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The Trailer: Why Democrats are fighting for labor in Alabama

In this edition: Why Democrats are fighting for labor in Alabama, more voting rights rollbacks and a rip-and-read review of the first 2020 campaign book.

Hire a laid-off HuffPost reporter. This is The Trailer.

Joe Biden’s message to workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse lasted just 140 seconds. It was tweeted on a Sunday night, as the political press was still chewing over Donald Trump’s speech to conservatives in a Florida hotel ballroom. 

But for the activists working to organize about 5,800 workers in Bessemer, Biden’s message was seismic. 

“It was even beyond what we had hoped for,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union since President Bill Clinton’s second term. “We’ve never seen support like this. It feels like the beginning of a movement.”

The union drive in Bessemer was well underway before Biden weighed in, and the month-long mail-in vote on organizing workers at the warehouse had just begun. The surprise was that he said anything at all. 

Labor has grown used to Democrats promising to support union drives on the trail, then staying out of the fray. Not this time. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who used campaign resources over the past few years to back union drives, is spending money in Alabama and dispatching surrogates. House Democrats, who fumbled a major pro-labor bill when they last controlled the House and Senate, passed the pro-labor PRO Act this week, days after including an $86 billion union pension bailout in their coronavirus recovery package.

“It was great to see my constituents be so elated, to see the support they’re getting, not just nationally but globally,” said Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, who led a delegation of Democratic House members to Bessemer last weekend, and whose district includes the Bessemer warehouse. “I think it's really ironic that the Republican Party is now trying to cast itself as a party of working people, and yet not one Republican has come out and supported the right of the workers in Alabama.” (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Biden, like his dozens of competitors for the Democratic nomination last year, promised labor leaders that he’d support them more actively. “Last year, employers spent $1 billion trying to bust unions,” Biden told a gathering of Teamsters in Iowa, two months before his defeat in the state’s caucuses. “When they engage in preventing unions from forming, they should be subject to significant fines.”

Labor had heard that before. In a 2007 speech that became slightly infamous, Barack Obama told a crowd that he’d “put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself” and “walk on that picket line” if workers were being denied “their right to organize.” Once in office, the shoes stayed in their shoe box. The Employee Free Choice Act, a union-backed bill that would have made organizing far easier, never got a vote in a Democratic supermajority. By the end of his second term, the Obama administration's pro-labor policies didn't get much attention, while its advocacy for the Trans-Pacific Partnership weakened the Democrats' hold on union households, helping Trump to win the presidency.

“I think we've learned a lot from history,” said Tom Perez, Obama’s second labor secretary, who became chair of the Democratic National Committee. “I think this administration has learned, from looking back at 2009, that you can't deal with issues sequentially. You've got to be the multitasker-in-chief. We have a wonderful opportunity right off the bat to show that this will be a remarkably pro-union president.”

The GOP's 2020 gains with working-class voters, coming even as it lost the presidency, gave Democrats new urgency to deliver on their promises to labor. The first weeks of Biden's presidency revealed Republican opportunities, with the party attacking the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline as a gift to radicals that put union laborers out of work.

“If you’re a rich, angry Hollywood celebrity, today’s Dems are the party for you,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas wrote in a Twitter feud with actor Seth Rogen. “If you’re blue-collar, if you’re a union member, if you work in energy or manufacturing... not so much.”

Apart from the fossil-fuel industry, though, and from its strengthened alliances with police and border control unions, Republicans haven't found, or sought, many openings with labor. They criticized the pension bailout in the coronavirus relief bill, which answered years of labor demands, with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa warning that there were “no measures to hold mismanaged plans accountable.” They've framed the fight over quickly reopening schools as a gift from Biden to teachers' unions, a traditional pre-Trump one that pits suburban voters against organized labor.

On Tuesday, as Democrats focused on the PRO Act, Republicans rallied against it in language that also predated Trump and his populism. “I've heard Democrats argue that it's the unions that built the middle class,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, invoking a frequently-used Biden line. “No, the unions didn't build the middle class; entrepreneurs and individual workers in this country built the middle class. And what this bill does is take away their freedom, making unions bigger and individual freedoms smaller.”

Republicans can make inroads with union households by cleaving them from union leadership, and have done so effectively before. But while Republicans quickly criticized Amazon for delisting an anti-LGBT book, they've said little about the union drive, apart from criticizing Democrats for endorsing it.

