In this edition: How legal weed became a red vs. blue issue, why so many post-election voting changes look the same and Democratic infighting in key Senate races.

If the Senate parliamentarian allows it, this is The Trailer.

Just two states, New Jersey and Virginia, elect governors in the year following each presidential election. Timing aside, it's rare that the race for Chris Christie's old job looks anything like the race for Thomas Jefferson's.

That changed this week, as both states moved toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed three bills to start legal sales before the November election; in Virginia, Democrats began merging House and Senate bills that would legalize weed by 2024.

“The public doesn’t see marijuana use as being the scourge that it used to be,” said Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell, one of the Democrats promoting the bill. “If we don’t take action this session, the next cycle will be about marijuana legalization.”

The more popular legal marijuana gets, the more elections are held on it — something that's increasingly encouraging for Democrats. Last year, every state that held a referendum on legal weed approved it. Democratic governors in several states where the drug is prohibited have used their budget addresses to endorse legalization, citing the fiscal crunches caused by the coronavirus, successful legalization drives in nearby states and the lack of an organized opposition.

“Sports betting, Internet gaming and legalized marijuana are happening all around us,” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said last week in his annual State of the State speech. “Let’s not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or, even worse, underground markets.”

Legalization, which both Democrats and Republicans treated carefully just a few years ago, has quickly become more popular than either party. But its political support is mostly concentrated among Democrats, and the party increasingly sees it as an issue that can drive out voters. Late last year, when the House passed a federal legalization measure for the first time, just six Democratic members opposed it, two of whom were lame ducks headed into retirement. Just five Republicans supported it, and their leadership accused Democrats of focusing on “drugs” instead of jobs.

In the states, as in Congress, opposition to legalization has become a Republican issue. In Idaho, where Democrats have gone winless for years, Republican legislatures have advanced a constitutional ban on any drug legalization, putting it on the state's next ballot. “I beg you, we have to keep this state clean,” Sen. Van Burtenshaw said during the debate on the measure.

In South Dakota, where 62 percent of voters supported President Donald Trump's reelection and 54 percent voted for legal marijuana, Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has taken the lead in preventing legalization. This month, a judge struck down the ballot measure passed in November, and Noem has threatened to veto any legalization efforts passed by the GOP majority.

For that reason and a few others, Democratic opposition to legalization largely has disappeared. The Virginia and New Jersey measures are both part of the party's 2021 agenda, with their gubernatorial hopefuls in favor and Republican candidates opposed. In New Jersey, the legalization drive has squeezed Jack Ciattarelli, who has supported decriminalization in the past but came out against the package of Democratic changes alongside the state's Policemen's Benevolent Association.

“Today's decision by Trenton Democrats to prohibit police officers from even asking questions to a car full of underage kids who appear to be smoking weed is outrageous,” Ciattarelli said in a statement, which his campaign referred to when asked about his position.

But legalization advocates said that opposition, the kind that had previously come from police and prosecutors' associations, was harder to hear now.

“Every once in a while you have some pediatrician who’s worried about the long-term effects, or someone worried about family use,” said Emily Kaltenbach, a director at the Drug Policy Alliance who is working to pass legalization through New Mexico's Democratic legislature. “But there’s no organized opposition.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) endorsed legalization in her own State of the State address; in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers (D) included it in his budget proposal, drawing opposition from the Republican-led legislature and teeing up an issue for his 2022 reelection. In Minnesota, where Democrats blame the Legal Marijuana Now Party for siphoning some liberal votes in tight races, Gov. Tim Walz (D) backed legalization before the election and has gotten behind it in budget negotiations. Republicans, who have not won a statewide race in Minnesota since 2006, have blocked legalization while cracking open a window for a debate on medical marijuana.

All of this has happened without any direction from the Biden administration. The only top-tier candidate for the party's nomination who did not back outright legalization, Biden has suggested he may de-schedule the drug, removing from a list of illegal substances and allowing states more flexibility to sell it. In his first day of hearings, attorney general nominee Merrick Garland, who in a 2012 case sided with the DEA against drug decriminalization campaigners as a D.C. Circuit judge, told Sen. Cory Booker (D) that his Justice Department would continue to let legalization proceed in states.

“It does not seem to me useful the use of limited resources that we have to be pursuing prosecutions in states that have legalized and are regulating the use of marijuana, either medically or otherwise,” Garland told Booker, a legalization advocate and now chair of the criminal justice and counterterrorism subcommittee.

