In this edition: The first special election of 2021, the final countdown to a California recall and how “Hillbilly Elegy” turned into a super PAC.

More campaigns should have hip-hop theme songs, and this is The Trailer.

BATON ROUGE — If Troy Carter had his way, he wouldn't be running for Congress. The Louisiana state senator was close to Cedric Richmond, a campaign co-chair for Joe Biden and influential member of the House. After President Biden's victory, Richmond got tapped for a powerful White House role. Carter's feelings were mixed.

“I encouraged him to take advantage of the fact that he would be a member of Congress with the ear of the White House,” Carter recalled in an interview. “Later, he retorted to me: Now you can be a powerful congressman with the ear of the White House.”

Carter jumped into the race for Richmond's seat, which stretches from the state capital to New Orleans, and the first real Democratic primary of the Biden era kicked off. The party's left saw a chance to replace Richmond, an energy industry ally, with someone who'd take on that industry, such as state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who is not related to Carter.

But the race hasn't broken along straight ideological lines. There are 13 candidates running as pure outsiders, and the new president has cooled the throw-'em-out temperament that can make special elections combustible. Carter is positioned as the pragmatist with the Biden hotline; the rest of the field is running on some version of the premise that the district has been underserved.

“This district needs not just a Democrat, but a progressive Democrat,” Carter Peterson said. “One that's not going to flip-flop on issues like the Green New Deal. One that's not going to say one thing and then do another.”

Carter and Carter Peterson have dominated fundraising and polling since entering the race last year — around $520,000 and $450,000, respectively, with Carter collecting $5,000 from Richmond's Who Dat PAC. But if Carter is running on continuity, Carter Peterson has leaned into her image as a fighter. 

In 2006, she ran for a pre-gerrymandered version of the seat against disgraced Democratic Rep. William Jefferson, who won after the FBI raided his freezer and found $90,000 in foil-wrapped bribe money. Carter Peterson went on to lead the state party, and build alliances with national Democrats — some of whom, like Stacey Abrams, have endorsed her.

“It makes people uncomfortable that I'm not bought, and I'm not on board,” Carter Peterson said. “I'm clearly not the establishment candidate.”

Carter is more comfortable in that role. Ads emphasize his support from Richmond, promising voters that he can deliver for them as soon as he wins. Peterson's last spot before the early vote touted Medicare-for-all; Carter's publicized a program he'd run for years to deliver prom dresses to high-schoolers who couldn't afford them. Some of Carter's advertising even emphasizes his relationships with Republicans.

“I've seen bad legislation pass because people liked the author, and I've good legislation fail because people didn't like the author,” Carter said. “I've seen a lot good propositions take a long time to get by because there wasn't quite the right mix to build the coalition to have it done.”

If neither candidate clears 50 percent of the vote this week, they could head to a runoff. The rest of the field is trying to climb over one of them to make that runoff, with differing chances of success. There's visible support for Gary Chambers, a Baton Rouge activist who went viral after dressing down a school board that was reluctant to take Robert E. Lee's name off a building. After a 2019 run for state Senate went nowhere, Chambers charged into the special election as the candidate closest to real people, unsullied by political connections, with $304,000 to spend.

“I lost the last race because we couldn't raise money, right? I had about 200,000 or 300,000 less followers on Twitter, too,” Chambers said in an interview in New Orleans. “But Shaun King and some other folks asked me to do it, and we launched an exploratory committee and raised $100,000 in December. I couldn't do that in a whole year when I ran last time.”

Chambers has targeted some of the same votes as Carter Peterson, with a pitch she can't make: He has never been a politician. Like Carter Peterson, he backs a Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all; unlike Peterson, he has a theme song from LGBT New Orleans “bounce” rapper Big Freedia, with a chorus that turns his name into a chant.

“The G, the A, the R, the Y! The G, the A, the R, the Y! It's Gary! It's Gary!”