“President Biden should not have stepped in on this and trying to convince people to vote for a union,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a freshman Republican from Alabama, said last week when asked about the pro-union video. “These employees in Alabama don’t need Hollywood elites, or the federal government, telling Alabama workers what to do.”

That's a common line against any political intervention on behalf of a union drive. In Perez's time at the Labor Department, Republicans effectively battled a United Auto Workers drive in Tennessee by portraying it as a corrupt attempt to build a beachhead in the South, whether or not the South really wanted it. In 2017, when Sanders rallied with Nissan workers in Mississippi, the same story played out: An employer telling workers that a union was not in their interest asked why political interlopers were telling them otherwise.

Both union drives failed, which is another reason Biden's quickness was surprising. Appelbaum flagged the Alabama drive for the White House. More Perfect Union, a pro-labor group led by Sanders allies such as 2020 campaign manager Faiz Shakir, pushed White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain to look at it. Within days, the Biden administration was supporting the drive; after More Perfect Union released a video of workers thanking Biden for his intervention, Klain retweeted it.

Voting in the Bessemer NLRB election will continue through March 29, and Democrats are throwing more weight behind the organizers. Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, a labor lawyer who joined Sewell's delegation over the weekend, pointed out that Bessemer workforce was “85 to 90 percent Black,” a constituency that had backed Biden by a landslide in November. 

“You cannot understand this union election outside of the Black Lives Matter movement, outside of what we've learned about systemic racism, how it's been revealed layer upon layer by this pandemic,” Levin said. “It's an incredibly powerful moment, and I don't know if they can win. It's like the ultimate David and Goliath story. Who can go up against Amazon?”

Reading list

‘We need the government’: Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan reflects seismic shifts in U.S. politics, by Jeff Stein

How Democrats learned to spend big again.

“A vexing question for Democrats: What drives Latino men to Republicans? by Jennifer Medina

Conversations with the swing voters Joe Biden didn't expect.

“Early in Biden’s presidency, GOP shows the places they’ll go,” by Matt Viser

The culture wars, rebooted for 2021.

“How Republican politics (and Twitter) created Ali Alexander, the man behind ‘Stop the Steal,’ ” by Luke O'Brien

How anti-democracy ideas were incubated in the world of GOP consulting.

“Trump sends cease-and-desist letter to GOP organizations to stop fundraising off his name,” by Amy B Wang

Protecting his brand, but not necessarily his party.

“The Democratic contenders to be the next governor,” by Jeff Coltin

Who's ready to move if Andrew Cuomo falls?

“Entire staff of Nevada Democratic Party quits after Democratic Socialist slate won every seat,” by Akela Lacy and Ryan Grim

They won the 2020 caucuses for Bernie Sanders. Can they keep up the party's winning streak in general elections?

Voting wars

The voting rights restrictions introduced by Republicans after the 2020 election have started to become law, with Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa approving a package of changes that will make it harder to vote.

Iowa's polls will now close one hour earlier, at 8 p.m., and in-person early voting will be reduced from 29 days to 20 days, though it has not been linked to any allegation of fraud. Absentee ballots will now be thrown out if they don't arrive on Election Day, no matter when they were postmarked. Officials used to count ballots arriving up to six days after the election. Auditors who offer voters services not approved by the state — say, an extra-early voting site, or a mass mailing of absentee ballot request forms — will be charged with felonies and fined up to $10,000.

The fact of the matter is there are Americans across the state that have some concerns about what happened in this last election, Reynolds said after the bill first got out of the state legislature on a party-line vote: Republicans for, Democrats against.

Georgia went into 2020 with the same state political arrangement as Iowa: a Republican governor, a Republican secretary of state and a Republican legislature. Unlike Iowa, where the party won most of the races it targeted, Georgia Republicans had a historically weak cycle, losing the presidential race, two Senate races and a suburban Atlanta House race by slim margins. By a single vote, Republicans in Georgia's state Senate advanced a bill to end the state's 16-year old no-excuse absentee voting law, reinstating requirements on voters under 65 to prove that they can't vote in person.

As in Pennsylvania, where a group of Republicans sued to throw out absentee ballots cast under a Republican-passed no-excuse law, Georgia's vote represented a complete reversal of the party's position. As Popular Information's Judd Legum pointed out, Republicans in 2005 argued that absentee voting was “safer and more secure than a paperless electronic voting system.” This year, the script got flipped, with Republicans arguing that the absentee process instilled too much voter doubt to survive.