State legislators and state parties were expecting that. So are investors, who have been pushing for congressional passage of the SAFE Banking Act, which would remove restrictions on dispensaries and was backed by two dozen Republican House members in the last Congress. Matt Hawkins, the Dallas-based managing partner of Entourage Effect Capital, said that full-scale national legalization was years away, but that political opposition was getting weaker. “There's plenty of bipartisan momentum behind this,” Hawkins aid. “Hell, it’s the only thing I can think of that’s bipartisan these days.”

Reading list

“North Carolina tests how Republicans see themselves after Trump,” by Michael Scherer, Amy Gardner and Josh Dawsey

The dividing lines, pro-Trump and pro-er-Trump, in a swing state's open Senate race.

The progressive message to the administration, which it sees squandering some opportunity.

The latest on the election-contesting rioters.

“What about Joe?” by William Kristol

The electoral options for Never-Trumpers.

The manufacturer goes down its libel list.

An easy-to-spot danger on taxes.

The GOP's hope: Democrats go too far left.

The funniest story about a crowded campaign that you'll read.

Joe Biden shifts his political operation to the Democratic National Committee ahead of 2022 midterm election, by Michael Scherer

A standard-sounding move that avoids making an Obama-era mistake again.

Voting wars

Republicans continue to move new voting limitations and regulations through the states they control. In some states, Democratic governors are dusting off their veto pens to stop whatever Republican legislators pass. But in states with no Democratic buffer, the restrictions are sailing through.

In Georgia, the state Senate passed a bill requiring some form of photo or state identification to validate absentee ballots. (Currently, voters must sign envelopes and validate their signatures; Republican recriminations about 2020 have focused on a consent degree that prevented mismatched ballots from being thrown out, though two recounts found no illegal votes.) 

That is moving through the Capitol separately from a larger election restructuring bill, which would curtail the state's early-vote period and restrict the use of drop boxes, which also emerged from 2020 as a target of conspiracy theories. Iowa Republicans have moved a similar package of changes, shrinking the early-vote period from 29 days to 21 days. The bill also would ban “ballot harvesting,” the now-pejorative term for allowing people other than family members to deliver ballots.

And in Indiana, another Midwestern state where Republicans romped last year, a Republican bill would restrict local officials from setting up drop boxes and tighten absentee ballot requirements, while extending the deadline for delivering absentee ballots by six hours — from noon on Election Day to when polls close at 6 p.m.

Much of what's being debated in states would be obviated if the Democrats pass H.R. 1, their “For the People” bill, which bundles all of their voting and electoral changes together — automatic voter registration, a ban on partisan gerrymanders and early voting access as a federal mandate. It passed in 2019 and has the votes to pass in 2021, but it would take the opposition of just 41 senators to kill it unless Democrats break the filibuster. 

As unlikely as that looks, conservatives who have launched several post-election working groups to pass election restrictions launched a new group to fight H.R.1, the Election Transparency Initiative. In an interview with RealClearPolitics, Ken Cuccinelli, who joined the Trump administration a few years after narrowly losing a gubernatorial bid in Virginia, launched the group alongside the Susan B. Anthony List and the American Principles Project, two social conservative organizations that had mixed results in 2020.

“They clearly are getting feedback from their members and their universe that is sort of questioning, ‘Why should we put this much effort into a system that cheats us?’” Cuccinelli said of his partners, who have invested in organizing their supporters in Arizona and West Virginia, states with Democratic senators uneasy about killing the filibuster. “I'm not saying it does or doesn't.”

Ad watch

NRSC, “Becerra Can't Be Trusted.” Republicans lowered their ambitions for Cabinet fights after their defeats in Georgia; it's now up to Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, not any Republican, to push a Biden nominee over the top. The party and allies have focused on HHS nominee Xavier Becerra and, to a lesser extent, Interior Department nominee Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico; this post warns Georgians that Becerra wants to implement Medicare-for-all (which he co-sponsored) and “sued nuns” in his cases to preserve a birth control coverage mandate.

