In this edition: The GOP finally defines Biden, Republicans revise their election audit plans in swing states, and the latest on California recall turnout.

The Buffalo Party is dead, long live the Connecticut for Lieberman Party. This is The Trailer.

He didn’t make Republican voters furious, like Hillary Clinton used to. He couldn’t drum up massive crowds of liberal voters, like Barack Obama used to. Put Joe Biden’s face on a piece of merchandise, and conservative activists would walk right past it to buy something else.

That was before the end of the war in Afghanistan, and before the suicide bombings that killed 12 U.S. Marines and one Navy medic. In speeches and TV ads, on talk radio and Twitter, conservative anger at Biden has cohered into a simple critique: He’s an old man who can’t handle a job that he didn't really earn. 

“Is Joe Biden capable of discharging the duties of his office or has time come to exercise the provisions of the 25th Amendment?” asked Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the Senate GOP's campaign committee.

“It is now clear beyond all doubt that he has neither the capacity nor the will to lead,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who had previously criticized Biden for not ordering the withdrawal sooner.

“That feckless, dementia-ridden piece of crap just sent my son to die,” said Kathy McCollum, the mother of one of the murdered Marines, in an interview on SiriusXM's conservative lineup, shared widely by conservatives over the weekend.

Biden's opponents had joked for years about his intellect and competence; Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host and Washington Post columnist, dubbed him “Slow Joe” when Biden, now 78, was in his early 60s. Donald Trump's 2020 campaign, unafraid to elevate arguments from conservative media, made Biden's age and “fitness” into a campaign issue, with ads that unsubtly warned that the Democrat was “fading.”

It wasn't enough to beat Biden, and Trump's own erratic behavior ended up neutralizing the issue. According to the 2020 exit poll, 41 percent of voters said Biden alone had the “physical and mental health” to serve, and 41 percent said the same of Trump. Eight percent of voters believed both candidates were sharp enough to be president, and they broke for the Democrat. The Trump campaign's obsession with Biden's schedule was never shared by swing voters. It likely lowered the bar for Biden's performances in the two televised debates, both solid enough to neutralize the issue. 

Even now, Biden's critics may be going further with their criticism and amateur diagnoses than swing voters are. Polling has found most Americans still supportive of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, focusing their anger on how it was handled. Some of the most viral stories about Biden's health have been faked, too, like a blurry video that falsely claimed to show Biden sleeping during a meeting with Israel's prime minister. (It was at least the third time that a video of Biden looking down had been repackaged as a video of him “falling asleep.”)

Stories like that used to be included in a jumble of anti-Biden clips and stories, never cohering or sticking. For most of this year, Biden himself wasn't an effective foil in Republican advertising, which more frequently linked Democrats to their far-left House members, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

This has begun to change. Trump's Save America PAC, which has piled up money but done little advertising, pushed out a video last week that showed Biden tripping on the stairs of Air Force One and ended with him saying “uh, uh” in the middle of a sentence. A small digital buy from the Club for Growth starts with CBS News reporter Ed O'Keefe telling Biden that Americans no longer consider him “competent, focused and effective.” At rallies, like an anti-vaccine mandate gathering outside Los Angeles's city hall this month, conservatives can buy shirts that picture Obama, Trump and Biden in a row, representing “No Jobs,” “Great Jobs,” and “What's My Job?”

Two themes run through all of this, both of which Biden's critics were already primed to agree with. One is that the mainstream media and the Democratic Party forced an unready Biden on the country, probably illegally.

“The most patriotic thing Jill Biden could have done was tell her husband, to love her husband, and not let him run in the mental state that he is in,” Fox News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy said last week, an insult that got more attention because the first lady's office denounced it.

Another theme is patriotic fury, which exploded across talk radio after the Aug. 28 attacks in Kabul. It resembles the long-running Republican campaign of outrage over the Sep. 11, 2012, attack on America's consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which Trump embraced, bringing veterans and the mother of a dead soldier onstage at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Democrats were hesitant to blame Trump personally, much less call for his resignation, after members of the military were killed in action. That's not the mood on the right.