That came after the House moved to roll back a number of election laws that Democrats used effectively in 2020, from early voting on weekends to distributing food or drinks to voters standing in lines — lines that stretched to many hours in some heavily non-White precincts in 2018 and 2020. Republicans have the votes to pass all of it, even though they lost several of their members on the Senate vote.

In Wisconsin, one of the last surviving Trump lawsuits from the 2020 campaign was rejected by the Supreme Court. The lawsuit argued that 221,000-odd ballots cast in the state's most vote-rich Democratic counties should have been disqualified after the election, because the state legislature did not approve the looser absentee ballot rules adopted by local officials. In Pennsylvania, the state's middle district dismissed a complaint by Judicial Watch, in Bucks County, part of the conservative watchdog's effort to get big (and Democratic-leaning) counties to purge their voter rolls.

“It’s regrettable that while the counties were working to conduct free and fair elections in the midst of a global pandemic, Judicial Watch dragged us into federal court with allegations that were not only untrue, but “implausible” as a matter of law,” Bucks County Solicitor Joe Khan said in a statement.

Ad watch

Glenn Youngkin, “Air Balls.” The wealthy ex-Carlyle Group executive emphasizes his outsider-ness in every spot, finding new ways to highlight that he hasn't held office before. This ad updates a classic trope, portraying his opposition as slapstick clowns, with one actor a ringer for Kirk Cox, the Republican leader in Virginia's House of Delegates. “My opponents? A combined 160 years of political baggage,” Youngkin says. In reality, Youngkin's Republican opponents don't have that much experience in elected office, and are more diverse than the “Cocoon” extras pictured here.

Bernie Sanders, “Amazon.” The senator from Vermont probably will never run for president again, and barely faced opposition in his 2018 Senate race. As detailed above, that has allowed Sanders to fund advertising for other causes through his Senate campaign, and this digital ad appearing to viewers near Bessemer, Ala. is more direct than the Biden video: Sanders repeatedly mentions Amazon, over B-roll footage of work inside the distribution center.

Poll watch

When will the country will get the outbreak under control and return to normal? (Monmouth, 802 adults)

In the next month or two: 4% (-2) 
By the summer: 17% (-6) 
Before the end of the year: 40% (+1) 
Later than that: 27% (+3) 
Never: 9% (+3)

Vaccinations have been speeding up in the past few weeks, with the president announcing that increased supply would allow anyone who sought the coronavirus vaccine to get it by the end of May. Polling overall has found high approval for Biden's pandemic response strategy, but it also has found opinion of Biden hardening along partisan lines. A double-digit number of Republicans and conservatives say that the country will “never” get the pandemic under control, along with 10 percent of White voters without college degrees, the demographic that had been most likely to back Trump over Biden.

In the states

And then there were five. On Monday, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri became the fifth Republican senator to announce retirement ahead of the 2022 midterms, joining Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Weeks into Biden's presidency, the biggest Senate exodus since 2012 is underway. It's unclear which party will be benefit.

Blunt's retirement, which surprised Missouri Republicans, didn't rattle their counterparts in Washington. Republicans, who swept every statewide race in Missouri last year, have a crowded bench in the state; Democrats don't have one at all. Within hours of the announcement, the Democrats' last two Senate nominees (Jason Kander and Claire McCaskill) had sworn off the race. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said that he was considering a run, but on Tuesday, the field included a former state senator, an LGBT rights activist, and a populist Marine veteran, Lucas Kunce, who had not held office.

“Missouri overwhelmingly passed a populist ballot measure up to raise the minimum wage,” Kunce, who had been exploring a bid before Blunt's announcement, said in an interview. “We repealed right-to-work. We expanded Medicaid and legalized medical marijuana. That's where I'm coming from, on the populist side of things.”

But in post-Trump Missouri, Democrats don't have a winning coalition, while Republicans have shown that can win with any candidate. The Democratic wipeout of 2016 pulled Eric Greitens, a veteran with no elected experience, into the governor's mansion; after resigning in disgrace, he's still considering a Senate run. State Auditor Nicole Galloway, the only Democrat serving in statewide office, won just 13 of 114 counties to hold her job in 2018; after high expectations, she lost a 2020 bid for governor by nearly half a million votes, running marginally behind Biden.