Heritage Action for America, “Tell the Senate to Vote No on Becerra.” The conservative think tank's electoral arm is rowing alongside the GOP, with slightly different targeting, emphasizing that Becerra is not a “health-care professional” amid imagery to evoke the pandemic. Most HHS secretaries have had administrative, but not necessarily health-care, backgrounds, but the idea that Becerra lacks relevant experience is aimed at President Biden's overall strength on coronavirus questions, and a little at Maine's Susan Collins, who wouldn't be swayed by an antiabortion campaign. “We need a health-care professional, not a radical partisan,” the ad warns.

Pete Snyder, “Conservative Outsider.” In the Virginia gubernatorial race, two Republicans are jostling for the “outsider” label: ex-Carlye Group executive Glenn Youngkin and Snyder, who previously ran for lieutenant governor and lost the nomination to a fringe activist. In a bit of guerrilla campaigning, Snyder has been filming at closed schools he says could be safely opened, and in this ad, “open our schools,” is pitched outside the GOP primary electorate. It promises a shift from the “Northam-McAuliffe” agenda, though the popularity of the current and former governor — McAuliffe is the favorite for a 2021 comeback nomination — is the GOP's chief problem here.

Poll watch

“Do you approve of the way Joe Biden is handling the coronavirus?” (Gallup, 1,021 adults)

Approve: 67%
Disapprove: 31%

In the campaign, Biden sometimes focused on the pandemic to the exclusion of all other issues, prompting Republican accusations of evasiveness — and mental decline. But Biden ended the election better trusted on the pandemic response, and it's the only issue that a sizable number of Republican voters side with him on. Forty-two percent of conservatives and 34 percent of Republicans approve of Biden on the pandemic. That's twice as many conservatives, and three times as many Republicans, as approve of Biden's economic agenda. It's not thrilling, it doesn't shift with the news cycle, but just as the moon reflects the sun, Biden's job approval for now is a function of public attitudes toward the pandemic and recovery.

If Trump ran for president again in 2024, would you support him for the Republican nomination? (USA Today/Suffolk, 1000 Trump voters)

Yes: 76%
No: 12%

Polling of Republicans and other Trump supporters has never found him with less than supermajority support, and found only a small dip after the Jan. 6 riots. Polling since most Republicans voted to acquit Trump of the impeachment charge, incitement, has found him bouncing right back, clearly the dominant candidate in any 2024 primary. (Several of his potential rivals had a chance to bar him from running, and opted against it.) Most Republicans, 58 percent of them here, believe that “antifa” was behind the riots, and not Trump supporters, though nearly everyone arrested in the aftermath was a Trump supporter, and a similar number of Republicans are eager for another Trump run. When asked whether they'd back him if he did run, three out of four Republicans say yes — not much lower than the number that said they supported him in 2019, leading to polls that underestimated his performance against primary challenges.

In the states

Last year, the death of a Legal Marijuana Now Party congressional candidate in Minnesota trigged a rarely-used state law — one that required a new election be held later if a candidate dies — that threatened to kick a swing-seat election from November into, well, right now. Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat, successfully sued on constitutional grounds, noting that elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November was a standard that a state couldn't wave off. The election was held on schedule, and she won.

This week, Minnesota is facing another problem where one solution is likely closed off by the Constitution. The delayed results of the census are complicating redistricting in every state, and Minnesota may lose one of its eight seats when the numbers are finalized. If that doesn't happen before redistricting, some in the state suggest that they may hold an at-large election for every seat. The problem: Congress has banned at-large elections for years. Back to the drawing board, once the census actually comes up with one.

Meet a PAC

What it is: Greater Georgia Action. It's not a PAC, it's a nonprofit group, but this newsletter doesn't have a “meet a nonprofit group” section.

What it's doing: Trying to reshape Georgia's electoral map with three different, overlapping tactics: Registering more voters, finding more voters who could be brought into politics by conservative ideas, and “election integrity,” loosely defined.

Who's behind it: Kelly Loeffler, the appointed Republican senator who lost her bid to complete a full term last year. “It’s the culmination of what I learned and what I saw firsthand in Georgia’s biggest election in its history,” Loeffler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. “You often learn more when you’re not successful than when you are, and that’s our starting point.”

How it's going: Though just launched, it drew the fire of Democrats who are watching mostly helplessly as Republicans angry at the 2020 results propose voting restrictions ahead of 2022. Loeffler's move echoes 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who continued to organize after her defeat. But in a CNN interview last night, Abrams accused Loeffler of spending “her time and her resources to publicly engage in the type of conspiracy theories that say that only certain Americans should be valued and have their votes counted.”

