLeaks into their speeches.

Biden went dark Saturday but traveled to North Carolina on Sunday for early-voting events. Kamala D. Harris, who held only remote events while self-isolating after potential coronavirus exposure, ends that tonight.

Third Party watch

Brock Pierce is known for three things: He acted in “The Mighty Ducks,” he turned an interest in bitcoin into a career as an investor and advocate, and he announced a bid for president the same week as Kanye West. Spending $3 million, he got on ballots in 17 states, more than West, and did more in-person campaigning than West, which he pulled off by holding more than one event.

Next week, Pierce will organize an Independent National Convention in Cheyenne, Wyo., though the point of it remained mysterious after he came to the city to announce it. 

“We wanted to honor this state because of all the history that has been made here, and how much it’s chosen to innovate,” he told the Casper Star-Tribune. “And then we have a mayor who said ‘Let’s do it here,’ a mayor who is fighting to secure opportunity for her city. She convinced us and, therefore, we will.”

This would be the second post-partisan convention held after it was far too late to unite independents and third-party candidates for a single November effort; the first, which The Trailer wrote about last month, was the “Movement for a People's Party” online event, which was organized to create a new, left-populist party in 2021. This three-day event, which starts Friday, has no confirmed candidates except Pierce, yet time has been set aside for a debate (before a “Mayan Warrior after-party.”)

Pierce is eligible for 115 electoral votes in states where he made the ballot, putting him sixth on the leader board for third-party candidates. The Libertarian Party got access in every state, while the Green Party got access in just 29 states plus the District of Columbia; in 12 more states, write-in votes for the Green ticket will get counted. 

No other third-party candidates appear in enough states to theoretically win 270 electoral votes, and the left-wing Party for Socialism and Liberation, the right-wing Constitution Party, and the inscrutable candidacy of businessman Rocky de la Fuente will be eligible for more votes than Pierce or West. (De la Fuente, who has turned running for office into a sort of hobby, obtained some previously existing third-party ballot lines.) The country's most crowded ballots belong to Colorado and Vermont, with 19 presidential candidates each; Colorado required only that candidates pay a filing fee to appear on the ballot, while Vermont waived all requirements.

Countdown

… four days until the final presidential debate 
… 16 days until the general election 
… 48 days until runoffs in Louisiana
… 57 days until the electoral college votes
… 79 days until runoffs in Georgia
… 94 days until the inauguration