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The Trailer: Mask or no mask? For Democrats, it's not as simple as "the CDC says."

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In this edition: To mask or not to mask, a big Election Day in Pennsylvania, and more Democrats pick the campaign trail over another term in the House.

My mask is a political statement about how much I can't stand pollen. This is The Trailer.

RICHMOND — The event was outdoors, as usual. Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) accepted the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia in front of the state's Women's Monument, flanked by supporters of her campaign for governor. Four days had passed since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that vaccinated people, inside or outside, didn't need to wear masks

Or did they?

“Mask on or off?” NARAL Pro-Voice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene asked McClellan. After a quick discussion, they compromised: The group would take one photo with volunteers and staffers wearing masks and one without, both to be shared on social media.

Democrats who spent 14 months following pandemic health practices are suddenly campaigning in the world they pined for. Herd immunity is getting closer. Shutdowns are ending. Zoom happy hours are giving way to outdoor meet-and-greets.

But unlike Republicans, who cast off the pandemic rules well before scientists favored it, Democrats are wrestling with how fast to move back to normal. Hand-washing has given way to hand-wringing. Republicans they mocked for dismissing coronavirus precautions are suddenly calling them “anti-science.” Candidates who'd gotten used to bumping fists and elbows are seeing outstretched hands again, with a nanosecond to decide whether it's responsible to shake them.

“I think it's become a habit,” McClellan said in an interview. “I'm fully vaccinated. My family is fully vaccinated. But I also I err on the side of caution, and I ask people what they're comfortable with.”

The new CDC guidelines took many health professionals by surprise and haven't been embraced by all Democrats. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who faces reelection in November, is continuing the state's indoor mandates so that nobody “gets burned” by a new outbreak. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was blasted by his former chief of staff for announcing that the state would adopt the new rules on June 15 — because she considered that too lenient. National Nurses United, a left-leaning union that has commemorated health workers killed during the pandemic, blasted the relaxed orders last week.

“This newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country,” Bonnie Castillo, a registered nurse and the union's executive director, said in a statement.

For candidates, the thrill of returning to traditions such as in-person canvassing and packed rallies is tempered by months of learning not to do that. Rachel Levy, a Democratic candidate for Virginia's House of Delegates, said that a Sunday rally with Democrats in Hanover was the first in-person campaign event she had been to, period, having launched her bid in the midst of the pandemic. Although she was thrilled to get off Zoom, she would still sometimes be wearing her mask — inside, obviously, and sometimes outside.

“I have a friend who's immunocompromised, and I want her to be able to come to my events and feel safe,” Levy said. “My daughter's 14, and she hasn't been vaccinated. It's just easier, for everybody's comfort, if we still wear masks.”

These conversations are happening less frequently among Republicans. Partisan views of shutdowns and mask mandates grew sharper and more divided as the pandemic dragged on. Republicans are far less likely than Democrats  to say they'll get vaccinated, and Democrats are far more likely to support masking, fretting that vaccine skeptics will go maskless and keep spreading the virus. Vaccinated liberals who still intend to wear masks outdoors — a minority, but a vocal one — have quickly become punching bags for Republicans.

I’m in D.C. today and just saw a group of girls on the Potomac rowing — outside in the sunshine — all of them with masks on,” said J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author who's now running for U.S. Senate in Ohio. “Just totally insane.” Vance was criticized for weighing in without knowing their vaccination status, but he's far from the only Republican deriding the idea of wearing masks outdoors.

The partisan spat over masks and social distancing had a real effect in last year's elections, as Joe Biden and most Democrats scuttled in-person canvassing for months, even when Republicans were hitting the doors. By Georgia's Jan. 5 Senate runoffs, Democrats had returned to traditional field campaigns, but the army of canvassers who mobilized Democrats in 2017 and 2018 was thinned as liberals with health conditions, at-risk family members, or their own worries about infection pivoted to phone-banking or postcard-writing.

