In this edition: The muddled state of redistricting, the Newsom-free debates in California and the question of Herschel Walker.

There are days when I regret starting every issue of the newsletter with a joke, and this is The Trailer.

The scramble over the next decade's electoral map began later than it had in decades. It'll end years from now, in a courtroom somewhere, with a judge asked to throw out district lines skewed in one party's favor.

It’s a bit of a mess. It was destined to be one, after a pandemic, and a botched effort to exclude noncitizens from the count, delayed the release of the 2020 Census's redistricting data. Oklahoma's Republican majority is redrawing new state legislative maps it had based on the first, incomplete population projections put out earlier this year. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which failed in a multimillion-dollar effort to take over key state legislatures last year, filed lawsuits four months ago, as soon as that early data was released for Louisiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

But as of two weeks ago, the 43 states with multiple congressional districts have everything they need to draw new maps. The new data threw off some ideas that had been based on the April data, chiefly that Latinos might have been undercounted. Instead, urban areas and new suburbs, and minority voters, drove most of the past decade's population growth. In the current political alignment, that meant more growth in more Democratic areas. President Biden won 477 counties last year, which grew by an average of 3.4 percent; former president Donald Trump won 2,547 counties, which grew by just 0.2 percent.

That wasn't the trend Republicans wanted to see, but it didn't alter their plans. Thanks to their strong 2020 performance downballot, Republicans have enough control over this process to reduce the number of Democratic-leaning districts. Wiping out just five would erase the current House majority. States still fall into three categories: twenty where Republicans control the process, 11 where Democrats control it and 13 where either divided government or independent commissions will draw the maps. Republicans have the power to draw 181 seats, and Democrats can draw 93. 

Here's what we know and what's going to be fought over for the next few months.

What else can Republicans get out of red states? Put aside Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, swing states where the GOP controls the process. In most red states, the party is replacing its own 2011 maps, drawn to maximize Republican clout. That was typically done by creating majority-minority districts that are uncompetitive for Republicans, nestled between Republican-leaning districts where even a strong Democratic tide won’t be enough for a win.

Every Southern state district with a Republican majority but a sizable Black population saw some version of this play out: South Carolina's 6th Congressional District, Alabama's 7th Congressional District, Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District and Tennessee's 9th Congressional District. Each of these seats also lost population from 2010 to 2020, so each needs to be drawn to include more precincts.

Republican mapmakers can do that easily, while making other seats less competitive. The South Carolina seat, for example, stretches from Columbia to Charleston. The 1st Congressional District, which was drawn to elect a Republican, shifted left as more college-educated White voters and new arrivals began voting for Democrats. That cost the GOP the seat in 2018, and the party narrowly won it back in 2020. Republicans could shore up Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who now holds the seat, by adding more Charleston Democrats to the 6th District, represented by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn.

That wouldn’t change the balance of the House. In Tennessee, Republicans have floated the idea of splitting Nashville’s Davidson County into “two to three” districts, as state House Speaker Cameron Sexton told CNN last month. Nashville’s torrid growth could let Republicans demolish a traditionally safe Democratic seat. 

One model of what works? Utah’s 2011 map, which split up increasingly Democratic Salt Lake City, turning the state’s most liberal district into one that changed hands three times between 2014 and 2020. In Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska and New Hampshire, the new data wouldn’t prevent Republicans from slicing up liberal-leaning population centers. In each state, the party could erase a seat carried by Biden in 2020; in Kansas, Kentucky and New Hampshire, that would put two Democratic incumbents at risk. (Democrats lost Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District in 2016 and haven’t recaptured it.) 

Across the 16 states where Republicans control the process, and where Donald Trump won by double digits twice, partisan gerrymanders could net the GOP between zero seats and four seats, depending on how much they try to split Democratic strongholds. 

What can Republicans gain in swing states? Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas remain the party’s best opportunities to gain seats; North Carolina’s constitution cuts Gov. Roy Cooper (D) out of the process, and the other states are wholly controlled by Republicans. Ten years ago, the Republican maps for each state created a few majority-minority seats to pack in Democrats. In each state, fast suburban growth has complicated their plans: Democrats have five more seats across Florida, Georgia and Texas than they did in 2012, and North Carolina’s map was repeatedly undone by legal challenges, with a court carving out two new Democratic seats last year.

