In this edition: The slow death of the swing seat, debate echoes in New Jersey and Virginia, and a boom market in anti-Kyrsten Sinema PACs.

Please don't make me write about an August 2024 primary until at least next month. This is The Trailer.

Just three states have approved new congressional maps for the next decade: Oregon, Maine and Nebraska. Forty-one states are still crowded around the drawing board.

But the patterns, and their political impacts, are already obvious. Where one party controls the process, it’s creating as little competition as mathematically possible. Where the power’s been handed to a nonpartisan commission, the maps may be more competitive than ever. 

“They’ve always gerrymandered the state, but now they’re really going for it,” said former Oregon congressman Greg Walden. The Democratic-drawn map colored his old seat a deeper shade of red, while drawing five blue seats anchored in liberal cities — “creating these highways into Portland,” Walden said.

Republicans are suing to stop that map from going into effect, but the same math used by Democrats to grow their congressional delegation is being used by Texas Republicans to grow theirs. In every state, over the past 10 years, big cities and suburbs grew more Democratic, while exurbs and rural areas grew more Republican. 

Republicans now see a risk in drawing too many suburban precincts into their safe seats, and Democrats are drawing maps on the expectation that the suburbs keep trending left. If it’s possible to split up a city without risking a Voting Rights Act violation — specifically, by not creating enough non-White majority seats — Republicans are going for it. If a city and its suburbs are growing steadily, Democratic precincts are divvied up to create more seats that are either safe already, or trending in that direction.

In Texas, state Senate Republicans have advanced a map that would reduce the number of competitive seats from nearly a dozen to perhaps just two, by rerouting suburban precincts into Democratic districts. The party’s last map, after some legal challenges, drew 24 safely Republican seats, 11 safely Democratic seats and one swing seat stretching along most of the Rio Grande Valley. 

By 2020, two of those seats — the 7th Congressional District near Houston, and the 32nd District in the northeast Dallas sprawl — were gone. Eleven more, which had voted for John McCain by more than 20 points in 2008, saw the 2020 election decided by single digits. Each shifted for the same reasons, population growth and college-educated voters leaving the GOP. One of the party’s boldest moves, carving multiple Republican seats out of the deep blue Austin metropolitan area, came incredibly close to backfiring.

The likely new map fixed that by creating a new safe Democratic seat in Austin, then shoring up every Republican seat around it with conservative precincts. It did the same in Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, transforming the 7th and 32nd districts into safe blue seats. The 24th district, narrowly won by Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R) last year, had shifted 27 points left from 2011 to 2020. The new seat, removing majority-Latino precincts and packing them into a Democratic seat, should be easy for Van Duyne to hold.

“It’s a disincentive for national Democrats who were thinking of competing in Texas,” said Abhi Rahman, a Democratic strategist and former party spokesman in the state. Rapid growth in the Dallas-Fort Worth area could make a couple of those seats competitive, he said, but not until much later in the decade.

Democrats, who failed to flip state legislatures in red states last year and gain some influence over redistricting, had expected this to happen. Given the choice between hypocrisy and limiting their congressional power, they've opted for hypocrisy, defending maps that draw more Democratic strength from cities and suburbs by saying that they accurately reflect what's growing, and what's shrinking. 

“If you look at New York, if you look at the population shifts in New York, New York is even more urban than it was, there are much fewer rural votes,” former attorney general Eric Holder told reporters on a call last week organized by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “You would expect a decrease of Republican seats. That’s not a function of gerrymandering. That is a function of the number of people there, their partisan proclivities.”

But where nonpartisan commissions are drawing the maps, people with no particular stake in who controls Congress are finding it easy to draw competitive districts. In Colorado, where voters handed the redistricting process to a committee, draft maps keep the city of Denver mostly inside of the 1st District; doing so, and not drawing from its precincts to make other seats bluer, leaves the increasingly Democratic state with two swing seats and six safe seats divided evenly between the parties.

Reading list

If it's late September of an off-year, Democrats are getting worried about Virginia.

Why Kasim Reed is on the comeback trail.

Schools, abortion, crime and other fun.

It's looking less likely that Trump will be reinstalled as president in September.

The California strategy in a much bluer state.

Democrats distance themselves from activists to hold their suburban gains.

On the trail

Tuesday's gubernatorial debates in New Jersey and Virginia started tense and stayed that way, with both Democrats linking their opponents to a far right led by former president Donald Trump and both Republicans accusing their opponents of lying to paper over disastrous records.

“My opponent tonight will say untruths about me, my plan, his record and his extreme views," Virginia GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin said less than a minute into his debate with Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe. “That's what 40-year politicians do.”