The new CDC guidelines have not restored the pre-coronavirus status quo yet, and Democrats across the country have adopted rules to limit canvassers' health risks. State Rep. Melanie Stansbury, the Democrat running in a special election for New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, has a “covid-safe” canvassing policy: Fully vaccinated volunteers can hit the doors with masks, while those who haven't been vaccinated can drop off literature, but are discouraged from talking to voters in person. But Virginia Del. Lee Carter, a candidate for governor, said that he had not returned to in-person canvassing, even though he credited it for his upset victory in 2017 and his reelection two years later.

“We shouldn't be sending people out into harm's way,” Carter said in an interview. “I'm not going to jeopardize people's lives to try to win an election.”

Republicans, in general, are not having these discussions. Their campaigning this year has echoed the approach the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee took in 2020: Outdoor rallies whenever possible, indoor events sometimes, some temperature checks and a lot of faith that voters won't show up if they're sick. In Virginia, GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin won after a series of meet-and-greets, forums and rallies, in person, following the guidelines of hosts who often didn't require masks or limit attendance. His canvassers are going maskless, reflecting CDC guidance that there's a low risk of infection outdoors.

Democrats aren't there yet, and mask culture has permeated not just their campaign tactics but their messaging. For a year, their candidates were careful to follow the old CDC guidelines wherever they appeared, including in TV ads. Shots of the candidates talking to voters tended to show them wearing masks; shots of them in crowds emphasized the distance between the attendees.

That could end soon, but it hasn't yet. In his first commercial for his New York City mayoral bid, City Comptroller Scott Stringer was portrayed leaving his house fully masked, and only lifting it briefly at the end of the spot to reveal a smile. Mark Putnam, who made the ad, said that if he filmed it this week he might not have used the mask. 

“What’s nice about the new guidance is you can have people standing closer together than we would have last week,” said Putnam, who said he had sometimes used telephoto lenses to help socially distanced crowds fit into his shots. “No Democratic candidate wants to be flouting the rules.”

Putnam suggested that by 2022, “you'll see candidates go unmasked” in advertising for both parties, unless there's a new variation of the virus and a new set of shutdowns. The campaigns might move before their voters do. Harvey Stebbins, 59, stopped by a Democratic event near Richmond this weekend, keeping his mask affixed, even as most of the crowd went maskless.

“I wear 'em because you should,” Stebbins said. “I had cancer a couple of years ago, so I'm careful. And I don't want to die for somebody's idiotic ideology.”

Reading list

“‘Our democracy is imperiled’: Maricopa County officials decry 2020 recount as a sham and call on Arizona Republicans to end the process,” by Rosalind S. Helderman

The latest from Arizona's unending election battle.

“Democrats confront reality on voting rights: Congress probably isn’t coming to the rescue,” by Mike DeBonis

What do Republicans need to do to stop H.R. 1? Maybe nothing. 

“State losses plague Democrats ahead of redistricting,” by Ally Mutnik

How a few thousand votes in 2010 and 2020 locked Republicans into commanding positions.

“Voters have seen past presidents as illegitimate. This time is different,” by Philip Bump

Why 2020 doesn't look like 2000.

“Rise of a megadonor: Thiel makes a play for the Senate,” by Alex Isenstadt

What can $10 million do for a candidate?

In the states

It's Election Day in Pennsylvania, with the whole state voting on three ballot measures while the citizens of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh choose whether to keep their Democratic leadership.

In Philadelphia's Democratic primary, District Attorney Larry Krasner is facing former city prosecutor Carlos Vega, who has been backed substantially by the city's Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP-backed Protect Our Police PAC has run a series of ads portraying Krasner as a heartless incompetent who has denied justice to the family members of murder victims. As The Trailer reported last month, FOP President John McNesby claims to have gotten thousands of Republicans or independents to become Democrats and oppose Krasner; voter registration data backs him up.