Polling, which Chambers disputes, has put him in third place behind the senators. Other candidates have struggled for the spotlight, making some version of Chambers's argument: Nobody who has been holding office for years can be trusted to deliver dramatic new results. Desiree Ontiveros, whose Badass Balloon Co. has lost significant work during the pandemic, argues that coronavirus relief packages haven't reflected what business owners need; like Carter Peterson, she invokes the late Black political icon Shirley Chisholm, calling herself “unbought and unbossed.”

“I have not one elected official behind me,” Ontiveros said in an interview. “I don't owe anything to anyone except for my mom.”

Republicans, who drew the district to pack in Democrats and shore up their own seats, have run the “outsider” play in this race anyway. Claston Bernard, a decathlete and Louisiana State University star, has raised more than $100,000, investing some of it in the race's only campaign bus, carrying his image up and down Interstate 10. His case against the senators is his case against all Democrats: They created economic dependence to get elected. Asked how he would have altered the coronavirus relief bill, however, Bernard suggested that it should have been more generous.

“I would have fought for more money for the people,” Bernard said. “I'd have fought to get rid of a lot of the garbage that's in there that's supposed to help other countries.” Asked whether he'd gotten the coronavirus vaccine, Bernard said he was not a “vaccine guy,” and preferred to wait until any side effects with the vaccine had been exposed by its recipients.

There wasn't much evidence of Republican enthusiasm during the week of early voting. According to Louisiana's secretary of state, just 36,382 votes were cast, less than were cast in the special election for the nearby 5th Congressional District, where Republicans are winning easily. In the 2nd District, around 74 percent of voters were registered Democrats, comparable to the 75 percent of the vote Biden won here in November.

On paper, that could be an opportunity for the party's left, which is targeting safe seats and working to elect the most like-minded people it can. That attitude has boosted Chambers, and could help Carter Peterson in a runoff. Our Revolution, founded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) after his 2016 presidential campaign, has endorsed Carter Peterson. According to Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb, a member of the OurRev board, Chambers was impressive, but Carter Peterson had a record of taking tough votes and of winning races.

“It's not just about who aligns with our values,” Kleeb said. “It's about who has a stronger chance of getting out of the primary and winning the general election.”

In conversation, the few points of disagreement between Carter and Carter Peterson explain why the left intervened. Every candidate has taken a pledge to reject fossil fuel industry money, a departure from Richmond. But Carter Peterson and Chambers have embraced a fast transition off fossil fuels, both arguing that “cancer alley,” named for the district's petrochemical plants and their side effects, needs a critic of the energy industry. Carter says that's too simplistic.

“The Green New Deal is a good framework, but if you took it literally and did it today, we'd shut down business, we'd wouldn't be able to fly, we wouldn't have been able to do anything,” Carter said. “In order to get to a cleaner, greener Louisiana, we have to do it in a way that we gradually make those changes that will allow people to not lose their jobs, not lose their economies, not shut down our commerce.”

No one issue resonates here as much as Richmond's new clout. On Saturday, as Carter made his way to a food giveaway in Baton Rouge, state Sen. Jamie Robinson explained that he saw his colleague as the candidate who could do the most to “heal” the state. His endorsement from Richmond, Robinson said, added to that ability.

“What that tells me that if Troy is elected, we're going to have access to the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States,” Robinson said. “And we'll know that the best interests of this district is on the agenda.”

Reading list

The selling of the American Rescue Plan.

Who's investing in the next member of Congress from New Orleans.

A QAnon family drama.

The battle for Marcia Fudge's district.

The difficulty of getting some MAGA fans to vaccinate.

Why Democrats let a four-month extension happen, giving recall proponents time.

What happens to the politicians and attorneys who lied about the election?

Recall watch

LOS ANGELES The nine-month campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will hit a milestone tomorrow, when organizers submit more than 2 million signatures to meet the state’s March 17 deadline. It will be weeks before they learn whether they’ve officially qualified for the ballot, which they expect they need just 1,495,709 valid signatures, meaning hundreds of thousands of names on their petitions could be struck, and the recall would proceed. 

