In this edition: The final special election of the year shakes up South Florida, a powerful liberal retires from the House and a NASCAR driver named Brandon starts hearing his name in unexpected places.

Join me in chanting the four words that echo from the stands of every college football game: This is the Trailer.

LAKE PARK, Fla. — The Sunday service at Bethlehem Baptist Church was conducted in Haitian Creole, and that was the language Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick used to talk about her run for Congress. Florida's 20th Congressional District was vacant, she explained, and the power vacuum had come at the worst possible time for people like them.

“We don't have anyone representing us in Congress, and that's the reason we are being mistreated,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. “In Congress, I can tell the president that he can't mistreat Haitians.” 

Cherfilus-McCormick is a Democrat, one of 11 seeking to replace the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings in the year's lengthiest special election campaign. Just like the spring and summer races in Louisiana, New Mexico and Ohio, the prize is a safely Democratic seat. Unlike those races, in which candidates stressed their support for President Biden to win votes, the Florida race is marked by frustration at how Democrats are using their power in Washington, and criticism — sometimes mixed with disbelief — of the administration's policies toward migrants and asylum seekers.

“They ducked on this one,” candidate and former Broward County commissioner Dale Holness said in an interview, referring to the Biden administration's deportation of thousands of Haitians who'd come to the U.S.-Mexico border last month. “They sought to get political cover from the Republicans by taking the actions that they did. It doesn't look good at all. Haitians usually vote Democratic. The entire Black community does, wherever I go. The strongest portion of the Democratic Party is in disagreement with the action that has been taken.”

That frustration wasn't there yet when the campaign began. Hastings died April 6, having sought reelection at age 84 despite pancreatic cancer that kept him off the trail. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) waited until May 4 to set a date for the special election — a Nov. 2 primary and a Jan. 11 general election, a schedule that would keep the district, which backed Biden by 55 points, empty during negotiations over the budget and infrastructure. 

The governor's decision roiled the race for Congress, with one candidate, the Rev. Elvin Dowling, even suing over the delay and its effect on majority-Black parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. (Dowling's signs, with the slogan “I sued Ron DeSantis,” are planted in high-traffic areas of the district.) Holness and other ambitious local Democrats who already held state or local office had to announce their resignations so they could run, per Florida law, leading to more underrepresentation and more anger at the process.

“They gave up their seats just a couple months after being elected,” said Barbara Sharief, another Broward County commissioner. Her term would end in 2022 anyway, but like Holness, state Sen. Perry Thurston, state Rep. Omari Hardy and state Rep. Bobby DuBose, she has announced her resignation, effective in January, right before the general election.

Once the race got underway, it did not fall into the patterns of most 2021 primaries. Unlike Rep. Troy A. Carter (D-La.), who won a May election to succeed White House adviser Cedric L. Richmond, no candidate could clearly run as next in line; Holness said Hastings had endorsed him shortly before dying, but the late congressman left no statement or video making it official. Several candidates had entered the race before Hastings died; all of them have accused Holness, who did work closely with Hastings, of inventing the endorsement.

“The congressman was not the kind of person who minced words,” said Thurston. “When I tell you that I have an endorsement, I have a letter that I can produce to you that proves it.” 

Unlike the race to represent Ohio's 11th Congressional District, which attracted millions of dollars to help or defeat former state Sen. Nina Turner, national Democratic groups stayed out of the race. Brand New Congress, a post-2016 Democratic group that usually backs primary challengers, endorsed Cherfilus-McCormick, who ran and lost two races against Hastings. The 314 Action Fund, a group that supports candidates with science or STEM backgrounds, endorsed Sharief because of her background as a nurse. But most of the left-wing groups that rushed to help Turner have skipped this race.

“I think the establishment is satiated, having successfully targeted Nina Turner,” said Hardy, who welcomed comparisons to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) when he announced his candidacy. “I think progressives are burnt out, having lost two special congressional elections this year alone. This special election is occurring during a national lapse in the attention of people who should know better.” 

Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, which poured resources into the Ohio election, did not comment on their decision to skip this one. But no candidate in the Florida race is copying the campaign that Cuyahoga County party chair Shontel Brown deployed to beat Turner — praise of the Biden administration, and warnings that her opponent might undermine the new president.

