In this edition: California's recall campaign begins, a Black Lives Matter proposal resonates in a special House race, and Virginia Republicans get ready to pick their nominees.

Still taking nominations for its official newsletter companion animal, this is The Trailer.

BAKERSFIELD, Ca. — The bear did not make it to the Central Valley. John Cox, a Republican candidate for governor in the state's upcoming recall election, had relaunched his campaign on Tuesday with a “Meet the Beast Bus Tour,” joined by Tag, a 9-year old bear with acting experience. But Tag did not make it to Cox's second stop, and by the third, Cox was exhausted with the media's interest in his media stunt.

“The coverage yesterday was all about the bear,” Cox said on Wednesday. The bear did not return as he concluded his tour near a gas station on this city's outskirts, though he noted happily that it had made news as far away as India.

The effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) hit more milestones this week, as more than 1.7 million signatures in favor were verified ― meaning the recall is officially on ― and as athlete and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner gave the first interview of her campaign. But it is not proceeding as its proponents had hoped, with the governor on the run from a populist uprising.

Instead of collapsing as Gov. Gray Davis did before his 2003 recall, Newsom has recovered in public polls. Instead of keeping national politics out of the race — an essential strategy for Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign to replace Davis — Jenner has tapped Trump campaign veterans and praised the former president, feeding into Democrats' plan to run against the “Republican recall.”

“Why is the Republican National Committee behind this?” Newsom said on Tuesday at a Sacramento news conference, flanked by firefighters, and arguing that money spent on a November 2021 election would be better spent on them. “Why is Newt Gingrich behind this? Why is the Huck PAC behind it? Why is an entire network dedicated so much time and energy and attention to this?”

Newsom's strategy, the one Davis struggled to deploy against Schwarzenegger, has not pleased every Democrat. At last weekend's virtual party convention, a bloc of delegates led by activist Christine Pelosi opposed the official party description of the recall as a “partisan power grab,” arguing that it was unfair to any frustrated Democrats who signed the petitions.

We have a great chance to lead with empathy and the #buildbackbetter message and let people know that their governor is engaged and their vaccines, benefits, and re-openings are coming, so they will regain power and control over their lives,” Pelosi, the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, argued on Twitter.

Newsom, who won 7.7 million votes to take the governorship three years ago, is actually deploying both strategies. He used this year's State of the State announcement to pledge that the state would, in so many words, build back better, arguing that there would not be a “return to normal” because “normal was never good enough.” 

By May 14, Newsom will offer a revised budget proposal, using the power of incumbency to offer more money and fixes to the issues recall opponents are running on, like power outages and fire prevention. And although the recall began with Republicans anticipating a budget shortfall, a potential crisis for Newsom, the latest projections are for a $15 billion surplus, helping the governor pour billions into small business grants and stimulus checks. 

“It's hard to imagine an issue that they're doing well with,” Cox said during his during his Tuesday stop at the French Laundry, the restaurant where Newsom dined during a lockdown, resurrecting the recall effort. “Except, maybe, revenue. Generating tons of revenue. Thanks to Silicon Valley.”

Democrats have not grown cocky, but their position is stronger than the one Republicans expected. In 2003, once the recall was underway, every single public poll found a majority in favor of it. No poll has found this recall ahead; two Republican-sponsored polls put support in the high 40s, a place from which ballot initiatives in California rarely succeed. Although recall supporters have raised $5.45 million, nearly $1 million more than Newsom's allies, they've also spent nearly all of it. Newsom's side has $2.5 million in the bank, and there are no limits on what the governor can raise in a recall election. The polling has prevented the sort of Democratic panic that eventually, and disastrously, got then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to jump into the 2003 recall, dividing his party.

Republican optimism about the recall has focused less on what's happening than on what could, with months left for Newsom to make blunders or look outmatched by the state's fire season. But the first week of the recall campaign has been encouraging to Democrats. Cox, who lost a 2018 race to Newsom by 24 points, replaced his core campaign team six weeks ago, emerging with a new message: “Beauty vs. the Beast,” in which the governor is a handsome politician who can't get the job done, and Cox is an up-from-poverty businessman who can, with a campaign appearance by an acting bear meant to prove it.

“California is the laughingstock of the country,” Cox has said at his bus stops this week, arguing that a simple set of changes like “cutting regulations” and “treating addiction” could end the state's affordable housing and homelessness problems, issues he ran on in 2018.

The bear, whether PETA liked it or not, grabbed attention for Cox. Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and former congressman Doug Ose had not gotten the same buzz, and at one stop, Cox scoffed at a question about his rivals.

“Are there other people in this race?” he asked in Yountville. “There really aren't, actually.”

