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The Trailer: “An American Dream”: Afghans in the U.S. confront post-withdrawal politics


In this edition: More fallout from Afghanistan, Republican infighting in California's recall and a GOP victory in the New York suburbs.

At long last, Snoop Dogg is playing a role in a California election, and this The Trailer.

HAYWARD, Calif. — On Wednesday evening, more than two hundred people filled the lawn in front of city hall here, protesting the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan. They waved the green, red and black flag that the country’s new rulers had torn down, and held signs calling for sanctions on Pakistan.

“How many Afghans do we have here?” asked Democratic City Council member Aisha Wahab, the first Afghan American woman ever elected to political office in the Bay Area. Nearly every hand went up. “How many Americans do we have here?” A few dozen people, scattered through the crowd, let out a cheer.

California's Bay Area is home to more Afghan refugees than any other part of the country. The collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul led to a scramble by local Afghans, charities focused on refugee resettlement and local Democrats who are working to bring into the country Afghans who worked with the U.S. military or who have family already in the United States. 

“We will welcome them with open hearts and open arms,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), whose district includes most of the state's Afghan American population, including the Fremont's Little Kabul neighborhood. “They're not going to face scorn in the Bay Area.”

But as the process for asylum seekers and visa-eligible Afghans quickly ramps up, voters' exhaustion with the 20-year war is palpable. A poll released Thursday by the Associated Press found just 35 percent of Americans saying the war was “worth fighting.” There's little interest, by American politicians or Afghans settled here, in another military intervention. No elected officials talk about building a democracy in central Asia, as they did when the war began. As evacuations continue, the emerging political battles are less about Afghanistan's future than whether refugees should be welcomed here, and whether President Biden is up to the job of commander in chief. 

“I don’t want to talk about any commander in chief like that, but at this point, it’s clear this president is, that there’s something larger going on here that prevents this president from leading our country,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday, repeating questions about Biden's health that Republicans have raised since before his election. “Until he can assure us otherwise, the American people are going to continue to have growing doubts about his ability to lead.” When Hewitt asked about potential military action “to take back Bagram,” the abandoned air base 38 miles from Kabul, Banks hesitated, eventually suggesting that anything should be done “to get an estimated 12-15,000 Americans out of Afghanistan.”

The Afghans who've taken to the streets here were often just as skeptical, doubtful that military intervention could restore the freedoms many Afghan women obtained when American might kept the Taliban out of power. Beheshta Kohgadai, 28, was born in Oakland to parents who fled Afghanistan during the Soviet Union's invasion 40 years ago. 

“We're anti-Taliban,” she said, “but we're not for American involvement in our country. That, as we see, did no good for our people. So we don't want to see any more military invasions of our country. And if people could just leave us alone, I feel like we could prosper.”

Kohgadai, like many Afghan Americans who have spoken out since last week, favored a different approach to dislodging the Taliban: Sanctions on Pakistan, enough to cut off any external support for Afghanistan's new rulers. The idea of putting that pressure on a nuclear power hasn't gotten much traction among Republicans or Democrats. 

With some exceptions, Democrats haven't rushed into the fray. The Biden administration has fretted about the political implications of refugee resettlement, even before the Afghanistan crisis. In May, it raised the Trump administration's cap on annual refugee intake from 15,000 to 62,500, but only after pressure from activists. 

Donald Trump himself has issued contradictory statements on accepting refugees. On Monday, the ex-president denounced Biden for removing most of America's military presence “before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge.” Less than 48 hours later, he changed course, pointing to an instantly iconic photo of a C-17 plane that had taken off from Kabul full of Afghans seeking asylum. 

“This plane should have been full of Americans,” Trump said. “America First!”

The modern GOP, which has rebuilt its agenda around Trump, is skeptical of resettlement, with some of its most nativist voices warning against any new Afghan asylum seekers at all. Stephen Miller, an architect of Trump-era restrictions that also kept some Afghan military interpreters from starting the asylum process, quickly argued that any refugees should be resettled in the region, not the United States. On Fox News, he made a point that some of the network's prime-time personalities were already making: More refugees meant less political power for people already here.