That debate, and the face-off between Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Republican Jack Ciattarelli, revealed how much the Democratic Party in both states had shifted to the left, confident that it could win that way — while making some appeals to voters worried about taxes and spending. Both defended the liberal legislation passed in their states since 2017, like the legalization of marijuana. And both warned that their Republican opponents were play-acting as moderates.

“I feel sometimes my opponent is running for governor of Texas,” Murphy said, warning that Ciattarelli would reverse the state's gun safety laws.

“He wants to bring Trump-style politics to Virginia, and we're not going to allow it," said McAuliffe, warning that Youngkin would alienate potential businesses if his antiabortion views were turned into law.

Both Republicans, without distancing themselves from Trump, said that invoking the former president was a distraction. Youngkin told a somewhat labored joke about the Vegas odds on how many times McAuliffe would invoke Trump. “It was 10," he said, “and you just busted through it.” After Murphy mentioned Trump just twice, Ciattarelli said that anyone taking a shot whenever the governor mentioned the ex-president ”stop real soon because they're going to be bombed." 

When he could, Ciattarelli turned the discussion back to Murphy, repeatedly calling him accountable for deaths in nursing homes during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. When Murphy invoked the Jan. 6 insurrection and his opponent's appearance at a “Stop the Steal” event, he added that “people died" while rioting to overturn the 2020 election.

“You mean like the people in the nursing homes?” Ciattarelli asked.

Youngkin's campaign was most happy about an exchange on schooling, after the Republican repeatedly criticized McAuliffe for not allowing parents to get books they found objectionable removed from school libraries. “I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said. “I get really tired of everybody running down teachers.” In the moment, Youngkin muttered under his breath; after the debate, his campaign put out a digital ad capturing McAuliffe's answer and remarks from parents at a Fairfax County school board meeting, complaining about books with sexual content.

Ad watch

Terry McAuliffe, “Just the Facts.” The Virginia Democrat keeps focusing on vaccine mandates as his wedge against Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, and continues to rely on behind-the-scenes clips of his opponent to argue that he's two-faced. “He's encouraging people not to get vaccinated,” a narrator warns, cueing up audio from a June event when Youngkin said he did encourage people who did not want the vaccine to sign an exception policy. It's the second use of that clip by the Democrats.

Glenn Youngkin, “Terry McAuliffe's Bad Deals Are Bad for Virginia.” McAuliffe's 2014 to 2018 stint as governor has been an asset for his campaign, allowing him to talk concretely about jobs he brought to the state. This spot goes after one of the former governor's mistakes, a deal to bring a China-based company's factory to Appomattox, which wasted $1.4 million of state grants on what turned out to be a scam. 

Winsome Sears, “Hope & Future.” The first Black woman nominated for lieutenant governor in Virginia, Sears won the GOP's mixed convention process in an upset, with ads that showed her holding a rifle and promising to “stop voter fraud.” Her paid media is far less base-focused. This spot starts with a quick hit on Democratic nominee Del. Hala S. Ayala, from the left — accusing her of letting energy bills spike because of her donations from the industry. There's no conservative red meat after that, just a focus on jobs and how she wants to “ensure that our children have a good education.”

Kasim Reed, “A Mayor's Responsibility.” The two-term Atlanta mayor is seeking a comeback on Nov. 2, and he's based it on his record combatting crime: It dropped precipitously starting in his first term, and jumped up after he left. (Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who succeeded Reed, is not seeking reelection.) Unlike a lot of crime-focused ads, this one contains no scary images of sirens or mugshots, just Reed going to a playground with his family and promising to reopen after-school centers "When I was fortunate enough to lead this city, we went after things," Reed says. “That's the city we've got to get back to being again.” 

Tim Keller, “Hurdles.” The Democratic mayor of Albuquerque is facing reelection on Nov. 2, and opponents have largely attacked him over crime, which has risen since his 2017 victory, and quality of life. Keller's spot turns the spotlight on his covid-19 response, which has been popular, dramatized here by a runner vaulting over hurdles to represent everything from “mobile wifi for remote learning” to free meals. “I'll never let up,” says Keller, describing his goal as getting “everyone vaccinated.”

Poll watch

New Jersey governor (Stockton, 552 likely voters)

Phil Murphy (D): 50%
Jack Ciattarelli (R): 41%

The university's first poll of this race is the first to show a single-digit gap between the Democratic governor and his challenger; private polling released by Ciattarelli has shown it closer. A dynamic that played out in California's recall election is playing out here, too, with supermajorities of voters favoring vaccine and mask mandates, but fewer voters approving of the governor's performance overall. (Even a vaccine mandate for dining at a restaurant is supported by most voters, albeit narrowly.) By a 1-point margin, voters say the state is heading in the wrong direction, but the Republican nominee trails on too many issues to capitalize on that, and some voters unhappy with how things are going say they'll stick with Murphy.