Instead, candidates have taken sides in the Democratic fight over passing most of Biden's agenda in the budget reconciliation bill, and pledged to change its policy toward Haiti. Nearly 200,000 Haitian Americans live in Broward and Palm Beach counties, most of them in the 20th District. While many are not eligible to vote, the candidates have rallied with them, echoing criticism from both South Florida Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I think the administration's response, with regards to the Haiti situation, will probably be the thing that I disagree most with,” said Holness, who stopped by the same church as Cherfilus-McCormick on Sunday. He endorsed Biden when Democrats still had two dozen candidates battling him for the nomination, but if elected, he would put pressure on him. “I totally disagree with the treatment that I saw the Haitians receive on the border, from those guards on horseback. It brings up an image of slavery times.”

Holness and his rivals are also critical of Washington Democrats, if not Biden specifically, for the logjam stalling the passage of bills that cover much of what the party ran on last year. In forums, boxed into different sections of a Zoom screen, the candidates have bemoaned the delay and said their vote would pass exactly what the Congressional Progressive Caucus was fighting for: free child care, free community college and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Some, like Hardy, said they were ready to join the party's left and vote against a compromise if too much of the agenda were sliced out.

“There's a dual crisis: Republican voter suppression and Democratic voter depression,” said Hardy. “Republicans want to deny poor and working-class people of color access to the ballot. Establishment Democrats fail to fight effectively for working-class people, which makes us wonder if we have a reason to cast a ballot at all. If you don't enact policies that working-class people can feel, that materially affect their living conditions, they're not going to have a reason to go to the polls.”

Hardy, who has raised less than $100,000 for his bid, argues that the district would get better representation from a candidate ready to do battle with Republicans. Better-known rivals like Holness and Thurston, who have raised around $300,000 apiece, argue that their long experience and ability to negotiate would lead to more resources for the district. Cherfilus-McCormick, who has lent her campaign more than $2 million, has tried to break through with ads and billboards promoting her support for a $1,000 monthly universal basic income — another break with what Democrats in Washington are trying to pass, and one that's irritated some of her opponents.

“This can't be about you getting in front of TV cameras and showing off and giving good sound bites,” Sharief said. “This is about real working-class people who need help. I see these $1,000 commercials and I'm just amazed that that is even legal. Promising somebody $1,000 every month for a vote? That's just really inappropriate.”

The disagreement stopped when the subject of Haiti came up. Each candidate was comfortable going after the Biden administration over its approach to the border, and to Haitians. Each said it was a shock, and a betrayal, for the administration to continue deporting migrants using a public health statute rarely invoked before the Trump administration. Where they differed, it wasn't over whether to let more Haitians come to the United States, but over how many resources they'd fight for to make that happen.

“Why can't we just have a clear path to citizenship for the Haitians who've been here on TPS?” asked Cherfilus-McCormick, referring to temporary protected status designations. “The country has not been getting better. It's been getting worse.”

Thank you to Marié Lourdes Price and Jonathan Katz for help with Creole translation.

Reading list

What Georgians are saying about a president they voted for.

Florida Democrats whiffing on the Latino vote: A new tradition.

Same candidate, new electorate.

How to turn a close state into (another) strong Republican map.

A profile of the Republican hopeful for governor in the year's closest race.

Brad Raffensperger steps out.

The Democratic National Committee in disarray.

In the states

Kentucky. Rep. John Yarmuth (D), the House Budget Committee chairman, will retire next year, giving up a Louisville-based seat that has become safely Democratic but will be altered by redistricting. “I never expected to be in Congress this long,” Yarmuth said in a video posted on Twitter on Tuesday. Democrats, unlike Republicans, do not set term limits on committee chairmanships, and a reelected Yarmuth would have been in line to lead the Budget Committee again; his decision was quickly interpreted as Democratic angst about the party's 2022 chances. State Rep. Attica Scott, who had considered running for governor in 2019, has been running for this seat since July; state Sen. Morgan McGarvey, who leads the party in the state's upper chamber, jumped into the race minutes after Yarmuth's announcement. As it is currently drawn, Joe Biden carried the 3rd Congressional District by 22 points last year, improving on Hillary Clinton's 15-point margin in 2016 and Barack Obama's 13-point margin in 2012.