“Resettling in America is not about solving a humanitarian crisis, it’s about accomplishing an ideological objective, to change America,” Miller said Tuesday.

But there is no single Republican position — a shift from 20 years ago, when Republicans who doubted the Bush administration's strategy to roust the Taliban and “nation-build” in their absence were hard to find. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox told the Biden administration in a letter that his state would “welcome families fleeing Afghanistan,” making special mention of Afghans who had worked with the American military, but not ruling out more refugees. Other Republicans have suggested drawing a firmer line on who gets in and who shouldn't.

“When we’re talking merit-based immigration, I can’t think of anybody who has deserved it more than those who stand and fight with us,” Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, a Republican and Green Beret, told Politico this week, referring to the unease on the right over the issue. “It’s just, what kind of backstop is there on the back end when we start talking parole, refugees, asylum, family members?”

Democrats haven't found any unity on the question either. Republicans have been more comfortable criticizing Biden's leadership, a theme they share with many Afghan Americans. At Wednesday's rally, some people carried signs accusing the president of having “blood on his hands.” Few sounded interested, as Miller had warned, in becoming voters who'd reliably reward the Democratic Party with their votes. They were more concerned about their adopted country quickly moving on, instead of listening to what Afghans, who were not calling for more military intervention, really wanted. 

“How long are they going to live in a place like Pakistan for? It's not a stable life there,” said Mohammad Yousafzai, a biomedical engineer who worked as a military translator and arrived in the Bay Area in 2014. Why, he asked, would anyone oppose resettling Afghans who'd helped Americans in a war that was clearly over? “If they move to the United States, they will have two or three years of struggle. And then after that, they will be working and paying taxes and living an American dream.”

Reading list

“When and how Americans started souring on the war in Afghanistan,” by Amber Phillips

The tale told by public polling.

“Washington politicians gear up for Newsom recall battle: 'We're going to have to work for it,'” by Tal Kopan

Why so few Californians in Congress are mobilizing around the recall.

“Cori Bush tests the bounds of what an activist turned lawmaker can accomplish,” by Marianna Sotomayor

How a Black Lives Matter marcher shook up the House.

“Sorry, Democrats — Latino anger toward Republicans isn’t enough to save Newsom’s political hide,” by Gustavo Arellano

Has the party that runs everything in California taken part of its base for granted?

“Virginia’s bipartisan redistricting commission struggling with partisan pressures,” by Gregory S. Schneider

Like life itself, partisanship finds a way.

“Bad news, by Joseph Bernstein

Everything you need to know about disinformation.

On the trail

SACRAMENTO — For the second time, Republican candidates running to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in next month's recall were invited to a debate. For the second time, Larry Elder, the highest-polling GOP candidate, decided not to attend. And Kevin Faulconer was sick of it.

“Larry Elder should be here to defend his positions, but he's not,” Faulconer said at the Sacramento Press Club's three-candidate forum on Tuesday. “Many of those [positions] are absolutely indefensible.” He'd just been reviewing some of Elder's quotes, he said. “He said that women, quote, ‘know less than men,' that they are easier to, quote, ‘manipulate,’ and that he believes that it's okay to discriminate against women, including pregnant women in the workplace.”

The room of reporters and a few dozen Republicans was dead quiet. “That's bulls---,” Faulconer said. “We ought to call it that.”

It was the first real burst of friendly fire in the Republican contest to replace Newsom, which was transformed when Elder jumped into the race at the end of the filing deadline. Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who'd entered the race shortly before Elder did, had called the recall candidates “teammates” in the cause of removing Newsom. Elder had taken the same approach, ignoring the other candidates on the ballot to argue for a united front against the governor. There were substantive policy differences between Elder and Faulconer, a former mayor of San Diego, but they weren't being hashed out in real time.

“This is a recall election, not a primary election for Republicans,” Elder spokeswoman Stephanie Marshall explained in an email, asked why Elder had declined to participate in the media-sponsored debates. “It makes no sense to have a circular firing squad among GOP contenders, where the only one who benefits is Gavin Newsom. Larry would be happy to debate — Gavin Newsom.”

