In this edition: Andrew Yang joins the third-party movement, ballot measure advocates mobilize in the states, and conservatives double down on the schools issue in Virginia.

The newsletter that's confident you'll read “ballot measure” and not click over to something else: this is The Trailer.

Andrew Yang had come to City Winery with good news — he had “found the fix” to stop America from “literally going insane.” It was a third party, the Forward Party, that would change how elections work and force Democrats and Republicans to compete with something else.

“We're going to unite reform-minded Democrats, independents, and reform-minded Republicans to build this unifying popular positive movement, to realign our legislators' incentives so that they match up with ours,” Yang told his D.C. audience Wednesday night. “What do you all think, D.C.? That's the mystery.”

His audience, inside and outside the room, needed some convincing. Support for the Democratic and Republican parties surged in 2020, while the gains that third parties made in 2016 evaporated. High-profile efforts to shake up the two-party system have either burned out after one bad result or failed before they got one — from Ross Perot's presidential campaigns, to Howard Schultz's non-campaign, to the $35 million money pit called Americans Elect. Even a 2018 effort to elect independents in down-ballot races, sidestepping voter worries about “spoiling” a presidential election, came up winless.

Yang, who switched his party registration from Democrat to “independent” this week, argues that the climate has changed since then, thanks to a widening gulf between Democrats and Republicans. His new Forward Party, which will campaign to change ballot laws and allow more multiparty competition, assumes that there are voters that neither major party can win anymore, making it easier for a fringe faction to take power — a roundabout way of describing what happened to Republicans in 2016. Had Republicans used ranked-choice voting in their primaries that year, Yang says, another candidate probably would have beaten Donald Trump.

“The Democrats are becoming this party of institutions,” Yang said in an interview, pointing to recent polling on how few Republicans, and how many Democrats, trust the mainstream media. “The institutions have some problems. There are reasonable people who can look at and be like, 'Hey, I don't know if these are working so well.' ”

This isn't a new idea, as Yang admits. In “Forward,” the new campaign memoir that lays out his plan, Yang writes that “people don't listen to ideas,” but they do “listen to other people.” The evidence, he writes, is his own presidential campaign, which ended after the first two contests but transformed universal basic income from an idea neither party would touch to a mainstream part of covid-19 relief negotiations.

Yang was already in favor of ranked-choice voting, which allow people to select more than one candidate on their ballots, and open primaries, in which they don't need to be registered with a party to nominate its candidates. Maine and Alaska had already altered their elections to allow multiparty ranked-choice ballots, and there was already federal legislation, the Voter Choice Act, promising grants to states and local governments if they followed that lead. And Yang had participated in best-known test of ranked-choice voting — the Democratic primary for mayor, where he started with high name recognition but finished in fourth place.

“If I had won, I was going to say that, 'Hey, I'm an independent, and I'm starting the Forward Party,' ” Yang said. “There were two versions of the world, one where I was the mayor of New York City, and I planted that flag, and one where I am roaming the country building the party. We're in world number two.”

In states with traditional elections — whoever gets the most votes wins, whether or not they have a majority — third-party campaigns have rarely found ways to break through. In Virginia, Black police reform activist Princess Blanding formed a new Liberation Party this year and got on the ballot, running on an agenda she shorthanded, in an interview, as “housing for all, ensuring food sovereignty, and Medicare-for-all.” 

Blanding generally was ignored by the major parties and the media, until showing up at the second and final debate between Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe and Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin. Standing up from her seat in the audience, she claimed that her exclusion from the stage was “racist,” briefly shutting down the debate until she was removed. Pollsters have ignored her campaign entirely, and when they haven't, they've found no more than 2 percent of voters considering her as an option.

“Why would I run under the Democratic flag when they are doing the most harm to the most marginalized community members?” Blanding said in an interview, pointing to McAuliffe's refusal to roll back qualified immunity for police officers after suggesting during the Democratic primary that he might. “Because there's no strong third-party candidate, people are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.”

While Blanding said she saw a path to victory, and had already talked to some Democrats about working with her if she won, the Liberation Party campaign has not attracted much visible support in Virginia. In some cases, third-party candidates are exploited by major parties as ways to siphon votes from their opponents, either by running ads promoting real minor-party candidates or by setting up “paper” candidates. (Republicans have not done any of this in Virginia this year, though Youngkin could be heard saying “I agree” when Blanding argued for a place onstage.)