Pennsylvania. Two-term Attorney General Josh Shapiro will seek the 2022 Democratic nomination for governor, confirming one of the worst-kept secrets in the commonwealth. No other Democrat had even filed for the race, and like Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is running for the party's U.S. Senate nomination, Shapiro saw his profile grow dramatically during the aftermath of the 2020 election as the Trump campaign and state Republicans filed a series of lawsuits aimed at overturning the result.

Iowa. Republicans have a shot at taking a once-safely Democratic seat in the state legislature today, with 2020 GOP nominee Jon Dunwell challenging Newton City Council member Steve Mullan (D) in the 29th House District. Newton is the largest town in the district, which backed Barack Obama by double digits twice before giving even larger margins to Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Former state representative Wes Breckenridge (D) ran 11 points ahead of Joe Biden to hold the seat last year, but Dunwell nearly pulled off the upset. If Republicans prevail, they'll have gained two Democratic seats in special elections for the state legislature this year; Democrats have gained one formerly Republican seat, in New Hampshire.

Michigan. A Republican candidate for Congress will collect signatures to force an audit of the November 2020 election, announcing his plan at a Tuesday rally in Lansing that was promoted by Donald Trump.

“This is how a revolution starts,” activist John Rocha told the crowd, explaining that if a measure got enough signatures to appear on the ballot, the Republican-led legislature could pass it as a law, over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's (D) veto. Rocha is challenging Rep. Fred Upton (R), one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

Ad watch

Terry for Virginia, “Starving Schools.” In Virginia's close race for governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe took more than a week to respond to attacks from Republican Glenn Youngkin and his allies, accusing him of wanting to cut parents out of a role in determining what was taught in public schools. (McAuliffe's quote was “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” so you can see where the GOP got its idea.) McAuliffe's retort looks a lot like the one Joe Biden used last year to defang accusations that he'd defund law enforcement, accusing Youngkin of favoring “massive cuts to education, starving schools,” thanks to his support for school choice programs. To capitalize on the national GOP's unpopularity in the commonwealth, it ties Youngkin to Donald Trump and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Glenn Youngkin, “Terry McAuliffe's Taxes: Too Expensive.” Last month, the conservative Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy put out an analysis of the Virginia Democrat's campaign promises, adding up their cost, and asking: How much would taxes need to go up to pay for it, if no other source of revenue was used? It didn't get much attention, but it got a write-up in the conservative-leaning Center Square news site, which was then syndicated by Yahoo News. That's what gets cited here to warn that McAuliffe would raise taxes by $5,400 “on every Virginia family.” McAuliffe's campaign denied this completely, saying in a statement that the nominee would “create good paying jobs, make health care more affordable, and give every child a world-class education, and he will not raise taxes to do it.”

Poll watch

Virginia statewide elections (CNU/Wason Center, 802 likely voters)

Governor
Terry McAuliffe (D): 49% (-1 since August)
Glenn Youngkin (R): 45% (+4)

Lieutenant governor
Hala Ayala (D): 48% (-4)
Winsome Sears (R): 44% (+2)

Attorney general
Mark Herring (D): 49% (-4)
Jason Miyares (R): 43% (+2)

Republicans, never far behind in Virginia's key races this year, have chipped away at the Democratic advantage since the summer. McAuliffe has suggested that the president's declining popularity with independents is responsible for some of the shift, giving him a tougher race. Conservatives argue that their focus on education, and support for parents showing up at meetings to demand some racial and sexual material be removed from schools, has pushed the GOP ahead. This poll doesn't give much clarity, but it confirms that the shift has been entirely happening among independents, cooler on the Democratic ticket than they were right after the party's June primary. Voters who rejected the GOP during Donald Trump's presidency, but were supportive of many Republicans before it, are not locked in as Democrats.