There really are, though, and Jenner's Wednesday night interview on Fox News established her as the candidate most compelling to conservative media. Democrats were overjoyed. Over 35 minutes, and before an audience of mostly silent supporters wearing Jenner campaign gear, Jenner did little to counteract her Democrat-stoked image as a political dilettante who had not thought much about governing the state. 

Asked why she was running, Jenner rambled for two and a half minutes about her decision to move to San Jose nearly half a century ago to be around “great athletes” while training for the Olympics, then about her family's military service. Fox News host Sean Hannity, saying he wanted to get “specific,” asked Jenner to give Newsom a performance grade; Jenner criticized the governor as a tool of special interests who had wrecked the state, then went into the story of a wealthy friend who had left Malibu for Arizona.

“My friends are leaving California,” Jenner said, noting that Hannity was interviewing her in her airplane hangar. “The guy right across [the street], he was packing up his hangar. And he says, ‘I’m moving to Sedona, Arizona. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t walk down the streets and see the homeless.’ I don’t want to leave. Either I stay and fight or I get out of here.” Democrats couldn't believe what they were hearing, or why Jenner was so glib about the homelessness crisis that loomed as a potential Newsom weakness.

“Just made her look like what she is — a rich reality-TV actor who has no sense of how ordinary people live,” said Democratic strategist Garry South. It was the main sound bite of an interview that included Hannity asking Jenner to comment on a “water tax” Newsom had abandoned 23 months ago, Jenner praising former president Donald Trump for “shaking the system up,” and Hannity helping Jenner correct herself after she described an undocumented immigrant she wanted to keep in the country and said she supported “illegal immigration.”

“Legal immigration, sorry, did I miss the legal part?” Jenner said. “Thanks for catching me. You've got my back, Sean. I appreciate that.”

The audience was smaller, more selective, and more conservative than the one Schwarzenegger got in 2003 when he announced his recall run on “The Tonight Show.” But while Schwarzenegger stopped to talk to reporters outside Jay Leno's studio, Jenner has yet to take questions from California reporters or voters. 

“People were laughing at Caitlyn Jenner, but I don't think they're laughing anymore,” said Randy Economy, the spokesman for the Recall Gavin campaign, which spent Wednesday night celebrating the signature verifications. “I think they're realizing that this campaign is moving forward and it's going to be a real election. And at the end of the day, Gavin Newsom is running against himself.”

Reading list

A conspiracy-wracked audit gives more reasons to question it.

Can a businessman who joined the Jan. 6 protests get elected governor in a red state?

How much will Democrats spend in a state that keeps confounding them?

The farce of the Facebook supreme court.

Post-2020 persistence.

The front-runner that people still can't believe is a front-runner.

A down-ballot Democratic battle.

Special elections

The first televised debate ahead of the June 1 election in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District was a boon for Republican state Sen. Mark Moores, who relentlessly attacked Democratic state Rep. Melanie Stansbury over a topic she never directly engaged with: The BREATHE Act, a criminal justice and police reform proposal by a Black Lives Matter affiliate that she'd supported in a tweet last month, while confirming that she would support it in a forum with Black voters.

“I have a family member who died in detention, who was battling addiction and did not get proper care,” Stansbury said at the April 20 forum. “We have to fix the system. We have to pass the BREATHE Act in Congress. We have to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.”

Moores, who is on the air in the state accusing Stansbury of wanting to “defund the police,” mentioned the BREATHE Act seven times, repeatedly urging viewers to go to the proposal's website and see for itself how radical it was. Multiple times, twice on debate rounds focused on crime in Albuquerque, Moores detailed the federal agencies that the BREATHE Act would dismantle — the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and more.

“She is actually one of the most radical proponents of legislation in Santa Fe and in Washington that would not only defund the police, it would strip all federal funding from grants and task forces that we need in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to fight this crime,” Moores said.

Stansbury, who has touted her support for $11 million in new community safety funding, never directly engaged the topic of the BREATHE Act, instead telling the debate audience that she'd back the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. There's an important difference between the two proposals: The BREATHE Act isn't actually a bill that Congress can vote on. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is. And the proposals are incredibly different.

“The BREATHE Act is just a proposal, not a piece of legislation,” said Stansbury spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn. “If the final legislation includes sections that she cannot support because they are wrong for New Mexicans, then she’ll look to other solutions. Rep. Stansbury will not stop until we find a solution that embraces our diverse communities and keeps all New Mexicans safe.