But in a multiparty ranked-choice system, where the “spoiler” factor does not exist, Blanding would be in a very different position. In states where one major party is simply not competitive — not the case in Virginia — some candidates argue that a new party or independent campaign can increase voters' effective choices from zero to one. Evan McMullin, a former CIA operative who ran for president as an anti-Trump independent in 2016, launched a U.S. Senate campaign in Utah this week, arguing that a binary choice between the state's dominant GOP and outnumbered Democrats had allowed Sen. Mike Lee (R) to drift further to the right than voters truly wanted.

“Our system rewards catering to the extremes in our politics,” said McMullin, pointing out that Lee voted for him in 2016, then became one of Trump's loyal advocates in the Senate. “I think you see that with Mike Lee. He knows that, in Utah, if he's able to win the support of an extreme faction, that's all he needs to do to survive a primary and then make it into a general election, in which there won't be competition.”

Both McMullin and Blanding said they supported some sort of electoral reform to allow multiparty competition with no “spoiler” risk, like ranked-choice voting. “I was encouraged by what I saw in Alaska,” McMullin said, echoing Yang, and saying that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) had a clearer path to reelection now that Alaska had made partisan primaries irrelevant.

Neither state is going to implement that before McMullin or Blanding face the electorate; voting in Virginia is already underway. That was Yang's point, that Alaska-style or Maine-style ranked-choice reforms needed to be implemented wherever possible, and would be more robust if they were not seen as vehicles for one major party to grab an advantage. 

“People are very, very obsessed with the 2024 presidential race any time someone says the words third party and most of the action in my mind occurs well before then or locally,” Yang said at City Winery. He was joined onstage by Marianne Williamson, who, like him, had run for president as a Democrat and lost, and felt marginalized.

“We don't want to be Jill Steins,” she said, referring to the 2016 third-party candidate blamed by many liberals for splitting the anti-Trump vote and contributing to Hillary Clinton's defeat. “But in any other country, any other advanced democracy, they have multiple political parties.”

And while most recent support for systemic election reform has come from Democrats, Yang worried that neither party could be trusted to give up some power — and that identifying the idea with one party would doom it in some places. Last year, an effort to introduce top-two primaries in Florida failed resoundingly, thanks in part to a Republican campaign portraying it as a left-wing power grab. At the same time, Massachusetts Democrats largely got behind a ranked-choice ballot measure. They were outspent by opponents, who used the establishment Democratic backing of the measure to argue that it didn't represent real change.

“We're living one of the worst nightmares of the Founding Fathers come to life,” Yang told the Trailer. He said the same to his small audience at City Winery, assuring them that he would lower, not heighten, the chance of someone who terrified them taking the president.

“This is the answer,” Yang said. “This is how we're going to unlock our country from the madness that currently afflicts it. And oh, by the way, this is how we're going to pass universal basic income.”

Reading list

From “hang Mike Pence” to “hang out with Mike Pence?”

A(nother) sham candidate scandal in Florida.

The first Trump-backed primary challenger to push an incumbent into retirement confronts his past.

The unending battle for Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Fresh talk of audits in a state where the last election wasn't close.

A onetime candidate for office makes an admission that is not, so far, affecting who he subpoenas.

A multimillion-dollar investment that created a pro-“Big Lie” network.

The most in-depth look yet at the efforts to keep Trump in office.

Ad watch

Charles Graham, “The Battle of Hayes Pond.” North Carolina Republicans are expected to draw Rep. Dan Bishop (R) an even safer seat outside of Charlotte. Robeson County, home to the Lumbee tribe, has shifted dramatically away from the Democratic Party, thanks in part to the Trump administration promising to recognize the tribe. Graham, a tribe member and the only Native American in the state legislature, turned his background into the most viral congressional ad of the year. It was his idea, implemented by Frank Eaton of Putnam Partners: Describe how Lumbee tribe members stood up to the Ku Klux Klan, and link it to America's current political divisions. “The biggest lie is that America is at war with itself,” Graham says, over imagery of the Jan. 6 insurrection and riots in 2020. The spot doesn't get into details of Graham's current positions, and after it clocked several million views, his new audience clashed with his old views. Graham recanted his vote for the state's transgender “bathroom ban” legislation, which Bishop had sponsored.

Terry McAuliffe, “Audit.” Democrats have spent the race for governor looking for ways to link Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin to Trump. He gave them a fresh opening this week when he told a Black voting rights group that he wanted to “audit the voting machines” in order for more voters to “trust” them. McAuliffe's team chopped that into a 15-second ad, which switches between footage of the Jan. 6 insurrection and Youngkin talking about the audit. 