2022 New York Democratic primary for governor (Marist, 389 likely voters)

Kathy Hochul: 44%
Letitia James: 28%
Jumaane Williams: 15%

Kathy Hochul: 36%
Letitia James: 24%
Andrew Cuomo: 19%
Jumaane Williams: 9%

Before becoming governor of New York, Hochul twice fended off primary challengers to become lieutenant governor. In 2014, she won 60 percent of the vote against Tim Wu, an author and law professor who now works in the Biden administration. In 2018, she edged Williams, a rising party star in New York City, by just seven points, winning on her strength in upstate and western New York. Williams, now the city’s elected public advocate, is exploring a bid for governor, but most Democrats expect him to scrap it if James, the state's popular attorney general and a key figure in former governor Andrew M. Cuomo's resignation, jumps into the race.

The first public poll of the June 2022 primary doesn't test that scenario, but it reveals where Hochul is strongest and weakest. Just 65 percent of Democrats say they approve of the governor’s performance, while 19 percent have no opinion yet; far more voters have no opinion of Williams, who, like James, was elected with the support of the left-wing Working Families Party. Outside of New York City, 53 percent of Democrats say they'd vote for Hochul in a three-way race, and 43 percent say they would if Cuomo, whose inactive campaign still has millions of dollars to spend, runs again. She is far weaker in the city, getting 35 percent support there in a three-way contest and just 30 percent in a race with Cuomo. Only registered Democrats can vote in party primaries, and while that has protected incumbents in the past, it poses some risks to Hochul — the increasingly liberal electorate in the five boroughs is her biggest hurdle to the nomination.

Lexicon

On Monday afternoon, Donald Trump's Save America PAC started selling a $45 T-shirt with a black-and-white picture of President Biden and three words in color: “Let's Go Brandon. The ex-president's political organizations have sold all kinds of merchandise that signaled to conservatives without saying anything in particular to liberals. But what did NASCAR driver Brandon Brown have to do with them?

On Oct. 2, Brown talked to NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast, and a three-word chant – a four-letter profanity that begins with the letter “F,” followed by “Joe Biden,” became audible off-screen. Like The Washington Post, NBC News has standards about what language it can air or put in print. ““As you can hear the chants from the crowd, ‘Let’s go, Brandon,’” Stavast said. Within hours, conservatives on social media were mocking her for “gaslighting” viewers, and trying to cover up a chant that had been heard at college football games for a couple of weeks.

There are only so many ways to describe the chant. You probably get it. Mocking a president with profanity is at least as old as the presidency itself, and Democrats haven't had much to say about the popularity of the chant that the NASCAR audience was actually repeating. Videos of football fans chanting it were captured over the first weekend in September, and went viral quickly, helped along by anti-liberal social media. A hip-hop track titled “FDT” delivered the same sentiment about Trump five years ago, and moved up the charts after his defeat in 2020.

Old Row, a South-focused sports fan apparel company acquired by Barstool five years ago, created an “official” Twitter thread on Sept. 13 to capture those videos. At the same time, it started selling merchandise that referred to the chant without spelling it out: Hats and shirts that said “FJB,” available on an “America First” section of its website that also offered items about the “Biden Crime Family” and T-shirts promoting a “Trump/DeSantis” presidential ticket.

Until this summer, anti-Biden merchandise was easy to find, but hardly in demand. That was a problem for Republicans throughout the 2020 campaign – Biden simply did not polarize voters or churn up the same anger with conservatives as Hillary Clinton did. The president's poll slump after the handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan changed that, transforming Biden's image from that of a cipher to that of an old man who was making things worse for conservatives – and, by extension, all patriotic Americans.

That's where “FJB” came from. “Let's Go Brandon” was embraced, almost immediately, as an even better version of the chant. It could be shouted without any fear of censorship or, on some campuses, discipline, because it contained no profanity on its own. It was slightly interactive – anyone chanting it could imagine some confused listener asking or Googling what it meant, and discovering, with a laugh or an outraged groan, that it was about Biden. And it contained a free media Rorschach test. Stavast wasn't the first TV reporter to react to unexpected profanity in her live hit by downplaying it. She just happened to do so at a time when anti-Biden conservatives already believe that the media, writ large, is covering for the president.

“It captures everything about fake news all at once,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) told a podcaster for the conservative student group Turning Point USA.

Countdown

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