The Voting Rights Act, partially defanged by the Supreme Court after 2011, still requires legislators in each state to draw a number of majority-minority districts. In Texas, as the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman showed last week, six current Republican-held seats added more than 100,000 residents in the last decade, while swinging toward Democrats; majority-Latino seats in the Rio Grande Valley gained, too, while swinging toward Republicans. In North Carolina, it was the Democratic districts around Charlotte and the Research Triangle that gained the most. The difference? Republicans carved up the suburbs, never expecting them to become competitive so soon, while judges gave North Carolina a more geographically compact map.

Republicans can draw more favorable maps in each state, with Democratic lawsuits looming. In North Carolina, Democrats tried and failed to require the use of racial demographic data in drawing new maps, but Republicans could win control of the state Supreme Court next year, reducing the risk of another judicial intervention. Florida’s Supreme Court has already shifted right compared with 2011, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s new appointments typically ruling against liberals.

The growth in all four states has largely come outside the GOP's strongest regions — places like Central Florida, the Houston exurbs and Atlanta's northern suburbs. But the party probably will ensure that the new seats going to these states are drawn for Republicans, and the areas where they have seen growth with non-White voters, like South Florida, are shorn up. Even a careful set of maps would put Republicans up by four.

What do Democrats do in blue states? There’s already some public buyer’s remorse about the party’s campaign to end gerrymandering. In New York, while there’s a new independent redistricting commission, the Democratic legislature can overrule it, so long as they follow a few guidelines. In Oregon, Democrats have attacked a hasty deal with Republicans that allowed them some say over the new maps if they stopped leaving the state Capitol to block the party’s bills.

So there are some limits on what the party can do in states where it's drawing the maps, but few they can't shake off. The party's decline in rural areas led to losses and near-losses in places like Illinois and New York over the Obama and Trump presidencies. Its strength in the suburbs will allow it to draw more compact maps in states it controls; the current tangle of districts in Illinois's Cook County, for example, includes two jagged seats initially drawn for Republicans, but captured by Democrats in 2018. 

While New York and Illinois are losing a single seat each, the early Democratic plan is to consolidate rural, red districts and squeeze out Republicans. There's literally nothing else for Democrats to gain in places like Connecticut or Rhode Island, where they hold every seat. They do have a chance to net several seats from the biggest states they control, which they're already justifying as a response to what the GOP is doing elsewhere.

What do independent commissions, and states without one-party control, end up drawing? The biggest one-party gain of the last decade’s redistricting wasn't in a state where Democrats or Republicans ran the process. It came in California, which for the first time relied on a citizens commission to draw maps. Republicans, who held 19 seats under the pre-2011 map, lost 12 of them by the 2018 midterms, and narrowly won back four last year.

Democrats expect commissions to solve some of their problems in swing states and red states. Michigan's old map, which carved then-safe GOP seats out of parts of suburban Oakland County, didn't prevent Democrats from narrowly winning there in 2018 and 2020. Michigan's losing one seat, but a more competitive and less complicated map would prevent what the Democrats faced in the last two cycles: GOP-drawn maps that eliminated Democratic seats. In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Democratic governors will clash with Republican legislative majorities. That gives them more of a foothold than they had 10 years ago, and more to start with if, as they've already started to do in Pennsylvania, they head to court.

But “fair maps,” as the independent redistricting campaign in Michigan labeled its goals, do not mean Democratic maps. Take Montana, where fast population growth expanded its delegation from one to two. Most of the new arrivals landed around bigger cities in the western part of the state, like Missoula and Bozeman. As several amateur maps have shown, it would be easy to place those cities in separate district, leaving Democratic voters stranded in two districts with roughly the same double-digit Republican advantage.

What's going to happen when an independent commission takes a look at the new electorate? We don't know yet. We just know that Republicans, who were hoping for a bit more from the census, are heading into this process with a chance to draw half a dozen more favorable seats. It's not the nightmare Democrats had last November. It's just enough to yank them out of power.

Reading list

“How congressional redistricting works in your state,” by Harry Stevens, Adrian Blanco, Ashlyn Still, Ted Mellnik, Daniela Santamariña, Colby Itkowitz, and Tyler Remmel

The next 435 House districts, in map and chart form.

The Keystone audit gets underway.

Why a Republican who plays ball with Democrats could lose his seat, thanks to Democrats.

Kevin Paffrath? Yoga instructors? Nobody?

The White House has been queasy about taking in more refugees. What happens when Republicans run against it?

In 2016, voters thought he was a moderate Republican. They didn't think that four years later.

How the ex-governor co-opted feminist activists – for the last, but not the first, time.