Democrats have been expecting this for weeks. Their official fightback started yesterday, with an ad campaign blasting the “Republican recall,” and continued on Tuesday when Newsom beamed in to “The View,” admitting that opponents “appear to have the requisite signatures.”

I've only been in office 25 months [and] there's been six efforts to put a recall on the ballot,” Newsom said. “This started before the pandemic. If you look at the list of grievances from the proponents of this campaign, it goes to our values; it's less about me, it's more about California and our values Democratic Party values. 

The national interview got noticed in California Newsom has made three appearances on “The View” as governor, more one-on-one time than he has given to much local media. But it came as national Democratic figures weighed in against the recall effort, after outreach from California Democrats. The top three vote-getters in last year’s presidential primary have all attacked the recall effort: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. And the state Democratic Party put $250,000 into a campaign that started yesterday, with images of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, linking the recall not just to the GOP but to right-wing extremism.

“It’s comical, it’s typical, it’s farcical,” said recall spokesman Randy Economy. “What took them so long? If that’s the best Democrats have for their opening salvo, it’s pretty ludicrous, because 2 million Californians have signed this petition, and they come from all walks of life.”

Democrats lost a 2003 recall election, an experience that has hovered over the party ever since. It's also what they cite to argue that this recall won't work. Polling has never shown a majority of voters backing a recall, even when a majority disapprove of Newsom or say they'd prefer another candidate run in 2022. The party had shaky control of the state 18 years ago; it now commands a supermajority of the state legislature, and has cleared 60 percent of the vote in the past three statewide elections, including the 2016 and 2020 presidential races and Newsom's 2018 landslide.

“Look at the landscape, which is significantly different than 2003,” California Democratic Party Chairman Rusty Hicks said in an interview. “Democrats had a 22-point victory in the state versus a five-point majority in 2002, when Gray Davis won. I think the latest poll shows that the governor, after leading our state through an unprecedented series of crises, is even more popular than he was pre-pandemic.”

Ad watch

Troy Carter for Congress, “1 Million Dollars.” The race in Louisiana hasn't gotten as vicious as other battles. It seems like that's changing. This ad is 60 seconds of Carter going after Sen. Karen Carter Peterson over a state takeover of the New Orleans school system, accusing her family of benefiting from policies that hurt teachers. “We think that she was bad in Baton Rouge,” says one teacher. “Just imagine what she'd be in Washington, D.C.” It might be a preview of what Democrats expect, a month-long runoff between Carter and Carter Peterson.

Claston Bernard, “Radio Ad.” The leading Republican in the New Orleans-area special election has argued that he's the purest outsider on the ballot: An immigrant who owes everything to America and won't make the same errors as “career politicians.” It doesn't emphasize that he's a Republican, but lists his priorities as “God, family and country.”

California Democratic Party, “Stop the Republican Recall.” The first Democratic ad against the likely recall election began running this week in English and Spanish, portraying the effort as a conspiracy by actual conspiracy theorists. “Anti-vaccine, QAnon extremists” are credited with organizing the campaign, along with the Proud Boys and other pro-Trump activists who were involved in attempts to overturn the 2020 election. 

Poll watch

Should Gov. Andrew Cuomo resign? (Siena poll, 805 registered voters)

No: 50%
Yes: 35%

Multiple accusations of sexual harassment from Cuomo toward female aides and reporters have driven his administration into crisis, with most of the state's legislators, its congressional delegation and even the Senate majority leader telling him to quit. Cuomo has gutted out damaging stories before, including a long-running corruption probe, and though he has never lost so much support from his party, he's in a familiar situation: The electorate hasn't dumped him. 

Cuomo's approval rating here has fallen, but only back to where it was before the pandemic, around 43 percent. Fifty-one percent of voters still say he's doing a good job communicating to the whole state, 54 percent say he's successfully managing the state's vaccination program, and 52 percent approve of his reopening strategy. There are massive icebergs looming for Cuomo, with most voters unhappy with his handling of nursing home pandemic data and most wanting him to forgo a fourth term.