So what is the BREATHE Act? Launched last summer by the Movement for Black Lives's Electoral Justice Project, it's a vision for transforming policing by dismantling most of federal law enforcement and redirecting the money to enhanced social services. It was crafted fairly quickly by activists, debuting in a live stream just five weeks after the killing of George Floyd sparked a wave of uprisings, protests, and riots last year. (BREATHE is not an acronym, but a reference to Floyd's last words; an unrelated piece of environmental legislation is already called the BREATHE Act.)

The suggested bill text would close all federal prisons, shut down the Border Patrol, remove all police and security from schools, and limit the weapons that police have access to. It would create not only a commission to study reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, which most Democrats in Congress now support, but a Commission to Study Immigration Enforcement Reparations, which would consider alms to people “harmed by border militarization, immigration enforcement and immigration detention.”

It's a radical document, as the drafters intended it to be. “We crafted this bill to be big, because we know the solution has to be as big as the 400-year-old problem itself, Gina Clayton Johnson, one of the designers of the BREATHE Act, said at the 2020 launch event. Organizers had an early breakthrough when they got Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D) of Michigan to endorse the proposal.

But nearly one year later, neither Tlaib nor Pressley has shaped that proposal into legislation. When Stansbury tweeted about the BREATHE Act, her campaign now says she was highlighting a proposal that she might not support in full. While the district backed Joe Biden by 23 points, Republicans see an opening on the crime issue, and see Stansbury walking back from her support for “passing” the BREATHE Act.

“No amount of second-rate political spin can cover up her dangerous views that are wildly out of step with New Mexicans,” the Moores campaign said in a statement.

Stansbury didn’t make the distinction onstage, but she will face Moores again on Saturday, and the topics of that showdown could hardly be worse for her than the topics on Tuesday night. Moderators asked no questions about legislation before Congress, which prompted Stansbury to bring up the American Rescue Plan herself, and moderators did not follow up on their final question: Who won the presidential election?

“Of course, President Biden won, with our amazing Vice President Harris,” Stansbury said.

“President Joe Biden won,” said Libertarian nominee Chris Manning. “I think I've shown that I'm not somebody who denies the reality of the situation.”

Moores didn't answer the question directly. “Obviously, Joe Biden is the president of the United States,” he said, “and hopefully we can change that in a couple more years.”

Ad watch

Shontel Brown, “Together.” Democrat Nina Turner has dominated the fundraising and endorsement chase in Ohio's 11th Congressional District, which will hold an August primary to replace HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge in Congress. Brown has raised more than any of Turner's competitors, and this ad positions her as the Democrat ready to work with the Biden administration against the co-chair of a campaign that challenged Biden. “I'll work with Joe Biden,” Brown says, after a short clip of Turner, on MSNBC, being introduced as a Biden critic. “You might not know her, but you know her work,” a narrator says of Brown, demonstrating how much ground she has to make up.

Andrew Yang, “Hope.” The 2020 presidential candidate has stayed at or near the top of New York's Democratic mayoral primary, in part, by becoming the candidate of positivity and good vibes. His first TV ad mixes that image with short versions of his campaign promises, such as a public bank and cash relief (though his current relief plan is not the $1,000/monthly stipend he ran on last year). Yang has been mocked online for never voting in city elections but becoming a booster for the city's most famous attractions; he leans into that here by doing his required “I approve this message” button on a Coney Island roller coaster.

Poll watch

What is the most important problem facing the U.S. today? (Reuters/Ipsos, 1005 adults)

Economy, unemployment, and jobs: 20% 
Public health, disease, and illness: 11% (-1 since April) 
Inequality and discrimination: 10% 
Immigration: 10% (-2) 
Health care system: 9% 
Crime or corruption: 8% (-1) 
Morality: 5%
Environment and climate: 5% (-1)

Immigration rose as a top voter issue in this poll during the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. At the peak of that story, in early March, a plurality of independents and Republicans in this tracking poll dubbed it the most important issue in the country. Independents moved on last month, and Republicans are now less likely to cite immigration as their top issue than they are to cite the economy. Between data like this, and the relative quiet around the immigration issue in the ongoing New Mexico special election, there's some evidence that its salience has faded after the Biden administration set up more facilities to process migrants and asylum seekers.

Do you approve of the job New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is doing? (Monmouth, 706 adults)

Approve: 57% (-14) 
Disapprove: 35% (+14)

Nearly every governor in the country enjoyed a surge in support when the covid-19 pandemic began. New Jersey's Murphy was in a unique position — the only chief executive of a state who'd face voters in 2021. (Virginia's Ralph Northam is term-limited.) Murphy had middling approval ratings before the pandemic, with one in five voters holding no opinion of how he was doing. During the pandemic, his approval surged into the 70s. It has fallen back since, but Murphy is in a better position than he was before the crisis, with a third of voters now saying he's had “major” accomplishments and one in four Republicans saying they approve of his work as governor.