Terry McAuliffe (D): 48%
Glenn Youngkin (R): 41%

At his final debate with McAuliffe, Youngkin said that the Democrat was panicking because his Republican rival was “leading in the polls.” Only one public poll, from the University of Mary Washington, has found McAuliffe trailing among likely voters, but it's not that simple, as different voter screens find wildly different results. This poll looks at a far more Democratic-leaning pool of voters, with 41 percent of survey respondents identifying as supporters of the party; even in the record high turnout of 2020, exit pollsters found only 36 percent of Virginians identifying as Democrats. If the November electorate does look like this, with most Virginians believing the state is on the right track and viewing McAuliffe favorably, Democrats have nothing to worry about. 

“The new abortion law in Texas is enforced by allowing private citizens to sue anyone they suspect may have helped an abortion take place after a fetal heartbeat is detectable. Do you think allowing private citizens to enforce the law instead of the state is a good idea or a bad idea?” (Quinnipiac, 1,020 adults)

Bad idea: 72%
Good idea: 21%

This New York-based pollster over-rated some Democratic candidates' support last year, but its September polls of Texas voters find an electorate that has soured on Joe Biden – realistic in Texas – without embracing the entire Republican agenda in Austin. The inventiveness that protected the state's abortion law from the Supreme Court is also unpopular, with every voting demographic opposed to the citizen enforcement mechanism as described by Quinnipiac. The broadest support comes from self-identified White evangelicals, of whom just 37 percent favor the idea of citizens suing other citizens over their abortions. There's far more support for other anti-abortion policies, with 45 percent of voters ready to ban abortions after six weeks, which is the goal of the complicated new law.

"Please indicate your impression of Arizona's senators." (OH Predictive Insights, 882 registered voters)

Kyrsten Sinema (D)
Favorable: 46%
Unfavorable: 39%
No opinion: 12%

Mark Kelly (D)
Favorable: 47%
Unfavorable: 43%
No opinion: 9%

Kelly is up for re-election in 2022. Sinema isn't. Sinema made liberal activists furious by opposing the $15 minimum wage and withholding her support from the Democrats' budget reconciliation bill. Kelly did none of that. Arizona voters have noticed: Sinema is viewed favorably by only 55 percent of Democrats, but an unusually robust 40 percent of Republicans. Kelly's support is polarized, with 80 percent favorable rating from Democrats and a 20 percent rating from Republicans. While Kelly has sought out moments to contrast his agenda with Biden's, Sinema has done far more of it, and slashed away at the radical portrait the GOP painted of her in 2018.

She won just 12 percent of Republican votes that year, comparable to the 11 percent Kelly won two years later, but he's consolidated Democratic support while she's lost it. What does it mean for liberals who want to unseat her? Sinema is in the same position that the late John McCain was after 2008, when conservatives began to target him. In 2010 and 2016, McCain faced primary challengers from his right, winning with 56 percent and 52 percent of the vote. But he won nearly 90 percent of Republicans in the general elections, and his support from Democrats and independents made him impossible to beat.

In the states

Texas. Former Trump health and human services chief of staff Brian Harrison won Tuesday's election in the 10th state House District, just four months after getting locked out of the runoff in the 6th Congressional District. That race got vicious, and so did Tuesday's, with former state representative John Wray accusing Harrison of smearing him and Harrison calling that a ruse.

Both candidates ran as conservatives; Harrison, who repurposed some of his outsider messaging from the May, argued at the outset that Wray would be one of the least conservative Republicans in Austin. (Scorecard groups like Empower Texas had regularly listed him as such.) After an endorsement from Sen. Ted Cruz (R) helped Harrison win the most votes in the multi-candidate primary, he suggested that Wray, who had not sought re-election last year, bow to reality and forgo the runoff.

Wray went forward, with the support of Rep. Jake Ellzey, the new congressman from the 6th District who had briefly held the seat now on the ballot. The two candidates fought at first over policy, but in the final weeks, Wray accused Harrison of spreading rumors about his family and his decision to retire after three terms, alleging Harrison had a pattern of dirty campaigning. 

“Jake also faced countless false negative attacks in his race for Congress, but the voters ensured that the truth prevailed,” Wray tweeted after an appearance with the congressman.