That could help Vega in a close race, and low turnout probably would help, too. Four years ago, Krasner won nearly 60,000 Democratic primary votes over a split field out of more than 150,000 votes cast, and his campaign has made some inroads with old critics. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which opposed Krasner in 2017 and recommended a vote for his eventual Republican opponent, has endorsed him this year. Vega got a boost last week from former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat who once held Krasner's job.

“He’s clearly demonstrated that he simply doesn’t understand or won’t recognize that the first and most important part of a D.A.’s job is to protect people in this city from violent, brutal crime,” said Rendell of Krasner, making Vega's closing pitch. Since 2016, when liberal donors and activists began focusing on D.A. offices as places to elect reformers, only a few liberal ones have faced reelection. None have been defeated. 

In Pittsburgh, where Mayor Bill Peduto is seeking a third term, state Rep. Ed Gainey is vying to become the city's first Black mayor, stringing together a coalition of liberals, Black voters and labor unions frustrated with the mayor. He may benefit from the presence of retired cop Tony Moreno, a conservative Democrat who said he got into the race because the city's “policy and demographics” were changing, and who has deleted old tweets supportive of Donald Trump.

In Scranton, the resignation of a Democratic state senator created a special election in the 22nd District, a usually safe seat that swung toward Trump in 2016, but was still carried by Hillary Clinton — and carried by Biden four years later. Democrat Marty Flynn is facing Lackawanna County Commissioner Chris Chermak, after Republicans worked unsuccessfully to push Flynn off the ballot over a filing technicality. (Flynn admitted the screw-up and stayed in the race.) Biden endorsed Flynn last week, one of his first interventions in a down-ballot election since becoming president, while Trump has stayed out of it. Green and Libertarian nominees will appear on the ballot; a GOP win would be the party's first flip of a Democratic seat this year.

Statewide, voters will also nominate candidates for court seats, and weigh three ballot initiatives: Two that would limit the governor's emergency powers, channeling Republican anger at Gov. Tom Wolf (D), and one that would add anti-racial discrimination language to the state constitution.

Ad watch

Jennifer Carroll Foy, “Petersburg.” The former delegate's paid gubernatorial advertising has focused relentlessly on three themes: She grew up poor in Petersburg, Va., she graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, and as a delegate she voted to expand Medicaid. Each theme gets another run-through in her latest spot, with Carroll Foy telling a crowd that Virginia can “do so much better than the status quo.” That's a knock at former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who has dominated ad spending and fundraising in the primary — and who has not taken any hits harder than that on the air.

Sam Rasoul, “Essential.” Virginia's Democratic primary for lieutenant governor is the most crowded race on the commonwealth's ballot next month; Rasoul, with his political base in southwest Virginia, tries to stand out here with his “Marshall Plan for Virginia Moms,” a way to brand the family leave and sick leave policies that all Democrats now say they support. Rasoul's wife, Layaly, dramatizes the point by prepping the family for a typical day. 

Scott Stringer, “Rebuild.” A sexual misconduct allegation rattled Stringer's campaign, costing him endorsements in his New York City mayoral bid. It didn't change his endgame ad plan: Go on the air and stay there for the final few weeks. Stringer talks briefly about losing his mother to covid-19, then helps his stepfather pack for Puerto Rico. “I'm determined to see him come back,” Stringer says.

Andrew Yang, “New Leadership.” Still in the top tier of mayoral candidates, after taking some hits in the first debate, Yang combines an old message (direct cash relief) with one he has adopted in this campaign: “Get schools open so kids can learn and parents can go back to work.” He mentions no rivals by name, but criticizes the idea of insiders, who make up his closest competitors in public polls: “We need new leadership that's a break from the politics of the past.”