Alex Lasry, “A Building That Works.” Lasry's wealth and relatively recent move to Wisconsin have been vulnerabilities in the crowded Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. But his resources have also gotten him on the air quickly, highlighting the construction of the Fiserv Forum and Lasry's link to the Milwaukee Bucks, co-owned by his father. “We said workers come first, $15 an hour pay, and 80 percent of the building materials are going to come from Wisconsin,” Lasry says, joined by Black Milwaukee-area Democratic leaders who give him credit.

Eric Adams, “Mom.” The first general election ad from Adams, four weeks out from the vote itself, only briefly mentions crime, an issue that powered his rise in New York's Democratic primary for mayor. A “safe and secure” city is one of the promises here, but it comes after a brief biographical sketch that explains why he's focused on “affordable housing” (a priority for the outgoing de Blasio administration, too) and economic fairness. 

Citizens for Strength & Security Fund, “Dirty Davis.” Who is trying to defeat Bayonne, N.J., Mayor Jimmy Davis, who's up for reelection in a May 2022 primary? It's not clear, because this D.C.-based PAC, inactive for most of a decade, has given no details about who runs it or whether it supports a challenger to Davis. The spot portrays the Democratic mayor as corrupt, and invokes a sexting investigation that fell apart last year after his accuser couldn't find crucial messages in the discovery process.

Poll watch

“Do you approve or disapprove of the way Joe Biden is handling his job as president?” (Quinnipiac, 1,326 adults)

Approve: 38% (-4)
Disapprove: 53% (+3)

Some pollsters have found the president's numbers stabilizing since the end of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not this one, which finds Biden's support from independents falling to 32 percent, and negative ratings on every issue the pollster asked about. By 2 points, more adults disapprove than approve of Biden's handling of the pandemic, though he is strongest on that question with voters over 65. Latino voters, who backed Biden in 2020, disapprove of his handling of the economy, foreign policy and immigration by 2-to-1 margins, comparable to his disapproval rating from White voters.

“Do you think there is still time to prevent the worst effects of climate change or is it already too late?” (Monmouth, 802 adults)

There's still time: 51%
It's too late: 19%
It's not happening: 18%
Not sure it's happening: 6%
Don't know: 4%
Nothing we can/should do: 2%

The latest of Monmouth's national polling found public opinion of climate change remaining steady since last year, with one big change: Voters in land-locked states are now as likely to say that climate change is causing extreme weather events as voters in coastal states. (Previously, coastal voters were far more likely to agree with that sentiment.) It's also found a slight upward tick in the number of people who concerned about climate change worrying that there is not enough time to mitigate its effects. Twenty-four percent of Democrats say it's simply too late to combat the worst of climate change, along with 24 percent of voters under 35 — double the number of voters over 65 who say so. 

In the states

Oklahoma. Democrats got a surprise convert Wednesday, after state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister left the Republican Party to challenge first-term Gov. Kevin Stitt (R). In an interview with the Tulsa World, Hofmeister said she was moved to run, and to leave the GOP after a lifetime in it, by Stitt's response to the covid-19 pandemic.

“It mattered who was governor in 2020,” Hofmeister said. “We've had 10,000 Oklahomans lost.”

Elected easily in 2014 and 2018, Hofmeister had clashed with conservatives over mask mandates — specifically, the effort to prevent schools from making them. Stitt, who contracted the virus last year, had lifted indoor crowd limits and masking requirements before many other governors, and the Republican-led legislature passed a law this year preventing schools from requiring masks or vaccinations. Hofmeister, at that time, was encouraging returning students and faculty to get vaccinated, and she said in August that she hoped a court would overturn the mask mandate ban.

Stitt was out of the state for much of Wednesday, joining other Republican governors on a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. Hofmeister is the first Democrat to hold statewide office in Oklahoma since the 2010 Republican sweep, when the GOP won some jobs no member of the party had ever held before — including state superintendent of public instruction.

“I’m excited and I’m heartened,” Alicia Andrews, the chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, said in a brief interview. She had been talking to Hofmeister for months, she said, and wasn't surprised by the move. “She’s been over on that side and she can’t do it anymore.” Former state legislator Connie Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for the party's gubernatorial nomination in 2018, is running again.

Massachusetts. Former president Donald Trump endorsed a conservative challenger to Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who brushed it off as he considers seeking a third term next year.

“I'm not surprised for a whole bunch of reasons,” Baker told reporters in Boston. Former state legislator Geoff Diehl, celebrating the endorsement, said he was “inspired by the president's America First agenda” and would “plan to follow his lead” if he unseats Baker.