Harrison denied any part in spreading rumors about Wray — another echo of the 6th District race, where texts accusing one candidate of murder went out before Election Day, with no campaign taking credit. On Sept. 23, Wray's campaign uploaded a video from the candidate's wife, denying but not naming “false, negative attacks and rumors about our family.” On Facebook, Harrison mocked the video for misstating the date of the election and questioned its honesty.

“What scandal did they think was going to come out?” Harrison wrote. “And isn’t it now clear they always intended to go negative and blame it on someone else? The Wray campaign is the most dishonest and cynical I’ve ever experienced.” The outsider Harrison won soundly, capturing 6,717 of 12,129 votes,

On Wednesday, former Republican strategist Matthew Dowd launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, telling the Texas Tribune that he was moved to run after the Jan. 6 insurrection — and by the role Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) played in passing legislation that limited abortion rights and restricted voting access.

“When the electric grid failed here in Texas, he didn't protect us,” Dowd said in a short announcement video. “With health-care costs out of control, Texas's lieutenant governor waged a culture war, decimating Roe. v. Wade and targeting the diversity of our state.”

Another Republican-turned-Democrat, Mike Collier, was already in the race, seeking another try at Patrick after losing to him by 6 points in 2018. “When you get close, and it’s taken a whole lot of work to get close, you expect others to jump in,” Collier said in an interview. “But it doesn’t influence how it’ll affect us. I kept that infrastructure in place from the 2018 campaign and I enhanced it when I served as a Biden adviser.”

Wisconsin. Two Republican legislators in Madison proposed eliminating statewide elections for three roles that the party has struggled to win recently: Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Superintendent of Public Instruction. State Rep. Shae Sortwell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Molly Beck that the jobs would have “more responsibility and more accountability” if they were gubernatorial appointments instead, an argument Democrats quickly rejected.

“Instead of meddling with our state's constitution, the Republican-led legislature should be working to pass meaningful kitchen table policies,” state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski said Wednesday.

Godlewski is now running for U.S. Senate. All three roles have less power than similarly-named jobs in most other states; Secretary of State Doug La Follette has no role in election management (a separate commission handles that) and the GOP backed a 2018 ballot measure that would have eliminated the elected treasurer, an office held at the time by a Republican. While the superintendent of public instruction is a nonpartisan job, a candidate opposed by educator unions and endorsed by former governor Scott Walker lost it soundly this year. And Republicans in the legislature have undermined Gov. Tony Evers (D) by refusing to confirm some Cabinet picks or allowing Republican holdovers to stay in some jobs beyond the end of their terms, making Democrats more cynical.

Dems in disarray

Last week, there weren't any organizations dedicated to defeating Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in a 2024 primary. Now, there are three: A Primary Sinema PAC built by a major liberal donor collective, a “Run Ruben Run” campaign to draft Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) into the 2024 race and a CrowdPAC campaign with the arguably less catchy name "Either Sinema Votes to End the Filibuster OR We Fund a Primary Challenger."

“Our message is clear,” said the latter group's co-founder, Kai Newkirk, in a statement. "Listen to your base, join your party, back Biden's agenda, and help remove the filibuster as an obstacle to the urgent legislation Arizonans need."

The senator has ignored the criticism of her voters and her stance on the budget reconciliation package, which she gotten into specifics about in any public setting. She avoided a 2018 primary challenge, which Gallego considered, largely by building a massive campaign war chest. But she has begun to take more flack from Democrats and liberals who worry that failure to pass large parts of the Biden agenda would give Democrats nothing to show voters next year; over the weekend, Arizona Democrats passed a resolution criticizing her role in slowing down the reconciliation process.

“If she continues to delay, disrupt, or votes to gut the Reconciliation Package of its necessary funding, then the Arizona Democratic Party State Committee will go officially on record and will give Senate Sinema a vote of NO CONFIDENCE," it read.

Gallego is not involved in the draft campaign, launched by Nuestro PAC, a Latino political group founded by 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign strategist Chuck Rocha. Asked about it via text message, Gallego replied, “Oh boy," and asked about the feedback this week, Rocha said it was “all positive so far,” with an emphasis on the last two words.

“I’m attending a DSCC fundraiser next week,” he said. “That should be fun!”

The other groups are made up of both local and national Sinema critics, from people who worked to elect her in 2018 to national donors and activists focused on the fate of the entire party. The California-based Way to Win donor group, which poured tens of millions of dollars into grass-roots groups and campaigns last year, is behind Primary Sinema. "The people of Arizona voted for Joe Biden and the Biden agenda," Way to Win co-founder Leah Hunt-Hendrix told NBC News. 

Countdown

… 33 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 103 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District