Turnout watch

Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Randall Woodfin easily secured a second term Tuesday, winning 64 percent of the vote on an eight-way ballot. (Had he fallen below 50 percent, he would have headed to a runoff.) Turnout was thin, as it tends to be in races where an incumbent faces no serious challenge. Just 36,790 ballots were cast, compared with 38,366 votes in the summer 2017 primary and 42,279 votes in that year's runoff, when Woodfin unseated then-Mayor William A. Bell.

Afghanistan

The terrorist attack outside of Kabul’s international airport occurred as the Trailer was heading out the door, along with the news that 11 U.S. Marines and a Navy medic had been killed. One of the first political responses was a larger array of Republicans demanding the president’s resignation. Many of them used the same phrase: Biden had “blood on his hands” for mishandling the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin and General Milley should all resign or face impeachment and removal from office,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

“Biden and Harris both need to resign for dereliction of duty,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.).

“He needs to be removed as commander-in-chief,” said Senate candidate Sean Parnell of Pennsylvania, an Afghan war veteran.

“I am joining the growing chorus of lawmakers in calling for Biden’s resignation,” said Walt Blackman, an Arizona state legislator and Iraq War veteran running in the competitive 1st Congressional District.

The resignation calls actually began days ago, though Democrats didn’t take them very seriously. Donald Trump quickly called on Biden to quit, adding in fundraising emails that “it shouldn’t be a big deal, because he wasn’t elected legitimately in the first place.” But the tone was set. There’ll be no rally-around-the-flag effect; Trump and his party are approaching this as a debacle that they would have prevented, enough of one that it should end Biden’s presidency.

That’s one political dynamic to watch in the next grim days. Another is how the White House deploys the president and vice president. Vice President Harris was planning to rally with California Gov. Gavin Newsom in San Francisco on Saturday; the White House suggested the president would head there, too, as Democrats get out their base. Harris’s appearance was canceled, and Biden’s may not happen.

Poll watch

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Joe Biden is handling … (Quinnipiac, 889 registered Florida voters)

… his job as president
Approve: 40%
Disapprove: 53%

… the response to the coronavirus
Approve: 47%
Disapprove: 49%

Florida Democrats and Republicans have learned to be skeptical of the “Q poll.” Even before these numbers dropped, Florida-based Biden strategist Steve Schale warned not to take them too seriously. “I don't have any more confidence in the Q poll coming out today than I did when they had Romney +9 or Gillum +7,” Schale tweeted, referring to the 2012 GOP nominee and the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor, neither of whom carried Florida.

That said: This is one of the worst poll results of Biden's presidency, even allowing for Florida's current partisan tilt. What explains it? The pollster was in the field from Aug. 17 to 21, during the administration's scramble to evacuate Americans and allies from Afghanistan. That has brought Biden's numbers down in every recent poll. Quinnipiac didn't ask about that specifically, though; it asked about the pandemic, and found support for his response tracking 7 points higher than the support for everything he's done. White voters disapprove of Biden's pandemic response by a 13-point margin, while the same voters disapprove of his job performance by a 33-point margin. (More Black voters approve of Biden overall than approve of his pandemic response.) Fewer voters overall approve of Gov. Ron DeSantis's pandemic strategy than approve of Biden's. But White voters support it by a 16-point margin. 

What's it mean? There was a long period when opinion of government figures' pandemic strategies did not track closely to partisanship, but that's largely over, driven by conservative voters' opposition to vaccine and mask mandates. As skeptical as Democrats may be of Quinnipiac's polls, they and their third-party allies have built ad and messaging strategies around Biden personally, counting on his brand to stay separate from the left-wing figures that most voters don't like. Here, at least, that approach no longer makes much sense.

Virginia statewide elections (AARP/Wason Center, 800 registered voters)

Governor
Terry McAuliffe (D): 50%
Glenn Youngkin (R): 41%
Princess Blanding (I): 3%

Lieutenant Governor
Hala Ayala (D): 52%
Winsome Sears (R): 42%

Attorney General
Mark Herring (D): 53%
Jason Miyares (R): 41%

After a long period with no polling, three surveys of Virginia's statewide races dropped in the past week. All of them found Democrats ahead, from slim margin-of-error leads (in a Virginia Commonwealth University poll) to leads outside the margin of error. The upshot: Republicans have not broken the post-Obama Democratic coalition in the state, with college-educated White voters skeptical of the GOP and Northern Virginia giving McAuliffe's party a big vote cushion. Democrats lead in that region, according to this poll, by 26 points or more. Republicans trail in the Tidewater region, which both parties see as the election's battleground, by at least 9 points.