In the states

Virginia Republicans will choose their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general on Saturday. It may take a few days to figure out who won.

“We probably won’t have a determination of governor until maybe Tuesday, Rich Anderson, the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, told a local ABC News affiliate. Who knows? Maybe it goes into Wednesday. I just can’t — well, none of us can predict that.”

The Virginia GOP's decision to hold a multi-location convention, instead of a traditional primary, has reshaped its statewide races and led to infighting among candidates in crowded, bitter contests. An estimated 53,000 delegates have signed up to vote. That's larger than the credentialed crowd at any of the party's conventions, but it's a fraction of the 366,274 votes cast in the 2017 primaries, when for the second consecutive time the Virginia GOP nominated a slate that would lose every statewide office.

On paper, the new rules will prevent a nominee from crossing the finish line without support from a majority of delegates. That's also the complication. As The Washington Post's Laura Vozzella has explained, Republican delegates will vote at 39 sites across the state, ranking their choices. That simulates the work at a typical, in-person convention, where delegates move to a second ballot if no candidate grabs a majority on the first. But with a single ranked-choice ballot, with delegates scattered across the state, there's no way for candidates who come up short to cut deals or lobby for votes on the floor.

No candidate is entering Saturday's vote with a clear majority, but the new rules didn't really alter how candidates campaigned, with in-person meet-and-greets aimed at Republicans who might be convinced to become delegates. Seven Republicans jumped into the race, the largest primary field in decades. Glenn Youngkin, the former Carlyle Group executive making his first run for office, and Pete Snyder, a businessman who unsuccessfully sought the party's 2013 lieutenant governor nomination, have the most personal resources and have recruited thousands of delegates; Kirk Cox, the party's leader in the House of Delegates, has spent less money, and began running an ad last week that urges delegates to pick him as their second choice.

Youngkin and Snyder have run similar campaigns, emphasizing “election integrity, attacking “cancel culture,” accusing Democrats of letting schools stay closed for too long during the pandemic, and more recently, warning that Democrats would dismantle the state's education advantages, with both candidates warning that the mid-decade revision of the state's curriculum could end advanced math classes in the name of “equity.”

State Sen. Amanda Chase, the only candidate who joined the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in D.C. in person, is the best known of the other candidates, but has not kept pace with Youngkin and Snyder. Former Trump official Sergio de la Peña, think tank founder Peter Doran and former Roanoke County sheriff Octavia Johnson are on the ballot, but are at the most risk of being eliminated as the ballots are counted. Those ballots will be cast from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., after which party officials will drive the ballot boxes to a central location in Richmond, keep the boxes under video surveillance, and start counting. Republicans will also settle a six-way race for lieutenant governor and a four-way race for attorney general.

Republicans in disarray

This newsletter hasn't covered the internal battle between House Republicans over whether Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney (R) should retain her role in leadership; that's a story The Post's Congress team has been all over, for weeks. But when Republicans return for next week's votes, a vote on Cheney's future is likely, with prominent House Republicans and former president Donald Trump already endorsing New York Rep. Elise Stefanik (R) to replace Cheney.

“Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair,” Trump said in a statement. “Elise is a tough and smart communicator!”

Stefanik, who became a steadfast Trump supporter during his presidency, previewed what she might bring to the job with a stop at Steve Bannon's “War Room,” a show that has been obsessed with the effort by Arizona Republicans to audit the state's 2020 vote, on the premise that there was enough fraud to overturn the election. (Election officials in the Republican-run state have said there was not.) As we noted last week, guests such as former Trump adviser Peter Navarro have appeared on the show to argue not only for the audit, but to suggest that at least 200,000 ballots will be found to be invalid. Asked about the audit on Thursday, Stefanik was on board.

“I fully support the audit in Arizona,” Stefanik said. “What are the Democrats so afraid of?” She cited the lengthy recount in New York's 22nd District, which ended with a judge affirming a Republican win, to suggest that only those afraid of “transparency” opposed an audit, asking what Democrats were “hiding.”

A few months earlier, Stefanik was among the loudest voices opposing a Democratic candidate's challenge to her six-vote defeat in Iowa, arguing that even the attempt to review the election was an attempt to “overrule” voters.

Countdown

… two days until the GOP nominating convention in Virginia
… 26 days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District
… 33 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 47 days until New York Citys primary
… 89 days until the special primaries in Ohio’s 11th and 15th Congressional Districts
… 180 days until the special primaries in Florida's 20th Congressional District