But Newsom won't debate the recall candidates; he, like Elder, was invited to the Sacramento Press Club event and declined. To other candidates' frustration, the result has been a campaign in which the Democratic governor and the best-known Republican attack each other without ever meeting face to face. 

Not every Republican is happy about that. As first reported by Politico's Carla Marinucci, Elder accepted speaking invitations to two GOP county organizations on the condition that Kiley be disinvited. They did so, and Elder got two stages to himself. Elder has held hour-long Zoom news conferences to answer reporters' questions, which on Wednesday led to a literal game of telephone, as two recall correspondents asked him to respond to Faulconer's debate attack.

“You falsely quoted the article!” Elder told one reporter who asked about a 2000 article, “The She Vote,” in which the candidate cited a study showing women knowing less than men on 15 of 16 campaign issues. He had not called women “dumber” than men, he said, as the word “dumber” was a quote from the study's sponsor describing the effects of local news. “Why don't you ask me what did I mean by my article instead of falsely quoting the article?”

It wasn't the only question in a news conference that was held to focus on Elder's plan for reducing the threat of forest fires; he was joined by Rep. Doug LaMalfa, one of relatively few Republican members of Congress who has endorsed in the recall. (“We want to manage, we want to thin them out,” LaMalfa explained.) Asked about another old quote that Faulconer referred to, Elder defended his libertarian view that employers could ask potential female employees if they plan to have children.

“I believe that government should not be intruding into the relationship between employer and employee,” Elder said. “And I believe that a female employer could ask questions of a female employee or a male employee that directly impacts on whether or not that person is going to be available to work a full-time, full 40-hour week. I know there are all sorts of laws and rules and regulations that prevent that, but I wonder whether or not it's wise for government to be interfering with, the same as I feel about the minimum wage. If a willing seller and willing buyer of labor agree on a certain price, I'm not quite sure why it's the government's business to intrude on it. That's my point.”

That's also the sort of rhetoric Democrats are highlighting to excite their own voters, which worries some Republicans. Elder has led all but one poll on the recall's second question; Democrat Kevin Paffrath, a financial analyst with a popular YouTube channel, is the only member of his party running a real campaign. (He had offered to attend Tuesday's debate after former GOP Rep. Doug Ose suspended his campaign, but the press club declined. We'll have more on his campaign next week.) Democrats have urged voters to simply mark “no” on the recall and ignore the alternatives on the second question, which asks who should replace Newsom if he is recalled. The more attention paid to Elder, the more Democrats believe that their vast voter contact campaign, combining door-to-door canvasses and texts or calls to people who haven't turned in ballots, can mobilize the state's enormous liberal majority.

“Right now we're targeting just over 10.3 million voters here in California, and we have phone numbers for about 6.1 million,” said Lindsay Hopkins, a Service Employees International Union veteran now running the coordinated Stop the Republican Recall campaign, a combined effort by the Democratic Party plus more than 50 liberal and labor organizations. “We're really focusing predominantly on the Democrats and no-party-preference voters that we think are likely to vote no on the recall. A lot of them have questions about when the election is, and if they know there's an election; a lot of them had thought it was in November. But from having conversations with folks, it's really clear that they're predominantly against this recall, and we're really trying to boost up the enthusiasm and get folks out there.”

Every Republican candidate argues that his or her campaign can reach frustrated nonconservatives. Faulconer has made more of a specific pitch to them, and got a boost when the Los Angeles Times, in its editorial opposing the recall, said that the former mayor was the “least bad of many bad options.” Republicans who think Faulconer has no path to victory speculate that he has another plan: getting ready to reintroduce himself to voters in the regularly scheduled 2022 election. 

“I'm going to be a governor that understands men and women can both have successful careers and families,” Faulconer told reporters after the debate. “That was my reality growing up. That's the reality of California families all across the state.”

On Thursday, as Faulconer, Kiley and 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox readied for another Elder-free debate, there was more news: Alexandra Datig, Elder's former fiancee, told Politico she had broken off their engagement “after he waved a gun at her while high on marijuana.” On Thursday evening, Elder's campaign released a statement denying the claim.

“I have never brandished a gun at anyone,” the statement quoted Elder as saying. “I grew up in South Central; I know exactly how destructive this type of behavior is. It’s not me, and everyone who knows me knows it’s not me.”

