In this edition: A conversation with the most liberal Democrat left in a Trump district, the protests to overturn the election wind down and the Georgia races manage to get nastier.

I'm taking some time off this week, not so much for the holiday, but to deal with my complicated feelings over the arrest of Tony Meatballs. This is The Trailer.

Seriously, though, the newsletter will take a break for Thanksgiving. There'll be a brief edition Sunday to wrap up news from the week.

House Democrats, who headed into this election expecting to expand their majority, are still reckoning with why they lost seats. They picked up nothing in territory carried by the president four years ago, after targeting more than a dozen “Trump seats.” The casualties included everyone from Minnesota's Collin C. Peterson, who'd held back a Republican tide in his district for years, to Florida's Donna Shalala, whose Miami-area seat had been trending blue. Centrist challengers flopped in swing districts, but self-styled “progressive” challengers often did worse.

But Democrats will still run the House next year, thanks to the resilience of members who held on in Trump-friendly districts, and some lucky breaks in districts they flipped two years ago. Pending recounts in Iowa and New York, as few as six and as many as eight Democrats will represent places that backed Trump for president. Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.) stands alone in that group. He's one of two swing-seat, Trump-district Democrats who endorsed Medicare-for-all legislation and the rest of the left's legislative priorities. He's the only one who did so while voting to impeach the president on both articles last year.

It was the toughest race of Cartwright's career, and he won it by just over 12,000 votes out of about 345,000 cast, running five points ahead of the Biden-Harris ticket. The left has included 59-year-old Cartwright in its memos about the election, proof that a Bernie Sanders-style agenda can win anywhere and pushback against party leaders who blame activists for scaring swing voters away from Democrats. Cartwright's Republican opponent accused him of backing “amnesty for illegals” and wanting to “defund the police.” It wasn't enough to unseat him.

After the results were certified, Cartwright wanted to talk about how he won, and how any easy analysis was probably wrong. Like the members of the “squad,” he got to Congress by beating a more conservative Democrat in a primary, taking advantage in 2012 of a Republican-drawn map. But he endorsed Biden the moment he announced his presidential bid, out of admiration for him and the theory, eventually proven, that the president-elect could win back some of northeast Pennsylvania. Asked if any other Democrat who ran for the nomination could have won the state, Cartwright paused for 10 seconds, then said he didn't know.

“I didn't win by a whole lot,” Cartwright added.

A lightly edited transcript of the conversation, the kind we're having with a number of election survivors and casualties as the year ends, is below.

The Trailer: How did you win, and what do you think most people are missing about what you saw on the ground this year? 

Matthew Cartwright: Let's go back to what life was like in November 2013. We're rolling out Obamacare. The ACA was going to be done with a website, you remember? The website wasn't prospering. In fact, it was crashing everywhere. And at the same time, I had to do town halls. So, I did a town hall in what was the most conservative area of my district at that time, and I defended it. 

I'll tell you another story. I went to the American Legion post in Milford, in a conservative part of my district. The first row, 15 people, everyone was wearing an NRA shirt. They're all holding pieces of paper, and I see what they say: “What part of shall not be infringed do you not understand?” So I walk in and say: I'll answer all your questions, but let's talk about guns. I have a Remington 700. It's a single-shot, bolt-action rifle, .243 Winchester caliber. It has a magazine of four shots. From 100 yards I can put four rounds inside the diameter of a silver dollar, and my son Matty is even better. That boy could shoot the eyelash off of a gnat. I told them that and, they listened with interest and some of them looked at each other and wondered if they had the right address for the town hall they were supposed to go to.

I mention that because I'm the same guy I was then. There's no secret sauce here. It's about putting in the legwork, trying to connect with your district and all parts of your district and with people of all stripes and all political leanings. It's something we've done a lot of. Have you read any books by Malcolm Gladwell?

TT: Just “The Tipping Point, though I know the premise of the other books.