Youngkin, whose wealth allowed him to go on the air early and stay there, has not gained much from the investment. Each member of the ticket has roughly the same strength, though Sears (who'd be the first Black female lieutenant governor) and Miyares (who'd be the first Latino to hold statewide office here) have very different profiles from Youngkin. The presence of Blanding, a Black police reform activist, hurts McAuliffe on the margins, but not by much, and just 1 percent of Black voters support her. Blanding does nearly as well with independents as Democrats, which could be a function of her ballot line on the new Liberation Party, just a few letters off from the Libertarian Party, which has fielded a series of statewide candidates who grab the none-of-the-above vote.

Recall

Four of the candidates in California's Sep. 14 recall election debated Wednesday night. Three of them were named Kevin. None, as usual, were Gov. Gavin Newsom

But the Democratic governor only took some of the fire in the hour-long debate, hosted by the San Francisco Chronicle and local NBC affiliate KCRA. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer used his biggest platform yet to repeatedly call fellow Republican candidate Larry Elder unfit to lead the state. Faulconer traded shots with Kevin Paffrath, the 29-year old financial advice YouTuber who, accurately, described himself as the best-polling Democrat in the race.

“It's not the time for on-the-job training,” Faulconer told Paffrath, laughing when he mentioned the Democrat's YouTube channel.

“I have 11 years working in real estate, and my experience doesn't include ripping off my city,” Paffrath shot back later, a reference to a San Diego real estate deal that led to a large profit for a Republican donor and an ongoing audit.

The clashes between a Republican long seen as a nominee-in-waiting, and a Democrat who'd never held office before, captured the randomness of the recall's final stretch, and the conservative tilt of its field. As Paffrath reminded Faulconer, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and 2018 gubernatorial nominee John Cox, the three of them trailed him in polls. Elder, who announced more than a dozen endorsements from current or former elected officials on Wednesday, has led the GOP field in every poll. (The endorsement list incorrectly suggested that a Libertarian candidate in the recall had endorsed Elder; the campaign retracted that late Wednesday night.)

Elder skipped Wednesday's debate, as he's skipped every debate so far. “Larry Elder does not have the character, the judgment, the skill set or the experience to be governor,” Faulconer said onstage; he was not specific, but has been criticizing Elder's 2000 column arguing that employers can, when making hiring decisions, consider whether a potential female employee would get pregnant and produce less work. “His attack on working women is unconscionable to all of the working moms out there.”

There was no other criticism of Elder apart from that, and from Paffrath's warning to Democrats that he was their best insurance policy to prevent an Elder win. (No other Democrat has gotten even nominal support in public polls.) The Democrat, comfortable on camera after a career on social media, spent more of his time accusing rivals of lacking fresh ideas, and promoted several of his own. He would, he said, solve homelessness in 60 days, starting by putting the state's unhoused population into temporary shelters. He'd eliminate the state's tax on income below $250,000. And he would work with the Biden administration and fellow governors to build a pipeline from California to the Mississippi River, to bring in a new supply of fresh water.

“Researchers and PhDs have come up with a solution,” Paffrath said. “It would take just 14 power plants to pump water. Here we can buy cheaper, cleaner water. There's enough federal land between here and there. With the exception of Texas where we're going to rent land, we're going to double the flow of water to the Mississippi River.” 

Kiley and Cox didn't engage with this. Cox, who has put close to $9 million of his own money into the race, indicted the rest of the field as “celebrities and politicians,” with not enough separation from Newsom. He and Kiley both invoked Newsom's November 2020 dinner with a lobbyist friend at the French Laundry — Cox had campaigned outside of the restaurant — and Cox went after the Newsom administration for crafting language that protected PG&E, the state's energy giant, from legal accountability for forest fires.

“This erodes trust,” Cox said. “And when people don't have trust in their leadership, they don't listen to leaders when the leaders tell them that they should do something.”

That was the night's only mention of the PG&E story; the French Laundry dinner was mentioned twice. More time was spent on Newsom's new vaccine mandates for health-care workers and many school employees, which have polled well and become the focus of the governor's anti-recall ads. Every candidate onstage, including Paffrath, departed from Newsom on the policy. 

“The mandates didn't exist until a week or two ago, we're the only state that has them, and they haven't even gone into effect yet,” Kiley said. “So it's clearly a campaign issue.”