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Joe Biden? (Des Moines Register/Mediacom, 775 Iowa adults)

Favorable: 51% (+8
Unfavorable: 46% (-5)

Iowa was one of the bloodiest 2020 battlefields for Democrats, with the party losing most of the gains it made in 2018, and Biden barely improving on Hillary Clinton's historically bad performance. This poll captured the trend against Democrats at the end of October 2020, and it now finds Biden winning over a small number of independents and Republicans who balked at him last year. His raw approval rating is only barely positive; his approval rating on handling the pandemic is a stronger 57 percent, lower than most national polling, but higher than President Donald Trump's support as he ended the campaign. It's a snapshot of Biden's overall strength in the Midwest: worse than Barack Obama's; enough to remain competitive.

Special elections

New Mexico is about to set a date for the election to replace Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who vacated her Albuquerque-area House seat to become the first Native American member of a presidential Cabinet.

That’s a relatively short schedule for a special congressional election, sped up by state law that requires parties to select nominees in conventions, not primaries, when House seats open midyear. Democrats have scheduled a March 30 meeting to pick their nominee from a list of eight contenders; Republicans had planned a meeting within 48 hours of Haaland’s resignation, and may gather as soon as Thursday.

Haaland’s 1st Congressional District, a swing seat when it was first drawn, has moved steadily toward Democrats. Joe Biden carried it by 23 points, improving on Hillary Clinton’s 17-point margin. Haaland’s 2020 challenger, who ran slightly ahead of Trump, passed on the race; candidates for the GOP nomination include state Sen. Mark Moores, radio host Eddy Aragon, and some lesser-known conservative activists. Four state legislators are seeking the Democratic nomination, including Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, who lost a 2018 primary to Haaland.

The confirmations of Haaland and HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge reduced Democrats to just 219 seats in the House, the narrowest majority since the 1930s. Democrats are expected to easily hold one open seat in Louisiana, where voting in the primary ends this week, and Fudge’s seat in northeast Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has yet to schedule an election.

One complication: State law allows special House elections to be held in May or August, but the state is already holding primaries in May, and military ballots will go out this week. If the Ohio primary is delayed until August, a safe Democratic seat could go vacant for most of the year; although Republicans drew Fudge’s 11th Congressional District to elect a Democrat, voters would need to return to the polls this fall to pick between the winner of the summer primaries.

The race in Texas's 6th Congressional District will be over long before that. Republican Susan Wright, the widow of Rep. Ron Wright, picked up the support of another member of her delegation on Tuesday: Rep. Troy Nehls, a freshman from the outskirts of Houston, several hours down the road.

In the states

Meet a PAC

What it's doing: Offering air cover if J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” decides to run for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat.

Who's behind it: Mostly Peter Thiel, after the libertarian venture capitalist who funded a lawsuit to put Gawker out of business and later funded an unsuccessful effort to nominate Kris Kobach in last year's Kansas U.S. Senate race. It filed with the FEC on Feb. 24, got a $10 million investment from Thiel, and per the Cincinnati Enquirer, which first reported on the PAC, it also has gotten support from Robert Mercer, a GOP megadonor who was quiet during the 2020 race. Bryan Lanza, a Trump campaign veteran, is already handling the super PAC's media.

What's next: A Vance run, maybe. It's not official yet. Republicans talked to Vance about running against Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2018; he passed because “the timing was awful for my young family.” Since then, Vance has converted to Catholicism, talked more about his own political views, and raised a family that is slightly less young than it was three years ago. But the Republican mood has shifted since then, too, and the best-known Republicans in the race (former treasurer Josh Mandel, former state party chair Jane Timken) are running as Trump loyalists.


… four days until special House election primaries in Louisiana
… 46 days until the special election in Texas's 6th Congressional District
… 53 days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 84 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 98 days until New York Citys primary