MC: There's one he wrote called “Blink.” The premise is that human beings are really good at figuring out really important decisions very quickly. We're hard-wired for it, because it's atavistic. It goes back to prehistoric times: Animals are chasing you down the path, you have to choose between the left fork and the right fork, and your entire progeny and their existence depends on you making the right decision. Gladwell says we've gotten really good at that, and I agree. I think people are really good at figuring out if this person cares about me or not.

I'll tell you about another town hall. I did one in Old Forge about a year ago. We had about 50 people show up for a midday coffee. I go in and one of my staffers says to me that there's a problem. “There's a lot of protesters outside. They all have Trump banners and Trump signs and Trump flags, After you're done, what we can do is pull the car around back and you can sneak out the back, and that way you won't have to run into them.” 

I said to heck with that, and I immediately walked right outside, and I greeted the people outside with their signs and their banners and their flags and their red hats. I shook hands with all of them. I invited them inside, and some of them looked like they were about to fall over dead. They weren't sure what to do. They eventually did not come inside. But I think they were bowled over by somebody having the moxie to go out and greet them like that. Two of them took selfies with me. That's how I operate.

TT: How did the pandemic affect your plans to hold town halls? 

MC: It was terrible. I'd rather pull out a couple of my own teeth with a pair of pliers than live through 2020 again. It was awful, not being able to connect with people. We had 21 events in the 12 months leading up to the pandemic, then we had to shut down. 

TT: Since the election, your win's been cited as proof that Democrats can run and win on Medicare-for-all. Do you agree with that?

MC: There's a fancy Latin phrase for that kind of thinking. It's called post hoc ergo propter hoc, okay? I've been on Fox News talking about Medicare-for-all. I'm not afraid to talk about it. But people don't run up to me and ask me: “What is this Medicare-for-all about? Have you taken leave of your senses?” It just doesn't come up like that. Somebody might be saying, "He won because of that thing that he said that I liked.” Fine. But I very well may have won despite that. People have all sorts of different reasons for voting for or against a candidate. 

And look, we just went through a very strange campaign where my opponent didn't even talk about that. He made up things. Republicans actually doctored an audiotape to make it sound like I was for defunding the police. They did the same thing to Joe Biden. You think Joe Biden is for defunding the police? Did he finally just start getting around to that after 47 years in federal politics? Come on. It was all nonsense. 

TT: Biden rebutted that idea and it seemed to get through. Did you guys rebut it?

MC: We did contradict it pretty quickly, but our polling showed that about 30 percent of people believed it anyway. That's called the “liar's advantage,” by the way. You ever heard that term?

TT: Not specifically. Where's it come from?

MC: I think it comes from Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the old minister in Germany of public misinformation. And the idea is that you repeat a lie enough times, people will begin to believe it. 

TT: You had a closer race than Democrats I'd talked to before the election was expecting, and you've mentioned how much higher turnout got. Do you think that's the new normal, or is there just something that happens to turnout when President Trump is on the ballot?

MC: The polling was good and bad. It was bad because they totally underestimated everybody that would turn out. The polling on the issues was right. We know what to talk about in the TV ads, and all of that. I saw lots and lots of Trump signs, but I didn't see Biden being hanged in effigy. I didn't see signs with “Biden” in a big circle with a cross through it. I did see that sort of thing with Secretary Clinton. I remember one time I was driving home, going through Pine Grove all the way up to Luzerne County on my way home on Interstate 81. And I remember I saw this pickup truck where the tailgate wasn't made of metal. It was made of wood, cut really well, stained and varnished. A lot of tender loving care went into the making of this tailgate, and the inscription said: “Lock Her Up.” My God, the amount of effort that went into that sign! We didn't see anything like that with Vice President Biden. 

TT: I've heard two main theories of what Democrats should do with the House and White House but not, maybe, the Senate. One's to pass whatever can pass, quickly. The other theory is to pass the biggest progressive legislation possible in the House, with Biden's support, and run against Senate Republicans for blocking it. Which of those ideas sounds right to you? What do you want to focus on first?