“The deaths of those Marines, the deaths of that naval medic, are on your hands, Joe Biden,” former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka told his listeners last Thursday. “You filthy, putrid, excuse for a man. The only legacy you will ever have is to surrendered to the jihadists who want to kill all of us.”

These themes can overlap. Robert O'Neill, a Navy SEAL credited with shooting Osama bin Laden, went on Fox News last week to say that he and “nine guys” could rescue every American still in Afghanistan: “I'm going to walk through the streets and I'm gonna kill everyone I see, and I'm gonna grab the Americans.” Why couldn't there be such a clear response from the current president? “We have,” O'Neill explained, a commander in chief that was put there through whatever happened at four in the morning on election night.

Reading list

Are the Democrats still betting on the president's brand?

Could another woman of color unseat the city's first Black female mayor?

A funny thing happened on the way to the quorum. 

Why the party's picking fewer favorites than it did in the last few cycles.

California Democrats are still cool to the idea of a “plan B.”

What happened when Republicans huddled for a call to Trump?

Audit nation

It's been 301 days since the 2020 election, 130 days since a Republican-led effort to audit ballots began in Arizona and eight days since the firm handling that audit was expected to hand in its report. But in two other states, Republican legislators are forging ahead with partisan reviews of the last presidential election, with Democratic governors looking on angrily from the sidelines.

“Apparently they're all drinking the Kool-Aid,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) told reporters Friday, after a committee in the Republican-led Assembly in Madison approved a $680,000 budget for a probe of the 2020 election.

That probe will be led by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced at the state GOP convention three months ago. Vos has moved under pressure from conservative activists, expanding the scale of a probe that was initially expected to cost less than one-tenth as much.

“Many questions have been raised about the November election that expose weaknesses and faults in our current election system,” Vos said in an Aug. 1 statement. “It has become clear that a top-to-bottom investigation will take longer than initially anticipated and will require more manpower to complete.” 

Just like Vos's initial announcement was made to a room full of Republicans, the cost of the expanded probe was announced to a partisan audience former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, a former GOP chair in the state, gave the $680,000 figure to former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, on his podcast.

“We believe a cyber-forensic audit is necessary to ensure issues did not happen in 2020,” Vos said in a statement, following Priebus's announcement. Other Republicans have used the term “cyber-forensic audit” to refer to a scouring of voter machines used in 2020, but not every Republican thinks that would be fruitful. In a short interview with Lauren Windsor, a reporter and activist who has recently specialized in getting short on-camera interviews with Republicans who are not sure who they're talking to, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sounded dismissive of questions about election software and machinery.

“I come from the accounting world. An audit is what you define it to be,” Johnson told Windsor. “People think that there’s some magic thing called a forensic audit. In my mind, I know what things I’d concentrate on. And I’ll tell you, the last thing I’d focus on would be the machines.”

In Pennsylvania, Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano was stripped of the committee chairmanship he'd been using to engineer a probe of the 2020 election. But it wasn't because Republican leaders wanted the audit drive to stop. Mastriano, who traveled to Phoenix to view the audit and bring information back to Pennsylvania, was replaced by Cris Dush, another member of the GOP majority who has questioned the integrity of the election.

Nobody in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can tell you who the winner was in any of these races from November 2020,” Dush told PennLive reporter Jan Murphy. Republicans picked up two state offices from Democrats that year, while Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, won reelection.

Mastriano was sidelined after some embarrassing setbacks for his own election probe, such as a request for data from three counties some Republican-controlled, some Democratic-controlled which blew him off. Last week, the state senator told One America News that Republican leaders had scuttled an Aug. 6 meeting he'd planned to issue subpoenas to those county election offices. That led to his removal and the arrival of Dush.

Nothing like this is happening in Colorado, where Democrats control the legislature. But on Monday, Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, sued to prevent a Mesa County clerk from taking any role in the next election after private data from the county was obtained and broadcast at the “cyber symposium” hosted earlier this month by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. 

“It fits into the national attack on democracy we’re seeing,” Griswold said in an interview, before the lawsuit was announced. “The “big lie” is getting bigger. More and more election officials are spreading it.”