Ad watch

Terry for Virginia, “Keep Virginia Safe.” Glenn Youngkin, the GOP nominee for governor of Virginia, put out a commercial last month that linked Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe to activists who want to cut funding for policing. McAuliffe's response does what Democrats, after a year of absorbing attacks on the issue, have settled on as their most effective response: Letting supportive law enforcement officers do the talking and accusing the Republican of wanting to defund police. In this ad, sheriffs from different parts of the commonwealth thank McAuliffe for supporting police funding as governor from 2014 to 2018, and warn that Youngkin “has a plan that cuts hundreds of millions of dollars from law enforcement.” Youngkin has gone after Democrats for other police reforms, not just funding levels, but Democrats believe they can win the funding issue if they hit back quickly, and if their nominee has validators with badges. (A very similar strategy worked in New Mexico for Rep. Melanie Stansbury.)

Faulconer for Governor, “Only One.” Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer was one of the best-known Republican candidates running when California's Sept. 14 recall election campaign began, working to establish himself as the most credible challenger to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Most conservative voters have gravitated to other candidates, so Faulconer's trying to build a coalition of moderates, including Democratic voters who don't have a strong choice on the recall ballot. As Faulconer walks through his city, a narrator says he's the only candidate who cut homelessness and “cleared tents off sidewalks,” while he also “stopped riots and fought crime” while tangling with anti-police activists.

Elder for Governor, “Incompetence.” Larry Elder has dominated the GOP field in the recall thanks in part to his decades of work as a radio host and author. This spot, like all of his campaign ads so far, simply lets him speak: No music, no on-screen words or numbers until the tag urging viewers to recall Newsom. “You know, in other commercials, the candidate walks around while a voice says how great he or she is,” Elder says. “Well, I can talk. The reason to recall Newsom is more than his gas tax hike, it's his incompetence.” He's making fun of Faulconer's spot, which airs back to back with this in some markets.

Poll watch

New Jersey governor (Monmouth, 810 registered voters)

Phil Murphy (D): 52%
Jack Ciattarelli (R): 36%

Leaving aside California's recall, Murphy is the only governor in the country facing a reelection contest this year, with the second half of his term overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. The issue currently plays to Murphy's advantage. By a nine-point margin, voters say the pandemic remains the most important issue for the candidates to deal with; property taxes, the top issue in the past three elections here, is the runner-up. By a 25-point margin, voters say they trust Murphy over Ciattarelli to keep responding to covid-19. The two candidates are effectively tied on the issue of taxes, and Murphy's got only an eight-point advantage on handling the state's economy. Three-fifths of voters still have no opinion on Ciattarelli himself, remarkably similar to Murphy's name ID four years ago, when he spent from his own fortune to introduce himself to voters. Ciattarelli doesn't have the same resources.

How concerned are you about the threat to the U.S. from (AP-NORC, 1,729 adults)

Extremist groups based in the United States
Extremely: 65%
Moderately: 24%
Not very/at all: 9%

Extremist groups based outside the United States
Extremely: 50%
Moderately: 36%
Not very/at all: 13%

We mentioned this earlier in the newsletter, but the AP's polling on Afghanistan captures a few different angles of voter exhaustion with America's longest war. By a 2-to-1 margin, more voters say the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq were mistakes. Republicans are more likely to disagree, but a majority of them agree that America's post-9/11 wars shouldn't have been fought. This result is maybe more revealing about the politics: Voters are less worried about foreign terrorism (which is what the pollster is basically asking about) than domestic terrorism. On that question, Democrats are the outliers, with 75 percent saying they're “extremely” worried about domestic extremists and just 49 saying the same of foreign extremists. 

Special elections

Republican Ryan Fazio won Tuesday's special election in Connecticut, recapturing a state Senate seat lost by Republicans three years ago. It was the first shift of party control in any federal or state legislative race this year, and the GOP partied in the end zone, with the Republican State Leadership Committee celebrating fresh “momentum” after “holding the line in two Biden-won districts in New England early this year.”