MC: I'm still processing, but from what I've thought about so far, I think infrastructure and “build back better.” The whole time in Congress, we haven't done a big infrastructure bill. Everyone knows we need it. I've been here since January of 2013, and we haven't done it. So what is wrong with us? You know, I think that's been a disappointment with Donald Trump. People looked to him to be somebody who can break the logjam, an outsider coming to Washington, somebody who's a builder. And he never did it.

I never confused Donald Trump for a Republican. He was never a fiscal conservative. I mean, even in his business career, he was happy to borrow lots and lots of money. We would get budgets from the Trump White House, and nobody was under any delusion that Donald Trump had even taken a gander at any of these things. These were the brainchild of people like Mick Mulvaney, probably drafted in the basement of the Heritage Foundation. And they would cut programs like Meals on Wheels or food stamps, or stuff that kept people from freezing to death in their houses. And Trump never talked about that.

TT: With Trump gone, Republicans are talking more about cutting spending and balancing the budget, and they've been calling for a smaller stimulus, or none, compared with what Democrats want. What do you do if Republicans just block the Biden agenda?

MC: I feel very simpatico with Joe Biden. Remember when he ran in the primary? He was saying nice things about Republicans constantly in that primary. Who does that? I'm thrilled that he won. And I also have some hopes that because he's like that, he can get past that logjam that we were talking about, that he can appeal to the better angels of people like Mitch McConnell, because he's done it before. They know that they can make a deal with him. They know that he can be trusted and they know that he won't go around demonizing them.

So, if we come up with a major infrastructure package, for example, and the president-elect proposes that we pass it out of the House, and then if the Republicans are in charge of the Senate, are they going to put the kibosh on that just because they don't want to give Democrats a victory? I think that that'll be on display for everybody in the state. 

TT: Let's think about a town hall, if you're able to have one, early next year. How much do you expect people to tell you: Hey, the president didn't lose. The election was stolen"?

MC: It's the liar's advantage. We already talked about that. It could be as many as 30 percent of people in my district who'll believe that the election was stolen. That wouldn't surprise me. That means it's on us, that it's on people like President-elect Biden and Congressman Cartwright to get out there and prove that we are who we say we are and get the job done.

Reading list

The end of the 2020 campaign, mostly.

How much money did Mike Bloomberg set on fire?

“Biden’s nominees have pushed policies that Trump used to fuel his rise,” by Matt Viser, John Hudson, Karen DeYoung and Carol Morello

The risks of bringing the “adults” back.

The below-the-radar tactics of VoteVets.

Chester County USA.

Denial in blue-collar Rust Belt diners.

“Why they fight,” by E.J. Dionne Jr.

The Democrats' constant state of disarray, explained.

The refusal to concede Wisconsin, explained.

On the trail

On Monday, as Michigan's state elections board certified the results from Nov. 3, two groups of protesters gathered near the capitol in Lansing. A “driving for democracy” caravan, composed of Biden supporters, drove in a circle to urge the board to accept the vote count. Not far away, a pro-Trump “stop the steal” rally was unfolding, with the conservative activist Ali Alexander telling a dozen or so people that the “death of corporate media” was at hand and implying that Michigan's Republican legislators, who had ruled out appointing electors for a candidate who lost the state, could do just that.

“People are organizing in 50 states across the country, every Saturday, every capitol,” Alexander said. “If we get out millions of people, the system will have to compromise with us. So, spoiler alert: We will get out into the streets until the system stops.”

The system didn't stop Monday, or Tuesday, as election results were certified in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada. The most promising path that conservatives saw for stopping Biden's victory, of delaying those certifications past the electoral college's deadline, was closed. 

The “stop the steal” project is continuing anyway, and it's adding some Thanksgiving events, with a slightly tweaked mission to “stop the steal of our freedoms.” In the absence of what many Republicans expected — an active, in-person effort by the president to challenge the election results — the grass-roots campaign to overturn Biden's win has been limited to rallies with often-obscure conservative activists.