Ad watch

Stop the Republican Recall, “Bernie.” California Democrats continue to see the Sep. 14 recall election as a turnout game: What can motivate their base to return ballots? An ad that ran before mail ballots were sent out featured Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is most popular with college-educated White liberals. This spot focuses on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who won the state's 2020 presidential primary and is especially popular with younger Latino voters, an electorate Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) has struggled to reach. “The last thing we need is to have some right-wing Republican governor in California,” Sanders says. Stop the Republican Recall simultaneously released another ad, focusing on vaccine mandates, which Democrats see as an issue that reaches voters outside their base.

Larry Elder, “Gloria Romero.” Elder, a longtime advocate of school vouchers and charter schools, has made them a focus of his recall campaign. Romero, a former Democratic state senator who led the party during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's last term, appears here as a bipartisan school choice advocate. “He shut our public schools while he sent his kids to private school,” she says. “Yes, I'm a Democrat, but the recall of Gavin Newsom isn't about political parties.” Other, more moderate Republicans echo Elder's stance on vouchers, but polling has found them far behind Elder.

Jack Ciattarelli, “Not A Priority.” The Republican nominee for governor of New Jersey continues to remind voters of political problems Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) was fighting off before the pandemic began. (Murphy's handling of that crisis has boosted his poll numbers.) Two years ago, a former Murphy campaign volunteer named Katie Brennan accused a Murphy strategist of rape, and an investigation found that Murphy's aides were slow to respond. She settled with the Democrat and the state for $1 million 15 months ago, and this ad plays back her public testimony to state legislators, which led to that settlement. Brennan herself isn't enthused. “I was not asked,” she told NJ Spotlight. “It looks like a tacit endorsement of the campaign, which is not my intention.”

Glenn Youngkin, “No Limit.” Like Ciattarelli, Youngkin is using paid media to remind voters of a controversy they might have forgotten over the last two years. In early 2019, Democratic Del. Kathy Tran proposed a doomed bill to roll back Virginia's limits on late-term abortions; Republicans portrayed that as “infanticide,” especially after Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) gave an interview clinically describing what happens to “a fetus that’s not viable.” The ad resurrects an April 2019 interview McAuliffe gave defending the “common sense bill” and saying Tran had been misrepresented. “Too extreme for Virginia,” a narrator says. Earlier, Youngkin, the GOP nominee for governor, is pictured holding a baby.

Poll watch

Terry McAuliffe (D): 47%
Glenn Youngkin (R): 42%

Monmouth's first look at the Nov. 2 election in Virginia finds the same top-line numbers that other pollsters did this month: A lead for the former Democratic governor, dancing on the margin of error. Youngkin's ad campaign, which spent millions introducing him as a businessman (a former Carlyle Group co-president) who worked himself up from nothing, has helped him get known quickly. Thirty-seven percent of voters view him favorably, while 27 percent view him unfavorably. 

McAuliffe's numbers are positive, but more polarized: 39 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable. But by a 12-point margin, voters say they trust the ex-governor over Youngkin to “handle the covid pandemic,” and by a five-point margin, they trust McAuliffe more on “education and schools.” Youngkin has a two-point lead over McAuliffe on handling “jobs and the economy,” but issues like how schools teach about racism, which has galvanized conservative voters, haven't really changed the electorate. In the two other statewide races, for lieutenant governor and attorney general, Democrats lead within the margin of error and fewer voters are familiar with their choices.

Money watch

California recall

Californians are returning their recall ballots at a torrid pace ahead of the Sept. 14 election, and registered Democrats continue to make up the majority of the earliest vote. 

As of Monday evening, nearly 3.8 million ballots had been received by election officials, according to the state and Political Data Inc., which has been tracking the returns. That's not far off the numbers from this point two weeks out in the 2020 presidential election, when nearly 4 million ballots had already been returned. 

The recall electorate is only slightly less Democratic than the one that delivered a 29-point landslide for Joe Biden. In mid-October 2020, 56 percent of ballots had been returned by Democrats, 21 percent by Republicans and 23 percent by voters registered with third parties or no party. The numbers on Monday: 54 percent Democratic, 24 percent Republican and 22 percent from everybody else. The SurveyUSA poll from early August, the only one to find a lead for “yes” on the recall, sampled an electorate with a narrower 15-point Democratic advantage.