Mark Moores, “Listen to Melanie.” Moores, the Republican nominee in the special election for New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, has devoted plenty of paid media and long sections of TV debates to Democrat Melanie Stansbury's comment in support of the BREATHE Act. This is the most lurid and direct ad yet, twice playing Stansbury's comment at a Black voter forum that Congress “must pass” the Act, which, as The Trailer has noted before, is not actually legislation; it's a platform for proposing the redirection of federal law enforcement grants toward social services, and eventually shutting down federal prisons. The ad calls it the “most dangerous legislation in America” — it's not, but Stansbury discussed it like it was — and portrays streets in chaos if Stansbury gets her way.

Melanie Stansbury, “I'm With Melanie.” Stansbury has battled with Moores over the crime issue, but instead of unpacking or recanting her BREATHE Act comment, she has focused on her own crime record. A TV ad last week featured a retired police officer, who said Republicans were “lying” about Stansbury. This digital spot goes with Raúl Torrez, Albuquerque's former district attorney, who says the Democratic legislator has been a “partner for law enforcement” who has delivered “millions in training and salaries.” 

Nina Turner, “Grandson.” Turner's first campaign of her own in seven years — she worked for two Bernie Sanders presidential bids in the meantime — continues to reintroduce her to Ohio's 11th Congressional District as a mainstream liberal Democrat. Playing with her grandson, Turner says she'll work to make sure he can get a job with “a living wage” and “quality, affordable health care.” That term sums up Turner's approach, using terminology that Democratic opponents of Medicare-for-all use — “affordable” — but dropping the term “access,” which single-payer supporters see as a way to promise voters the option of coverage without guaranteeing it.

Poll watch

Do you approve of how President Biden is handling the economy? (Marist, 1249 adults)

Approve: 51% (-3 since April) 
Disapprove: 42% (+4)

May began with the first mediocre economic news of Biden's presidency, with 266,000 workers joining the labor market (far less than expected), gas prices rising before the (now-concluded) Colonial Pipeline shutdown, and year-over-year inflation rising by 4 percent. Republicans moved fast to argue that Biden's stimulus strategy was squandering the recovery and risking more inflation, with new House GOP conference chair Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York claiming that the jobs news was the “worst” in “over 20 years.” That was false — one year ago, 20.5 million were lost in a month — and voters are nervous but not yet turning on Biden's economic plans. But the trend line is exactly what Biden's (relatively few) Democratic skeptics fret about, as Republicans argue that the president inherited a recovery and will throw it away with inflationary spending.

Midterm watch

Florida. Rep. Val Demings (D) plans to run for the Senate seat now held by Republican Marco Rubio, with an announcement probably coming after Memorial Day. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who represents a neighboring Orlando-area district, is also considering a bid, after launching a listening tour early this year. Both women come from their party's moderate wing; neither, for example, has co-sponsored the House's Medicare-for-all legislation. And both represent seats, drawn after a court struck down a gerrymander, that lean Democratic but could be cut up by the next Republican-drawn map.

Based on the first report of a Demings bid, by Politico's Marc Caputo, a PAC that works to elect Black candidates immediately endorsed Demings. “Electing a Black woman to the U.S. Senate this cycle is a top organizational priority and we are proud to stand with Val Demings,” the Collective PAC said in a statement, noting that it had supported Demings in her first House bid. 

Although Murphy has impressed Democrats by running ahead of the ticket in all three of her races and by beating an incumbent Republican to win it in the first place, Demings's national profile soared when she was vetted for Biden's ticket last year. By mobilizing fast, both Demings and the PAC are sending a message to Murphy that a primary would be long and messy; the nominee to challenge Rubio won't be picked until next summer.

Pennsylvania. Former congressman Lou Barletta is running for governor, joining a field of Republicans who have been eyed for a long time to make their statewide move — Montgomery County commissioner Joe Gale, and former U.S. attorney Bill McSwain (who has not officially announced yet).

“We need to take back our livelihoods from the insiders in Harrisburg that have no idea the harm their lockdowns have done,” Barletta said in a launch video. In 2018, Barletta captured the party's Senate nomination but failed to mount a real challenge to Sen. Bob Casey, losing by 13 points. But he ran ahead of previous nominees in his Luzerne County base and in once-Democratic southwest Pennsylvania. 