Most of this has happened below the radar. Low star power, the organizers' own rejection of “mainstream media” and the lack of real influence has left “stop the steal” with sideshow status. It hasn't helped that the top-level effort to challenge the election, from the president's legal team, has lost 35 of its 36 post-election lawsuits. The liberal effort to get “faithless electors” to switch votes in 2016 got little serious attention; the effort to overturn the 2020 election has gotten only a little more, mostly around the organizers' Nov. 15 rally near the White House.

Still, these rallies have pointed to how some conservatives are hunkering down to fight a Biden presidency. Polling since Nov. 3 has found a majority of Trump supporters unwilling to believe that the election was fair or that Biden got more votes than Trump. The rallies have channeled that thinking into rhetoric, with Trump's backers insisting, without actual evidence, that his increase in votes over 2016 shows that there has to be something amiss with Biden's numbers.

“Donald John Trump got more votes than any president in United States history,” former White House adviser turned radio host Sebastian Gorka said at the Nov. 15 rally outside the Supreme Court. “And a man who's been in his basement for nine months quote-unquote beat him?” 

How did Biden even get close to Trump? The idea that voting machines switched numbers around isn't universal at these rallies; it's not even mentioned at some of them. More commonly, activists cite the scandals that occupied the president's time over the past four years, arguing that there was an unprecedented effort to weaken him and his base, and that an election whose results they don't trust was not much different than, for example, the allegation that Trump benefited from Russian interference in the last election.

“You've been backing up, backing up, losing ground,” said activist Wylin Tjoelker at a weekend rally in Olympia, Wash. “These latest atrocities are like an ocean behind you. Dark, cold, turbulent waters, full of sharks. Antifa, [Black Lives Matter] sharks. And now you have this massive election fraud. That is the ocean. They've backed you right up to the water's edge, [and] all freedom will be lost if they accomplish this election fraud.”

The official “Stop the Steal” events, the ones branded by Alexander's group, have added some action plans. In Georgia, they've demanded the Republican-run legislature call a special session to probe the vote count. 

“We know the Democrats don't want that, because it'll prove the fraud,” said Infowars host Alex Jones at a rally inside the state's capitol, joined by Alexander and by Georgia legislator Vernon Jones, a Trump campaign surrogate. At that rally, Alexander assured activists that they could spur the legislature to action, once they realized the threat posed to their careers. 

“Whoa, Ali's got a bunch of door-knockers, and phone-bankers, and if we don't call a special session, we'll get a primary in these districts we've drawn to ourselves,” Alexander said, imagining how Republicans would react to them. “If you live in their district, go approach their doors peacefully, and let them know your thoughts. I want to see, on Saturday, a bunch of reps releasing press releases because they've heard from y'all.”

That didn't happen. The state certified its vote count and will proceed to the recount demanded by the Trump campaign, without a special session. Neither the rallies themselves nor the reactions of local officials have lived up to the promises of organizers, who imagined a public pressure campaign so overwhelming that it would supplant the actual election results as the voice of the American people.

Ad watch

Jon Ossoff, “Thanksgiving.” The Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia continues to run ads that blend in with other holiday content, with praise for first responders and support for new stimulus plans to raise wages. “I'll work with Joe Biden to beat the virus,” Ossoff says, continuing the Democrats' runoff strategy of linking themselves to the incoming president.

Kelly Loeffler, “Relief.” One of the first positive Republican spots for the runoff, this starts with the claim that the senator was “cleared” of any suspicion of wrongdoing, without getting into the details of the stock trade controversy that damaged her shortly after her appointment. From there, it runs through some bills Loeffler's supported and some personal charitable donations she's made, presenting her as a rolled-up-sleeves public servant as Democrats bash her as a grifter.

Senate Leadership Fund, “Dirtier.” The GOP's super PAC has spent millions against Ossoff this cycle, with its messaging about his career as a documentary producer growing more audaciously negative. Here, some familiar attacks on a Chinese media company's small payment to his company, and its work with Al-Jazeera, becomes the accusation that he “hid cash from Chinese Communists and terrorist sympathizers.” 