A Democratic ballot is not necessarily a Newsom ballot. Polling that's found the recall with a shot at ousting Newsom has found up to 1 in 5 registered Democrats willing to vote “yes,” and the Democratic Governors Association put another $1.5 million into the pro-Newsom “Stop the Republican Recall” campaign last week, on top of the $3 million it had already invested. The “no” campaign has raised $62 million, with no caps on what donors can give; overall, the “no” side continues to outspend the “yes” side by a 2-to-1 margin.

The idea that Newsom is being led around by donors and labor unions is central to the GOP case for removing him, but that message hasn't always broken through — especially as fires in northern California have led to mass evacuations nearby and declining air quality hundreds of miles away. Polls still show conservative radio host Larry Elder easily leading the field of Newsom replacements.

In the states

New York. Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown won't appear on the Nov. 2 ballot after the Erie County Board of Elections voted not to let the four-term incumbent run as the nominee of a new “Buffalo Party.” His campaign submitted more than 3,500 signatures to qualify for the general election in late August, long after the May 25 deadline for independent and third party candidates had passed.

“Obviously to have your name on the ballot when people go to vote, they see the name, and that’s easier for folks, but we’re pursuing a dual course,” Brown told the Buffalo News on Friday.

Brown lost a June primary to activist India Walton, then quickly launched a write-in campaign for reelection: “Write Down Byron Brown.” He'd launched the ballot drive weeks later, calling it a “dual course” strategy. As Geoff Kelly reported in the Investigative Post, nearly a third of the signatures were witnessed by conservatives or Republican activists. That wasn't a big surprise — Brown has courted Republican voters, who don't have their own candidate on the ballot.

What did surprise Walton's campaign was that Brown made such a doomed gambit for a ballot line. The deadline for independent candidates is linked to primary dates. Under New York's old election schedule, federal primaries were held in June; state, city and county primaries were held in September. The filing cutoff for both primaries came a few weeks earlier. Democrats captured the state Senate in 2018 and changed the law, consolidating both state and federal primaries on a single day in June.

But Brown was not finished after the board of elections weighed in. He sued the board, arguing in a brief “that a deadline for independent nominating petitions twenty-three weeks before a general election is not rationally based.” Months earlier, the very same statute was used to deny Walton the Working Families Party ballot line — a decision that Brown did not sue over.

Kansas. Former governor Jeff Colyer abandoned his 2022 campaign for governor on Monday, saying in a statement that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and reevaluated his priorities.

“While I have always focused on helping others, for the next few weeks I am going to focus on my health,” said Colyer, a Republican who held the office after former governor Sam Brownback left to join the Trump administration in 2018. Colyer ran for a full term that year, losing the GOP nomination to then-Secretary of State Kris Kobach by just 390 votes, or a 10th of a percentage point, in a race where several teenage boys exploiting a loophole in the state's election law collected 7,047 votes. Kobach went on to lose handily to Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat.

Colyer's decision was a boon for three-term Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a conservative Republican who supported the Texas-led lawsuit to challenge President Biden's victories in four swing states. Schmidt and Colyer had dominated the early chase for donors and endorsements, with the GOP's leadership in the state House and Senate backing Schmidt, along with former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.

California. Voters in an East Bay state Assembly district will pick a replacement for Attorney General Rob Bonta, between two Democrats: Alameda School Board President Mia Bonta and attorney Janani Ramachandran. The new AG has endorsed his wife, who got 38 percent of the vote in the election's first round, to just 24 percent for Ramachandran. In the runoff, Ramachandran has called Bonta the candidate of “corporate Democrats” who never dig in to solve the area's housing crisis.

Our political leaders at the state and local level, particularly at the state level, love to try to throw money at the problem for the photo ops and hope it goes away, she said at a debate hosted by KQED. Bonta has outraised Ramachandran and used that same debate to point out that one of Ramachandran's left-leaning endorsers, the Alameda Citizens Task Force, had actually lobbied to shrink a proposal for more housing units. The result won't affect the balance of power in Sacramento, where the Democratic supermajority passed new legislation to allow greater housing density this week.

Countdown

… 14 days until California's recall election
… 63 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District
… 123 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District