Baker did not vote for Trump in 2020, leaving his presidential ballot blank, and was one of the first Republican governors to acknowledge Joe Biden as the winner of the election. He was already tangling with his party's right flank, facing a 2018 primary challenger who got 36 percent of the vote, and supporting Trump's impeachment in 2019 and 2021. Trump amplified the base's anger at Baker after his presidential defeat, attacking the governor for defending the integrity of mail ballots while the reelection campaign was challenging them in court.

Trump did not voice many other specific concerns with Baker, a moderate and abortion rights advocate who won his 2018 reelection in a landslide. But pollster Steve Koczela noted Tuesday that Diehl, the party's unsuccessful 2018 nominee against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D), ended that race with high name approval and broad name identification among Republicans.

Iowa. The Republican-led legislature voted to reject the first map drawn by the state’s nonpartisan commission, which had come up with a plan that gave one Republican member of Congress a safer district while planting another in a Democratic-leaning seat. The vote broke down along partisan lines, with the GOP also rejecting a state legislative map that would have pushed multiple incumbents into the same districts.

Ballot measure watch

The Fairness Project, a group that funds and organizes state ballot measure efforts across the country, has launched a $5 million Ballot Measure Rescue Campaign, aimed at stopping states from making it tougher to put initiatives in front of voters.

“It's part and parcel of the broader attacks on democracy,” Kelly Hall, the executive director of the Fairness Project, said in an interview. “The same folks introducing legislation on the state level to suppress voting are the ones making it hard to bring up measures to vote on.”

According to the nonpartisan election-watch site Ballotpedia, nearly 200 pieces of legislation have been introduced this year aimed at restricting ballot measures. In Arizona, a law would make it easier for the legislature to undo a voter-passed initiative if a court rules against any part of it. In Idaho, a new law requires activists to get signatures from every legislative district; previously, they only needed to collect a certain number of signatures from a majority of those districts. All of this, advocates say, unfolded after liberal-backed efforts to expand Medicaid, legalize marijuana, and raise the minimum wage passed in states where Democrats lost statewide elections.

“We're seeing the same sort of bills come up in multiple states,” Hall said. “It seems to be coordinated.”

Hall's group is partnering with 13 national and local organizations for the new campaign, from the Mississippi branch of the NAACP to the national ACLU. Both had watched judges or Republican legislators unwind voter-passed measures — a marijuana decriminalization initiative in Mississippi, and a Florida voting rights measure that aimed to restore the franchise to former felons. The group is not focused, right now, on California, where Democrats have discussed altering the state's recall law after a pricey Sept. 14 election that left Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in power while spending nearly $300 million on election management. 

What I’m watching

The Parent Trap. A series of new TV ads in Virginia, from an array of conservative and pro-Republican groups, hit Democratic nominee for governor Terry McAuliffe over the exact same quote — “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” He said that in a Sept. 28 debate with Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, at the end of an exchange over parents objecting to sexually explicit material in a school library. McAuliffe's opponents have spent every day since whacking away at it.

“My first reaction was to produce an ad in making sure that every parent knows how Terry McAuliffe feels about their involvement in their kid's education,” said Terry Schilling, the executive director of the conservative American Principles Project. That ad began running this week, warning that educators in Virginia were teaching children to “judge people based on skin color” and telling “elementary school students that they could change their gender” — and that McAuliffe was fine with it.

A new ad from the Republican State Leadership Committee's PAC approaches the issue from a different angle, pointing out that test scores fell during the pandemic, when Virginia public schools were largely conducting remote education — and linking the decline to critical race theory, which is not taught in public schools. (The campaign against CRT has, from the outset, linked it to everything from diversity training to mentions of racial “equity,” asserting that the theory, an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism, has influenced educators below the college level.) “These Democrats hijacked the schools we paid for to advance their far-left agenda,” a narrator says over images of President Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Outside of Virginia, this week's announcement by the Justice Department that it would investigate “harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against educators immediately became a Republican campaign issue. “Merrick Garland has decided the real threat to our Republic is moms protesting Critical Race Theory,” Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance (R) said in a statement demanding the attorney general's resignation. The memo made no mention of CRT, but it came after the National School Boards Association urged the president to intervene “against individuals or hate groups” that were issuing threats against educators, for reasons ranging from the CRT panic to mask and vaccine mandates. Schilling and others saw both the DOJ memo and the association's memo, describing the threats “a form of domestic terrorism,” as political mistakes.

“Is there somebody paying these people to do crazy stuff to help us win?” Schilling asked.

Countdown

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