Poll watch

Do you approve or disapprove of the way the president is handling his job? (Gallup, 1018 adults)

Approve: 43% (-3)
Disapprove: 55% (+3)

Gallup, which has been tracking presidential approval ratings longer than any other pollster, surmises that Trump may leave office less popular than any defeated president since Jimmy Carter. Unlike the 39th president, Trump never cracked 50 percent approval in Gallup's tracking. But after weeks of unprecedented resistance to the election results, and the fewest public appearances of any similar period in his presidency, the president's numbers haven't moved much. 

Trump's approval rating is identical to what it was immediately after the first debate with Biden, and the president's subsequent covid-19 diagnosis. The biggest shift anywhere in the poll comes on the question of whether people are “satisfied or dissatisfied” with how the country's going. “Dissatisfied” holds a 55-point advantage, up from a 43-point advantage before the election. The shift comes entirely from Trump supporters who are suddenly distraught.

What is the biggest issue the president will have to face over the next four years? (Monmouth, 810 adults)

Covid-19/coronavirus: 27%
Jobs/economy: 18%
Uniting the country: 12%
Race/civil rights: 7%
Foreign relations: 3%
Crime/law and order: 3%
Cleaning up DC: 3%
Health care: 2%
Terrorism/security: 2%
Climate change: 2%
Immigration: 2%

This is an infamously tough question to nail for pollsters, because voters can associate all sorts of things with concepts like “jobs” or “crime.” But nothing at the top of voters' concerns is at odds with the Biden agenda. That's something to watch as he implements it. The president's broadest power, the ones he can exercise without congressional oversight, are being contemplated to restore DACA, increase refugee resettlement numbers and rejoin the Paris climate treaty. Those are achievable liberal priorities, but they're not what the election ended up being fought over.

In the states

It's one of the worst traditions in politics: Some candidates inevitably head into Thanksgiving, weeks after their elections, unsure if they actually won. There are now three congressional races where the leading candidate is ahead by fewer than 500 votes, and they may not be resolved until this newsletter returns Sunday — or later.

In California, just 400 votes separate Republican Rep. Mike Garcia from Democrat Christy Smith, a far closer race than the May special election that Garcia won easily. Like several other California Republicans, Garcia ran far ahead of Trump in the district, carrying its Ventura County portion and narrowly trailing in the Los Angeles County portion. He's declared victory; Smith hasn't conceded.

In New York, fewer than 300 votes separate former Republican congresswoman Claudia Tenney from Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi, who defeated her two years ago. The closeness of the race has tested New York's shambolic electoral system; it's taken longer than any other state to count up all of its votes, and during the process, notes on some challenged ballots have been lost. The race is effectively in limbo, and it's unclear whether there are enough valid ballots remaining to wipe out Tenney's lead; Brindisi, like Democrats across the state, has dominated with the mail vote.

In Iowa, three-time Republican congressional candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks led the initial count in the 2nd District over Democrat Rita Hart. (Democratic Rep. David Loebsack retired this year, creating one of the toughest open seats for his party in the country.) Hart demanded a recount, which initially found a few more votes for Miller-Meeks, but a discovery of 30 votes for Hart in Scott County raised the possibility that she could pull ahead by fewer than 10 votes. A win for either candidate, at this point, would produce the closest margin of victory of any House race in Iowa's history.

In Georgia, meanwhile, voters can already request absentee ballots for the Jan. 5 runoff election. A third-party group, Vote From Home Georgia, is refocusing its efforts to get Democrats who cast absentee ballots for the first time on Nov. 3 to cast them again. 

Countdown

… six days until Arizona's election certification deadline
… seven days until Wisconsin's election certification deadline
… 11 days until runoffs in Louisiana 
… 14 days until the “safe harbor” date for states to choose electors
… 21 days until the electoral college votes 
… 42 days until runoffs in Georgia 
… 57 days until the inauguration