No Democrat has announced yet, although Attorney General Josh Shapiro told Philadelphia magazine this year that he “expected” to be a candidate. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is finishing his second consecutive term, the most allowed under the state's term limits.

New York. Days after his father's apartment was raided by the FBI, former Trump administration staffer Andrew Giuliani entered the GOP primary for governor. “I’m a politician out of the womb,” he told the New York Post, suggesting that his father, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, will be a campaign asset. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R) is already running for the nomination, as is Rob Astorino, a former Westchester County executive who lost the 2014 election to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). 

2020, Continued

At weekend meetings in Georgia and South Carolina, Republican anger over the 2020 election kept simmering, though it wasn't enough to put a conspiracy theorist in charge of a state party.

South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick easily held onto his job at the party's Saturday convention, winning over 582 of 861 delegates at a mixed virtual/in-person vote. He routed attorney Lin Wood, who became a resident of the state just three months ago, and who insisted at campaign events that Trump remained president behind the scenes, as military forces used the distraction of a sham Biden presidency to free captured children from a network of tunnel-digging pedophiles. 

This proved less compelling to Republicans than McKissick presiding over a 2020 GOP sweep. Still, Wood won 239 votes, and won them after Trump, who had repeatedly said he supported McKissick, released a last-minute statement affirming his endorsement.

In Georgia, Republicans thrilled as hundreds of first-time attendees swarmed their congressional district conventions; in half of them, they passed resolutions condemning Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing to overturn the state's 2020 presidential election results and deliver their electoral votes to Trump.

“We can’t move on,” activist Rich Kaye told the Associated Press, while falling short in a bid to lead the party in the 6th Congressional District. “We’ve got to find out what happened, why it happened and what we are going to do to stop it.”

In Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's (R) 14th Congressional District, activists passed a resolution praising her for having “displayed the willingness to fight, not just against the left-wing media, [and] radical Democrats, but also against sellout 'Republicans.' ” And in the 7th Congressional District, which the GOP lost last year, delegates voted to condemn Gov. Brian Kemp (R), echoing county party meetings this spring where Kemp faced a backlash for not subverting the election results. But Duncan and Raffensperger got the most flack, and on Monday, Duncan announced that he would not seek reelection in 2022. 

“Any narrative from a Republican that the election was stolen, that it was a rigged election, is wasted energy, Duncan said. “It may be only a bold few to start with who join me, but I believe an overwhelming majority will eventually get there and get this party back on track.”

In Arizona, Republicans tumbled into chaos over the ongoing audit of Maricopa County's 2.1 million ballots. The auditors, who only had reserved their space at the state fairgrounds until May 14, relocated the ballots for a week, planning to return when the coliseum they'd been using was available again. Maricopa County's Board of Supervisors, a GOP-dominated body that certified the 2020 result, condemned the process and called on Arizona's Senate Republicans to end it. Their 14-page letter to Senate President Karen Fann accused the auditors of botching the count, pointing to multiple cases of ballot counts that did not match the state's verified vote; one found 18 extra ballots.

“You are using purple lights and spinning tables. You are hunting for bamboo. These are not things that serious auditors of elections do,” the supervisors wrote. “You are photographing ballots contrary to the laws that the Senate helped enact, and you are sending those images to unidentified places and people. You have repeatedly lost control of your twitter account, which has tweeted things that appear to be the rantings of a petulant child — not the serious statements of a serious audit.”

The letter came after Senate Republicans had subpoenaed the board for election information; in a response, state Sen. Warren Peterson complained about the “unnecessary insults” and said the letter writers did “not agree to comply with the subpoena or fully answer all of her questions.”


… 14 days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District
… 21 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 35 days until New York Citys primary
… 70 days until the special election in Texas's 6th Congressional District
… 77 days until the special primaries in Ohio’s 11th and 15th Congressional Districts
… 168 days until the special primaries in Florida's 20th Congressional District