Dems in disarray

History favors the Republicans in next year's House and Senate races. The retirement of three swing-state senators — in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — has given Democrats some openings. But in each state, any hopes of a quick coronation and a move to the general election have been dashed, with candidates from different factions lining up to make their electability arguments.

The Pennsylvania race heated up last week, when state legislator Malcolm Kenyatta jumped into a Senate race previously dominated by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Both men gained new supporters and media reach by defending Joe Biden's victory in the state last year; Fetterman, who struggled for airtime in his run for the same seat, has plenty of it now. But Fetterman never won over the party's left, clashing with local activists over his opposition to a fracking ban and over an infamous 2013 incident when, as mayor of Braddock, he pulled a gun on a Black man who he thought was escaping the scene of a crime. In 2018, when he unseated the last lieutenant governor in a primary, Fetterman won his Allegheny County base while badly losing Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Kenyatta charged into the race as a proud progressive who could excite a diverse electorate as Pennsylvania's first Black, gay Senate candidate. “Nothing changes until something changes,” Kenyatta said in a Friday call with reporters, where the Working Families Party and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten endorsed him. “People have to look like me or love like me to know that I'm going to fight for them.”

On the call, Kenyatta and his endorsers waved off questions about Fetterman. Asked by The Trailer whether he wanted to ban fracking, Kenyatta, a supporter of the Green New Deal, emphasized that he wanted to invest in alternate energy sources, without specifying what would happen to Pennsylvania's natural gas industry beyond a moratorium on new fracking.

“What I want to do is double down on clean energy and the sustainable jobs that that's going to create,” he said. “I have been for and continue to be for a moratorium in large part because I believe that the future of energy production and also the future of good- paying jobs for Pennsylvanians is going to be the sustainable jobs in clean energy.” 

National Democrats barreled into Pennsylvania six years ago to stop former Rep. Joe Sestak from winning the nomination, also blocking Fetterman in favor of former gubernatorial chief of staff Katie McGinty. McGinty, of course, went on to lose. 

Democrats shaped the 2020 race in North Carolina, too, helping former state legislator Cal Cunningham through a primary against Black state legislator Erica Smith, who they worried was unelectable. Cunningham fumbled away his race after a mistress's husband blew the whistle on his extramarital affair.

Smith is running again, and state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat who passed on the 2020 race as the national party focused on Cunningham, jumped in last month. Smith raised less than $250,000 for her entire 2020 bid; Jackson raised twice as much immediately after entering the race. Most of Smith's financial support came, without her approval, from Republicans, who ran ads touting her liberal credentials and making sure Black voters knew there was a Black candidate in the race, in the hopes of weakening Cunningham. 

The eventual nominee's defeat created the same dynamic as that 2016 race in Pennsylvania, with the American Prospect touting Smith as an example of the sort of potentially galvanizing candidate shoved aside by the consultant class. But other Democrats, including former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, are looking at the race, and the field won't be settled until the Biden administration decides whether to nominate Beasley for a federal court seat.

No Democrat has climbed into the Ohio race yet, but the three best-known contenders looking at it all, on paper, represent different electoral strategies. Rep. Tim Ryan, whose eastern Ohio district has swung dramatically to the right, sees no path back for Democrats without winning working-class White voters again; House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes would be the party's first Black nominee for Senate; Amy Acton, the state's former health director, has no political record apart from her high-profile management of the state's pandemic response.

In Wisconsin, where Democrats have taken two swings and misses at Sen. Ron Johnson, no unifying candidate has emerged for their party. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, a Bernie Sanders supporter who lost an uphill run for Congress, did not scare anyone out of the race; Alex Lasry, a vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks, was recorded last year talking about how little he knew about Wisconsin before his family invested there.

“I came in with, kind of, just trying to keep an open mind about the city,” Lasry said in the interview, first reported by Ryan Grim and Aída Chávez at the Intercept. “The only places I had lived in prior were New York, Philly, and D.C., so kind of bigger East Coast cities. And when I came here, I think what most surprised me about Milwaukee is the fact that Milwaukee has all the same things as any city, especially any big city, has.”

Nelson, whose family moved from Minnesota to Wisconsin when he was a toddler, has folded that right into his own image: as a guy who can't buy any election, much less a Senate race.


… two days until the Conservative Political Action Conference
… 25 days until special House election primaries in Louisiana
… 105 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 119 days until New York Citys primary