Every Senate seat up next year was on the ballot in 2010, the Democrats' nightmare Obama midterm, and the party struggled to compete even in places where their president had won or come close. The party is competitive right now in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where neither party has clear favorites for their nominations. It has been wiped out in the other three open-seat states. In Alabama and Ohio, Republican jockeying for the nomination has become, frequently, about support for Trump and criticism of coronavirus shutdowns — an omen that the retirements of more business-friendly Republicans could put more Freedom Caucus-style Republicans in now-safe seats.

The question for Democrats is why this midterm would be different from any other, with the party controlling the White House losing ground as its voters lose motivation. Kunce suggested that the passage of the coronavirus relief bill, and the ongoing pace of vaccinations, would dramatically change voters' moods. So, he speculated, would Trump's awkward new position as an unpopular ex-president beloved by Republicans who haven't been as fired up to vote without him.

“If Donald Trump is not on the ticket in 2016, Jason Kander is a senator right now,” Kunce said of the Democrats' last nominee against Blunt, who ran far ahead of Hillary Clinton but came up short. “Donald Trump's not on the ticket in 2022. I feel really good about that.”

Buy the book

Halfway through “Lucky,” Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes capture a key moment in the Biden campaign, one that wasn't reported at the time. It was the commercial break at the Democrats' South Carolina debate, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who hadn't yet announced his support for Joe Biden “brushed Mayor Pete aside” to give advice to his friend.

“You’ve had a couple of opportunities to mention naming a Black woman to the Supreme Court,” Clyburn told Biden. “I’m telling you, don’t you leave the stage tonight without making it known that you will do that.” 

This scoop helps Allen and Parnes advance their premise, that Biden had uncommon luck on the way to the presidency. “Lucky” is the third collaboration between Allen and Parnes, after “HRC,” on Hillary Clinton's years at the State Department, and “Shattered,” on her “doomed campaign.” The latter book was a sensation, arriving just months after the 2016 election, with inside-the-room details about the first female presidency that wasn't. 

The co-authors didn't have the same reach inside the Biden campaign. Nobody seemed to leave the operation in a leaky mood, not with any stories that reflect poorly on Biden. In the aftermath of Election Day, the authors find Biden confidently walking Clyburn through Pennsylvania ballot math, and an aide tells them anonymously that Biden “didn't let himself believe that he really had it in the bag until it was called.” 

Unlike in “Shattered,” we don't get inside the room at pivotal moments. When “Lucky” gets into a meeting, the details are precise, which makes it noticeable that the meetings that get the most ink aren't at Biden HQ. Barack Obama walks “the wood-planked floor of Yves, a trendy brasserie with low ceilings and French midcentury decor” to get into a 2019 meeting where he sounds higher on Elizabeth Warren than Biden. A 2018 meeting of “half a dozen” Hillary Clinton aides, where they learn their boss hadn't ruled out a third presidential bid, is re-created line by line. 

There's news, or at least a good dose of palace intrigue, in each of those scenes. Every time Obama appears, something gets revealed, from his “flirting” with non-Biden alternatives to how “he never connected” with Amy Klobuchar during the round of calls that got Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke to endorse Biden. Apart from the Clyburn story, though, and an entertaining clash of egos around the virtual Democratic National Convention, there are few new details about Biden's campaign and none about Trump's. Why does Michelle Obama so vehemently oppose Trump, but so rarely campaign on Biden's behalf? “For whatever reason, she just didn't want to do it,” says one Biden aide, an anonymous non-answer that leaves the mystery unsolved.

That digression, like the Clinton stories, gets at the paradox of “Lucky”: It's interested in the fact that Biden won, but doesn't reveal too much about how. In a book that spends 200 pages on the Democratic primary, “minimum wage” appears once and “public option” doesn't appear at all. Biden is credited with a “blank agenda,” and it's never actually described. How did Biden navigate the sort of media flare-ups that sunk weaker candidacies, such as a former staffer's sexual assault accusation, or a release of damaging information on his son Hunter? Neither story is mentioned.

A pandemic-era election, which separated reporters from their sources and grounded one campaign for months, was always going to be a beast to cover. Biden's campaign didn't take big policy risks and had a corny-sounding slogan. It did get lucky. But if it did anything else, that's for another book.

Countdown

… 11 days until special House election primaries in Louisiana
… 53 days until the special election in Texas's 6th Congressional District
… 60 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 91 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 105 days until New York Citys primary

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