The debate finished with an issue that conservatives, not Newsom, had pushed into the race: Whether candidates would accept the vote count. Orrin Heattie, the conservative activist who filed the successful recall petition, warned this month that the state's law allowing some voters to print ballots at home could cast doubt on the outcome. “We are absolutely going to look closely at things like that which are suspicious,” Heattie had told Yahoo! News. On Wednesday night, before the recall candidates walked onto the debate stage, Fox News's Tucker Carlson hoped that “election observers” were watching the count, and that if Newsom were not recalled — polling currently shows the recall failing narrowly — something suspicious might have happened.

Asked about trusting the results, Kiley quibbled with the premise. “There is a lawsuit right now to try to cancel the election and there are people in Gavin Newsom's inner circle who seem to be supportive of this effort,” Kiley said, referring to an effort to find the recall unconstitutional. “They have tried every step of the way to delegitimize the recall. They called it the California coup. And indeed, Gavin Newsom himself signed a bill to change California law a couple of months ago to allow the date of the election to be moved to the date where he thought he had the best chance of winning. And so there is no doubt that this election has the scales have been tilted in favor of the incumbent here. And I think that's why a lot of people distrust our election process.”

In the states

Georgia. After months of speculation and planning, former football star Herschel Walker entered the 2022 race against Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), issuing a video and statement that were largely focused on his small town roots.

“The politicians pit American against American, rich versus poor, Black versus White, urban versus rural,” Walker, a Republican, says in the launch video, calling himself a “conservative” but avoiding specific mentions of Warnock or the Biden administration. “I don't believe in that garbage.”

Walker's candidacy was a personal project for Donald Trump, who met the 59-year old when he was playing for the short-lived United States Football League, before joining the NFL. Some Republicans, who've watched Trump's endorsement basically seal primary wins for other candidates, quickly got behind Walker; Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter abandoned his exploration of a possible Senate bid, saying Walker would challenge “the radical Left, Big Tech, woke corporations and their socialist agenda.” 

But there's also trepidation about a Walker bid, as there has been over Trump's support for Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) in North Carolina's 2022 race. Some conservative commentators worry that Walker's self-disclosed mental health struggles and a messy 2001 divorce will be weaknesses in a matchup with Warnock, though the Democrat overcame his own ugly divorce to win last year. (Warnock's ex-wife accused him of running over her foot in his car, which he denied; Walker's ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, accused him of being abusive and threatening to kill her. Walker hasn't responded to questions about the divorce.) 

Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Ga.) who was boosted by a 2018 Trump endorsement but angered the ex-president when he didn't overturn Biden's 2020 Georgia win, told the Associated Press that there were “a lot of questions” about Walker; questions not asked about other Republicans in the race, like state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. Like Trump, Walker had also challenged the integrity of the 2020 election, suggesting at one point that the states that took more than a day to be called for Biden or Trump hold new elections.

“Instead of us fighting and going to court, why don’t we have Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin vote again?” Walker tweeted last November. “We can have it done within a week, and maintain our democracy.” 

Virginia. Republicans have filed a lawsuit in the state's 13th Judicial Circuit to remove Democratic nominee and former governor Terry McAuliffe from this year's gubernatorial ballot, arguing that his missing signature from a candidate filing form in the June primary disqualifies him from running at all. Their evidence: The form itself, which contains the witness signatures of two McAuliffe staffers, but not the candidate's own signature. 

“The Republican Party of Virginia is seeking declaratory relief that the Declaration of Candidacy must be declared legally insufficient and McAuliffe must be disqualified from appearing on any general election ballot in accordance with Virginia law,” the party said in a statement. “The RPV has further requested injunctive relief that stops the SBE from printing McAuliffe’s name on any ballots for the November 2021 general election.”

McAuliffe's campaign quickly scoffed at lawsuit, with spokeswoman Christina Freundlich saying the “campaign submitted the required paperwork” and that the GOP was making “a desperate Trumpian move” to cancel the vote “because Terry is consistently leading in the polls.” Virginia has one of the country's most generous early voting laws, allowing ballots to be cast 45 days before the election — just three weeks from today. Absentee ballot requests start even sooner. Virginia election statutes aren't very generous to candidates who are disqualified, though write-in candidates can file with the state to have those voters counted. That's not an option the Democrats want to consider, and they'd rather knock this out in court.

Countdown

… 19 days until California's recall election
… 68 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District
… 128 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District