If you read this newsletter Tuesday, you knew that Democrats were worried. Fazio had run a strong campaign, picking up where he left off after almost winning the seat last November. Alexis Gevanter, the Democrats' nominee and a first-time candidate, never successfully defined Fazio as a Trump Republican, while her party never convinced independent candidate John Blankley, a former Democrat who'd run in 2016, to drop his bid.

Blankley didn't matter much in the end, winning just 408 votes and becoming the latest independent candidate to confuse voters' frustration with Democrats and Republicans with a desire to elect somebody else. Fazio prevailed by 452 votes, out of just 17,778 cast — down from 56,712 last year. Most voters who showed up in 2018 and 2020 simply stayed home.

Despite that, the result represented a fairly small shift against Democrats compared with the 2020 race. Gevanter won Stamford, the district's most Democratic town, while the GOP carried Greenwich and Darien, wealthier and more traditionally Republican. In 2020, Democrat Alex Kasser ran about 11 points behind Joe Biden. Tuesday, Gevanter ran roughly 14 points behind the president's win margin. Donald Trump's deep unpopularity in the district, especially among White voters with college degrees, did not fully manifest down the ballot last year. It did not stick to his party on Tuesday.

The closeness of the race, and the small shift from last year, weren't quite the suburban collapse that Democrats keep worrying about. But the Democrats' legislative campaign committee had raised money by warning donors that a loss of any kind here would imperil all of their gains since 2018. Republicans were happy to agree with that after the polls closed in Greenwich.

In the states

Ohio. Consumer advocate Morgan Harper, who lost a 2020 Democratic primary for a Columbus-area House seat, jumped into the 2022 Senate primary on Wednesday. Rep. Tim Ryan, who Democrats had talked about for years as a potential statewide candidate, had seemingly scared off any challenger. Harper, who'll hold her first rally Saturday, said in an interview that she had a winning strategy, and the longtime Mahoning Valley congressman might not.

“The old game plan isn't working,” Harper said, pointing to the Democrats' losses in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020. (In that period, Sen. Sherrod Brown was the only Democrat to pull off a statewide win.) “A political insider and a career politician is just not what people say they want.”

Democrats viewed Harper's announcement skeptically. In 2020, she challenged Rep. Joyce Beatty (D) in a primary, with the support of Justice Democrats, the post-2016 left-wing group that's pulled off a series of primary upsets. That primary was delayed by Ohio's response to the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis that effectively shut down Harper's field campaign, and the challenger lost by a landslide. And just two weeks ago, Justice Democrats-backed Nina Turner lost a campaign for one of Ohio's other safe Democratic seats, squandering a cash and polling lead after PACs pounded her for criticizing Joe Biden during the 2020 campaign.

Harper argued that a grass-roots campaign could mobilize a younger and diverse electorate, giving her a shot at the nomination and potentially breaking Democrats out of their rut. Ryan's early entry, and the decision by some other well-known Democrats not to run, allowed him to lock up endorsements from labor unions and Democratic elected officials before the challenger made her move.

Georgia. The state's new Republican-backed election law is already being deployed in Fulton County, where supporters of a 2020 election audit have been focusing their efforts and highlighting what they cite as problems with absentee balloting and chain of ballot custody. (The hand audit and recount that followed the election found 200 ballots scanned twice by accident, resulting in a 121-vote shift toward Trump when the error was corrected. Fulton voters cast 523,931 ballots overall.) “After the review is completed,” reports Mark Niesse in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “the State Election Board will have the power to replace Fulton’s election board with a temporary superintendent who would have authority over vote counting, polling places and staffing.” 

Illinois. The Chicago-based National Democratic Training Committee is bringing on three Democratic House members as co-chairs: Rep. Katie Porter of California, Rep. Nikema Williams of Georgia and Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois. They'll serve as mentors to trainees of the group, which has educated more than 2000 Democratic candidates in basic campaign tactics, Underwood included. 

“We've going to be doing things differently and thinking about long-term success,” said NDTC CEO Kelly Dietrich. “There are people out there who are running races, knocking doors, being the face of the party in places that we're not going to spend a billion dollars on TV ads. This is a chance to help them be more effective.”


… 26 days until California's recall election
 … 75 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District
 … 145 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District